God in the High Places

“You can’t help but wonder what compelled anybody to build a monastery way up there on the mountain.”

For just a moment in their hour-long conversation about real estate, American sitcoms and friends who had near scrapes with cancer, a Californian woman on the train remarks to her companion on the mystery of the world heritage site they have been visiting, as it speedily slides out of sight as the train turns a corner. It lasts but a moment; within seconds they’re discussing Ellen DeGeneres’ Instagram and Oprah’s twitter feed.

I’ve always been amazed by karst ever since my first visit to El Torcal when I was a kid. It affected me so much that it became the setting for one of the main episodes in my book, and I have spent much of my adult life dreaming of finding similar geological wonders around the world. But if El Torcal was beautiful, the jagged mountains of Montserrat were impressive on a whole other level. The name itself – serrated mountain – tells of its stark, toothlike appearance, standing high above the lowlands around Barcelona. That on a clear day you can see them from the city itself only adds to their majesty.

Small wonder, then, that the monks of eleventh century Catalonia saw fit to build a monastery there, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

There was a rush for the first train at 8.35am, but on arrival in Monistrol, the town at the foot of the mountain, they all herded straight onto the cable car and rack railway services without a second’s thought. Alone, carrying my lunch under one arm and my sketchbook under the other, I began the two hour climb up the mountainside.

It was quiet on the way up. The kind of quiet I haven’t heard since the last time I climbed a mountain, now almost two years ago. Cirl buntings and greenfinches chattered in the bushes, treecreepers and blue tits sang from the woods, and every so often the croak of a raven came in on the wind. Only the intermittent rattle of the train in the valley below broke the spell. It was an old place, and it felt that way for much of the climb.

The mid morning bells were ringing as I rounded the last bend in the track and began the final ascent towards the monastery. It was, of course, like most scenic places of worship, completely crawling with tourists. Three coach-loads of French schoolkids arrived just as I did, and a huge Chinese group of over a hundred-strong with their pike square of selfie sticks made getting up the narrow walkway to the monastery grounds a slow and uneasy business. Never mind the obnoxiously loud Americans, the even louder Italians, and the ridiculously dressed young Briton, almost as red-faced as his bright red shorts as he wandered around with his sketchbook. That is, of course, me.

Not for the first time I found myself wishing I could step back in time, to a time before mass tourism, when you could stay in the monastery for around the cost of a single euro (or equivalent). When, looking out across the hills of Barcelona towards the sea, you wouldn’t see motorways and industrial sites, but green hills and church towers lining the Llobregat river. In my very British way, I pined for the pastoral glory of days long gone.

I could not find God in the monastery itself, so I gathered my things and set off up into the mountains instead. Only twenty minutes out, with the monastery still in sight, it was calm again, and I was back in the silence. Which, I suppose, is precisely why the Benedictine monks of Montserrat chose to build such a wonder so far removed from society. To retreat is to escape from the world. Perhaps that’s why it struck me as so strange that a place of reflective retreat had become such a magnet for mass tourism. But mankind is all alike, in some respects; what occurs to one wandering mind must also occur to a dozen others. And who is to say any one person has more of a right to go?

Nowadays there’s this widespread notion that God is everywhere. He loves you, so naturally he is everywhere. He resides in every man and woman, every street corner, every kiosk, every artificial tree. Is it because he’s become so much a part of the everyday that so many people have forgotten him? When was the last time you really took stock of a kiosk?

The ancients believed that God could be found in the holy places: a high mountain, a desert oasis or a tree said to be older than time itself. I wonder whether if we stopped imagining that he is everywhere for a moment and instead went to seek him in the wilderness, as the ancients did, we might at least find that small measure of peace that resides in the high places of the world. For if he is the God of love, so too is he the God of peace. The Monastery of Montserrat might have sold its peace in part to the tourism industry, but wander a little higher up into the mountains beyond and you might begin to get a sense for why it is that God of old chose the wilderness. BB x

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

Live Organ Transplant

These are interesting times.

I must confess that, from time to time, I do wonder whether I’ve made the right choice. As university drew to a close, I watched many of my friends leave for London and five figure salaries. If it had ever occurred to me that I might be interested in that path, I suppose I too would have followed it. But here I am in Extremadura, one of Spain’s poorer regions, getting by on a modest salary and picking up extras in private classes where I can. At the very least I have a job; for that much I am truly grateful. There are plenty of wanderers here. Worlds collide: the English graduate in me seeks confirmation, stability and satisfaction. The Spaniard in me wants to use the here and the now to go from job to job until I find the medium that suits me best. It isn’t often that I have such Jekyll and Hyde moments, but in this period of intermission, the two are often locked in combat. My devil had been long caged, and he came out roaring.

