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Brighton, England

2020 in review

I’m not sure why I recap some years and not others, but if any year needs recording, it is 2020. With a worsening climate, global pandemic and collapsing economy, Cennydd was right to point out that this was the year that the future began making good on its threats.

A Scandinavian sojourn

The year was abysmal from the start, with fearsome bush fires in Australia, the imminent departure of the UK from the EU, and the threat of another war in the Middle East, all jostling for front-page headlines.

A fern with pink leaves sits in front of a gravestone engraved with details of George Bradshaw.
George Bradshaw’s gravestone in Gamlebyen graveyard, Oslo.

Regardless of current affairs, or perhaps because of them, I spent Christmas watching Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin. It gave me itchy feet, and I dreamt of a similar adventure, albeit over fewer days. Buying an Interrail pass would allow me to change plans on a whim. Travelling around Scandinavia during the winter months would inspire captivating journal entries, with thoughtful insights about Europe at the start of this new decade.

The reality was different. Forgetting everything I had learnt from previous trips, I packed too much into my suitcase, added too many destinations to a 16-day itinerary, and didn’t do enough research beforehand. Sitting for breakfast at my hotel in Copenhagen, I looked across a city obscured by heavy rain and wondered why on earth I was on holiday in January.

Notions of acting spontaneously soon foundered, although I did skip spending a day in Gothenburg to extend my stay in Oslo. It was here that I was able to visit the grave of George Bradshaw. Although he died 167 years ago, I was incredibly moved as I paid respect to a man whose words I’ve been transcribing over the years.

Oslo turned out to be the highlight of this trip, delivering the beautiful snow-covered landscapes I had hoped for. But there was plenty of entertainment and photo opportunities to be found elsewhere. It was especially lovely to catch up with Sandra in Hamburg and see Emil in Malmö, too.

I’m pleased with how my travelogue turned out. While it doesn’t match the calibre of Palin’s writing, I’m glad I recorded the one opportunity I got to travel in 2020.

City skyline viewed from a station platform, looking across railway tracks and overhead wires.
At Stockholm Central Station before boarding the train to Gothenburg.

The gathering storm

Having returned home, thoughts turned to my next trip. Wanting an excuse to travel on the new Caledonian Sleeper, and reading somewhere that Nairn is considered “the Brighton of the North”, I booked a trip to Scotland for the Easter weekend.

In February, news of a novel coronavirus in China now contained disturbing images of emptied streets, with the country locked down to prevent further spreading of the virus. Curiosity turned to mild concern with reports of the virus spreading in Italy. Still, news from abroad is easy to dismiss. When colleagues asked if I was worried that people in Brighton had contracted the virus, I began to pay more attention. Signs appeared encouraging frequent hand washing, but this was a similar response as that for the swine flu pandemic in 2009, an event which passed without much incident. Keep calm and carry on.

In early March, we prepared for the possibility of working from home by trialling conducting all meetings over video. While this was a ridiculous exercise given most of us were sat in the same room, a once distant threat was becoming harder to ignore. I left the office on Wednesday 11 March, thinking I would spend fewer days in London over the coming weeks.

The trip to Scotland was cancelled, I never returned to the office.


Desk sat under the bay window in my lounge.
My new home office.

I had always found remote working difficult, but with a 12-week lockdown announced on 23 March, I would have to make working from home, work.

Previously placed in a dark corner of my living room, I moved my desk to sit facing the bay window. At least this way I could see the outside world, even if I had to stay inside. I loved watching the neighbourhood cats watching the squirrels, sometimes exchanging glances with them as they crept down my front steps.

Out of the crisis, a sense of community emerged. A WhatsApp group for the street was created, with neighbours sharing news, offering assistance and organising various initiatives. One would later share information about the different trees that line our street, whose colourful foliage helped lift my spirits throughout autumn. I waved to the postman, became a regular patron of the corner shop, and chatted to neighbours on daily walks.

With the streets emptied of cars (and sky cleared of planes), I made the most of my daily allocation of exercise, taking photos of Brighton while running to the beach and back. I would end up running further this year than all previous years combined.

