“…So I Became a Teacher”

Ten years ago, British comedians Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong ran a cracking comedy show on the BBC. The show has always been one of my standout favourites in British comedy, delivering some truly brilliant sketches including Perfectly Innocent, Kill Them, The Embarrassed Prime Minister and the Polish Plumbers, to name just a few. One running gag that hits close to home but still makes me chuckle is the comedy duo’s Be A Teacher ads, lampooning the common reasons why people “fall into” teaching:

“Failed in the real world? Then why not be a teacher?”
“Quite bright, but lazy? Need a safety net? Be a teacher.”
“Good enough to get a degree but not good enough to get a job? Be a teacher.”
“If your ambitions haven’t quite come off, remember: there’s always teaching.”

It’s a little tragic that one of the most important and time-honoured professions in human history often seems to fall into the category of “one of those jobs you do when you’ve tried all other avenues”. Conversations at school and university often went one of two ways whenever teaching came up: either “I just want to do something more worthwhile with my degree, you know?” or “God, I hate kids. I could never do that”. They’re hardly groundless as arguments go. Who in their right mind would want to get back into the classroom almost as soon as they’d left it? There’s surely something intrinsically sadistic about that kind of decision, and that’s before we even get onto the nitty-gritty of marking, differentiation and pupil management. And as for the hating the kids part… well, they say never work with children or animals – but maybe that’s just because you can’t ever truly predict or control either of them. And it is so very human to want to be able to do just that.

For me, at least, it has never been a question of “lapsing” into the education business. It is, like so many things, a family affair. Both of my parents were teachers. My Spanish great-grandmother was a teacher, and she married a teacher. I’m just continuing with the job. I might have had my wobbles along the way, but I don’t think I’ve ever really doubted that I’d be a teacher someday. Sure, that’s easy to say on a Saturday night, when most of the kids are out and boarding duties have been light, but it really is one of those professions that teaches you all the time, usually in ways you don’t expect.

I’m writing tonight because these last two weeks have been tough. The reality of teaching foreign languages to the English – ever the most stubborn of peoples when it comes to learning foreign languages – is beginning to bite. Not a week goes by when I don’t hear the line “Sir, why do I have to learn a language? Why can’t I just speak English?”, or variations thereof. The Modern Languages and Cultures graduate in me would love to give some solid answers, but these are fourteen-year old kids, for pity’s sake. A university-level argument on the merits of multilingualism pales in comparison to the fact that they have to revise twenty words they may very well never have to use in their lives – besides the end-of-year exam, of course.

So what use is the degree, then? What was the point in spending £9000 a year on the study of French, Spanish and Arabic history and literature if I am to spend the next four years teaching kids how to count up to thirty-one or discuss their plans for the weekend? These are questions I have been asking myself a lot these past two weeks. I came back to England with a mission, to do my part in a desperate campaign to save this country from collapsing into ignorant isolationism, knowing full-well what it would mean. And yes, whilst working in a boarding school does allow me to continue to channel my passion for music – easily the best part of the job by a country mile – the teaching side of it is hardly as scholarly as I’d have liked, sometimes.

At times like these, I do miss university. I miss staying up late with my housemates discussing political or social matters, I miss the excitement of sharing in the knowledge of others, and of sharing your own in turn, and I miss the challenge of stretching my brain. God, I miss that. I’ve been reading like a fiend these last few weeks out of a mad desire to tackle something more intangible than the days of the week. I ordered a book of ancient Spanish poetry off eBay the other day and pored over it during prep one night, something I admittedly would never have done at university. But then, my brain was stimulated in other ways then.

So what’s keeping me here? Why do I go on teaching?

Because I believe it’s nothing more and nothing less than one of the most important jobs in the world. For as long as there have been humans, there has been teaching, and even before then, there was teaching and learning after a kind. In the words of a colleague of mine, “I don’t care how much more you earn in the office, your job could disappear from the face of the earth overnight and nobody would notice. Not so with teaching”. You might see it as giving up on your own hopes and dreams to encourage others to pursue theirs, or that might have been your ambition all along. Teaching is the job that keeps on giving – both in reward and in workload, yes, but the rewards make up for it. I am a far braver, far more tolerant individual thanks to teaching. You don’t go into teaching to share your love with just the kids who love the subject back. That’s neither practical nor necessary. You do it just as much for the kids who don’t listen as for those who do. Teaching the subject you love to children with no love for it whatsoever will sap your zeal, strangle it if it can, but it does encourage you to see things from a different perspective. And, frankly, any job that does that on a regular basis is a job worth pursuing, if the ultimate goal of human existence is to understand each other – which is what I have always supposed it to be.

