Everyone is doing this, it seems. Which must be my pretext for doing it controversially …
2019 was, objectively, a good year. It included being part of my best friend’s wedding (and a truly lovely wedding it was too). It was also a year of many steps forward in terms of my music career:
- A working relationship with Miracle Cure meaning I worked most weekends of the summer (often more than once, and beyond the usual bounds of ‘summer’) at wedding rates
- Touring the UK with a high-production-values tribute act
- Arranging, fixing and MDing (as well as playing) for a certain well-known London events company, with good reason to believe that will be the first of many jobs with them
- Playing mandolin seriously, thanks to dep opportunities with Pogue Traders, adding it to my arsenal with Kindred Spirit Duo and most critically Zoe Wren‘s trio (both live and on record)
- Adding another ongoing working relationship to my portfolio with the 145s
But I don’t believe in sugarcoating. This was also the year in which I felt, the vast majority of the time, that I was treading water due to chronic fatigue syndrome, and waiting for a credible degree of recovery from that to do anything significant voluntarily rather than because it fell under my nose. It was also the year in which many really good things were felt as burdens not advances because of the intensely toxic combination of fatigue, depression and diabetes, and in which I continued to feel lonely and isolated in London, while far too stretched and drained to do anything about making or strengthening friendships, let alone venturing into the dating maelstrom.
The 2010s could have several posts to themselves. But maybe I can try to outline a complex and incoherent narrative – if you get the impression of complexity without pattern, that is probably more important than grasping the details.
In early 2010, I had quit a terrible job (my first ‘real job’) for a badly-run publishing company in Newcastle, and mistaken my disappointment with that experience for disgust with the private sector as a whole. I was moving to Oxford (back to Oxford, where I had studied, rather) to do an internship [Ed.: unpaid job] with Oxfam in search of a third-sector [Ed.: charity] career.
The voluntary work would land me part-time, fixed-term jobs; many repeated failures to get full-time, permanent work; the hellish experience of doing two part-time jobs for the same organisation; and the realisation that my third-sector ‘career’ was both going nowhere and failing to make me happy.
I ended up getting a full-time, permanent job with a certain well-known chiefly educational publisher in autumn 2012. Within a month, I had developed the symptoms which, after eliminating other possibilities, would lead to me being diagnosed with clinical depression; but it wasn’t until 2014 that an occupational health doctor put it to me, after 15 minutes of our first appointment, that the job was keeping me mentally ill.
Cue the single biggest change in my life certainly since going to university: the experiment with making music pay, a prospect I had not engaged with since my mid-teens (when my family, chiefly, talked me out of A-level Music, let alone any further academic study of the subject). Initially in favour of part-time desk work, progressing as my music earnings have continued to rise, this is both the most exciting and the most stressful story of my work life by far – and continues to be just as unpredictable, over 5 years in. What no one could have predicted, in the absence of a clinically established cause or it running in my family, was the additional complication of developing type 1 diabetes. Furthermore, I was to find counselling (abruptly terminated by the centre going bust), two courses of guided computer-based cognitive behavioural therapy and a long and expensive period of private psychotherapy ineffective in treating my depression, and medication only effective in keeping it in the background after several worsening crises climaxing in a self-harm episode (admittedly one which did more psychological than physical harm).
That said, and while I cannot envisage going back to a non-music desk job, I loved Oxford as a professional, and my life since owes a tremendous amount to the churches I was a member of, the open mic nights that allowed me (begrudgingly or not) to experiment with blues, folk, improv and vocals, and the very brave bandleaders that recruited me to the gigging scene for the first time (Mark Atherton, Lewis Newcombe-Jones and Rachel Ruscombe-King, yes I am looking at you).
I would have liked to stay in Oxford; but practicalities had other plans. As a musician, I was travelling to, or through, London almost every weekend for work, and discovering that Oxon, with its plethora of gifted amateurs doing something else for a living, was not a good hunting ground for paying gigs. And then there came (through a gig with the most enduring, high-profile and high-energy of several not-really-money-making originals-oriented bands in this period) the lass I met on Twickenham station platform (after the most fortuitous get-drunk-and-crash-at-the-drummer’s ever).
It became abundantly clear, after some months of long-distance mostly-at-the-weekends relationship with Stevie, that my future lay in London. Which was the kick I needed to quit my desk job altogether and (with very little reluctance) go full-time self-employed. Unfortunately, a comedy of errors and displacements was to follow: a flatshare with another couple utterly unsuited to share their home, a move out on my part which she was unable or unwilling to accompany (even if that did mean I shared my home with four adorable cats, a rather sweet puppy, some other lodgers and an utterly wonderful crazy artsy cat lady fashion design lecturer for a few months), a successive move on her part, a disastrous move into a flat together and our temporarily acrimonious breakup.
It won’t be much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the behaviour of young males in relationships to hear that I had adopted Stevie’s friendship group (she is a Londoner born and bred, albeit migratory between south-east, south-west and most recently far north) and neglected to form one of my own. The breakup, at my initiation I admit, left me effectively trying to start again from scratch in this particularly overwhelming, oversized and unfriendly city – and having moved for the fourth time in 18 months to yet another quadrant of the city.
Six months in to the progress of recovering from the breakup and trying to find my social and psychological feet, I instead developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Of which the only good things that can be said are that my brother having gone through treatment with him already, I was well-positioned to seek help from Raymond Perrin (who, unlike the official line of the NHS at present, has an evidenced medical theory of the causes of the condition, and a corresponding treatment plan for chronic fatigue itself rather than its psychological side-effects); and that it pushed me to ditch the continuing freelance editorial / publishing work with which I was increasingly unenamoured. At which point, more or less, we can return to the first section of this post to look at 2019.
Meaning that I enter 2020 hoping to actually pay my way through music alone, with exciting if not necessarily intentional professional opportunities in that field taken or opening up; and with the prospect of returning to approximate normality as far as fatigue is concerned, albeit the diabetes will never go away and it is likely the depression will not either; and still in search of a better social-communal-relationship ‘settlement’ in the face of intransigent social isolation, loneliness and disproportionate craving for physical affection.
Doubtless, just as 2010 seems invisibly distant now, so too will this situation seem almost beyond the reach of empathy, never mind memory, come 2030. Such is life, and we should watch our step not our ten years’ or even one year’s past.