I Need A Hero: My Favourite Fictional Leads

I’m off on another adventure in a couple of days. A fortnight in Catalunya awaits – because where better to spend the fallout from all this Brexit madness than with a people who have tussled with independence for centuries? I doubt the Catalans will be all that interested in the petty squabbles of a rather recalcitrant Guirilandia – and anyway, I’m a good deal more interested in their own history – but with another adventure looming, my mind turns back to the world of fiction. I always take a book with me when I travel, as it’s pretty much the one time in the year I can guarantee I’ll get some serious reading done. Frankly, given how important fiction is to me, I’m surprised I haven’t turned my hand to it as a topic more often. So tonight’s post is about putting that to rights. And I thought I’d start with an illustrated list of my favourite storybook heroes.

Perhaps the collection below says a lot more about me than I at first thought possible…


8. El Cid (Cantar del Mio Cid, Anonymous)

Kicking off the top ten with a bit of a controversial one, as this particular hero was a man of flesh and blood before he was a fictional character. Whether or not you choose to see him as a hero rather depends on whose account you choose to follow. Certainly, the Muslim chroniclers of the day didn’t exactly paint a very pretty picture of him. All the same, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is a larger-than-life character in his epics, and the seesaw story of his rise and fall and rise again is – for want of a better word – one of my favourite tales. And now that I’m not at university anymore and don’t have to analyse him as a masculine image, or a symbol of religious fervour, or any of that academic nonsense, and can instead indulge in boyhood fantasies once again, he’s a damned impressive hero who is good to his men, be they Christian or Moor, loyal to his wife and king, protective of his daughters and a generally wise arbiter. It’s just a shame about the episode involving the Jews Raquel and Vidas, or he might have placed higher on this list. For some reason they didn’t include that little episode in the 1961 film…

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7. Rat (The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame)

I think one of the things that shocked me most when compiling this list is how quintessentially British most of my favourite heroes are. Come to think of it, there are only really two characters on this list who are not Englishmen by birth or blood. I’d pretty much given up on my homeland for the beauty of foreign lands during my teens. Rediscovering the joy of reading in my early twenties completely turned that around, and made me appreciate on a deeper level characters from my childhood that I’d perhaps not understood fully until that moment. Rat is definitely one of them. An English county gentleman, who balances his seasonal desire to travel and see the world (depicted as a sudden madness) with his unshakeable attachment to his riverside home and his often poetic delight in the countryside around him. Rat always made me think of an England long since gone, albeit much beloved and not entirely forgotten. I could always empathise with Mole stumbling blindly around the new world and Toad still makes me laugh (especially voiced by Rik Mayall),  but I think my heart always did and always will go out to courageous, country-loving Rat.

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6. Bill Masen (Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham)

There’s something about the quiet, reflective protagonist of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids that has always drawn me in. Another Englishman, and in many ways as much a caricature as Rat, Bill Masen takes the apocalypse with just the right amount of melancholic reflection and stiff upper lip that you might expect. For a sci-fi book – and a thumping good one, if I might say so – there’s a refreshing absence of the brash, gun-toting, “gotta save the world” Americanisms of your average apocalypse narrative. When he’s not dodging paramilitary groups or sinister man-eating plants, Bill spends most of the book musing on the state of the world after man, the foolishness of man and the loneliness of the human spirit. Triffids will be one of those books I treasure when I grow old, as it was Bill Masen’s thoughts on loneliness that gave me solace when I travelled solo across Spain.

