David's diary: May 1997
Well I'm back at home again, with my trusty Psion, and have some spare minutes to share some things from over the last few weeks. Things have been going reasonably well in most respects and I am generally feeling a lot happier than of late.
Work has been going much better since I moved office, and now have some company, which is certainly a good thing for both sanity and self-discipline. The language projects meander on as ever, though we hit some political difficulties with our rather damning report on the software it was our assigned task to review. The beam simulation was getting on well, but has now hit a stumbling block with no-one really too sure what the magic calculation should be - just slightly fundamental - and now it turns out that the summer-school people were expecting to install the software like yesterday, and are described as being 'unhappy'... A lack of communication and tight management, really, but it's put the dampers on something that up until now was actually going quite well.
The PC in my office has been very ill lately, suffering a series of problems with its memory, network card, and finally the complete Windows 95 installation, trashed by what seems to have been a rogue Apple printer driver - conspiracy theories abound! The memory situation is still not resolved, thanks to university politics, and the fact that the maintenance company won't return 32 megabytes of SIMM chips, taken thanks to the ineptness of their engineers. I think however that my PC was mainly failing due to jealousy of my colleague Jon's new office machine, a whizzy 200MHz MMX Pentium, though by all accounts if I survive the current minor crisis brewing over the beam simulation program, I should be in line for a new machine pretty soon.
We've been getting into Quake at work quite a bit lately, with up to half a dozen of us slugging it out over the network at least a couple of evenings a week. It is amazing how well we all get in in real life when you consider the sheer zeal with which we pump each other full of nails, buckshot and rockets. Terrific fun - for all the family, not! - though it sometimes gets rather one-sided when certain people are playing. I know I'm hooked, though I've yet to master finer details of control, such as looking up and down, vital in a game which, unlike Doom before it, is truly three-dimensional, with every chance of attack from above or below!
I finally got everything sorted out with the Metro, for another year hopefully. The garage gave me a discount on the service - having previously messed me around with cancelled bookings, work not done etc - which although not particularly generous, was nevertheless a nice gesture and I probably would go back to them again. Having said "for another year", I'm still not sure how long I intend to keep it for; I guess I'll see how it fares over the summer and take it from there. It still goes well, and is reasonably cheap to run, though it would be nice to have something with a little more refinement and the ability to run on unleaded petrol.
Musically I have done precious little lately. I have some ideas for new songs, but it's really not practical to do anything much with them at the moment. Hopefully within the next month or so, I will find myself with a lot more physical space, and will be able to get on with putting some of those ideas into action. I am now pretty sure that music-making is an important part of what God has planned for me, and I surely intend to do so, though it is vital not to let the music - and the technology - become more important than ones faith. I guess this is why so much Christian music is centred around simple and timeless instruments like guitars and drums, though I would really like to come up with stuff on a par with - and as an antidote to - things like the Shamen, Orbital etc. We shall see...
Oh, whilst on the subject of religion, our Enemies of the Soul meetings were 'hijacked' for a couple of weeks by our church's prophetic team. That sounds all very pretentious, I know, but it wasn't at all, and was very helpful in enabling a closer and hence more communicative relationship with God, something towards which any theistic person should surely strive. But the reason I mention this is because one of the team, who I had not really previously met, had seen a vision of me, marching - like on a demonstration - with a huge banner entitled 'POWER'. I don't know what it actually meant any more than he did, but thought it was worth sharing here in case anyone reading might have any more insight.
And finally - how I wish the news programmes would have done the same over the preceding weeks - we come to the single best thing that has happened over the last few days. That was of course the glorious sequence of events of the small hours of last Friday morning, when Tory seat after Tory seat was swept away in a veritable avalanche of red. I personally did not vote, mainly through not actually being registered, though I'm not sure I would have been able to decide anyway, so it was a relief not to be burdened with that responsibility. Much as I would have preferred a Liberal landslide, that was never likely to happen, and I am still utterly overjoyed, delighted finally to see Labour given another chance since they blew it back in 1979, which I do remember vaguely. Highlights of a long and addictive night - with very little sleep - were of course the demises of Michael Portillo, Marcus Fox, Malcolm Rifkind, and that spiteful Tory homophobe in Exeter, but most of all, Neil Hamilton, David Mellor and Gyles Brandreth.