I still can’t fault Armstrong and Miller, simply because that sketch is bloody hilarious. But if you’re enthusiastic, passionate about your field, patient and have a drive to listen and learn, I cannot encourage you enough: be a teacher. Money might make the world go round, but somebody has to encourage and inspire the next generation (besides, the last thing the world needs is more businessmen). So go on. Be a teacher. BB x

Quote Unquote: STREET OF THIEVES

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This week’s read is a work in translation: Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves (Rue des voleurs in the original French). As a former student of languages, I have a somewhat conflicted view on reading works in translation. Part of me has always been a bit of a purist on the subject: if you can read a book in the language in which the author intended it to be read, why not do so? There are so many details and nuances that can be lost in the tricky process of translation – the author’s voice, for one. However, what you read impacts on what you write, and since I write predominantly in English, it always made far more sense to me to read works intended to be read in English, with the effect that I eschewed works in translation altogether. I grew up with English, therefore I must write in English. That at least was the argument I cleaved to for most of my time at university. A colleague once said to me he could destroy that argument in three words: Waiting for Godot. Unfortunately, uncultured pleb as I am, Samuel Beckett has yet to feature on my reading list – nor will he for some time, theatrical scripts not being my preferred reading material of an evening. However, I concede it a point well made, and in the years since I have relaxed my approach a little and tried dipping my toes in the water.

Street of Thieves tells the tale of Lakhdar, a young, idealistic Moroccan whose boyish desire to seek his fortune across the Strait is realised after a series of stark, harrowing underworld adventures that make Enard’s text a bildungsroman of the darker variety. There is enough of the everyman in Lakhdar to make him an instantly sympathetic protagonist, and no matter how you look at it, the sequence of events that set his journey in motion would humble even the strongest of wills.

The greatest strength of Street of Thieves is in its flawless realism. Every single event is wholly and utterly believable; some magic in Enard’s emplotment almost strips the story of its “story”, as though you are watching Lakhdar’s life in real time. Tragic events happen and caricatures come and go, but they are so very real, so human, they might as well be people picked off the street at random and given parts to play. Where there is grief, there is no melodrama; where there is rage, there are no histrionics; just the restless drone of everyday life, weaved seamlessly into the fabric of fiction.

The book’s title refers to a street in Barcelona’s Raval district, one of the seedier quarters of the coastal metropolis. Enard lived in Barcelona for a time and his knowledge of the comings and goings within the depths of the city paint a convincing picture, though even if he had no experience of his own, he could hardly have chosen a more fitting counterweight to the city in which Lakhdar’s story begins: Tangier, by many accounts one of Morocco’s seedier locales. There is a magic to both cities that draws tourists in every year – the ever lucrative vein of “pink gold” Enard so evocatively describes – but we don’t see much of it from Lakhdar’s perspective. Everything is huge, dark and dirty, as though we are seeing both cities through the eyes of a cockroach, scuttling from corner to darker corner. It is certainly an easier book to write about than it was to read.

I may not have read Waiting for Godot, but I have had the good fortune to explore both Barcelona and Tangier. I went to Barcelona earlier this year in the hope of finding material for my own writing. It was a wistful fantasy, to which I am often prone; I found little of any real value in my wanderings around the city, my interests being so far removed from the modern metropolis – say, by about four hundred years. I wandered around the Raval district a lot, carrying with me only my notebook and the card key to my hostel room, and found the place shadowy, dusty and surprisingly Arabic-speaking, but not as menacing as I had heard tell. Then again, I limited my explorations to the daylight hours: I believe Raval puts on a very different mask by night, if the stories are to be believed. All I really remember about Raval was a chance encounter at the end of a street with a flock of monk parakeets drinking from a puddle in the road, illegal immigrants of a different colour, but illegal immigrants all the same.