Instead of the daily trudge to Pret, I prepared my own sandwiches or got lunch from a local cafe. I made my home office feel more homely, buying plants and completing long overdue DIY tasks. To complete the list of lockdown clichés, I baked several cakes and recorded a podcast. That said, I still haven’t watched Tiger King.

Beyond the constant worry about my parents health, I thoroughly enjoyed the first lockdown. At last, I could indulge in introverted activities without feeling the usual guilt about needing to be outside. Although it felt like Groundhog Day – days passed by with alarming speed — if any day was to be repeated over and over, I didn’t mind too much if it was this one. Foolishly, I welcomed the prospect of a second lockdown. That was until I realised being stuck at home in winter was — is – much less fun.

Two posters. First says ‘Be kind. Let’s look out for one another.’ the second ‘Please believe these days will pass.‘
One of the many posters that appeared around Brighton during the first lockdown.

Exploring the mind

Unable to travel the world, I wound up exploring the recesses of my mind instead. Approaching 40, ticking the ‘single’ box on survey forms and dealing with another knock back, I felt lost, lonely and increasingly anxious about the future. On the recommendation of my friend Laura, I sought counselling.

I’ve long turned my nose up at psychotherapy. Not only did I consider it too American for my tastes, I thought I was self-aware enough to not need third-party intervention. But with life stuck on repeat, it was worth a shot.

My first session was like an act of bloodletting. Given an outlet for all the worries and concerns that had built up over the years, a stream of consciousness emerged. A physically draining experience, I found the act of sharing openly to a stranger and getting their impartial perspective to be a fascinating activity, noting how my therapist would pick up on my body language, or challenge me when I avoided answering her questions.

Our first few sessions were conducted in person, before social distancing and lockdowns meant that, like everything else, they would need to be conducted online. Throughout the year, I’ve come to understand the root of my principled nature and underlying belief system, why I have difficulty accepting praise, and how I can set myself up for failure. And sure, plenty of predictable father issues, too.

I also discovered how a series of unfortunate events growing up – stunted growth, relocation to the middle of nowhere just as I turned 13, a youthful appearance that prevented me from buying videos or getting into clubs, arriving at university with metal strapped to my teeth – made me develop a deep sense of inevitability about life. Yet, through these sessions other memories were able to resurface, memories which told a contradictory and far more positive story. In a year when so much was open to re-examination, many of my fears and worries were proven unfounded.

A separate issue continued to present itself; 15 years on, I continue to live with the lingering trauma of having worked for Ning.

In July, Diego, Ning’s CTO and former colleague, sadly passed away, and the online memorial only brought back painful memories. From the performative displays of affection to reminiscences of interns sleeping in the office to be woken up at 3 am, it felt like a reunion for escaped members of a cult – but with the founders in attendance.

During my counselling sessions, I’ve been encouraged to think about how I physically respond to certain situations. In recalling this event, I can feel the familiar rush of adrenalin, my body shaking, almost going into spasm. I experienced similar feelings when my colleagues, Robin in January and then Theo in November, announced that they were leaving to join Facebook. Besides the questionable morality of this decision, I find it difficult to separate any fact-based judgement from the emotions resulting from my own experience. There’s still plenty of work to do.

Candy, Robbie and Santa

Lingering trauma aside, my time at Ning has benefited my career in numerous ways, not least helping me identify healthier workplaces. A few weeks before the lockdown came into force, I celebrated the renewal of my contract at the Department for Education, and looked forward to another year working with the team delivering the Apply for teacher training service.

With a minimal viable service launched towards the end of 2019, I was now on the candidate-facing (aka ‘Candy’) team, whose efforts were focused on developing a complete end-to-end service that worked for all users. Although colleagues would be pulled on to COVID-related projects, our skeleton team managed to ship several new features while refining existing ones, and we passed our beta service assessment in May. By the end of the year, our team was back to full strength and given responsibility for the sister service, Find.

I sometimes wonder if things might have been different had the pandemic arrived a year earlier; how would I have dealt working with a group of people I barely knew exclusively via Slack and Zoom? For many on our team, that was their reality. To make up for all this distance, several social activities were organised; a running club on Strava, a monthly book club and various Slack channels in which people shared photos of their desks and culinary creations. Besides the obligatory quizzes, entertainment could be found in Dan’s weekly and often controversial top3 question – clear favouritism from ‘the judges’ meant Matt rarely won on merit.