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5. Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn (The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye)

Let’s be perfectly honest here, to write a list of my favourite fictional heroes and not include the central character of what has always been my favourite book of all time would be nothing short of criminal. Orphaned shortly after birth in an opening that never ceases to chill me, Ashton (Ash) is raised by his father’s syce and spends his childhood under the impression that he’s Indian, before being rudely awakened to his English heritage after a series of adventures. He spends most of the book dealing with the fallout from that revelation, never entirely sure where his loyalties lie, and consequently never truly fitting in anywhere. The only trouble with Ash is he’s just too perfect. He slips up and gets hurt, and you can really feel his pain and his anger when he does, but even as a naïve young man he comes across as just a little bit too good to be true: fluent in more than five languages, an extremely talented sportsman, a natural with the ladies from his first experience and frustratingly good-looking, so much so that he spends most of the book being able to pass for Englishman, Afghan, Nepali or just about anything the plot requires, without having a drop of Pathan blood in him at all. Even so, I confess myself charmed by his tenacity from the beginning and have rarely felt so strongly about a protagonist as I have for Ashton Pelham-Martyn.

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4. Hazel (Watership Down, Richard Adams)

The second anthropomorphic hero on this list is a rabbit, and this one doesn’t even dress like a hero. He’s just a rabbit, and neither the strongest nor the fastest of the rabbits of the Sandleford Warren, but in many ways he’s a greater hero than many of the characters on this list. John Hurt’s voiceover in the 1978 film only sealed the deal. I admit that I saw the animated movie before I read the book, but it evidently didn’t scar me for life as it did to many others as I did go on to read the book (though whoever decided that a visual representation of rabbits being gassed en masse was deserving of a U-rating obviously had some demons). Hazel is wise, caring and self-sacrificing; a true leader, equipped with all the merits of El-Ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits (a sort of lapine Anansi/Coyote). I know Bigwig has always been the traditional fan favourite, but for me, it’s got to be Hazel, because he’s the kind of leader I could believe in. A hero with no pretensions to glory or leadership, but who looks out for every single member of his clan, and who becomes a leader quite organically as the story develops.

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3. Tintin

Probably the most well-known character on this list, Tintin has been in my heart since I was a lad. His agelessness, his never-ending sense of adventure, the fact that you could essentially paint yourself into his shoes wherever he went… and the fact that I’ve been compared to him in every single line of work I’ve ever had, due in part to my round face and strange quiff-thing going on with my crowns. If we forget his earlier iterations (Tintin au Congo was written by a Belgian in a very different age), Tintin is a young man with a heart of gold. Tintin in Tibet is probably his finest hour, showcasing the Belgian reporter’s winsome determination and hope to find his lost friend, who pretty much everybody else has given up for dead. I had every Tintin book bar one as a kid (Dead Sea Sharks), and he’s one of those rare heroes whom I value above the supporting cast, no matter how colourful and memorable they may be (here’s looking at you Captain Haddock, Cuthbert Calculus and, of course, Thompson and Thomson).

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2. Peekay

The top two spaces go to two heroes who share the same country: South Africa. British by blood, Peter Philip Kenneth Keith – unfortunately named by his parents, more fortunately shortened to Peekay by the author – has a hard lot growing up as a little boy in an adult world. You hardly even notice him age as he often seems mature beyond his years, the result of being forced to land on his feet by his born-again mother and his tormentors, including the Judge and the vile Sergeant Bormann. The way Courtenay has him describe loneliness is every bit as powerful as Wyndham, if not doubly so in that it comes from the voice of a child. And Peekay’s fierce sense of justice and morality – a common feature in Courtenay’s heroes – is exactly the kind of thing I could go for. Throw antiheroes and bad-guys-gone-good at me all day, but I love a hero with a strong moral compass. I wanted to learn to box when I read the book and watched the film, so greatly did I fall under the spell of this particular fighter. All the same, when it comes to the title bout for my favourite fictional hero, there’s one man who just beats Peekay to the punch…

