Wednesday 5 August 2020

Living with cancer, chemo, lockdown and work

Moving from a position of being self-employed to working for someone else is something of an adjustment. Going from having control and responsibility of absolutely everything to having little stress but cow-towing to the organisation takes a little personal adjustment. Of course, having gained a job in a role that excited me and that I found enjoyable eases that quite a lot. Never-the-less it is an adjustment that I had been warned may be tricky, that warning was heeded and in the end I thought I did rather well.

Times of difficulty shows a lot about a person and an organisation alike. My huge experience across many fields of engineering, business, academia and an analytical mind brings a powerful but debilitating sense of overview; the straight jacket of employment restricts the full use of that experience. As COVID unfolded I took an interest in the statistics and knew that something huge was happening. When in an organisation where I was not part of the driving force, and clearly wasn't ever going to be, it is not a surprise as to what eventually happened.

As COVID hit, despite being able to help my employer find the solutions, I was simply furloughed. As this whole thing unfolded, it has occurred to me, by looking at many different inputs from both people I know and wider business community, the businesses that didn't simply take the handout, but worked out how to maximise on what could be a powerful opportunity, are the ones that are coming out on top.

My graph from the official Government figures.
I've added a rate of change trend.
If above 0 on the right hand side cases are increasing.
It doesn't take an idiot to see we are heading for further lock-down.
I haven't mention BrewDog for a while. I have to admit that possibly one of my biggest business mistakes was to look too much to them rather than finding my own way. I could also be disgruntled on a personal level about the leg-up I gave Equity for Punks in the early days, but now seem to be ignored by James, but I still drink their beers regularly and visit their bars when I can. One cannot ignore the powerful business success that is BrewDog and I am fairly sure I am now vindicated for seeing how brilliant those guys are at business. The reason they are brilliant is because every disaster is turned very cleverly into an opportunity.

I'm going to give a huge shout-out to my friend Andy Mogg at LemonTop Creative. They used to do all the design for the bottle labels when we ran the brewery. I'd have sent more work his way had we managed to be able to afford it.To this day I worry if actually we'd have done better if we sent more his way. It's a business consideration. Can you afford to do something, or is it a case of irrespective of the cash, can you afford not to do something really important.

From the business point of view of my employer I disagreed with my furlough and that view has become much stronger in hindsight. Despite furlough, I decided that to ensure my skills were improved and for the good of my mental health, I embarked on improving my "shack"1 and built electronic stuff. It is what I do now, and I'll do it even if I cannot make money from it.

During furlough the isolation was difficult to cope with. There was no communication from my employer which I found difficult and from my perspective irresponsible on their part. I was naturally concerned about my long term employment. To add to that I lost both my step-father and my father to COVID both within a very short period of time3.

This was all happening as I was becoming ill and investigations were underway to find out what exactly was going on. By the time I got my diagnosis I had probably already come to terms with my situation. Of course when faced with impending bad news finding excuses that might explain something more benign keeps a sense of positiveness, but when eventually I was told I had cancer it was no surprise at all. The initial prognosis was a little bit of a shock, but we, Ann, Fran, Alfie and Sarah were determined to be positive and I have these people in particular to thank for their help.

That positiveness perhaps shocks people. It is interesting at first that the overall feelings are something quite third person. It is almost as if it is happening to someone else. Numb, some people might say, but I find that description far too simple. As best I can describe it is an emotional out-of-body feeling. This does mean that telling people creates much more shock and upset in the person being told than it does to me. Unfortunately there isn't an easy way to explain to someone that you have cancer, and I apologise to my readers if these writings cause any upset.

I have promised triumph and disaster. You may be wondering where the triumph is. Don't worry, it is here, and it's going to be powerful if I have my way.

It starts with my first round of chemo. Obviously I was scared of the chemo. I was scared of the potential side-effects, but equally I was scared of the cancer too and of how I might die. More than that I was becoming annoyed at having my life plans taken away from me. I have a bucket list and much on it requires me to be fit and well and to be so for a number of years and to work hard at having the money to do so. All of that has been taken away from me. My immediate cause of concern though was that if the chemo didn't work, or I wimped out, I'd stand a chance of my oesophagus closing up and not being able to eat. This was certainly more scary than the chemo, because at the end of the day I had been given control.

"Can I stop it if I want at any time?" I asked Dr Fyfe.

"Yes, any time you want. And if I think it is not doing you any good I'll stop it" he replied.

I felt a sense of relief having only just agreed to going ahead and knowing that helped me through the next week waiting for the start.

"In fact if you just want to go off on holiday you can pause it if you like"

Just being in control improved my sense of dread. To hell with it then, I am going to get through. This chemo has to work, or at least I have to give it my best shot.

So the following Monday I had some bloods taken to make sure I was healthy enough. I also had an ultrasound cardiogram. I was declared well-fit and quite ready to be poisoned. By the Tuesday, whilst still very apprehensive, I was also as psychologically prepared as I think it is possible to be for such a thing.

They filled my blood system with a set of drugs. It took about three hours or so. There were some immediate side-effects, namely tingling in my fingers, mostly when my hands get cold. Keeping warm helps that a lot. About a week in I found that there was some nausea, but I found chocolate helped that. Drinking cold drinks for the first week isn't really possible, so sadly beer is out.

I found that other than that I felt good. I was going for long walks, going for a run, although much more than 5k seems to be difficult and generally I get along with life.

I had been getting disturbed that I hadn't heard from my employer other than seeing my furlough money go into the bank. I wanted to prove I could get back to work. In fact it became quite important to me to prove that part of my life-plan was not dead. I decided to email the management with ideas and perhaps some truths that might have been too brutal. I genuinely believe I was giving sound business advice based on experience that was broader than the current team could possibly understand.