Strangely, I found the distance offered by remote working meant I could be more outgoing. Instead of popping my head above a monitor to ask what was going on, often it was me leading the charge. In August my various attempts at entertainment resulted in me getting the most incredible birthday present, a 4-minute video of the team miming to the words of Robbie Williams’ Angels (several months later and I’m still in awe). Further cards, mission patches and quizzes followed.

Mission patches (and temporary tattoo) on top of the envelope they arrived in.
A few of the mission patches I created and sent out to the team. Photograph: Stuart Cullum.

In December, Sarah and I decided to commemorate Rachael and Emma’s birthdays, Christmas and the work of the whole team, by designing a 20-page magazine. I say decided… that wasn’t the original plan, but things tend to escalate with two Leos involved! Choosing to have Santa deliver it during the Christmas quiz (my webcam conveniently stopping right before he appeared from my fireplace) well, that was entirely my idea.

Polishing the worry stones

Time spent at home meant ample time to spend on personal projects. If a website is a worry stone, then boy did mine get polished. I revisited the typography, making the sizing fluid and replacing the featureless Untitled Sans with another Klim font, the slightly more characterful Söhne. I added category, collection, and place archives, the later in support of the more ambitious task of recording all previous travel itineraries and their component trips.

Once I was happy with these changes, attention returned to Indiekit. After rearchitecting it for the third time, I was able to start building features I’d long wanted such as saving posts to the Internet Archive and syndicating them to Twitter. That I’ve not rebuilt the service a fourth time is thanks to mentoring from Aron. Over several evenings, he reviewed my code, answered questions, explained programming concepts and gave me feedback. The underlying architecture is much less complex thanks to his involvement.

Back on the outside

Relaxed restrictions over the summer meant more time could be spent outside – and beyond the realms of Brighton. Getting on a train to London one evening in July was remarkable in its own right, but so was seeing people from work in person for the first time in over 3 months. We met up a few more times after that, our last evening together finishing with a street-based sing-off with a Bulgarian folk choir. Watching Matt and Sarah ‘collaborate’ with them on a performance of Gold Digga – I honestly felt like I was in a movie.

To celebrate my 40th, Jon suggested we go bikepacking. I’d never heard of this form of adventuring, but the website whetted my appetite. I got my bike serviced and bought a one-person tent (the Big Agnes Copper Spur, which collapses down to the size of a wine bottle, is now one of my favourite possessions). A few days away from it all, in the company of one of my oldest friends, was a wonderful way to celebrate this milestone. Now that I have all the gear (and at least some idea), this is an activity I hope to repeat.

2020 turned out to be a great year for friendships, both old and new. I was touched that people went out of their way to check in on me, particularly Ben and Rob; Friday evenings during the first months of lockdown were often spent drinking a beer and catching up with somebody over Zoom.

Dating was more difficult than usual but I did end up forging a friendship with (another) Laura. Virtually meeting every Wednesday evening to watch a film together, huge gaps in my cinema knowledge are slowly being filled. Going through a selection of films from each decade, I discovered a fondness for those from the 1950s, or perhaps the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the two seem almost synonymous. Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film Life is Beautiful affected me the most, a strangely uplifting film given it’s setting in a Nazi concentration camp.

I survived thrived

I concluded my review of 2019 by saying that although I was happy to have found meaningful and enjoyable employment, I felt I had lost my voice as a consequence. In way of response, 2020 demonstrated that a signal is more powerful than noise. Rather than broadcasting into a void, directing my energies towards a smaller group had a more profound effect. Work sustained me throughout the year; the more I put in, the more I got back.

The popular suggestion is that we’ll be glad to see the back of 2020. Given my personal development, the friends I’ve made and fun I’ve had (even if mostly in front of a webcam), I’m going to look back on it with a degree of fondness.

Undoubtedly, this comes from a position of privilege – I remained healthy, employed and had no dependants to look after – but rather than feel guilty, I’ll be solemnly grateful instead. I didn’t catch the virus, nor did I lose any friends or family. With the virus in its ascendancy again, I’m not sure I’ll be able to say the same in 12 months. Oops, there’s that creeping sense of inevitability again.