Marmite Man (A London Story)

Marmite Man

Marmite Man arrives in his chariot. He walks into a library, hiding from the autumn sun. He climbs up to the second floor, carrying a weatherworn traveling rucksack on his back, and finds a table hidden away on the west side. It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, there are only a few other people in the building: a couple of students, a woman in her mid-twenties looking for jobs on one of the desktop computers, a middle-aged gentleman or two. Anybody who can afford not to be working at eleven a.m. on a Tuesday.

Marmite Man takes off his windbreaker, lays it over his chair and slouches into the seat. His face is red and pockmarked, his beard more of a tired, uniform grey than cultivated salt-and-pepper. He looks about. Once. Twice. Pauses. Then he empties the contents of his rucksack noisily onto the desk.

First, a multipack bag of McCoys ridge-cut crisps. Then two bottles of water and a plastic Pret a Manger cup. A can of spray-on deodorant – no, two cans. A pack of Johnson’s baby wipes. A hairbrush and a bath scrubber. And, finally, four pots of Marmite.

He inspects three of the Marmite pots in turn, looks around, and after some rumination, opens the multipack bag and breaks into a bag of crisps. In the silence of the library, his feasting sounds like the construction work beyond the Bunhill Cemetery: an unhappy ruckus in a place of quiet. He munches and crunches his way through a second bag, then a third, and another, and another. It’s as though he is issuing a deliberate challenge to the librarian downstairs: come up and stop me, if you dare. But the librarian does not hear, or perhaps he does not choose to hear, and still Marmite Man goes on munching, crunching, sniffing, snuffling, belching and clearing his throat. He wipes his fingers, stuffing the empty packets into a plastic Tescos bag, and smacks his lips, looking around. There it is again: the challenge, who’s going to stop me? There are signs everywhere that say that eating is forbidden, and yet here he is, Marmite Man, rattling the sabre with his portable orchestra of sound: percussive plastic bags, guttural brass belches, woodwind grunts and groans. The anteroom stinks of synthetic flavour, a fabrication of burnt and powdered meat. He rubs his hands, his breathing loud and laboured, and applies a baby wipe tissue to his fingers and thighs. He rolls up his trousers and scrubs vigorously at his shins, scraping off a night’s worth of grime – or perhaps more. He stops – smarts – curses under his breath as he hits a sore.

Who are you, Marmite Man? Where have you come from? What brought you into the library today? The world has been unkind to you, I think. You swore at the man who left the anteroom a while ago, repulsed by the stench and the noise. “You got something to say? Fucking pig.” That’s what you said, through a mouth full of crisps. But maybe it was he who threw the first stone, the stone of silent judgment, as he turned his head, lifted his bag over his shoulder and promptly left the room. Perhaps what hurts the most is the silence, the everyday judgment of those who do not wish to see you. A vagabond is a part of the world gone wrong; a cog out of place, a dust blur on a family photograph; a purple brushstroke across the Mona Lisa’s coquettish face. We can choose not to see it if we so desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I notice you have not picked up a book since you arrived. To you, perhaps, escapism is dangerous – or maybe you have enough unhappiness in your life without imagining it through the eyes of somebody else. What is fiction, if not an experience of somebody’s else’s misfortunes? It is armchair entertainment for the comfortable, who sympathise enough with the poor to read about them, and would happily become them for a quiet hour or two in the afternoon, with a cup of tea on hand and the day’s work put behind them, only to return to reality as Mr Smith of Fulham, associate, papers due by close of play tomorrow. True misery is intangible to Mr Smith: it is merely something to be considered from behind a glass, and frosted glass if at all possible; the bubbling mire at the bottom of the ladder.

Marmite Man knows the mire. He has been cleaning it from his shins for the last twenty minutes.

Marmite Man counts his coins onto the desk. He is frustrated. He does not have enough. He pockets them again and sighs heavily. He plugs a charger into the socket under the table and wires in his phone, and sits. Looks about. Once. Twice. Then gets up and shuffles off in search of the toilets.