I had also become quite aware that cancer is defined as a disability and my employer must make reasonable adjustments to allow me to be able to work, so I threw a few ideas into the pot about that. No reply. I became concerned that come the beginning of August I might be out of a job as my employer would become liable for some of the costs of me being on furlough. Added to that I had become convinced that they could fail to see how useful I could be to them. I still wonder if I was too bold, or perhaps not bold enough.

Meanwhile the pains in my abdomen subsided and my appetite started to come back. I started to put on weight and felt better than I had since around February, and thinking back perhaps at any time in 20204.

"It's probably just the steroids" Claudia suggested when she called me a few days into my first cycle "They reduce swellings and kick-start appetite"

I had told her to be truthful with me, and at that time it was clearly right to make sure I didn't get too excited. I was on a course of 4 days of steroids initially to help reduce nausea. It is true they do add a bit of energy and at the start of the second cycle, when my first dose of steroids are given IV, but on that occasion in the afternoon, I was wired in the evening. Claudia's comment was a bit of a knock-back.

As the cycle progressed my condition continued to improve. I came off analgesia completely and could eat without any problems at all. Indeed it turns out eating is the solution to preventing nausea in my case. I was becoming hopeful, but aware of Claudia's reservations.

My bloods just before cycle 3.
Still OK apparently, but they have deopped.
Just before the start of cycle 2 we met Dr Fyfe again. The mood was tangibly up-beat and very enthusiastic. I was asked how I felt and I reported that I really felt fit. The almost headmaster-eque Dr Fyfe of the first meeting was replaced with someone who seemed rather more excited about my progress than I was. Indeed he almost seemed like that little kid who was suggesting the rather naughty thing that had gotten you in front of the headmaster in the first place.

"The full results of the biopsy shows that it isn't TIPE2 which means it isn't aggressive"

At least I think that is what he said5. Sarah and I tried to understand the technical implications of this after the meeting, but as Dr Fyfe seemed excited we decided that it was good news anyway. We enthusiastically agreed, that naughty Dr Fyfe and I, to carry on with the poisoning.

So, good news from the hospital, carry on with chemo because it is obviously working. I felt great and wanted to go back to work. Surely no news from my employer must also be good news. I was getting bored and anyway my radio construction projects were costing a lot of money and I can't afford not to work.

As August approached I knew something would change regarding my employment. So it was then my employers HR officer, who had perviously been furloughed too, phoned up to make an appointment to come and see me. Perhaps it would be about making reasonable adjustments due to my disability. Perhaps I was to be made unemployed; surely not, that could be seen as discriminatory.

But unemployed was indeed what I was made.

Ah well, onwards and upward. Just need to sort out my pension then.

Then I have plans, lots of them.


1A Shack is the room, or shed, or other dry and preferably warm place where geeky radio people like me hide from their XYL and harmonics.They are places where huge amounts of ingenious creative activity occurs, its just that once observed that creativity looks a bit like pissing around to avoid the washing up or watching a romcom romantically on the sofa.

2In radio talk YL = young lady, XYL = Wife or significant other. Harmonics are the smaller inconveniences that occur if you accidentally leave the shack and go to bed while the YL or XYL is still awake. Harmonics are generally an inconvenience in a transmitter output but can be considered useful if deliberately generated before filters if frequency multiplication is required. Harmonics of both the radio and organic type often cause QRM, or unwanted noise and should be attenuated at every opportunity. I refrain from commenting on any QRM that YLs or XYLs might generate.

WARNING, running a YL and XYL at the same time in close proximity can generate IMD, which can be most unpleasant.

3As the terrible situation unfolded my step father ended up in hospital. He seemed to have some sort of infection as far as we could tell, but not COVID. Initially before lockdown we were permitted to visit, but I was fairly sure, looking at the statistics, we should not have been allowed. On the one occasion we did visit the ward was crowded and it was clear to any idiot that it was a potential hotbed of infection. It is not appropriate to chart his medical journey, but as lockdown happened and he potentially could have been getting better he contracted COVID and sadly passed away.

Meanwhile my father was in a home. He has not been well for a number of years and as his health deteriorated it is questionable as to whether he had any quality of life. This is contradicted by the fact that when visiting him it was still possible to get a smile, even though he became a shadow of the rather eccentric, outspoken, infuriatingly stubborn but lovable man that he was. He too contracted COVID and died the day before my step father's funeral. Thankfully we did manage to bury him at Wasdale Head Church and we, his sons and grandchildren, are very happy we could at least do that.

4The side effects of the chemo were significantly less inconvenient than my cancer symptoms had become and so it remains, even as I now brush up this post I am into my third cycle and typing is a little troublesome with the tingling. There is also some trembling in my hands, which only lasts a day or so, but is inconvenient. After about day 7 I become quite well and very able to do almost anything, save for COVID issues, a permanent PICC line that needs care and risk of injury or infection due to dropping blood cell counts.

5We haven't been given any new statistics. I am assuming I am well out of the 30% risk zone. I am assuming that because my health is otherwise very good and my bloods, whilst dropping, are holding up, I shall have improved chances over the stats. I am coping with the chemo very well and keeping up exercise, which Dr Fyfe says is of benefit. I'm also not that old. Who knows?