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1. Allan Quatermain

If you’ve read my writing before, this will be no surprise. Allan Quatermain is my favourite fictional character, hands down, no contest. Not the version you might have seen in League of Extraordinary Gentleman movie (though the graphic novel is close enough), I’m talking about the original. Humble. Wise. Melancholic. Cynical, but not unadventurous. And, though modern readers might find his language more than a little antiquated and even offensive, rather advanced and liberal-minded for his day. Allan Quatermain was the inspiration for such legendary figures as Indiana Jones, but I’ve always found the source material a good deal more inspiring. Maybe it’s his undaunting appearance – a wiry old man with bristly hair, a short stature and a shrinking habit – that makes him so likeable. He lives alone, but keeps good company and is a ceaseless fountain of wisdom, whether that wisdom comes from his own mouth or the mouths of his sage companions like Hans, or Umslopogaas, or Indaba-zimbi. Perhaps, above all else, the true quality of Allan Quatermain is the quality of his writer. The old adage, write about what you know, can be a little restrictive for those who enjoy historical fiction. Henry Rider Haggard, however, was at the very heart of the world about which he wrote, seeing the Boer Wars at first hand and even taking an active role in them himself. Quatermain taught me a lot about the world when I started reading again, but most importantly of all, he gave me a reason to embrace my homeland once again. It will be a while before any hero, great or small, topples the great Macumazahn from his seat at the top of this list.

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Special mention: Quint & Maris (The Edge Chronicles, Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell), Harry Flashman (Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser), Richard Sharpe (Sharpe’s Tiger, Bernard Cornwell) and Tommo (Private Peaceful – but just about every protagonist from Michael Morpurgo’s books would do)

Did you like this list? Feel free to copy the idea for posts of your own. BB x

Purple Skies

My days left in England are numbered. There’s still a few things I have left to do before I leave for A Year in Villafranca de los Barros Part II, namely tying up a few loose ends at home, finishing as many of the books I bought this year as I can, arranging something resembling accommodation for the coming year and notifying Student Finance of my plans to leave the country for the next few years (an administrative hoop I hadn’t counted on, but one that I have most gratefully been made aware of).

The shooting star that was my last flight with the Northern Lights at the Edinburgh Fringe was still burning as it passed over Newcastle, a short stop on the way home. It was more than I could ask for, to see the north of England in all its beauty. When I think of you, England, this will be my lasting memory: not the twenty-odd years I’ve spent in Kent and Sussex, but the gorgeous sunsets and seascapes of the north. Northumberland, why do you have to be so beautiful?

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Even now, as I sit in my Sussex room listening to Janet Jackson’s Let’s Wait Awhile, I can still hear the chattering of the terns and feel the wind on my skin. Under the setting sun the evening sky was scarred all kinds of pink and blue, until the clouds were the closest to a natural purple I’ve ever seen. Apparently, some years you can see the Northern Lights from Northumberland. I hear you can see them in Durham, too, but if a cappella’s not your scene, the Northumbrian skies are just as much a feast for the heart.

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I’m currently halfway through Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. Not my usual taste in literature (I’m a sucker for plot-based historical fiction, preferably with larger-than-life characters and far-flung destinations), but it’s got me hooked. It’s so very enchanting to read a book that deals with fulmars and alcopops in the same breath without a touch of sarcasm, and the struggles between country and city living is something I can really connect with, insofar as a self-aware privileged middle-class male can. One day, I’d love to visit Orkney and the Northern Isles. It sounds truly bleak. And that’s reason enough to test it. For now, Northumberland keeps on giving.

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I’m off to Spain in a couple of days for a fortnight’s long-delayed camping and outdoor adventures. This time next week I’ll be somewhere in the mountains near Madrid. That’s quite an exciting thought. If I weren’t booked for a wedding, I’d be walking to Villafranca. As it is, this is just a holiday – my last one before work begins anew in October. The novel awaits, and the last piece of the puzzle lies in the Gredos. It’s time I got a move on. BB x

Sloth Break

My time at university finished almost a week ago, now. In light of the rather hectic run-up to graduation, and the even more hectic month yet to come, I unashamedly spent the last three days in total idleness. After a year of trying (and mostly failing) to squeeze productivity out of every spare minute, I squandered the first few days of summer and am now fully recharged. It’s that time of year again when I rediscover my inflexibility, when I yearn for a bike and reconsider another shortlived exercise regime whilst the sun still shines, before I accept my fate and return to the world I know best: reading, writing and procrastinating, none of which require the ability to touch one’s toes or do a one-leg squat.

