Afterglow

Walking home from work this evening I found myself unnaturally aware of the night sky. Normally in the corner of West Sussex where I live, the skies at night are impressive, and you can see all the constellations of the season with a clarity you wouldn’t expect to find so close to London. Last summer I even saw a comet shining a brilliant blue as it shot across the sky overhead. But tonight the clouds were low, and a strange, eerie light hovered along the horizon on either side of me: a greenish-yellow to the north, hanging over the distant lights of London, and a more unholy bluish-green patch of cloud to the south, indicating a floodlit pitch somewhere below. Elsewhere along the skyline, similar patches of tarnished gold and green light made the night a rather sinister shade of grey. Somewhere in among the phosphorescence, the glow of an almost-full moon went unnoticed.

When I lived in Spain as a child, I remember a night when several towns in the area decided to take part in a five-minute power-cut. I believe it was in protest about climate change, or energy wastage, or something along those lines. Our town sat atop a lonely hill in the middle of a great valley ringed by mountains. Villages were few and far between, and the nights were dark enough even with the interference of the thousands of twinkling yellow streetlamps. But one night, for five minutes, it was even darker still. My mother took me up to the square at the top of the hill to look out upon a world blanketed in a darkness it had not known for decades, perhaps even centuries. I was only twelve years old, but it made a deep impression on me. I have never forgotten the quality of the darkness, the stars that shone so brightly that in memory they seemed almost like suns – which is perhaps not so very far from the truth.

We spend a lot of time discussing the irreversible damage we have done to our oceans, how we have choked the earth and its rivers with our plastics and detritus, but it is far deeper and more sinister than that. Man’s quest to vanquish his fear of the dark is well on the way to robbing us of our natural light. In some parts of the world, it already has.

It is not so much our desire to ape that concerns me – our fierce instinct to twist the natural into the artificial – because I know that story. It is the fable of the Emperor and the nightingale. Tragically, as is often the case with stories meant for children, it seems the moral was lost on us a long time ago – a modern-day version would no doubt have the Emperor plug simply his iNightingale in to recharge. No, it is our desire to outdo. The go one step beyond. To beat nature at her own game, like a petulant child insisting they are old enough to look after themselves. I am reminded of another children’s story concerning a devil’s mirror, that sought to make a mockery of all that it looked upon…

When you spend weeks going over the pollution topic of the iGCSE and IB exams with your foreign language students, it’s easy to forget the creeping damage of light pollution, if only because we choose not to see it. Light is good. It shows us the way, it helps us see where to go. It makes us comfortable and it keeps us safe. So perhaps it is a loss we must bear. What is, is what must be. But I do wish, on nights like these, when the clouds are low and heavy and stained with the unholy afterglow of the city, that I could go back to the night of the power-cut, when the night was clearer and more beautiful than any light show I have ever seen. BB x

YearAbroad (430)

Stargazing in La Siberia, May 2016

 

Bittersweet

It’s been nine months, three weeks and four days since I waved goodbye to Spain last summer. I was glad of the brief end to my labours, but it was the first time I genuinely did not want to go home. How I’ve left it this late to return says more about my dangerously overloaded timetable than anything else, but now, finally, I’m on the EasyJet flight to Seville with all of eleven days to play with and everything is as it should be.

Second term hit me like a truck. Since the January a cappella boot camp before the Christmas holidays were even over, it’s been the most intense ten and a half weeks of my life. Ten weeks of essays, translations and dissertations; competitions and commissions; meetings and meet-ups; catching up with old friends and catching up with work; and, of course, concerts, competitions and rehearsals. Never mind applying for jobs, that happened somewhere along the line. I forget when. It’s been fun, educational, even unforgettable, but ridiculously intense. It’s a damned good thing I dropped Arabic this year or I reckon the pressure would have torn me apart.


I feel truly honoured to have represented Durham’s own Northern Lights at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Semifinals last night alongside seven of the UK’s best a cappella groups, including longtime running mates the Accidentals (my favourite group by a league) and this year’s winners, Aquapella. After a knockout victory in the Quarterfinals in Edinburgh back in February and the added bonus of a masterclass with our EP-producer Johnny Stewart, I genuinely thought we might be in with a shot at placing this year, even though we’ve only been in existence for four years. Sadly, we didn’t take anything home last night, but hats off to the victors – it was a well-earned victory (especially to the soloist in Aquapella’s Purple Rain… goddamn, I didn’t think there were any Tina Turner voices left in this world).

