A meandering and not at all comprehensive roundup of 2023


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Musings
Vegetable sprouts

Let’s call this one Heather Wrapped. It has no privacy-invasive statistics.

I’ll publish my 2023 reading roundup another day.

Work

I was out of work for almost exactly an entire year: 51 weeks, to be exact. Then I got multiple freelance contracts in one week, and no I’m not joking. After shouting FUCK’S SAKE a lot, I got right back to work.

I wasn’t planning on ever going back to freelancing. After all, I did that for 13 years. I liked the simplicity of one job, where other people dealt with the overheads, and where a set amount of money appeared in the bank on a specific day each month. (Like, wow!) However, the freelance gigs that came up were too good to refuse. And once I dug into them, they offered a bit of necessary perspective.

The full time employment jobs I had during the pandemic years were, um, not great. I’m being diplomatic here folks. They were remote-only jobs, meaning no physical or human contact. I know lots of people who work for brilliantly led remote working companies. These companies choose remote working because they want to get the best out of their staff. I got stuck working for companies who chose remote working because they fucking hate their staff, and don’t ever think twice about showing it.

So for me, I had two jobs where I got a Macbook in the post and returned a Macbook in the post and never once met anyone I was working with. Technically, I had one in-person team meeting in three years, which was watching six born and bred white Scottish men with only three names sitting around a golf course hotel talking about how they were all going to become overnight crypto billionaires. Not exactly my scene.

In those jobs, there was no sense of teamwork or cameraderie to make up for the sterility of remote working. Even on a good day, those workplace cultures, such as they were, were deeply dysfunctional and, latterly, deeply dodgy.

Now, with my current gigs, I feel like I’ve emerged out of a dark cave into the daylight. There’s simply no comparison between the healthy and engaged workplace cultures I’m experiencing now, even as a freelancer, versus the mediocre dysfunction of the roles that paid a steady monthly wage.

In other words, what’s there about employment to miss?

So for now, I’m delighted to report that my current client load includes some of the best, smartest, and most hardworking people I’ve encountered in decades. I’m loving all my work, and my clients, and hope we can continue that through the year.

I will have some capacity starting around March, so get in while you can.

Not Work

My long spell of unemployment meant constantly searching for jobs and writing difficult applications, which in my line of work often required things like writing sample policy briefs or answering hypothetical questions. In all that time, I didn’t even get an interview. It was physically and emotionally exhausting.

By late spring, my finances (or lack thereof) necessitated me signing onto Universal Credit, the UK’s unemployment benefit, which is a whopping £368.74 per month before the penalty deductions (which I’ll rant about in a minute.) That money isn’t free: it requires weekly physical appointments at the Jobcentre (the UK’s unemployment bureau). Those appointments are not designed to help you get a job. They’re designed to wear you down, emotionally and psychologically, in order to kick you to the absolute rock bottom of accepting any menial job so that you hit those government targets.

To wit, at my very first meeting, Jobcentre boomer woman #1 said that given how long I’d been out of work, I should be stacking shelves or scrubbing toilets. She actually said that, in those words. Having ticked that box, she spent a month haranguing me to look for office manager (i.e. secretarial) jobs, on the basis that I had extensive work experience and also had, as she put it, “computer skills”.

She then passed it over to Jobcentre boomer woman #2 who tried a different tactic: she told me that I could cope better with the stress of unemployment if I, and I quote, “get another partner”. She actually said that. A woman said that. In the year of our deity 2023.

So that’s where my time and energy went during the spring and summer: applying for ridiculous nonsense jobs to tick boxes and keep the Jobcentre happy and keep my £316 per month coming in for, you know, food.

You’ll notice, there, that I had £52 deducted from my unemployment benefit per month. Let me tell you why, because it’s the one thing from my time in the system that I remain livid about:

That deduction was because my child has a bedroom.

In 2013 the UK – under the Tories, of course – put in a policy which became known as the “bedroom tax”, in which tenants of social housing receiving public benefits, such as unemployment, are penalised for having an unoccupied spare bedroom. I believe the original intent was to nudge older people who are rattling around empty family houses to downsize and free up the space for actual families, but it never worked that way in practice.

And so it came to pass that my kid’s room, in the eyes of the benefits system, was classified as a “unoccupied spare bedroom”.

