Waldmusik

Monday night. Five weeks in. The first load of reports are due soon. I close my inbox, tired of leafing through the daily barrage of emails in my windowless office, and open my eyes. Packs of SureSan wipes on every shelf. Seven empty bottles of water from last week’s packed lunches, amassed in quiet protest. The number for the IT department scrawled in pink highlighter on a piece of paper folded and blue-tacked to the wall. A wall planner that hasn’t been updated since lockdown began. A chewed-up biro, an oak leaf and a buzzard feather. Karl Jenkins on Spotify. The ventilator roars overhead.

Tomorrow will be seven months to the day since the music died. Seven months since a final lucky fling at a friend’s wedding, which might as well have been a paean to the love of music itself. In retrospect I suppose “elegy” might be the better word. Rome burning and all that. COVID robbed the world of so much, and in the panic over its impact on work, health and the daily grind, music slipped quietly over the edge into silence.

I can’t think of a point in my life when music hasn’t been a constant. Having two music teachers for parents afforded me an incredibly privileged upbringing with regards to my musical education. I wanted for nothing, except perhaps an escape from Classic FM. Scarlatti and the Spice Girls. Klezmer, Raga and Jazz. The Stranglers, The Bee Gees and The Corrs. By the age of ten I had amassed a real symphony of diversity from all the CDs in the house, with an early preference for folk music and anything from the 1970s.Primary school, secondary school and university were a seamless pageant of choirs, bands and orchestras, with the occasional assignment as a reminder that education was happening somewhere within. Whether in a church or a school hall or a smoking stage, I was always singing.

The ventilator continues to growl. It’s about as close as I get to music without Spotify in here. The government directive against singing felled the school choir, the chamber choir and my gospel choir in a single axe stroke. Christmas waits at the end of the tunnel that is the Michaelmas term, but without the usual musical beacons to light the way, it simply doesn’t feel like it.

The last time I felt like this was half a lifetime ago, during my family’s earnest but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a move to Spain. Then, too, the years of emerging into the frosty night after choir practice with carols ringing in your head melted away like snow in the sunshine. Spain has many beautiful musical traditions, but the buzz of advent – or, at least, the advent I had always known – isn’t one of them.

“Vosotros los ingleses, os flipáis con la música. No hay ese mismo afán por la música aquí, ¿sabes?”

Do I agree with her? The girl who told me that once? I do not know if I do. Years on, I’m still mulling it over.

Without the music, the days are long. They blur, one into the next. Web players and Bluetooth speakers are a poor imitation, like listening to the sound of the ocean in a seashell. There is nothing – nothing – like the exhilaration that comes from making music. It’s the difference between seeing and doing. Watching a cyclist and feeling the wind in your hair. The gulf is immeasurable. It’s the third half of my brain, the fifth chamber of my heart.

COVID cases continue to rise. Whole areas of the country are retreating back into lockdown. People stagger out of pubs at closing time and complain blindly at the loss of their freedom – or so the pictures in the Press seem to scream. Schools remain defiantly open as children come and go into and out of isolation. How long can it last, the question on everybody’s lips. In the music hall, silence hangs like mist.

I put on my hat and coat and set out into the evening. Music was always my tonic of choice, but if one elixir is out of stock, the other at least is deathless. It waits out there in the dying light, eternal. Autumn chill is in the air and the martins are long gone. Soon the hedges will be alive with the cackle and chatter of fieldfares, and the liquid sound of redwings traveling by night will follow me home from duty. For now, the old guard plays the same music it has always played in the forest beyond the fields. Blackbirds chatter down in the gully. The staccato of a wren breaking through the hedgerow. And, perched on the exposed branch of a dead tree, cock robin sings his heart out.

The song of the robin is, I think, the most beautiful music that England has ever known. Gentle, melodic, like water – it cannot be put into words. Not by an unqualified amateur such as myself, anyway. The robin for me is a symbol of hope. Maybe it’s his boldness, his charming friendly nature; his defiance of the cold on a January morning, as if to let the world know the darkness cannot last forever. He pays no heed to government directives or social distancing measures. He sings as his ancestors have sung for generations, since the world was cold and dark and unforgiving. Hearing his voice now, at a low ebb, it lifts my spirits again.

Half past nine. Directionless text books. Vocab tests, marked and unmarked. Me and the tuneless ventilator, and the memory of the robin’s song. I think I’ll call it a night.

Marmite Man (A London Story)

Marmite Man

Marmite Man arrives in his chariot. He walks into a library, hiding from the autumn sun. He climbs up to the second floor, carrying a weatherworn traveling rucksack on his back, and finds a table hidden away on the west side. It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, there are only a few other people in the building: a couple of students, a woman in her mid-twenties looking for jobs on one of the desktop computers, a middle-aged gentleman or two. Anybody who can afford not to be working at eleven a.m. on a Tuesday.

