Tears, Courage and Charisma

I hadn’t planned to write much this evening, what with reports to finish and the first round of the school debating competition to support, but as I let World Poetry Day pass me by without saying a word yesterday, I thought I might pay a short homage to some of my favourite poems and say why they’re so precious to me.


Ask Valencia what became of Murcia
And where is Jativa, or where is Jaen?
Where is Cordoba, the seat of great learning
And how many scholars of high repute remain there?
And where is Seville, the home of mirthful gatherings
On its great river, cooling and brimful with water?

These centres were the pillars of the country:
Can a building remain when the pillars are missing?
The white walls of ablution are weeping with sorrow
As a lover does when torn from his beloved;
They weep over the remains of dwellings devoid of Muslims,
Despoiled of Islam, now peopled by infidels!
Those mosques have now been changed into churches,
Where the bells are ringing and the crosses standing.

This misfortune has surpassed all that has preceded
And as long as time lasts, it can never be forgotten!

Lament for the Fall of Seville, Abu al-Baqaa al-Rundi (1267)

Al-Rundi’s lament for the fall of al-Andalus is poetry in action. It’s a desperate plea for help from the Muslims of al-Andalus to their coreligionists across the sea in the language in which they excelled. Regardless of where you stand on the debate over whether Islamic Spain really was a haven of tolerance in a darkening world, it is hard not to be moved by the words of its poets as the westernmost star of the Islamic world was dragged below the horizon, never to rise again. Perhaps it was that sense of impending doom, with the Christian wolves howling mightily at the door, that infuses the words of al-Rundi and Ibn Zaydun and their kin with such mournful magic, conjuring up an image not of what was lost that had once been great, but of what could have been in such a land. I could have chosen any one of a number of beautiful Hebrew poems to chime in more closely with my family’s experience, but al-Rundi says it so masterfully.

As a child growing up in a former Moorish stronghold in Andalusia, I was completely bewitched by the lost paradise of the Moors. I am under that spell still.

Of course, it sounds a lot better in Arabic – especially since Arabic poetry of the highest calibre is song in its purest form. You can have a listen here.


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling (1895)

I’ve always been a fan of Kipling. I guess you can chalk that up to a few years in a prep school when I was younger. Colonialism, privilege, blah blah blah. That doesn’t shake the fact he had a special gift for words. My relationship with this particular poem started on my first day as a deputy boarding master. My first housemaster kept a copy of this poem on his desk, propped up against the computer, and I made a point of reading it every time I should be in the office. It gave me strength in what was arguably a tough year – training as a teacher for the first time is tough enough without an earth-shattering global pandemic cutting right through the middle of it.

I really can’t think of a better poem for a housemaster. The virtues Kipling offers up (an edited selection above) are just as important today as they ever were, and if I should follow that path myself someday, I too will have a copy of this verse in my office. For myself, if not for my boys.


Camino de Naranjales
caminaba un arriero:
buen zapato, buena media,
buena bolsa de dinero.
Arreaba siete mulos,
ocho con el delantero;
nueve se podian contar,
con el de la silla y freno.
A la salida de un monte
siete pillos le salieron:
– Donde caminas, buen mozo,
el buen mozo arriero?
– Camino hacia la Mancha
a un encarguito que llevo.
– A la Mancha iremos todos
como buenos companeros.

Al revolver de una esquina
una taberna que vieron,
– Echa vino, montanes,
echa vino, tabernero,
que lo pagara el buen mozo,
el buen mozo arriero.
– Yo si lo pagare,
que tengo mucho dinero,
que tengo mas de doblones
que estrellitas tiene el cielo.
El primer vaso que echo
se le dieron al arriero.
– Eso no lo quiero yo,
que yo veneno no bebo.
Que lo beba el rey de Espana
que esta muy gordito y bueno.

Sacan los siete sus sables
saca el suyo el arriero.
De los siete mato a cinco
y los otros dos huyeron.
Viene la Guardia Civil
y se llevan al arriero
y el arriero tuvo tiempo
y a la reina escribio un priego.

