Broken Glass

I took a gamble, booking a flight to Barcelona on the day after Brexit was due to happen. Some people said I was mad, that I’d have lost my money, and that I might end up grounded. Some people said there was nothing to worry about. I chose to believe in the latter and did nothing, trusting that Project Fear would only cause a few minor disruptions at best.

And I got lucky. In over ten years of flying to and from Gatwick Airport, I swear I’ve never seen it so empty. Security took all of three minutes, queues, baggage check and the whole taking off and refastening one’s belt charade. In short, no queues at all. Well, none besides the giant queue for the cancelled Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong. I suppose you can’t blame Project Fear for that.

I managed to lose one of my lenses sometime between boarding and takeoff. Fortunately it wasn’t one of my camera lenses, but one of the eyeglasses from my shades. So now I have to spend the holidays looking like a low budget Terminator. Alternatively I could buy some new ones, but that would spoil the magic a little. Stories aren’t so interesting when everything gets mended all the time.

Well, here I am in Barcelona. This hostel doesn’t appear to hand out padlocks for its lockers like some of the ones I’ve stayed in over in western Spain, but no matter. I’m going on a nighttime stroll to take in the city a bit. Catch you later. BB x

I Need A Hero: My Favourite Fictional Leads

I’m off on another adventure in a couple of days. A fortnight in Catalunya awaits – because where better to spend the fallout from all this Brexit madness than with a people who have tussled with independence for centuries? I doubt the Catalans will be all that interested in the petty squabbles of a rather recalcitrant Guirilandia – and anyway, I’m a good deal more interested in their own history – but with another adventure looming, my mind turns back to the world of fiction. I always take a book with me when I travel, as it’s pretty much the one time in the year I can guarantee I’ll get some serious reading done. Frankly, given how important fiction is to me, I’m surprised I haven’t turned my hand to it as a topic more often. So tonight’s post is about putting that to rights. And I thought I’d start with an illustrated list of my favourite storybook heroes.

Perhaps the collection below says a lot more about me than I at first thought possible…


8. El Cid (Cantar del Mio Cid, Anonymous)

Kicking off the top ten with a bit of a controversial one, as this particular hero was a man of flesh and blood before he was a fictional character. Whether or not you choose to see him as a hero rather depends on whose account you choose to follow. Certainly, the Muslim chroniclers of the day didn’t exactly paint a very pretty picture of him. All the same, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is a larger-than-life character in his epics, and the seesaw story of his rise and fall and rise again is – for want of a better word – one of my favourite tales. And now that I’m not at university anymore and don’t have to analyse him as a masculine image, or a symbol of religious fervour, or any of that academic nonsense, and can instead indulge in boyhood fantasies once again, he’s a damned impressive hero who is good to his men, be they Christian or Moor, loyal to his wife and king, protective of his daughters and a generally wise arbiter. It’s just a shame about the episode involving the Jews Raquel and Vidas, or he might have placed higher on this list. For some reason they didn’t include that little episode in the 1961 film…

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7. Rat (The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame)

I think one of the things that shocked me most when compiling this list is how quintessentially British most of my favourite heroes are. Come to think of it, there are only really two characters on this list who are not Englishmen by birth or blood. I’d pretty much given up on my homeland for the beauty of foreign lands during my teens. Rediscovering the joy of reading in my early twenties completely turned that around, and made me appreciate on a deeper level characters from my childhood that I’d perhaps not understood fully until that moment. Rat is definitely one of them. An English county gentleman, who balances his seasonal desire to travel and see the world (depicted as a sudden madness) with his unshakeable attachment to his riverside home and his often poetic delight in the countryside around him. Rat always made me think of an England long since gone, albeit much beloved and not entirely forgotten. I could always empathise with Mole stumbling blindly around the new world and Toad still makes me laugh (especially voiced by Rik Mayall),  but I think my heart always did and always will go out to courageous, country-loving Rat.