I am no longer hemmed in to my corner of the anteroom. I take my leave, packing my things away quickly and quietly. As I leave, I see Marmite Man again. He is standing in the history aisle, leafing through a book on the First World War. He does not see me go.


 

The Ladybird Tree

Regent’s Park is wide-open and cold. I have never been here before, except perhaps once when I was a little boy, and London Zoo was the destination. I hear they are closing down the aquarium today. I overheard a man in the London Review of Books talking about it, about how he’d taken his time coming to work because he wanted to see it, before it disappeared. What will they do with the fish, asked his associate. Feeding time for the penguins, he joked. It’ll be another ten years before the new aquarium comes along, so frankly I wouldn’t be surprised.

The benches are taken. It’s early afternoon, but we’re into the half-term holiday and the park is alive with kids on the swings, the climbing frame, running up and down the knolls, whilst mum and dad – but invariably mum – sits beyond the fence. And why not – the weather is gorgeous. The ground isn’t wet, and there are no ants about – none that I can see, anyway – so I sit down beneath a tree to eat my lunch.

I can see a ladybird on the bark. It’s not the kind you grew up with in kids’ picture books, post-box red with big black spots. It’s beetle-black with two red eyes, giving its wing-cases the impression of a cartoonish snake’s head viewed from above.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ladybird like that before. Point of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the ladybirds on this tree before either. There are yellow ladybirds with twenty spots or more. Red or orange ladybirds with no spots at all. I believe these might be the so-called harlequins, invading ladybirds from distant Asia. Up and down the trunk they go, in that apparently directionless march that beetles seem to adopt, racing in and out of the grooves in the bark. One stops. Its wings click open in a single motion, like the safety-catch on a gun, and then it takes off from the tree into the sunlight. As it goes, another arrives, jet black with those two red eyes like the first one.

There are no deer in Regent’s Park. I rather hoped there might be, but that just goes to show how little I know London. I think that’s Richmond Park – anyway, there are deer enough in my neck of the woods. I walked right past one the other day; a roe buck, fearless, much like the muntjac I’ve become rather used to encountering there. I did not move so much as a muscle as I walked past, which is doubly impressive as I believe I was singing George Michael’s Freedom ’90 at the top of my voice at the time. It just watched as I walked past, eyes unmoving but always facing me, like that illusion of Mickey Mouse’s ears. Teaching bottom set classes is both physically and mentally draining, but I do get the payoff of working in the countryside, and that’s a major payoff by any standards – but especially by mine.

The ladybirds seem to be increasing in number. I just had to brush one off my shirt. I think it’s time I took my leave. I’m not getting any reading done. It’s hard to read when it’s cold outside, no matter how bright the sun is shining. I remember reading somewhere that you’re supposed to kill harlequin ladybirds, as they’re an invasive species. The trouble is, how can you be sure you’re not killing the native ones? Spain had the same problem with red-eared terrapins, if I remember correctly. I found one as a kid in the national park. It’s not so easy to stomp on a baby terrapin, just because it shouldn’t be there. Easier with ladybirds, I guess. Perhaps size does count. Though that is, was, and always has been a rather unpalatable idea.

 

The Difference a Smile Makes

Riding the train across the southeast corner of England can be a rather impersonal experience. Over the course of the three different trains I have to board to reach my destination, I rarely have to say a word. A flash of one’s phone or ticket is enough for the ticket collector and human interaction tends to be limited to the odd pleasantry, such as confirming that this is indeed the train to Redhill, or some such assistance. Besides that, you can travel for three hours or so and hardly have to say a word to anyone. In any other country I suppose it would seem dreadfully out of touch, but it seems to suit the English very well. To each their own; an Englishman’s house is his castle; don’t go looking for trouble and no trouble will come to you, and other such expressions. The English love their personal space so much, it’s easy to assume that the loss of low-level human interactions in the face of the endless march of technology was welcomed here with open arms.