Marmite Man takes off his windbreaker, lays it over his chair and slouches into the seat. His face is red and pockmarked, his beard more of a tired, uniform grey than cultivated salt-and-pepper. He looks about. Once. Twice. Pauses. Then he empties the contents of his rucksack noisily onto the desk.

First, a multipack bag of McCoys ridge-cut crisps. Then two bottles of water and a plastic Pret a Manger cup. A can of spray-on deodorant – no, two cans. A pack of Johnson’s baby wipes. A hairbrush and a bath scrubber. And, finally, four pots of Marmite.

He inspects three of the Marmite pots in turn, looks around, and after some rumination, opens the multipack bag and breaks into a bag of crisps. In the silence of the library, his feasting sounds like the construction work beyond the Bunhill Cemetery: an unhappy ruckus in a place of quiet. He munches and crunches his way through a second bag, then a third, and another, and another. It’s as though he is issuing a deliberate challenge to the librarian downstairs: come up and stop me, if you dare. But the librarian does not hear, or perhaps he does not choose to hear, and still Marmite Man goes on munching, crunching, sniffing, snuffling, belching and clearing his throat. He wipes his fingers, stuffing the empty packets into a plastic Tescos bag, and smacks his lips, looking around. There it is again: the challenge, who’s going to stop me? There are signs everywhere that say that eating is forbidden, and yet here he is, Marmite Man, rattling the sabre with his portable orchestra of sound: percussive plastic bags, guttural brass belches, woodwind grunts and groans. The anteroom stinks of synthetic flavour, a fabrication of burnt and powdered meat. He rubs his hands, his breathing loud and laboured, and applies a baby wipe tissue to his fingers and thighs. He rolls up his trousers and scrubs vigorously at his shins, scraping off a night’s worth of grime – or perhaps more. He stops – smarts – curses under his breath as he hits a sore.

Who are you, Marmite Man? Where have you come from? What brought you into the library today? The world has been unkind to you, I think. You swore at the man who left the anteroom a while ago, repulsed by the stench and the noise. “You got something to say? Fucking pig.” That’s what you said, through a mouth full of crisps. But maybe it was he who threw the first stone, the stone of silent judgment, as he turned his head, lifted his bag over his shoulder and promptly left the room. Perhaps what hurts the most is the silence, the everyday judgment of those who do not wish to see you. A vagabond is a part of the world gone wrong; a cog out of place, a dust blur on a family photograph; a purple brushstroke across the Mona Lisa’s coquettish face. We can choose not to see it if we so desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I notice you have not picked up a book since you arrived. To you, perhaps, escapism is dangerous – or maybe you have enough unhappiness in your life without imagining it through the eyes of somebody else. What is fiction, if not an experience of somebody’s else’s misfortunes? It is armchair entertainment for the comfortable, who sympathise enough with the poor to read about them, and would happily become them for a quiet hour or two in the afternoon, with a cup of tea on hand and the day’s work put behind them, only to return to reality as Mr Smith of Fulham, associate, papers due by close of play tomorrow. True misery is intangible to Mr Smith: it is merely something to be considered from behind a glass, and frosted glass if at all possible; the bubbling mire at the bottom of the ladder.

Marmite Man knows the mire. He has been cleaning it from his shins for the last twenty minutes.

Marmite Man counts his coins onto the desk. He is frustrated. He does not have enough. He pockets them again and sighs heavily. He plugs a charger into the socket under the table and wires in his phone, and sits. Looks about. Once. Twice. Then gets up and shuffles off in search of the toilets.

I am no longer hemmed in to my corner of the anteroom. I take my leave, packing my things away quickly and quietly. As I leave, I see Marmite Man again. He is standing in the history aisle, leafing through a book on the First World War. He does not see me go.


 

The Ladybird Tree

Regent’s Park is wide-open and cold. I have never been here before, except perhaps once when I was a little boy, and London Zoo was the destination. I hear they are closing down the aquarium today. I overheard a man in the London Review of Books talking about it, about how he’d taken his time coming to work because he wanted to see it, before it disappeared. What will they do with the fish, asked his associate. Feeding time for the penguins, he joked. It’ll be another ten years before the new aquarium comes along, so frankly I wouldn’t be surprised.

The benches are taken. It’s early afternoon, but we’re into the half-term holiday and the park is alive with kids on the swings, the climbing frame, running up and down the knolls, whilst mum and dad – but invariably mum – sits beyond the fence. And why not – the weather is gorgeous. The ground isn’t wet, and there are no ants about – none that I can see, anyway – so I sit down beneath a tree to eat my lunch.

I can see a ladybird on the bark. It’s not the kind you grew up with in kids’ picture books, post-box red with big black spots. It’s beetle-black with two red eyes, giving its wing-cases the impression of a cartoonish snake’s head viewed from above.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ladybird like that before. Point of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the ladybirds on this tree before either. There are yellow ladybirds with twenty spots or more. Red or orange ladybirds with no spots at all. I believe these might be the so-called harlequins, invading ladybirds from distant Asia. Up and down the trunk they go, in that apparently directionless march that beetles seem to adopt, racing in and out of the grooves in the bark. One stops. Its wings click open in a single motion, like the safety-catch on a gun, and then it takes off from the tree into the sunlight. As it goes, another arrives, jet black with those two red eyes like the first one.

