The Circle of Life (otherwise known as Vocalzone)

There are few things more terrifying than waking up on the morning of a concert and realising you’ve lost your voice.

Alright, so I can think of a few, but it’s one I’d rather not repeat. Especially when that solo is the opening Zulu chant from the Circle of Life and the setting is none other than Durham Cathedral. Probably the biggest solo I am ever going to get and definitely the one I’ve been most looking forward to. So it should be just my luck that I found myself almost voiceless on the morning of the big day, throwing not just one but two gigs into violent disarray. Thanks to a little help from my friends (shout out in especial to the wonderful Emily Collinson for recommending me the miraculous Vocalzone pills) I was able to pull my voice back from the brink at the final hour and deliver the goods. It was still a semitone out, and because of my nerves I guess I rushed it too, but all things considered it could have gone so much worse. Like, my voice could have just gone before the solo. Or worse, gone halfway through, like it did once during The Sun Whose Rays in The Mikado several years back. But it held, even during the crazily last-minute additional solo in the King of Pride Rock finale – which, considering everybody was involved, probably went unheard by everyone except those who were listening out for it, even though I threw caution to the wind and belted out those last Zulu lines with all of my heart and soul, not to mention the last of my vocal chords. Lebo M. does it so much better because he’s the real deal, of course. But I hope I did him proud tonight. I dedicate that one to him. Him and, of course, all my champions in the Durham A Cappella Choir, the one and only Northern Lights. I don’t tend to miss much when I travel, but there will be a hole in my heart for evermore when I have to say goodbye to you all at the end of the year. You don’t know just how much you all mean to me.

Being part of the Northern Lights on their rise to power this year has been one of the best decisions of my life. No doubt. But trumping that and all the facts and life-lessons of the year, perhaps the most important lesson I’m taking away from this year is the danger of doing too much. Good time management may be a staple CV boon, but I’d put an honest acceptance of when too much is too much higher up the list, if I had a say in things. I’ve always tried to live by the creed that having too much to do is always better than having too little, which breeds boredom, idleness and a despicable state of mind. That’s fine, but instead of swinging between extremes as I tend to, in future I’ll be aiming for that golden middle-ground. I’m happy to be the one who does the planning and enthuses along the way, but the responsibility of authority is still beyond me. When you have to balance that power with everything else, it’s not just other people that you let down, it’s your own state of mind. This year for some reason I thought I’d be able to balance five societies, the novel, my degree, a social life, an attempt at a relationship and my sanity. Most of them took a serious hit in one way or another, but it’s the last that’s suffered the most. I’ve not had the chance to meditate properly for almost a year and it shows. I haven’t even managed to keep the novel going, which I stormed through last year. Some useful notes for my last year, at any rate. I know now that if I want to truly apply myself to something, no matter how appealing everything else may seem, it’s better to focus on just a couple of good things rather than trying to please everybody by tackling everything at the same time. Because it’s impossible to please everyone, of course, but most pressing of all, everybody’s friend is nobody’s friend. And that’s something I should really know better. BB x

The Northern Lights hit Durham Cathedral (Durham)

The Northern Lights hit Durham Cathedral. From left to right: Emmanuel, me, Becky and Luke (Durham)

Clear the Runway

That’s it! No more exams this year! And none for another two years, come to think of it. How’s that for a load off the mind? I guess only time will tell how they went – three weeks’ time, to be precise, by which time I’ll be home. Blimey, but this year has drawn to a close quickly… I’m really not expecting an awesome turnover as far as the language exams are concerned. These last few weeks more than ever I’ve heard people liken language to Maths – the beauty, apparently, being that there’s a logic, and there’s a right and a wrong. Great news if you’ve got the kind of brain that can crunch logic like a harvester, but devastating if your mathematical competence is on par with a freshly-picked beetroot. The highest I ever achieved in a regular Maths paper at school was a paltry 28%. How I got this far – to Durham, of all places – with such a pitiful weakness for numbers is nothing short of a miracle. For me, there’s nothing better than a good, old-fashioned essay, so this last week has been an absolute breeze in comparison with the previous three weeks of grammar-busting. There’s no denying the importance of grammar – it’s the bedrock of any and every language – but it doesn’t exactly make for entertaining reading. Especially when you have to tread the line between what is right and what is wrong. Thank goodness for Arts, where it becomes one big grey area. A difficult place to excel, but a far better environment for the mathematically inept, like me.