I might as well talk for myself. Sometimes I feel as English as the soil itself. Here I am, alone, barricaded into my window seat by my luggage and hoping the four tracksuit-wearing twenty-somethings don’t occupy the seats opposite. A damp narcotic stench, reminiscent of straw at the back of a big cat enclosure at the zoo, drifts up the carriage as they enter and I wince. I wince at the smell, and at the swiftness of my judgement; for the smell pervades long after the lads have moved on, lingering about the hawk-eyed man in the suit sitting opposite. I hadn’t even noticed him take his seat.

When the times comes to change trains, I do so quickly and willingly. I cross the platform and board the waiting train, finding a mirror-image window seat, onward-facing, back to the doors. Same seat. Same service. Same train design. It’s as though somebody just pressed the reset button on the passengers. And it’s silent again.

There are flashes of hope, though. The ticket conductor on this service greeted everybody when he got on, a cheery, wiry-haired gent, with a smile so warm you could put your feet up in front of it. He looks like a regular. At least, he knows the other regulars, anyway, commenting on a girl’s new blue-dyed hair and how he’d not be brave enough to do it himself; inquiring after a young man’s onward travel; and confirming for a second time that this is indeed the service to Redhill to a doubtful older woman. The smile does not break even once.

One of the most intelligent men I ever met was a ticket inspector. I wish I’d taken more detailed notes of his reasoning, but it was something like this: “It pays the bills, it keeps me on the road and allows me to think when the day is done”. He spoke Finnish fluently “because Finnish culture is fascinating”, had an intrinsic understanding of musical harmony and was a profligate Europhile. In another life, I should like to give ticket inspecting a go.

The sun is setting behind the white spring haze. Albion, the White Island, continues to live up to its name (insert topical Jon Snow reference here). I hope the last leg of the journey is as personable as this one has been. BB x

Commuter Vignettes

A collection of observations from London and Madrid.


14.38The Lonely One

A girl gets on the Metro before me. She has that listless look of a twenty-first century child, of a face torn away from the blue glare of her mobile phone. The phone is there, of course – it always is – sitting dormant in her hand but very much alive. Maybe she’s sad because nobody’s messaging her right this instant. There’s something Latin about her look: behind the white Adidas shirt and the pale blue jeans, there’s an arch to her nose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Montezuma, and she wears bold red lipstick on her thick-lipped pout. It looks a little out of place on her frown. She looks about eighteen, but with that tricksy Latin blood in her veins, she could be anywhere between that and thirty.

The tannoy goes off for Nuevos Ministerios and she leaves.


10.40The Spider

A London micro-manager discusses his six-month leave and coffee with Tom this morning, at a volume just loud enough for the carriage to hear. If the asking price rises into the millions, he suggests waiting for the results to deteriorate, like a bald and very well-dressed spider. Business is the meal of the day. His latest victim, a Gucci exec, writhes in his binds down the line, whilst the shadow on the receiver worries about growth. All of this is, yep, yeh, very good, cheers. The flies will just have to resign themselves to another day of good business.

The tannoy goes off for East Croydon and he leaves.


10.46The Ghost

Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.

‘Perhaps he’s not onboard,’ says an old timer. He gets a lot of laughs.
‘Gone AWOL,’ says a glamorous matriarch. She gets a few more.
‘Gone home,’ says a jumper-round-the-neck. The laughing streak dies out. ‘I mean, I haven’t noticed anybody check our tickets, so perhaps there isn’t one.’

Three minutes later, the train pulls out anyway. It doesn’t sound as though the onboard supervisor made contact.
‘Gonna be late now,’ says the matriarch, looking at her phone. ‘Ten minutes delayed.’

The tannoy goes off for Clapham Junction and she leaves.


11.23The Sardine Run

The 10.09 Southern Services train to Redhill is delayed. Apparently this is still newsworthy. Downstairs, the Underground splits at the seams. Giants with sports shorts and mop-tops jostle for standing room with Catalan sightseers, Russian students and a Rastafarian flyerman, dozing silently over his stack of pamphlets. The driver on the tannoy is profusely apologetic about the frozen train, citing an earlier faulty train as the reason for the blown lines ahead. The three-minute delay becomes a five-minute delay, which in turn becomes a ten-minute delay. Five was enough to oust the man in the navy pinstripe suit and the other big fish. I’m only going one stop so I really could have walked, but people-watching isn’t so easy on the move.