There are no deer in Regent’s Park. I rather hoped there might be, but that just goes to show how little I know London. I think that’s Richmond Park – anyway, there are deer enough in my neck of the woods. I walked right past one the other day; a roe buck, fearless, much like the muntjac I’ve become rather used to encountering there. I did not move so much as a muscle as I walked past, which is doubly impressive as I believe I was singing George Michael’s Freedom ’90 at the top of my voice at the time. It just watched as I walked past, eyes unmoving but always facing me, like that illusion of Mickey Mouse’s ears. Teaching bottom set classes is both physically and mentally draining, but I do get the payoff of working in the countryside, and that’s a major payoff by any standards – but especially by mine.

The ladybirds seem to be increasing in number. I just had to brush one off my shirt. I think it’s time I took my leave. I’m not getting any reading done. It’s hard to read when it’s cold outside, no matter how bright the sun is shining. I remember reading somewhere that you’re supposed to kill harlequin ladybirds, as they’re an invasive species. The trouble is, how can you be sure you’re not killing the native ones? Spain had the same problem with red-eared terrapins, if I remember correctly. I found one as a kid in the national park. It’s not so easy to stomp on a baby terrapin, just because it shouldn’t be there. Easier with ladybirds, I guess. Perhaps size does count. Though that is, was, and always has been a rather unpalatable idea.

 

Stormchasing

It only rained for three minutes this evening – four, at a push – but it was enough. The muggy, sweat-laundering heat that swallowed me body and soul from the moment I stepped out of the plane this morning is over, and with a night breeze blowing and the temperature pleasantly cool, the last three hours of the day are for writing. I’ve not had the time or mental energy to put pen to paper for several months, and I doubt I will at all next year. So tonight, and maybe for the next few nights, the sun is shining and a haymaker am I.

Sweet Caroline is playing on a loudspeaker in the hotel bar down the road. The only other sounds, besides the ever more distant rumblings of thunder, are the chirring of crickets, the metallic ring of a flagpole in the wind and snatches of conversation from the holidaymakers in the surrounding block. I thought tonight might be a night for geckos, but I can’t see or hear any tonight. Not on my balcony, anyway. The rain might have driven them off.

Beach holidays have been late in coming to me. As with so much in my life, I suppose I have been contrary: what appealed to everybody else must therefore be uninspired and dull. I’d love to say I’m still game to throw myself gung-ho into another madcap adventure, but after a year in a boarding school, I’m quite spent, and for once the idea of spending more than a couple of days on the beach isn’t quite as dreary as it once sounded.

Ok, scratch that. The storm that rolled in over the cliffs today lit a fire in my soul and I was up and out the door in a heartbeat.

Standing alone atop the wind-scarred wastes of the Cap des Redoble, I looked out to the west and watched the thunderstorm come rolling in. I have seen displays of grater majesty and covered my ears before more deafening drumrolls, but it felt truly sensational to stand alone, high atop a cliff, as thunderbolts great and small rained down all around me.

Some forked across the sky, skirting beneath the clouds like bubbles under ice, whilst others weaved in and out of the haze as though there were a holes in the clouds. Others still hurtled straight into the sea offshore, some thin and wispy, others monstrous and so bright they lit up the sea in their wake and pulsed in stasis upon the grey canvas of the sky behind before disappearing into the ether – invariably just before I’d pressed down the shutter on my camera.

I love a good thunderstorm. Who doesn’t? It is truly one of nature’s most awesome performances, and who can blame the ancients for believing gods great and wicked were behind such electric devilry. Only weeks ago I wandered out into the grounds at night to watch a silent storm from the hilltop, and stood in equally silent awe for almost half an hour as lightning danced across the sky in flashes of silver and violet, twelve strikes to a minute. And six years before that, in the garden of the bishop’s residence in Boroboro, I watched a similar storm paint the sky shades of purple I had never seen before.

I had planned this first post to be about swimming with tetras and breams and mullets and wrasse, but the thunderstorm that followed somewhat stole its… well. You get the idea.

Nature has always been my elixir. A reliable restorative that works every time, if only I allow myself the time to go out in search of it. That’s part of the draw of working in a rural boarding school, I guess – that at any given moment, if I have an hour or two to spare, I can strap on my walking shoes and be in the heart of an English forest within minutes. My fears are gone, the world is put to rights and my soul is singing. Amman simply couldn’t offer that and I suffered.

In The Power of One, one of Bryce Courtenay’s best and one of my favourite books of all time, the wise and humble Doc tells Peekay that, whatever the question, ‘the answer you shall find in nature‘. Wise words and I swear by ’em. I just wish I were wise enough to act on them more often. Next year is likely to be my greatest hurdle yet, and I will need every trick in my arsenal to pull through.

