Rome III: Respighi’s Quest

For my last two days in Italy, I decided to embark on a rather esoteric quest: to see all the pines of Rome featured in the orchestral piece of the same name by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. If you grew up with Disney’s Fantasia 2000 – like I did – you may remember it as the number with the flying humpback whales. The symphonic poem in question is divided into four movements, and though I didn’t manage to hit the correct time of day for each one, it was an enjoyable musical challenge to round out my time in Italy!

It’s also a fitting challenge since music provided me (and my mum) with our first Italian connection, and I’ve been scraping by out here on a combination of guesswork from Spanish, DuoLingo and twenty years of orchestral jargon…

So, play the music below and read along as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra takes you through the movements!


I. The Pines of the Villa Borghese (I pini di Villa Borghese, allegretto vivace)

I clocked these pines last night on an evening wander towards the Spanish Steps. Respighi wasn’t wrong to write this movement as the jolliest, most playful of the four: when I was there, the Giardini della Villa Borghese were full of children playing in the evening light. A couple of fairground rides replaced the Roman ring a ring o’roses game in the original, but in all other respects it still fits perfectly. The man knew his source material!

The Borghese gardens also appear to be a favourite spot for Roman romance. As the sun starts to sink behind the trees, the long shadows cast by the stone pines stretch like rivers between the patches of sunlight, where in one corner of the gardens couples clustered like mayflies in the light. A girl in her twenties was picking daisies to fashion into a chain, four Spaniards laughed their heads off as they wheeled up and down the paths on rental bikes, while in the middle of the gardens a priest gave a homily to a small crowd in front of one of the chapels.

If I should find the One someday, I’ll take her for a walk here, too.


II. The Pines near a Catacomb (I pini presso una catacomba, lento)

By the time I reached the catacombs, they were all shut up for the week… but that’s what you get for prioritising the Pope over a blog post. Compared to the rest of the Appian Way, the area around the catacombs was quiet and shaded… though that may have more to do with the lateness of the hour by the time I reached them. Here in Rome, as in Spain, cypress trees mark the resting places of the dead, lining the roads to the catacombs. They’ve been symbols of death since ancient times, since they cannot regenerate when cut back, and so they stand as sentinels outside tombs, cemeteries and graveyards all across the Mediterranean. The Romans’ beloved stone pines tower above them, but I think its the sad and stately rows of cypress trees that Respighi is alluding to in this movement.


III. The Pines of the Janiculum (I pini del Gianicolo, lento)

My first night in Rome was spent watching the sun set over the Eternal City. A girl I once put on pedestal told me to make the most of every sunrise and sunset. I left behind both girl and pedestal years ago, but it’s still a rule I live by when I’m on the road. Snacking on a focaccia from the hilltop, I had a sweeping view of the city, from the Vatican to the distant towns of Tivoli and Palestrina. The pines that grow here are the stone pines of Doñana, the trees of my childhood. The Romans had a special love for this tree and planted it wherever they went, especially along roads like the Via Appia.

Down in the dark branches below the viewpoint, some of the city’s monk parakeets screeched this way and that (oddly enough this South American species began to colonise Rome around the same time the Argentinian Pope Francis was elected), but my eyes were drawn to a tiny black-and-white shape moving up the trunk of the tallest stone line overlooking the city: a lesser spotted woodpecker, the first I’ve seen in many years. The rising and falling flute in Respighi’s movement pairs well with all the birds I saw here: the parakeets racing by, the pigeons wheeling over the roofs below, the tiny woodpecker climbing up and up. But I didn’t hear the nightingale that Respighi insisted on featuring at the end of this movement. Perhaps it’s too early in the year – though I suspect it’s more because it’s much too crowded here for such a self-conscious minstrel.


IV. The Pines of the Appian Way (I pini della Via Appia, tempo di marcia)

This was always my favourite movement – and what a sight! No visitor to Rome should pass up the chance to take a walk on the Via Appia, especially on a Sunday when the road is closed to traffic and the Romans descend upon the ancient highway in their droves for an afternoon passegiata. Walking the forum is one thing, but this is something else. The Via Appia is probably the oldest road still in use in the western world, and you really do get the feeling you’re walking in the footsteps of the ancient Romans as you walk this road. The things this road has seen…! This is where soldiers marched to the port and on to Egypt, where nobles lived in luxury beyond the confines of the city, and where the great orator Cicero was assassinated. I fell into the Romantic trap of many travelers before me as I passed one old Roman sitting on a marble colonnade, with skin of burnished bronze, black, sunken eyes and an aquiline nose that would have looked supreme on any Caesar; and I wondered whether he was the descendant, through many fathers, of Romans who had lived on this road two thousand years ago.

I also heard a nightingale here – he must have missed his cue in the Third Movement.

If Cannaregio was my favourite spot in Venice, the Via Appia takes the top spot in Rome. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, flanked with ancient Roman treasures along its entire length, and absolutely mustn’t be missed. And Respighi nails it with his final movement: it’s heroic, majestic and the perfect finale to both my long walk and my time in Italy.


I’ll tell you the tale of my incredible Palm Sunday experience as soon as I get my hands on a computer, as my phone photos simply don’t do it justice, but until then, arrivederci Italia! Sei bellisima e tornerò presto! And that’s a promise. BB x

Keep the Faith

Last night, in a return to pre-COVID tradition, we celebrated Tenebrae in the Abbey Church. With the latest wave of infections sweeping the staff and students, I’ll admit I had my doubts I’d be able to go up and sing as I used to with a house to run, but my housemaster very kindly stepped in, allowing me to bolster the tenor line. It’s hard to overstate the importance of making music in my faith: singing is an act of worship. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t go to Mass when the churches opened last year, while the ban on singing was still in place – how could I practice my faith without lips to speak? I remember saying as much to one of the school’s youth chaplains once, who remarked that I ought to rethink my approach to faith. Was he right? I don’t think so. I think everyone’s path to God is individual. Mine just happens to be through music, which, all things considered, is hardly surprising.