Monday 3 August 2020

The Diagnosis

An SMT board I designed and built at home
I think I was in third year of secondary school, what we now call year 9. It must have been as my form tutor and physics teacher was the same person.  He was a significant influence on bringing my academic abilities a bit closer to my potential and I shall remain eternally grateful for his contribution to my journey. I went to him with an interesting article I had found in some sort of electronics enthusiasts magazine. It was, for it's time, something of a wonder. A little mouse like contraption that had whiskers and light sensors, driven by two little motors to its wheels with a skid steer action. If one of the whiskers detected an obstacle the motor on the other side would drive in reverse to move away from the obstacle. It also had light sensors underneath so the device could follow a white line on the floor. The circuitry for the time, about 1978, was quite complex and contained both NPN and PNP silicon transistors.

I was fascinated by the circuitry and had gone to this teacher for an explanation of its workings and to see if there was a chance we could build a version. He told me to see Mr Harvey, who ran an after school electronics club. The rest, as they say, is history and Mr Harvey quickly pipped my form tutor to the accolade of best teacher ever, but only just.

Someone else's design, PCB professionally made, populated by me
We never built the mouse, but instead played around with BC108 transistors and light dependant resistors to create magic circuitry. Bistable multivibrators built from discrete components and even progressing to use things like 555 timer ICs1, which to my surprise are still in use today. Later I became familiar with operational amplifiers, or more often known as op amps. Halcyon days.

During this time I also became fascinated with radio. Superheterodyne receivers, antennas and even eventually transmitters.  Shortly after leaving school I passed my radio amateurs exam and became licensed, class B, to transmit on allocated frequencies above 144MHz with the call sign G6HEF. I never learnt morse code, but eventually the rules changed and I now hold a full licence and can transmit on any of the amateur frequencies.

When lockdown hit I took the opportunity to take my hobby seriously. Being an active person and raising a family, being distracted by beer and the hassles of running a business it had fallen into the category of retirement hobby. As lockdown prohibited going to the pub or walking the fells never mind rock climbing or alpine visits, effort increased significantly to look back at radio for my amusement. It was, after-all, self training for my career. I set up for SMT1 work at home and started to build various stuff for my hobby.

At first I was very enthusiastic, back in early April. I built various projects including a system to talk to people through a geostationary satellite. However, I became increasingly tired and in some pain. I lost 10kg, lost my appetite and generally felt really quite unwell. I thought I had caught covid, but this continued for some weeks until eventually I knew something else was wrong when abdominal pains became quite intolerable.

I phoned the GP who very quickly referred me to a specialist at the hospital.  Within days I had an appointment for a CT scan with "highlights". I would have been scoped4, but covid prohibited that. The scope department was not accepting any patients. I was to be spared that unpleasantness.
My 2.4GHz transmitting and 10GHz receiving satellite system

A few days later, the start of a series of really bad days, I got a surprise call from the scope department to make an appointment for a gastric scope. Unfortunately the poor secretary had beaten the consultant, who had only minutes before ordered the procedure without talking to me. I was upset and shocked and told the woman that there was a mistake, this wasn't what I was told would happen. She said she would go back and check.

Later the consultant phoned me. I had, it seemed, some thickening of my stomach walls and some irregularities to the lining of my abdomen. I really needed to have this scope so they could take some biopsies.

I then got a call from Claudia. The upper GI specialist nurse. By this time I knew that they were suspecting cancer. I told her I wanted full disclosure. She has not let me down in that respect. She warned me that the news was unlikely to be particularly fantastic, but that she would be there for me through thick and thin, whatever happened. She told me I needed a scan of my upper abdomen as anything further up would almost certainly rule out surgical solutions.

I had my gastric scope, twice actually. A word of advice if you ever have a scope. Take someone with you to drive you home and accept the magic diazepam, you will very probably not remember anything and this is the best thing to do. If they suggest not letting you have sedation tell them they are cruel and make a fuss if they even think of not giving you the maximum. Diazepam is wonderful stuff, just don't drive until the next day.

However, if they want you to have a scope, have one as soon as possible, it may save your life. It is quite possible I should have had one a few years ago but was too scared to go. The main reason I was scared was due to people telling me horror stories about the procedure without diazepam. Did I tell you to accept diazepam? Trust me, it really is an awesome drug.

A few days later I went for a CT scan of my chest. Later again Claudia phoned me to let me know that indeed they had found other things and that the biopsy had identified cancer. I needed to see Dr Fyfe urgently so the choices could be explained and statistics quoted. She warned me quite sombrely that things were not at all good.

They had found cancer cells in my oesophagus and my stomach. They identified the primary as being oesophageal but the primary was restricting the proper operation of my stomach as it had grown down over the top. Worse than that it appeared that there were secondaries in my lymph system. I had to admit it explained a lot of my symptoms.

I met Dr Fyfe and Claudia with Sarah my daughter. It was a very serious and earnest meeting. Without treatment I had months to live. The treatment on offer didn't work for 30% of patients, although if you included that 30% the median survival was 12 months as a national average, but 15 months for Furness General from diagnosis, but they were unable to offer any other statistics.

The chemotherapy might well be horrible, they told me. It was a gamble. It would attack my immune system and the nerves in my skin and larynx, might make me feel sick, or even be sick and my hands, feet and gums might develop sores.

Alternatively they could fit a stent and make me comfortable.

Bollocks to that I thought, and probably expressed something along those lines. Having already thought about it a lot it didn't take me long to opt for the chemotherapy.

"When do you want to start?" Dr Fyfe enquired.

"As soon as possible, with caveats" I replied, scared he might suggest today.

"Next week"

It was only Monday, gave me a week to mentally prepare.


He left the room and came back a few minutes later with an appointment for the following Tuesday.

I went home to write a will and start the process of moving pension money to a place I could get to it.

I had just turned 55, it was the end of May and I was now very scared about how many more birthdays I would get to see.