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6. Bill Masen (Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham)

There’s something about the quiet, reflective protagonist of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids that has always drawn me in. Another Englishman, and in many ways as much a caricature as Rat, Bill Masen takes the apocalypse with just the right amount of melancholic reflection and stiff upper lip that you might expect. For a sci-fi book – and a thumping good one, if I might say so – there’s a refreshing absence of the brash, gun-toting, “gotta save the world” Americanisms of your average apocalypse narrative. When he’s not dodging paramilitary groups or sinister man-eating plants, Bill spends most of the book musing on the state of the world after man, the foolishness of man and the loneliness of the human spirit. Triffids will be one of those books I treasure when I grow old, as it was Bill Masen’s thoughts on loneliness that gave me solace when I travelled solo across Spain.

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5. Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn (The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye)

Let’s be perfectly honest here, to write a list of my favourite fictional heroes and not include the central character of what has always been my favourite book of all time would be nothing short of criminal. Orphaned shortly after birth in an opening that never ceases to chill me, Ashton (Ash) is raised by his father’s syce and spends his childhood under the impression that he’s Indian, before being rudely awakened to his English heritage after a series of adventures. He spends most of the book dealing with the fallout from that revelation, never entirely sure where his loyalties lie, and consequently never truly fitting in anywhere. The only trouble with Ash is he’s just too perfect. He slips up and gets hurt, and you can really feel his pain and his anger when he does, but even as a naïve young man he comes across as just a little bit too good to be true: fluent in more than five languages, an extremely talented sportsman, a natural with the ladies from his first experience and frustratingly good-looking, so much so that he spends most of the book being able to pass for Englishman, Afghan, Nepali or just about anything the plot requires, without having a drop of Pathan blood in him at all. Even so, I confess myself charmed by his tenacity from the beginning and have rarely felt so strongly about a protagonist as I have for Ashton Pelham-Martyn.

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4. Hazel (Watership Down, Richard Adams)

The second anthropomorphic hero on this list is a rabbit, and this one doesn’t even dress like a hero. He’s just a rabbit, and neither the strongest nor the fastest of the rabbits of the Sandleford Warren, but in many ways he’s a greater hero than many of the characters on this list. John Hurt’s voiceover in the 1978 film only sealed the deal. I admit that I saw the animated movie before I read the book, but it evidently didn’t scar me for life as it did to many others as I did go on to read the book (though whoever decided that a visual representation of rabbits being gassed en masse was deserving of a U-rating obviously had some demons). Hazel is wise, caring and self-sacrificing; a true leader, equipped with all the merits of El-Ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits (a sort of lapine Anansi/Coyote). I know Bigwig has always been the traditional fan favourite, but for me, it’s got to be Hazel, because he’s the kind of leader I could believe in. A hero with no pretensions to glory or leadership, but who looks out for every single member of his clan, and who becomes a leader quite organically as the story develops.

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3. Tintin

Probably the most well-known character on this list, Tintin has been in my heart since I was a lad. His agelessness, his never-ending sense of adventure, the fact that you could essentially paint yourself into his shoes wherever he went… and the fact that I’ve been compared to him in every single line of work I’ve ever had, due in part to my round face and strange quiff-thing going on with my crowns. If we forget his earlier iterations (Tintin au Congo was written by a Belgian in a very different age), Tintin is a young man with a heart of gold. Tintin in Tibet is probably his finest hour, showcasing the Belgian reporter’s winsome determination and hope to find his lost friend, who pretty much everybody else has given up for dead. I had every Tintin book bar one as a kid (Dead Sea Sharks), and he’s one of those rare heroes whom I value above the supporting cast, no matter how colourful and memorable they may be (here’s looking at you Captain Haddock, Cuthbert Calculus and, of course, Thompson and Thomson).

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2. Peekay

The top two spaces go to two heroes who share the same country: South Africa. British by blood, Peter Philip Kenneth Keith – unfortunately named by his parents, more fortunately shortened to Peekay by the author – has a hard lot growing up as a little boy in an adult world. You hardly even notice him age as he often seems mature beyond his years, the result of being forced to land on his feet by his born-again mother and his tormentors, including the Judge and the vile Sergeant Bormann. The way Courtenay has him describe loneliness is every bit as powerful as Wyndham, if not doubly so in that it comes from the voice of a child. And Peekay’s fierce sense of justice and morality – a common feature in Courtenay’s heroes – is exactly the kind of thing I could go for. Throw antiheroes and bad-guys-gone-good at me all day, but I love a hero with a strong moral compass. I wanted to learn to box when I read the book and watched the film, so greatly did I fall under the spell of this particular fighter. All the same, when it comes to the title bout for my favourite fictional hero, there’s one man who just beats Peekay to the punch…