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Having traveled a good deal in Morocco previously, I found in Tangier a curious melange of the other cities I had seen, as though it were a human imitation of the work of Gods elsewhere. Here were echoes of Fes’ labyrinthine medina, without the medieval charm; echoes too of Marrakesh’s charming cafes, without the charm, Taroudant’s city walls, without the beauty of the desert, and the blinding white of Casablanca, stained brown and grey with age. All the same, Tangier had a far greater effect on me than Casablanca or Marrakesh, knocking both cities down in strength of character, showing that hybrid vigour that sometimes allows a mongrel dog to triumph over a prize-fighter.

I met a Lakhdar, once. Not in name, but almost identical in nature. He was friendly and sincere, with that almost too sincere character common to the folk of many African countries that puts a lot of Europeans on their guard. Had I been traveling alone, I would have undoubtedly abandoned my plans and gone with him to meet his family at his invitation. As it was, I did not, and I have never felt entirely happy with myself for how the ensuing drama played out. Lakhdar, too, is frustrated by visiting Europeans who, one way or another, lead him on only to let him down, concerned or agitated by his desire for friendship. That the story takes place in the turbulent months of the Arab spring gives more than a little credence to their caution, and yet… if you were in Lakhdar’s shoes, would you see things so clearly? The gulf between Africa and Europe is only nine miles wide at its narrowest point, and yet it yawns like Mariana.

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Favourite Scene:

Tough call. Street of Thieves is not a book of standout scenes so much as it is an exploration of the difficulties experienced by a young Moroccan crossing over. Maybe his lengthy descriptions of the sordid Raval district? Enard painted the side of Raval I wanted to see but was too cautious to venture out at night in search of – the Raval one sees through the slits in the blinds. A quarter inhabited by fleshy prostitutes, circling drug addicts and lecherous men who ogle the women one day and turn a blind eye the next on their way to Friday prayers. Like Goya, the Romantics and all the Victorians before me, I am drawn to the dark, if only to better understand the light.

 


Favourite Character:

Another coin toss, though this time, it’s between two men: Sheikh Nureddin and Marcelo Cruz. The coin analogy is not a bad way to start, for in a way they are two sides of the same coin, just as Tangier and Raval mirror each other. Sheikh Nureddin is the more sinister of the two: calm and comforting, fatherly and always dressed to the nines, he exudes moral strength and commands confidence, and yet all the while he drives honest men to commit brutal acts in his name. Scarier still, even after the illusion flickers and you see the demon beneath the dress-suit, Enard has you seeing his humanity when he walks back into Lakhdar’s life, like Lucifer with his wings restored. Marcelo Cruz, by contrast, is a grotesque caricature of corruption. A twenty-first century undertaker who races to be the first on the scene whenever the bodies of the unfortunate wash up on the shores of the Spanish Mediterranean, Cruz takes an almost inhuman delight in his profession. Death has lost its meaning to him; he has become corrupted by the stink of corruption, and only the endless spiral of ever-darkening videos on the internet keep him entertained as he waits for the bloody tide. Both men are avatars of fear; one wields it, one is possessed by it, and it is hard to say which is the more fearful of the two. The devil you know, and the devil you worship. It is a wonder that Lakhdar is as sane as he is at the end of the narrative – though perhaps you might come to your own conclusions.

 


Favourite Quotes:

He spread a terrible sadness; the rotten smell of a lonely soul.

Cities can be tamed, or rather they tame us; they teach us how to behave, they make us lose, little by little, our foreign surface; they tear our outer shells from us, melt us into themselves, shape us in their image – very quickly, we abandon our way of walking; we stop looking at buildings, we no longer hesitate when we enter a metro station, we have the right rhythm, we move around at the right pace; and wherever you come from, in the end they train you like dogs.

You try acting funny or charming in literary Arabic, it’s no piece of cake, believe me; people will always think you’re about to announce another catastrophe in Palestine or comment on a verse of the Koran.

