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

The Quote Hunter

Two things first.
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One. I can’t stand quotes. Seeing one in the introduction or conclusion of a piece of writing is an immediate turn-off for me. I think they’re entirely unoriginal and univentive when used incorrectly, and they all too often are. But more than that, it’s plain lazy. We’re such wonderful, creative beings. What’s stopping you from weaving word-magic of your own?
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Two. I absolutely love quotes. The more original, the better. Especially ones that carry weight, and doubly so if they’re off the radar. The more you find, the more you can relate to, and in so doing, learn to spin your very own. At least, that’s the way I see it.
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I’m a filthy hypocrite on so many levels.
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The truth is that one of my favourite reading habits is to underline standout writing as I go, bookmarking entire pages if there’s too much to admire. In the olden days that would have meant defacing my library with pencil scratches and sticky-notes all over the place. Not to mention the dog-eared, ever-thumbed pages. There’s something genuine about that, but I’ve never been able to shake the idea that scribbling in a book is something close to sacrilege. With iBooks it’s a simple matter of tapping, swiping and tapping again if needs be. I’m doubly indebted to Durham’s International Office for their generosity on that front; why, if it weren’t for the iPad, I might never have got back into serious reading. Fancy that: technology leading me back to the old ways. It’s funny how the world works, sometimes.
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Since this quote-farming business has only been in operation since July 2015, it’ll take me years to build up the bank to the size it should be. However, in the meantime, I’ve been keeping a quote journal in one of my (far too) many Paperblanks notebooks, which is already one sixth full – and a third of that is from a single book (M.M. Kaye, you are a literary goddess). I try to keep a balance between meaningful quotes and pure nuggets of gold writing, so it makes for good reading on its own.
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Why am I wasting time explaining all of this? You know what’s coming! Here are twenty-five of my favourite quotes to date, taken from the various books I’ve been reading over the last year.
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The Garden of Eden, no doubt, looked fair before man was, but I always think it must have been fairer when Eve adorned it. (Henry Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines)
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By the afternoon of that day […] at least six or seven drums were throbbing from various points. Sometimes they beat quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes in obvious question and answer, one far to the east breaking out in a high staccato rattle, and being followed after a pause by a deep roll from the north. There was something indescribably nerve-shaking and menacing in that constant mutter, which seemed to shape itself into the very syllables of the half-breed, endlessly repeated, “We will kill you if we can. We will kill you if we can.” (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World)
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Her father was a man ‘led by a star’, as the natives say, and would follow it over the edge of the world and be no nearer. (Henry Rider Haggard, The Ghost Kings)
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Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative — an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary… That day I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed one as an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly — that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do... (John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids)
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It is certain that few build up the temples of their lives upon some firm foundation of hope or hate, of desire or despair [] but rather take chance for their architect – and indeed, whether they take him or no, he is still the master builder. (Henry Rider Haggard, Montezuma’s Daughter)
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“You are going to spend a strange honeymoon, baas,” said Hans […] “Now, if I was to be married tomorrow, I should stop with my pretty for a few days and only ride off somewhere else when I was tired of her, especially if that somewhere chanced to be Zululand, where they are so fond of killing people.” (Henry Rider Haggard, Marie)
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“There is so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing.” (Joy Chambers, My Zulu, Myself)
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There’s no law in the Sahara (Mayne Reid, The Boy Slaves)
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I must not go on writing like this or I shall throw down my pen and book a passage for Africa. (Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm)
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If a man feeds only upon honour, he will grow thin.” (Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm)
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“First serve, then ask for wages.” (Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife)
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“What is life but loss, loss upon loss, until life itself be lost? But in death we may find all the things that we have lost.” (Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife)
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Complete happiness is not allowed in this world even for an hour. (Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife)
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I have always avoided baboons, feeling more afraid of them than any beast. (Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife)
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The Infinite will of God is always mysterious, mercifully granting us what we need more often than what we want.” (Thomas Hoover, Moghul)
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It was a fear of India. Of the savage lands that lay all about her, stretching for thousands of miles and yet hemming her in. Of the dark, secretive, sideways-looking eyes; the tortuous unreadable minds behind those expressionless faces. (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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Conway Barton possessed a love of two things that have never yet failed to ruin those devotees who have worshipped them to excess: Drink and Women. (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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Common sense will nearly always stand you in better sense than a slavish adherence to the conventions. (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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“If you saw a lunatic in possession of a lighted brand and knew that he intended to set fire to a building containing a hundred helpless women and children, all of whom would inevitably be burnt to death; and if the only possible method of preventing it was to kill the lunatic, would you consider that murder or humanity?”
“You cannot justify murder.”
“I’m not. But whose murder are you talking about?” (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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“I told you so” is a cheap form of satisfaction at the best of times. (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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“Though I can feel the wind and hear the thunder, I do not yet despair of avoiding the storm.” (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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“The Lord helps those who help themselves.” (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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“That bloody goat! I can only hope that some wet and hungry tiger has made good use of it. It will be a richly deserved end.” (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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“As a nation we cannot resist moving in and showing someone how to run his affairs when we see them being run damned badly.” (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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They had escaped from violent death by the narrowest of margins; they had lived as hunted animals and now they were herded together as captives; their countrymen everywhere were being pursued and slaughtered and defeated, and the Empire of John Company was crumbling into ruin. They had seen sights that would haunt their sleep for as long as they lived and they did not know if they might live as long as another day, or another hour. But for a moment they could forget it all and stare at each other with antipathy and cold anger; the greater issues giving place to an instinct as elementary and as animal as that which drives rival stages to fight in the spring. (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
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Do you have any particular favourite literary quotes? I have my preferences as regards genre (historical epics and romantic adventures tend to take priority), but I’m always on the hunt for a good read! x