Four more days in Menorca are just what the doctor ordered. And when Menorca is but a distant memory, a thunderstorm or two like the one I saw today wouldn’t be so bad. BB x

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

 

Instant Friendship

I’m sure I’m bringing nothing new to the table when I make the claim that instant communication has changed what friendship is all about. It might not have altered the definition of the word, but it has radically changed how we go about expressing it. You only have to take both the mobile telephone and the internet away for a moment to consider the implications.

I was at a party last night when this particular dilemma crossed my mind, and it occupied my brain for the greater part of the journey home across central London. I heard in passing a friend mention how he’d been on the phone to another friend of mine just that morning. In and of itself it shouldn’t have unsettled me, but it did, because in the entire time I’ve known that friend, I couldn’t remember a single occasion I’d called him on the phone. In fact, in the last fifteen years or so I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of friends I have spoken to over the phone, two of which one can write off instantly for being girlfriends (on the popular assumption that a relationship necessarily requires such amenities). For some reason, I’ve never been the type to ring up my friends. It’s not for want of things to say – I’m an infamous chatterbox in good company – but I’ve simply never known what to say over the phone.

Should this trouble me? On a purely superficial level, no. Friendship isn’t calculated on a basis of words per minute. And yet in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s very easy to feel that if you’re not the kind of person who enjoys texting, WhatsApp groups or catchups over the phone, you’re failing in your task as an attentive friend. Why wait months for your next personal encounter when you could fire off a quick Facebook message? People often say it’s the little things that count, and it’s the “little things” like this that social media and it’s various offspring facilitate. You can, of course, turn up your nose and say you’ll hold out for the next time you meet in person, but that is easier said than done when we must necessarily part ways to pursue our various careers, which may well be far away – another hurdle of modernity. The fickle hand of progress draws us together with one hand whilst the other does its level best to drive us apart.

I must endeavour to write more letters. We all must. Far too much emphasis is placed on speed and frequency of communication these days. One should consider that, if we lived in a time without social media, data or the telephone, insecurities such as these simply wouldn’t exist. But because we can now be reached at the touch of a button, we should be reached. There’s no excuse for sloth. You can apply the scenario to work; it’s the same problem there. There’s simply no escaping it now. We’ve made ourselves slaves to our own desire for immediacy.

Working in a boarding school has left me with little time or energy to write as of late, be that my books, my blog or even my letters. At the party last night I found myself speaking to “close friends” I had not spoken to in all of a year, two in some cases, to my shame. My workload is set to increase twofold next year, but despite the obvious hurdles I have yet to face, I mean to turn that trend around. I have to do what I can. Snail mail may not provide the instant satisfaction that WhatsApp delivers, but there is a genuine sense of joy to be found in patience. And patience is surely what friendship is all about, when it comes down to it.

I can only hope my friends have been patient with me. BB x

Frost vs Nixon

That was, without a doubt, the smoothest flight I’ve ever taken. No more complicated than getting on and off a bus. The plane was on time, there was no security check at the other end and I was on the bus to the city centre within five minutes of leaving the plane. To top it off, my entire row was empty, so I got the window seat for free. It isn’t often that you get such a slick service with a budget airline, but after my previous experience (I haven’t forgiven you for that 20€ croque monsieur, EasyJet) I consider it my just reward.

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STOP PRESS: The automated American translation in Plaza de Armas just mangled Matalascañas beyond belief (Matter-lass-cun-arse). Help.

Toulouse was covered in a thick fog when I left this morning. Bella said it didn’t feel much like France, but it sure as heck didn’t feel like Spain. With all the yellow and brown trees, misty rivers and starling swarms overhead, it felt a lot more like England than anywhere else. The cold has set in down in Extremadura, but it’s not a true wintry chill like there is here in the lower foothills of the Pyrenees. Oddly enough, on our way through the city streets with salted caramel-drizzled Belgian waffles in hand, I found myself missing home.

That is, I wound up missing England whilst on holiday in France from working in Spain.

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In the past it was a lot easier to say where I wanted to be. Spain had purple gallinules, bee-eaters and griffon vultures, England had woodpigeons. It was an easy decision to make. Now that I’m older and avifauna is no longer priority number one, it’s not quite so clear cut (though the vultures are still a major factor). I don’t begrudge my mixed-up ancestry in the slightest – I couldn’t be more proud of it – but if I did, it would be over the confusion it’s left me with regards to where I want to be.

England is cold and England is damp, and my lungs suffer for over half the year for it. The English are, in my experience, prickly when it comes to difference, nervy when it comes to work and uncomfortable in just about any given situation, without mentioning their appalling inability to talk about their feelings. Living is expensive, work is hard and life is lived for the weekend.