Y la reina se reia
Cuando lo estaba leyendo
– Si como ha matado a cinco
hubiera matado ciento.
Y cinco reales son diario
mientras viva el arriero.

Camino a Naranjales, Spanish Folksong

Not all poems have to speak from the heart. I love a poem that tells a story. And I’ve loved this one since I first heard it years ago in the grating tenor voice of an extremeno shepherd, recorded for posterity in the archives of the town library. There’s a beguiling frivolity in a lot of Spanish verse that pairs jauntily with the mournful Andalusian elegies and love poems, but it’s the tales of the arrieros, the brave and hardy muleteers, that I’m especially drawn to. No art, no gravitas, just a wily muleteer who bests seven rogues and is rewarded for his courage by a queen, no less. Pure Spanish whimsy – and I adore it.

What are the poems that shaped your world? Do you have any favourite lines or stanzas? Do you sometimes try to weave them into your writing like I do? (You might have spotted a thinly-veiled reference to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes in Sunday’s post, which remains stamped across my heart – like most poems one studies for GCSE.)

I should read more poetry this year. I’ll start this weekend, while I’m on duty. It’s a lot easier to get through a poem a day than a chapter of a book, I find. Especially as a teacher. 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

The Difference a Smile Makes

Riding the train across the southeast corner of England can be a rather impersonal experience. Over the course of the three different trains I have to board to reach my destination, I rarely have to say a word. A flash of one’s phone or ticket is enough for the ticket collector and human interaction tends to be limited to the odd pleasantry, such as confirming that this is indeed the train to Redhill, or some such assistance. Besides that, you can travel for three hours or so and hardly have to say a word to anyone. In any other country I suppose it would seem dreadfully out of touch, but it seems to suit the English very well. To each their own; an Englishman’s house is his castle; don’t go looking for trouble and no trouble will come to you, and other such expressions. The English love their personal space so much, it’s easy to assume that the loss of low-level human interactions in the face of the endless march of technology was welcomed here with open arms.

I might as well talk for myself. Sometimes I feel as English as the soil itself. Here I am, alone, barricaded into my window seat by my luggage and hoping the four tracksuit-wearing twenty-somethings don’t occupy the seats opposite. A damp narcotic stench, reminiscent of straw at the back of a big cat enclosure at the zoo, drifts up the carriage as they enter and I wince. I wince at the smell, and at the swiftness of my judgement; for the smell pervades long after the lads have moved on, lingering about the hawk-eyed man in the suit sitting opposite. I hadn’t even noticed him take his seat.

When the times comes to change trains, I do so quickly and willingly. I cross the platform and board the waiting train, finding a mirror-image window seat, onward-facing, back to the doors. Same seat. Same service. Same train design. It’s as though somebody just pressed the reset button on the passengers. And it’s silent again.

There are flashes of hope, though. The ticket conductor on this service greeted everybody when he got on, a cheery, wiry-haired gent, with a smile so warm you could put your feet up in front of it. He looks like a regular. At least, he knows the other regulars anyway, commenting on a girl’s new blue-dyed hair and how he’d not be brave enough to do it himself; inquiring after a young man’s onward travel; and confirming for a second time that this is indeed the service to Redhill to a doubtful older woman. The smile does not break even once.

One of the most intelligent men I ever met was a ticket inspector. I wish I’d taken more detailed notes of his reasoning, but it was something like this: “It pays the bills, it keeps me on the road and allows me to think when the day is done”. He spoke Finnish fluently “because Finnish culture is fascinating”, had an intrinsic understanding of musical harmony and was a profligate Europhile. In another life, I should like to give ticket inspecting a go.

The sun is setting behind the white spring haze. Albion, the White Island, continues to live up to its name (insert topical Jon Snow reference here). I hope the last leg of the journey is as personable as this one has been. 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.



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



Frost vs Nixon

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Gave you all a bit of a fright with my last post, didn’t I?

Since Wednesday’s minor breakdown – the apotheosis of a very shaky start – I’ve eased in at last. It’s as though somebody’s holding up a mirror to last year, when the first few days were whimsical, light and carefree… Well, I’ve bounced back. It was only a matter of time and effort. I owe that to several factors, not least of all the Corrs, C.J. Sansom and a very inspirational young lady – and, of course, to my dear friends for all the support they’ve given. Thank you.

