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…

H_Cid


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.

H_Rat (2)


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.

H_Ash


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.

H_Hazel (2)


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).

H_Tintin


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…

H_Peekay


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.

H_Allan

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

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

Not All Those Who Wander Are Flossed

It’s just taken me about an hour and a half to wade through the latest Arabic text for tomorrow’s class. With a night of karaoke at the Marriott Hotel on the cards for this evening, I don’t exactly have the ‘I’ll do it later’ gambit at my disposal.

First off I want to apologise for a very rocky week or two of bipolar posting (some of you noticed, I gather…). The mid-term fury is over and things have settled back to the way they were before, helped along the way by much meditation, H.R. Haggard and Karl Jenkins. Ouch, that’s a painfully middle-class sentence. Life in Amman rumbles slowly onwards, the daily Arabic homework’s still coming in thick and fast and the Versailles branch of the British Council still haven’t told Andrew where he’s going. Business as usual. I took an entire weekend out to deal with my restless psyche and it seems to have paid off. It meant missing out on a couple of parties, but for the sake of my bleeding heart, it was worth it. So if you were feeling the strain of my sine-wave posts over the last week or so, fret not; the dust has settled. It should be a little easier on the eye from here on out.

It’s been a fairly productive couple of days, which means we haven’t had that many adventures; but that’s no bad thing. I saw our first clouds in a month or so the other day, and what a sight for sore eyes that was. You’d be surprised how uplifting it was to see a speck of grey on the horizon for once. Blue skies are lovely and all that, but when you’ve had temperatures balancing out over the high thirties for almost three weeks without cease, a cool breeze is a welcome miracle. There was supposed to be a thunderstorm, which we all got super excited about, but it never came. Instead, the sky went a very queer shade of brown and a mild sandstorm swept through the streets. No rain. One of the strangest weather phenomenons I’ve ever seen. We got the full force of the stifling storm heat, though; the temperature soared up into the mid forties. My insides felt like they were being cooked every time I stepped outside and there was a weird charge in the air. Mostly we found ourselves retreating to our various homes to sit like idol-worshippers before the air-con until the sun decided to call it a day. Even then it often carried on long into the night, that stuffy, all-pervading heat. The blankets had to go. How they’ve lasted this long is anyone’s guess. BBC Weather’s been getting an unnatural number of hits from our flat, at any rate. They say there’s a 51% chance of precipitation tomorrow. Good news takes the strangest forms…

I finally got around to sending off an email to the school I’ll be teaching at in Extremadura. I’ve had it written for the best part of a week and a half, but for some reason I never hit the send button. I guess I wanted to be dead-certain on the grammar, but in the end I just had to be happy with what I’d written, bite the bullet and hit SEND. With any luck, I’ll get a reply at some point before I arrive in September. So that’s pretty cool. In the meantime I’m keeping my teacher senses trained with this project of ours at the Iraqi church Andreas got me in on last week. The last session must have gone down well enough, because we had double the numbers this time. We’ll have to call in reinforcements at this rate. Parts of the body this week, following on from the previous lesson on going to the hospital. Getting the groups to use the vocab to compliment each other was a great idea, and also highly amusing. Apparently eyebrows are a valuable commodity. Or maybe they were just trying to get their heads around the pronunciation. I’d like to believe the former. Having to explain the difference between diarrhea and constipation in the politest possible way is definitely going down as one of the most entertaining moments of my teaching career. Something along the lines of ‘let’s say you eat a bad falafel, and it goes right through you… and for the other one, well, it doesn’t quite go right through you…’. British humour. It never gets old.

This church is just about the best thing that’s happened to me out here, though. It’s the one thing I’d return to Jordan for, given the chance. Maybe this is the beginning of a spiritual journey, maybe not. I hope so, at any rate. I’ve been waiting for my chance for so very long now, ever since I left that world behind almost six years ago… I’ll be dropping by three times a week from now on, twice for class and once for the service, so things should start to look up. And that’s a real slice of good news.

Bummer, I’m out of toothpaste. Looks like I really will have to resort to this weird Arab brand I picked up in the corner shop last week. At least it smells nice. After Morocco I’m none too keen to follow up on any of these traditional Arabian dental practices. BB x

The moment we thought Andrew’s placement might have come through…

Zulu Dreams

We’re into the third day of recording this wedding present for Grace’s friend and that means the bedroom’s been turned into a makeshift recording studio once again. If that doesn’t raise a few eyebrows, try to picture it: we’ve opened the cupboard and rested the two mattresses against it, draping a duvet over the top as a mock-up boom and shut all the windows and doors. The result is actually pretty decent – as far as mattress-fort recording studios go. Grace is in the cupboard recording hers now so I’m in the next room with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade in my ears, trying to quell my recurring bouts of city angst. Replacing one noise with another can only do so much good, but I think I found a better solution.

Bit by bit I’m building a clearer idea of where I want to make my next adventure, and funnily enough it’s not a remake of Archie’s enviously-exciting Central American backpacking adventure. That ship has sailed. If the chance arises again one day, I’ll take it of course, but somehow I doubt it will. Lightning never strikes twice. As for me, I have my eyes on somewhere else, a place I’ve been orbiting, as it were, for the last seven years: South Africa.