Which it’s not: it’s my kid’s room. However. My kid is a free range teenager who drifts between her parents’ two homes as and when she pleases. (Have you ever tried telling a grumpy teenager, who is substantially taller than you, where to go? I wouldn’t recommend it.)

But like all human beings, including you and me, said teenager can only have one legal registered address. It happens that her legal registered address is her dad’s house. Which means that her room, at my house, does not count as her bedroom.

Hence my having an “unoccupied spare bedroom” which was penalised with a £52 deduction out of my unemployment benefits.

And when you’re out of work, that is A LOT.

I appealed to the DWP, explaining that it’s not an unoccupied spare bedroom, it’s a bedroom occupied by – as it was this year – an extremely stressed out teenager studying for her Highers. My appeal was turned down. Her physical presence did not matter. As far as they were concerned, it’s an “unoccupied spare bedroom”. Them’s the rules.

So that’s how I learned that if you’ve had the audacity to end a bad relationship and create a better life for yourself under a different roof, you get punished for it.

You get punished for giving your child a bedroom.

As always, I am glad that I had that real experience with the system. It showed – as if we needed any more evidence – just how deeply the Conservatives’ contempt for young people runs. They don’t just marginalise young people: they dehumanise them. They tell you, in black and white, on DWP letterhead, that a child in her bedroom is not a child in her bedroom. The bedroom does not count. The child does not count. And your petulant insistence otherwise will get you slapped with a £52 penalty per month. That, there, is the kind of experience that the “won’t somebody think of the children!” luvvies of the policy world won’t ever know. And, for all their wealth, they’re all the more poorer for that.

I am very glad to be out of that system.

Closing the book

In December 2022, I finally got to unbox my own book, nearly three and a half years after I signed the contract to write it.

Every author spends months imagining this moment. Here was mine.

That, sadly, was the only thing to celebrate. The book was a total flop. It didn’t even shift 500 copies. I received two emails from readers who loved it. And that was it.

Obviously I have mixed feelings about the work – which is to say, the three years of crushing stress – that I put into the book. Not least because I actually wrote it twice.

The first version (the 2019-2020 draft) had to be scrapped after, one, the pandemic instantly rendered the manuscript completely outdated, and two, the editor I was initially assigned neither read the draft nor informed me they were no longer employed by the publisher. It was impossible not to take that personally: when you write and submit a book that no one even bothers to read nor communicate with you about, how else are you meant to feel? It then took a full two years after that to rewrite the book from scratch and to get a better team into place.

All that time, I felt the book’s presence – and absence – crushing down on my shoulders every waking minute. All for nothing.

I remain proud of what I had to say, and grateful to the final team that saw it through to completion. I’m also grateful to those folks who read the book.

But was it worth it? No.

Would I write another book? Only under very different circumstances.

To close the book on the book, I read “On Writing and Failure” by Stephen Marche, which is a sort of hairdryer broadside for professional writers. It’s the kind of book that you find yourself nodding along to even while the rest of you contorts in pain. Marche explains that the failure wasn’t just the point – it’s the life I signed up for. He’s absolutely right. “On Writing and Failure” is the dark side of your muse slapping you around for a few hours and then sending you back on your way, to do whatever it is you’re meant to be doing, having closed the book for good.

On the plus side, in the autumn of this year, my book was included in a charity Humble Bundle, which caused my abovementioned teenager to actually approve of something I did.

More writing

Speaking of the muse, my blogging reflected the brain fog of job searching. As soon as I got to work again, words started pouring out of me like water. I’ve only published a few of those so far (the longest one being my memoir of 9/11), but I might well be looking for a few creative freelance writing opportunities in the new year.

For now, if the muse hits me in a supermarket aisle, as it does, I create a note on my phone and obey. And my muse is loving what it’s contracted to write, which you’ll see in the new year.

You have got to be kidding?

Nearly four years after I retired from supporting open source communities after getting tired of being dragged into their psychodramas, various people who haven’t seen me in well over four years contacted me to…try to drag me back into the very same psychodramas.

Which suggests they learned nothing then, and haven’t learned anything since.