It is, however, the land where I was born. And, for all their faults, the English understand a great many subtleties that pass the Spanish by: public footpaths, music for its own sake, quality satire and coffee shops, amongst others. It’s also a land of gorgeous crispy winter mornings with frosted grass, thick mist and a promise of rain, and indoor afternoons spent reading with a mug of hot chocolate on carpeted floors. In short, England does autumn and winter properly.

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Spain has everything else. Spain is hot – at least until November, when a harsh, dry cold sweeps in across the plains – and damp is a thing of the imagination, especially in drought years such as this. It doesn’t have a fantastic music scene, but it does have endless rolling hills of wild olive trees and cork oaks, overflown by kites, vultures, harriers and eagles, not to mention cranes, storks and a whole host of other impressive creatures. It has tostadas and decent olive oil. It has good food for good prices, skies so blue you couldn’t paint them properly if you tried, and a crippling addiction to ham that goes back centuries.

In addition, the Spanish are only too happy to tell you how they feel, at the expense of small-talk topics such as the weather (which most of them couldn’t give a fig about) and sport (where a lot will tell you how failed their exercise regime is/was/will be). And, for better of for worse, family is everything to them. Many Spaniards are completely hamstrung by their devotion to their families, and a good many more don’t begrudge them for it one bit.

Spain also has Spanish. The happiness machine. That’s the biggest win of them all.

Through my own strength of will (and a fair degree of my mother’s), Spain has become a far bigger part of my life than it otherwise might have been. And if I never shut up about it, it’s because Spain is not just the longest love affair of my life, it’s a family affair. It fills the enormous hole that most of my generation fill with Snapchat and social media. Just being here makes me happy.

You can’t spend your life chasing happiness, and it’s unhealthy to try. But it’s a rare kind of joy when happiness and work combine like they do out here. And when I find myself missing those autumn mornings, frost on the car bonnet and even the beautifully reassuring sound of the woodpigeons, I look around me and remind myself where I am. Azure-winged magpies bouncing out of the trees, shepherds leading their merino sheep across the fields and impressive stone castles sitting atop lonely hills. No Christmas feeling, no carols and definitely no a cappella, but no wheezing either. I can’t do everything I’d like, but at the very least I can be me. I can live with that. BB x

That Smell

I don’t make a habit of leaving my beloved Spain during a placement. Some misplaced sense of pride tends to keep me tied to this marbled rock whilst most of the American auxiliares catch every cheap flight to Yurp they can lay their hands on. And when they’ve traveled across the Atlantic to get here, who can blame them? But duty calls, and I find myself sitting in row five of an EasyJet plane bound for Toulouse. Pride is one thing, holding out in spite of your heart is another. And let’s face it, I won’t have the chance or excuse to stay in Toulouse for free again very soon, and as I rarely visit France anyway, I might as well carpe the diem.

As a gift for Bella’s host family for putting me up (not once but twice) I’m bringing some Torta del Casar, a delicious if seriously pungent cheese from Casar de Cáceres to the north. I’d have got my hands on the more local Torta de Barros if I could find it, but as the Casar is also denominación de origen and equally delicious, I do believe it’s a fine alternative. It’s a sloppy, spreading cheese, and has a spectacular tang like the pimentón that is grown in the north, or – come to that – a good deal of the dry foods that hail from the Iberian interior. The trouble with the cheese is that its smell is seriously strong. It must be, or else I wouldn’t be able to smell it so well. My sense of smell is terrible, and always has been (which must, I wonder, have a fairly major impact on my sense of taste as well), so as a rule of thumb if something smells strong to me, it could probably knock a dog out.

As sense loss goes, having a fault in the olfactory department is, at least to me, one of the easiest deficiencies to deal with in the sensory department. I’d far rather no smell than, say, no sight or hearing. It does, however, occasionally give me cause to wonder whether I’m missing out on the minutiae, like the smell of the Romanian family who were at the Leda kiosk before me on my return journey home last night. No sooner had they taken their leave, the tired-looking woman at the desk gave me a long, troubled look and said, grimly, ‘Qué olor… Qué olor’.

I wasn’t aware Romanians smelled differently. I wasn’t aware they smelled at all, to be honest. I for one didn’t smell anything (though I’ll grant you, for the reasons I’ve already given, I’m not the best judge).

It is, however, a small marker of the resentment some locals harbour towards the not-unremarkable Romanian immigrant population. Whether that’s because it’s harvest season, or because their population has grown in size since my last visit, their presence is particularly notable at the moment. Romanian is the second most commonly heard language in the streets after Spanish, doubly so in certain locations. There are now at least two shops in Villafranca that stock Romanian goods and foodstuffs. I run into the same families in Día on a regular basis (though not as often as I used to since it went upmarket). My weekly route to and from a private class in Almendralejo takes me through what can only be the Romanian quarter. As a local entity, their presence can no longer be ignored.