The tannoy goes off for Green Park and I leave.


22.52The Platoon

Small talk sweeps Cabin Six. Three late-twenties girls types discuss renting flats, grown-up men and which was the most distressing Harry Potter death, Dobby or Hedwig. One of the three isn’t contributing so much. Another keeps the flow going. Their ringleader dominates the conversation with perfectly formed silences and sentences. Corporal, Captain and Commander. They each tell a tale: the tale of the bright orange Maine Coon and a cactus, the tale of the old lady who fell asleep watching the BBC news and the tale of the silent nurse. The underlying moral of this urban saga? If you live in a flat, you can hear someone go to the toilet. A twenty-first century aphorism if ever there was one.

The tannoy goes off for Redhill, the Corporal gets off, but the Commander’s tales go on.


10.43The Herd

Three stag parties board the plane. Two of them are your standard bunch of square-jawed gym jocks, joking loudly about how muntered Gavin is going to get, how he’ll be flat on his face, gatted, smashed, trolleyed. The other herd follows their oddly-dressed leader down the aisle like a pagan procession, their Chosen One wrapped up in a pink and purple sari with all the bells and whistles – except, of course, the kameez that usually covers a Hindu bride’s modesty. Nip slips are clearly less of an issue for six-foot tall white men. When your average Joe has umpteen problems getting through airport security, it’s frankly ridiculous that he walked through untouched. He’s obviously done his homework if he’s going as an untouchable, though somehow I don’t think that’s the idea his cronies had in mind. The Arabic music crawling out of the speaker in his back pocket would seem to suggest that. At least in Madrid he won’t look out of place. In Gatwick Airport on a Friday morning he just looks like a prat.


15.16The Slaves

Jenny Seville might have painted the scene in front of me. A perfect tableau. Three commuters stand over me with their hands on the rail, facing out across my head, with their eyes glued to their mobile phones. A smart, short-haired man in a blue suit with his earphones in, a disgruntled middle-aged lady in a pink blouse and a professional women with a sharp nose and dark eyes. They stand before me like some grotesque Swiftian pantheon, their smallest features blown up and illuminated in the backlight. To their left and right, lesser gods scroll soundlessly in the blue glare. I feel tiny, sat pressed into the chair at their feet. All along the train, heads are down, faces are blue and conversation is fleeting. There are islands of humanity in the slave ship: a huddle of Latino men talking jovially with no electronic assistance, and a couple of old women discussing train delays in central Madrid. Every time I look around me, I catch the eye of the Green Woman, the only other person in the slave ship who isn’t glued to her phone. She looks like a slightly larger and slightly less airbrushed Anne Hathaway.

The tannoy goes off for Atocha and she pulls her phone from her pocket. I have no binds, so why do I feel so shackled? BB x

Soundbites II

14:18

Gatwick South Terminal never changes. Every third man and their mother is hunched over their phone/tablet and speechless, lips pouted, eyes disinterested. The rush of noise in the waiting lounge is metallic; a firm ground bass of escalators and flight case wheels is cut through by the soaring soprano of children in the play area and the sparkling SFX of the last-stop speaker shops. A man eats a sandwich out of a yellow-and-brown cardboard box. A mother explains something in Polish to her son with a good deal of clapping, then takes a selfie with him. The advertising screen displays the latest range of Boohoo Man. And my eye itches. I should probably stop rubbing it.

14:34

Gate information is still a good twenty minutes away. But it’s not all about waiting. The longest, coldest month of the year is gone. I’ve never seen a January run its course so quickly. But it has, and here we are halfway through February. Popping home to England for a job interview (and to see my family, whom I haven’t seen since September) was a good idea. I’ve missed England, more than I thought I might. One’s home country exerts a powerful force over the psyche if you leave it behind for so long. Tierra de Barros is not exactly the most spectacular place to be in winter, no matter how much the sun shines. Knowing my luck, however, Spain will put on its spring dress in a couple of weeks and I’ll wonder why I ever dreamed of England, perhaps on the very day I find out whether work will call me home or not. The point remains, however: January was short. I ought to make a habit of spending January with my girlfriend. It’s always dragged on so before.