I spent a great deal of my childhood in and out of churches. My mother played the organ for the village church when I was very young, and I remember sitting (probably not so quietly) next to the pedals, listening to the growling hum of the organ long after the last notes faded into the stone walls. Later, during my short spell at a prep school, I spent two nights a week up in the organ loft of Canterbury Cathedral while my father sang for the cathedral choir. What was undoubtedly an incredible privilege became routine – that is, until a Victorian-minded parishioner who happened to look up one week decided that children were better “seen and not heard” and my brother and I were unceremoniously ousted, forced to sit in the quire thereafter.

Perhaps that was God’s will, because twenty years later, I still jump at the chance to stand in just such a stall and tangle with some sacred music. There’s really nothing quite like it.

I have a somewhat unorthodox relationship with God. If it were a Facebook status, I might just go for “It’s complicated”. Somewhere deep within, my spiritual compass spins toward Israel. Maybe it’s the stories my mother brought me up with or the belief we both share that our ancestors were among the many thousands of Spain’s Jews who converted to hide from the Inquisition, many hundreds of years ago. It would go some way towards explaining the ferocious proclivity for the arts borne across the generations by my ancestors, at a time when intellectualism was unwise and even dangerous. Millán-Astray’s battle cry of “muera la inteligencia” in 1936 – around about the time my grandfather was born – hardly seems out of place for a country where, for hundreds of years, it was better to hacer mala letra than open your mouth and betray your wits. Our own Michael Gove gave us an uncomfortable reminder of this dark past when he claimed the British had “had enough of experts” in the lead-up to Brexit.

I can hold my head up high every day as a teacher knowing that I am the next in a long line of teachers, all of whom dabbled in music and poetry and art. Were they really Jews, though? I’d like to think so – I really would – but I have no proof of that. I have barely enough solid proof of my connection to my grandfather, never mind a connection to a Hebrew ancestry that may or may not have ever existed. The silver Star of David I sometimes wear beneath my suit is no heirloom, but rather a keepsake from a Jewish silversmith in Cordoba; a reminder of the terrible fate suffered by the Chosen People in a land far from home that was once their paradise. Will I ever know for sure? I doubt it. But some things you see with your eyes, others with your heart. This is one of those things the heart sees. Something you have always known or believed with little to no provocation. I believe because I cannot be sure. It’s the weakest of arguments, the merest of threads. But about such threads, Faiths are often weaved into being.

So why am I a Catholic? With such silent conviction, how can I stand there in the darkness, singing Christian verses and watching the candles going out to mark the extinguishing of Jesus’ light and life from the world, a little under two thousand years ago?

I am a Catholic because I would make the same journey as my family. Whether or not my ancestors found their way to the Christian God through awe or terror, I would take that road that they took. And there is something fundamentally grounding about faith. Standing as one with my students and singing songs that have been sung for hundreds of years… you feel a power, there, echoing down the generations. It’s all the more powerful when you see the date at the top of the copy reaching back to the middle ages. One imagines one’s voice reaching up to the heavens and mingling with the voices of those who came before you on its journey across the stars. Perhaps that’s what the choir of Heaven is: the echo of thousands of years of collective prayer through song. I’d like that.

I might also point out that the Catholic church represents an important bastion against the foe, since modern Christian music is, to my ears, quite possibly the wettest, most uninspiring drivel ever produced. It clearly works wonders for some, but it does nothing for me. Give me plainchant any day. A colleague once joked that one of his greatest fears was that he should reach the pearly gates only to find that Mozart and his kin are nowhere to be found, and Hillsong reigns triumphant. It’s a joke (and a nightmare) I share. But that’s a story for another time.

I am also a Catholic because Faith is a journey of forgiveness. Noli mortem peccatoris. Those were the words of power that spoke to me last night, as the last of the candles were snuffed out. I do not want the death of the wicked. I bear no ill will against those shadows who persecuted my people, because there is too much hate in the world already. I wept on the shores of the Dead Sea years ago at the sight of the sun going down over the Holy Land, knowing I was not yet ready to see it with my own eyes. Jerusalem evades me still: the last time I tried to make that journey, a little hiccup called Covid-19 came thundering in.

Finally, I am a Catholic because of what it stands for. Katholikos. Universal. It chimes with me in much the same way that the Arabic expression ahl al-Kitaab – people of the book – called out to me in my Arabic studies, many years ago. The world is immense and no two people are the same, and I think it’s as foolish to expect everyone to share the same faith as it is to expect to find two identical grains of sand on a beach: the closer you look, the more you’ll find yourself doubting. But I have built my faith upon doubt rather than surety, because that, to me, is what faith is all about. Believing in the light when all the world is darkness because your heart tells you to do so. Fate may be the master builder of the temples of our lives, but hope is the cement that holds the stones together. I believe in that light and in that hope. And in my heart I know I would go on hoping, though every light in the world were extinguished as they were last night, one by one.

In three days’ time I set out for Italy on my first solo adventure in a long time. Venice will inspire, no doubt, but it’s Rome I’m especially excited to see. I hope I can catch some music there during my stay. I could use some of that ancient magic after what has been quite a long term. BB x

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.


RITHA AL-ANDALUS

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

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.


