I'm just not up to the task of getting out and about like I used to be. Although I went to a couple of events during the month, I'd decided to give some of the shows I usually attend at this time of year a miss. I have been finding coping with large numbers of people to be increasingly challenging, so instead I've been staying at home. I was staggered to discover that despite the fact that I've been in the house all day, my energy consumption this month was 25% less than it was this time last year. That can't all be due to the mild weather we've had, surely?
I make music. These days, I make lots of music in all sorts of different genres. My latest release is a collection of the songs I wrote during 2023's Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge. It's called An Unexpected Turn. It's the twenty-fifth full length album that I've written and recorded since December 2020, and that work rate is just as surprising to me as it is to you; until I got involved in Fifty/Ninety and FAWM, I'd often go years without writing anything at all. As always, the new album is available for streaming and download at Bandcamp, where you can also explore my extensive discography of older material.
Today I find myself thinking about what will happen next year. The first thing that springs to mind is a change in government; the talk of an election in the spring has already started and I can only hope that the number of Tories with seats in the House of Commons is reduced every bit as harshly as polls last summer were indicating (that was when pollsters were talking about a "bloodbath", remember?) Not that Labour seems to be much of an alternative, to be honest; the country seems to have lost its way politically. It's effectively being run by a clique of oligarchs and decisions on the country's future are largely made by the companies who can afford to do the most lobbying. But with the Tories out, maybe things won't suck quite as badly for everyone else as they do right now. Perhaps with a bit of luck, we might even be able to protect the NHS before it gets sold off just like everything else.
The weather is also on my mind today; this morning the village was hit by a brief but very heavy squall with hail mixed in with rain. After a very damp month, the street outside looked like a river with a central metre-wide stripe of mud flowing downhill. It's a sure bet that we will see plenty more extreme weather events over the next twelve months, and I'm sure temperature records will continue to be broken on what seems to be a weekly basis. When I first moved down here in February 1995 there was fresh snow on the ground at least once a week. Memories of that sort of climate seem like they belong to a different country, not just a different time.
But apart from the naked dread of all the existential threats which seem to have become just another part of life these days, there are some things that I'm looking forward to in 2024. For a start, I'll be keenly anticipating a drop in my energy bills next year. Although there are a huge number of factors in play which influence my gas and electricity usage (and as the temperature outside probably has the greatest effect, a month as mild as the one we've just had was going to be very easy on my heating costs) I can see a fairly unequivocal signal in the graphs I make of my monthly energy consumption: my total usage this month is on track to be a staggering 500 kWh less than it was in December 2022. That's a drop of 25% year on year. And this is before I switch over to the solar PV system which is already on order...
I'm looking forward to making a lot more music in 2024, particularly if I can do so with "free" electricity. The FAWM website should open for business once again in the last week of January, and as it's a leap year next year, I will have an extra day to write material—an extra half a song gets added on to the challenge's notional target of writing fourteen songs during the month. I will end up writing way more than that, I suspect, because I always do. I can't wait to get all my analog synths back in the studio so I can make all sorts of vintage noises with them. I might not be planning on adding any more musical gear to the collection I've already got in the next twelve months, but you know how these things go.
And I was pleased to get an email from Bandcamp this week confirming that Bandcamp Fridays will continue in 2024. The next one will be on February 2nd, so I suppose I ought to have an album ready for release by then, hadn't I?
Yesterday I shared a post on my social media feeds (the ones that I still use, anyway) about finding myself thinking that I'd had a quiet year and that I hadn't really done much in 2023. Then I remembered that this year I wrote and recorded close to one hundred new pieces of music and released half a dozen hour-long albums on Bandcamp. And I finished writing a 105,000-word eBook about the adventures I've had in my bedroom studio as well. In addition to this, I also found the time to read quite a few books by other writers this year (I set myself a target of sixty and as of right now, the count stands at seventy-six) and I wrote a review for every single one of them.
So although I barely left the house all year, I seem to have kept myself stimulated, challenged, and fully occupied with stuff I like doing.