Touch Base

Another Wednesday morning, another fortuitous free hour. The perfect excuse to whip up another blog post. To think I’ve been at this game for almost a year now…! It’s probably the best I’ve ever been at diary-keeping. Trust me on that, there’s at least five or six one-third-completed journals lying about my room back home to back me up on that count. It’s been an awful lot of fun and I expect I’ll keep this going well into my fourth year at Durham and beyond, since this Spanish year is just the first of what promises to be a very rewarding early career!

Since we’ve come such a long way from waiting on tenterhooks for the slightest of information from the British Council last year, I thought I’d blow the dust off the covers, so to speak, and give you all an insight into the writer behind the pretence, the misadventures and the endless musing. It’s something of an experiment to see how much I’ve changed on this year abroad, so I find myself wishing I’d done something similar the start – those reading with the year abroad ahead, take note! Feel free to copy the questions to your own page if you’re so inclined, that’s what I did. Shamelessly.

Info

Name: Benjamin Barnabas

Age: 21 (though most guesses average around 18)

Gender: Male.

A Selfie

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There are better selfies out there, but none more suitable

Favourites

Food: Croquetas. I quite literally go for nothing else when I’m eating out.

Drink: Water. I also go for Fanta when I’m out and about, because I’m fed up of tripping over all of those C’s in Coca Cola.

Book: Either King Solomon’s Mines or The Far Pavilions.

Song: Vicious question. I have different songs for different moods, but the title is probably a struggle between three: The Corrs’ Forgiven Not Forgotten, The Circle of Life and Back in Stride by Maze and Frankie Beverley.

Movie: The Lion King. Probably one of the first movies I ever saw and still my favourite.

Band: The Corrs. Nostalgia once again; Forgiven Not Forgotten was my first ever cassette.

Solo Artist: James Brown. Though Michael Jackson and Beyoncé take a close second and third.

Place: El Rocio. Especially in the shade of the stone pines on the Raya Real.

Subject: literature, nature, languages, art, music and history. The latter was never my strongest subject, but probably one of my greater loves at school.

Sport: Pull the other one. Gym chat and team sports send me to sleep.

(…Alright, alright, I like to swim when I can. But on my own terms. Not of this lengths and widths and personal best nonsense.)

Male actor: I want to say Derek Jacobi? Seeing him play Malvolio in Twelfth Night was pretty special.

Female actor: Penelope Cruz. Because…  Penelope Cruz.

Life:

Schooling: I went to one of Kent’s several grammar schools after a few years in a private that didn’t really suit me very well. I’m not sure how I feel about the fairness of the grammar school system, having very nearly failed to get in myself, but I would say it was the very best place for a kid like me and I’m extremely grateful for everything it did for me.