EL MOZO ARRIERO Y LOS SIETE BANDOLEROS

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

Tooth and Claw

The 1942 Disney classic Bambi really ought to have been a PG. It might well have been by its own standards if it were released today. It’s dark, there’s more than one traumatic death (one only just off-screen) and some of the music is even more anxiety-inducing than the Jaws theme, which it may well have inspired. Man, the ever-present danger and the film’s primary antagonist, was justifiably placed at number 20 on AFI’s list of the greatest movie villains of all time, ranking higher than all but one of all the animated villains ever created – and we never even see him.

But I’m not going to talk about Man. We know our own capacity for wickedness. I’d rather muse over the one aspect of that movie that used to genuinely terrify me as a child.

I’m talking, of course, about the dogs.

From the moment the music cuts out and the barking starts, it’s a solid couple of minutes of pure terror. The artists could hardly have drawn them to be more terrifying, with shining white teeth and cruel, heartless eyes of featureless white or soulless black. The constant baying of the hunting pack stays in your head years later, drawing near like drums whenever you hear the soundtrack – and it’s not a mile away from the reality either. I remember hearing a hunting horn sound in the countryside somewhere in the south of France when I was younger and the distant thunder of a pack of dogs on the scent. It’s a sound lost to England many years ago, but one you still might come across if you travel around the quieter corners of Europe.

That chase sequence in Bambi has stuck with me for years. It’s not an outright vilification of hunting, but it is an awesome depiction of unbound savagery from a darker time in our past, before hunting regulation and wildlife protection laws were brought into force. We never see the film’s primary villain, but his capacity for monstrous carnage is more than evident in the beasts he has created, the beasts of our own making.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to take an interest in dogs. It’s possible that Bambi put me off them early on. Or the ones from the horror-show that is the 1954 animated film Animal Farm. Or the dog from Manor Farm in 1978’s Watership Down (there were some horrific portrayals of man’s best friend in 20th century children’s movies). Or maybe it’s just because I’ve spent the last twenty-eight years of my life living with cats that I’ve naturally picked the opposing team. Regardless, the tide, if not turning exactly, is beginning to even out.

El mastin español – guardian of the Tierra de Barros

When I lived in Extremadura, I remember finding some of the largest dogs I’ve ever seen out in the countryside, lazing about in the shadows within fenced enclosures and barking at anything and anyone that came near. Not just any bark, either, but a terrible, three-throated bellow that you can hear from a great distance, the kind you might expect from Cerberus. I’m talking about the Spanish Mastiff, an impressive breed once used by the shepherds of La Mesta, Spain’s ancient “wool mafia”, as a guard dog for their valuable Merino sheep. A working dog bred for its size and strength, it’s not hard to imagine this beast in action against the wolves and bears that once roamed the forests of Iberia. They were popular combatants in bear-baiting, a sport which was just as popular in parts of Spain as it was in medieval England, to the detriment of the country’s bear population. Dog after dog would have been sent against the great beasts until they could fight no longer.

These days, of course, there are probably more mastiffs in Spain than there are wolves and bears put together, and the giant bear-killers look like old soldiers gone to seed in their enclosures under the Spanish sun. There was only one victor in their fight against the country’s predators, and it wasn’t the vanishing wolves, the ghost-like bears or even the mastiff, chained to its post in the quiet Spanish countryside. It’s quite sad, when you think about it.

It wasn’t only the wild beasts of Spain’s interior that the mastiff was trained to fight. There are plenty of stories of the use of perros de guerra in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Given the diminutive size of the dogs native to the Americas upon the Spanish arrival (see the xolo dog for an example), it’s hardly surprising the Spanish saw fit to use their monstrous dogs as additional leverage in their fight for the American interior. Becerrillo, a war dog owned by the conquistador Juan Ponce de León, is the most famous example. Whether it was the mastiff, the alano or even the greyhound the Spanish employed, the results speak for themselves, and monstrous armoured dogs appear in a number of contemporary recollections of the conquest – there’s an especially telling (and graphic) depiction in the Coyoacan Codex. Whether you choose to believe all the details of the so-called “black legend” concerning Spain’s atrocities in the New World, there’s no denying the awesome power of these war dogs if you ever encounter one in the Spanish countryside.

A quick sketch of a Spanish alano, scribbled into the journal between Church and tutor today

Naturally, I’ve written one into my book, as a faithful companion to my leading lady. It’s not as simple as you’d think, writing a dog breed into a book, as by its very nature, dog-breeding is an ever-changing world. Many of the dogs we know today have only been around for a few hundred years or so. The Spanish mastiff we know today is already a very different animal to the kind used at the start of the twentieth century: the original mastiff was still a sturdy, powerfully-built working dog, but not at all like the lumbering giant you see around the Spanish countryside today.

Other dogs that were more familiar to our ancestors have long since disappeared: the stocky Old English bulldogs bred for the sport of bull-baiting, long-since replaced by the squat, hyperbrachycephalic creatures we know today; the alaunt, the rache and the Talbot hound, the mainstays of medieval nobles and huntsmen; and, of course, the mighty Molossus, the ancient war dog of the Greeks and Romans. In our endless desire to bend nature to our will – bigger, smaller, stronger, more obedient, less intelligent – we have warped our old enemy, the wolf, into an absurd array of shapes and sizes. It’s a testament to man’s ingenuity that, long ago, we were able to turn our most hated rival into our best friend, but my word, did we do some terrible things to him along the way. I wonder what a wolf thinks when it crosses paths with a pug or a dachshund. Is there a flicker of recognition, do you think, or have thousands of years of man’s meddling twisted their kin into shapes they cannot begin to understand as one of their own?

