COVID & The Classroom: Two Years Later

No two days are the same when you’re a teacher. It’s hackneyed, but it’s true: children are infinitely more changeable than tired and heavily programmed adults, whose desire to rebel and create has usually been all but eroded by the necessities of everyday life. That being said, I guess I expected at least a modicum of routine when I answered the call to become a teacher. How wrong I was… and what a couple of years it’s been!

Two years and two months ago (almost to the day) I remember sitting in my living room with my housemate with the radio on, listening to the Prime Minister’s national briefing. Perhaps you remember it – it was the one where he officially announced a national lockdown in the wake of a sudden surge of COVID-related deaths.

It’s eerie to think how little attention we paid to the scourge of the decade back then. You could certainly argue that when Trump called it the Chinese virus he was only echoing what a great many people were thinking at the time. When I left for my placement school in late February COVID was little more than a minor article concerning the city of Wuhan. When I came back to work three weeks later I had to reprimand a student for refusing to sit near a Chinese classmate. If you want to get a feel for how it felt back then, read John Christopher’s 1956 apocalyptic novella The Death of Grass. Without giving away too much of the plot, it centres around a disease which originates in China (where it may or may not have been engineered) which leads to the starvation and death of thousands of Asians, but does not cause any genuine panic in the West until it arrives on their doorstep a few months later. The parallels are more than a little alarming.

Then came Boris’ address to the nation and the closure of schools – more than a week after other businesses had been ordered to shut up shop. Our kids had already been sent home a few days prior, so I suppose it wasn’t entirely unexpected, yet all the same, I remember thinking we might just make it to the end of the week and the Easter holidays before the portcullis came down.

I was wrong.

For the rest of the summer, I taught my lessons online. Those of us who had been reluctant to shift our practice into the virtual world were given a violent kick into the future. Google Classrooms replaced real classrooms as we moved everything online: first to Google Hangouts, then to Google Meet. The constant low hubbub of the classroom vanished, to be replaced with the two-tone jingle of Google Meet’s “hand raise” feature.

Some students – perhaps at their parents’ request – kept their cameras on at all times, but most disappeared behind their initials or a selected profile picture of this or that image lifted from Google. I caught myself consciously staring out the window and trying to focus on objects in the middle distance as my eyes began to ache from the strain of staring at a screen all day. Exams that might have taken an hour to mark took all afternoon. I tried to keep an eye on all twenty-odd tabs I had open so I could monitor my students’ work, knowing full well that even in a real classroom I couldn’t possibly expect to teach a lesson whilst eyeballing every workbook simultaneously. Saturday school was cancelled, but by the time Saturday came around I only really had the energy to collapse.

As the summer drew to a close and some staff and students returned to the site for a phased return, I remained at my post on the other side of the south, giving mum moral support as she fought to keep her school alive and counting down the days until I could unplug from Google for good.

When we returned in September, it was to a school that had to learn to live with COVID. Social distancing put a definitive end to any interaction between year groups – and, by definition, sporting events and music (singing was outlawed anyway). Lessons were necessarily cut short because of the need to wipe desks down between classes. Students kept to their zones and teachers moved from place to place, as though we’d given the finger to Brexit and decided to follow the European model. The whiteboards were often unusable due to the constant application of hand sanitiser, and more than ever, I was teaching through PowerPoints and digital workbooks – and falling increasingly out of love with both as a teaching method.

Most of my friends who weren’t in teaching were either working from home or operating in new, post-Covid systems that had them in the office three days out of five. We didn’t see changes that drastic in teaching, to be honest, with most families calling for a return to normality for the sake of their children’s mental wellbeing. Be tolerant. Be understanding. So we plodded along, tolerant and understanding. Some people followed the rules about social distancing to the letter. Some didn’t. Invariably, where they didn’t, outbreaks followed.

And while we dealt with the outbreaks as they came – usually by sending classes or year groups home one at a time – we had to deal with an increase in power outages, too. For whatever reason, we were hit by a real spate of them as we hurtled into the second lockdown (and in a genuinely absurd divine prank, one has literally just hit as I was writing this… never mind hindsight, this is just plain spooky). Power cuts meant no internet, and no internet meant no lessons (or email, for that matter). So while “snow days” were forever killed off by the invention of remote learning, the common power cut took its place.

The second lockdown was more tedious than the first: stripped of its novelty, most of us were just waiting for the all-clear. And when we did return, there were so many things to keep an eye on. Which students were on RPDs (Remote Pupil Device) this week? Which ones weren’t (they needed work sent to them instead)? How did you balance your teaching to make sure the ones on the screen were getting your full attention, when the other twenty-odd sitting in the classroom also required the same?

Boarding was even more complicated. Over the course of the year I played teacher, counsellor, test-and-tracer, secretary, waiter, cook and delivery boy. I donned plastic gloves, apron and a face shield and took temperatures with a gun-shaped thermal detector. I took my isolators for walks – codenamed “fresh air” – after putting the others to bed, so there was no risk of them contaminating others. More than once I wondered what this boarding school malarkey would be like without all the myriad responsibilities that living with Covid thrust upon us all.

September 2022 began on a much more hopeful footing. Many of the previous year’s trials remained, such as the boarders’ test-to-fly hurdles and the itinerant disappearance of this or that student from the classroom (for a period of no fewer than 14 days – then 9, then 3). However, as winter turned to spring and a third national lockdown looked about as likely as a white Christmas, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. The jabs had done their job – or rather, the moral panic had abated with the knowledge that more than half the nation was now triple-vaccinated against the menace. Covid became a cold: more of a nuisance than a threat.

If truth be told, I’ve probably forgotten many of the day-to-day details. Things have changed so much over the last two years. With school exams now back in full swing, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s only in the last three weeks or so that things have finally returned to normal – whatever that was.

Over the last week I’ve been asked to support no fewer than three overseas school trips planned for the next academic year. This week alone we bring the summer half term to a close with a practice expedition for the Duke of Edinburgh students, a summer concert in the Abbey, our first Sports Day in three years and a Speech Day that we’ll be able to attend in person, rather than in tutor groups via a Google Meet link. It’s taken a long time, but in the grand scheme of viruses and plagues and diseases, we’ve bounced back incredibly quickly.