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1. Allan Quatermain

If you’ve read my writing before, this will be no surprise. Allan Quatermain is my favourite fictional character, hands down, no contest. Not the version you might have seen in League of Extraordinary Gentleman movie (though the graphic novel is close enough), I’m talking about the original. Humble. Wise. Melancholic. Cynical, but not unadventurous. And, though modern readers might find his language more than a little antiquated and even offensive, rather advanced and liberal-minded for his day. Allan Quatermain was the inspiration for such legendary figures as Indiana Jones, but I’ve always found the source material a good deal more inspiring. Maybe it’s his undaunting appearance – a wiry old man with bristly hair, a short stature and a shrinking habit – that makes him so likeable. He lives alone, but keeps good company and is a ceaseless fountain of wisdom, whether that wisdom comes from his own mouth or the mouths of his sage companions like Hans, or Umslopogaas, or Indaba-zimbi. Perhaps, above all else, the true quality of Allan Quatermain is the quality of his writer. The old adage, write about what you know, can be a little restrictive for those who enjoy historical fiction. Henry Rider Haggard, however, was at the very heart of the world about which he wrote, seeing the Boer Wars at first hand and even taking an active role in them himself. Quatermain taught me a lot about the world when I started reading again, but most importantly of all, he gave me a reason to embrace my homeland once again. It will be a while before any hero, great or small, topples the great Macumazahn from his seat at the top of this list.

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Special mention: Quint & Maris (The Edge Chronicles, Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell), Harry Flashman (Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser), Richard Sharpe (Sharpe’s Tiger, Bernard Cornwell) and Tommo (Private Peaceful – but just about every protagonist from Michael Morpurgo’s books would do)

Did you like this list? Feel free to copy the idea for posts of your own. BB x

Afterglow

Walking home from work this evening I found myself unnaturally aware of the night sky. Normally in the corner of West Sussex where I live, the skies at night are impressive, and you can see all the constellations of the season with a clarity you wouldn’t expect to find so close to London. Last summer I even saw a comet shining a brilliant blue as it shot across the sky overhead. But tonight the clouds were low, and a strange, eerie light hovered along the horizon on either side of me: a greenish-yellow to the north, hanging over the distant lights of London, and a more unholy bluish-green patch of cloud to the south, indicating a floodlit pitch somewhere below. Elsewhere along the skyline, similar patches of tarnished gold and green light made the night a rather sinister shade of grey. Somewhere in among the phosphorescence, the glow of an almost-full moon went unnoticed.

When I lived in Spain as a child, I remember a night when several towns in the area decided to take part in a five-minute power-cut. I believe it was in protest about climate change, or energy wastage, or something along those lines. Our town sat atop a lonely hill in the middle of a great valley ringed by mountains. Villages were few and far between, and the nights were dark enough even with the interference of the thousands of twinkling yellow streetlamps. But one night, for five minutes, it was even darker still. My mother took me up to the square at the top of the hill to look out upon a world blanketed in a darkness it had not known for decades, perhaps even centuries. I was only twelve years old, but it made a deep impression on me. I have never forgotten the quality of the darkness, the stars that shone so brightly that in memory they seemed almost like suns – which is perhaps not so very far from the truth.

We spend a lot of time discussing the irreversible damage we have done to our oceans, how we have choked the earth and its rivers with our plastics and detritus, but it is far deeper and more sinister than that. Man’s quest to vanquish his fear of the dark is well on the way to robbing us of our natural light. In some parts of the world, it already has.