Photo by Brenda Timmermans on Pexels.com

I’d really like to track wolves in the wild someday. I’ve heard that one of the better places to do that in Europe is in the wild Abruzzo region of central Italy. I don’t think I’ll manage it this time – as you might expect from one of Italy’s last refuges for the symbol of Rome, it’s not exactly a hop, skip and a jump on public transport. But if years of nature-watching has taught me anything, it’s patience, and I can wait for an experience like that. Spain’s Sierra de la Culebra is also supposed to be a good place to search for wolves, and when last I heard from the place, a pack had been seen in Extremadura, though memory fails me as to where.

The llebrer (R), symbol of one of Catalunya’s most notorious 17th century gangs, the Cadells

In the meantime, I will read up some more on Spain’s dogs, if only for the sake of my novel. If there’s a place for the loyal mastiff, I’m sure I can find a space for something like the nightmare fuel from Bambi, too. 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

Athene noctua

The students have gone home for half term. Silence hangs over the school. The corridors of the boarding house are dark, and a little cold, too. The floorboards creak under my foot with the kind of volume that only darkness can amplify. The dull glow from the torch on my phone casts long shadows. A friend of mine once explored an abandoned hospital on a dare. I did not go with him then, out of some primordial fear of the darkness within. And yet, here I am, haunting the empty corridors of this old house by night, the last man standing. Filling up a water bottle from the cooler on the Year 10 corridor becomes a quest in its own right.

I’ve had a lot of time to think lately. I guess coming out of a long term relationship will do that for you. One of the things I thought I might be able to recover was the fierce reading streak I had on my year abroad, but I just can’t find my mojo for that right now. Time just seems to slip through my fingers when I’m not at work. I wonder what the world does when it’s not working? I guess that’s what television is for, or Netflix, or whatever streaming service is in right now. But then, I’ve never been good at sitting down to movies or TV shows. My brain wants to be involved. There’s a precious few I’d happily watch over and over and over again, but it’s rare that I find a new picture out there that sinks in.

There’s not a day goes by where I don’t feel a genuine fulfilment in my line of work. Teaching is in my blood, a duty that my ancestors have carried out for generations. Knowing that I am the torch-bearer for my generation gives me a sense of purpose that is utterly unshakeable. And it’s not as though that purpose hasn’t been tested over the years. It’s just that, whenever something comes up to shake its fist in my direction, I know instinctively that there’s a greater mission behind it all, and that’s reason enough to persevere – even when my core beliefs are thrown into disarray. I wonder if my great-grandparents, Mateo and Mercedes, ever had such doubts?

There’s a little owl calling outside. It’s been piping away from the upper branches of the Atlas cedar in the drive for half an hour now. The foxes have been quiet for a week or so now. I suppose their noisy January antics in the front quad are over for the year. Three buzzards were soaring over the grounds the other day during morning break, but none of the students seemed to notice. The redwings and the fieldfares have moved on and the snowdrops are out. The daffodils will be on their heels soon enough. I escaped to Richmond Park a few weekends back, just as the first blooms were sprouting. It was good to see the wide world again, even if only through my own eyes.

No photo description available.

The meltwater of the long Covid winter is starting to run. Just like the birdsong and the subtle shift in the light over the last couple of days, change is in the air. Piece by piece, the last fragments of the old world are coming back. At the request of one of my students, I blew the dust off my long-neglected violin and rocked up to orchestra this week. I’m about as good on the thing as I ever was – that is, haphazard at best – but I’d forgotten how much fun it used to be. It’s one of those things that simply slipped through my fingers over the last couple of years.

I think I’ll take up the guitar this half term. A zealous diet of sevillanas have powered me through the darkness of the winter months this year, and I’m done with being able to sing along but never sing alone. At the very least it will give me something to do until my provisional arrives and I finally confront the long-delayed challenge of learning to drive, which I have put off for far too long.

I’m done with playing games. It’s high time I went on another adventure. The Easter holidays aren’t far off, and I could do with some more writing fuel. And spring is always such a hopeful time of year. BB x

Under the Shadow of the Stone Pines

On a balmy September afternoon back in 2012, three friends and I were sitting on our suitcases in the bustling complex that is Heathrow Airport. We’d already played the find-the-most-expensive-item-in-duty-free game and were killing time for the gate to flare up on the departures board. We were bound for Uganda, to our partner school in the north, on what could so very easily be construed as your generic gap yah adventure. We were under no illusions as to that. Teddy made a joke about one of us ‘finding ourselves’ out there. Maddie was quick to reply that she’d already found herself right here in the terminal. That made me chuckle – probably because, with good reason, that joke about ‘finding yourself’ was squarely directed at me.

I’ll admit it. I have a habit of falling head over heels for things. Especially places. It goes with the terrain of being a self-confessed Romantic. Naturally, this obsession with location carries over into my reading. Setting is one of the first things that I look for when I read a book. Bother dialogue. Bother clever plot twists. If the cast doesn’t travel any further than their cul-de-sac then I’m out. Any author that can make the setting just as enthralling as the plot has me round their finger. That’s why I’ve always adored M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. India comes to life through her words, so vividly that at times I could almost hear it, smell it, feel it through the pages. Michelle Paver weaves a similar magic in her writing, and I earnestly try to conjure the same enchantments in my own efforts, though Spain is a fickle mistress and so very hard to please.

The funny thing about travel and this idea of ‘finding yourself’ is that no two people ever feel the same way about a place. I remember all the raised eyebrows when I used to tell colleagues that my favourite place in all of Spain was a town in the western marshes of Andalusia by the name of El Rocío. Outside of romería season, it’s ostensibly little more than a cluster of whitewashed houses overlooking a seasonal lagoon in arguably the flattest corner of the peninsula, where you can stare across the horizon and see nothing but mile upon mile of shimmering heat. And yet, there is something about that corner of Huelva that calls to me, some spell that weaved its secret magic on me a long time ago.