Putting my doubts and concerns into perspective was the King’s address to the nation this evening. In light of recent events in Catalonia – up to and including several counts of police brutality as the Catalans made another bid for independence – it seems foolish to break my head over my petty apprehensions. I’ve never really taken a stance on the Catalan question, treating it in much the same manner as the age old Real Madrid/Barcelona F.C. divide – that is to say, taking the easy way out (in the latter case, opting to support Sevilla’s Real Betis as a nonconfrontational middle ground). But at such a time of crisis, it is difficult not to have an opinion here or there.

I’m a reluctant supporter of the Spanish cause. And I’ll explain why. In studying for my novels, I have been paying especial attention to the year 1640 and the troubles that spiralled out of that most hectic year. Critically, it was the year that not only Catalonia but both Portugal and Andalusia all made a break for independence from a weakened, overstretched Spain. After more than a decade, and much blood, only one would achieve that privilege. Taxes, once again, were a primary concern for the Catalans, who felt unfairly treated by the government. In this case they may have had a point: Spain’s various wars were costing the empire dear and Catalonia often suffered the brunt of it. The upshot was that, despite French intervention, Spain crushed the revolt and Catalonia was reined in, thanks in part to various double-dealings with the French.

(DISCLAIMER: I apologise if my history is off. Working in the medium of alternate history as I do, I sometimes forget how much of the history I study is the product of my own alterations…)

Four hundred years later and many Catalans still want their independence. It’s been an ongoing concern for some time, rumbling along the undercurrent of Spanish news for as long as I can remember, but when images surface such as those of the clash between the police and the fire brigade and of armed men raiding polling stations, the cause becomes that bit easier to understand. Some of the pictures look as though they have been taken out of a Latin American country rather than on Iberian soil. It’s really quite shocking.

What would independence for Catalonia mean? A lot of things, of course, but not least of all, trouble. Catalonia supports Spain more than many of its autonomous communities because it has the money to do so. Were regions such as Aragon and Extremadura to shoulder the kind of burden Catalonia carries, they might easily collapse. Catalonia is strong; it’s one of their mean reasons for making a bid for freedom in the first place. Not only is it one of the wealthier regions, it also receives a significantly larger intake of the country’s tourism. If you ask a lot of holiday-goers where they’re headed when they’re off for a trip to Spain, many of them will tell you Barcelona. When it comes to a summer holiday, a weekend trip or a day out, the Madrid/Barcelona question is far more easily answered. In short, Catalonia is savvy. Whilst for much of its history Spain looked religiously inwards, Catalonia was looking out at the wider world. When the tourism industry kicked off, the Costa Brava was one of the first on the scene. Had he not been hit by a car on his way to the airport, my enterprising grandfather would have been one of the first to reap the whirlwind. Though Castilla la Mancha was his home, he responded to the call of Catalonia. You might say I have a dash of personal interest in the matter.

We get to the heart of the matter. In her strength, Catalonia is one of Spain’s greatest assets. Just as much as she is wary of a merging with Portugal, Spain is anxious not to let go of Catalonia. A break with Spain, bloodless or not, would be a hammer blow to an already weakened nation. Whether Catalonia would prosper in the long term is beyond my understanding, but for the first few years at least, there would be trouble. Regardless of the political or economic outcome, Brexit resulted in a bitter taste in the mouth for many, both at home and abroad. The Catalan question outlives the Brexit debate by hundreds of years; I should not like to see that bitterness multiplied.

2017 is, in many ways, not too dissimilar to 1640. Alright, so there’s no pan-European war, popery is no longer anybody’s primary concern and explicit empire building is a thing of the past (or at least, as it was in the seventeenth century), but the point remains that it was a year of change and unexpected events. Last year saw both a British rejection of Europe and the election of what many considered to be a joke candidate to the seat of the most powerful man in the world. These are strange times. It is fitting, then, that Catalonia should choose this moment to strike out, as it often has before, at a time when predictions are off and nationalism is creeping back after a lengthy absence.