I’ll start backwards. I mentioned a couple of posts back that my Parisian classmate was streets ahead of me in linguistic and thinking ability. From her wealth of vocabulary, maturity of thought and clear sense of direction in life I had her down as at least a couple of years older than me. That’s a major sin right off the bat; false assumptions. The revelation that she was actually several years my junior took the wind out of me. I’ll not say how much… just that for her age, to be equally comfortable in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Russian, English and French (and goodness knows what else) is nothing short of inspirational. Age really shouldn’t have anything to do with it, of course, but it’s always a wonderful thing to find someone so young so very keen, and I’ve always been a sucker for charismatic individuals. And this one’s a real star. I guess I could learn a lot from her.

Jeez, she’s just come back with a newspaper and is reading it as though it were in French. Life goals right there.

Concerning C.J. Sansom… I’ve had Dominion on my bedside table for the last three years but never got around to reading it. It’s like Pavilions or just about any Stephen King novel: the writing is brilliant, top-notch even, but would it really hurt to write a little less? (My brother’s the Stephen King fan in the family… the rest of us use his books as highly convenient door-stoppers). That’s where iBooks came to the rescue. Much as I am loath to accept them as a genuine substitute for the feel of a good hardback book, their convenience as far as travel is concerned is second to none. Especially when the book concerned is over six-hundred pages. I’ve not gone a week since being awarded my iPad last summer without having at least one book on the go, but it’s been a long time since I could hardly put the damned thing down for the quality of the novel. Dominion‘s had me putting off sleep during Ramadan, it’s that good. To write with his grit, his flair for realism… More life goals.

The crux of the matter is the book’s firm focus on England and the spirit of British independence. Churchill. That sort of thing. I needed inspiration and I found it: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts“.

Thanks Winnie. I owe you one.

Lastly, what I really should have done sooner was to pick up my iPod and treat myself to some serious music therapy. It’s a failsafe I always forget to fall back on, provided I’ve got the right track. And the Corrs’ Forgiven not Forgotten – every song on that album, in fact – is always the right track. I’m not sure what the first album I listened to was. I suppose it may have been Spiceworld, but my parents are both music teachers, so the scope there is enormous. Certainly the first one I remember clearly and the one I associate most with my childhood is Forgiven not Forgotten. I still have the cassette, stashed away with other precious mementos of my childhood: the Jubilee medallion, a vulture feather, a bundle of love letters…

The Corrs were, and still are, my favourite band. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s a serious hustle for that top spot between Beyoncé, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and James Brown, with the latter usually taking the top spot purely because of his legendary stamina on stage, but there’ll always be something special about the Corrs. I grew up with them. I listened to them on the way to school and every time we went on that long car journey to the Lake District. I think they even had a hand in giving birth to the novel; Erin Shore, in particular. And after all these years, I still treasure that album above all others. There’s just something about it that never faded.

If it weren’t so expensive (comparatively speaking), I’d up sticks and travel to Ireland every time the songs come on. Forgiven not Forgotten, Someday, Erin Shore, Runaway… There’s real Irish magic in there. Green hills, glassy lakes and stark cliffs. Gorgeous accents and black hair. Resilience. The north. Oh, to be Irish!

I’ll be honest. The older I get, the more attached to my home country I become. And for once I’m talking about England. The pink, fluffy clouds of a winter’s morning over a hard, frosty ground. The cawing of a rookery or the song of a lonely woodpigeon. The wind in the trees in summer. The symphony of colour in the woods in autumn. The first chiffchaffs singing from the blossom in spring. Footpaths and country lanes. Skylarks. These are things I associate with home. My choice of a path in life is destined to lead me further down the path my grandfather took, back to my roots in Iberia, but – how does it go again? – there will always be that part of me that is forever England.

My apologies for grossly paraphrasing you, Brooke. I know that’s not exactly what you meant. But the words have a real magic, a real meaning to them. And I couldn’t agree more.