I’ve had the good fortune to travel across Spain a great deal over the last few years, and there are a number of contenders now for that ever-congested corner of my heart. The gorge at Ronda and the green hills of La Vera. The limestone maw of Zaframagon and the devil’s leap of Monfrague. The vast steppe of Caceres and fair Trujillo, a throne set upon Extremadura’s golden fields. The lonely silhouette of Olvera, and Hornachos, jewel in the Moriscos’ crown and once proud watchtower over the Sierra Grande. Putting my extremely biased affection for Andalusia and Extremadura into a basket, you can add the mysterious heights of Montserrat, the windmill-crowned slopes of La Mancha and the awesome majesty of the Picos de Europa that once guided the weary conquistadors home. All this, and I know I’ve only really scratched the surface.

All the same, though my heart is spread across Spain with a rigour that would reduce a piece of toast to crumbs, there is still one spot that reigns supreme over them all. If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you’ll have seen it over and over again in the header up there. But in case you missed it, here it is again.

To the east of the sanctuary town of El Rocío lies the Raya Real, a sandy track that cuts through the heart of the Parque Nacional de Doñana. Once a year, it serves as the primary conduit for almost a million pilgrims who descend upon the town in colourful, bolshy gaiety (as only Spaniards can) to pay homage to the Blanca Paloma herself, the guardian patroness of the marshes. Like most pilgrimages, it’s as much about the journey as the destination, and listen to any one of the many sevillanas sung by the pilgrims and you’ll get a flavour for just how in tune they are with the world around them. What an excuse to journey through some of the most incredible scenery on God’s Earth, all while dressed to the nines!

This is all romantically hypothetical, of course. I’ve never seen the Romería in full swing. All the same, there’s this one patch of the Raya Real that I can see in my mind’s eye right now, if I close my eyes for a moment. As for you, dear reader, you need only direct your eyes back up at the top of this post. It’s that tree on the left.

There’s a cluster of stone-pine trees (acebuches) that grow in an island of grass where the Raya Real forks temporarily, before the two tracks converge at the Puente del Ajolí, the last stop on the pilgrimage. A dead tree stands at its westernmost edge, which more often than not hides a gecko or two – I even spooked a Montpelier’s snake mid-hunt here once. A stand of ashes flank the edge of the great pinar, where cuckoos sometimes sing, and in the skies above the Raya Real, bee-eaters go wheeling and soaring in the spring, with bellies like sapphires, backs like rubies and voices like springwater.

Here, under the shadow of the stone pines, I used to sit when I was a boy and listen. After a few seconds you tune in to the silence and hear it all. The wind over the shimmering plains, the rustle of the ash trees. The whistling kites overhead and the mechanical clang of a butcher-bird in one of the branches nearby. From somewhere far off, a panzorrino (native) calling to his horses, or the bark of a dog. Open your eyes for a moment and stare into the blue, and you might see a tiny speck or two up high in the heavens; a griffon and his mate, perhaps, riding the thermals above the coto below. Just once I saw a Spanish Imperial Eagle here, soaring high above the kites below. Maybe that was the first wave of the wand for me – I was a highly impressionable novice birdwatcher at the time. And though it’s kites and booted eagles that have plied the skies on every return visit, the magic in those splayed wings is always there.

In my eighteenth year, I remember sitting beneath my tree, leafing through a copy of Lorca’s Yerma that I’d picked up in town, when a couple of horses rode down the track nearby, one mounted, one riderless. A local girl had fallen from her horse some way back and tried unsuccessfully to get back into the saddle for a few hundred metres. She asked if I could lend a hand, and so I did, giving her my hands to step up and back into the saddle. I watched them go, I heard them laugh and look back, and I went back to my tree, to Yerma and the kites. A golden opportunity to get to know the town of my dreams through its people slipped through my fingers like the sand on which it stands. I’d make some quip about the Virgen del Rocío being a jealous woman, but I really think I had my head in the clouds then and there.

Fool.

Is there a place you return to in spirit, even if you can’t be there in person? This is mine, beneath the shade of the stone pines on the Raya Real. Millions pass by that tree every year without knowing the connection I have to that singular tree, to the kites that nested in its branches once, to the snakes and geckos and their game of cat-and-mouse about its roots. And why should they, when their goal is in sight? They don’t need to do any soul-searching: la Blanca Paloma waits with open arms.

I’ll leave you with a couple of lines from one of my favourite sevillanas that conjures up some of the magic where my words fail. If you like, you can listen to it here – sevillanas should never be read when they can be sung – performed by that band which takes its very name from the road of my dreams: Raya Real.

Las llanuras ardientes de la marisma
El ganado retinto con paso lento
Se acerca hasta el arroyo que esta sediento
Seco está el monte bajo, seco está el rio
Los pastos del invierno ya se han perdido

El Rocío es un milagro, una mañana lo vi
Cuando Triana cruzaba el Puente del Ajolí

Until next time. BB x

A Semitone Out of Line

How did your 2022 start? Mine began with a miracle. Not a major one – at least, nothing that brought about anything new in my life. Just the restoration of my hearing.

Since the first day of the Christmas holidays, I’ve been plagued by the after effects of a bad head cold that went to my left ear and decided to wreak havoc there. My first week off was spent largely deaf on one side with a tinnitus so fierce it kept me up at night. It’s not often that an illness gets me down – I’m lucky enough to have a rather robust constitution that withstands most things, bar the seasonal pollen allergies that come around every summer. Personally, I thought I’d done pretty well to make it to the end of term without testing positive for COVID once, despite working in a school where children come and go every week. Perhaps this was the man upstairs showing his fickle hand, where fickleness is another word for fairness.