The next post will bring us right up to the present day. Will I turn out to be in the 30%? How will I afford to live? Will I be able to continue to work?

What exactly is it like living with cancer?

Once we have these very important questions out of the way we can then get on with more important business.


1IC = integrated circuit. A collection of transistors and resistors formed onto a single peice of silicone and encapsulated with connector legs known as pins. What most people know as silicone chips. They do make the job of an electronics engineer easier and is what has pushed the technology to the dizzying heights we know today.

2SMT = surface mount technology. When I first started in electronics almost everything was through hole components. PCBs (printed circuit boards) had all the components on one side and the leads of those components went through holes to be soldered onto the conductive tracks on the other side. Today the wise money, and to be honest even the stupid versions, all use SMT. This is where the tracks and the components are on the same side of the PCB. The components don't have wires, but instead have very short stubby connections that solder onto exposed pads on the PCB. Everything is smaller, more delicate and requires a much more steady hand, good eyesight and fine soldering iron bits. For complex ICs a hot air system is better. The technology lends itself very nicely to automated assembly, but not to ageing long-sighted people like me, especially as I found out after a night on the beers.

3a CT scan with highlights means hooking the patient up to a machine, via a cannula, to inject iodine whilst X-rays are used to image a three demential picture of the patients body. The iodine, being a relatively high atomic mass element but reasonably harmless biologically, helps to highlight structures that would not normally be visible with X-rays.

4They wanted to put a camera up my back passage. I've always been somewhat scared of scopes, not helped by some stories people have told me about their unpleasantness. They had assumed the problem was in my lower abdomen due to the precise symptoms I reported.

Sunday 2 August 2020

Electronics is the Solution

Beer is a solution. It is an aqueous solution of various carbohydrates, ethanol, alpha acids and volatile aroma compounds. Beer remains a very enjoyable drink for me but as far as being a solution to my financial needs on balance it has failed to be so. I still enjoy beer tremendously, but must accept it cannot be a career for me any longer.

Time has moved on significantly since we closed the Hardknott brewing experiment. I failed to find a way that I could satisfactorily make money and be able to stand by my aspirations. Therefore, by the end of 2018 it became imperative for me to find a way to make a living. There is a bit of a tale here and I think for the future of my writings I must bring his blog up to date. It is a bitter-sweet story of success and further failure. The future is where it is and I want to leave a positive legacy. I have learnt a lot through the pain of Hardknott, lost a lot of money, but gained significant experience and moved on to a new world. It will take several instalments to bring this blog to the present day.

Around the time we were winding up Hardknott we met a new friend, called Fran, who shared some interests. Fran has become an integrated part of my household and the story really cannot continue without introducing her. She was foolish enough at an early stage to agree to supporting my life-long goal of climbing Mont Blanc, and so it was in the Summer of 2018 that Fran, Ann and I spent 3 weeks in Chamonix training, acclimatising and eventually reaching the summit (4,808 m - 15,774 ft) of the highest mountain in Western Europe.

In the same year it became obvious to everyone inside Hardknott that we couldn't carry on, Scott left to join Fell Brewery1 and we made the final decision to move on.

I was unsure what the next step would be. Ann had the unenviable job of trying to liquidise our assets whilst trying to minimise our liabilities. In reality the costs of putting the industrial unit back to a point of being able to hand over to the landlord, the ongoing costs of renting the space and all the other overheads was barely, if at all covered by the sale value of the assets. We should really have declared bankruptcy, but due to an ongoing and debilitating sense of altruism that has plagued my business and because I wished for a solid credit rating, we decided to wind up the business cleanly and by paying what we believed we owed.

Meanwhile I set-to resurrecting my engineering career. I set up an electronics lab in the brewery, brushed up my skills with a bit of self-training and updated my CV. It was perhaps at the time a bit of a long-shot. My experience had been significant but my overall skill-set was perhaps a little bit out-of-date.

I applied for several jobs, updated my CV several times until eventually I was successful in an interview and landed a job as an Electronics Design Engineer. It was exactly what I was doing before I was silly enough to buy a pub. In all honesty the only reason I ever parked that career was because I failed to see how I could advance it without moving out of Cumbria. A combination of family ties and my love of the Lake District conspired to instigate a change of direction into the beer and pub industry.

If I can leave one lesson for other people to takeaway it is that although beer and pubs are great, it is hard work and you really need to invest a large amount of money, have a vision that is acceptable to a target audience that is large and accessible enough. Most importantly you must have a ruthless attitude to business to succeed. I may come back to this topic in some distant future time.

I started my new role in December 2018. Between then and COVID lockdown I learnt a lot, made some good progress re-floating my 14 years dead electronics career and was well on the way to being an awesome electronics design engineer. I was back. I was doing something I enjoyed. I had hope for the future and it was looking likely I could succeed in buying a house and saving for retirement. A massive turnaround from the low-point of my previous post.

(Back row, left to right) Fran, Ann and Alfie
(front) Sarah
In the spring of 2019 Ann, Fran and my "kids" Alfie and Sarah went back to the Chamonix valley for a skiing trip. It was largely great fun but among other disasters Fran snapped her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) very probably due to my poor instructing skills. This wiped out any mountaineering activities for the rest of 2019 while she had it repaired and then started the lengthy job of recuperation. We were really looking forward to getting back to the alps this summer.

Late winter, early 2020 I started to see the exponential growth of COVID in the UK. Seemingly I could see this before my bosses and seemingly even before the UK government. Lockdown was inevitable and was the start of a troubled time for everyone on the face of the planet.