It’s a beautiful summer’s day here in Sussex. There’s a pastel dusting of white cloud in the blue, but otherwise it’s a rare blue sky overhead. I lay down in the garden and almost immediately I spotted the far-off shape of a buzzard circling lazily towards the south. I might have missed it if I hadn’t chosen to look up at that moment. Life is full of instances like that. I wonder how many such creatures simply go by unnoticed every day? It must be in the millions.

I’m currently absorbed in the annoying process of filling out the usual admin tide for next year’s job. Frustrating, but more tedious than rage-inducing like it was the first time. If anything ever puts me off teaching, it just might be all the paperwork involved – though I appreciate that, as professions go, it’s probably a generous one.

Whilst I have the time to be idle, I’m finally making a dent in the large pile of books I’ve accrued over the year, starting with Aimee Liu’s Cloud Mountain, a fantastic find in a tiny old bookshop in Edinburgh that had me hooked from the comparison on the jacket to M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, to this date still my favourite book of all time. If I can learn to write a novel of such brilliance, I’ll know I’ve made it as an author.

Work begins in a week’s time. If it’s anything like it was three years ago, I’ll be up to my ears for a full fortnight. Busy, however, is the best thing to be. It should be said, five days down the line,  that I certainly prefer the idea of free time than the reality of free time itself. BB x

Rush Hour

It genuinely took me all of twenty minutes today to find a seat in the library. The place is packed. Every single seat, booth, study room and square inch seemed to be occupied, or worse, occupied in absence. Here in the depths of the ground floor, I finally managed to carve a space for myself on the Palatine floor, and then only after getting a girl to begrudgingly take her feet off the chair. No love lost there.

It must be essay season.

I’ve come here to flesh out an essay myself, on epic and chronicle in medieval Spain. It’s one of those essays that I know I’ll actually really enjoy writing when I get into it – not least of all because I can resurrect El Cid for this one – but starting is always the hardest part. And there’s plenty of reading I could be doing… At least I can be thankful I’m not a mathematician. A sneaky peak over the screen of my laptop and the table beyond is littered with quadratics and algebraic hieroglyphs and other strange runes of that sort. I’m quite happy keeping to the medieval scrawl, thank you very much.

Three weeks left of term. Three gigs. Three deadlines. A total of 7000 words to be written in that time. Add to that the ICCA semifinals the week after term finishes and, of course, the dissertation. I don’t think I’ve ever been busier. But it’s not unmanageable. Busy is happy. Next year may or may not seem quite so hectic by comparison. When I look back and think over all the things I’ve done over the last month alone, I’m frankly amazed that I’m standing here in one piece. It’s been one hell of a ride.

Let’s take a look at the positives:

  • Job application for next year is away.
  • The commissions I had to finish this term are away.
  • The lorry-load of crisps and chocolates for my school is away (don’t ask).
  • Three summatives to go, but at least two are down.
  • 3,000 words into my dissertation. 9,000 remain, but it’s a good start.
  • Ice was forecast, but it’s been glorious sunshine all day.
  • The Lights are going down to London next Monday!
  • Biff’s up for the week. That’s always a cause for celebration.
  • I’m actually writing a blog post. Let this be a sign of new life.

I have so many reasons to smile right now. I didn’t even need to write one of those nauseating ‘2017 reasons to smile’ posts back in January to justify it. I just forget, sometimes, in the face of overwhelming pressure of all the essays I have to do, and the time it actually takes me to beat my brain into submission and focus.