The tinnitus wasn’t so bad, after I got used to it. But it was what happened once the antibiotics had done their job that was the killer. For the best part of two weeks, everything sounded wrong. It took me a couple of days to realise what it was: the ear infection I had been through had left me with a case of diplacusis dysharmonica, a condition that warps the sounds that you perceive. In my case, while my right ear operated normally, my left ear perceived all sounds a semitone higher. For the musicians out there, I’ll let the ramifications of that sink for in a moment.

In most cases, this is a minor inconvenience and can be ignored a great deal more easily than any tinnitus. That is, unless you have perfect pitch.

It’s hard to talk about the uncanny ability to pluck exact notes and tunes out of the air without prompt without coming across as boasting at worst, or false modesty at best, so I won’t labour the point. What I will say is that, for somebody who notices the instant a piece of music is played in a key in which it was not originally played – even if the pitch has been shifted by a hair – hearing the world in two tones at once for a fortnight was nothing short of maddening. A quick browse of the internet will tell you that diplacusis dysharmonica seems to be especially painful for musicians.

What does it sound like? Try to imagine one of those cassettes you might have had when you were younger, after you rewound them once too often, or somebody (possibly a child) had played around with the spools. The sound eventually warped, keys were bent out of place and voices got the Alvin and the Chipmunks treatment. Now imagine that weird, unnatural effect playing alongside a perfectly functional version of the same audio. A long-winded analogy, but the first one that came to mind – chiefly because of the sheer number of cassettes I must have destroyed as a child before the era of Spotify and the repeat button.

Earphones and headphones were out, as they just exacerbated the problem; higher frequencies seemed to be the biggest triggers. I got into a habit of humming to myself in the morning, just to check, and each time I heard two notes come back to me instead of one. I’d give myself a pat on the back for being one of the few humans capable of singing a chord if I knew it wasn’t a) all in my head and b) an exceedingly ill-chosen chord consisting of two notes barely a semitone apart.

Like many of us, I imagine, I woke up this morning apprehensive about the new year ahead. 2021 was a rough year with just a few golden moments that made it one to remember: spending the summer with a dear friend in Edinburgh and a week in October with my beloved family in La Mancha rank right at the top. But with the sun in the morning comes hope, and hope is what I come back to when the world is dark.

By midday today, the distortion in my left ear had dimmed so much that it was hardly noticeable. By tomorrow, God willing, it may be gone altogether. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of putting a pair of headphones on and hearing music as it should be again, after two weeks of dissonance without resolution. I’ve had album after album of sevillanas by Raya Real on repeat ever since. There’s nothing quite like a sevillana to express reckless joy, and that’s exactly what I’m feeling right now. To quote Sweeney Todd: my arm is complete again.

It’s a shame it had to last from the first day of the holidays right up until the last, but I’m not complaining. I can hear the world again, as it should be. That’s more than enough for me.

BB x

NB. It’s been a while since I flexed my writing muscles. This year, I’m going to blow the dust off the blog and get back into a reasonably regular writing habit again. It’s been too long. Until then!

Waldmusik

Monday night. Five weeks in. The first load of reports are due soon. I close my inbox, tired of leafing through the daily barrage of emails in my windowless office, and open my eyes. Packs of SureSan wipes on every shelf. Seven empty bottles of water from last week’s packed lunches, amassed in quiet protest. The number for the IT department scrawled in pink highlighter on a piece of paper folded and blue-tacked to the wall. A wall planner that hasn’t been updated since lockdown began. A chewed-up biro, an oak leaf and a buzzard feather. Karl Jenkins on Spotify. The ventilator roars overhead.

Tomorrow will be seven months to the day since the music died. Seven months since a final lucky fling at a friend’s wedding, which might as well have been a paean to the love of music itself. In retrospect I suppose “elegy” might be the better word. Rome burning and all that. COVID robbed the world of so much, and in the panic over its impact on work, health and the daily grind, music slipped quietly over the edge into silence.

I can’t think of a point in my life when music hasn’t been a constant. Having two music teachers for parents afforded me an incredibly privileged upbringing with regards to my musical education. I wanted for nothing, except perhaps an escape from Classic FM. Scarlatti and the Spice Girls. Klezmer, Raga and Jazz. The Stranglers, The Bee Gees and The Corrs. By the age of ten I had amassed a real symphony of diversity from all the CDs in the house, with an early preference for folk music and anything from the 1970s.Primary school, secondary school and university were a seamless pageant of choirs, bands and orchestras, with the occasional assignment as a reminder that education was happening somewhere within. Whether in a church or a school hall or a smoking stage, I was always singing.

The ventilator continues to growl. It’s about as close as I get to music without Spotify in here. The government directive against singing felled the school choir, the chamber choir and my gospel choir in a single axe stroke. Christmas waits at the end of the tunnel that is the Michaelmas term, but without the usual musical beacons to light the way, it simply doesn’t feel like it.

The last time I felt like this was half a lifetime ago, during my family’s earnest but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a move to Spain. Then, too, the years of emerging into the frosty night after choir practice with carols ringing in your head melted away like snow in the sunshine. Spain has many beautiful musical traditions, but the buzz of advent – or, at least, the advent I had always known – isn’t one of them.

“Vosotros los ingleses, os flipáis con la música. No hay ese mismo afán por la música aquí, ¿sabes?”

Do I agree with her? The girl who told me that once? I do not know if I do. Years on, I’m still mulling it over.

