The Cycle Repeats

Almost two years to the day, the British Council have given me the go-ahead for the second round of applications once again. I’ve more or less had it sorted up there in my head, but it’s refreshing to see some hard evidence at last. Everybody else has been scurrying about fishing up internships in London, grad schemes in Leeds and MA courses in Edinburgh whilst I’ve been kicking back in the knowledge that I’m returning to a job I know and love, even if it isn’t anywhere near as well-paid as those London-based affairs. Besides a niggling long-term concern for my pension plan (and I’m not entirely sure why I bother, with things as they are), that doesn’t really concern me – if I get to spend another year in Extremadura, I’ll be in seventh heaven.


La Vera – what Paradise looks like

I’m really looking forward to next year for several reasons, and one of them is my return to regular blogging. I’ve not been out of things to report this year – quite the opposite, in fact – but for some reason I’ve been awful at recording it. I’ve had something on in one way, shape or form every single day, from rehearsals to meetings to deadlines. I’ve never known a year like it, and it’s been a welcome relief after last year’s relative quiet. I may not be working 8am-8pm shifts like I used to, but the few hours I have a day are always demanding and highly rewarding.

Or at least, they were until this term. I have two contact hours this week, as well as a mock Spanish oral on Thursday. Talk about open plan.

What that does mean is that I’ve finally had the time to do a little work on the Mega-Drawing, and consequently it’s very near to completion. That’s something to look forward to.

I mustn’t fall into the trap of making my last few months in Durham a series of looking forward to moments. Time is running out as it is; in less than two months I’ll be out of here, and that saddens me a lot. I’m losing the treasure trove that is the library, the stellar music scene at Durham and, of course, the host of wonderful friends I’ve made here. If I spend too much time looking forward, I’ll end up looking back for most of next year, and that’s no good thing. Better to live in the moment.


Monasterio de Yuste

I’m making no promises, but now that my British Council go-ahead is in, I’ll try to keep you posted on some of the events coming my way. Coming up:

  • Recording a new single with the Northern Lights
  • A trip to the Farne Islands (finally)
  • A weekend in Dunkeld, Scotland
  • June Ball
  • Graduation
  • The 70th Edinburgh Fringe

If that’s not blog material, I’ll eat my hat. At least, I would, if I hadn’t left it on the ALSA bus to Seville last month. Goodbye, boina. We’ve had some wonderful memories. I can only hope your next owner finds as much joy in you as I did. Like me, it came all the way from County Durham to you, O Sevillano. Treasure it, please. BB x

On the Brink

Twenty-one in a few hours. Blimey, did that come around quick! Rolling out the monster-drawing on the table in front of me, it feels like I only started it yesterday. In actual fact, I first put pen to paper just over a year ago – a year which has, what with a summer job, rehearsals almost every night and the trip of a lifetime to Morocco and back, come and gone before you can say Tinariwen. It’s set to be a boiler, too – a whopping twenty degrees, even high up here in the frozen north. Pity it isn’t predicted to go that one degree higher, to tally up with the twenty-one guests at my birthday party and the twenty-one hours I intend to be awake. Almost twenty-one and I’m still ridiculous about fateful minutiae like that. Something to work on over the next few years.

This year I’ve decided not to find myself another year older in Klute in the early hours of the morning. I did that last year. To be precise, I seem to remember not only spending the early hours of the 11th in Klute, but the final hours of the day in the same establishment. Hardly the grandest of venues for a birthday party – but it is Klute, and it’s kind of a local treasure zealously guarded by the student body on a Friday night, so I didn’t exactly see it that way at the time. This year I intend to turn twenty-one in the comfort of my own room. I’ll probably be working on the picture when the clock turns and the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban audiobook I’m listening to will be nearing its conclusion. I predict the beginning of the time-turner escapade when the clock strikes midnight. How appropriate. I’ll try to get an earlyish night, I suppose. Lord knows I could do with one, after all these recent two o’clock finishes. It’s not the portraits that take so long, it’s the sitting, thinking and planning that occurs whenever I’ve finished one detail. That’s where all the lost hours have gone, I reckon.

So, since it’ll be another busy day tomorrow, I’d better make my plans tonight. And to kick them off, how’s about twenty-one things to do over the next few years?

  1. Learn to drive
  2. Learn to play bass guitar
  3. Teach yourself ki-Swahili
  4. Teach yourself German
  5. Visit every Spanish communidad autonoma
  6. Go to a music festival
  7. Finish that picture
  8. Find a palatable alcoholic drink
  9. Get into a new genre of music
  10. Get a girlfriend
  11. Decide on a new adventure
  12. Cut chocolate from the diet
  13. Find a new hobby
  14. Learn a martial art
  15. Go for a real all-nighter in Spain
  16. Set foot in the Sahara
  17. Give an animal-related job a try
  18. Set foot in the Americas
  19. Be more like my younger brother
  20. Learn to be happy with who and what I am
  21. Rewrite the book ONE LAST TIME and take it to a publisher’s

I think that’s a nice little set of tasks. Not exactly Herculean, but there’s a few worthy challenges in there. These last twenty-one years have been amazing, but for Pete’s sake, I’ll be spending most of the coming year in Spain. It could hardly get any better than that. Here’s to another spectacular, adventure-filled twenty-one years. I should be so lucky! BB x

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 ( 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


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