I had a great time today standing in as a very willing target in the “Throw a Sponge at the Teacher” stall at the Sixth Form dog show, but more than anything else, I was over the moon to see so many students, staff and parents back on site, mask-free, mingling as though the last two years never happened. Fear did not get the better of us, and we have come out the other end smiling.

I’d still recommend John Christopher’s novel for a dose of reality, if only to cancel out the hubris high I’m feeling right now – because his message is no less relevant now than it was over sixty years ago – or even two years ago:

The scientists have never failed us yet. We shall never really believe they will until they do.

John Christopher, The Death of Grass

Alpha Girls and Beta Men on the 13:07

London Bridge is quietly buzzing. I’m halfway through sandwich two of my Boots meal deal and watching commuters come and go beyond the glass. I can’t see many face masks anymore. The only masks I’ve seen in three minutes were worn by a couple of Asian women who got off the Gatwick train. To look around now, you might be forgiven for thinking the crisis is over. I wonder whether we eventually shrugged off the great plague with the same British phlegm.

Two twenty-somethings on the next aisle crack open a thin-tin of strawberry daiquiri and discuss the “right” way to shake a cocktail. A sweet synthetic hint of something that might once have been strawberry permeates the carriage for a few seconds, somewhere between the strength of a spring flowerbed and a subway urinal. A trendy man in dark glasses phases in and out of sleep a few seats along. A made-up mum scrolls through her Zara app and her daughter waves goodbye to London Town.

Graffiti lines the tracks. It daubs itself on every bridge, every sign and lamp post, every standing stone. Tags and words and call-signs in silver and black that make no sense to me, but mean something to someone, somewhere. Preek. Eo. Prydz. Busta. Cosa. DGMan. Looper. You never see them in the act, but the aerosol artists must work throughout the year, like Reebok-wearing shoemaker-elves.

The conversation shifts. The daiquiri girls discuss their thoughts about their respective partners and the foibles of men. “Don’t forget him, just think of him as, you know, that was a shiny boy you dated for a while,’; “He said that being in love is more important than being right, and that just didn’t sit with me, you know?”; “Mm yeah, that does sound a bit intense,”; “I just want to be in control all the time,”; “Me too!”

A yuppie asked to take the seat next to me on the train up last night. I noticed his face fallen slightly – that slight tightening of the jaw that I think is called emotional leakage in psychological circles. Perhaps I saw in it what I wanted to see, or perhaps I just saw a face I know too well. He was drafting a message in Notes to one “Alissa Bumble”. He struggled with one sentence, writing, erasing and re-writing the same words: “thank you for being honest with me”. His jaw twitched and he stared through his phone to the floor and into the empty space beyond.

In four months of experimenting with Bumble and it’s kin I’m more or less resolved to pull the plug at the end of the month. It was worth a shot, but I feel that yuppie’s frustration on my own level: it’s a soul-sapping task at best. I’ve seen that same quiet exasperation in the faces of many a young Tantalus on the train, now that I recognise that swiping gesture for what it means and read it like a book whenever I see it. Apples bobbing near, but always out of reach.

These social networking sites seem one and the same. One goes into the water like a fisherman and, though you could be sure you felt a tug on the line here or there, when you start to draw in the net you find your hands are empty. Maybe it was a missed encounter, or maybe it was a capricious twist of the algorithm, clamouring for your attention – and your custom. They play you like a lyre; Apollo in Diana’s hands. Even those connections you thought you’d made tend to disappear like so much dust in your hand. Again and again it’s the same hurdle online as it is in truth. Ambition gets in the way. Ambition for work and ambition for looks. It’s a game for the beautiful and the mirror never lies, and for somebody who would rather share stories than photos, the current of the online dating world flows like the Gibraltar Strait: close, tantalisingly so, but vicious and unforgiving. It’s been an interesting experiment, but it’s not for me.

The sun is shining on Crawley Town. A nuthatch twirrups from the canopy and the wind whispers through the alder trees. A robin is singing as the clouds roll in. The bluebells are out at last and a walk home through the woods is the best therapy nature can provide, especially when it rides off the back of a night spent in the company of such honest and kind-hearted friends. The world has been good to me.

Time, I think, for a spring clean. First of the flat, then of the heart. BB x

White Hart

This time tomorrow I will be in Venice, hopefully enjoying una cena veneta with a few fellow travelers, but more likely getting some rest from a busy day on the road (and a 4.30am start). So, as is tradition, I went for a walk in the countryside to bid adieu – or even addio – to the England I love, as it will be almost a fortnight before I return to this island.

I originally meant to get a breath of fresh air and nothing more, having spent most of the day inside, packing and preparing. But the darkness between the trees in the dying light of the evening pulled me in, so I decided to take an alternative route home through the forest.

There’s something intensely magical about walking in a forest after sunset. For some reason it’s never given me the shivers – at least, not if we don’t count that frightful wild camping episode I wrote about a couple of months back. With the light failing with every second, your sense of hearing intensifies: the crunching leaves beneath your feet crackle like a bonfire, and the alarm calls of blackbirds echo through the trees like klaxons.

If you stop and stand still for a moment, though, you’ll hear other sounds. The rustle of movement in the undergrowth. The drumroll wingbeat of a cock pheasant after his cry. The distant hoot of an owl. The footsteps of deer, not too far away.

I came across the herd in their usual clearing, where the poplars grow. I call it the cathedral, because of the way the trees soar into the air in four rows, their branches covering the sky like the vaulted arches of Canterbury. It’s also blissfully dark here in summer, when the leaves blot out the sun, and I often find the muntjac here. Tonight, the fallow herd were resting between the pillars – until they heard me coming, that is.

Even with my keen eyesight, the deer did a fantastic job at staying out of sight, though there must have been at least twenty of them, fading seamlessly into the forest floor the moment they stopped moving. Only one remained visible, shining like the morning star: the white hart. Look closely and you’ll see it, even in the shoddy resolution of my phone’s camera.