 

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Quote Unquote: BEARSKIN by James A. McLaughlin

Somebody must have kicked the reading machine in my head real hard, because it’s working overtime at the moment. I suppose it’s the very real threat of having to read up on plotless educational policy and classroom management that is making fiction so damned attractive at this point in time. With lessons well underway and the dreaded Numeracy Skills Test now but a distant memory, the next task looming is the first of the PGCE written assignments – perhaps the first written assignment in my life that I will not be able to wing on the back of a clunky box of quirky and otherwise useless general knowledge. My capacity for absurdity became something of a badge of honour at university as I made it a personal prerogative to shoehorn the most bizarre comparisons into every essay I submitted. Samurai and pashtunwali found their way into an essay on Lope de Vega. The sea witch from The Little Mermaid popped up in an assignment on La Celestina. The Sack of Baltimore somehow drifted into a commentary on Spanish banditry. And then there was that unforgiveable allusion to the nest-building practices of great-crested grebes in a second-year Spanish language exam on cultural divisions (I got scorched for that one, justifiably, and I don’t think it was because my examiners stumbled over the word somormujo).

Nope. This is one essay that I will have to write with my own blood. And my head will not thank me for it.

So, conscious that I will scarcely have the time to do my own writing this year, I shall endeavour to persevere with my reading project. After muscling through Thin Air in forty-eight hours (a personal record), I threw myself right into another. This time around, I thumbed around for something different and picked James A. McLaughlin’s Bearskin off the shelf…

……..

“Gruesomely gorgeous” is certainly one way of putting it (New York Times Book Review). Bearskin tells the tale of Rice Moore, an Arizona ex-con working as a caretaker on the Turk Mountain preserve in the forests of Virginia whose decision to get to the bottom of a local bear-hunting operation brings him into conflict with the locals, the law, and ghosts from his past. At times hard-edged thriller of the “Dark South”, at others a quasi-mystical exploration of man in the wilderness, Bearskin is a powerful retelling of the lone-man-standing-up-for-the-forest genre, without the ego or distasteful pessimism of the twenty-first century eco-warrior. Rice makes for an appealing hero, a man with no illusions on whom the forest works its magic. Some of the characters are satisfyingly familiar: a John Wayne, no-bullshit sheriff; a thickset Redneck patriarch and his lawless, swaggering sons; a psychopathic assassin who says nothing and yet instils more fear at the mention of his name than any other man in the book. And then there are the others: Dempsey Boger and his hounds, the ethereal mushroom-picker and, of course, the bears themselves.

There are points in the narrative – fugues – when you cannot be entirely certain which world you are in. When the forest takes on a mysterious character of its own and colours and images swim before your eyes in unfamiliar patterns, and time seems to flow in both directions at once. Moore’s ghillie-clad seclusion on the mountain is ritualistic and deliberately so, serving in a sense as an awakening. It was almost stupefying to read. I’ve never taken magic mushrooms myself, but I felt like I had after one of the scenes. Trips may well be relatively easy to recreate through the medium of film, but McLaughlin certainly knows how to write one.

There was only one thing I was left wanting from the story, and that was something more about the bears. They serve as a springboard for the main events of the narrative, but I caught myself waiting for a gratifying (if cliched) encounter with one of the bears at some point towards the end. One gets the sense they are always there, on the periphery of Rice’s world, more like ghosts than creatures of flesh and blood. And perhaps that much is true of the wild, as man and his endless pursuit for dominance pushes such spirits further and further into oblivion. All the same, I reckon the bears might have appreciated some closure.

 


Favourite Scene:

The hellish image of the baiting scene deserves a special mention for its sheer monstrosity: the pawless, gutted carcasses of two bears beneath the totemic severed head of a Charolais, suspended from the trees above by a bloody rebar driven through its eyes. The buzz of flies above, the growl of worrying hounds below and the sickly stench of liquorice. I’d like to give a hand to the stalking scene towards the end for its pace and power, but this static freeze-frame is just one of those scenes that will stay lodged in your mind’s eye forever. Some stories produce characters of eternal weight, others moments of utter majesty, and others still paint pictures with flesh, blood and the stuff of nightmares. There’s a lot of human villainy in Bearskin, but the baiting scene takes the biscuit. Somehow the absence of the perpetrators does the trick: the aftermath is far worse in its silence than the act itself.