However, for me, during lock-down a further dramatic series of events have left me with serious difficulties and some interesting opportunities. I find myself in a situation that I realise is poorly understood by people who are not in this position and I wish to share these experiences to try and help others who may find themselves in similar situations.

Shortly after the start of lockdown I became ill, at first I thought it was COVID2, and that may have also been at play, but it seemed something else was going on, so I contacted the doctor, and things moved on very fast indeed.

To be continued.........


1We remain good friends with Scott, who's brewing talent continues to go from strength to strength. Fell Brewery beers are extremely good and very much to my liking. I hope Hardknott has helped him to be where he is today.

2We all had symptoms and later Fran tested positive for the antibodies, so COVID did play a part.

Friday 17 July 2020

A most upsetting experience

I originally wrote this post somewhere in the spring of 2017. At the time we didn't feel it was appropriate to publish. Time has moved on and there are many things that have changed, obviously the closure of the brewery, but many other things too that may bring me back to writing. If you are friends with me on Facebook you will know.
Meanwhile it is time to tie up the loose ends with the brewery and move forward. This post describes possibly one of the most upsetting things I have ever decided that I must do.

Spring 2017

I don’t cry often. I guess it’s a blokey thing. I mean, it undermines any macho image one might have and probably has some sort of deep, long-engrained social conditioning. But sometimes, just sometimes, the need is there to really just weep buckets and damn what anyone else might think about the fact.
I was stood in the kitchen of the cottage. I felt cold. It looked like it was a functional kitchen, if in need of a bit of repair here and there. The fridge, it was suggested, didn’t work. The hob and oven, built in, probably did. The washing machine, which was too big for the space and so stuck out a little, apparently would wash clothes, but might leak a bit.
The owner of the said property had made some gallant efforts to clean the place. It looked good considering we had earlier claimed to not care a jot. The ground floor consisted of a kitchen and lounge in a semi-open plan format. If there was an open fire it would be cozy, but some idiot years before had removed the wall at the base of the chimney, presumably to make a little more space.
Heating was by a combination of storage heaters and electric wall heaters. God, I thought I had left this sort of primitive life behind. Growing up I remember cold winter days in a house heated solely by storage heaters. The only room that ever got warm in winter was the living room, and only then when we lit the open fire and had the flames roaring up the chimney. So, just on temperature alone I was feeling just a little bit underwhelmed.
Upstairs was a bathroom and two reasonable bedrooms. Fitted wardrobes and a double bed in each room meant we could move in at a drop of a hat. As it was we were due to move in imminently, possibly the next day. This was to be a new start, a solution to some fairly large problems. A chance to wipe a few slates clean and move on.
I felt a huge sense of sadness; only surpassed by the death of my Mother some 17 years ago. We were selling our lovely four bedroom, centrally heated house complete with fully fitted kitchen, large garden for the dogs, garage, en-suite master bedroom and enough space for me to have a “creativity” room, and as the kids had all but moved out Ann was likely to get her own space too; all quite lavish really.
We had recently increased our pet population from one crazy, energetic but incredibly intelligent and fairly well trained Collie dog called Jester by adding a slightly less well trained, rather strong and bullish, if very friendly Springer Spaniel called Teddy. They got on well, too well, nothing was safe from their romps and were very firmly banned from the living room as the TV and associated multimedia equipment that are trappings of a comfortable life were completely at risk of annihilation. These two boisterous adolescent dogs tried out play-fighting tactics well beyond any reasonable creature’s fatigue levels would have kicked in. The lack of a garden for them to run around in was by itself starting to fill me with dread.
The fact we had Teddy was in itself a symptom of what was really a very positive influence on my life. A recently new friendship was certain to make 2017 a hugely pivotal year. Life is bound to be different in many ways and there are some incredible positives that should be capable of making me very happy indeed. None-the-less I was filled with the biggest and most dramatic sadness. The old over-used cliché of having a heavy heart felt so apt. The feelings were tangibly physical and I really, really wanted to cry; I could find no other way of making myself feel better, but still that deep routed macho thing was holding on to it’s stupid street-cred engrained principles.
We had convinced ourselves that we didn’t need all our capital locked up in the house and huge, unserviceable and expensive debts in the brewing business creating losses that were inevitably likely to take us down. If we didn’t do something, as a result of the way our debts were structured, we’d risk loosing everything within a few months. Suppliers were loosing patience, some had already removed credit facilities and others had us on stop risking the halting of beer production. HMRC was owed some money, and that is always a bad position to be in.
A very good customer of ours owns the cottage. We sell them beer, we go into their pub and drink our beer just the way it should be. It’s a good pub, good beers, friendly staff, wholesome home-cooked food, great bunch of locals and Azimuth on-tap. The cottage front door is less than 8 seconds at a brisk run to the door of the pub. What is not to like?
We had mentioned to these good people that we might need a bolt-hole as we were due to sell our house. They have various properties and we just needed somewhere to rent. We agreed a mutually satisfactory rental and so planned to move in. We knew it wasn’t great, but just somewhere, for now, would do.
We were 48 hours away from completion. We still had a lot to do to get out of our house. We had moved some furniture to a friend who was a little in need and had moved some more to store in the brewery. I knew there was a mammoth task ahead of us to get it finished. We had not done anywhere enough packing, I guess because we really didn’t want to make the move.
I still felt cold. The cottage looked unbearably small. Where was I going to put all my guitars? The idea of setting up my baby grand piano in the centre of the kitchen, whilst possible, was clearly bonkers. Whilst we were at liberty to “borrow” bandwidth from the pub WiFi I knew it’d not be as good as our fiber broadband. Having cooked in a commercial kitchen, even the rather spacious and by domestic standards well-equipped kitchen we were leaving behind irritated me. The kitchen I was currently standing in was sure to drive me mad.
I don’t know if I said anything to Ann regarding my regret at having to make this unfortunate change of circumstance, but it felt like a huge fall from grace was in progress, and all because I decided to attempt to make an honest living out of a passion for beer. Ann was trying to console me, but to no avail. The despair just deepened and deepened. I still felt cold, the thick stone walls had yet to yield to the increasing spring temperatures outside and just prayed we would not still be there come the autumn, but had still to find that magic plan that would ensure we are not. The uncertainty about the business, our living arrangements and the general future just weighed very heavily.
“Let’s go home” I said, looking around in desperation for something to cheer me up. And then it came. I realized, this would be home very soon, and what I had just called home had already been emptied of large amounts of sentimentally precious stuff. I had yet to dismantle the glass-fronted bookshelf that survived in my Grandparents house through a V2 rocket attack in 1944. Once that was done the place was certainly not to be my home anymore.
I walked upstairs; mainly I think so as not to let Ann see my face. Daft really. Why on earth would she think worse of me? A grown man crying over a justifiably upsetting experience is probably, I expect, quite endearing to his partner. But cry I did.
Was it the thought of moving into this undeniably cold house, a house that was really just a little to small for our needs? A house that could be heated, without much trouble and anyway, summer is on the way. I’ve done this before and been very happy about it.
Ultimately no, it is the uncertainty of knowing where we are going with the brewery. This move is being made to free up capital to enable us to make the next step with the brewery. Relocate somewhere where we can more easily sell more beer.
And then, who in their right mind would sell their house,with over-saturation of breweries in the country, and significant price wars being raged driving down the wholesale price of beer below sustainable levels? Only a madman, am I right? Am I mad enough to risk my all? Here is the crux, I am not sure I am quite that mad.
To add to the mêlée of melancholy confusions I am left wondering where it has all gone wrong. Where did we fail with Hardknott? We were once the boldest and most progressive craft brewery in Cumbria. Perhaps we still were, but somewhere, commercially, there is a lot of work to do, and the beer-landscape filled me with a sense of doom. With an industry that is most certainly broken, and despite attempts to get great beer out to great people the barriers presented by legislation, taxation and dirty deals by bigger breweries leaves me uninspired.
I looked around upstairs and still couldn’t quite see where my guitars, stage piano and Mac were going to be accessible. By now I was really quite full of tears, and knew I had to just get out; no longer could I hide my total grief from Ann. Her attempts at consolation resulted in a frustrated brush-off from me. The instinct to be ashamed of my crying was still very still strong.
“We don’t have to do this” she said. “Yes we do” I replied with inappropriate anger.
I was angry with myself. How has this happened? How are we going to make things better? When will I again live in a reasonable house, which I own? Am I making a huge mistake in being dogmatic at keeping the Hardknott dream alive?