In British folklore, white stags are quintessential symbols of quests. Lots of children’s books feature white stags that can never be caught. If anything one ought to feel sorry for the beasts, as nature can hardly play a crueller trick than to make a prey animal absolutely incapable of blending in to any environment that isn’t covered in thick snow. All the same, it’s always a sight to see – even if our white heart hasn’t got any antlers to show for it. So I won’t be following in the footsteps of Saint Eustace and seeing Christ between its antlers. Not that I got close enough to see whether it really was Jesus or a chaffinch perched upon its head – the beast had enough good sense to disappear deeper into the forest as I drew near. Saint Eustace must have been a damned good sneak.

As for my quest, my quest is to rediscover the thrill of the open road once again. With my taxi due to arrive in only a few hours’ time, I suppose I’ll know soon enough. BB x

Storm Clouds over Soho

I got the train up to London today with a view to getting my hands on a decent pair of shoes, since I’m told the Italians can be a little snobbish when it comes to standards of dress. With the Northern Line under repairs, it took a little longer to get up to Bloomsbury, so I took a leisurely ride on the Circle Line from Blackfriars and indulged in a favourite pastime: sketching commuters on the Underground. There’s an art to it (no pun intended) – you’ve got to be quick, since most of them only travel a few stops before getting off. And now that face masks are a minority affair, it’s a lot more enjoyable a practice than it was.

Predictably, I got waylaid in Gower Street’s Waterstones en route to the shoe shop. Ever on the hunt for new additions to my Spanish library, I thought I’d do some digging at one of London’s finest bookstores, since it’s been quite a long time since my last visit. I managed to exercise a considerable amount of restraint this time, leaving behind two case studies on the Inquisition from the antiques section in the basement and Minder’s The Struggle for Catalonia… though I’ll be back for that one eventually. Giles Tremlett has brought out a new book on Spain which looks like it will pump out a lot of material I can use with my A Level Spanish students, which is my way of justifying that purchase. The only book I didn’t question was an account of Walter Starkie’s Camino. Starkie wrote so vividly about his journeys as a minstrel across Spain in Spanish Raggle Taggle and peppers his writing with old verses all over the place, so I had to salvage that one.

I wandered down towards Oxford Street in search of a decent pair of shoes, but I couldn’t find anything that jumped off the shelves at me, so I decided to make do what I have (a fine piece of advice at the best of times, which I wantonly ignore whenever I should be near a bookshop) and cut across town back to the river through Soho.

I’ve either forgotten how luridly seedy Soho is, or I haven’t properly explored the place before. What looked like a shortcut led me down a dark alleyway with shady adult stores on either side. The noise of Oxford Street seemed to die in the distance, like the record player in the Waterstones’ basement, stifled into silence by a wall of books… only now by grimy bricks and a mere sliver of sunlight through a gap between the buildings above. I almost collided with a stocky man in a big puffer jacket with a cough came lumbering out of a film store, stuffing something under the sleeve of his coat. Two Arabs stopped talking and gave me a funny look as I passed, clutching my journal in one hand and one strap of my rucksack with the other, humming the tenor line from Ola Gjeilo’s Northern Lights to myself. I guess Soho isn’t on the tourist trail.

Leaving Soho behind, I wandered through the crowds in Chinatown and came out onto Trafalgar Square, where a large crowd had gathered on the steps. Unsurprisingly, it was a rally against the war in Ukraine. Blue-and-yellow flags fluttered high above the throng, joined here and there by Polish and Hungarian partisans adding their colours to the mast. One woman, the tryzub emblazoned on her cape, stood defiant at the front of the congregation, fist raised in a powerful salute for most of the half-hour I stuck around to watch.

Boycott Russia.
Arm Ukraine.
Stop Putin, stop the war.

Those were the chants, coming around and around before the crowd. The main speaker apologised for the necessity of being so blunt, before decrying the rape of Ukrainian women by Russian forces and the slaughter of its children. An Englishman spoke slightly hesitantly about the need to support Ukraine’s disabled and elderly refugees, and a Ukrainian began to sing a national lament as the sky darkened overhead and the sun faded from sight. I’ll admit I half expected there to be a police van lurked nearby, its officers on standby for any disruption, but I couldn’t find a visible copper for love nor money.

The last time I saw a demonstration like this was back in October in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, as I walked back to my hostel with one of my cousins. “They’re always here,” he told me, “and so are they,” indicating the loitering policia who hang back just shy of the crowd, silent, hands on their truncheons, watching the Republican flags flying in the night air. The crowd was surprisingly mixed: an old man in a flat cap stood shouting his passionate support in the centre of the throng, while two girls shared an equally passionate and equally political moment on one of the bollards. The policia watched on, silently.

Puerta del Sol, October 2021

On my way back to the station, I stopped at the traffic lights and looked back to Trafalgar Square. Lord Nelson and a mounted Charles I stared southwards over my head, silhouetted against the clouded sky: two men who got personally involved in European wars and paid a physical price for their efforts. Little wonder, then, that the European powers are so reluctant to send any troops into open battle to defend the Gateway of Europe.

Back at Blackfriars, the rally seemed a world away. I missed the early train by a whisker and had to wait twenty minutes for the next one. A Catalan girl sat on a bench nearby, a red-and-yellow skiing jacket from Cerdanya proudly displaying her winter colours. I instinctively reached for my face, but my usual rojigualda facemask was at home: I’d opted for a less nationalistic face covering today. Away to the east, the sun broke through the clouds over the Thames, lighting up Tower Bridge against the rainclouds rolling in from the south. London seems to go on forever, whatever happens to the rest of the world, and yet it’s Rome that holds the title of the Eternal City. I’m looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes and reading such stories as I can find in its people and its streets. BB x


2:45pm, 20th March. I’m sitting on a bench on Brighton’s Palace Pier, sheltering for a moment from the wind. A sign in front of me reads “It’s fun all year on Brighton Pier”. Somewhere down the coast to the east, there’s a few mad folk towelling off after a swim. The sea doesn’t exactly look inviting today. I look down through the slats. The bottle green waters of the Channel heave and swell about the centipede legs of the pier below. I wonder what creatures of the deep might be looking back up at me, besides the silent starfish in the silt.