All that remains now before this sordid chapter can finally be closed is for Paul Daniels and Andrew Lloyd-Webber - amongst others, no doubt - to keep to their pre-election promises and leave the country forthwith. Only then will I really smile - a government only lasts five years, but the thought of a whole lifetime without the irritation of tacky gameshows, wigs, and glitzy musicals is a far greater promise. Milton Keynes is now all Labour, but the rest of Buckinghamshire remains one of the Tories' only real true-blue strongholds, though it was noticeable that only Cheryl Gillan in the Chesham and Amersham constituency won with an overall majority, with David Lidington in Aylesbury - my parents' constituency - and especially Ray Whitney in High Wycombe most looking dangerously close to defeat by the Liberals. Next time, maybe.
I guess death and our mortality are just something we have to come to terms with, especially as we get older. The only thing in life that we can be certain of for ourselves and those around us is that sooner or later death will visit. It may, as in the case of my grandmother, or my cat, be timely and seem somehow just, although that is not to take away in any way from the momentousness of such sad events. Or it may seem cruelly untimely or unjust, and leave you asking "why?".
Thankfully no relatives of mine have been killed or suffered other untimely deaths, though I do remember the death of my dear Uncle Ken, who probably did more to inspire my interest in all things technical than just about anyone else in those early years. What upset me most about that was that my mother didn't tell me about it until I had got back from school, lest it spoil my day. A noble and well-meant gesture, I am sure, but I felt a little cheated.
A few children died while I was at school, but only one that I knew at all well, a boy called Malcolm who suffered horrendous injuries after being knocked off his bike in an attempted hit-and-run incident, the driver wrapping his car round a lamp-post in his efforts to evade the scene. I do not remember that causing me a huge amount of grief, though I was undoubtedly shocked at the time, Malcolm being in my class.
Probably the greatest effect death had on me was when Clare, who I had known closely for almost the first twenty years of my life, was struck down by a so-called joyrider in Leeds. That hurt in particular because I was burdened with having to break the news to my family, although it was only on doing so that I could really believe that the unthinkable had happened and really start grieving. I can still remember having to announce it, and not even being too sure if she was dead, injured, or quite what, such was my utter state of confusion and bewilderment.
A couple of years back, the husband of a close friend shot himself, after losing his driving licence and feeling extremely frustrated and second-rate as a result. This was a loving, though busy, guy, who I had shared a drink with on a few occasions, and the news of his death came as a complete shock. Sadly I did not find out in time for the funeral, and having not been able since really to close that chapter, it still leaves me wondering if there was anything I could have done - or perhaps shouldn't have done - that could have meant that his two young sons would still have their dad.
And now I hear of the untimely deaths of two more people I knew, one an old teacher of mine who died from cancer, and another, Jon, who simply dropped dead one day for no apparent reason. It was only a couple of years ago that Mrs Elderfield gave me a lift into Wycombe, not because she recognised me, but saw me waiting at the bus-stop and took pity on this poor unkempt student, only later realising who I was, initiating a good chat about what we'd been up to in the time since I was at her school. And now she's dead.
Jon was about four years younger than me, but, living just round the corner from each other, we often walked and talked together to and from school. To hear that someone so young and apparently healthy had simply gone into work one day and never came home, makes you realise that such things can happen to anyone, at any time. All that happens as we get older is that the probability of it happening increases, and can be affected - both for better or worse, depending on the individual - by things like drinking, smoking, exercise, diet and so on.
But to come to terms with these tragedies - and they all were in their own way - as well as my own mortality, it has taken faith. I have never really been scared by my own death, though for many years it was more by ignoring the inevitability than anything else. Fear of the death of others close to me has always been a worry though. But now I can look on death, if not as a positive thing, exactly, then as just another step in a greater scheme, the details of which we can but dream of.