It's interesting how this, together with the fact that these days I'm in a financial position that's improved enough for me to start getting a series of long-overdue improvements made to the house, seems to have helped me regain my mental equilibrium. My sleep hygiene has been the most reliable indicator of how I've been feeling over the last couple of decades and in the past few months it has improved tremendously. This morning my watch gave me a "sleep score" of 100. That's the second time in the past week I've achieved what it appears to consider a "perfect" score. Aside from being in a much better frame of mind, the big secret appears to be to take a couple of paracetamol tablets last thing at night. That pushes all of my aches and pains far enough into the background that I can sleep right through the night. I think I'm also finally seeing the benefits of being able to take all of the sleep I need; it's taken nearly five years for me to recover from the routine I had in my last job, when I was lucky if I managed to get six hours' sleep a night. I don't miss that job. I don't miss working in general, to be honest; as I've written in the blog more than once, it's only when you're no longer being subjected to the stresses of being managed by unskilled (and occasionally downright incompetent) executives who are obsessed with justifying their jobs and covering their asses above all else that you realise just how much psychic damage it inflicts.
What gets me out of bed these days is the joy I get from being able to make music in my bedroom studio. That's a life worth living as far as I'm concerned.
It's Boxing Day. If you celebrate Christmas, I hope you had a good day yesterday. How's your food coma coming along?
I spent yesterday morning noodling about in the bedroom studio, and got so engrossed in what I was doing that I completely forgot about what day it was (which had been my intention, because when you live on your own the festive season can be a difficult time). But I also completely forgot that there were some presents under the Christmas tree waiting for me to unwrap them (which was a surprise). I didn't unwrap them until the evening, as I waited for the Doctor Who Christmas Special to start. When I was a small child, I would sleep for no more than a couple of hours on Christmas night and by 4 am I would be wide awake and quite literally vibrating with excitement. My approach to Christmas these days is just to step away from it all and get on with other stuff and try not to get too maudlin about things. The six-year-old version of me would have been aghast.
With no social events on my calendar for the rest of the seasonal break, I've let myself go. I haven't shaved for a week. This morning I didn't get out of bed until well after eleven o'clock. Yesterday, I consumed far too many roast potatoes and roast parsnips, as is traditional for me at this time of year. For my Christmas dinner I had swapped out my usual fare of a small joint of poultry for something a little more adventurous that Tesco described as a "Turkey, pork and stuffing pastry lattice", but when I cut into it, it turned out to be more of a sausage-meat pie and Christmas dinner was, I'm sad to say, a profound disappointment. It was so bad, in fact, that the leftovers went in the bin. So that's a lesson learned for next year: stick with what you know.
I'm still too full to eat much of anything today, I think. I have a pasta sauce that needs using up, so that'll be going in the microwave later and then I'll add it to a pan of distinctly non-festive ravioli...
The cast were glorious. The production values were top notch. But aside from the Doctor's "Health and Safety, Gin and Tonic Division" line, the writing and the plot?
I'm sorry to say this, but they sucked. I was quite literally cringing, that's how bad they were. It was embarrassing.
And as it's the season of goodwill I'm not going to say anything about the music. That is all.
It's been quite a week. I went to a lovely party on Saturday night at my neighbours' house (thank you Andrew and Liane!) and on Monday I drove to Orpington to deliver Christmas presents to my brother and his family. While I was there, Dave and I caught the train into London to see Rush bass player Geddy Lee being interviewed on stage at the Barbican Hall. Geddy has been on a promotional tour for his new autobiography, My Effin' Life and the Barbican event was the last date on the tour.
Geddy got a two-minute standing ovation when he walked on stage. And quite right too.
The first half of the show was an interview conducted by the comedian David Baddiel (together with his brother Ivor, who is a huge Rush fan) and the second half of the show was a question and answer session that was compèred by the DJ Phil Wilding. Geddy also read several passages from the book. In the interviews I've seen or read with him over the years he comes across as very modest and unassuming with a wry, laconic wit that was very much in evidence on Monday night.
The conversation with the Baddiel brothers focused on Geddy's family history, which was a very sombre business indeed: his mother and father were Polish Jews who first met in Auschwitz. Geddy was named Gershon after his maternal grandfather, who was murdered in the Holocaust. Many of Geddy's aunts and uncles were also murdered by the Nazis and his father's experience in the camps was such that he died of heart failure at the shockingly early age of 45, when Geddy was just twelve years old. David Baddiel mentioned a notorious attack piece which was originally published in the New Musical Express back in 1978 in which the journalist Barry Miles (who Baddiel did not name on Monday night) accused the band of being fascists. You could still hear the hurt and anger in Geddy's voice when he talked about it, and rightly so; given his family history it was a shockingly insensitive thing to write.