Two men wander over to the parapet, gazing down at the beachgoers below. One of them watches in silence, nodding occasionally. His companion holds a recording device of some kind in his hand and is whistling a crude but not inaccurate imitation of the gulls. Is he trying to lure them in, perhaps? To what end? I can’t quite make out his game. He keeps it up the whole time, occasionally saying something in Arabic to his companion and chuckling, and then whistling his gull-call again. After a while, they move on, whistling. His friend must have the patience of a saint. You get all sorts in Brighton.

A few seconds later, a herring gull lands on the parapet. It’s not there for long, as a gang of girls in tracksuits race up the aisle towards the gloom of the arcade, screaming and swearing, sending the panicked bird into the air in their wake. Two scavengers in a truck trundle by in the opposite direction, trailing two heavy GLASS ONLY bins behind them. The planks tremble beneath my feet. I imagine, for a moment, the structure collapsing beneath its weight. In slow motion I see the bins rolling over backwards and a cascade of bottles plummeting into the sea below, some of them shattering on the struts of the pier before they hit the water. I have a pretty active imagination.

I move on up the pier, past the booming darkness of the arcade, which still seems to draw in a faithful clientele, despite the mobile lure of pocket entertainment. In fact, I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the absence of phones on the pier – for once, I’ve got mine out more than most as I take notes. Beyond the arcade, I reach a collection of outdoor game stands. Tin Can Alley with a bored-looking brunette in a red shirt waiting for custom. Dolphin Derby with an enthusiastic announcer who wouldn’t look out of place in a pinstripe waistcoat and boater a hundred years back. An Indian family points out across the water talking in a language that isn’t English. A couple walk past, hand in hand, one of them gamine with a grey-tinged ponytail over shaved sides and a nose ring, and her partner robust, black, ripped jeans and winged eyeliner, a rainbow lapel badge pinned to her sleeve. The air is thick with the pungent smells of Brighton: fish batter, candy floss and the distinctive damp tang of weed. The breeze coming in off the sea cancels out one of the three at a time, but not for long.

Behind the Tin Can Alley shack, a huddle of turnstones get some shut-eye. These often hyperactive creatures look out of place when static, and one wonders how they manage to get any rest at all with the thumping bass from the fairground rides at the end of the pier. It almost looks as though there’s a physical pecking order to the clan, and the ones at the bottom aren’t having much luck, hopping from strut to strut with remarkable dexterity. A passer-by sees what I’m looking at and stops to take a few photographs on her phone. The turnstones don’t seem to be fazed by me, or her, or any of this. After all, it’s fun all year on Brighton Pier. They’re probably used to it.

Nearer the fairground, an old gypsy-cart sits awkwardly beside the parapet, offering Tarot readings for a modest sum. Career, love, happiness and luck mingle strangely with Nestle, Astra Zeneca and Cornhill Insurance plc. I remember finding an abandoned gypsy-cart in the woods once when I was a child, its richly-painted woodwork fighting a losing battle with the forest’s silent army of moss, lichen and brambles. The gitanos in Tierra de Barros had no such fancies, eking out a living from beat-up cars and shabby tents. There is an old song of theirs I have consigned in part to memory, telling of their love for the Guadiana River, that came to mind:

The region of Chal was our dear native soil,
Where in fullness of pleasure we lived without toil,
Til dispersed through all lands ’twas our fortune to be,
Our steeds, Guadiana, must now drink of thee.

Gypsy ballad, translated by George Borrow (The Zincali, 1841)

I doubt the gitanos camped outside Villafranca de los Barros would know the song. It comes from an older world, much like the incongruous cart parked at the end of Palace Pier.

The fairground plies a busy trade for a chill-if-sunny Sunday in March. I feel like I’m walking through a childhood I haven’t known in twenty years, not since the distant summers in Dymchurch. Tea cups, log flumes and merry-go-rounds. A helter-skelter – see the Isle of Wight on a clear day! – painted up like a stick of Brighton Rock (or maybe the sticks are painted after the fashion of the fair). The static gilded horses on the merry-go-round look no less terrifying than they did when I was a boy. The ghost train reels in customers one at a time, lethargic, a chameleon in the cold. A father explains the “this high to ride” sign to his son, who is just a little too short for any of the attractions. I get the impression I’m snooping a little too much and wander away from the noise.

There’s a quiet spot behind one of the rides, looking out towards the mouldering wreck of the old pier. Seen from its sister with the city behind it, the Western Pier looks small and unimpressive. From the shore it looks a little more mysterious, where its mangled skeleton claws at the horizon like the blackened bones of a giant, mechanical whale, picked clean by the cormorants that sit on its ancient struts. In their oil-black funeral garb, they might as well be an extension of the wreckage. Brighton’s gargoyles.

Something bobs in the water closer to the Palace Pier, and without looking through any lens it looks too misshapen to be a buoy. It turns for a moment revealing long whiskers and those baleful black eyes, before sinking beneath the waves. I’ve been scanning the water all morning for that sight, and now I’ve found one, I can’t let the moment pass me by. I count the seconds. One, two, three…

Seals are such mesmerising creatures to watch. It could be their friendly faces, the way they seem genuinely curious about the world above the waves. For me, it’s all about their eyes. There are few creatures out there with eyes like a seal’s: enormous, black orbs that seem to see forever. You only see the whites of a seal’s eye when they’re really close, otherwise you might as well be looking into the dull glaze of a shard of volcanic glass. I used to watch them bobbing about in the waves from the white cliffs when I was a teenager, and once or twice I was lucky enough to see them closer still, lounging about on the mudflats of the Stour Estuary and snorting their indignation at the noisy ferry-boat off the Farne Islands.

Those were greys: hulking, dog-like beasts of considerable size, especially the bulls who came charging after the boat. It’s not hard to see why so many languages label the creatures sea-dogs, or sea-calfs, or even sea-cats. But unless you’re in the water with them, all you see is the inquisitive face, bobbing above the surface. The seal comes into its own beneath the waves. I should love to see one in its murky underwater kingdom one day.

