The Call of the South

South Africa’s calling to me again. Only, this time, in the form of my younger brother, reminding me that he still wants to go. Admittedly I’d shunted it to the back of my mind, but in the sudden economic boom in BB’s world that is the belated arrival (of my own causing) of my Erasmus grant – a full two thousand pounds more than I’d budgeted on earning – it’s come back with a vengeance. It says something about my self-confidence that I’d actually budgeted on missing out on the Erasmus grant entirely through my own uselessness when it comes to paperwork.

I suppose that this is how most British students feel when the Student Loan comes in. Not me. For the last two years I’ve been reeling in the post-debt no-job spendthrift mode that suits me so well. My first year at university saw me so utterly swamped by living costs that my bank account was permanently in the minus figures well into the start of my second year. Every time the loan came in, it was snapped up by the debtors, and somehow I was still in debt after that every time. As a result, I went out a grand total of five times throughout the year, including Fresher’s Week, none of which I paid for, having no disposable money of my own.

My advice? Either get a job before going to university – easier said than done – or, better still, refuse point blank to live in halls. Durham City, bang in the middle of what is supposed to be one of England’s poorer counties, is a viciously expensive place to live, thanks to its students. I won’t get into that debate now. I’ll only state that, in my first year, it cost me upwards of £6,000 a year to live in college. That total is now closer to £7,000. The college system has a lot going for it, and it’s a friendly system too, but the price is simply crippling for most of us. And I’m speaking as one neither poor nor well off, but somewhere in between. Lucky for me, I guess, that one or two bad experiences gave me further justification to avoid living in college, besides being an already justified Scrooge about my limited funds.

The trouble is, as with so many things, it’s all about balance. The rising fees have got a lot to do with bringing the Durham staff onto the living wage, a subject for which the student body actually campaigned back in 2014. It’s truly ironic that the complaints began to resurge just months later when it was revealed that accommodation fees would necessarily have to be raised for this to be at all feasible. In the same light, years of fighting for freedom of speech have resulted in a nation where people are now complaining about the very smallest offence, the increasing access to mobile phones has come at the price of the clandestine employment of child miners in the Congo, and equality in the workplace may or may not have resulted to the splintering of family values. Speculations these may all be, but it’s a world truth that you have to give to get, piece by piece, heart by heart.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve spent most of this week listening to Michael Jackson’s Earth Song on a constant repeat that’s made me conscious all of a sudden. It could be that five hour conversation with the gaditano on my way back from Cantabria on Sunday. Either or. I think myself very lucky in many ways, not least of all that, as an Englishman in Spain, I have access to a wealth of opportunities from my birth right as a native English speaker alone that the locals could simply never have, starting with this jammy British Council job. I’m thankful every morning for my good fortune. I really am.

It’s why I teach, and why I believe I always will. Better to earn a modest sum and be eternally grateful for what you have than to climb to the dizzying heights.

Not that I’m saying a little ambition is a bad thing. I’ve just never really had my sights set on a life of fortune and prestige and I don’t think I’d enjoy it if I made it that far. I’ve been writing novels since I was five or so, but if I’m perfectly honest with you, all I want from that is to have them in book format, so that one day, if life should be so kind to me, I might have children to read them to. That’s the greatest dream of all. Sorry, Mum and Dad.

…Jiminy Christmas, did I go off the tracks or what? An hour ago I was trawling South African travel advice and now I’m trying to be socially conscious, as if my last few forays didn’t leave me scarred enough. Time to retreat back into my self-consciously middle-class headphones and dwell on the subject a little more. I’ll get to the bottom of it one day. Before I die, preferably. That’d be nice. Sala kahle. BB x


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