Best Friend: Biff holds that title; we’ve known each other since the start of secondary school some ten years ago now. I’m a blabbermouth on this blog but in real life I don’t really do small talk. A conversation with Biff picks up right where it left off the last time and that’s the very best I could ask.

Political ideology: I confess I’ve a romantic streak of anarchism within me, but I’m probably just one more wayward middle-class liberal at the end of the day.

Religion: Still a mystery. It’s out there somewhere and until I find it, I refuse to deny it.

Tattoos: None.

Piercings: Ditto.

Languages: English, Spanish, French, Arabic and snatches of Persian, Luo and isiZulu.

Reason behind your blog’s name: The number of B’s is aesthetically pleasing.

Why you blog: To lecture myself, for one. To keep my friends and family informed of my wanderings, for another. It’s also great writing practice. But probably the most important reason is to make some kind of sense of all of the thoughts buzzing about my head on a daily basis.

Do we share anything in common?  Even if I didn’t tag you, please feel free to fill out the questions – and do please link to your answers in the comments!

Tractor Beam

Andalucia and Extremadura have plenty in common. They’re both southern, they’re both gorgeously hot and sunny most of the time and the language in both of them borders on the incomprehensible. So you can understand why I applied for both when I got myself into this auxiliar malarkey just over a year ago. My third choice, unmentioned since my very first blog posts back in May, was Cantabria. Land of cows, snow-capped mountains, green hills and tractors. The Iberian Alps, the Spanish Yorkshire. About as far away from the dusky south as you can get. So what in Creation drove me there this weekend – besides a frustratingly slow bus?

I’ll put it like this. You can’t keep a good man down, and you most definitely can’t shut up a wanderer in his house for long.

Besides hopping down to Olvera for Carnaval, I’ve done no traveling since Madrid back in the first week of January. That’s only a couple of months back, granted, but compared to the madness of last term, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing of late. In any case, I got a bad case of itchy feet last week and, watching the weather forecast, I made a spontaneous decision to visit my dear friend Kate in Cantabria – on the other side of the country. She’s working as an auxiliar up there and we’ve got much the same setup, right down to the state/private school split. If you haven’t already been keeping up with her adventures, check them out over at Langlesby Travels. Besides being jolly good fun, it makes for a lot easier reading than most of my biweekly outpourings!

I’d planned on two full days up north, as for the first time since I started trawling the site last year there was a super-convenient BlaBlaCar bound for Santander at midnight on Thursday, meaning I’d be in Cantabria for seven o’clock in the morning. It was just too good to be true…!

And so it proved. After a fourth BlaBlaBlunder where the driver changed his mind and shifted the drive six hours earlier, bang in the middle of my afternoon classes, any hopes of arriving early were dashed, so I resigned myself instead to one day in Cow Country and one whole day on the bus. Thanks, BlaBlaCar. I feel like it’s important to point out that as a system it’s by no means foolproof, as so many headstrong young things would have you think. It’s done me some very good turns and I do believe it really is the way forward, but it’s screwed me over in equal measure. You win some, you lose some. In that sense, perhaps BlaBlaCar is a good metaphor for life.

The journey began, as they so often do, in Mérida, where I found myself on the Roman bridge, scanning the reeds for a ridiculously early little bittern. Villafranca and its endlessly repetitive surroundings lack a viable soul spot, which Mérida offers in the ever-changing Guadiana. Mérida may always seem to be lacking something, but the river has never let me down. There’s something beautifully elemental about rivers. This one in particular is never the same. The first time I saw it, the river was playing host to several families of purple gallinules, frolicking about in the reeds. A month later the whole stretch was clogged with water hyacinth. Three weeks after that, half of it had been siphoned off and the rest was being heaped onto the banks by a team of gumboots. This weekend, the river was barely ankle-deep, with only the deepest stretch in full flow – only to be magically restored to life two days later. Oh Guadiana, you baffle me.

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What gives, Guadiana?

The journey north was fairly uneventful. I spent almost all of it trying to read Cavell’s Moghul, but more often than not staring out of the window at the changing scenery and, before sundown, came to the conclusion that Cáceres province truly is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. If you don’t believe me, visit Plasencia. If Spain has an Eden outside of Doñana, it may be found there.