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Letting go

It is often difficult to accept defeat. Indeed, when one has been working on something for a long time it can be almost impossible to actually make that final decision that the end of that road has finally been reached. However, until that ultimate decision has been taken it can then also be difficult to move to the next phase; that part of life that doesn't contain the thing that is holding everything else back.1

One of our tanks - new value now close to £7k
We only want around £3k
I have been working on various solutions to keeping Hardknott alive. Mostly these consist of trying to find a partner, a brewing business that has holes in their makeup that we can fill, and in turn perhaps they would bring something to us that we lack. We have followed various leads, offered to talk and we've also approached some who we feel likely to be a good fit. Sadly this has not worked out and largely has lead us down blind alleys wasting time and resources we can not afford.2

I am certain that there are now too many breweries in the UK. There are some successes and those that have managed to get everything right will continue to flourish and grow. However, I firmly believe that the vast majority of breweries below the 5,000hl mark will find it difficult to find true sustainable success, that is unless there are some significant changes to the culture within the industry. My recent experiences searching for a solution to our own position I feel is proof of certainty of this.

Let me explain this in a little more detail. Below 5,000hl annual production profitability is extremely slim3. It's a sliding scale and closer one gets to this important number the more likely a brewery is to make profit, but that profit is still likely to only really satisfy an owners short-term living requirements. Below 2,000hl my research strongly points towards a loss making operation. What this means from a business valuation point of view is that within the range of brewery sizes we are talking about any exit strategy for the business owner looks poor. Making return on investment is highly unlikely without some sort of growth.

Consolidation is in my view the obvious answer to this. Critics of progressive beer duty as it stands points to a "cliff edge" at 5,000hl which it is claimed creates a negative incentive for mergers and acquisitions. I dispute that for various reasons. In actual fact the real barrier to such "normal" business activity seems to be in the very psyche of the owners of microbreweries. "This is my baby, we think we'll make this work all by ourselves" is a paraphrased and slightly exaggerated message I've heard now from the majority of people we've talked to.

Meanwhile there are also talents and passion being lost from the industry as people like me become disillusioned with the hopelessness brought about by the massive over-supply of beer and undervaluation of hardworking micro-brewers.

There are around 2,000 breweries in the country, the vast majority, around 1,400 of them, are below 5,000hl. Their total volume of production is currently around 1.3 million HL per year. If every single one of them were to produce 5,000hl per year we'd see them have to increase their total share of the market from around 3% to a whopping 16%. This stark and fairly scary thought omits to include that fact that if all 2,000 breweries wish to grow, as indeed we assume they do, then massive share of the market must be taken from both multinationals and regional brewers alike. This simply cannot happen as despite attempts to the contrary, and bluff from some quarters, the shape of the beer market hasn't really changed as much as we'd like to think it has.