 


Favourite Character:

The mushroom picker. McLaughlin strings out a strongly convincing cast of Southern marionettes in Bearskin, but there is one oddity in the bunch who, like the pip of a blackberry, sticks in your jaw long after the cast has come and gone. I was never entirely sure whether he was real or not – and neither am I alone in my doubt, as Rice himself asks this question at least once – but his brief appearances were memorable, to say the least. Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he a mountain man, or something stranger – a vengeful woodland sprite or god, a green man, released from the deepwoods to send the protagonist on a quest? When first he appeared, Rice mistook him for a bear – a mistake he made again on the mushroom picker’s second appearance. To my eyes he is certainly more Beorn than Bombadil, and whatever the author intended him to be, he comes across as by far the most enigmatic and powerful character to emerge from McLaughlin’s narrative.

 


Favourite Quotes:

Information about the universe leaked from the open eye like poison gas.

“So many people hate snakes. I think it’s because they threaten people’s worldview – they’re alien, limbless, impossible, black magic: a stick come to life. But maybe we’re all sticks come to life. We want to think we’re exceptional, ensouled, angel fairies or God’s special children. The magic of being animate matter isn’t enough.”

They ate a quick breakfast, homicide having no effect on their appetites.

 

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Quote Unquote: BLINDNESS by José Saramago

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Favourite Scene:

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


Favourite Character: 

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


Favourite Quotes:

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

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

Panic is much faster than the legs that carry it.

I Need A Hero: My Favourite Fictional Leads

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

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


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

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

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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

Leaping Liebsters, Batman

It surprises me often and anew just how many folks I know keep up with this little blog of mine. It surprises me further just how many folks I don’t know keep up with it, too. I’d hardly call myself a prolific blogger. I write what I can when I can. I seldom proofread my material (and doesn’t it show?). I really dislike the process of travel writing. And I don’t even read that many blogs myself. Beyond the writing process itself, I’m something of a stranger to the blogging community. But it keeps my writing muscles flexed on a regular basis, and that’s good enough for me.

So it surprises me even more that superstar Mary at Mary, She Wrote nominated me for a Liebster Award! But, on the understanding that one does not question manna, I’ll take it and pass it on gladly. If you haven’t already stumbled upon her wonderfully positive blog, be sure to take a stroll there sometime, it’s a garden of upbeat sunshine! I made a point of sliding a read of her latest entries into my morning routine last month and it put a smile on my face every time, so if you ever need a smile-doctor, she’s your lady!

Onwards. To the nitty-gritty.

Liebster rules

 

Q&A with Mary

[Disclaimer: For the sake of entertainment, I’ve put words into your mouth here, Mary. I hope you don’t mind. As an interview, it has a little more spunk to it!]

Mary: Alright, let’s get started. Tell me, why did you start blogging?

BB: Originally? Because I wanted to write, and I was born into a generation where getting your own material out there for the world to see was easy enough for a fourteen-year old birdwatcher to operate. I sort of let that slide when real life took over, and got back into the game once again in my second year at university. It’s been sort of non-stop from there, I guess.

Mary: Okay. Tea or coffee?

BB: Tea. Green, if you can help it, though a Rooibos wouldn’t go amiss. A mint tea would be pretty fabulous, though. I don’t suppose you have any fresh mint on you right now?

Mary: Sadly, no.

BB: Shame. Throw me the next question.

Mary: Alright then. Do you have a life motto or an inspirational quote you try to live by?

BB: Don’t drive when you can cycle. Don’t cycle when you can run. And don’t run when you walk. You’ll see more of the world that way.

Mary: Um… okay. Tell me your guilty pleasure.

BB: The Spice Girls. Spiceworld is the real deal.

Mary: Is that really a guilty pleasure?

BB: Well, I’m not a card-carrying Spice Girls fanboy, if that’s what you mean. But I am partial to a little Spice Girls from time to time.

Mary: What is your favourite time of year and why?

BB: Spring. Autumn is beautiful with all of its colours and sounds and the feeling of change, but here in Badajoz you hardly notice the slide from summer to winter. Spring, however, is universal. The world puts on her best dress, the birds are singing, there’s blossom in the trees and winter is over in a field of crisp, blue skies. My heart sings.

Mary: Well, since we’re on that note, how about describing yourself in a haiku?

BB: …Give me a minute.