I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned this year, above and beyond standing on my own two feet, learning to ask for help, perhaps even knowing when to shut up… No, more importantly than that, I’ve learned to love who I am, what I am, where I come from. Not in some glorified, nationalistic sense. Only, I’m no longer ashamed to be British. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps I’m even proud to be so, dare I use the term. But whatever Britain stands for, what matters most is that, at last, I am happy with who I am.

World, I’m ready. BB x


Shakespeare and a Pigeon with a Death Wish

Summer has arrived in Spain. It’s been pleasantly cool up until now, but yesterday somebody upstairs decided to crank up the thermostat. Two months ago it was finally warm enough to ditch the thermals by night, and now it’s shirt season. Which, for anyone who knows me, suits me just fine.

I haven’t done a random regular update in a while. I guess that with all of the to-and-froing after Semana Santa I’ve hardly had the time: in less than a month I’ve been to El Rocio, Sevilla, Cordoba, Barcelona, Andorra, Calatayud, Monfrague and Jerez de los Caballeros, not to mention taken part in a Romanian art school exchange and worked a weekend at an English immersion event. It’s been pretty non-stop since the 23rd of March. But life goes on, and as I try to make clear on this blog, life is not one massive series of amazing year abroad adventures – unless you count the everyday as an adventure in itself, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did. It’s full of trials and tribulations of its own.

Well, what’s to say? Here I am in the staffroom at my afternoon private school, waiting for my Upper Sixth class to arrive for a catch-up class (I’m still making up for those hours I lost by being in Barcelona, one month later – take note, future me!). It’s hard work but rewarding, teaching Upper Sixth… They don’t all take part as they should, but those that do do so with a spectacularly high level of English. The others are just as good, if only they’d speak more (an eternal problem with teenagers). I look back to the honeymoon period when I’d first arrived and it was a barrage of questions from all sides… but even if they aren’t as proactive with familiarity, at least being settled pays off. And at least I know their names. It hardly needs saying, but that’s crucial to good relations.

Teaching at the public school this morning was uncharacteristically problematic. For the first time this year I forgot to set my alarm, with the result that I only woke up at the sound of my flatmate leaving, some fifteen minutes before my first class. In my haste to leave I startled a recently fledged pigeon that had been sitting on the doorstep of the block of flats which, as Fate would have it, flew straight under the wheels of a car. In that dark mood I went on to teach two Lower Sixth classes about the End of the World, painfully aware that the biggest challenge – trying to teach Shakespeare – was still around the corner. Even so, I’d prepared a nifty presentation for the job, which would do the trick.

Provided the computers were working. Which they weren’t.

For the second week in a row my premier class had to suffer an off-the-cuff lesson where all the visual prompts and gags had to be done manually. I’ve got to say it; if my mother hadn’t gotten me into drawing, I don’t know what I’d do in such situations. Drawing skills are a genuine lifesaver in teaching. No PowerPoint? Whip out the chalk. Trouble explaining a word? Draw it. Need to motivate the kids? Get scribbling. It’s a defibrillator that never runs out of juice. I owe my parents, my friends and my art teachers so very much for encouraging me on that front. I don’t know where I’d be without a pencil in my hand and an image in my head.

It’s 15.30. My Upper Sixth class should be here in a couple of minutes, but if they play their usual ‘I went home for lunch’ card, I’ve got at least another twenty minutes until they turn up. In the meantime, I’ll get prepping their mock exam. Let it never be said that a language assistant is a cushy job. You land a job as good as this, you’d better earn it. BB x

Splash: Fear in a Hoodie and a Baseball Cap

I was sitting in the park sketching when one of the local malotes loitering around the bridge lobbed a brick at me. It fell short by a few feet and landed with a heavy splash in the water, but the message hit home. I took my blonde hair and foreign appearance out of firing range and returned to the safety of my room to listen to a podcast on South African townships in peace.