Without the music, the days are long. They blur, one into the next. Web players and Bluetooth speakers are a poor imitation, like listening to the sound of the ocean in a seashell. There is nothing – nothing – like the exhilaration that comes from making music. It’s the difference between seeing and doing. Watching a cyclist and feeling the wind in your hair. The gulf is immeasurable. It’s the third half of my brain, the fifth chamber of my heart.

COVID cases continue to rise. Whole areas of the country are retreating back into lockdown. People stagger out of pubs at closing time and complain blindly at the loss of their freedom – or so the pictures in the Press seem to scream. Schools remain defiantly open as children come and go into and out of isolation. How long can it last, the question on everybody’s lips. In the music hall, silence hangs like mist.

I put on my hat and coat and set out into the evening. Music was always my tonic of choice, but if one elixir is out of stock, the other at least is deathless. It waits out there in the dying light, eternal. Autumn chill is in the air and the martins are long gone. Soon the hedges will be alive with the cackle and chatter of fieldfares, and the liquid sound of redwings traveling by night will follow me home from duty. For now, the old guard plays the same music it has always played in the forest beyond the fields. Blackbirds chatter down in the gully. The staccato of a wren breaking through the hedgerow. And, perched on the exposed branch of a dead tree, cock robin sings his heart out.

The song of the robin is, I think, the most beautiful music that England has ever known. Gentle, melodic, like water – it cannot be put into words. Not by an unqualified amateur such as myself, anyway. The robin for me is a symbol of hope. Maybe it’s his boldness, his charming friendly nature; his defiance of the cold on a January morning, as if to let the world know the darkness cannot last forever. He pays no heed to government directives or social distancing measures. He sings as his ancestors have sung for generations, since the world was cold and dark and unforgiving. Hearing his voice now, at a low ebb, it lifts my spirits again.

Half past nine. Directionless text books. Vocab tests, marked and unmarked. Me and the tuneless ventilator, and the memory of the robin’s song. I think I’ll call it a night.

Desert Island Discs

There are few things in the world that mean more to me than music. If that wasn’t clear enough by now, here’s me setting the record straight. My tiresome Chinese Bluetooth headphones might instil an odd lethargy whenever I put them on, but they provide a welcome lifeline on the five-minute walk to school on Monday mornings. So it strikes me as rather odd that, in two and a half years of blogging, I’ve yet to pen my own Desert Island Discs-style blog. Perhaps that’s just as well, as one’s taste in music is as much a part of growing up as one’s outlook on the world. It would surprise me greatly if I ever met a man whose tastes had remained unshaken since the beginning. I know mine haven’t. That is, not too much.

I’m going to keep to the BBC Radio programme’s format: that is, eight tracks, from which I will have to pick a favourite. So, whilst I’m still young, naïve and idealistic, here’s my Desert Island Discs.


1. Circle of Life (Elton John/Lebo M.)

CoL.png

Say what you like about the 90s, but they did give birth to one of the greatest animated films of all time. I haven’t the least shame in admitting that, to this day, Disney’s The Lion King remains one of my favourite films of all time. It’s simply perfect. I used to spend hours gawping at it as a kid, and watching some of my private lesson kids crawling around the room pretending to be all the animals in the opening sequence almost brings tears to my eyes. If there’s a better way to invoke a sense of awe and love for Africa’s natural beauty in four minutes flat, I’d like to see it.

When did you first discover it?
Given that The Lion King came out in the year I was born – a mere four days later, in fact – it’s very possible I’ve known this song for my entire life. I expect my first ‘real’ encounter with it would have been shortly after my first birthday when we got the movie on VHS.

What do you like most about it?
Lebo M.’s voice. The first twenty-eight seconds are pure gold. Who doesn’t love the opening? Even if most everyone gets the words wrong…

Any special memories?
I used it as my audition piece to get into Durham University’s A Cappella group, Northern Lights. Thanks to my dear friend Biff, we ended up performing it, and I got to pay homage to Lebo M. in Durham Cathedral itself in front of a crowd of a thousand. Riffing over the top of DUOS, Chamber Choir and the rest of Durham’s finest in the finale of King of Pride Rock will probably never be toppled as one of the happiest moments of my life.

2. Back in Stride (Maze feat. Frankie Beverly)

DID2

Maze is far from one of the most famous bands of their day. The late 70s was a hard time to make it big as a new artist, with heavyweights like Barry White and Earth, Wind and Fire kicking around. But for me, this is a special one-hit wonder that floors them all. Back in Stride is neither ground-breaking nor thought-provoking, but it is feel-good, and one of the most feel-good numbers I know. There’s just an honest, heartfelt get-up-and-go about it that brings me out of the dark and into the light whenever it comes on. And Frankie Beverly may well be one of the most underrated male vocalists of all time.

When did you first discover it?
If memory serves, it came on the radio on one of the few nights I tuned in to a local Soul and Funk radio station, shortly before my great Spanish adventure. Like I’ve said before, if I’m proud of one thing, it’s my whim decisions.

What do you like most about it?
The delay on the rolling bass guitar line. Apparently Despacito has been scientifically proven to be catchy because of the deliberate delay in the chorus. I wonder whether it’s the same mechanism at work here. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if it were.

Any special memories?
This song once saved my life. Quite literally. When I was sleeping rough in the mountains to the north of Madrid, it rained through the night and my bivvy bag turned out to be a lot less waterproof than I’d hoped (though I suppose they’re supposed to be used in tandem with a tent, rather than as the sole defence). I couldn’t sleep, I was shaking from head to foot for hours, and I wanted my parents more than ever in my life. Listening to this song on repeat pulled me back from the brink. Which, I suppose, is what granted Back in Stride a certain legendary status in my Top Ten.