Away with the musing. The Morocco/Jordan debate came to a sudden and decisive end yesterday with the booking of return flights from Amman at the end of June. Done! Expensive, but that’s the price you have to pay for visiting wealthy countries. It’s not as though I had much of a choice with my department either, the way things have gone of late. We’re banding together as a year to prevent the following years being plagued by the same problems we faced. Hopefully they don’t have to go through with all that chaos. But that’s that! So I’m going to Jordan. I’ll be there for just over two months before zipping back for a short stop at home before jetting straight back out to Spain, by which point I’ll have much more of an idea as to where it is they’re sending me. Exciting stuff. Now all I’ve left to do is to wait a couple of days for my monstrous portrait to arrive and I can get straight back to work on that, and let’s not forget all the gigs and rehearsals set to swamp me over the coming weeks. And paperwork. Christ, the paperwork. Will it never end?

If you’re after an alternative point of view over the next two months in Jordan, give my friends over at Langlesby travels a browse (https://langlesbytravels.wordpress.com/). It’s highly entertaining reading and a great deal less greenie-pontificating than me! I’m working on that… BB x

Summer's here and the lane is as dark as night again

Freedom!

The End is in Sight

No more Arabic Literature!

No more Arabic Literature!

It’s the last week of exams, which means most people are finished for the year. Most people. Everyone not doing Spanish Texts, that is, which has been lovingly placed on the last Friday of exams. How generous. On the plus side, no more Arabic Literature! What was set to be the toughest exam turned out to be a relative walk in the park, compared to the nefariously difficult Persian and Arabic papers. Though the Dissolute Poets didn’t feature at all – it was never very likely that they would – I still got the chance to quote our favourite poet, Abu Nuwas, in one of the questions, so all’s well that ends well. I’ve also learned from my mistakes, balancing eloquence and originality with the academic writing preferred by one of my lecturers. I take a Beyoncé approach to essays, these days: if you like it, then you need to put a lid on it, because it’s not meant to be an entertaining read, of course. See what I did there? Yeah, it wasn’t exactly inspired. I’ll try to avoid out-and-out humour.

Still, if today’s weather sets a precedent for the rest of the term, I’ll be one happy guy. It was absolutely b-e-a-utiful this afternoon. Exams or no exams, I joined the rest of the lit crew to chill for an hour or so outside the Swan and Three in the sun, if just to revel in the knowledge that we don’t need to read up on Modern Arabic poetry, Jurji Zeydan and the maqamat anymore. I’m not free yet, but with the shackles of a history-based exams removed, I feel like flying. I’ve already been told that originality is valued over quoting in my last exam, which is much more up my street, so I’m not so worried about that. What I should be doing in the meantime is booking those flights to Amman. This time next month, I’ll be there. And that’s a little alarming… BB x

Prebends Cottage on a Summer's Afternoon, Durham

Prebends Cottage in the Afternoon Sun, Durham

Sibling Sobering

Cramming for Arab Lit in the Bill Bryson

Cramming for Arab Lit in the Bill Bryson

My little brother got back from his first ever solo adventure in Japan yesterday. Two weeks on Honshu, starting and ending in Tokyo, and taking in the south-coast sights from Kyoto to Hiroshima and beyond. It’s the kind of thing I would have done if I’d had the money he had on my gap year. That’s the main positive of a functional gap year: work for three quarters of it and then travel on the money you’ve earned in that time. Or, if you’re a singular nutcase like me, decide on a year abroad at the last possible minute, put a three month stint in Uganda at the start and a month and a half’s travelling in Spain at the end, making a stable job in between almost impossible, and try to get by on a budget of less than a hundred quid. Not a good model. I don’t begrudge my little bro in the slightest for this stellar work of one-upmanship; it’s how a gap year should be done. Bravo.

