Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Work in progress

personal & writing 4 min read

In early September of 2004, my daily routine was simple enough. Regardless of what day of the week it was, I got up early, drove to the west end of Glasgow, parked at the university, and went up to level 6 of the Boyd Orr Building, where the final-year undergraduate Computing Science lab was.

It was during the summer break, so the place was almost empty, except for the eight or so of us who were being paid to work on projects until term time resumed. My work involved using keystroke metrics for authentication — i.e. logging you in based not only on your username and password, but also the way you typed them. It turns out that your particular rhythm and style of typing is pretty unique; at least, usefully so for institutional login purposes.

I’d drop my stuff in the lab, including an iPod and some powered speakers, then go across the road to the student union, ascending to the top floor of that building to the Food Factory, where I’d invariably get a bacon roll and some coffee to take back with me. Despite my days being entirely unregulated, I was usually in by 9AM. The work was moderately interesting; the company was more than worth getting up early for.

I’ve spoken previously about how I met my now-wife that summer, in early July. She was another of the few people working in the lab, along with some guys who have become stalwart and hopefully life-long friends of us both. We spent the whole day in the lab, working a bit and messing around a lot, then packed up and went across to the student union most nights to let the drinking, pool, and video games begin. I remember drinking a lot of vodka and cokes, which makes me wince now.

I was heavily into Van Halen that summer, along with the requisite Dire Straits and Thin Lizzy. I had an iPod playlist that became the background music of the lab, and has transcended its hastily-gathered-together nature to become the soundtrack of that period of not only my life, but also Lauren’s, and probably that of the rest of the lab’s occupants too.

I was a damned fool.

I was four or five years older than most of the rest, but in a lot of ways I was just the same age, or maybe younger. I was immature, introspective, and eager to steal back the years of youth I thought I’d lost, both from a turbulent adolescence, and then the premature adulthood of going off to work for a big software company abroad. I positively dove into that summer of camaraderie and almost non-existent responsibility. I still vaguely expect to jump into the car at some point, drive the hour or so to once again park near the Boyd Orr, and walk back into that room, finding all those same faces waiting, young again and with everything still ahead.

I was blogging at the time, but not really writing. I was at the beginning of a career that’s now over. Lauren and I weren’t yet together — but I was thinking about it every day — and I had a year of university left to go. There was a lot still to come. I wouldn’t have recognised this person that I am now. It all feels very recent, but also alien, like something that happened to someone else instead.

I can chart the trajectory of many aspects of myself since that time, just by reading the words I’ve written during the intervening years. I’ve become more comfortable with myself. I’ve woken up to a lot of my failings. I’ve made peace with some problems, and discovered new layers to others. I care a lot less about certain ephemeral things, and more about what’s enduring. The scope of my ambitions has narrowed, but also become much more concrete. I’ve grown wiser, and thankfully reached the threshold where I can see what a damned fool I still remain today.

If I want to remember something, I write it down. The act of writing ensures the memory, often without further need for the note itself. Having a written record, then, brings the ability to go back and see previous times in some measure of context. Those years are clearer to me because I wrote about them, in a certain fashion, as they occurred. My site began scant weeks before Lauren and I decided to try being together, so its history is also that of what’s now the entire current version of my life. I can’t adequately thank my past self for giving me that gift.

The trajectory is the thing, though; not just the memories themselves. The means to see that I’m calmer, and a little more considerate, and a little more forgiving. That I’ve become painfully aware of my own privilege, and of my past casual discriminations. That I can see which hang-ups turned out to be utterly unimportant — and which genuinely problematic ones they prevented me from acknowledging.

When asked, I always insist that I’ve never kept a journal, but really, any body of writing is a journal of sorts. The person behind it is equally there. The insights are indirect, but often more starkly obvious and revealing for the same reason. I look back through my archive and I’m occasionally embarrassed or even horrified — and then I’m delighted, and grateful for the opportunity to feel that way.

I keep it all up here on the web, warts and all, because it reminds me that I’m a work in progress.

Many great things in my life had their genesis in that now-distant summer. My marriage, above all; friendships; music; the shared argot of a tiny slice of space and time. My online presence, building month by month. My erstwhile and indeed nascent careers too, I suppose. And of course me; the version that’s writing these words now. All from twelve years past.

It’s a little frightening, as spans of time often are. It was a third of my life ago. I’m not far off forty now, which could be my halfway mark, or beyond. We just don’t know. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to make another check-in, sometime a bit further down the line.

If and when I do, I’ll at least have this record to look back upon. I’m the product of all of it.

Damned foolishness, evolving slowly.