14:57

I definitely, definitively, undoubtedly heard somebody say acho in the queue for this flight. I also got off on the wrong foot by sitting near the desk; these Spaniards surprised me by forming an orderly queue rather than sitting in the waiting area. Or perhaps they were English tourists with a more generous complexion than mine. Over a decade of practice and all the fluency time can buy will never make me a Spaniard, thanks to blue eyes and blond hair. According to the tannoy, the flight to Seville this afternoon is extremely busy, quite unlike the way out. It remains to be seen whether they’ll slap my rucksack in the hold, but at least if they do, they won’t charge me for it. This is only the second British Airways flight I’ve ever taken and I already prefer it.

15:32

This plane is packed. They’ve just declared that’s there’s no room for large cases in the overhead lockers. I got in just in time. There must be a Valentine’s Day rush to Seville. I saw plenty of roses sticking out of people’s handbags on the way in. A couple of Londoners out in front kept me entertained in the queue: the girl waxed lyrical about using her friend as a source of air-miles and the husband kept trying to read his paper in the gaps in her conversation. It helped to ease the nerves somewhat. Behind the grumbles, the problematic passports and the enormous wheelie-suitcases, the other passengers are only fellow human beings.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. It helps.

19:08

We left some twenty-five minutes late and we’re landing only five minutes behind schedule. I’m impressed. It still wouldn’t have been enough time to catch the bus to Plaza de Armas and then onwards to Villafranca, but that doesn’t matter; Fran’s picking me up. Sweet relief. It’s odd, to be going from the plane one night to work the following morning, but that’s adult life, I suppose. I guess it only feels weird because as kids we’re used to the holidays wrapping our trips abroad in precious time. It’s a reason to stay in the education sector, and that’s a fact.

20:21

The Spain I took off from on Thursday is a whole lot greener today. I guess it rained over Carnaval weekend. It always rains over Carnaval weekend. You’d be surprised how much of a difference that makes. I loved being back in England for the green trees, the gentle grassy slopes of the South Downs, the brooks and streams and the sea… I need that. I wasted away in Jordan without it, despite the best efforts of my companions. And Tierra de Barros, it must be said, could be an awful lot greener. But spring is on its way, a good deal earlier than I thought, and I’m about to fall in love again. I think I missed the cranes – they normally take their leave this weekend – but if I hop on my bike this weekend, I might just catch one of the hen harriers I’ve seen ghosting about the fields, though I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to run into the sandgrouse I saw from the bus. If I can’t write authentically about the wildlife here yet, it’s because I’ve yet to have the time to go out and soak in it. This weekend will be my first weekend in months where I have no immediate plans. I intend to make the most of that. I might not make it as far as Hornachos, but I intend to get out. And now that I have my thermals – a Lycra equivalent is apparently essential for cycling out here – I won’t look like a foreign jerk. It’s the details that make the picture. BB x

Buck

Autumn is creeping into the Weald. The trees haven’t turned brown yet – I don’t suppose I’ll see that before I go – but the leaves are beginning to fall and there’s a whiff of cold in the air, mingled with the damp, rotting smell of mushrooms. From the top of Turners Hill you can see for miles, sometimes all the way to the high hills of the South Downs on a clear day. Not so much at the moment, with the Weald mist of early autumn settling in on an almost daily basis, but every once in a while.

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England truly comes into its own at this time of year. It’s a season of green forests, Scotch mist and crows calling overhead. Acorns adorn the oak trees, the hedgerows are full of blackberries of varying tastes and conkers grin from their spiny shells in the horse chestnut trees. The pheasants have moulted and are roaming the country roads and fields, looking in a very sorry state, robbed of their handsome gloss and tail feathers. For so foreign a creature – most of today’s birds are descended from eighteenth century Chinese imports – the cork-ok of the pheasant is as much a part of the English country soundscape as the crow or the woodpigeon. It’s a soundscape I miss dearly in the silence of the Extremaduran plains.