Some creatures command the eye. The ghostly silence of the male hen harrier, or the aerial mastery of the kite. The sunken eyes of the fox and the stern gaze of the stag. I once sat in my bedroom poring over bird guides of Spain and the Mediterranean, bemoaning how drab our world was by comparison. With age comes understanding, I suppose. If the seal hadn’t drifted further and further out to sea, I could have watched for hours.

I spent most of my teenage years growing up on the pebbled shores of this same stretch of ocean. The salt breeze and yellow-grey skies of the Channel are written into my skin like age-lines. I should make a point of coming down to the coast more often in future, if not to blast the cobwebs of work aside with a healthy salt spray, then to find the writing material I’m always searching for. If I can find my way to a quieter spot than Brighton, I might even be able to sidestep the bookshops that always draw me in. Fortunately, I’ve been such a loyal customer to Waterstones over the last couple of months that I was able to walk away from today’s haul for a steal of a price. Just don’t ask how many books I bought – or how big the discount was. It’s all for a good cause. I’ll keep telling myself that. BB x

For the Sport of Your Own Crows

My phone is telling me I walked some twenty-five kilometres today. After trekking to Three Bridges Station there and back on foot, various perambulations through Reading and London and walking the Combe Gibbet Circular, I can’t say I’m surprised. What I can say is that I bloody well ought to learn to drive, because it’s frankly ridiculous how much of the world I could be exploring at weekends which is just too far away to reach on foot. Dammit.

Fortune favours the bold, which is another way of saying if you want to get lucky, you have to make your own luck. Fortunately, today’s little outing got off to a cracking start with luck knocking on my door. With the kids off site this weekend, the grounds were eerily quiet, even for a Sunday morning. I guess that’s why one of the forest’s more secretive residents made it all the way up onto the main drive this morning.

Muntjac deer are such fascinating little creatures. They keep some of our boys up at night with their barking in the summer, and unlike some deer species they’re quite fearless if you cross paths with one in the wild: I’ve had what can only be called a stand-off with a buck in the woods on my way into town more than once (and probably with the same individual). This one didn’t hang around for long, and if I’d not happened to look out of the window as I was getting dressed I’d probably have missed it.

I managed to make it out into the windswept wilds of Berkshire this weekend. I haven’t been up that way since a school retreat to Daoui a few years ago, and I remember feeling spellbound by the place then (well, I was certainly spellbound by the evening prayers, that much is true). On the way, signs that the year is very much on the turn were everywhere. Masses of frogspawn in the usual spots in the forest. Crocuses pushing up through the bracken as the snowdrops wilt away. The explosive chattering of a roving band of siskins in the treetops. And, Berkshire being Berkshire, red kites absolutely everywhere. I swear I saw more kites than pigeons today.

Climbing high up onto the downs above the hamlet of Inkpen, I even heard my first skylark of the year, merrily singing its heart out as it soared skywards. I haven’t seen any swallows or martins yet, but spring is certainly well on the way.

Standing tall upon the summit of Inkpen Beacon is a lonely-looking structure that can be seen for miles around: the Combe Gibbet. As we climbed towards it, my dear friend and learned guide Kate (one half of the dynamic duo that were Langlesby Travels) regaled me with its dark history: as the story goes, it was built in the year 1676 for the hanging of local murderers George Bromham and Dorothy Newman after the double murder of Bromham’s wife and son, the only obstacles to their unrequited love. For Bromham’s infidelity and the brutality of their actions – they supposedly bludgeoned the mother and child to death before hiding the bodies in a nearby dew pond – they were hanged by the neck in Winchester and their bodies displayed high upon the hilltop for all to see. Apparently the sight could be seen from “several counties”, which seems a bit of a stretch, though it really did feel like you were on top of the world up there on Inkpen Beacon. It’s always an incredible feeling when you’re looking down on the raptors wheeling through the air below.

I was particularly keen to see the gibbet because I’m currently looking into the Great Plague of Seville and the curious habits of the plague doctors of the 17th century. There – I’m sure you’ve got that image in your head already: the broad-rimmed hat, the long, heavy black robes, leather gloves and – of course – the sinister, raven-beaked mask. It’s hardly surprising that the plague doctor became associated with despair. I’ve read somewhere that when Venice was devastated by the plague, the bird-like plague doctors were quite a common sight along its canals. I’ll have to do some exploring to that effect when I’m out there in just over a month’s time.

We were followed on the way down the Beacon by one of the Combe’s kites, wheeling lazily in the spring sunshine, its forked tail steering it effortlessly over our heads without a single wingbeat. I’ve always been in awe of kites. If it weren’t for the utter majesty of the griffon vulture, I might well hold the kite close to my heart as my favourite bird of all. It’s certainly a bird that’s been a part of my life for years, from the black kites of the Raya Real to the termite-hunting horde that haunted the Bishop’s Residence in Lira, Uganda, almost a decade ago. A solitary raven drifted mightily on the wind on the way home, a couple of hares skidded up the banks and out of sight as we passed, and a bullfinch was singing its mournful song from the hedgerow as we reached Kate’s car. Berkshire’s an expensive part of the UK to live for various reasons, but I never knew just how healthily wild it was until today. I guess the downs I can see from my window are every bit as breath-taking, if I could only reach them somehow. Still – that’s something to look forward to, I suppose.

Walking home in the dark, I almost had a conversation with a fox. A vixen, I think it was – it didn’t have that long face with the sunken eyes that dog foxes do. She froze in the middle of the track like wild things sometimes do, and if a man hadn’t come by walking his dog, I could have sworn we might have gone on looking at each other. Dogs and foxes have something of a chequered past, though, and at the first sound of the approaching mutt it was off into the verge and gone without a trace.

Today was a wild day, and wild days are always easy to write about when you’re as big a nature nut as I am. Write what you know, I suppose. Now if only there weren’t already a famous nature writer called BB, I might just squeeze my way into that very cramped market. Since when was BB short for Denys Watkins-Pitchford, anyway? BB x


Alright, so first things first – why the name change? That I can tell you in two words. Assassin’s Creed. To be precise, give me three: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.