I’d love to learn Romanian. It’s apparently not such a great leap from the other Latin languages, being a Latinate language itself. But learning the language would be only the first hurdle; breaking the silence would be the next. There’s as much a cultural barrier in place as a language barrier. For a point of comparison, one need only look at the Chinese or the Moroccans, both of whom are now long-established here. There’s even a halal butcher’s in Almendralejo, with Arabic signage as plain as though al-Andalus had survived to the present. Commerce, at least, thrives between the three.

It’s different in the schools. This year I have at least five Muslim students in my classes, the children of Moroccans who live and work in town. It says a lot that that’s worth pointing out, but it says even more that their presence in my classes far outsizes the Romanian presence. There are Romanian kids in the school; that much I know from a glance over the register. But they’re in the non-bilingual classes, along with the gypsies, Moroccans and Algerians. I don’t see them at all.

After a week of hosting the Polish exchange, my mind’s caught up in the whole interculturalism thing, like it hasn’t been since that frustratingly theoretical text on interculturalism vs multiculturalism in university last year. If the Polish presence in the U.K. were as notable as the Romanian presence in Tierra de Barros, the usual intolerant factions of my homeland would have a great deal to say about it. It surprises me – and pleases me – that I’ve yet to see such a bubbling-up here. However, it’s little encounters like the lady at the bus station that make me wonder how deep the suspicion festers. I can only hope it was simply a case of an overly sensitive nose.

There are lots of babies on this flight. I deal with noisy children on a very regular basis on account of my private lessons, so I’m getting better at tuning them out. We’re passing Pamplona and preparing to cross the Pyrenees at their Western end, into French airspace. One can almost smell the strike fever. I hope it doesn’t give me too much trouble this time. I’ve got be back at work on Monday morning. But until then, let the music play. BB x

P.S. Students of Arabic Literature, yes, the title is a deliberate reference to Sonallah Ibrahim.

Withdrawal

My school has a band, now. Secondary school or not, I have to admit I was a little excited when I found out. It consists of a piano, a guitar, a trombone, two saxophones, a drummer and a singer. Three guesses who that last one is. Better still, the music they thrust into my hands upon my return was by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s For Once in my Life – in my opinion, not one of his best (I WishSuperstition and Uptight are in a godly league of their own), but better than a poke in the eye.

The first rehearsal was a bit touch-and-go. The drummer had an egg-shaker and I had to explain the concept of counting in.

The withdrawal is real. I’ve written two and a half arrangements for my old a cappella group in three days. I’ve had Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits on repeat and I threw myself at the Concha Velasco Band as their most avid supporter at their gig in Villafranca last night. I lost my voice from shouting the lyrics so much. That’s probably a good thing. My Romanian neighbours are spared another day of me wandering in and out of the house keeping my unused tenor voice exercised. Saturday morning means gym for a lot of folks here, time to work on their bodies. My voice isn’t getting the workout it used to. I have to keep practising.

This week, perhaps more than ever before, the blow of severing ties with the musical world has come down hard. Perhaps doubly so because almost all of my old Lights buddies will be back in Durham this weekend for a reunion gig of sorts. I made the decision not to go, even though it’s the Puente del Pilar this week and I haven’t been at work since two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t break my heart as it might once have done, but the aftermath hurts. We all have to make tough decisions, sometimes. It’s got a lot to do with growing up and moving on. The collegiate music scene, brimming with talented musicians from near and far, is behind me. I’m here now, in a country which a friend of mind once described as simply having no ‘afán’ (desire) for music for its own sake. Even my holdfast, the Concha Velasco Band, are set to disband soon. Real life, work and responsibilities have risen like the tide, and as is so often the case, it’s only the lead singer who’s pushing blindly for unity in the wake of disarray. It’s as much a reflection of how things could have been had I not let go of the group I loved the most. I needed that.

If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it again now. Spain is not ideal for the musician. I laughed at the notion that it would get to me like it did to my parents, thinking that with twenty-odd years’ less immersion than them, I’d be alright. I was wrong. The lack of a music scene hurts. It hurts a lot. I think I’ve done more listening to music here in the last week than I did in an entire term at Durham, discounting the obligatory use of my essay-writing playlist. Granted, I’ve compounded my situation by living not just in Spain but in the sticks. But even so, music isn’t as much a part of this world as it is in England. In a class the other day we were discussing activities you might do at a youth club, and I genuinely had to spell it out that music was or could be an option. One of the brightest girls gave me a nonplussed look and said, very matter-of-factually, ‘music is only extracurricular’. Make of that what you will.

Flamenco is more than music. Flamenco is an art form which, like so many, has its masters and its endless amateurs. And so much of it is tied up with dance. The joy of making music for its own sake is lost here. As the son of two music teachers, it hurts. Having been in choirs, groups and bands my whole life, it cuts deep. I feel lost, and more than a little distant recently.

On the way back from the library, I saw something in the sky and I looked up. It was a vulture. I’d just been writing about them in my book, so I felt pretty fortunate to see my own material brought to life before my eyes. Riding the thermals on wings spread wide, with tapering fingers splayed in the current, it circled the park for a few minutes. Within a minute there was another one, closer. They rode higher and higher until, finally, they tucked their wings into that upside-down W shape and, like spinning disks, soared motionlessly from the top of their spiral to the west.