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Snow on the mountains in Castilla y Leon

Despite reassurances from the driver that we were perfectly on schedule, we still pulled into Torrelavega a full twenty minutes late – which, coincidentally, is the exact amount of time I’d factored on giving myself to get from the bus station to the train station. Sprint as fast as I did – I may not be much of a sportsman, but I consider myself half-decent over a short distance – I arrived at the station just as the last train was leaving. Last year’s BB would have cried in frustration at this oh-so predictable turn of events; this year’s BB shrugged it off and chartered a taxi. It ended up costing me almost as much to go the last few kilometres to Cabezón de la Sal as it did to come all the way from Mérida, and at least three times the train fare, but that’s taxes for you. I’ve told you before… I don’t like taxis. Period.

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The River Tagus in the plains of Caceres

At any rate, I made it to Cabezón de la Sal and, after wandering aimlessly in the dark, lost in the Alpine beauty of the place, Kate finally found me, introduced me to her friend Almu and I had my southern accent swiftly corrected. That can only mean one thing: all those weekends in Olvera are paying off. They’ll make a guiritano out if me yet.

The following day’s adventures require a post in their own right, so I’ll give them that much. Keep your eyes peeled for the second installment! BB x

The Green Hills of England

It’s drawing near to December, that time of year when, like as not, English hearts across the world look back to Albion. Say what you like, but Christmas just isn’t the same anywhere else. I’ve been told as much by the Spaniards themselves, some of whom know it only from what they’ve seen in books and on TV.

I’ve never been the kind to get too nostalgic about home, probably because I’ve always lived by the creed that home is where the heart is, and if truth be told, my heart is rather portable. I’ve been none too careful with it. There’s pieces of it everywhere; in Olvera, in El Rocio, in Boroboro and in the Lake District. This year is no different. I’ve been working here in Villafranca for exactly two months now, and I’ve yet to feel any desperate pangs for home home. How can I, when there are so many places I want to be? I’m also a natural loner, by habit and by necessity. Spending long periods in my own company has never bothered me all that much. Sometimes I prefer it that way. It’s a lot less complicated. So it’s got a fair amount to do with my personality, but it could well be because I’m simply too busy to get homesick. Being told I wasn’t needed for one of my classes this morning felt so decidedly wrong that I heard myself asking to make up the time later. I’ve told you before, I can’t deal with not being busy up to my eyes. It’s a state I both love and hate. But it’s a damn sight better than having nothing to do, which is the very worst state of all – just short of despair, which, I suppose, it is, in a way.

Enough musing! I’m not completely immune, and after reading several blog posts on a similar theme, I’ve got to wondering what it is that I miss about England when I’m not there, and I came up with a few:

  1. Milk. You know, regular, cold milk, none of this warm UHT stuff. Yes, I get it, we’re the only species that drinks another animal’s milk and it’s unnatural, but it’s a lot nicer in the morning than UHT.
  2. Music. I’ve already elaborated on this one, so I won’t go into it again.
  3. Footpaths. When you’ve grown up in a country so well-stocked with public footpaths across open country, coming to a land where unsigned farm tracks of dubious public status are the only alternative to roads is a little depressing.
  4. Rain. There’s something magical about rain. It makes me feel elated, especially the real storms, the ones where you simply have to rush outside and get soaked to the skin. That’s more of an African thing than an English thing, but we do get a lot of rain in England, and a lot more than Spain, anyway.
  5. Green. It’s not as much of a problem here as it was in Jordan, as Extremadura is actually rather green itself at this time of year, especially in the north. But it extends beyond that. It’s that cold wind in the night, the dewy scent in the morning, the crunch of frosty ground underfoot. An English autumn green and red and gold. As much as I love hot countries, it’s the one thing I truly miss when I’m gone. And nowhere, NOWHERE does it better than the Lakes.

That’s about as much as I can think of. Family, obviously, would be at the top of the list, but that’s a given. That’s the only reason I’m going home for Christmas this year, because I’m rushing straight back out here for January; for the Reyes Magos, for Olvera and for the Lion King in Madrid (I’ll save that for a later post). What with my younger brother at university now, all four of us left in the Young family are living and working in four different places, so it’ll be nice to be home together again for Christmas. As for the things I thought I’d miss – friends, food and life in general – I’ve got plenty of all three out here, and in a few cases it’s better than back home.