Up until a few years ago, the old blog was easy to find, not least of all because my choice of a pen name is not exactly one of the most commonplace names around. When was the last time you met a Barnabas?

Then, suddenly, 2018 saw the next instalment in the Assassin’s Creed series, and would you believe it, one of the many “side quests” in the game was actually titled “Barnabas Abroad”. Curious, I read up on the mission and spoke to a couple of people who have played the game, and I still can’t find a legitimate excuse as to why they chose that title. It has seemingly no bearing on the in-game mission whatsoever (mind you, since I’ve been grounded for the last four and a half years, it wasn’t really an honest title for my own blog anymore). Anyway, what that meant in a nutshell is that hits for my blog plummeted. Time was when Googling “Barnabas Abroad” took you straight here. Not anymore. Even if you knew the name of the blog, you’d have to sift through two pages of Wikis and related forums about Assassin’s Creed in order to find any of my content.

So this is me, BB, the artist formerly known as Barnabas Abroad, rebranding.

And no, it’s got nothing to do with The Book of Boba Fett either. Nor the Gospel of Barnabas, though I’ll admit I like the connection. Honestly? I just wanted something that started with the letter B.

I heard it said that in London you’re always looking for either a job, a house or a lover.

Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

Spring in the air. Robins singing. Long shadows on the drive. An electric blue sky and the promise of summer. Crocuses, snowdrops and daffodils. A deepening red hue in the silvery-ochre wash of the Weald. In the forest, masses of frogspawn in the usual spot, most of which will be gobbled up by the thrushes long before the hatchlings see the light of day. Hope stamped out but not extinguished. Despair has no place in the springtime.

Today was an odd day. So much of it felt like walking backwards through time. And not stepping back to a specific point in the past, I mean literally walking backwards. I spent the morning moving a tumble-dryer into the flat with a colleague. I took a taxi to the station, with the company I used to use a year ago, before our school changed its providers. I remembered the driver – you get to know them pretty well when they’re your only rapid means of getting to and from work, wheel-less as I am. I went to Victoria in the sunlight with a giant suitcase for a friend. I handed it over, talked things over, and left the station, more than one load the lighter.

I think my mind was elsewhere, so my brain went into autopilot. My feet took me into the nearest Waterstones. I found myself in the philosophy section. My great-grandfather was something of a philosophy nut, if his letters are anything to go by. Maybe, when we’re at a loss, the spirits of our ancestors come back to guide us. I’d like to think so. I couldn’t find Mill’s On Liberty (recommended to me by a student a few weeks back), so I found the nearest thing: Andrew Doyle’s Free Speech and Why It Matters. Figures that if I’m to cleave to the value I hold dearest – and the one that’s always proved the most divisive in my various circles – I should see what others of a similar persuasion have to say.

The quote at the top of today’s entry comes from a book I read while I was up at the Edinburgh Fringe five years ago. Something about the frankness of the writing style appealed to me like no other nature writer had. Nature writing lends itself very well to the sort of comfortable, fatherly, did-you-know style of speech that isn’t always what you want when you’re after a page-turner. The Outrun was something different, and I felt I could resonate with so much of it. It came to mind this afternoon, or rather, that quote did. Though to be honest, what I was really looking for in London this afternoon was a bit of peace and quiet. It’s been quite a hectic term.

I’ve been in orbit for a few months now, enthusiastic as ever in my job, listless in my spare time. Writing has helped. Reading has sort of helped, when I’ve had the will for it. Running a new choir after the upheaval of last term has been a real palliative, doubly so since my hearing has fully recovered. And yet, there it is. That sense that the future isn’t as clear as it used to be. I still have the vague notion of where I want to be, and it still very much looks like a boarding school on the outskirts of Madrid, but where before the rope bridge stretched across a river, the abyss below seems void and limitless. A myriad paths I could take, crossing and weaving and leading down roads I don’t fully understand. I don’t suppose I realised how much I had built my future upon the present, until that present shifted beneath my feet. It’s just as well that the news right now is all chaos; if nothing else, it provides a healthy reality check.

I’m hoping that my adventures in Italy break the back of this funk when they come around. I’ll travel light, I think. Take only my journal, a camera and some changes of clothes. No headphones, no travel guides, no extras. Just the one book – and a slim one, at that.

The Waterstones near Victoria looks out upon the impressive façade of Westminster Cathedral, and that’s where I headed next. There’s a silent solace in bookshops, but something greater and more powerful can be found in the holy places of this world (see my account of the climb to Montserrat a few years ago). I found a chair, made the sign of the cross and shut my eyes.

The rumble of the buses outside was drowned out by the magisterial rumble of the organ overhead, then piping and blasting, then humming and whispering. I caught snatches of Spanish in the pews to my right. Byzantine eyes burned into my temples from the glittering walls of the aisles. I counted the stations of the cross as far as I could see them and thought about my abortive visit to Jerusalem, laid low by Covid the week the schools closed. Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross, and a man propping his smartphone up against his feet in the nave to take a full-length photo down the aisle, once, twice, three times. A lady in a wimple watching three rows down with an expression that might have been contempt or indifference. Me, a pretender with a Daunt Books tog-bag I forgot I had, crossing myself once again and leaving.

I sought answers in a church once before, during a summer school trip to Crawley town mall many years back. I think I had similar questions then. But now it’s gone ten on a Sunday night, and there are more important lessons to think about. The weekend, thankfully, is come and gone. Life goes on! BB x

Abide with Me

Today’s the last day of the February half term. Storm Eunice is on her way out, but she’s dragging her talons behind her. I’m cooped up with a blanket and a mug of Ovaltine in my study, looking out at the grey world beyond. Cars parked at angles. Wet tarmac mirroring the featureless sky. Winds of over fifty miles per hour howl across the grounds. One of the windows in my flat is permanently ajar due to some fault with its ancient locking mechanism, and the banshee wails moaning through the corridor sound like the Ice Cavern from Ocarina of Time (nostalgia trip here). Between the raging wind and the rattling tattoo of the flagpole two floors up, I might as well be at sea.

