It’s the last day of my forties, and I thought I might mark their passing by attempting to summarise my last ten years here.
Of course, these decade labels depend on quite arbitrary boundaries, don’t they? The idea that, by virtue of the first digit of his or her age, a 32-year old somehow shares some meaningful attribute with a 39-year old that he or she doesn’t with a 29 year old is really quite bogus. Nonetheless, they help us to carve our experience up into manageable slices when trying to make sense of them, so here goes.
Ten years ago I was living and working in London, but I woke up on the morning of 9th July 2000 at my house in Derby, which I was keeping as a sort of weekend retreat. I felt ill, vulnerable and debilitated. I’d been quite uncomfortable at the idea of being forty years old for some time, and now the actual experience seemed to bear out my worst fears. Then I remembered that I’d drunk quite heavily the night before, in the company of my dear old pal Shaun Appleby, and I realised that my new-found debilitation really had nothing to do with being a day older, and everything to do with the ill effects of alcohol. I felt a bit better after that.
In July 2000 I lived in East Dulwich, South London. I was attached to a charming Hong-Kong Chinese girl called Polly, who had just moved back to Hong Kong after studying and working in London for a few years. I’d met her at the end of 1998. I was working on the top floor of One Canada Square, also known as the ‘Canary Wharf Tower’ – still the highest building in London. I think the department I worked for had moved into that building in March or April. I was growing disillusioned and dissatisfied with working in that company, an American investment firm.
But I stayed there until April 2001, when along with several hundred other employees, they asked me to leave. The firm had invested heavily in the dot-com bubble, and now that it had burst, it was hemorrhaging cash in industrial quantities. I’d already given notice that I wanted to do something else, so I was an obvious candidate for redundancy. They gave me a generous “separation package” – in other words, a large sum of money – and allowed me to stay at home doing nothing for another two months on full pay, after which I became officially unemployed.
I stayed in London, basically enjoying a long holiday there, until I decided in February 2002 that I couldn’t continue to pay a mortgage in Derby and rent in London simultaneously any longer. I very reluctantly packed the last of my belongings into my car, and vacated my flat for the last time, for what I over-optimistically hoped would be a “tactical retreat” to my house in Derby. I drove north through London up to the M1 very sadly, taking in the surroundings as a resident of London for the last time on the 14th of February.
The one consolation about returning to the East Midlands was that I’d see more of my best friend, Shaun. But he died, from complications following an operation, in July 2002. And quite honestly, I already felt as if I’d beaten him to it. I used to say that if you could still drink beer and use the Internet when you were dead, then death would indistinguishable from living in Derby.
The first year or two there were fairly awful, really; beyond depressing. For someone used to the vibrancy of living and working in the capital city, waking up each morning on an anonymous housing estate on the outskirts of what’s really a provincial town, with no particularly good reason to get out of bed is fairly soul-destroying.
But I made the best of it. I’d walk the three miles or so into Derby’s so-called city centre on some days, and get a bus back, or I’d just sit at home in my study, listening to Radio 5 Live, tinkering with my PC, and surfing the Internet.
I suppose the Internet was something of a lifeline. I’d been a keen participant in discussions on Internet mailing lists and message boards for years, but now I became far more prolific, arguing at length about politics, about the perennial, corrosive ignorance of religious faith, surely something of a defining stupidity for humankind at its present stage of naivety – and about music. The Iraq war in 2003 was an absorbing diversion, provoking huge quantities of argument on various political fora, and I saw my position on that handsomely vindicated in the following years.
I punctuated my time in Derby with occasional day visits to London, usually on the train and usually on Saturdays. These were more than merely coming up for air. I would emerge from Charing Cross station into the bright light of the Strand and the West End, just as I used to each Saturday when I lived there. And within minutes I could feel my body absorbing my identity again, a dead man coming back to life.
I must mention my forty-second birthday, eight years ago tomorrow. I’d decided to spend it in London. As I was driving down there I switched on the car radio and found a documentary about Douglas Adams on Radio 4. A short while after I’d tuned in, contributors to the programme discussed the significance of the number 42, famously representing the “meaning of life” in Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Adams had chosen it because it was an “ordinary, smallish number”. Later that day I realised that I was wearing my IWC ‘Gadebusch’ MK XV Fliegeruhr wristwatch, number forty-two of a limited edition of fifty. And a few hours later as I drove home, the Radio 2 show I was listening to played a selection of numbers from the musical 42nd Street.
I split up with Polly some time in the middle of 2003. We’d seen each other a couple of times since she’d moved back to Hong Kong, but my future was uncertain and it was the best thing for both of us. She remained a dear friend. I started dating another Chinese girl in September; a university lecturer. That didn’t last very long but again, we remained friends for a long time. She was called Xiaohong. I’d had a penchant for women of Far-Eastern ancestry since I worked for a Japanese bank in the ’90s, but Xiaohong was the last one, as it turned out.