I could have cried. I love this country. I love it so much. I love the language, the people and the food, and I especially love the animals that live here. Especially the vultures. Music lifts me high, but nothing lifts me higher than being where I want to be, in a land where such magnificent creatures still roam the skies on your way to and from the supermarket. My heart bleeds a little. I had to give a queen to take the king. I may yet regret my decision. Or, I may find some new wellspring of energy in this country. I may not have my music, but I still have hope. That’s all I can ask for. BB x

Pendulum

I’ve been teaching myself how to say goodbye this summer. It’s a skill that must be learned as much as any, and one that, like most other things in life, improves with practice. After an exercise like a year abroad – where one has ample opportunity – you get to be quite proficient at the procedure. Sooner or later, with school and university fading into the ether, it becomes all the more apparent that some of the friends you once thought so close will, like so many treasured sandcastles, fade away with the tide. Staying in touch with the ones you love is a choice; moving on is a fact of life. Work, love and death all conspire to put a strain on ties that were once inseparable, and in some cases, blot out all but memory. This summer I’ve witnessed all three.

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Whilst I was up in Durham rehearsing for our Edinburgh Fringe show, I received the sad news that my dear friend Maddie had passed away. For almost five years she had fought the cancer that beset her upon her return from Uganda. It took her in the end. I’d like to think that when the time came, it was her will to go. She was like that; she did things her way. I was so shocked by the revelation that I spilled out the entire story of our friendship and our Ugandan adventures to a man I’d really only just met, who very kindly shouldered the outpouring with sage understanding. If it hadn’t been for the show, it would have paralysed me for another day, I shouldn’t wonder.

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There’s surely a special place for you, wherever you are, Maddie. Rarely has any one person had such an impact on me as you did, and at so crucial a junction. Whenever I needed somebody to knock some common sense into my wandering mind, you were there, with your dry wit, your raw honesty and your harmonica. You were a star and a half, in a sky full of people whom I call stars on a regular basis. I’m sorry I didn’t come with you to the dance party in Buhoma, that I allowed my hunt for the roller to delay me from getting your class photo in time, and that I never did watch Joyful Noise with the rest of you. I’ll remember you by the Top Cat theme that was your alarm, your endless cut-off attempts at Somewhere over the Rainbow and by the two machetes you insisted on having made for you. I’ll remember you also by your staunch refusal to search the dormitories, your ‘washing-up’ dance routine and your sheer bravery. But most of all, I’ll remember you by the fact that yours is the first real goodbye I’ve ever had to make.

Godspeed, Maddie. You’ll be a beacon to me forever.

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Having said my goodbyes to one dear friend, three weeks later found me making a different kind of farewell to another. Just as the Edinburgh Fringe was a delayed farewell to my beloved Lights, Andrew and Babette’s wedding was the moment delayed after Graduation to take my leave of some of my nearest and dearest from my degree. I surprised myself; where death and departure had brought me to the brink of tears, it took the spectacle of the first dance at the wedding reception for the dam to burst. I felt like I had known the man for fourteen years rather than four. I guess that’s what weddings do to you. This is where we diverge, the parting of the ways of a group that has been a core of my life for the last few years. And as you all set out to work in Albion, I’m the one leaving you all behind as I chase my dreams in Spain. Still I wish you all the best over the coming years, Mr and Mrs Moomin.

Godspeed, but not goodbye.

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A funeral and a wedding. A loss and a gain. The Lord giveth and he taketh away, and other such phrases to that effect. Two roads have split off from my own and gone down paths I cannot follow. I could hardly have asked for a more humbling way to take my leave of this fair country before I make my own way in the world. In autumn, of all seasons, just as England puts on her most beautiful coat of all.

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In my book, there are three kinds of goodbye, all of which I have now learned to use:

See you around. The easiest of the three. It could be a week or a while until we meet again, but I know that it will be soon enough.

Farewell. The second. The future is immense, and when and if we see each other again is beyond my knowledge. For my own sake, I hope that we do.

Goodbye. The last and the hardest. By my own definition, goodbye is final, and in all but the worst cases, made in the indefinite absence of the subject.

I must take my own road soon. It leads me first to Spain, that much I know, but beyond that is anyone’s guess. It has been a most educational summer. BB x

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Entitlement

I didn’t make it to Spain.

My bags were packed. I had my lightweight hiking clothes laundered and folded and neatly placed at the top of my rucksack. My flights were booked, hold luggage inclusive, my tent rolled up and my roll-mat tucked in along the side. I’d even learned a couple of lessons from last time, and I had stocked up on plenty of mosquito repellent, sunscreen and up-to-date maps. In short, I was readier than I’ve ever been before. But I still didn’t make it to Spain.