A run to Broompark this morning put everything in perspective. You just can’t be stressed out when the sun is shining, the birds are singing and the light is sparkling in the river. I could have been reading up on Kingship and Propaganda, or on historiographical techniques employed in thirteenth-century Spain, but I decided that twenty minutes by the Deerness river doing absolutely nothing at all would serve me better in the long run. And so it has. Here I am, in the library, having finally conquered a seat for myself, ready to make a start on this essay run.

And unlike the vast majority of grim countenances in this building, I’m actually feeling pretty chipper about it. BB x

Tetouani Wanderings

It’s another regular Saturday in Tetouan. I’m chilling on the roof of Alex’s hotel doing sweet F.A. in the afternoon sun with a book and a blog and a map for tomorrow’s hike. Today’s a day for doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. The others went to Chauen en masse. The Alegría music festival is on and they went to check it out, though I don’t half wonder whether they spent most of the day admiring the town itself. Apparently it’s shot from obscurity to one of Africa’s most visited municipalities over the last five years. Oh, to have visited it before the boom…

Tetouan’s Hotel Reducto has some simply gorgeous rooms…


I’ll keep today’s post short. Just a few observations I’ve made over the course of the day in elaborated bullet form. That ought to keep the ideas concise.

  • The wind governs life in Tetouan. Seriously, it exercises a power greater than the beloved King himself. When the Levante is blowing, and it almost always is, the world slows down. People sit out the sun and the maddening wind. The minute the wind changes, the city is suddenly full of joggers and movement. I’m serious about the joggers. That one afternoon when it rained back in June, every other man in town was out running.
  • Tetouan’s a great place to be in summer, even during Ramadan, but this place must simply shut down in winter. With the King out of town, and no tourists, and precious little commerce, not to mention the total absence of desire for the beach… why, it must be like Durham in summer. Or Mérida in winter, perhaps.
  • The Turkish First Army staged a failed coup in the early hours of the morning. Erdogan crushed it. It may not look like it, but the world is chomping at the bit for a war. All these proxy wars, migrant crises and terrorist attacks are the signs of a world that’s been held back from all-out war for too long. Globalization and the atom bomb might have saved us from further conflict, but it’s been over seventy years now since the last global war: seventy years removed from something that has been our oldest and most persistent tradition as a race. There’s a slow creeping back towards the far right across Europe. Britain has severed its ties with the European Union. Trump is within a few months’ reach of being allowed a shot at the nuclear codes. And all the while the terrorist strikes are increasing, striking randomly at civilians the world over like sharks biting at a whale. The centre cannot hold. It’s only a matter of time.
  • Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm… and yet, I have absolutely zero interest in getting in on this fad. And that’s despite being a PokéNut until I was twenty-one at least. I caught them all, all 720 of them – twice – and I must have spent several months’ worth of my life staring gormlessly at those little pixelated monsters along the way. I was just playing at David Attenborough, I guess. Pokemon was perfectly suited to a budding, obsessive, studious little naturalist like me. It’s less that I’ve grown out of it now so much as reading and the novel have taken its place. A well-deserved revenge, perhaps, since they were both ousted for hours of Pokébore when I was ten. No, I’ve already got a world of my own to jump in and out of, and it requires no technology whatsoever, thank you very much.
  • The girl behind the counter in the stationary shop is kinda cute. Buying a couple of 2B pencils and a pen turned into a scene out of one of my novels where I wound up talking to this lady through the glass as we picked out the right kind of pen. That was also a lot of eye contact for a little transaction (I tend to get to know the stationary shop staff far better than the people who work in cafes or restaurants. Hey, I have an insatiable appetite for a certain kind of pen and a certain kind of notebook, alright?). I do wonder, though… If I don’t find Her on the road, or in a park or concert or wherever, I might just end up finding Her in a bookshop. There’d be a kind of divine justice in that.

That’s all for today. Early start tomorrow. After weeks of staring up at those peaks, Alex and I are finally going to tackle Mount Ghorghez. And none too soon; another two weeks from now and I’ll be back in England and all of this will be a thing of the past. Fa3lan, time is running out… BB x

The Quote Hunter

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

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