The Lay of the Land, 6 December 2020

Eight years ago today, I had a pacemaker fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. The year before that, I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At that point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. My diagnosis was idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

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Well, what a year.

I won’t go on at length. I know that some of you reading this will have had it far harder than I have. I’ve lost no family members or close friends to Covid-19, so far, although tragically my family doctor of more than thirty years became the first NHS healthcare worker to die from the disease in March. As far as I know, none of my family members or close friends has had it, except perhaps asymptomatically or so early that it wasn’t recognised as Covid. For that, I’m grateful every day. It’s no small thing.

Last September, Mel and I got engaged, and we were due to get married this September. We made the decision even before the first national lockdown that we should postpone the wedding. In the end, we decided to push it back a whole year, to September 2021, and it was definitely the right call. With a vaccination programme beginning next week, we’re hopeful we’ll be able to have our wedding next year the way we’d like to have it, without fear, and with our older relatives and those with chronic illnesses able to be there.

That was a disappointment, of course, but unfortunately things got worse in the summer. The travel industry was obviously hit hard by the pandemic, and I’d been furloughed since April. In July, my company announced it was cutting global staff by nearly half, having already closed down its operations in Asia Pacific permanently. Nearly all of my team was put at risk, and over half of us were made redundant.

No point in downplaying it, redundancy really sucks. My family and the friends I told (it sounds pathetic, I know, but I didn’t tell everyone; it was too hard to keep having the conversation) couldn’t have been more supportive, and Mel was an absolute rock, but I spent much of the rest of the summer alternating between feeling hollowed out, terrified for the future and furious about what had happened. Even in circumstances like these, in which a lot of experienced and talented people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own at all, it’s hard not to let it affect your confidence and self esteem. Plus, the job market was getting worse by the minute, with hundreds of applicants for every position. Thousands, sometimes.

I began the job hunt the day after getting the news. Luckily, I started to get some interviews after a month or so of applications. I came close on one or two, and then was then given an offer by an education company. So that’s what I do now, along with a little freelance subediting for a magazine. It’s great to be working again, learning new skills and working on different subject matter, much of which is delivered as video lectures. It’s a different challenge after seven years at a place where copy always had to be tailored to an audience that would be reading it on a phone. Everyone at the new place seems very nice, and I feel I can be cautiously optimistic about the future again. I feel very, very lucky; I have friends who were also made redundant this year who haven’t been as fortunate. I hope that the positive news about the vaccines will translate into more employers hiring again soon.

*

During the time I was furloughed during the first lockdown, I tried to stay busy, to salvage something from the situation. Mel and I released a joint EP, our first as a duo, which we’d begun last year. I released a two-song single, consisting of a couple of power-pop type of songs that I felt shouldn’t go to waste but didn’t fit the duo EP with Mel. I finished mixing the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album, plus a Blueberry Moon EP. And I made a record with Yo Zushi. We started it last November, cutting basic guitar and drum tracks for three songs at my house. But in the event, we only used one of those songs; everything else was written and recorded during lockdown itself. It ended up being enough of a collaboration that Yo decided we should release it under a band name, rather than as a Yo Zushi solo record. So, we became Watertown Carps. The album’s called Mermaids.

I’m really proud of everything I worked on this year. It’s always a joy to play on James’s or Yo’s songs; I’ve been playing music with them since I was 18 years old, and they still impress me and surprise me and inspire me. It’s great to play and sing with Melanie, too. In the last year, we’ve worked hard on our harmonies, and I really love how our voices sound together, particularly when she sings lead. She’s a much stronger singer than me, but I’m getting better at finding ways to support her voice with harmonies pitched below the melody, which is something I found really hard for years.

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A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I got an email from a man named James Tugwell at the British Library. Two emails, in fact – or rather, the same one sent twice, via this blog and via my website. He works as record company liaison for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Collection, and was contacting me to ask if I’d consider donating my music to their archive, to be – and I can hardly believe I’m saying this – preserved for the nation. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said yes immediately. I don’t know how James Tugwell came found me, but it was an incredible honour to be asked, one that I never expected. I’m not sure exactly when my music got added to the catalogue, but I guess it was at some point in the last couple of weeks, as it’s now searchable on the database and available for those with a pass to hear, theoretically for ever. I feel pretty good about that. Nothing in the digital world is permanent, but if anyone’s going to be looking after their digital property, it’s these guys.

*

So the year winds down, and we look ahead to Christmas. It’s a worrying time. Our second national lockdown has just ended, and a loosening of restrictions – allowing more people from different households to meet indoors and suspending regulations about not travelling between areas at different alert levels – for Christmas itself has been announced. We’re likely to pay a heavy price for this in January. Stay safe, stay well, think of others. This too shall pass.

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