In actual fact pointing a finger at those under 5,000hl is a bit unfair and it seems to me that no one in the brewing industry is really terribly interested in mergers and acquisitions until we get to the very biggest. Massive publicly listed breweries are snapping up some of the more successful brands, but unless I'm missing something very little is happening other than that.

My prediction is that most breweries will struggle to grow and therefore leave the owners without a plausible exit strategy. If you couple this with the realisation that no one is going to be laughing all the way to the bank, why then does anyone still plug away with the dream when the probability of burnt fingers is so high? It all leaves me somewhat confused.

Me, as a climber, free and happy
I spent 3 weeks in the French Alps this summer, something I would have failed to be able to do if I was trying to put in the effort I'd need to to make our business work. I achieved a life-long goal of reaching the summit of Mont Blanc, a story I shall get around to telling on here I expect4.

I have other life goals, and I'm working very hard on one right now which hopefully will realise itself in the next 6 months. However, to be able to fund these things I need to find a job that has nothing to do with beer. There simply isn't the money in this daft job to even survive, let alone make a decent living, unless I went to work for the enemy and I can't see me coping with that. So, my CV has been dusted off and is being sent out, back to engineering for me I hope.

This post is something of a "goodbye" to the beer industry. We really have had enough. The above description, be it inaccurate due to my jaded point of view or not, has lead me to the decision that all there is left for me to do is sell any remaining stock, of which there isn't much left, and dispose of assets for the best I can get for them, which sadly won't be anywhere near as much as I would like.5

This blog will remain, but is likely to wander completely off the subject of beer and pubs. I've been here long enough, seen the same old arguments come back around again and again and although things have changed, and I hope I've helped change things for the better, there is still an incredibly depressing inertia to new and radical things.

Leaving the summit of Mont Blanc (4810m ASL)


1Yes, that's right, we have given up completely. We're breaking down the brewery and selling everything we have. Look out for listings on the SIBA website and my eBay account. The best things we have are 6 x 2000 litre gross conical closed tanks which apparently costs close to £7000+VAT to buy new. We also have a 661 bottling line which hasn't been worked hard. We have various other bits of tanks and stuff, although with stainless steel being £900 a tonne to weigh in at my local scrappie some of it will be going that route.

2With due apologies to the businesses that we have actually started dialogue with and it has been us that have decided to walk away. There are numerous reasons why deals can sometimes fail of course. Sometimes it's timing, and where we chase one possible lead at the expense of another only to find the fist is a blind alley it can get very frustrating for everyone involved.

The point is that without enough businesses thinking truly about sustainability and personal long-term gain it becomes impossible to find suitable partnerships and I believe for the micro-brewing industry to prosper and fight much bigger foes a concerted effort to work together must be found.

3Of course there is always the brewery business that manages to also own pubs. Be it a brewpub style operation, a brewery with a tap room or a brewery that owns an estate of pubs, they all have powerful advantages over the stand alone brewery. My current advice is don't own a brewery unless you want to also own a route to market.

Why don't I do that? Put simply, been there and done that. The licensed retail is tough too.

4Indeed it was epic. After 14 years of being my own boss I've learnt a lot and I don't regret it for one minute, but many things have suffered and my passion for mountaineering has been left unsatisfied until now. Why climb? Because the emotions of reaching the top are incredibly powerful, especially when doing so without buckling to the increasing pressure to hire a guide.

"Dave, why am I crying?" asked Fran, which of course was a rhetorical question; when you've planned and dreamed and trained for such a thing for so long the happiness of achievement is incredibly emotional. I spoke to my GoPro, for the sake of the record "The summit of Mont Blanc" as I panned around to show that everything else within visible distance was indeed lower than us. There have been times I have questioned if I'd ever be there, and so I myself found it impossible to fight back the tears of happiness.

5"If our business spends £1 million on a pub the following day we will still have a pub worth £1 million pounds, and that asset is likely to appreciate" a well respected brewery director expains to me "If I convince the board to spend £1 million on brewery kit the day after installation it is simply has scrap value"

Actually, I'd say that there is a risk of brewery installations becoming liabilities as the costs of removal can sometimes be greater than value of any of the installed components. Although this is a smaller risk with microbreweries as second hand brewery equipment can easily be removed and normally has a better realisation of value on selling I know we have some significant costs to deal with to be able to hand back our building to the landlord.

Tuesday 5 June 2018

The real tie.

Getting micro-brewed beer onto keg taps in outlets is no easy task. It occurs to me that in actual fact this is a far greater barrier to growth of small independent craft breweries than PubCos or any other form of hard tie.

"There's been an interesting bloke on the phone" Ann informed me as I returned to the office "He's just bought a hotel and wants our beer"

At that point it seemed a reasonably ordinary enquiry and I assumed it was part of the usual irritating background noise that distracts me from my own job.

"OK, that's good" I replied, with a fairly thick layer of dismissiveness "Do go ahead and sell them some of our beer, after all, you are the sales department"1

"They want Space Hopper in keg" Ann persisted in breaking down the barrier to her information flow "the guy tried it in that place we sent a keg to the other week and really likes it. Likes the beer and likes the branding"

"Oh?" I replied "not cask, that's nice, but..... equipment?" she was starting to get through, a sale of keg to a new account was something that interested me.

Intergalactic Space Hopper at Haweswater
"He doesn't think he'd be able to serve cask beer as they have no cellar" ah, so that's going to see me heading off to sort something out in this place. "You need2 to go and look and see if they have the right things to serve our keg"

This was following on from a recent bad experience where we had installed a keg font in a pub and a few months later, when the manager changed, they then decided not to buy our beer anymore. I rushed to the pub immediately I discovered this to remove our equipment only to find a Marstons sales rep there trying to argue that my equipment in fact belonged to them.

