Reflections on 2016

Friends looking out over Princes Street Gardens

Christmas is a time of reflection. A lot of people will be reflecting on how terrible 2016 has been. A lot of bad stuff has gone down in the world. A lot of good people are uncertain about Brexit. They are downright frightened about Trump. The destruction of Aleppo has appalled us. David Bowie even died for goodness sake.

But we still go about our daily lives, answering our alarm calls, making our dollar, dealing with our own issues. Our personal lives have their own highs and lows that, from our own myopic viewpoint, can make the larger global changes seem merely like the cherry on top.

I blog far less about personal stuff than I used to. This is partly out of fear of myopia and narcissism, and also out of fear of boring you, dear reader. (Although, to be honest, it’s mostly because I don’t have the time to do that any more.)

So instead, I have opted to bore you in one big retrospective of my year. At least this way the events, dear boy, are documented.

And we’ll begin before 2016 even began — on 30 October 2015, in fact.

A year living in Edinburgh

Friends looking out over Princes Street Gardens

It’s no secret that I love Edinburgh. It feels like the right place for me. I studied here, and I feel at home here like I do nowhere else.

When I got my first proper job, I was over the moon. But it was a bit of a blow that it was located in Fife, where home was, and where I wanted to move on from.

When I finally managed to fly the nest, I ended up living in Dundee and commuting to St Andrews for work. Dundee is a wonderful city that gets a much, much worse press than it deserves. But it wasn’t my place, and I was a bit lonely there. I maintained an ambition to move to Edinburgh.

I met Alex in Dundee, but home for her was in Edinburgh. It made sense for us to make the move together.

We bought a flat in a place that neither of us would probably have considered were we moving individually. But by a process of compromise and elimination we ended up in Morningside. Now I can imagine living here for the rest of my life.

There is so much more going on in Edinburgh. There is lots of opportunity, and there is always something new to do, or another place to explore.

Life has improved so much since I moved here and began living with Alex.

Unfair parking ticket

Moving to the big city hasn’t been without its mishaps though. I rapidly became opposed to the idea of driving anywhere in Edinburgh because it’s just so crazy. The car is almost never the quickest way to travel between any two points in Edinburgh.

And having a car in Edinburgh is just so much more bureaucratic. We can’t park outside our flat (fair enough, it’s a bus lane), and we need to have a permit to park anywhere within five minutes’ walking distance.

One time this year I took Alex to the airport, came back home and parked up in the most convenient parking space available. A week later, I went to look for the car and it was gone.

To cut a long story short, it had been towed because I had unwittingly parked it in a pay and display spot. The charge to get the car back was eye-watering. Ever since then, I have measured large sums of money in multiples of unfair parking ticket, in the same way that newsreaders use the size of Wales to describe areas.

I took a photo showing how ambiguous the pay and display signage was, and explaining exactly why I thought the sign obviously meant the space wasn’t a free space. But everyone I showed it to told me it was obviously a pay and display space and I was being a massive plum.

It turns out the arrow on the sign points to the parking meter, not the parking space. News to me.

Having only ever lived in Kirkcaldy and Dundee — where, in comparison, the local authorities practically beg you to park your car — it was never revealed to me that a painted box without any writing at it might be anything other than a free parking space. This was a big life lesson for me to receive at the age of under a tenth of an unfair parking ticket.

Edinburgh Festival and Fringe

Deep Time at Edinburgh Castle

One of the joys of living in Edinburgh is the Festival and Fringe. I had been brought up to avoid Edinburgh during August. I have discovered that it is in fact a joy.

Sure, it helps that I both live and work in the south side of town, meaning I can easily avoid the most manic elements of it if I so choose. But the cultural explosion has to be celebrated, especially when there is a relative shortage of culture in Edinburgh at other times of the year.

The Deep Time film, projected onto the castle, was a pure joy. Seeing Godspeed You! Black Emperor was also an incredible experience.

Anticipating Sigur Rós… #edintfest

A photo posted by Duncan Stephen (@duncanstephen) on

More of a let down, however, was Sigur Rós. I had fantasised about seeing this band for about 15 years, but it never happened for one reason or another. This time I made it happen. I ordered tickets for a large handful of friends, and I knew a small handful of others who went as well.

Our enjoyment of the first half of the concert was destroyed by the fact that the sound was bog-awful. (This was particularly disappointing since, in the same venue, the sound at the Godspeed concert was impeccable — Godspeed being a very loud band.)

By the time my brain stopped rattling inside my head due to the ear-piercing bass, my mood was foul. All in all, I felt like I was watching a band well past its prime.

After the concert finished and I had left the venue, I realised I needed to go to the loo, so I popped into the pub next door. There I bumped into a couple of my friends who had been sitting in another section of the venue. They revealed that they were so bored that they left early to have a pint.

Turning 30

When you are really young, you always wish you were a little bit older. Each year older brings you a bit more responsibility, wisdom and knowledge. You’re allowed to do more stuff. Getting older is fun.

This year I turned 30. It’s the first time I have not wanted to get older. It’s true that by the time I was in my mid 20s it was already difficult to see what extra legitimacy I would gain by getting older by a year.

But turning 30 is a whole other ballpark. It is practically over the hill. That was a mental barrier too far. I didn’t really feel like celebrating it. But the great people in my life wouldn’t have that.

Alex and I went to Berlin together in early March, partly to celebrate my birthday. Later in the year, Alex pushed me to go to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with my brother Gordon. Both trips were brilliant.

Driving experience at Knockhill

Best of all, my wonderful friends all chipped in to buy me a driving experience at Knockhill Racing Circuit, along with another friend whose birthday is at the same time of year. This is not something I would have ever bought myself, and nor would I have asked for it. But I was thrilled to have been given it. Isn’t that the best sort of present?