It’s a sad fact of the world that one of the things that scares me most is my own generation. It always has, far more than all the villainies of our world. The romantic in me would like to point out that I’m currently living in the land that birthed both Cortés and Pizarro, those butchers of the New World, as well as the most ferocious wing of the Spanish Inquisition… but I’d like to think I’ve got more than enough common sense to eliminate any racial motivations behind this morning’s unfortunate brick incident. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s a world I just don’t understand. And, to quote a Batman villain (for want of a better source), ‘you always fear what you don’t understand’.

Why? What’s the point? What would lead anyone to revel in a deliberate act of aggression? If it’s a misplaced act of pumped-up testosterone, I disown my sex here and now. I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I’m British and I’d rather die than tread on somebody else’s toes. Or perhaps it’s because I’m the kind of person that bursts into tears over King Kong or The Green Mile. I guess I’ll just have to content myself with the simple fact that everyone is different, for good or ill. Without fear and violence, how would we define that which is good?

As a kid I remember being chased by thugs from down the road when I was out with my camera watching buzzards. The same suspects called “carol-singing” a few weeks later – a six-second, tuneless rush of We Wish You a Merry Christmas for which they expected payment – and pointed me out as ‘that kid with the sick camera’. At the time I had no idea what he was on about; ‘sick’ as an adjective meaning ‘impressive’ had developed in the nine months I’d been out of the country and it caught me unawares. I still find it substandard as a slang term. France’s verlan is simply streets ahead, no pun intended.

It’s this bastardization of words, of filling the English language with redundant dual-meanings, that bothers me. Standard has come to mean excellent. Lad has come to mean exemplary individual and gay has been a blanket, one-size-fits-all insult for as long as I can remember. Especially the latter, since it’s been used on me since I was at primary school. It shouldn’t have offended me in the slightest, since it was neither true nor (I hope) intended as such, but the ignorance of it all has frustrated me for years.

Who am I to comment? I’m a relatively privileged white middle class English boy with two jobs in a country where most of my generation struggle to find one. Is it any wonder they’re angry? A small part of me occasionally resurfaces at moments like these, telling me to mind my own business and go home. But then, it’s a hateful phrase and one that’s no match for my own curiosity. Honestly, if it weren’t for my aforementioned issues with causing trouble, I’d have all the fittings for a journalist.

Nevertheless, here I am, holed up in my room. It’s less shock than the warmth of my bed that’s keeping me from going back to the park now, but it’s had me thinking; doubly so over my South Africa plans. What right have I to fork out on a self-styled adventure to a country where my own brick-dodging incident pales in comparison to the terror of the townships? A younger me would have cited white-guilt all day. These days I simply wonder whether or not the problem is seeing us and them in the first place.

And strangely enough, it’s only left me keener than ever to go there.

In that sense, it’s not the hooded youth I’m afraid of. It’s the potential for violence in all of us. We are, by record if not by roots, a violent race. It’s our imperative as a species to overcome that and nurture our caring side, which is certainly not unique to us in the animal kingdom. A line in one of my favourite books says ‘there’s so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing’. She’s right. But if we all become so afraid of ourselves by drawing lines in the sand that we have to live in compounds like today’s South Africa, what kind of a world are we leaving for those who come after us?

The drone buzzing about overhead just crashed to earth with a loud smack right at the feet of the malotes. The kids to whom it belonged ran to collect it none the wiser to their jeers. A lesson in bravery from two seven year-olds.

I’m keener than ever for South Africa. Fears must be faced, not avoided. It won’t rid me of all of my fears, but it might just put my troubles into perspective. BB x

Out of Control

I’ve described being an auxiliar as a pariah state before; a grey blur between staff and student, neither one nor the other. The disadvantages include discipline control, ambivalent reactions from the students and generally feeling like you don’t belong in either group. It’s also pretty hard work, depending on how much your school wants from you. So what’s the upshot?

Well, that depends entirely on how much party you’ve got in your soul.

Ok, disregard that last statement. What I meant to say is that it’s a massive boon to the auxiliar job if you’ve got more than a few party tricks up your sleeve. Having had two teaching jobs before, I’ve been wiser this year and doled them out over the course of the year rather than all in one insufferable first lesson. And boy, do I need every one of them… because it’s not easy living in one of the world’s premier footballing countries when you really can’t see the attraction in the sport whatsoever.