But the important thing is this: Christmas is a time for being with your family. Forget Christmas; the end of the year, when it’s dark and cold, and a new year is on the brink – that’s a better time than any to be with your nearest and dearest. I’d have liked to have stuck it out here, in defiance, or maybe gone to Olvera to spend it with my friends, but at the end of the day, they have their own families, and I wouldn’t want to hijack somebody else’s special day. So for England I’ll be bound, mere hours before Christmas Day, and for once, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m not ashamed to be British. And I have Allan Quatermain to thank for that. Allan Quatermain, and John Lockley, and Flashman, and all the other British heroes of literature, who in spite of all of my self-imposed angst at the shame of being British, have shown me that there is in fact a fierce integrity in being from Albion.

For the first time in history, I’m an Englishman abroad – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. BB x

Diamond in the Rough

This week started just about the same way as every week begins, with me waking up to the sound of my seven o’clock alarm, with the morning’s first class just an hour and a quarter away, and finding myself struck with the weekly conundrum that is ‘now, what am I going to teach today?’.

For the first three weeks I had some stellar lesson plans, but we’re filing into my fifth working week here now (I told you before, my observation week became my first teaching week) and my tried-and-true classes have come and gone. Four down, twenty-seven to go. Since in school I teach across the age-groups, from six to twenty-two, I have to split my material in half depending on their ability, which requires two new lesson plans each week. Not exactly a challenge, per se, especially when several of those are shared between groups, meaning it’s possible (and highly recommended) to recycle material; but it’s a weekly problem, after a weekend spent traveling, partying or what have you, that on Sunday night the question is always there on the tip of my tongue as I bed down for the night. What am I going to teach them today?

Today I thought I’d brave it and try literature on the kids. Foolhardy, I know, especially after my last attempt at sparking some creativity amongst the would-be dullards, but I’m not about to give up on them yet. To spark their interest – and since I’ve just spent most of the weekend reading the tale – I kicked things off by drawing a blackboard-sized Moby Dick on the board, complete with scars, harpoons and rigging. Most of them had heard of it, but understandably, none of them had actually read it.

Well, not quite. One of them had.

I did a little double-take at this and made him explain the plot to the class. The way he put it, in English, a language that is not his own, told the tale better than Herman Manville (personally, I found the text hard-going, turgid even, though the story itself was impeccable). Better yet, he beat me to it and cited Manville as the author. I thought I’d let him sit on his laurels for a while and ask the others for any books they’d read recently, but they just stared blankly at me, as though I’d asked them if they’d like to spend the rest of the day doing quadratics. Moby – the pseudonym I shall forthwith use for this very literate kid – had his hand up the whole time and went on to tell me about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. That he had read them in translation is beside the point. This is a boy of fifteen who’s busy working his way through the classics.

As I was struggling to elicit some kind of interest from the rest of the class – who, as you might expect, were getting visibly bothered by Moby’s contributions – my colleague spent the hour taking notes of other writers that he might enjoy, amongst them Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. One of Moby’s companions lost it and complained loudly that it was unfair that only Moby was talking. My colleague and I soundly brought him down a size by repeating that all I was asking for was a story any of them had read, and that as Moby was the only one who was willing to talk, they only had themselves to blame for their silence. I opened the floodgates a little by allowing them to tell me about a film or television series they might have seen, but on that inch they took a mile and missed the point completely; three accounts down the line I had to remind them that match reports, game shows and reality TV are not stories, and consequently didn’t count.

Pushed into a corner, one kid looked very chuffed to say he thought his favourite TV show, a Spanish version of Match of the Day, was far better entertainment than any book he’d ever read. Granted, he probably hasn’t read very widely – I hadn’t at his age – but for good measure I told him that a show where two obnoxious early retirees discuss what happened, what might have happened, what should have happened and what might happen next time in a football match for an entire hour could hardly be as entertaining as a decent read. I could have done worse, of course, but I held back. Most of it went over his head anyway, as it was supposed to. I’m not foolhardy enough to let my personal prejudices against the tedium that is the world of football discussion ruin my relationship with my students, who already know I’m none too keen on it.