Mary: Take your time.

BB: Almost got a First / I mean, sixty-nine point four / that’s close enough, right?

Mary: Are you seriously still bitter about that?

BB: …..no. Next question.

Mary: What is your signature recipe and why do you like to make it?

BB: Lentejas a la abuela, most likely. It’s amazing comfort-food for a throw-together dish that has the added bonus of making use of any bread that might have gone stale. Plus it’s earthy and warm.

Mary: What’s in it?

BB: Lentils, breadcrumbs, garlic, a little stock and a few pieces of chorizo. And lashings of olive oil, of course.

Mary: Of course. Do you have any favourite jokes?

BB: Apart from my degree?

Mary: That joke is old and you know it.

BB: I kid, I kid. I don’t actually have a favourite joke to hand, I’m afraid. Tevye has a few golden lines in Fiddler on the Roof that always make me laugh, though.

Mary: What is your favourite mode of transport and why?

BB: From the couple of months of lessons I had as a teenager, I’d say horseback is pretty fantastic, when you know what you’re doing. But old habits die hard, and when it comes to hurtling down country lanes, there’s nothing better than a trusty bike.

Mary: That’s something I can agree with. We’re nearly there. Do you have any hidden talents?

BB: I’m a pretty good bird mimic.

Mary: Would you say that’s a hidden talent?

BB: I would say it’s a talent I don’t pull out so often for the sake of public decency.

Mary: Ok. Last one, then. Tell me your best dinner party anecdote about yourself.

BB: Do you mean about a dinner party I’ve hosted or attended? Or the kind of anecdote I’d reel out at a dinner party?

Mary: The last one.

BB: Well, that’d have to be the run-in with the Guardia Civil when I was fifteen. It’s a tale that’s a little long in the telling, but to keep a long story short, I was detained for not having my papers on me by Fidel Castro’s doppelganger and his two lackeys when all I really wanted to do was walk home across country after a morning spent photographing  vultures.

Mary: I don’t think you could have said anything more you.

BB: Lady, I’d have to agree with you there.

 

11 Random Facts About Myself:

  1. I keep a journal on me at all times, even at work.
  2. I haven’t ever crossed the Atlantic.
  3. When I was younger, I wanted to be a photographer.
  4. I have a very poor sense of smell.
  5. I absolutely love it when it rains.
  6. I frequently leave objects hanging or balanced in strange places.
  7. I don’t actually like listening to a cappella music by choice.
  8. I used to have fifteen Joe Browns shirts. Presently I have just the one.
  9. I have a triple crown, which makes styling my hair particularly problematic.
  10. People seem to know I’m British wherever I go, except once in Germany, where I was mistaken for a German.
  11. I say I’ll eat everything except liquorice, not because I dislike it per se, but because the buck’s gotta stop somewhere.

 

My Nomination(s):

Lang Adults (langadults.wordpress.com)

 

Questions for my Nominee(s):

  1. Why do you blog?
  2. What’s your worst food memory?
  3. What’s your favourite word and why?
  4. Do you have any favourite herbs or spices?
  5. If I say the word HOPE, what do you think of?
  6. What’s more important to you, the lyrics or the music itself?
  7. Pick a Nicolas Cage film title to describe where you are in life right now.
  8. What exactly would you do with £248.76? You have to spend every last penny.
  9. If you could only be left with one sound memory (non-musical), what would it be and why?
  10. Everyone’s had a think about their wedding playlist, but what (if anything) would you want played at your funeral?
  11. I’m going to drop you in the middle of Kyrgyzstan with a bottle of water, a map and a compass. Tell me three other things you feel you might need to get by.

 

I guess that makes for a good shot at this. Are there any other challenges like this out there in the blogosphere, I wonder? I reckon we could do with a challenge to take up at this cold and grey time of year.