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Leaving the road for a while, I wandered along a winding country lane and went blackberrying in the verges. Over the distant drone of a bandsaw from behind the barn, a pair of buzzards called to each other. A phone was ringing in the farmhouse. It was a reality check, a ‘Moment’, as I call them. I wonder what it’s like to live on a farm, out here in the old country. Sometimes I think that I’m isolated here, but at the very least I live on a main road. Farms like this one are so far out that any experience of mine pales in comparison. The phone had stopped ringing by the time I’d come to my own conclusions, and I ate a few more blackberries. I swallowed them rather than chewing them, because if I don’t then one of the pips always manages to get itself wedged in my molars.

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I thought I’d run a short distance, regardless of the endlessly clinking two-pence coins in my camera bag. I didn’t get far up the hill before I stopped, because a sixth sense told me the noise might flush something up ahead. Sure enough, there was something up ahead, and it hadn’t heard the coins at all: a young roe deer buck, grazing at the edge of the woods.

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It was just one more of those ‘why didn’t I bring a longer lens’ moments. After my trip to the Farne Islands, I really should have been better prepared on that count. These days, however, I’m not so fussed by the photos. The buck continued grazing idly as I crept down the hill towards it, either completely unaware or completely uninterested in my presence. After a minute or so it found a fallen tree and busied itself with scent-marking, scraping its horns repeatedly on the branches.

I must have been within fifty yards or so, close enough to see the white circles on its nostrils, when it finally caught my scent and saw me. It didn’t bolt at first, but stared at me for a few moments. I think it was more curious than frightened. Eventually it made up its mind and tore away through the grass, leaping through the tussocks and over the fence back into the copse from which it had come. I followed it, but could not find it. I sat on a stile at the corner of the field and wrung the water out of my socks as the rain came down. Sheltered under the oak trees, I waited out the drizzle barefoot.

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After a quarter of an hour, I put my socks and shoes back on. They were still wet from the thick grass and squelched on each footfall, but I didn’t really care anymore. In the Weald a lot of the footpaths run over old watercourses, where thick slabs of stone jut out of the earth. One such dark gully ran down from the corner of the field and I followed it, soaking in the sound of the wind in the trees overhead.

A short way ahead I stopped to check the white balance settings on my camera, and – there it was again. That sixth sense. I looked up and, sure enough… there it was again. The roe buck, at the bottom of the gully, looking right back at me.

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He held my gaze for a little longer this time, and when he scampered off, it was a little slower than before. I felt so alive. Mum said she saw a muntjac on her morning run the other day. I know I heard them in the woods when I was working here in the summer. I’d sure love to see one; they’re one of the oldest kinds of deer in the world. There’s something more primal still about the roe deer, though. They were here long before the muntjac, the sika and the fallow, perhaps even before the mighty red. I’ve had brief encounters with them in the mountains of Spain and the forests of France, and seen them many more times in passing from trains, grazing away at the forest edge in some field or quiet garden. Bambi was a roe deer, in the original story by Felix Salten. Having watched the bold curiosity of the young buck this morning, it makes perfect sense.

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I read in a magazine once that encounters like that are what you call ‘RSPB moments’. Granted, it was the RSPB magazine, so they would use the tagline, but it’s what I’ve come to associate with such close encounters. There are Moments, when you open all of your senses to the world around you in that instant: the ringing of a telephone, the organised cluster of objects on your desk that tell a few stories and none at all, the never-ending sound of your own breathing. And then there are moments grander still, like an encounter with a wild animal. There is a power in nature I get from nowhere else, and it feeds me still. BB x

Entitlement

I didn’t make it to Spain.