My friend and I both booked the same day at Knockhill so we could experience it together.

We kicked the day off with a bit of karting as a warm-up.

Cars at the Knockhill driving experience

For the experience itself, we began with three laps in a Honda Civic Type R. Quite comically, the cars were decked out in garish liveries because Kaiser Chiefs had used them to film a music video at the circuit.

I don’t know much about cars. It’s true that I love watching motorsport. But when it comes to actually driving cars, all I really care about is getting from A to B.

But I have to say that driving the Honda Civic Type R was an awesome experience. The acceleration was amazingly powerful, yet I felt immense confidence going through the corners.

After being taken round in a people carrier by the instructor, it was time to be let loose in a Formula Ford car.

Me driving the Formula Ford car at Knockhill

We had been watching these go round before it was our turn, and there was one car in particular that had horrendous-sounding screeching brakes. Alex said she hoped I didn’t get that car. Of course, I did.

I found using the gears quite tricky — an H-pattern that was controlled by a thin metal lever. But even though the brakes sounded awful, they felt good.

I thought it would be difficult to lose control of the car. Sure enough, lap after lap I sought to take things closer to the edge. Each lap became increasingly exhilarating. (That was, until I caught up with someone who wouldn’t let me past.)

Weddings

I have reached the age where weddings are becoming a more frequent occurrence.

Laura and Gordon getting married

Most delightfully, my brother Gordon got married to his long time partner Laura.

Me giving a speech at Gordon and Laura's wedding

“Try the veal.”

They absolutely won at choosing a venue. The wedding took place at the West brewery in Glasgow. Not only was this a really cool place to have a wedding, it also meant that effectively we had a piss-up in a brewery. How could it go wrong?

I was very honoured to give the best man’s speech on behalf of Gordon’s four groomsmen. I couldn’t be happier for Gordon and Laura.

Running

This year I took up running.

I gave it a shot before when I was still working in St Andrews. Back then I had to drive to work, when I would have preferred to walk more. So running was a way for me to get a bit of fitness into my daily routine.

However, halfway through the couch to 5k regime I got my job in Edinburgh. The pattern of my day changed, I cycled to work instead, and that was that.

But when we moved to Morningside, I was within walking distance of work. I’ve always wanted a half hour walk to work, and this was exactly what I now had. Cycling to work made no real sense, because it saved no time and was more hassle. So cycling became an occasional leisure activity instead.

Eventually it became clear that walking for two hours a day wasn’t enough. Shortly after moving to Edinburgh I started putting on some weight. I have been lucky that I have never really had to keep an eye on my weight so far, but when I turned 30 it did begin to feel like I was losing control slightly.

When I returned home from my trip to Le Mans, one of the first things Alex said to me was that I looked like I had lost a lot of weight while I was away. This didn’t make much sense to me. While we had done a fair bit of walking around the circuit, we also spent a lot of the time in the car, or on the ferry. And we sustained ourselves with junk food and bad lager.

If I could lose weight by accident, it suggested that something about my lifestyle in Edinburgh was making me less fit. So I got back onto the couch to 5k regime.

I can’t recommend the couch to 5k approach enough. There are plenty of free podcasts and apps that will get the timings right for you.

Initially I was worried that running would be difficult and painful. But couch to 5k does a brilliant job of building up your stamina gradually. I’m amazed that I now routinely run 6km in 29 minutes, three times a week.

I’ve lost a good amount of weight, and I feel much fitter; I no longer get tired out so easily.

Rejoining the Liberal Democrats

The Brexit vote took me by surprise. It woke me up to the need to remain active in the quest to promote fundamental values of openness, tolerance and unity.

I am a liberal, and I think fundamentally I always have been. I have almost always voted for the Liberal Democrats. I worked as an intern at Willie Rennie’s office when he was an MP, and I joined the party then as well.

I allowed my membership to lapse when the Liberal Democrats entered into the UK coalition government. That wasn’t particularly because I was opposed to the coalition. In fact, I thought it was the best option on the table by some margin. I admired the party’s stance in entering coalition. And although I know this puts me in a minority, I’m actually a big supporter of Nick Clegg.

But I allowed my membership of the party to lapse because I generally think that governments are for opposing, not supporting. Moreover, towards the end of the Lib Dems’ time in government — and facing a crisis of support — it began to feel like the party had lost its way and needed to think about what it stood for.

Under Tim Farron’s leadership, their purpose has been well and truly found.

In 2016’s grim political climate, the Liberal Democrats are the only party promoting liberal values of openness and tolerance that I wish to pursue. All the other parties seek to promote fear and point the finger at certain races or certain classes.

This year has convinced me that it’s not enough to sit back and expect things to be all right. When so many others are fighting so hard to promote their narrow-minded worldview, it’s time to fight back.

Merry Christmas

I finish this post from my sick bed. For the first time in my life, I have succumbed to a winter vomiting bug. The onset was a most unpleasant and disturbing experience.

I have not been able to eat anything for two days, save for a couple of small slices of French bread and four mini oatcakes. What is incredible is how I don’t feel remotely hungry. However, I feel like I am regaining my energy and I hope to be eating again tomorrow.

Bug aside, I have been having a good Christmas. I am spending it in Cellardyke with Alex’s family, which is always great fun.

And at least having the bug has forced me to rest, which I might not otherwise be capable of doing.

Me carrying the Christmas tree home

I hope you all have a good Christmas.

2 comments

  1. WEST is an excellent wedding venue, but then I am biased on that score…

    Happy new year, Duncan! These posts may be few and far between, but it’s always good to catch up with you and read about how you’ve been getting on. Hope the bug has cleared up somewhat, and you’re entering 2017 in good spirits.

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