Kids like an entertainer – it’s why clowns exist – and as long as you can keep your head, there’s no harm in playing up to that every now and again. Since October I’ve drawn for them, I’ve sang for them, I’ve acted for them, told stories for them and cracked several bilingual jokes, usually at my own expense (the latter gets easier, or more effective, as you get to know your surroundings). Yesterday I rolled out another firecracker in the Día del Centro, our school’s annual celebration, in what I’m told saved the show (though I beg to differ – and if you could see the filmed results, you probably would too).

Where Thursday is usually my busiest day of the week, with a full ten hour shift from eight til eight, yesterday I didn’t have a single class in the morning. The day began instead with a free breakfast of churros con chocolate, which I must say is no bad start to the day. Anna and Tasha turned up, representing their schools, who seemed to have let them off for the day, too. I assumed that the other thirty schools in attendance would have brought their assistants with them, too, but with the exception of one giant blonde American who pulled a disappearing trick shortly a cameo appearance at the end of his school’s mini-production of Grease, there was no sign of any other guiris. That, or they were all so Hispanic that they evaded our searching eyes.

Not that I had all that much time to waste searching for fellow Anglophones. I was roped between two presentations to sing at both, for which I’d prepared a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine; my attempt at a social comment on the furious gossip culture in the Triángulo de Loro that is La Fuente del Maestre, Almendralejo and Villafranca de los Barros, a mildly humorous spin on India’s Golden Triangle. My cheerleaders had dashed out before me, as they too were needed in both productions, so I was left with an audience of the Mayor and three student representatives from each school. It was a fairly good show, but a relatively tame audience…

…which is more than can be said for the crowd over at José Rodriguez Cruz. Melendez Valdés’ resident dance troupe took their show across the road just before I got there, and then I had to re-run my Grapevine cover to a much warmer reception. The next act, however, was nowhere to be seen. Garci, our school’s magician-turned-technology teacher, was still only halfway through his magic show across the road, and we had to cover in his delay. That meant another number from yours truly, which, it hardly needs saying, was yet another solo rendition of Circle of Life. Unlike my cohorts back home, who were all too ready to drop the number along with the rest of the old repertoire – and who are currently doing exceedingly well – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it; and fortunately, I didn’t have to feel guilty for going over old ground, because this time it was my own students who requested it. So, despite having left the stage to pack my bags, I was launched back onto the stage with the kids chanting my name. I tell you, this job does no good for one’s ego. No good at all.

But the magician still hadn’t arrived. Then a professional choreographer, who was there for the day to lead various workshops after the presentation, stepped in to get the crowd dancing. If I mentioned before that Spaniards are none too keen on dancing – especially if it’s not Latin – then I forgot to mention that they have absolutely no problems with it if it’s fully choreographed. Think of the Macarena, for example. Give them a song where there’s a set routine and they’re off. MV’s dance troupe were the first to their feet, naturally, and after not even a minute, they relinquished the shadows of the back of the hall for the lights of the stage. Fired by the sheer enjoyment of it all, I could hardly help myself and found myself following them.

At least I had the sense to take a stand at the back, because to begin with, I had no idea what I was doing.

Dancing, however, if one of those few things I think I’m not that bad at, if only because I don’t give a damn what people think of me when there’s music playing (years of Michael Jackson and James Brown might also have helped along the way). We kept the show going for a full quarter of an hour until Garci finally arrived, which was pure laugh-a-minute, as I don’t think the dancers had any idea that I’d have gone up with them.

Oh boy, but it’s going to be tough going back to work on Monday.

But teaching, like so many arts, is on a stage. I used to go to pieces at the idea of speaking in public, but years of concerts, productions and musicals have worn down any stage-fright I might have had, and all this teaching’s done for the rest. One of these days I’ll grow up and learn to balance maturity with responsibility, but whilst I’m still young, I’ll dance and I’ll love every minute of it.

Enough of this reckless, youthful banter. I feel like it was necessary after the sobering social commentary of the previous post – if only to remind you that I’m still very much a work in progress. And long may that be so! BB x

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