In between tales of his exploits, up to and including appearing on national television quite by accident (I told him he’d find people knew he was coming before ever he got there, though I didn’t quite see it happening like that!), I realised he’d learned a valuable life lesson that’s still beyond my understanding, and that’s not to rush things whilst you’re young. In short, old age doesn’t have to mean the end of your adventures. It came up when we were discussing where he’d be travelling next, and he told me that he’d love to join me on my crazy Cairo to Cape Town stint, so long as it was after we’d got on in life and – quoting verbatim – ‘after your kids had moved on and had kids of their own’. I was stunned. I’ve been hungering after Cairo to Cape Town since I first heard of it when I was sixteen, almost five years ago now. I wasn’t exactly planning on striking out for Egypt the week after graduating, but the prospect of waiting another thirty years and more hit me like a wall. There’s plenty of reason in his words, reason that’s beyond my childish enthusiasm, that’s for sure. It was a pretty humbling thing to hear from my nineteen year-old brother and it more than put me in my place. Clichéd as it sounds, I find myself bowled over at how much he’s grown up over the last year. Considerably more than me, at any rate! I wonder if that’s what having a stable job does to you… Man, what kind of an older brother must I look to him? I don’t half get the feeling sometimes like it’s up to me to make the mistakes so that he can learn from them by proxy without getting his hands dirty. And I make a heck of a lot of mistakes… (I hope to God he doesn’t judge me too harshly for that remark if he reads this!)

Well, it’s put my problems in perspective, at any rate. The kid’s off in search of another job for the summer already. Boy, if I’d had that level of get-up-and-go when I was his age, I’d have been made. Where we level out is on spending. I restricted myself to a £250 maximum budget for two weeks in Morocco, for everything. Lil’ bro managed to spend almost a thousand. Financially, we meet somewhere down the middle. Socially, he’s a good few hundred leagues ahead of me and still driving onwards. In a manner I never saw coming, I find myself looking up to him more and more. In a family of just four, I don’t have many familial examples to aspire to. But little brother, if I could be half the guy you are, I’d be a better man several times over. BB x

Wine, Women and Song

As compensation for far too many hours spent trawling the internet for absolutely anything and everything to do with Extremadura, I’ve finally settled back into the all-too unfamiliar rut of revision. It’s not quite as entertaining as browsing beautiful images of the high sierras, rolling steppe and quaint medieval towns that’ll be my home next year, but I reckon I’ve nearly exhausted all the internet has to offer as far as Extremadura is concerned. Even so, I’m still no closer to having a decent idea as to where I might end up, or what it will really be like to live there. Just goes to show how a little knowledge can only take you some of the way. The rest will come in time.

So I spent most of today back in the armchair in the living room swotting up on the dissolute poets of the Abbasid Caliphate and their ringleader, the infamous Abu Nuwas, lover of wine, music, lewd verse and just about anything that walked on two legs. It seems that the scoundrel managed to carve a niche for himself into the fabric of Arabian myth as a master poet of almost unparalleled skill, along the way chasing slave boys, playing out some of the earliest rap battles, insulting almost everyone and everything and generally being an all-round prankster, for which he is so wittily remembered in several tales of the Arabian Nights. So outrageous a character is he that he is one of the only characters in the Arabian Nights that infuriates Shahriyar to such an extent that he threatens to break the frame narrative and kill Shahrazad (also Scheherezade), the narrator, if she mentions him again. Twice. But he’s obviously just too big a character and crops up time and time again. To give you an idea of his style, here’s a verse from the Mathers translation of the Arabian Nights. Obviously it sounds better in Arabic, but it’s such a high style Nuwas uses that it’s well beyond the comprehension of a second-year Arabist, and the meaning’s clear enough. Here, Abu Nuwas describes one of Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s slave girls, whom the Caliph has ordered to conceal a wine goblet in order to prevent the rapscallion from drinking any more:

Even as I desire the cup
The cup desires
Lips secret and more pleasant
And has gone up
Within her garments hollow
Whither the cup aspires
Nuwas would follow
If only Harun were not present.