It is not so much our desire to ape that concerns me – our fierce instinct to twist the natural into the artificial – because I know that story. It is the fable of the Emperor and the nightingale. Tragically, as is often the case with stories meant for children, it seems the moral was lost on us a long time ago – a modern-day version would no doubt have the Emperor plug simply his iNightingale in to recharge. No, it is our desire to outdo. The go one step beyond. To beat nature at her own game, like a petulant child insisting they are old enough to look after themselves. I am reminded of another children’s story concerning a devil’s mirror, that sought to make a mockery of all that it looked upon…

When you spend weeks going over the pollution topic of the iGCSE and IB exams with your foreign language students, it’s easy to forget the creeping damage of light pollution, if only because we choose not to see it. Light is good. It shows us the way, it helps us see where to go. It makes us comfortable and it keeps us safe. So perhaps it is a loss we must bear. What is, is what must be. But I do wish, on nights like these, when the clouds are low and heavy and stained with the unholy afterglow of the city, that I could go back to the night of the power-cut, when the night was clearer and more beautiful than any light show I have ever seen. BB x

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Stargazing in La Siberia, May 2016

 

Reaching Out

Dear World,

I remember a time when Brexit didn’t mean an awful lot to us. When it was just the latest in a string of buzzwords bandied about by the press. Before the year when the experts were all wrong. Before the referendum, President Trump and the sudden violence of world politics, like a particularly large and menacing dog woken from slumber by the rumble of a passing car.

I have tried to keep my mouth shut on Brexit since the beginning, suspecting that we could only have come to such a junction because of one failing or another in the system. Mutiny might breed in idleness, but anger, hatred and intolerance do not come from nowhere. The spark must have been glowing within the ashes, even if so few of us saw it smouldering there. And how could we, in the echo chamber of our comfortable social media bubbles, where everything hurtful and unorthodox is slammed before it is questioned, and the angry back down in silence to nurse their wounded pride and their encircling fear in the darkness. Certainly, we are not the architects of our own destruction, but we are not entirely blameless in bringing about the situation that so many are now quick to decry.

I was in Morocco when it all kicked off, now almost three years ago, when the referendum was as out of sight and mind as the essay I was supposed to be working on for my university. I was informed of the outcome by an American, who came rushing into the classroom to tell me, holding nothing back, that ‘your folks voted out’. Of course I was shocked, though perhaps not as much as I should have been – I confess to having forgotten entirely about the referendum that morning. Last night’s Arabic homework seemed more important at the time.

It was certainly not the result any of us had been expecting. But then, I did study languages at a British university, so almost all of my contemporaries were naturally predisposed to take an immediately dismissive view of anything akin to Brexit out of hand. I don’t think I ever saw anything other than rage against Brexit on my Facebook feed, and that in and of itself made me concerned from the start.

The eldest son of my Moroccan host family saw in it a cause for celebration, and he wasn’t the only one. I remember seeing fireworks from the balcony, set off from somewhere within the city outskirts. “It’s the best thing England could have done,” said the son. “Anything that weakens the EU is good for us.” I suppose being in a country that felt ostracised by the EU opened my eyes early on to the other side of the argument, in spite of my obvious leanings towards the remain camp, not entirely unconnected to being of Spanish blood myself. Without my grandfather to voice his European view on the matter, I had to find the answers myself. And as much as it hurt me to imagine where it all might lead, I had to listen. I had to know. Because there’s no use in complaining about the situation if you aren’t prepared to listen to the other side.

It seems strange to me that, in an age when even Disney’s recent heroes and villains have become various shades of grey, today’s politics should provide the black and white.

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It’s been a few years since then. The strange, almost unbelievable scenario I discussed at length with an American in the shade of a Tetouani hotel roof on a hot July afternoon has now shimmered into reality. In a matter of weeks it will be B-Day – unless something radical happens. The last few months have been nothing short of chaotic. Defeat after defeat in the House of Commons. An increasingly beleaguered Prime Minister who soldiers on, determined to defend the decision of the referendum in spite of those who call for a second referendum, claiming the British public was lied to by the Leave camp – as if the concept of politicians spreading lies were something revolutionary.

Would a second referendum help? I can only hope that it would do more good than harm. We have walked right into a bear trap. To say the first referendum was wrong would be to call into question the referendum process, nay, democracy itself. And though it would not be the first time the United Kingdom has changed its mind over its core values – see attitudes towards homosexuality in the former African colonies – it does us no favours, having sold, extolled and foisted democracy upon the world to then tamper with it. In the words of the Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracian, “never open the door to a lesser evil, for other and greater ones invariably slink in after it”.