I came home from visiting my parents last night to find the whole site in darkness. From what I’ve seen and heard, Eunice had been busy while I was away, tearing her way along the coast like a hurricane and leaving great swathes of the south without power. It took me at least a minute or two scrolling through the UK Power Network website to find my postcode amidst the many hundreds reporting a power outage. After the fair number of power cuts we had last year, you would have thought I would have been prepared, but for the life of me I couldn’t find any of the candles I’d stockpiled over the years. I think my previous housemate used them all up for beer bottle decoration. Fortunately, some foresight – or hindsight – on my part led me to a hidden cache of hand-torches in a chest of drawers. The bulb had gone in the smaller one, but the other, though flickering as a match-flame, gave just about enough light to read by.

I half expected to come home to find the silhouette of the great Atlas cedar missing from the skyline, its mighty body bent and broken upon the drive like a fallen giant. Fortunately its roots go deep, like the mountains upon which its kin grow far away to the south, and there is strength in the old man still.

The same cannot be said of many of the free-standing trees that line the road into town. I promised myself I’d get a taxi home for the sake of my new trainers, but as usual, I went back on that promise, only this time it was not out of stinginess but a genuine curiosity to see the wreckage of the storm that I had only glimpsed from the train. Crawley wasn’t given a lashing quite like Brighton and Hove, but it had its fair share of casualties, scattered and trimmed across roads and gardens. The damage was less obvious deeper into the woods beyond. There is safety in numbers, it seems, even for trees: much of the forest was untouched by the storm. It was seriously muddy underfoot, though, and I spent a good ten minutes cleaning my trainers by torchlight once I’d made it home.

It seems unoriginal – not to mention extremely British – to go on so about the weather, but I feel as a writer there is nothing more important than taking the time to talk about the world around you every so often. It’s our duty to tell stories of the world as we see it, so that others who come after us can learn from us somehow. One of the books I actually read cover-to-cover last year, Nature’s Mutiny, pieces together the world of the Little Ice Age through diaries, sermons, letters, hymns and poems penned by those who saw it with their own eyes. Back then there was still a great fear of God tangled up in the awesome power of the weather, and a hundred years of savage winters had led a lot of Europeans to the natural conclusion that sin was to blame. Some resorted to witchcraft; some resorted to witch-burning. Others, of a more temperate nature, put their thoughts into verse:

In constant rancour we abide / and war is ruling far and wide

Envy and hatred everywhere / in all estates discord and fear

That too, is why the elements / reach out against us with their hands

Fear coming from the depth and sea / fear from the very air on high

In morning is the source of joy / the sun no longer sends bright rays

The clouds are raining like a fount / the tears too plentiful to count.

Paul Gerhard
Translated by Philipp Blom
(Nature’s Mutiny, 2019)

I wonder how many modern lyricists sing about the weather? Back in 2007, when the UK was plunged into its wettest summer since records began, Rihanna’s perfectly-timed Umbrella became a best-seller. There were even joking accusations on the internet that the singer was responsible for the unseasonal weather across the pond…

Now that it’s raining more than ever

Know that we’ll still have each other

You can stand under my umbrella

You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh

Rihanna (“Umbrella“)

Of course, Rihanna wasn’t thinking about the British summer yet to come when she wrote those lines, but four hundred years ago they might have burned her for a witch for such impeccably bad timing. Come to think of it, though, I do distinctly remember her name being on the list handed to me by the Prefect Witchfinder General at a school I worked at in Uganda, some five years later. Apparently the school’s witch-hunting guild had found a website listing known witches in the Western world? If they’d stumbled upon one of the various forums discussing the timing of Umbrella, perhaps it’s not an unprecedented conclusion. If I remember correctly, Wayne Rooney’s name was also on that list. The internet is a strange place.

Speaking of the internet, I decided to bite the bullet and give the online dating scene a whirl. Living and working in a boarding school doesn’t exactly facilitate an open line of communication with the outside world, so rather than sitting on the fence I thought I’d chase some stories for a change. After a brief browse it looks as though Bumble is the kindest of the Golden Triangle (with Hinge and Tinder), not least of all because it’s the most self-aware of the damage the online dating scene can do to the mental health of its users. It’s good to see that in an undeniably superficial meat market, some of the folks up top are aware of the dangers and offer support.

It’s almost certainly a silly idea, living as far from the city as I do, but, who’s to know? Shy bairns get nowt once again. If I had a penny for every variation of that phrase I’ve heard throughout my life, I might just have a pound. BB x

Cherry Red

Masks are becoming a much less common sight around town these days. Most of the signs in shops still carry the warning to wear a face covering or face a penalty, but only the employees appear to follow the rules nowadays. John Q. Public seems to have taken Boris at his word and thrown caution the wind in favour of a return to the way things were. The lurid rojigualda of my own face mask is more notable for its presence than for its colour scheme.

Though perhaps less so today, when red is absolutely everywhere, in the name of love, romantic, commercial or otherwise.

There’s been a pretty serious push for Valentine’s Day this year. Did you notice? I suppose it’s because we’ve had two years of two-metre rules and vaccination anxiety which has thrown the world’s dating community into total disarray. Still – it looks as though all the usual suspects are making up for lost time. Couples wandering about, hand in hand, head on shoulder. Trendy-looking young men scribbling hasty cards in cafes. Groups of girls carrying bouquets and single roses around every corner. Supplying them all, flowers stalls plied a roaring trade in every train station, booksellers put all their romcom collections in the window and Lush had its usual ‘leave a message’ montage daubed across its front.

I’ve never been one to hate on Valentine’s Day. Somehow all those years at an all-boys grammar school didn’t manage to quash the romantic in me. Sure, it’s got a commercial side these days, but then, what doesn’t? It may seem a little strange to celebrate the death of a third-century Roman saint by giving and eating (or just eating) a confectionery staple that the Mayans used to snack on, but is it really any weirder than Santa Claus’ transformation over the centuries from Turk to Coca Cola-chugging Nord?