Raunchy stuff. His legacy extends beyond the Arabian Nights; most of Baghdad’s nightclubs and restaurants are based in Abu Nuwas Street and the city is home to an immense statue of the rogue, with wine goblet in hand. For a man who is essentially the Arab world’s most glorified scoundrel and bisexual, it’s a miracle IS hasn’t done away with the effigy. And long may that be the case. After all that reading, it’s got to be a life ambition of mine, to see that statue with my own eyes. Let’s just hope the linguistic brilliance of his poetry continues to outweigh his lewd behaviour.

That was a little too informative for a blog post. But, as usual, I thought I’d share it with y’all in case you’re interested. My friend and I have some kind of cult-hero thing going on with Abu Nuwas so I’ve probably got the guy blown way out of proportion, if just in the vague hope that he comes up in the upcoming exam, so that I can use all this knowledge I’ve gleaned. I guess that’s the point of revision.

Oh, but hurry up next year already! I’m chomping at the bit to get teaching, wherever it is that they send me. As if that wasn’t already obvious… Until the next time! BB x

From One Extreme to the Other

Five months down the line and I have a destination at last! My gamble with the environment preference paid off after all and I’ve been allocated to a post in EXTREMADURA. It looks even more impressive in capitals. Extremadura, though! Steppe! Ham! Cork oaks! Cortes! Roman ruins! Bustards! And best of all, I haven’t even the slightest clue what it’ll look like in the flesh, since I’ve never even been there! That’s the major draw, of course. As much as I love Andalucia, living there once upon a time means I’ve seen most of it already. Extremadura is a blank slate. And if it all gets too much, then the dear old south is just a stone’s throw away – figuratively speaking. So much is within a stone’s throw from Extremadura, come to think of it. Doñana’s just over the Sierra de Aracena to the south, Toledo’s only a short distance up the Tajo and Portugal’s practically on the doorstep. So it’s safe to say I’m pretty chuffed with my placement! Whether I’m based in Badajoz or Cáceres remains to be seen, but unlike the last time, I think I’ll be more than satisfied with the information I have for some time now. Plenty of reading to do! Not too much, mind – wouldn’t want to spoil the adventure – but enough to get an idea. Cela’s La Familia de Pascual Duarte seems like a good place to start. Still… Extremadura! Can’t even begin to contain my excitement. I’ll be lesson planning before I’ve even got to Jordan if I’m not careful. September can’t come fast enough!

Latest essay came back a measly 66%… not my finest hour. Almost entirely to be blame was my choice of an opening line: ‘the colonial claws that raked the nineteenth century world left few countries unscathed.’ Make of that what you will. I hardly need to tell you that’s it’s not academic language. My marker did, though. Like I said, there’s no escaping the rule of three. Two got under the wire, the third did not. That’s natural. Especially since that last was written at around four in the morning. If that doesn’t lend a shred of credibility to that bat-out-of-hell opening statement, my Burtonesque verbosity just might (I promise I’ll keep the cultural references to a minimum in future). All things considered, 66% is probably a lot more than it’s worth. I’d tell myself to start earlier next time. But then, I tell myself that every time… So now Extremadura’s on the cards, it’s time to obsess over the place whilst I still have a couple of weeks to think in Spanish before I’m whisked off to the Middle East! Here’s a vista extremeña to whet your appetite for the time being. Hasta pronto! BB x

Fingers Crossed

Pillars in the Court of Lions, Alhambra, Granada, Spain (2011)

Pillars in the Court of Lions, Alhambra, Granada, Spain (2011)

Today is D-Day. Destination Day, that is. In a matter of hours (hopefully) I’ll have a province, one from either Andalucía, Extremadura or Cantabria, three equally stark, inspiring and beautiful regions of the Iberian peninsula. The BC asks you to specify which one you’d prefer and I wasted no time in putting Andalucía right at the top of the list, but I ranked ‘environment’, another of their categories, higher up the list, so it’s still anyone’s guess where I’m headed. In light of that, I’ll see if I can’t lay down my reasons for choosing each one. When I applied for university, I just went straight for Durham – twice – and filled the other four spaces with names I plucked out of the air. Not this time.

