This week I’m looking into a rather different kind of novel, albeit one much more in line with my usual taste. Often considered the first novel by a Native American writer, John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Times of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated Californian Bandit is a remarkable account of the life of one of America’s most infamous outlaws. I have no misgivings in making such a claim: Joaquín Murieta may not be a household name like Butch Cassidy or Billy the Kid, but as the primary inspiration for Zorro, and by proxy Batman, the Californian bandit’s legacy is alive and kicking.

As might be expected of a bandit narrative, Joaquín’s tale is a tragic one. Ridge paints a picture of a man who set out with honest intentions but turned to villainy after being wronged once too often on account of his being a Mexican in an increasingly intolerant America (a situation that still resonates painfully across the ages). Finding himself on the wrong side of the law, Joaquín sets out on a career of vengeance against the nation that would not let a man like him earn an honest living. Along the way he gathers about him a colourful cast of characters, including his sweetheart Rosita, his brother-in-law Reyes Feliz, his nemesis Captain Love, and his bloodthirsty second-in-command, the unforgettable Three-Fingered Jack. The end is never in question – millions before and after Murieta have paid the price for defying the might of the United States – but such is the degree of Joaquín’s panache and gallantry that you might be forgiven for willing him to succeed, no matter how many bloody crimes are committed in his name.

To the modern eye, Ridge’s account comes across as half-story, half-history. This is not altogether untrue: the events within the narrative have been, to a greater or lesser extent, subjected to a fair degree of fictionalisation. An overarching narration of events takes precedence over dialogue and character development, and though Joaquín is very much the star of the show, this is as much the tale of his friends and foes as it is his alone. There are elements of the story that make for some hard reading in the twenty-first century – namely, the casual racism employed towards the Chinese, who fall before Joaquín’s men like wheat in the wind. Where Mexicans and Americans stand their ground and fight to the death, all of Ridge’s “Celestials” (an outdated slur used frequently in the narrative) are cowardly weaklings who habitually grovel and flee at the first sign of danger. They feature as a nameless swarm, fodder for Three-Fingered Jack’s bloodlust and a lawless whetting stone for the sorties of Joaquín‘s gang, since their slaughter rarely if ever provokes any reaction from the Americans. Ridge is, of course, speaking with the voice of his time, but given how evergreen the anti-Mexican sentiment of the narrative remains a century and a half later, it is hard not to draw comparisons to the present. Joaquín’s vendetta is in many respects a racial one, but it is rationalised through his personal tragedy. The xenophobia of his enemies cannot be so easily waived, and the indifference of the Americans upon his slaughtering of the Chinese miners speaks volumes.

I have been passionate about bandits since university. I am not entirely sure why. There is something raw about the idea of banditry that appeals to me, as it must have appealed to the Romantics of the nineteenth century. I chose to study Spanish bandit legends for a research project in my third year at university and I have been hooked ever since. I suppose it could be summed up as follows: the further removed one is from violence, the more exciting that violence appears. Some travellers in the 1800s came to Spain with the express purpose of seeking out an encounter with the bandit chiefs they had read about, leaving bitterly disappointed when they returned home unharmed. As I sit down to write of the legend of Joaquín in the comfort of my study, with the faces of surly Andalusian highwaymen staring down at me from the framed Doré prints on the walls, I am no less afflicted than my predecessors. Joaquín Murieta joins their ranks as a fearsome commander, standing tall alongside other such legends: Serrallonga and Roque Guinart; Diego Pernales and El Barquero de Cantillana; Tragabuches, Pasos Largos and El Tempranillo.

It is easy enough to conjure up a fantasy in one’s mind of the lawless world of Gold Rush-era California, but to do so with any degree of accuracy from the niceties of the present day would be no small feat. To write convincingly about the past, one must ignore the attitudes of the present and fully espouse the zeitgeist of the era in question. Therein lies the pitfall, for where is the storyteller who writes for an audience long since dead? And where is the book that is totally free of the truths and prejudices of the day? The very act of putting work into the public domain is to subject it to the scrutiny of the present-day readership, and it is upon this anvil that a story’s success may be made or unmade. To tell Joaquín’s story with more than a kernel of truth today would be to wind the clock back beyond one hundred and fifty years of social change, to a time when it was not essential to take into account the sensibilities of every featured demographic. Ridge’s account sounds so very believable because it was written not long after the events in question occurred, but even then his account is not unbiased: the author’s sympathy for Joaquín bleeds through his writing, for Ridge, a Cherokee, had plenty of reasons of his own to hate the Americans, having lost his father at an early age at the beginning of the events which would lead to the infamous Trail of Tears. History is warped by the age in which it is scrutinised, like a kaleidoscope that twists with each passing year.