In the end, budgeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Five weeks ago, when I’d bought myself a decent tent at last and was eager to put it through its paces, it seemed perfectly logical to book a return flight to Spain and see what happened. I had a tent, so this time I could camp out in the wild for free and have a cheap trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in fact, so much. The more digging I did, the more dangerous a notion it became. Wild camping is a legal grey area – that much is certain – but as the economic situation worsens, those countries hardest hit hit harder. Where there is money to be made, the freebooter and the vagrant are unwelcome. Whilst a local farmer may take no issue to you setting up a tent on the edge of his property, a passing local just might – for a quick buck. For a simple denuncio, one might expect to receive a small cut of the fine meted out by the police which, depending on the whims of the officer in charge, can be hefty. I’ve heard of cases of campers fined up to 600€, which is a good 590€ more than what you might pay in a campsite, if you can find one. If Spain didn’t still cling on to such legacies of the Franco era, it might not be so risky a venture. But as it stands, when a local shepherd stands to make more money by turning you in to the police than in an entire week’s work, it gives him little incentive not to do so.

My girlfriend’s mother passed onto me a keen insight on my last visit: we see a lot less danger when we’re younger. At eighteen, it didn’t occur to me that by setting up camp in the middle of the woods on the slopes of the Guadarrama I might be putting myself at the mercy, not of hungry wolves, but of hungrier shepherds. I just did it and moved on. Now that I’m older and wiser – and more wary – I find myself second-guessing a little more.

It’s just a damned shame that Spain does not have as many campsites as England does. Northumberland, for example, has over a hundred campsites. Extremadura, which is more than eight times the size of Northumberland, has twenty-two, with twelve of them concentrated in one mountain range in the north. Perhaps the Spaniards don’t enjoy camping as much as the English do, but they’re missing a trick. Spain is absolutely stunning, with scenery – in the very biased opinion of this author – second to no other country in Europe. Without campsites, or the option to wild camp, they’re missing out on the chance to reconnect with their supreme natural beauty.

When you can put a name to something you see, it means so much more to you. Your friends matter because you know them by name, just as the pupils whose names you recall stand out in your mind. Neglect to know the world around you and it will never mean as much to you as it will to the naturalist, the tracker or the mountaineer. It’s a natural connection we sorely need as tech takes over the world. Going camping offers that connection to the next generation. Or at least, so I believe.

Part of the reason I so hastily splashed out on flights to Spain which I now can’t make or change without incurring heavy surcharges (thanks a bunch, Easyjet) was a disgusting feeling of entitlement that I just couldn’t shake. Having been up to the Edinburgh Fringe for one last, loud fling with the Lights, I needed to get out. To be myself. To travel. Isn’t that what everybody else does in the summer? Instagram certainly seems to say so, as does Facebook. You can hardly move for photos of Cuba, Malaysia, New York City, the French Riviera, German markets, Polish cafés, Incan ruins and Thai elephant baths. It’s a storm of what-a-wonderful-time-I’m-havings and wish-you-were-heres that build and build until you ask yourself why you aren’t out there seeing the world. A FOMO more potent than any shot, and one that, like a bad drink, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sooner or later, the travel bug gets to be like any other addiction, and after mowing through the next barrage of Phnom Penh sunrises and Carribean bikini lines you get itchy feet. I want to be there. I want to see that. What about me?

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It’s not the Inca trail, but it’s still bloody gorgeous

Let’s not kid ourselves. Travel is not for everyone. It’s just not. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s never free. Time is money, and if you’re not spending one, you’re spending the other, which means you can afford to spend it. Now that’s a privilege few of us have.

It isn’t often that I feel bitter about the affluence of the world around me, but it’s at times like this that I realise with a nasty jolt that it’s nothing short of madness to expect the same luxuries as one’s contemporaries. Life would be an awful lot easier if we stuck to telling people face-to-face about our adventures rather than bombarding them with photos twenty-four seven, and even then, do we have to yell? The blogger in me says yes. The writer in me isn’t so sure. I’m just a student fresh out of university with a modest job already on the cards, and that’s a luxury I can’t overstate highly enough. It’ll be many, many years before I can afford annual transatlantic summer holidays, and by the time I can, I don’t suppose I’ll want to.

Fringe, I accept, was my holiday. It was expensive, more than any holiday I’ve ever had, and I was a fool to think I could afford another, summer job or no summer job. In the end I was saved by the budget and, more poignantly still, saved by the bell. A couple of friends of mine are getting married in a couple of weeks, and it’s because of them that I had to return from Extremadura before flying back out again. The folly of making two trips to the same place became apparent only once I’d decided not to go.

I still have my dreams. I still dream of South Africa. But I can wait, until such a time as I have the time, the money and the maturity to go and to really make the most of it. For the time being, I’m going to focus on the humbler side of life. I have plenty of books to read and lessons to plan. I, too, am privileged to be where I am and how I am, and I should be grateful for that. Autumn is here, and autumn is always such a beautiful time of year in England. I should be making the most of it. BB x

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