As you might have guessed, I was getting pretty frustrated by this point. I’ve learned to mask it after a month of teaching these kids, but it’s still pretty galling when you ask a simple question and all you get in return is twenty-three gormless expressions. But Moby came back with the goods, stating that he hadn’t read any books in English yet, but that over Christmas he was going to try with Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. You’ve got to hand it to the kid; starting to read in a foreign language with Tolkein…? That takes guts. My parents are prolific readers and they can’t stand his writing, and sadly they’re not alone (though I, for one, can’t get enough of the stuff).

In the other establishment I work at there are several kids like Moby in every class; students who are well-read, well-cultured and whose English is streets ahead of their companions. It’s the norm in a private school. And teaching in both private and state has its merits. But kids like Moby make the state school experience so much more worthwhile, for all the challenges. Here is a boy who, despite everything, is working his way through the literary greats for the pure pleasure of it, with his mind bent on attending university in Toronto of all places. It’s kids like Moby who remind me just why it is that I love teaching. Because for all the sour looks, disinterest and gossipping that goes on, when there’s at least one kid who’s shining with promise there’s a reason to go on. Obviously you can’t cater to that one child alone – if it were that simple, everyone would want to be a teacher, I think – but as long as you know that what you’re dealing is going towards somebody’s personal development, that’s reward enough for all your travails.

As for me, I’ve got a fair amount of catching up to do. Moby Dick was this weekend’s read; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe await, along with Allan Quatermain (after a two-month hiatus). Maybe I’ll recommend King Solomon’s Mines to Moby when I next get the chance. It’s certainly one of my favourites. BB x

No Going Back

Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do. I’m certainly not particularly good at it. In fact, there are quite a few goodbyes I’d like the chance to go over again, given the opportunity. You know the kind: the ones where it was all too fleeting, or maybe you didn’t quite say everything you wanted to say, or maybe the real goodbye never came around and you were left with a last meeting that wasn’t really a send-off at all. Most likely you’ve encountered that oh-so-very British awkward goodbye at least once in your lifetime: the one where you say goodbye to somebody, only to bump into them a few minutes later. Don’t you find that situation crops up a lot? It certainly does in Durham, anyway…

For a chatty gossip like me (you’ll just have to imagine the deep sarcasm there), I don’t suppose there’s much point in an elaborate farewell. It’s only really an issue if you’re going to be out of contact for an extended period of time, like stepping off the plane into the abyss and severing all connections with the outside world. Which is essentially what I do every time I step off the train at Three Bridges. I have a phone, true, but I rarely use it. I think I sent a grand total of three texts over the last three months, and all three of them last Sunday. Radio silence on my part doesn’t necessarily mean I’m traveling – I’m probably a lot more talkative when I’m on the road – but it doesn’t mean I’m inactive, either. I simply enjoy going for long periods of radio silence. Anything that needs saying can surely be said best face-to-face, and anything that’s worth saying is always worth waiting for. That makes me quite a distant person, I guess – and not the easiest to track down. For somebody who spent almost all of two years on teenage texting tenterhooks, it’s a policy I’ve guarded jealously for some time now. So in that sense, setting off on another long adventure isn’t really all that different from any other end of term break, as far as contact is concerned.

I’m going off topic. I suppose I’d better come out with it. I’m heading off to Spain in two days’ time – less – to spend nine months working in a secondary school… and I’m not coming back in between.

The idea first came to me when I had a look at the Spanish school calendar for the coming year. That projected end of term date on the twenty-second of December shocked me at first, despite having been schooled in Spain at Christmastime before. It’s all about the reyes magos out there, and that’s not until January. I must have got it into my head early on, but it wasn’t until saying farewell (successfully, mind!) to Andrew at Gatwick Airport that it hit me: I want to be out there for the long haul. Taking a year abroad isn’t just about honing your language skills to fluency, it’s about growing up – and Lord knows I’ve still so much more of that to do. What better way than to strike out on your own for an entire year? Because that’s what it’s set to be, with my second Arabic stint in Morocco striking up almost as soon as I’m done in Extremadura at the end of May, meaning I won’t see the green hills of England again until August 2016, at the very earliest. That doesn’t trouble me as much as it should.