I was raised on Disney movies, so of course I’m going to fight love’s corner. The same mega corporation that imbued us all with a considerable mistrust of employers (seriously, how many Disney villains use contracts or bargains?) has hammered home the message that true love conquers all since 1959. And though Sleeping Beauty gets its fair share of scrutiny these days, there’s a no less powerful dialogue from The Sword in the Stone that cuts (ha) right to it:

Merlin: “You know lad, that love business is a powerful thing.”

Arthur: “Greater than gravity?”

Merlin: “Well, yes, boy, in its way… yes, I’d say it’s the greatest force on earth.”

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Lincoln’s town mall had an oversized display up which was drawing a small but steady stream of contributors, so I had a look. Folk had scribbled messages on little red hearts and strung them up from the display for all to see. Lots of “luv u Dave!! xoxo” type notelets, but a fair scattering of wise words threaded in: “Happiness will come to everyone at the right time”, “Don’t look for love it will find you”… “Snap me @.”

When I woke up this morning with this post in mind, I meant to read some good old love poetry and reel off that. I could only find a few that were to my liking in my poetry collection, namely a couple of Shakespeare sonnets (18 and 116) and Yeats’ He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. It wasn’t until I reached the garish display in Lincoln’s mall that I suddenly remembered one of the greatest poets to ever put love into verse: the Syrian wordsmith, Nizar Qabbani.

I’ve been a devotee of Qabbani’s work since I was introduced to him in my second year at university. There’s not a single one of his poems that I don’t adore. Even in translation his words hold their magic. His poems find their way into my journals at least once per book, and I couldn’t resist an opportunity to transcribe one of his verses here, for want of anything better to write. I’ll translate below:

Your eyes are like a rainy night

My boats sink in them

My writing disappears in their reflection

Mirrors have no memory…

Nizar Qabbani

Three local girls were busy penning their thoughts as I strung up my contribution and set off to catch my train. When I glanced back at the door, they’d all gathered to see what I’d written. I hope they find the words as powerful as I do.

As is so often the way after such highfalutin flights of fancy, I was brought back to reality with a crash when not even a minute later I was stopped by a drunk almost as soon as I’d stepped out into the street. Between slurred speech and staggered gait he managed to convey that he had ‘no credit’, the taxi people ‘weren’t talking to him’ and that he needed to get to ‘Cherwillingum’, though he couldn’t say where exactly. After we’d established that his destination was Cherry Willingham (which, apparently, is how the locals say it – I maintain that British place names make English the most unhelpful language on the planet), I called him a taxi and wished him good luck, hoping that the three-hour wait would find him in a more sober state. Fingers crossed for you, buddy!

The sun sets on another Valentine’s Day. Eros and Mammon join hands once a day every year, and frankly, I say let ’em have their fling. It’s very easy to roll your eyes at the consumerism and mawkish PDA everywhere, but I can’t help feeling there’s nothing wrong with one day out of 365 devoted to romantic love. That leaves at least 364 others to be a cold-hearted cynic, if you’re that way inclined. BB x

Streets of London

2.20am. I’m riding home on the 2.08 from London Victoria. I didn’t even know trains still ran at that ungodly hour of the morning. Apparently they do: one every hour at eight minutes past the hour. They lock the station until ten minutes or so before the train leaves, and there’s quite a crowd loitering outside the gates just before they open them. Three Bridges is clearly the place to be at two in the morning. Who’d have thought it?

I did some much needed “getting out” today. With a couple of exceptions I’ve more or less turtled for four years or more. I guess that’s the nature of life in a boarding school: whereas most other folks can play their weekends and snatch evenings here and there, in teaching you block out your free time by your holidays…

The chap two seats ahead is fast asleep in his seat. His phone alarm is going off for the third time. The lads on the row of seats opposite looked annoyed at first, but one of them has struck up a conversation with the sleeper and asked if he’s going to get home OK.

I killed some time with my sketchbook on the Underground this afternoon, and again waiting in the street in Holborn before the party. A homeless man wandered over, cap in hand, to ask for help. Normally I have to admit I’d probably turn a callous blind eye, but something about London draws me in, makes me think differently. I asked for his name and we got talking. He said his name was James, and that he was trying to find a place that would take both him and his dog for the night. I gave him something to start his hunt – for once I happened to have a loose note on me. We shook hands and he set off at a run.

I didn’t have to make the trek home quite so soon. A friend offered me the key to his place for the night, if I could find my way there. I turned it down, partly out of habit, partly out of pride, and partly because of James. Having such an easy solution in London when so many are out on the streets… for some reason it didn’t sit right. You think in a different key in the small hours.

I remember sleeping rough in the wastelands beyond Almeria years ago. Gaunt from a month of under budgeting and undereating and feeling hollow. I remember the fear of that first night, the isolation. It could never compare to the real thing, of course, but I was young, foolhardy, and I wanted to have an idea of how it felt. One night I was curled up in the dunes when a couple of cars rolled up onto the beach around two in the morning. Men with flashlights climbed out and scanned the beach. I got the jitters and decided to move – they were probably night-fishing, but your brain plays all kinds of tricks at night. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the genuine pit-of-my-stomach terror when, barely a few yards down the beach, I saw two of the torch beams slowly sweep the beach and lock onto me. I ran. My God, did I run. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I must have gone at least a kilometre or more before I collapsed in the dunes.

Almeria seems a long way away. London is surprisingly busy in the small hours. Not the city that never sleeps, per se, but one that keeps at least one eye open all night. Offices lit up, calendars and Macs on desks. Lads coming home from the lash. A girl tottering home on heels, makeup streaming, eyes weeping. And many, many sleeping bags in doorways.

It felt good to go out again. I haven’t danced in years – not since university, I shouldn’t wonder. And as it’s London, the music was both a) quality and b) perfect for dancing shoes. I should do this again sometime. Not that I’d make a habit out of catching the 2.08, though.

Gatwick Airport ahead. Only another five minutes or so to go, and then it’s the long walk back through the forest. I’ll probably be in bed by 4, with or without the moonlight to guide me – I’ve made that journey so often I could probably do it blind.

I’ll sign off now so my phone has enough juice for another chapter or so of Michelle Paver’s Ghost Hunter on Audible. That will take me at least as far as the forest – there, at least, I will feel safe again. BB x