Did that come out of left field? Probably not. The more you know me, the more rational a conclusion it is. For starters, this Cairo to Cape Town jaunt I’m so obsessed with was always going to end there. The only stage I’ve ever really been able to envisage is the last leg, cresting the veld and staring, at last, at the crystal waters of the Indian Ocean after a year or so on the road. I see myself throwing off my rucksack and racing into the water to fall, knees first, in the sand. That would be worth all the mileage, border bullies and nightmarish bureaucrats that’ll plague me along the way. It’s a scene that’s been playing on-and-off in my mind’s eye for years. That’s one reason.

I’d like to say Haggard started this. I’ve been reading one book of his after the other and I’m hooked. But it goes further back than that. My first girlfriend was half-Afrikaner. That’s where it really all began, I guess. Yes, it must have been; I remember talking to her aunt about her time as a game driver and falling in love with the place through words alone. Sure, that didn’t all pan out so well in the end, but like a flower in the ashes, I stumbled upon Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One (the film) a week after the breakup. No other film has ever affected me so strongly. It could have been the music, it could have been the red-haired heroine, or just as easily the people and the places. More likely than not, a combination of the lot – but especially the music. There’s something otherworldly about it. Amazulu – from the Heavens. How about Ukuthula, the Zulu spiritual that never fails to move me to tears? Or Miriam Makeba’s African Sunset, which is playing in my ears right now? Don’t forget the Circle of Life. I put so much of my heart and soul into the Zulu solo with the Northern Lights that I go weak at the knees whenever I hear that one, too. Fun fact: I was born just four days before The Lion King came out. It’s a sign, baby! At least, I’d like to think so.

I could point the finger at so many other reasons: a family connection to Steve Bloom; the film, Zulu; the Drakensberg; the Zulu language itself. Yeah, by this point I’m pretty damn-near decided. The main question is when and how. I reckon I should have saved up enough after next year’s teaching. If only I were going to Morocco and not Jordan next summer; I could save so much money towards it (quit complaining about Jordan and just deal with it, kid). It also means I can dedicate myself to learning Zulu on the side next year. I’ve always wanted to learn an African language. Arabic is just a means to an end. Zulu – now we’re talking. We’re talking Africa and talking Africa is the surest way to my heart. And it always will be. BB x

Man Cannot Live on Bread and Hummus Alone

Day-to-day life in Jordan rumbles steadily on. The haywire that was this weekend’s travel spree is over and we’ve been back to the five-hours-of-Arabic-a-day slog since Sunday. Sometimes I forget to breathe.

Here’s a snapshot of my daily routine. Woken up by the pneumatic drill outside at about half seven, if the sunlight doesn’t get me first. Breakfast of one of a variety of egg-based dishes that would make the creative minds behind Durham’s potato team sweat; fried, scrambled, thyme-infused green, veggie-packed omelette etc. Eggs, eggs, eggs. I thought I’d go full veggie out here, but at this rate I’m in danger of becoming a qualified ovivore. The fact of the matter is, eggs are the cheapest thing around. Fruit and vegetables, much as I’d like more of them, are frustratingly pricey in our neck of the woods. If you want variety in your breakfast, you have to go downtown. That’s like going shopping for your groceries in Central London. Barmy. Especially so when we’re paying $500 a month each for a two-room apartment in this ‘convenient’ district…

Class starts at eleven, but more often than not Andrew and I are in Ali Baba an hour in advance, if just to make use of the internet – a little slice of home. I’d use the excuse ‘I need to check my British Council’, but I’m not alone – we all do. The waiting game continues, almost eight months since application began. That’s usually a good time to review last night’s homework, too. Then it’s a two hour slog in Arabic until break at one, which lasts for twenty minutes – just enough time to rush home for a mug of tea and/or some sneaky hummus – and then back to work until three, with about two hours’ worth of homework on the books. We’d make a start on that immediately, of course, whilst we’re still in the zone, but at 3 on the dot we have our language assistant sessions, which means Arabic conversation for about an hour and a half. Once that’s over, we can finally get started on the homework… so by the time we’re done with the day’s work, it’s about six o’clock and the Ali Baba staff shut up for the night, at which point we split up and head home to collapse into bed for a well-earned two hour sleep – because by that stage of the day, we’ve little energy for anything else.

Wake up again at around eight thirty and read some Henry Rider Haggard. I’m into King Solomon’s Mines at the moment and I’m planning to bomb my way through his entire collection whilst I’m out here. Anything about Africa would do just fine for the time being; I’m still missing Morocco something awful, let alone Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. (If anybody knows any great fiction set in Africa, let me know – I’m on a reading streak like I haven’t known since I was twelve!) One or all of the girls might join us at around nine thirty, at which point we head to one of two locations: Doors Cafe, a shisha joint on the neighbouring street, or Downtown, where all the action is. It being Ramadan, nothing really gets going until about ten o’clock anyway. Even so, we’re not usually out that late, and like as not we’re in a taxi bound for home by midnight.

And so it goes, day to day. Amman’s not the easiest place to knock yourself out, so to speak, unless we’re talking in the literal sense, in which case it’s a simple matter of trying to cross the road; any one of the local drivers will do that for you. I didn’t expect much in the way of entertainment, it being a capital city – fun is what you make of it – but what this place lacks more than everything else is somewhere quiet and green. I’m glad I’m not alone in that regard; Eloise, also a country girl, is feeling the absence of it. After a costly bit of road-tripping last weekend, we’re going to take it easy this time around. If there were a decent park nearby, this’d be the time. In the absence of that, I think I’ll blow the dust off the novel and flex my writing muscles for a bit. I’m no athlete, so I guess I ought to be flexing a muscle of some description. BB x