I'm going to miss autumn in England. No, I'm really, really, really going to miss it

I’m going to miss autumn in England. No, I’m really, really, really going to miss it

The last few days have been wonderful for a last taste of England. I consider myself extremely lucky to live in one of the most charming spots in West Sussex, overlooking a dream-sequence of rolling hills as far as the eye can see, right up to the point when they tumble into the sea to the south. Autumn’s in the air, the forest is full of mushrooms and the buzzards that nest deep in the woods are cartwheeling noisily through the skies as usual. Morpurgo described them ‘mewing’ in one of his books and I can’t think of a better way of putting it. This is England, and I’m going to miss it. But there’s something in the air, telling me it’s time I should be moving on. Maybe that’s autumn. The signs are everywhere. The leaves on the oak trees are going a gorgeous golden colour. Out on the school rugby pitches the odd wheatear sits taking a breather, whilst flycatchers and warblers hurry on through the hedgerows snatching a quick meal on their way home. But most telling of all are the great flocks of swallows and the martins streaming on southwards overhead, and in a couple of days I’ll be following them. Maybe I’ll even see some of the same individuals swooping by from Villafranca. Who knows?

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

The hardest thing for me to leave behind – besides the monstrous tapestry, which is never going to be finished anytime soon – will be the growing mountain of books in my bedroom.

A year and a half, five metres in and still slaving away

A year and a half and still slaving away…

It’s pretty daft, but for an aspiring writer, I’m late into the fold as regards actually reading. I got it into my head once that if I never read any books that contained ideas similar to my own, I couldn’t get done for plagiarism, because I’d never have noticed the similarity. How very typically overcomplicated of me. The end result is that I haven’t read a decent book – besides Pavilions – in nigh on ten years. At least, one that hasn’t been prescribed by my course. Now I’m motoring through them at lightning speed, assisted by all the iBooks freebies, an immense library at home (courtesy of my equally bookish mother) that I never truly appreciated, and an all-too brief visit to a real bookshop over the weekend.

So many books, so little time...

So many books, so little time…

I say real to distinguish it from your average WHSmith or Waterstones. Seriously, this place had everything. All the historical fiction you could shake a stick at. The entire Hornblower saga. Flashman in abundance. Sharpe, Iggulden and even the master of the art herself, M.M. Kaye. All beautifully spined, deliciously musty and lovingly second-hand. A new gadget may be a good thing, but there’s nothing better than an old book. Mum found a particularly beautiful pair of illustrated Arabic dictionaries – formerly the property of a military attaché, as stamped. Oh, I could have died and gone to heaven. I was in kid-at-Christmas mode. If I’d had this newfound book obsession just two years earlier, I might have given languages the boot and applied for an English degree. The only thing holding me back at the time was a general reading apathy…

Today’s been the downer of the month for no other reason than that every so often I have a lonely spell where it takes a lot to lift me up. Fortunately I’m in the best place for it: start of term or not, the grounds of Worth Abbey are no less than the finest place I’ve ever encountered for soul-healing. Alright, so the stone-pine copse along the Raya Real with its attendant black kites just comes up trumps, but that’s not on my doorstep every morning. Not yet, anyway. Besides, when the loneliness birds come flying in, the open world is always there. Nature’s an unpredictable lady at the best of times, but she’s never let me down. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it as often as it takes to drive this funk of mine away. Everything will look better in the light of a new morning. It always does.

Waldeinsamkeit - the feeling of being alone in the woods!

Waldeinsamkeit – the feeling of being alone in the woods!

These are curious things to dwell on when home will be so very far away for the next eleven months. But home is where the heart is, and mine has been in Spain for as long as I can remember, and that’s got to count for something. Maybe she’s out there, and maybe she’s not. That’s not for me to decide. If fate decides to cut me a break and give me a good turn, I’m ready to run with it. But one thing’s certain: I will leave Spain fluent. If I can leave the country at the end of the year as bilingual as the grandfather I never knew, I’ll have accomplished a dream two generations in the making. Being a quarter Spanish will mean so much more.

I will be fluent. And that’s a promise. BB x