The sting of defeat smarts more than I thought it would, perhaps because this was the first time I genuinely believed we could win. But every defeat is a lesson to be learned from, and as losses go, it’s a cheap one: not only does it save us £700+ a head on the flights to New York that victory would have cost, but I also had three of the best days of my life with the wonderful Lights in London Town. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And with forty minutes until we touch down in Sevilla, I can’t do anything but smile.


Eleven days in my favourite country in the world await. Semana Santa is too late this year to linger, but I’ll be sure to take in the three sides of Spain I hold closest to my heart: Doñana for the nature, Tierra de Barros for my dear friends Tasha and Miguel, and Yuste for my novel. It’s going to be magical. I’ll keep you posted. And that’s a fact. Now that I’m back in Spain, it feels much more natural to be blogging again. Life is good. BB x

Searching for God

I’m not a Christian. At least, not in the truest sense of the word. Insofar as my upbringing is concerned, I guess I don’t fall under any category other than Church of England, but when the occasional questionnaire gets handed my way, I tick the box marked ‘agnostic’ without a second’s thought. Only if that’s not an option, and it usually is, Christianity gets my vote over the ‘no religion’ box. Why does this matter? Because today I found myself, once again, in a position where it made more sense to come down on one side of the fence. ‘Christian’ simply makes a lot more sense than ‘no religion’. Strong words for a not-so strong belief, don’t you think?

Let me explain (you’d better get comfortable). I was baptised as a Christian. Church of England. Standard fare. I had a fairly regular English upbringing. I attended a Church of England primary school. I went to church every Christmas and Easter, like almost everyone else. The only minor difference was that my parents both had various musical roles in their respective churches, which meant that I probably spent more time in church than most kids my age. It just so happened that one of them was Canterbury Cathedral, where my dad was a lay-clerk. I guess you get a little blasé about that kind of thing when evensong is a biweekly venture. Not to mention all the school carol services held there. It certainly made the local church back home seem a little small by comparison, though I have warmer memories of that. When I was little I went to church every other Sunday, or at least when Mum played the organ. The memories get a little fuzzy sometimes; this is reaching quite a way back into my childhood. I remember only that I used to sit behind the choir near the organ pipes, and you could hear the organ humming long after everyone had filed out of church and Mum took her hands off the keys. Between that and the old gas heater glowing a dim red in the corner, I have this musty image of your run-of-the-mill Church of England parish tucked away in my head. That’s my strongest memory of the early days, at least. Nothing particularly special. I wasn’t even old enough to sit in the choir then, but I knew most of the hymns well enough, especially the ones they used to roll out on the projector at school. Morning has Broken, for one.

Fast-forward on a few years and it gets a little more interesting. Moving back to England from a year abroad in Spain finds me singing in the church choir in my new home town. It’s nothing more than something to do, I suppose, as I have little else to do at the weekends but go birdwatching down at Stodmarsh or Sandwich Bay – I’m still too young to be thinking about girls or going out – but it pays my first wages, and it feels ‘sort of right’. Right enough to take that next C of E step and decide to get ‘confirmed’. It’s not as big a deal as it is over in Spain, with the sailor suits and all the bells and whistles that go with it, but like I said, it seemed like ‘the right thing to do’. And the other kids in the choir were a lovely bunch, too.

Then along comes my early teenage years, a girlfriend and the beginning of a new approach: evangelicalism. She got me into it, I suppose, but it was something I took to with relish. Prayer and worship, spiritual healing, speaking in tongues… It was a brand new world and I loved every second of it. Ever heard of Soul Survivor? That kind of thing. It was a far cry from ‘open your hymn-books to Hymn no. 348‘ or what-have-you, at the very least. I might even go so far as to say that, for a little while, I even believed it. But it was the people that really made it for me, not the spiritual side of it. Just like playing the violin, the practising of which I had come to loathe, it was more the sense of community that went with it that I craved: the orchestra over the recital, and the worship group over the prayers. I guess you could say I built my house on the sand. Little wonder, then, that it all came crashing down with the end of that relationship. Coincidentally, it was raining that night, too.