My bags were packed. I had my lightweight hiking clothes laundered and folded and neatly placed at the top of my rucksack. My flights were booked, hold luggage inclusive, my tent rolled up and my roll-mat tucked in along the side. I’d even learned a couple of lessons from last time, and I had stocked up on plenty of mosquito repellent, sunscreen and up-to-date maps. In short, I was readier than I’ve ever been before. But I still didn’t make it to Spain.

In the end, budgeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Five weeks ago, when I’d bought myself a decent tent at last and was eager to put it through its paces, it seemed perfectly logical to book a return flight to Spain and see what happened. I had a tent, so this time I could camp out in the wild for free and have a cheap trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in fact, so much. The more digging I did, the more dangerous a notion it became. Wild camping is a legal grey area – that much is certain – but as the economic situation worsens, those countries hardest hit hit harder. Where there is money to be made, the freebooter and the vagrant are unwelcome. Whilst a local farmer may take no issue to you setting up a tent on the edge of his property, a passing local just might – for a quick buck. For a simple denuncio, one might expect to receive a small cut of the fine meted out by the police which, depending on the whims of the officer in charge, can be hefty. I’ve heard of cases of campers fined up to 600€, which is a good 590€ more than what you might pay in a campsite, if you can find one. If Spain didn’t still cling on to such legacies of the Franco era, it might not be so risky a venture. But as it stands, when a local shepherd stands to make more money by turning you in to the police than in an entire week’s work, it gives him little incentive not to do so.

My girlfriend’s mother passed onto me a keen insight on my last visit: we see a lot less danger when we’re younger. At eighteen, it didn’t occur to me that by setting up camp in the middle of the woods on the slopes of the Guadarrama I might be putting myself at the mercy, not of hungry wolves, but of hungrier shepherds. I just did it and moved on. Now that I’m older and wiser – and more wary – I find myself second-guessing a little more.

It’s just a damned shame that Spain does not have as many campsites as England does. Northumberland, for example, has over a hundred campsites. Extremadura, which is more than eight times the size of Northumberland, has twenty-two, with twelve of them concentrated in one mountain range in the north. Perhaps the Spaniards don’t enjoy camping as much as the English do, but they’re missing a trick. Spain is absolutely stunning, with scenery – in the very biased opinion of this author – second to no other country in Europe. Without campsites, or the option to wild camp, they’re missing out on the chance to reconnect with their supreme natural beauty.

When you can put a name to something you see, it means so much more to you. Your friends matter because you know them by name, just as the pupils whose names you recall stand out in your mind. Neglect to know the world around you and it will never mean as much to you as it will to the naturalist, the tracker or the mountaineer. It’s a natural connection we sorely need as tech takes over the world. Going camping offers that connection to the next generation. Or at least, so I believe.

Part of the reason I so hastily splashed out on flights to Spain which I now can’t make or change without incurring heavy surcharges (thanks a bunch, Easyjet) was a disgusting feeling of entitlement that I just couldn’t shake. Having been up to the Edinburgh Fringe for one last, loud fling with the Lights, I needed to get out. To be myself. To travel. Isn’t that what everybody else does in the summer? Instagram certainly seems to say so, as does Facebook. You can hardly move for photos of Cuba, Malaysia, New York City, the French Riviera, German markets, Polish cafés, Incan ruins and Thai elephant baths. It’s a storm of what-a-wonderful-time-I’m-havings and wish-you-were-heres that build and build until you ask yourself why you aren’t out there seeing the world. A FOMO more potent than any shot, and one that, like a bad drink, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sooner or later, the travel bug gets to be like any other addiction, and after mowing through the next barrage of Phnom Penh sunrises and Carribean bikini lines you get itchy feet. I want to be there. I want to see that. What about me?

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It’s not the Inca trail, but it’s still bloody gorgeous

Let’s not kid ourselves. Travel is not for everyone. It’s just not. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s never free. Time is money, and if you’re not spending one, you’re spending the other, which means you can afford to spend it. Now that’s a privilege few of us have.