I don’t remember much about the early part of 2004 other than that I studied for a computer networking professional certification, I had broadband installed and I bought a WiFi router. I started this journal in May that year. I’m sure I spent most of 2004 sitting in front of a computer, listening to 5 Live and feeling vaguely lost and numb. But in November I met up with some other Rush fans that I’d got to know from a fan community on the Internet, on the occasion of a visit to Manchester of Rush, my time-honoured Favourite Band Ever, on their 30th anniversary tour.
One of those fellow Rush devotees was a lovely Finnish girl called Sari. She lived in Helsinki, yet the novelty of meeting each other face to face somehow inspired us to embark upon a long-distance romance. I visited her in Helsinki twice, and she came to Derby twice, most memorably over Christmas 2004. That relationship had run its course by the summer of 2005, and we split up. Long-distance relationships really have to be able to focus on a discernible non-long-distance future to survive any length of time, I think.
And shortly after that, things started to change, finally. My long sabbatical from gainful employment came to an end in August 2005, when I accepted a fairly mundane job as a technical support operative at a company with a large office in Derby. I hated that job though, and to my relief quite honestly, the Derby office was closed down at the end of that year and I was made redundant again. My final day there was 31st December 2005, and I returned to my former sedentary, 5 Live-listening, Internet-inhabiting, wilfully numb existence on 1st January 2006 as if nothing had happened.
But not for long, fortunately. In February I had a call from the managing director of a small web-hosting firm in Beeston, on the outskirts of Nottingham. I’d seen a job for a technical support role advertised in the Nottingham Evening Post, and had applied for it. After a brief telephone interview, I was asked to come in for a “technical test”. I was offered the job shortly after that and started in April. I very much enjoyed working there, in a team of friendly and professional people. I felt as though I’d finally climbed out of the deep hole of uncertainty I’d been trapped in for years. At around about the same time I met the woman I was destined to marry, Sue. She lived in Coalville, in Leicestershire, a half-hour drive from Derby, and we started to see each other every weekend. We became engaged in September 2006.
On 1st August 2007 we were married on an unusually dry, sunny day in what was otherwise a miserable, rainy summer, at a hotel in Quorn. We honeymooned in Sorrento. I’d gained not only a wife (for the first time, at the age of 47), but two teenage stepdaughters.
And I changed jobs again. Just before we’d left for Italy I’d corresponded by email with a research laboratory at Nottingham University, with a view to replacing their system administrator, who was returning to Canada. They asked me to come in for an interview on my return from Italy. I did, and they offered me the job shortly thereafter. This turned out to be a wonderful opportunity. I was working with brilliant people in a stimulating environment at one of the best research Universities in the world, and best of all they trusted me to just get on with running their technology myself. I was more or less autonomous. Their technology infrastructure become a sort of personal train set, and I took great satisfaction in developing it, and making it run as smoothly, as efficiently and reliably as possible. And if I asked if I could buy a new server, a new RAID array or whatever, the answer was always “yes”, even if once or two it was qualified with “but try not to spend too much”!
Sue and I didn’t actually live together for the first two years of our marriage. Sue’s younger daughter, Darcie, was still at school in Coalville, so we’d determined that we were going to live there when we did buy a place together. But I’d decided that getting married, changing jobs and moving house all at the same time was just too much upheaval, so I put off selling my house. For the time being we spent weekends together, usually in Derby. I found this to be quite an ideal arrangement in some respects quite honestly, but Sue didn’t quite see eye to eye with me on that.
Sue sold her house in February 2009, and she and Darcie stayed with my mother-in-law until I sold mine, in September. We’d hoped to buy a rather charming semi-detached house in a leafy avenue with a long, secluded garden and had agreed on a price – but that fell through when the sellers were unable to arrange a mortgage to buy a new property, and took it off the market.
For the time being, while we looked for our dream home, we rented a three-bedroom detached house in Coalville. I hired a van, and took a few days off work to pack my belongings into cardboard boxes in Derby, and drive them to our rented accomodation twenty-five miles away.
It was quite an unreal and emotional moment to leave my house for the last time. I’d owned it for eighteen years, although I’d spent seven of those years in a rented flat in South London. It held many memories for me. When the last of my things had been loaded in the van on the last day, I took a few minutes to sit on the floor of my empty living room, and reflect on the times I’d spent there since 1991, good and bad.
The blunter realities of marriage – the usual sort of marriage where you live in the same house, not the alternative version to which I’d become comfortably accustomed – required a period of adjustment. Still, I was happy to have opened a new chapter, to have started a new life, and I quite enjoyed our time in the rented place. But in October, only a few weeks after we’d moved in there, we found a suitable house for sale in a village just outside Coalville, a few miles away. This time our purchase went smoothly, and we moved into our new home, a spacious and modern three-storey house overlooking a village green, at the end of November.
We’re still in the process of settling in of course, even seven months later. Cardboard boxes remain in the garage, still packed. We still have to redecorate some of the rooms, and buy new furniture for others. But we’ve enjoyed getting used to our new tranquil surroundings, and we love it here.
And that, pretty much, brings me up to the present day, on the precipice of my fifties! Let’s do this again in ten years’ time.