So, I felt a little bruised and reluctant to spend the best part of £500 on another project of unknown outcome. Never-the-less I pitched up at this rather remote location on the shores of Haweswater in the Eastern Lakes.

That was over two years ago. I installed the tap I had removed from the previous pub and we've been merrily selling the place beer ever since and in enough quality to justify the effort and expense. It turns out that the new owner of the hotel is delightfully alternative in his outlook towards business.

They contacted me a couple of months ago as they were negotiating with suppliers of their major brand lager. It seems that they were being offered a cash lump sum for a two year exclusivity deal. They were being offered £2k cash to kick our Intergalactic Space Hopper off the bar. Apparently it isn't just one major beer producer that is doing this, it is most of the big multinational brands and is looking a little bit like a cartel and anti-competative action.

Now, Stephen the owner is no ordinary hotelier. He seems to have no intention of removing our beer, even with an incentive so great. John, who is dealing with most of nitty gritty, was simply contacting me to see if we could do anything to go someway to match the offer from the big boys. We considered for a while, contemplated taking over with our own exclusivity deal involving sourcing more artisanal lagers etc, but then our decision to stop brewing at Millom rather took over the situation. Indeed, the realisation that big multinational beer brands are actively tying up many routes to market in ways that we simply cannot commercially compete against was partly a catalyst to us deciding that we had to be drastic with our business progression.

£2k is roughly the annual value of this particular account. We cannot compete in this territory. It isn't about the small amount of extra revenue they are trying to buy, it's about keeping the growth of small producer keg off the bar fronts in run-of-the-mill outlets.

I firmly believe that growth of micro-brewing has to focus on gaining acceptance on the bar for keg. That has to be in your regular nominally free-of-tie pub, restaurants, hotels and similar. However it looks very much like the big multinational brewers have agreed a plan to make sure that we cannot make much progress into these areas.

I recognise a barrier, but to quote a famous person, we choose to do these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard". I just wish the rest of the beer world would wake up and realise that this is where the real effort should be targeted.

The good news is that as a result of us announcing our cessation of brewing at Millom we have been chatting a little bit more with Stephen and John. Interesting and supportive people with whom I hope we will continue to have business dealings with.


1It is entirely likely that as this is a while ago, and I'm grossly paraphrasing the actual conversation, that in actual fact I displayed high levels of irritation at the intrusion into my current thought train. It happens, I may have been in the middle of fixing something in the brewery, which does tend to put me in a less than ideal mode for receptive dialogue. It might also be the case that I was considering some wider beer-related issue that I felt required a blog post to be written, or a tweet replied to, or some such thing. On many days it happens that both things are occurring simultaneously and my mind often fails to complete either task with satisfactory levels of competence. The sales department keeping me abreast with micro-details of individual customers seems a waste of any remaining brain power that might be surplus to requirements. Thought train derailment I do find so frightfully annoying.

2I'm really working hard to remove this word "need" ... I'm sure it would be awfully useful, but no one is going to die as a result of it not happening.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Cafe, culture, cats and craft beer

"Is that a problem?" replied Luke to the lady's question. "Well yes, I can't be in the same room as cats, and they know it"

"There is Poppi Red across the street there, they serve really nice coffee and cakes" Luke rather charmingly replied, quite deftly and politely dealing with the issue. Me? I thought the lady a bit daft and I might have been tempted to question exactly what she expected when the sign outside clearly said "Cafe Culture Cats" - dead cats? Stuffed? A place simply adorned with cat-related art?

No, this place very definitely has live cats wandering around, 4 at the last count, although I believe more may be introduced at some point. My reason for being there was purely on my technical merit and thankfully no customer interactions were required from me. Despite Luke's warm explanation and obvious desire to help, the lady still appeared to leave somewhat grumpily. I was surprised then when she returned a few minutes later to take some photos of the cats as apparently she has lots of friends that love the feline creatures.

Luckily I was simply finishing off the keg line install in Kittchen, a new cafe-bar in Hawkshead village. I had promised Emma that I'd help them with the cellar fit when they first talked about their own pleasantly unique project. We knew they were planning a cafe-bar style operation, with some inspiration most definitely from Hardknott along with their visits to various other proper craft beer bars and were especially excited about the project.

What was kept very quiet for a long time was the concept that this would be a cat cafe. This is not a completely new concept and my brief look on Google shows quite a few in the UK along with a BBC article back in 2016. I guess I'm more of a dog person myself so what appears to be a growing phenomena had completely passed me by.

Luke and Emma had intended to serve Hardknott beer at the cafe so I was very pleased to help them with the cellar. Despite our own uncertainty, as I had promised to help these guys out, and in any case it fits with my love of the unusual, I had no hesitation in supporting their venture.

I've fitted them with 6 keg lines, no cask as it would be bonkers to even consider such a thing in such a place. Currently we've got them going with a selection of Hardknott beers including Azimuth, of course, Cumbrian Lager, Neutron Citra and La'al Peat. We also sourced for them a keg of Timmermans and a keg of Delirium Tremens.

We've returned on several occasions since they opened two weeks ago. Well, the beers need to be checked for consistency and dispense reliability. They also serve lovely platers of locally produced meats and cheeses, cakes and pastries. Along with my introduction to Cards Against Humanity, which is definitely a game best enjoyed with openminded friends and a few Delirium Tremens.
Oh, I didn't comment on the culture bit, glad you reminded me. There is a superb large area upstairs ideal for showing films, live music events, poetry readings and many other diverse cultural curiosities. Check out here to see what's on.