Of course, I may be wrong - that's the nature of faith - but if it comforts me during my life, allows me the promise of a share in the afterlife if there is one, and hopefully makes me a better person in the meantime - and believe me, I have improved a lot since becoming a committed Christian - then I say it's worth the bother. Rather like buying life insurance, it's just not worth the risk of not doing it, though unlike a life insurance policy, the pay-out on maturity will hopefully be immeasurably greater than my puny contributions.
But why, if God is loving and caring, were these people plucked from this earth so untimelily? I guess that's one of the mysteries of faith, but assuming that what is next after this life is better than this one - and all the indications are good - then it is only us as mortals who worry ourselves with such issues. They may have left this earth, but what they now have is infinitely better, released from the suffering and other burdens the world inflicts.
Our time will come to join them, some of us sooner, some of us later - and I have no intention of hastening it, believing that we all have a purpose in life - but it's nothing to be scared of. The transition is painful, of course, but the reward is incalculable and the way is through Jesus, who died on the cross as the ultimately painful and humiliating punishment for all humanity's transgressions both past and future.
Being a Christian does not mean being squeaky clean, wearing cardigans and saying grace all the time - though there are some activities that enhance or degrade our relationship with God during our lives - but simply means accepting and being thankful for what Jesus did for us. Popular thinking is that if you're bad you go to hell, but not as a Christian. Jesus went to hell for three days to atone for our badness; he's done our sentence, so instead the promise of heaven is there for those who confess their sins to God and ask his forgiveness through his son Jesus. It's as simple as that; is it really worth the risk of not paying the insurance premiums?
Just what am I doing with my life though? I say we all have some purpose in life, and maybe I am now slowly getting some vague inkling about what mine is, but what am I doing about it, or anything else in my life, come to that?
I find myself inexorably drawn to Milton Keynes, a city with little charm. I find myself in a job whose rewards are often eclipsed by its frustrations. I find myself in a relationship that still seems to be stuck on the starting blocks. And time goes by. The longer I put up with this, the harder it is going to be to liberate myself.
So what should I do? I have said many time before that I think greater powers drew me into Milton Keynes, with a highly unlikely sequence of events contriving to bring me to where I am physically living at the moment, and into the circle of friends who have adopted me so readily. Yet there must now be a next step. Perhaps my closest and most supportive friend in Milton Keynes suggested that maybe I was too zealously wanting to discover my specific vocation, whilst being blind to the point about life in general, that is to say, not being able to see the wood for the trees. I largely agreed with him, though knowing that I have come this far by God's power, it's incredibly frustrating not to know where to go next, almost feeling stranded in a world that is largely alien to me.
Whilst the job is not making me a very happy bunny, and I do worry about my security when I seem to accomplish so little, nobody has yet really made out that my future there is at risk. It seems to be accepted that most of the problems I am encountering are not of my own making, even if perhaps I have not handled them as well as I might, but that's something which comes with experience, I guess, and the previous job I had, whilst hardly fulfilling, was at least hassle-free, with only myself to answer to really, so was not the ideal preparation for the real world of graduate employment. So I guess I should stick with this job for as long as I can hold it down, or until something obviously better comes my way - though it must really be in Milton Keynes if my interpretation of God's will in the summer of last year was correct!
And as for that relationship, well I just so wish it would start going somewhere now. My mother suggested yesterday that the 'young lady from Leighton Buzzard' had come to nothing, and whilst I obviously couldn't agree, it did ram home to me that although it hadn't come to nothing, nor had it come to anything yet either. If we do give things a try, I know that the times ahead are going to be tough, with the most heart-rending dilemmas. In one of his books, Nicky Gumbel says that Christians should only marry Christians, and I was shocked and dismayed that this generally forward-thinking, respectable writer should say such a regressive thing, and that his interpretation of the Bible passage he referred to was so off-target.