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Lisbon’s Padrão dos Descobrimentos shortly before New Year’s Day

And now, back to the job applications. À tout à l’heure, folks. BB x

A Waiting Game

Teaching’s going fine. It’s been a misty last few days here in Tierra de Barros. After a hearty Thanksgiving Party in Almendralejo and a decent slog at the karaoke for afters (via Tom Jones and Lionel Richie under my karaoke alter ego, Bem), it’s back to business as usual for the last three weeks of term (the fourth is always anybody’s guess). My old rule – never repeat a game – is holding fast. Amongst the games I’ve played with my classes are:

  • Psychiatrist
  • The Triangle Game
  • I’m Going on a Trip
  • Chain Word Advance (Noun, Adjective and Verb)
  • Never Have I Ever
  • Kim’s Game
  • Mafia
  • Twenty-One

I’ve still got a few more in the bag before I run out of my set, but when I do, it’s only a matter of invention and re-invention. This teaching assistant malarkey is simply a case of giving the kids an incentive to speak in English, and what better way is there than giving them games they can enjoy in their own language once we’re done? Psychiatrist went down a storm – the kids play it at break-times, they tell me – and this week’s Twenty-One (courtesy of Tasha, an old hand at this game) has proven itself to be more popular yet. The Triangle Game left a good many of them boggled and more than a little frustrated, but my older classes found it immensely entertaining.

The key, I suppose, is not to think of these games as ESL activities in their own right, but as the kind of games you’d have enjoyed playing with your friends at school, or at university, or in any other setting. Parlour games are prime material, such as Psychiatrist (for which I am indebted to the French animateurs at my first summer job who rendered it Pussycat, after the French psychiatre). Campfire games are also a wonder here, and I find myself wishing that the younger me had been more sociable; an upbringing in the Scouts or Guides might have armed me with a good deal more material in this field. Last, but not least, drinking games are an unexpectedly rewarding resource, if modified correctly – especially as many of them are already corrupted games in their own right. Remove the element of drink and place a greater emphasis on speech and you have plenty of ideas at your disposal.

Of course, I have to keep this up for a full academic year. That’s thirty-one weeks of games; twenty-one, if we’re counting down (that’s as many days of games as Emperor Commodus declared in Gladiator…). As a point of pride, I will never resort to Hangman. Thus, the search continues. So help me God.

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Meanwhile, I’m finding myself drawn to the attractions of home more keenly than usual. Perhaps it’s because my old friend Biff is bound for South Africa in the new year (KwaZulu-Natal no less, the lucky so-and-so), or perhaps because it’s Christmas and – being in Spain – you’d never know it, or perhaps it’s the simple fact that, unlike the last time I was working here, I haven’t got the surety of returning home at the end of the year. The fact that this will also be my first Christmas away from home does factor into it, too.

Skyscanner went from a casual browsing affair to my most visited webpage overnight. By the end of the night I’d searched for flights to Gatwick and to Newcastle; to Stansted, Luton and even Durham Tees; and then to Durban and Cape Town; Paris, Toulouse and Berlin… With the Northern Lights’ annual Christmas Concert next week and several old friends due to return to watch, I found myself tempted to wing my way over if I could. But between an 8am flight from Málaga, a midnight bus ride from Durham to London and the knowledge that I’d have to take two days off work for it to be even possible, I decided to save the 180€ it would have cost me towards more worthwhile ventures (I could buy a decent bike for that kind of money – or even pay for two return trips to Gatwick in low season).

I still miss music, and I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into my a cappella arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, as well as tinkering with arrangements of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, The Sugababes’ Red Dress and an Afrobeat mashup of Thriller and Fela Kuti’s Zombie and Opposite People. The musical energy within me still needs siphoning off somehow, and even if the Lights have enough material for years already, all these arrangements are, at least, a temporary solution for my own frustration.

Gala Show (35)


 

To keep my writing muscles flexed, I’ve been building my vocabulary daily on the sly. Whether I’ll use my learning as part of a Pasapalabra-style test for the kids remains to be seen, as some of the words are downright impossible to divine without the right knowledge, but as a writer I’m hoping it’ll do me some good. Here’s a few of my recent findings:

umbrageous (adjective): (of a person) inclined to take offense easily

nonbook (noun): a book without literary or artistic merit

earthshine (noun): the dim light on the unlit surface of the Moon caused by the Earth

A good many of them are much too specific to wend their way into everyday conversation (see bombinate), but I’m hoping it’ll increase my vocabulary in the long run. Polygon and Scrabble would be a lot easier, for one thing. And, of course, Bananagrams. Until the next time. BB x

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