Tonight the MPs voted against a “No Deal” Brexit. Tomorrow there will be a vote on whether or not to delay Brexit altogether – if the EU will even allow such a thing. I have given up predicting politics, preferring instead to take after my namesake in Animal Farm and hold to the adage that things will go on as they have before, that is, badly.

It is, of course, entirely plausible that Brexit was all one big power play – a high risk, high return move in a long and complicated game of chess. Perhaps Farage, Johnson and the rest of the Brexiteers are simply riding the storm, and have done very well out of it, to the detriment of millions. It is also entirely plausible that I have spent too long looking into the abyss, trying to empathise with a point of view that is so alien to my heart. The Spaniard in me cries out and beats his chest, with true melodramatic flourish, for all the harm that will be and has already been done to our sense of European unity. The Englishman I am, contrite to a fault, pleads for patience and searches desperately for answers.

Time, the master of all things, will tell on the matter of Brexit. And if there is indeed a special place in Hell for those who led us to this junction, we may yet all see a window into the inferno on the night of the 29th. Or we may simply wake up to another unpredictably disappointing morning, where everything stands on its head. The era of topsy-turvy politics continues.

World of the future, when you look back on all of this… Be kind with your judgements. Remember those who fought tooth and nail for unity, remember those who fought for what they thought was right, and remember those caught in the middle who tried to listen.

BB x

British street artist Banksy takes on Brexit in Dover ...

PS. I confess to not having read enough on the subject before writing, and being informed only by my European family, the odd snippet on the BBC and my almost entirely Remain camp circle of friends. But I have tried to be honest about my stance on the subject.

Instant Friendship

I’m sure I’m bringing nothing new to the table when I make the claim that instant communication has changed what friendship is all about. It might not have altered the definition of the word, but it has radically changed how we go about expressing it. You only have to take both the mobile telephone and the internet away for a moment to consider the implications.

I was at a party last night when this particular dilemma crossed my mind, and it occupied my brain for the greater part of the journey home across central London. I heard in passing a friend mention how he’d been on the phone to another friend of mine just that morning. In and of itself it shouldn’t have unsettled me, but it did, because in the entire time I’ve known that friend, I couldn’t remember a single occasion I’d called him on the phone. In fact, in the last fifteen years or so I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of friends I have spoken to over the phone, two of which one can write off instantly for being girlfriends (on the popular assumption that a relationship necessarily requires such amenities). For some reason, I’ve never been the type to ring up my friends. It’s not for want of things to say – I’m an infamous chatterbox in good company – but I’ve simply never known what to say over the phone.

Should this trouble me? On a purely superficial level, no. Friendship isn’t calculated on a basis of words per minute. And yet in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s very easy to feel that if you’re not the kind of person who enjoys texting, WhatsApp groups or catchups over the phone, you’re failing in your task as an attentive friend. Why wait months for your next personal encounter when you could fire off a quick Facebook message? People often say it’s the little things that count, and it’s the “little things” like this that social media and it’s various offspring facilitate. You can, of course, turn up your nose and say you’ll hold out for the next time you meet in person, but that is easier said than done when we must necessarily part ways to pursue our various careers, which may well be far away – another hurdle of modernity. The fickle hand of progress draws us together with one hand whilst the other does its level best to drive us apart.

I must endeavour to write more letters. We all must. Far too much emphasis is placed on speed and frequency of communication these days. One should consider that, if we lived in a time without social media, data or the telephone, insecurities such as these simply wouldn’t exist. But because we can now be reached at the touch of a button, we should be reached. There’s no excuse for sloth. You can apply the scenario to work; it’s the same problem there. There’s simply no escaping it now. We’ve made ourselves slaves to our own desire for immediacy.

Working in a boarding school has left me with little time or energy to write as of late, be that my books, my blog or even my letters. At the party last night I found myself speaking to “close friends” I had not spoken to in all of a year, two in some cases, to my shame. My workload is set to increase twofold next year, but despite the obvious hurdles I have yet to face, I mean to turn that trend around. I have to do what I can. Snail mail may not provide the instant satisfaction that WhatsApp delivers, but there is a genuine sense of joy to be found in patience. And patience is surely what friendship is all about, when it comes down to it.

I can only hope my friends have been patient with me. BB x