But he later backed it up, and it all seemed so obvious, that is to say that the practicalities of relationships between Christians and non-Christians will almost always lead to faith getting in the way and causing difficulties, rather than being the wonderful bonding force that it could be. So he wasn't saying relationships with non-Christians were wrong, but that they are in many cases, the cause of much more discontentment, unhappy compromise and breaking of principle than Christian-Christian relationships - perhaps more trouble than they are worth, though I personally consider the 'young lady from Leighton Buzzard' to be well worth any trouble, so long as we can both appreciate each other for what we are.
But that is where I fear the current stumbling block lies - that Kate fears getting involved with me further, happy to keep me at arm's length. I'm not saying she doesn't appreciate me or my principles, but that she is simply afraid of the unknown. Needless to say that saddens me, because important though I consider her, I'm not going to be jumping to immediate conclusions, booking the church years in advance, or otherwise committing myself now to the lifelong relationship which would certainly be my aim when I finally find the perfect partner. Instead, I just want to get to know her properly, have some fun, and give us both a chance to see in what, if any ways, we would need to adjust to accommodate each other properly if we did decide to take things further.
The last couple of entries have been all very philosophical, but what of plain and simple action plans? Well with work and relationships, I see those - for the time being at least, and without wishing to imply that they are in any way whatsoever unimportant to me - as complementary to the music thing, which I think is my main calling, and will therefore fit in around the music if that is the correct way to be going, so I have no definite plan of action with them other than to be utterly open-minded and make the best of the opportunities that come my way.
Regarding the music, I am no singer - goodness only knows how I got into so many choirs and operas whilst at school, even after my voice broke - and my instrumental performance skills, certainly in the conventional sense, are less than brilliant. Nor am I a terrific lyricist, though such things can be developed. Instead I think I am supposed to be extending what other people say I already do well, that is to say, synthesiser programming and sequencing, the basic fodder of dance music.
The days of having a decent studio of my own are probably some way off yet, but that needn't be such a bad thing, allowing me the opportunity to make the most of what limited stuff I already have, which will be perfectly adequate for composition, if not for the final recording production.
As it is, I have the basic essentials - that is to say, a reaonable computer with sequencing software and a good sound-card for work-horse tones, sampling and MIDI, a couple of digital modules, a good budget drum machine and a mostly-functional analogue synthesiser. On the control side I have enough bearing in mind that I'm hardly an accomplished pianist or anything, and for mixing, my old Tandy disco mixer has just enough channels for the above stuff, and will be fine until I can afford something rather better. Recordings of demos etc can be to good old cassette tape for the time being, monitoring via headphones or hi-fi.
I want to get a cheap effects unit before long, though, to enhance the otherwise completely dry output of the analogue synthesiser and the drum machine, but not having one will hardly get in the way of the creative process, especially as my aim is to produce highly melodic electronic music, rather than relying only on the sounds for interest.
Suddenly this all looks so much more attainable, through doing things in stages. Realistically, I could hope to have the basic setup described above up and running within the next couple of months, and then simply take things from there. In fact it would be the first time I had ever been able to have all that stuff in the same place, and be a chance to really get going with the ideas that have been whizzing around my head for the last few months or even years!
Sure, when I was at The Stable in Odiham, I was able to use a fair bit of my stuff, but the rest of the studio was so over-complicated that it continually got in the way of the creative process, for little real gain on the sound front. I found myself spending more time fighting with the Mac and its various unreliable hardware expansions than I did writing the actual music, and that's not a good thing for creativity. I can now see the attraction in composing well away from a conventional studio environment, with far less to get in the way of the creative process, then to take the MIDI-files and samples - and perhaps a few instruments, depending on how specialised the stuff it - into a proper studio, to let a real engineer loose on them.
I can see myself working that way quite a bit until I can afford some of the studio stuff for myself, and even then, I swear I will set it up to be as hassle-free as possible, vastly different to The Stable's setup which boasts superlative - indeed rather clinical, in fact - sound quality at the definite expense of ease of use, certainly for the production of essentially electronic musical genres.