It isn’t often that I feel bitter about the affluence of the world around me, but it’s at times like this that I realise with a nasty jolt that it’s nothing short of madness to expect the same luxuries as one’s contemporaries. Life would be an awful lot easier if we stuck to telling people face-to-face about our adventures rather than bombarding them with photos twenty-four seven, and even then, do we have to yell? The blogger in me says yes. The writer in me isn’t so sure. I’m just a student fresh out of university with a modest job already on the cards, and that’s a luxury I can’t overstate highly enough. It’ll be many, many years before I can afford annual transatlantic summer holidays, and by the time I can, I don’t suppose I’ll want to.

Fringe, I accept, was my holiday. It was expensive, more than any holiday I’ve ever had, and I was a fool to think I could afford another, summer job or no summer job. In the end I was saved by the budget and, more poignantly still, saved by the bell. A couple of friends of mine are getting married in a couple of weeks, and it’s because of them that I had to return from Extremadura before flying back out again. The folly of making two trips to the same place became apparent only once I’d decided not to go.

I still have my dreams. I still dream of South Africa. But I can wait, until such a time as I have the time, the money and the maturity to go and to really make the most of it. For the time being, I’m going to focus on the humbler side of life. I have plenty of books to read and lessons to plan. I, too, am privileged to be where I am and how I am, and I should be grateful for that. Autumn is here, and autumn is always such a beautiful time of year in England. I should be making the most of it. BB x

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The Last Aurora

The wind is howling outside the window. Not a mild summery gale or bluster, mind, but proper banshee-style wailing winds. The ones where you hear shrieks and whispers in the fiercest squalls. Taken together with the dry hum of the lighting, the occasional click and whirr of the electrics and then the dull drone of the plumbing every few minutes, it’s a proper orchestra of silence up here in our Edinburgh flat. The perfect, saddening seal to what is, and perhaps what must be, the last glorious flight of one of the brighter stages of my life.

Everybody’s out or asleep. The post-handover drinks and DMC’ing lasted until the early hours of the morning, by which time yours truly and the usual handful had long since turned in for the night. With the last show over – and a resounding, successful six-in-a-row sellout show to boot – the fantastic fifteen are at their strength’s end. The Northern Lights now go their separate ways. Today was a new beginning for the youngsters, and a promising golden start it was too, but for five of us at least it was the last flight. The coming years may see many happy reunions and moments relived in coffee shops the world over, but somehow I do not think the same Lights will take the stage together again. Because whether we are the same crowd or not, we will all have changed. Time is the master of all things.

Were it not for Biff, loyal and enduring, I would never have known this world. I might never have met Luke, and shared a greater love for Luther Vandross. Or Sam, that most charismatic of leaders. Seb, the rockstar maestro. And though we crossed paths from time to time in the modern languages block, it was chiefly through the Lights that I found a loving friend in Aisha. My heart breaks a little more every time that I remember that I’m letting you go (like I said in Thursday’s Grapevine riff, even if it did fall flat on its face somewhat). But life is, when you think about it, one long string of goodbyes. And for a serial loner like me, I should be well-versed in saying goodbye. Perhaps that explains the lack of tears.

Sixteen hours later. Sam’s electric toothbrush is buzzing away in the bathroom. The fridge is steadily being emptied. Four Lights have taken their leave, eleven remain. The fade-out continues, only not quite as harrowing as yesterday’s yellow afternoon. There’ll be plenty of time for reflection on my next adventure, and right now I could do with getting my head screwed on straight vis-a-vis living arrangements for next year. That’s what the next few days are for – that, and a welcome break from a very, very intense fortnight.


It’s time I went in search of a new project. Something that will occupy my heart, mind and soul for the next few years. Books are the answer, and there’s no better place to start than Edinburgh, truly the city of books. A solid hour in a second-hand bookshop off Grassmarket set everything to rights. There’s a word for that feeling of being surrounded by the writings of ages in an old bookshop, though I can’t remember exactly what it is. That is my life, though. I am sure of it.


The morning sun has set on my time in the Lights. The whispering winds lead me forward. Waverley station awaits, the only station in the world named after a novel. There’s a symbolism there, and I’m shamelessly abusing that for a final word. BB x