Cantabria

I’ve been to Cantabria twice: once on a school trip, and the second as the landing stage of my solo adventure across Spain back in ’13. Spain’s north coast is unquestionably beautiful, in a manner so very far-removed from the magic of the south. The north smacks more of Ireland, only a wilder, more impressive Ireland, where the people speak Spanish. Oh, and there are still a few bears left in the mountains – not that you’d be likely to see them. The jagged spine of the Picos de Europa rivals the Alps in magnificence – especially Picu Urriellu – in sunshine or in rain. Though speaking from experience, Cantabrian rain is not something to be trifled with. When it rains, it doesn’t just pour, it buckets it down in Biblical fashion. One of my most enduring memories of Cantabria is of sitting under the shelter of a covered well wearing several layers of plastic bags, feeling soaked to the skin and utterly miserable. But it was also a warm and friendly place and the food – especially the quesada pasiega but also the region’s black pudding, morcilla – was to-die-for. That and I feel like pulling out early because of the flood warnings has left the area ‘unfinished’ in my books. I’ll be going back someday, for sure.

Extremadura

Extremadura, alongside Galicia, La Rioja and Valencia, is one of the few regions I haven’t yet had the pleasure to visit. Perhaps that’s because it’s so far off the beaten track for most excursions that you’d be better off based somewhere like Andalucía to have a wide range within driving distance. But there’s no two ways about it: Extremadura is a hidden gem. Often overlooked in favour of its southern neighbour, it’s a vast stretch of rolling steppe, craggy river valleys and endless cork oak forests flooded with flowers in the spring. It’s about as rustic as you can get it, if you know where to go. Of course, it’s also about as unforgiving as the plains of La Mancha in high summer, and it has a reputation – Cortes and Pizarro were born here – but if you can look past that, you’ll understand why I’m almost hoping that my gamble with valuing environment over region will have the BC place me here. I’ve criss-crossed most of Andalucía already. Extremadura is still vast, unexplored and full of adventure.

Andalucía

Three people have told me now that if I should apply to Andalucía via the BC, I should be careful not to wind up in Cadiz, because of the miserable weather, the isolation and the impenetrable accent. Trouble is, I can’t help my heart. I grew up in Cadiz. The accent I can vouch for – it’s Bwindi-level impenetrable – but as far as isolation and miserable weather is concerned, that’s not the Andalucía I know and love. Far from it. If you’ll forgive me an almighty head-over-heels moment, Andalucía is and always has been the greatest love of my life. Granada and its Moorish echoes to the east. Cordoba’s flowerpot streets and the magnificence of the Gran Mezquita to the north. The godforsaken terrain of El Torcal and the Sierra de Grazalema to the south. And last but not least, the sweeping marshlands of Doñana to the west. Not to mention the enduring horse culture, flamenco, the vulture-filled blue skies and, of course, the dark-eyed beauty of the people. Andalucía has everything. Honestly, if it weren’t for Andalucía, I might have been braver and gone for a BC post in South America. But the way I see it, turning down a chance to spend another eight months in my old homeland would be one of the greatest mistakes I could make. That’s why Andalucía tops the list.

But we’ll see how things pan out, shall we? I’d better head on down to Elvet Riverside to pick up that last Arabic essay. Slightly dreading the results, since it was another late night work, my third this year, and my first genuine all-nighter. And three is, and always has been, a dangerous number. I’ll get back to you later! BB x