So, watch this space, I hope to have more news soon, and maybe even a few rough cassettes for anyone interested...
Back to Milton Keynes later today after a relatively peaceful weekend away from it all. A weekend which has seen me out on no less than two walks in the country - all I need to do is sustain this and I might just get a bit fitter - and avoid just about the faintest hint of argument with my parents, helped immensely by the car being hopefully all sorted out now, generally avoiding even attempting to enter into conversation while the radio is on - especially during Any Questions or the weather forecast - and of course the fact that my dad in particular is definitely on a high after the events of late last week.
The newspapers today feature, for me at least, two interesting and positive post-election snippets. First the fact that Robin Cook is now committed to signing pretty much immediately the EU's Social Chapter, to bring the rights of this country's citizens into line with those in the rest of Europe, something long overdue, and nowhere near as onerous as the Tories frequently liked to make out. And second, the pictures of the Blair family heading off for church yesterday, with not a suit or tie between them; I suspect it was a carefully Mandelsonned photo-opportunity to appear as down-to-earth as possible, though I am equally sure it wasn't entirely faked.
As I lie here, I can hear birds singing in the garden, mostly well-known, but some of their songs distinctly unfamiliar. This reminds me that apparently this week there is to be published a government-commissioned and indeed government-produced report into the demise of British birds, and it is expected to advise action on farming techniques, where in the past few years, the drive for ever better agricultural efficiency has resulted in the loss of natural habitats, both for birds' breeding and feeding. I understand that the hedgerow removed from the British countryside over the last few years is sufficient to encircle the world three times, whilst the insects, weeds and so on which birds rely upon for food have been practically wiped out by spraying crops with chemicals. It is possible, as a result of this report - though I'll believe it when I see it - that farmers will be offered positive incentives to preserve natural habitats on their land, perhaps as a precondition to receiving part of their European subsidy. This needn't mean every farm having to have a nature reserve, but just simple things like not destroying any more hedgerows, and committing to leave the field-borders unsprayed.
The hope in all this is that we can at least start to combat the worrying trend in bird populations, which have seen species like the song-thrush fall to 20% of their 1970's levels - their demise is also blamed on the increased use of slug-pellets and other garden pesticides - with others faring still worse. Even starling and sparrow populations are down, and you don't have to be an enthusiastic bird-lover to appreciate that the decline of such a fundamental part of our eco-system is a problem we must take action to halt and if possible reverse immediately.
It will be interesting to see what kind of general commitment this incoming government will have to environmental matters, not only the issue of the birds, but also things like road-building, public transport, renewable and sustainable energy, global warming, chemical and nuclear dumping, designation of green-belt, AONB/SSSI's, national parks and so on. They are long-term issues which simply cannot be ignored - long-term because we may well not see the real benefits within our lifetimes, but are instead investments for a high-quality and balanced environment for later generations, something of which there is absolutely no chance at the moment with short-term commercial gain treated as the absolute priority. Even the few longer-term economic strategies seem to fail to take into account that their success is cold comfort if the virtual destruction of the environment is the price to be paid.
Cars... who'd have 'em? I'm sure they are living, sentient beings, capable of telepathically determining your next step, and knowing how best to cause maximum disruption at critical moments. Ever since it came back from its service a couple of weeks ago, I'd been a bit doubtful about my Metro starting, though it was fine for several days. But then a couple of days ago it really started struggling, with the starter motor barely turning over, and I really feared that every journey might be my last, and that I would be stuck somewhere awful - though I figured at least if I got stuck at the flat, I would have my bicycle to hand. It got worse and worse, and of course the worse it got, the more it drained the battery with every attempt, so it was a definite downward spiral. Then surprisingly, it perked up a bit earlier today, but I thought I'd better not hedge my bets too much so splashed out 20 quid on a battery charger, vowing to sort it out good and proper this coming weekend. And of course since leaving Halfords, it's started first time, every time, without even a glitch. Cars... as I said...