August 3rd, 2019. A lone gunman walks into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and shoots twenty-two people dead, supposedly in retaliation for the Hispanic invasion of Texas. Within forty-eight hours, a Mexican spokesperson calls the attack “an act of terrorism” against Mexicans living in the US. The men who assaulted the young Joaquín Murieta and raped his wife got the sticky end they richly deserved in Ridge’s account, but in reality they were merely the heads of a greater hydra; the intolerance and hatred they represent is with us to this day. The story of Joaquín Murieta is all the more important now than it ever was. Here is the legend of an ordinary Mexican who was made into a monster by the land of opportunity, but who, like countless bandit heroes before him, rose above the darkness in the hearts of his people to become something eternal: a folk hero.


Favourite Scene:

The parallels between Joaquín Murieta and his illustrious descendants, Zorro and Batman, are mostly subtle ones, drawing largely on the bandit’s sense of nobility and his fight for justice. But there is one scene in particular that is especially poignant in its cultural impact. Having met with an old acquaintance on the road, Joaquín warns him to tell nobody of his presence in the state. The traveller swears he will be true to his word and goes on his way, but upon arrival at the nearest town, he hears talk of the bandit chief and talks of his recent encounter. Unbeknownst to him, Joaquín has friends up and down the country and, hearing of this betrayal from one of his spies, takes the matter personally. He comes to town in disguise, seeks out his old friend and, before dispatching him with a single shot, removes his disguise and declares the immortal line “I am Joaquín!”. It becomes a recurring staple of the legend of Joaquín that he fearlessly reveals himself before making a kill, and it would not surprise me in the slightest if Batman passed over Zorro and got his line directly from the Ridge’s book.


Favourite Character:

Murieta is a man worthy of three legends in one lifetime, but there’s another man in his saga who towers above the rest, and that’s Manuel García, more commonly known as Three-Fingered Jack. Next to Joaquín, Jack is easily the most memorable character, serving as a gruesome foil to Joaquín’s nobility and a grim reminder of the reality of the nature of banditry. Three-Fingered Jack’s unfettered violence is truly galling whenever and wherever it occurs and casts a long shadow over the villainies of his compadres, whose handiwork seems almost gentlemanly in comparison. There seems to be nothing at all redeeming in his character, and yet there is something immensely appealing about the monster – I honestly expected more of the wolverine in his last stand than he actually got.


Favourite Quotes:

They might as well have attempted to catch the red-winged spirit of a storm.

“If you betray me, I will scatter to the winds all that you have and all that you love.”

That terrible, three-fingered hand, which had dyed itself in many a quivering heart, had torn with its ruthless talons the throats of many an agonised victim, and had shadowed itself forth upon the horrified imagination of thousands who only knew that it existed.


Quote Unquote: BLINDNESS by José Saramago

**Quote Unquote is a new series of review-style posts geared towards mining my way through the mountain of books I have managed to accrue over the last few years**


Tonight I’m going to be looking at Blindness by Portuguese writer José Saramago, Nobel Prize winner and author of The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. I’ve had the book for the best part of a year, having borrowed it from my mother’s collection, and I took it with me on the Camino two weeks ago. I thought it would do me good to get some cultural reading under my belt, and Blindness looked like a light read… at the time. But that’s exactly what you get for not reading the blurb thoroughly, though the title alone should have given me an idea of what I was in for!

In his ensaio, Saramago weaves a monstrous tale centred on, above all else, the darkness in the human heart. It is not so much a cautionary tale as a dreadful reminder that we are only one small stage removed from savagery: one small push is all it takes. In this grim tale, that small push is the loss of sight. Starting with a man who goes suddenly and inexplicably blind whilst waiting at the traffic lights, the blindness spreads like a plague, spreading out from the source and driving panic in its wake. As the authorities race to take action, the affected are quarantined within an asylum, where things deteriorate with terrifying speed, culminating in the rule of force of a bunch of blind thugs who seize the food supply and extort their fellow inmates, first demanding their possessions, then the women. When a timely fire drives the blind out of the asylum and into the world, they find things are not all that much better on the outside. Throughout, Saramago conjures up a bleak world of stumbling and tripping, of unimaginable filth and miserable humanity and the depths to which the world can sink. We see it all through the eyes of the doctor’s wife, the one character miraculously spared the “white evil”, whose ability to see all that transpires becomes something of a curse as she alone is forced to bear witness to the breakdown of the world around her. She, and those within her halo of morality, somehow make it through their terrible ordeal until, just as quickly and inexplicably as it began, the blind have their sight restored.

Saramago’s writing style is hard going, to say the least. Even in translation, Saramago opts for chunky, seemingly endless paragraphs with no markers to indicate who is talking to whom. Like the Nadsat employed in A Clockwork Orange, one adapts to this style of narrative after a while, but it does make for difficult reading at times, especially when multiple characters are in conversation.