I wandered for a while. I asked a lot of questions. I even stopped saying prayers at night, realising that most of them had been selfish anyway – especially the later ones. If not selfish, then love-blind at the very least. Eventually I returned, somewhat shame-faced, to my local church youth group, whom I’d abandoned for almost a year and a half. That was where I met Seth and Jenny Cooper, the Walmer Parish, and Katherine, that everlasting beacon, who showed me that there was more to life than a constant search for answers. For a little while longer, I continued to carry the flag, stronger than before. I was happy. But it was not to last. A series of unfortunate events came as the second hammer blow to my faith. I started to read about the Empire, and all the horrors that had been wrought in the name of God. My brother was assaulted on the way home from school. And Katherine, ever the kindling flame, went out of my life. A few weeks later, I gave up altogether.

As a true Christian, that was my final chapter. I had another fling with the Church in Uganda – ain’t no party like an African Baptist Prayer and Worship Party – but that was little more than a dalliance. Back in England, on the gap year that seemed like it would never end, faith eluded me. Mum, on the other hand, found her way to the Catholic Church and embarked upon what she has described as the ‘road her whole life had been leading towards’. I coveted that, I suppose. It wasn’t her new-found happiness of hers that I wanted, but that contented state of mind. Structured. Ordered. At peace. At one. Something that I’ve struggled with in all the hypocrisies of my life for the last seven years. Her faith gave her life a new meaning. I’d been looking for that meaning for a while with no such luck. People say that ‘finding yourself’ is the first step on the road to that level of understanding. If I could have ‘found myself in Africa’ as so many jokingly think I did, I’d probably have more of an idea as to where exactly I am right now. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, as God knows how lost I’d have been – I didn’t, and the search continues. Right up until last night, when I found myself sitting in an Iraqi church, listening to a Californian preacher explaining the meaning of John 3:16 whilst a translator conveyed it to the congregation in Arabic. Talk about a new way of looking at things!

Now we come to the heart of the matter. I’m not a Christian, like I said at the start. I might have been once, but for a token gesture or two of late, I’m not labelling material at the moment. I can go through the motions like a mynah bird, of course, but that’s got more to do with habit and observation than anything else. That, and a burning desire to believe, whenever that day comes. Until it does, everything seems false. To pray to a God you don’t believe in with all of your heart, with all of your soul – does that not seem a bit ingenuous? That’s not to say I’m not religious, though. Given the choice I’d rather be spiritual than to disbelieve entirely. I’ll put it this way: there’s a hole in my heart that’s waiting for faith. I just haven’t found it yet.

I’ve had this discussion/argument with Andrew recently. I put it to him that I’d be happier not knowing all the answers; that sometimes it’s better to stop asking questions and to have a little faith in what you can’t see; that some things, like as not, are necessarily beyond our understanding. It goes against a great deal of my character, and I think he took umbrage at that, but it’s a principle I try to stick to, and as far as I’m concerned it’s connected to the most fundamental principle of all: hope. I swear by it. There is no greater sin in my book than despair. I might not have the staying power that others prize – indeed, if something is beyond my capability (or, more often, interest) I’m more likely than not to throw up my arms and walk away – but I never truly give up on the inside. And as long as that’s the case, I’d like to believe I still have a chance.

Faith lies somewhere along the road, of that much I’m sure. Wherever it may be is, for the time being, beyond my understanding. And that’s not a bad thing. I tried to find it out here, but for all the strength of the community and the goodwill of the people, it continues to elude me. Maybe I’m being picky. Maybe I’m looking too hard. I don’t know. I’ve just got to keep trying.

I leave you (and this gargantuan post, which is approaching essay length as the clock strikes twenty minutes to midnight) with the only Bible verse I’ve consigned to heart, as it speaks to me on much the same level as it ever did five years ago, when first I found it:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5

I wonder whatever happened to Katherine? I hope her light is still shining brightly for the rest of the world, wherever she is. BB x