Hey, it's nice to be able to make a cheerful, positive addition to this diary for a change. Well mainly so anyway... Things certainly generally seem to be looking up!
The car's basically going OK now. Whether it really improved after my impromptu mechanics I'm not too sure, but it's certainly no worse, and it's seeming a little better starting. It still seems a little slow turning over compared with many cars, but it has started first time the last few times, which is better than it's ever been before, really! I still don't want to keep it any longer than I need to, but the urgency has diminished with its apparent new lease of life.
Last Friday, I essentially finished this infernal beam-loading simulation at work. It's still got to be checked by a few people, but I'm fairly confident now that it won't bounce back at me with any major problems, indeed hopefully none at all. In theory, tomorrow I am to load it up on the summer-school installation platform, from which they do a complete system back-up to Zip drive, then blast it onto the dozens of machines they actually use with the students. In the meantime, I'm doing some long-awaited stuff for the departmental web site, a twin-edged job of doing HTML-weaving, and also extracting the necessary information and screen-dumps out of the various contributors!
I had my 27th birthday last Saturday. As befits someone of the "older generation" (!) I didn't party the night away or do anything else than the young'uns probably would, but my mum came up to visit and we went out for a pub lunch, then did a little local sight-seeing - not in Milton Keynes itself, I hasten to add, but in the surrounding villages. Also on Saturday, I found out that my flatmates are moving out imminently, so whilst that introduces a few short-term hassles, I'm sure in the long run it will be better for everyone involved, with plenty of extra breathing space all round. Obviously it's going to cost me more, but I'll see how it goes...
Then Sunday I went to church with great expectations of wonderful things to happen - as had been widely prophesied, and was the reason I didn't go home for my birthday - and I think something did happen. Nothing spectacular - or not yet anyway - but I had probably my most powerful experiences to date, realising that I am deluding myself and cheating God in many things I did in the past and find hard to detach myself from today, and I really believe that I have changed for the better. All I had to do was ask, and I received.
And finally, today is Kate's birthday. Apparently her mum gave her this frog thing with an infra-red sensor which makes it 'ribbit' when you walk past it, which is really weird when you consider that the birthday-card I sent her depicted a load of jumping frogs and a jolly tune. With that and the previously-related polar bear incident, unlikely coincidences seem to just keep on happening to us!
Gosh, it's all rather hectic round here, and I'm finding it hard to truly relax or get into the swing of things. My flat-mates have now all but gone, though it's still a little chaotic round here while the finishing touches are made to the manoeuvre. I got away for most of the weekend, and met up with some old friends, which was all very nice, and came back with a shed-load of creature-comforts - of course generating an equal shed-load of cardboard packaging, once unpacked. There's a few problems needing sorting out both with the stuff I brought and the flat itself, but I hope nothing insurmountable.
It was quite funny when last week, one of my old college friends got in touch with me via my old company. When I e-mailed him back, I kept it brief, in case I had been given the wrong address, but of course he saw my 'open.ac.uk' address, and immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was back into the student world, and flowed forth a torrent of entirely understandable abuse about perpetual students and all that... He's pretty fed up with where he's living, in the more general sense, but maybe now he's back in the country - he's been in Switzerland for a few months - and indeed relatively locally, maybe we can do something for our mutual sanity.
Other than that, not a lot's happening. I hope to really get down to music writing now; I've got several ideas floating around now, so I just have to get them programmed up now, and I'm away. Life from now on is going to be very different, and equally interesting, I suspect!
Odd thing happened yesterday actually. I was reading the local newspaper back home to catch up on all the happenings, and there was an item on a car accident that had left, amongst others, a mother and her eight-year-old son seriously injured. As soon as I started reading it, for no obvious reason, I suddenly started thinking of someone I once knew, and then, right at the end of the item, it mentioned that her 19-year-old son had suffered serious bruising in the accident. Weird.