I’m not entirely sure what it is about blindness that makes for such a powerful plot device. I often come back to Triffids between books, and there are obvious parallels between the two books, though when rested against Saramago’s version of events, Wyndham’s vision of a world populated by the blind seems remarkably clean. Compared to the latter’s apocalyptic London of shattered windows and irregularly parked cars, the streets of the mental asylum and the unnamed city in Saramago’s work are rancid, litter-strewn and splattered with so much human sewage that one wonders whether the triffids operated a waste disposal service as part of their world domination bid. Wyndham’s world is also laced with an unmistakeable air of Middle England decorum: even after the total breakdown of society, the old laws still apply and sex is as invisible in Triffid-infested England as it is in Middle Earth. Not so with Saramago. There is one scene in particular in Blindness that will probably haunt me to the end of my days, not least of all for having seen it acted out with remarkably human depravity by Gael García Bernal in the 2008 film version (not how I imagined the character, but no less menacing a presence).

Blindness as a theme holds a morbid fascination for me, as sight is the one sense of the five I could not live without – and I can speak with a little experience on this count, as an especially fierce migraine temporarily robbed me of mine when I was eleven years old. It was only for few minutes – it might have been three or it might have been five – but I remember the terror as the world faded into darkness in the middle of a Biology lesson one morning. When my sight returned a few minutes later, I cannot even begin to describe my relief. It was an incident I never got any stick for – which is surprising, given how much of a commotion I must have made, flailing about on my stool and crying out that I could not see – but perhaps that stands testament to the shared understanding seated deep within all of us of the terror of a world without sight; an inheritance from our ancestors of a time before fire and the electric light, when the starless night was inky black and full of danger. That primordial sense of fear is never far away in Saramago’s writing. Stripped of any kind of logic or explanation, the plague of blindness reduces humanity to its very worst, reminding us all that, without sight, our mastery of this world is finished and we are cast back to a primal state which, in all likelihood, will kill us all eventually.

In short, I’m glad I read Blindness, but boy, did Saramago have some demons… I am learning to bleed a little more darkness and despair into my own writing, which is and always has been so thoroughly oversaturated with hope, but I sincerely hope I am never driven to conjure up such a hellish place as Saramago’s asylum for the blind.


Favourite Scene:

The blinded icons in the church. You’ll find a lot of the same images in Triffids – the lines of blind people staggering down a street, people clawing hopefully at tins in supermarkets that don’t contain food, the silence of a world where all the cars have suddenly stopped – but there is nothing quite as harrowing in Wyndham’s world as the church of the blinded icons. It’s one of those truly original scenes that one encounters every so often in a good book that stay with you forever. The idea of a vengeful priest scratching out the eyes of the painted saints and blindfolding the statues is monstrously chilling; a vision of lost hope in a figurehead normally associated with being the last bastion of faith in a darkening world. The absence of said priest in the scene, leaving the reasoning to conjecture, only adds to the haunting effect. It is a scene I almost feel moved to paint. Perhaps someday I will give it a try.

Favourite Character: 

The girl with the dark glasses. Cool, independent and frequently insightful, the girl with the dark glasses puts up with a lot in the narrative – in Saramago’s world, a physically attractive woman is no safer in a blind world. She adjusts to her predicament with remarkable speed, adopts an orphaned child and provides an iron support to the women of the asylum through her cool head and determination. The circumstances surrounding her affliction also make for a curious and delightfully awkward plot point – a rare moment of humour in the tale.

Favourite Quotes:

It is necessary to kill when what is still alive is already dead.

I’m not entirely convinced that there are limits to misfortune and evil.

Panic is much faster than the legs that carry it.

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…


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.


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.


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).


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…


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.


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.
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?
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.
I’m a filthy hypocrite on so many levels.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
“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)
“There is so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing.” (Joy Chambers, My Zulu, Myself)
There’s no law in the Sahara (Mayne Reid, The Boy Slaves)
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)
If a man feeds only upon honour, he will grow thin.” (Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm)
“First serve, then ask for wages.” (Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife)
“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)
Complete happiness is not allowed in this world even for an hour. (Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife)
I have always avoided baboons, feeling more afraid of them than any beast. (Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife)
The Infinite will of God is always mysterious, mercifully granting us what we need more often than what we want.” (Thomas Hoover, Moghul)
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)
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)
Common sense will nearly always stand you in better sense than a slavish adherence to the conventions. (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
“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)
“I told you so” is a cheap form of satisfaction at the best of times. (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
“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)
“The Lord helps those who help themselves.” (M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon)
“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)
“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)
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)
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

Shakespeare and a Pigeon with a Death Wish

Summer has arrived in Spain. It’s been pleasantly cool up until now, but yesterday somebody upstairs decided to crank up the thermostat. Two months ago it was finally warm enough to ditch the thermals by night, and now it’s shirt season. Which, for anyone who knows me, suits me just fine.