Productivity

My productivity hack of the year was the “Send to Kindle” extension on Firefox. Anything that qualifies as a long read, or requires proper concentration beyond yet another browser tab, gets the Send to Kindle treatment. The extension strips away all extraneous formatting, leaving you with nothing but glorious plain HTML, which pops up ready to read in the Kindle app.

But rather than putting work stuff on my leisure reading Kindle, I nabbed a 2021 model Samsung Galaxy Tab on clearance, and turned it into a pure focused reading device. I stripped out all apps aside from Firefox, Kindle (see?), and my notetaking app. The productivity boost was instant.

Everyone should set up a focused reading device which does just that and nothing else: it’s so worth it. Seriously, go get a clearance tablet in the sales and strip it down. Go. Go now.

Travel

After that long spell of remote-only work for bad employers, a proper freelance client put me to proper work. That meant I got on a plane again for the first time since before the pandemic. I am delighted to report that everything in Europe is right where I left it.

That being said, I realised how rusty I was when I staggered into a Brussels hotel breakfast buffet at 6:30 AM, being very Scottish – that is, in jeans and no makeup – and was nearly deported on the spot. I promise I will never make that mistake again.

I also resumed my good old west coast main line Glasgow – London shuttle. Londoners remain baffled at the concept of the west coast main line. Euston remains my Waterloo.

Gaming

This was the year I discovered Suzerain, which is basically Choose Your Own Adventure for GenXers who grew up to be policy wonks. It is an incredibly complicated text-based political simulator requiring you to run a country, which is loosely based on 1950s Turkey, and everyone and everything in it. That includes managing about 24 characters, 23 of whom have a knife aimed at your back. Apparently there are 900,000 words in the text, covering every possible scenario resulting from every possible decision you make in every possible policy area: the economy, defence, education, law and justice, health, infrastructure, international relations, the media, your party, your family, the salad.

Don’t rush through the salad. It could cost you. See, that’s how layered the game is. Your choice of a side dish, at a VIP dinner with people whose support you need, won’t just reveal your class origins: it will shape your guests’ opinion of you. Everything in this game has a political consequence. Even salad.

Me playing Suzerain

What I love about Suzerain, and what makes it so challenging, is that there are no “wins”. As with the real world of politics, everything you choose is a tradeoff which gets you ahead in one area and pulls you back in another. After 9-12 hours of gameplay spanning four years of your administration, you may retire in triumph to your vineyard. You may get your country nuked. Or you may achieve something in the middle. How will you lead?

Telly

It’s not often that a show comes along that pushes all of your buttons, but this year I had two.

The bestest friend ever <3 introduced me to “For All Mankind” on AppleTV, and I’m now obsessed with it. I love alternative history, I love space geekery, and I love complicated characters, and oh my god does this show deliver all of that. It’s just so good, in every area – plots, writing, characters, politics, sci-fi, history, and all the little details that shape them – that it’s often hard to take in the scope of what you’ve just seen. I won’t offer any spoilers, as it’s definitely a word of mouth show, so just consider this you told. Don’t pass over the bonus content, in the AppleTV app, of broadcast news reports from the show’s alternative history timeline. As fictional as they are, there’s so much to learn from them.

I also went mad for “Andor” on Disney+, which is a very dark and complex political drama which just happens to be set in the Star Wars universe. At some point during the Scottish scenes, the reason hit me: you could make a case for the show being a Scottish and Irish cast retelling The Troubles, but set a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. (As proof? Just you try being from this part of the world, and getting through episode 12, without hyperventilating.) And those three monologues, my god, they could sustain me for life.

As for what’s really important

I had a disastrous year for jams and jellies (sorry Jenny!), a better year for growing my own veg, and an outstanding year for wild foraging. I love how I’m in a Parliament building one day and picking wild berries back home 24 hours later. It keeps me grounded.

Here’s some I made into jelly earlier – well, here’s the 2/3rds I left for the birds. That’s the rule. This year I learned to recognise the birdsong they sing when you’re bringing them food, and I learned to recognise the birdsong they sing when you’re taking only what you need and no more.

We get along, the birds and me.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.

2 Comments

  1. Heather, it has been a delight to read your blog posts this year – I stumbled across your page after looking for some blog posts on the new Online Safety Act (and you’re quite right to not share any more details on this!) but really enjoyed your writing style & the persona that is presented in your writing.

    Looking forward to what the next year holds for you, and reading all about it.

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