In the second half of the show Geddy talked about walking Hadrian's Wall together with his wife Nancy (who was sitting in the front row) while trying to process the news from Rush's drummer, Neil Peart, that he was suffering from a brain tumour. Neil had been given eighteen months to live but lived for a further three years, passing away in 2020. There are few deaths of people that I've never met that have affected me more deeply than Neil's. I was shocked, and it's hard to imagine what Neil's friends and family must have felt. The band's history has seen more than its fair share of loss in many forms over the years and as Geddy pointed out, many of their songs focus on how we deal with death, grief, and mourning—as Neil's lyrics to the track Dreamline say so well,
"Learning that we're only immortal
For a limited time"
But the mood after the interval was lightened considerably by the unexpected appearance of a surprise guest, Lerxst himself: Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson! The audience went apeshit. It was lovely to see the two of them onstage together once again and they are clearly still great friends. There was a lot of very good-natured ribbing going on between them. "Alex loves drinking wine," Geddy told us. "Particularly when I've bought it." There was much discussion of their fondness for the UK and Geddy talked about their happy (and very productive) time spent recording at the now-legendary Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, complete with cartoon illustrations by Alex. Although nothing was formally announced and Geddy said that the entity of Rush the band was finished without Neil, I got the distinct impression that he and Alex are not done with playing live on stage together just yet. After all, Geddy revealed that while they were backstage at the Taylor Hawkins memorial concert recently they'd asked Sir Paul McCartney if he fancied being their manager.
"And caterer," Geddy added. "Wouldn't work," Alex deadpanned. "He's vegan, and I like eating meat."
We were reminded that it was office party season when we caught the train back from London Bridge station. Even though it was eleven o'clock at night the train was absolutely rammed and it was standing room only. After walking back from Orpington station and a fortifying mug of strong coffee, I drove back home. It had started to rain by the time I got to Reading services but I still managed to make good time and I was back in Charfield by 3am thanks to an unusually small amount of traffic on the roads. Today I'm still trying to catch up on the sleep I lost out on; the older I get, the longer it takes for me to recover from pulling an (almost) all-nighter like that.
For the remainder of this week I've spent a fair amount of time making progress on various upgrades to the house. It feels good to finally be getting them done, but I will enjoy next week when everyone is on holiday and I can just relax for a few days without any meetings or inspections taking place. I'm spending Christmas here at home where it'll be nice and quiet (apart from the music I'll be making, of course).
The Geminid meteor shower is in full swing at the moment and rather unusually the skies here were clear enough last night for me to do a bit of shooting star spotting. I put on a coat and woolly hat and sat in the back garden for an hour around midnight, and saw more than a dozen short, fast meteors that all seemed to originate from the constellation Gemini, which for those of us in the Northern hemisphere is just left of Orion when you look south (that's why they're called Geminids).
It's the first time I've done any sky watching at all for at least a couple of years. And I really noticed the increase in light pollution compared with what things were like here back in the 1990s when I first moved to the village. Nowadays lots of people leave their outside lights on all night, and the village is a lot larger than it used to be. I used to consider buying a decent reflecting telescope; back in the 90s it would have given me amazing views of the sky, but these days, there doesn't seem to be much point in splurging on one. Seeing's not good enough, even when the weather conditions are perfect.
But the peak of the Geminids is tonight, and if there are breaks in the cloud going up for midnight, as the weather forecast at the moment is predicting, I'll be back in the garden again, watching for more meteors.
I may change my mind about this, as it's not going to be a trivial task, but at the moment I'm toying with the idea of watching (and then writing a review) of a film a day for the whole of 2024. Next year's a leap year, so that means I'll be sitting down to watch three hundred and sixty-six movies and then writing about them. As a means of relaxation.
I can do that.
I'm planning to watch a selection of films from my own collection of discs, rather than streaming whatever's available online. As I mentioned below, I've been acquiring a number of classic movies recently that I haven't seen and I thought it would be a nice idea to record my thoughts about them, as well as indulging my love of the work of film legends like Howard Hawks, Federico Fellini, Jean Renoir, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, Frank Capra, and Andrey Tarkovsky. I have box sets of the work of almost all of those directors, and those alone should be sufficient to see me well into February, if not March!