I haven’t done a random regular update in a while. I guess that with all of the to-and-froing after Semana Santa I’ve hardly had the time: in less than a month I’ve been to El Rocio, Sevilla, Cordoba, Barcelona, Andorra, Calatayud, Monfrague and Jerez de los Caballeros, not to mention taken part in a Romanian art school exchange and worked a weekend at an English immersion event. It’s been pretty non-stop since the 23rd of March. But life goes on, and as I try to make clear on this blog, life is not one massive series of amazing year abroad adventures – unless you count the everyday as an adventure in itself, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did. It’s full of trials and tribulations of its own.

Well, what’s to say? Here I am in the staffroom at my afternoon private school, waiting for my Upper Sixth class to arrive for a catch-up class (I’m still making up for those hours I lost by being in Barcelona, one month later – take note, future me!). It’s hard work but rewarding, teaching Upper Sixth… They don’t all take part as they should, but those that do do so with a spectacularly high level of English. The others are just as good, if only they’d speak more (an eternal problem with teenagers). I look back to the honeymoon period when I’d first arrived and it was a barrage of questions from all sides… but even if they aren’t as proactive with familiarity, at least being settled pays off. And at least I know their names. It hardly needs saying, but that’s crucial to good relations.

Teaching at the public school this morning was uncharacteristically problematic. For the first time this year I forgot to set my alarm, with the result that I only woke up at the sound of my flatmate leaving, some fifteen minutes before my first class. In my haste to leave I startled a recently fledged pigeon that had been sitting on the doorstep of the block of flats which, as Fate would have it, flew straight under the wheels of a car. In that dark mood I went on to teach two Lower Sixth classes about the End of the World, painfully aware that the biggest challenge – trying to teach Shakespeare – was still around the corner. Even so, I’d prepared a nifty presentation for the job, which would do the trick.

Provided the computers were working. Which they weren’t.

For the second week in a row my premier class had to suffer an off-the-cuff lesson where all the visual prompts and gags had to be done manually. I’ve got to say it; if my mother hadn’t gotten me into drawing, I don’t know what I’d do in such situations. Drawing skills are a genuine lifesaver in teaching. No PowerPoint? Whip out the chalk. Trouble explaining a word? Draw it. Need to motivate the kids? Get scribbling. It’s a defibrillator that never runs out of juice. I owe my parents, my friends and my art teachers so very much for encouraging me on that front. I don’t know where I’d be without a pencil in my hand and an image in my head.

It’s 15.30. My Upper Sixth class should be here in a couple of minutes, but if they play their usual ‘I went home for lunch’ card, I’ve got at least another twenty minutes until they turn up. In the meantime, I’ll get prepping their mock exam. Let it never be said that a language assistant is a cushy job. You land a job as good as this, you’d better earn it. 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

The End is in Sight

No more Arabic Literature!

No more Arabic Literature!

It’s the last week of exams, which means most people are finished for the year. Most people. Everyone not doing Spanish Texts, that is, which has been lovingly placed on the last Friday of exams. How generous. On the plus side, no more Arabic Literature! What was set to be the toughest exam turned out to be a relative walk in the park, compared to the nefariously difficult Persian and Arabic papers. Though the Dissolute Poets didn’t feature at all – it was never very likely that they would – I still got the chance to quote our favourite poet, Abu Nuwas, in one of the questions, so all’s well that ends well. I’ve also learned from my mistakes, balancing eloquence and originality with the academic writing preferred by one of my lecturers. I take a Beyoncé approach to essays, these days: if you like it, then you need to put a lid on it, because it’s not meant to be an entertaining read, of course. See what I did there? Yeah, it wasn’t exactly inspired. I’ll try to avoid out-and-out humour.

Still, if today’s weather sets a precedent for the rest of the term, I’ll be one happy guy. It was absolutely b-e-a-utiful this afternoon. Exams or no exams, I joined the rest of the lit crew to chill for an hour or so outside the Swan and Three in the sun, if just to revel in the knowledge that we don’t need to read up on Modern Arabic poetry, Jurji Zeydan and the maqamat anymore. I’m not free yet, but with the shackles of a history-based exams removed, I feel like flying. I’ve already been told that originality is valued over quoting in my last exam, which is much more up my street, so I’m not so worried about that. What I should be doing in the meantime is booking those flights to Amman. This time next month, I’ll be there. And that’s a little alarming… BB x

Prebends Cottage on a Summer's Afternoon, Durham

Prebends Cottage in the Afternoon Sun, Durham