Even Farage made sure he got his oar in over the debacle…


It would not be the death of Spain. But it would come down hard, and upon a nation that has spent hundreds of years recovering from the slaughter of its golden goose. Stanley Lane-Poole once claimed that Spain had been ‘grovelling in the dark’ ever since the completion of its national genocide. Whether you sympathise with his damning appraisal or not, Spain is no longer the great power it once was, and if Catalonia broke free, it would be tantamount to taking one of her lungs.

One of the most beautiful facets of Spain is its diversity. There are few other places in Europe quite as varied, in people, countryside and culture. The Basques in the north are fiercely proud of their unique heritage, as are the Galicians, the Valencians and the Andalusians. In many respects, so are the peoples of all the other regions. Even the Leonese, within the very heart of Old Castile, have been known to make a bid for independence from their own autonomous community from time to time. In that sense, the Catalans stand out only in their dogged pursuit of independence. Where I would normally be strongly persuaded to empathise with their cause, as I was with the Scottish bid a few years back, my conclusion is much the same: one day, perhaps, but not now. With storm clouds looming, now is not the time for the severing of ties. There may come a time, and soon, when unity will be our holdfast. We should be proud of diversity where we find it and treasure unions where they can be made. It is easy to do things one’s own way. It is better for all of us, surely, if we work together. It’s the wishy-washy liberal answer, but I’m sure it’s the right one. If you knew that something you wanted would cause no end of hurt and disruption to somebody you knew, even somebody you had grown to dislike, could you take it from them? Really?

These are interesting times. I wonder what will become of us. BB x

Letters from my Grandfather

I never knew my grandfather. Neither did my mother. In the twenty-two years I have lived on this earth, my family has never numbered more or less than four: my mother, my father, my brother and I. No uncles, no grandparents, no second-cousins… Four. No more. It certainly made for an easy job learning languages – especially Arabic – but now that I’m older, and especially at this time of year, I find myself wondering just how much I have lost in that absence; an absence I share with my mother.

On account of a bad cold and a very real fear of spending another New Years Eve stranded in a strange place, I shied away from the celebrations last night and spent the following morning in church, questioning my elusive faith as usual. Do I feel like I missed out on a good time? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I try not to think that way these days. Sometimes, however, these things are meant to be. I believe that. I always have. The choices we make lead us in the right direction, wherever that may be.

It just so happens that my choice led me to stumbling upon something I’d never seen before: a collection of letters from my grandfather.

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My grandmother’s journal of memories

I don’t need to explain my love for Spain here. I’ve done it before and I expect you don’t want to hear me say it again, nor do I need to tell you if it’s news to you. I used to get sick of people taking the mick out of me for it, as if they hadn’t got it in them to love the places they’d been on their years abroad. I apologise for such childishness on my part. Of course, it’s foolishness to have even reacted in the first place. Because Spain is more than just an obsession. It’s my grandfather’s country. It’s where a part of me is from. It’s a deeply personal adventure, and these things always hurt.

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It looks like he could dress up and dress down…

Who were you, abuelo? What did you sound like when you laughed? Did you laugh often? There is sadness in your letters, impatience and frustration, but so much hope. Did you play the violin well, or did you tire of it like me? How can I know, when your mother burned it when you went away? You were a linguist, like me, but you weren’t afraid to chase your dreams. There is so much resolve in your writing, so much conviction. There was a living to be made on the Costa Brava, even if your parents didn’t see it that way. Those dreams of yours, those plans to take my grandmother out to dinner on a boat on the Seine… Spain was about to open up to the world. Did you know, I wonder? How old were you when that car struck you down on that black day in June 1964? I don’t even know that much. All I know for sure is your name, your letters, and your typewriter. I wish I knew you better. I wish I knew you at all.

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Hotel Catite, Castelldefels, where my grandfather worked as the hotel’s first receptionist

How different life might have been had we met, abuelo. It is impossible to imagine. I see you in my mother and, perhaps, in myself. But you had a family, somewhere out there, and now it’s up to me to find them. Last year I went chasing a dream, but when I found what I was looking for it turned out to be a dream and nothing more and it slipped away through my hands like dust. This is something more. I can feel it.

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Who cares about a language barrier when you’re in love?

2016 has come and gone. It was an odd year. Many things that happened that confused me, and some things conspired to bring me down, and many more lifted me high. It was, for me at least, one of the best of years. The new year is yawning ahead and I have my quest. The road will be long and not wanting in fears old and new, but it leads on and I must follow it now, for my own sake, and for my grandfather José who set this whole affair in motion many years ago. BB x