When I tried grinding my latest batch of coffee beans yesterday, the grinder made enthusiastic noises as usual, but nothing happened. So it was time to disassemble it and give it a clean—which I hadn't done before, and I've been using the thing for more than a decade.
Once its innards were revealed, it was easy to see why it wasn't doing anything: it was heavily clogged up with a thick, sticky residue of coffee grounds. So out came the socket set and a screwdriver, and after checking a few YouTube videos on the process to make sure I wasn't going to break anything, I stripped it down and washed the components in the sink. It's a burr grinder, rather than a blade grinder, as the consensus is that this gives better-tasting results. Once everything was clean I checked the state the burrs were in and it looks like they'll be good for anther decade of use at least.
The components are made to a pretty fine tolerance, and after washing everything in water hot enough to melt the oils from the coffee and loosen all of the gunk, the brass parts had expanded enough to prevent me from reassembling the grinder. However, the solution to this was simple: after drying everything off, I just popped the bits in the freezer. When I took them out five minutes later, they screwed back in to place as sweet as a nut.
And my coffee this morning tasted very nice indeed.
I feel slightly better this weekend. This may have something to do with the fact that the weather has turned mild (but very wet) once again; the minimum temperature in the back garden last night was 6°C, or 43°F. But it's also thanks to the central heating system upgrade, which seems to have properly bedded in after I bled the radiator in the back bedroom on Wednesday. It was almost full of air; subsequent checks haven't found air in any of the radiators in the house at all, and the difference in temperature in the house in general but in my home studio in particular has been remarkable. That means that I can sit in there and work on music without ending up shivering violently after a couple of hours, which was what was happening in November. So that's exactly what I've been doing for the last couple of days.
I have no doubt at all that making music helps to elevate my mood. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. I also end up with stuff which I enjoy listening to.
Exposure to more light helps as well. This weekend it's noticeably brighter in the living room because the bushes and magnolia tree in the front garden have gone. They were all removed on Friday. I was sorry to see the magnolia go, but now that it's gone it's obvious just how much it had outgrown its location. Today the front lawn looks like the Somme (did I mention it's been very wet?) but I'm going to wait until the work on the exterior of the house is completed before I start putting it to rights; it's only going to get chewed up still further by scaffolding before then.
I continue to read books at a remarkable rate. But after reading another couple of books on cinema by David Thomson I felt the need to watch a few classic movies as well, and I'm sure that you won't be even slightly surprised to hear that, prompted by the discovery that at the moment World of Books (who also sell second-hand DVDs and Blu-Rays) are running a "buy three, get 30% off" offer, I ended up adding several more DVDs to my collection—not that I ever need any encouragement to do so. My purchases included a rather battered box set of all the The Thin Man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. For some reason I'd never felt the need to watch them before, perhaps because I'd assumed that they were early, straightforward examples of film noir, with gangsters and whatnot. I didn't know they were funny! I knew I was in for a treat almost immediately, when the eponymous detective Nick Charles is joined at the bar by his wife Nora and their dog, Asta (who became as much a part of the franchise as the couple who owned him):
How many drinks have you had?
This will make six Martinis.
[to the waiter] Will you bring me five more Martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.
And then there's the moment a minute or so later, when Nick opens the door of his apartment to greet the lawyer, Macauley:
Sit down, won't you? What are you drinking?
Oh, nothing, thanks. Nothing.
[sotto voce] Oh, that's a mistake.
The amount of drinking that goes on in the early movies is astonishing, and as I sat on the sofa sipping a Martini of my own it didn't take me very long to realise that Nick and Nora Charles were the inspiration for Frank and Sadie Doyle in The Thrilling Adventure Hour's segment, Beyond Belief.
And my movie reading also prompted me to fire up the BBC iPlayer and watch all three episodes of Billy, how did you do it?, a documentary about the Austrian-born film director Billy Wilder. I only caught the first episode when it went out on air last week on BBC Four, but I was intrigued enough by it to want to watch the rest of it. Wilder was one of Hollywood's greatest writers and he was also responsible for directing a number of very significant movies, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. When David Thomson writes about him it's clear that he thought Wilder could often be a nasty piece of work; indeed, that seems to have been Wilder's own opinion of himself, as he was on record as saying,
"A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant, and a bastard."
It seems to be a fair assessment. After working with Marilyn in Some Like It Hot, Wilder made his opinions of his leading lady public, and they were not kind. There were days during that shoot when it took Marilyn 82 takes to get a single line right; but as Wilder described in the documentary, there was another time when Marilyn nailed a scene in eighteen minutes that he'd planned to shoot over three days. As Thomson observed, Marilyn was her own worst enemy.
The older (and more decrepit) I get, the less I like leaving the house. I've really noticed that over the past few days. And as for my mental health, I seem to be at a very low ebb at the moment. In the context of spoon theory I think I'm down to single figures on most days at the moment. I'm finding it hard even to muster up enough motivation to drag myself out of bed in the mornings. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, very down.
I had intended to go to two gigs this weekend. I made it to the first one, in Wolverhampton. I was at the Civic Hall to see Extreme (for the first time since I saw them on the Pornograffiti tour way back in 1991) supported by Living Color (who I was seeing live for the first time). It was a great gig and Living Color were particularly awesome—but unlike the Steve Vai concert I saw there years ago which was seated, it was a standing gig. By the time Extreme were half-way through their set, I was in a lot of pain. When Nuno did his acoustic guitar spot and made a comment that for him it was the best part of the show because he got to sit down for it, I was nodding in painful recognition.
When I emerged from the gig, the ground was covered in a thin dusting of what I first took to be snow, but it was rime from freezing fog and the temperature was below zero, which made for an interesting drive home. It was a good excuse to switch on the car's heated seats but they didn't ease the pain much. On Saturday afternoon I retrieved the Christmas tree from the loft and assembled it and then sank into my favourite armchair and read for an hour. It was only when I tried to stand up again that I realised that this hadn't been a very good idea and I could barely move. I was little better on Sunday.
So I missed seeing my friends Lazuli last night in Weston-Super-Mare. Instead I stayed home, watched a silly (and largely incoherent) kaiju movie, had a bath, and was in bed well before midnight.
My hips are still extremely sore this morning and the first course of today's breakfast was a couple of paracetamol tablets washed down with a glass of orange juice. I feel sad about not going to see my friends, but spending another evening standing up would have left me in agony. Getting old sucks.
And just like that, it's December. I've already been at work creating more hand-drawn graphics and making a number of tweaks to the website in preparation for adding another year to things like my blog archive. It can be a bit of a faff, because every page on this site is hand-coded by me using a program called Apache NetBeans, which is a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It has a user interface that looks like it hasn't been updated since the days when we all used DOS, it's so ugly—but it's entirely free so I'm sticking with it.
Way back in January I added a page to the site to which I gave the title What I've been reading and I set myself the target of reading at least sixty books in 2023 and writing a review of every one of them before the end of the year. I've already smashed that target, because yesterday I added my seventieth review. Next month I'll be adding another new page and starting again from scratch. You can rest assured that I will not struggle to find fresh reading material. The stack of books in my "yet to read" collection is getting alarmingly tall. I love books. If you look up the Japanese word tsundoku in your dictionary, don't be surprised if you see a photograph of me there.
Want to make me happy? Give me a book I haven't read about a subject I love.
I fired up OBS last night (after upgrading it to version 30, that is) and did a live stream on my Twitch channel for about a hundred minutes. It's the first time I've streamed anything in more than six weeks. It went okay, and I had a non-zero number of people dropping in, which was nice—although that did include an inevitable "I can promote your music!" dweeb spamming the live chat, I'm sad to say.
I played a couple of tracks from the album I released for November's Bandcamp Friday, Lost Ideas, Forgotten Stories and one from December's, An Unexpected Turn and I notice that people have been giving things a listen today (and even buying stuff) which is lovely. Although I make music primarily to entertain myself and become a better musician in the process, it's very nice to find out that what I do is entertaining other people as well.
Very nice indeed, in fact.
The UK's cold snap continues. It was -3°C (26°F) here last night and when I finally dragged myself out of my nice warm bed this morning, everywhere outside was covered in a thick layer of frost. It's melted now, which I'm hoping is a sign that it's going to be slightly less cold for the next couple of days. That's what the Met Office have forecast, anyway.
That's good, because I will be out and about slightly more than usual this weekend. And at some point I will be taking a stroll down the road to check out the village's new Coop supermarket, which opens today.