3. Forgiven Not Forgotten (The Corrs)

DID3

Anyone who knows me will know that I go on and on (and on) about how black is beautiful when it comes to music. You only need to look at this list to see where my preferences lie, and it’s by no means a good sampling, with Fela Kuti, Tina Turner and the one and only Luther Vandross being narrowly beaten to the punch on this list. So it might come as a surprise that my favourite band is not black at all, but an Irish folk band. The Corrs and I go way back, and there’s hardly a song of theirs I don’t love. Forgiven Not Forgotten is a gem of an album and the title number is the standout diamond.

When did you first discover it?
Forgiven Not Forgotten was my first ever album, back in the days when a mixtape meant an actual tape. My dad used to put it on every once in a while on the way to school, where the novel was born to the sound of Sharon Corr’s violin. The cassette itself is long since missing in action, and – like many of its kind – probably ended up a mess of spent tape that no pencil could fix, but I still have the cassette case.

What do you like most about it?
Andrea Corr’s vocals are hauntingly beautiful. I’d have to say that the break into the harder-hitting second verse is what takes the biscuit, though. It sends me soaring.

Any special memories?
As a kid, knowing that my favourite childhood author, Michael Morpurgo, was also a fan of the group made me smile a lot; he namedrops the band often in his Scilly Isle stories.

4. Thriller (Michael Jackson)

DID4

Who’d have thought that a song about zombies would be one of the most popular songs of all time? Who else but Michael Jackson? Thriller is amazing. I love it. I can’t shake it. The chords are insane. The bassline is unforgettable. And don’t even get me started on the dance routine. It’s MJ at his finest; no deep message, no heavy lyrics, just pure, all-out fun. Any one of these eight songs could be a strong contender for my favourite, but as far as the official list is concerned, Thriller has been in the throne for the longest. And that’s despite Vincent Price’s voiceover, which somehow adds to the charm…

When did you first discover it?
You know, I don’t know? I won’t even pretend I do. We had Michael Jackson’s Number Ones on our CD rack at home, and I don’t think it took me all that long to find it.

What do you like most about it?
The whine of the theremin during the third and final verse. No doubt about it. I get the shivers every single time.

Any special memories?
Turning up to Arrowsmith’s Halloween party in my Thriller outfit, to find fellow Light Luke had come in exactly the same outfit. The beginning of a long and happy friendship, grounded in a common love for one of the world’s greatest.

5. Love Theme from El Cid (Miklós Rózsa)

DID6

Many of the songs on this list are songs I grew up with, and number five is no exception. I can’t have seen El Cid more than two or three times before returning to study the epic at university, which brought me back into contact with the endlessly evocative soundtrack of the film. It just screams Spain, more so even than Bizet’s Carmen. Rózsa knew what he was doing. No matter what happened, I was once a violinist, and to have a set of favourites without the beautiful violin solo of the Love Theme would be nothing short of criminal. There are many pieces from the soundtrack that I adore, such as the famous El Cid March and the Fanfare Coronation, but the Love Theme wins it for me.

When did you first discover it?
Technically speaking, I ‘rediscovered’ it whilst I was writing my El Cid essay last year. I had the album on repeat every time I sat down to write, so it surprises me that Spotify seems to think ‘dance-pop’ was my favourite genre. By all rights, unrepresentative as it would be, my fixation with this album in essay season should have pushed it to the top.

What do you like most about it?
The violin solo in the second half. It’s breath-taking, and makes me wish I hadn’t given up the violin years ago, if only to be able to play it as well as the soloist does.

Any special memories?
I believe I finished my dissertation shortly after playing it for probably the 53rd time. That’s a special memory if ever there was one… right?

6. What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)

DID7

Stealing its way into the spotlight like a fine wine, Marvin Gaye’s pleading revolution song has been with me for a while, but only found its way into my heart recently. At a time in my life when music was taken from me (after a particularly music-heavy summer at the Edinburgh Fringe), Marvin found me and picked me back up. What’s Going On called out to me with a meaning it never had before and I fell in love with it. Grapevine might be one of his greatest legacies, but the subdued vocals of this particular number make it nothing less than spectacular.

When did you first discover it?
On my first serious fling with the world of Soul, Funk and Disco music in my final year at school, under the guiding influence of my former bandmaster, Mr D. I must have overlooked this diamond then, perish the thought.

What do you like most about it?
Whilst I don’t tend to go for songs for their lyrics, believing the music itself to be of far more importance, What’s Going On strikes a chord with the pacifist in me. And, of course, there’s the violins: the sailing strings of the third verse reach so high they trace the heavens and rain down gold.

Any special memories?
It isn’t often you discover a new artist you adore, but when it does, it’s a little bit like falling in love. Discovering Marvin Gaye ‘properly’ this year via this song makes for a special memory, I think.

7. Erin Shore (The Corrs)

DID3

What do you know? It’s The Corrs again. I told you there was hardly a song of theirs I didn’t love and I wasn’t lying. It was a struggle not having at least three Corrs numbers in this list (you’d find the third if we were to expand this list to ten). Erin Shore is an instrumental, and it must have meant a lot to the band: it’s at the opening and closing of Forgiven Not Forgotten. In my head it’s the theme of the Royals in my novel, and thus this piece alone has had a heavy influence the development of the novel. The Love Theme from El Cid may have been beyond me as a dropout Grade 6 violinist, but I had the book of violin parts as a kid and I remember teaching myself this one, before ear and memory sufficed.

When did you first discover it?
Shortly after (and before) discovering Forgiven Not Forgotten.

What do you like most about it?
The bells, the flutes, the choir… the sounds of Ireland… And, of course, the wicked drumming before the final uplifting round.

Any special memories?
Every time I listen to this track I see the heroes of my book. It’s not a memory as they’re almost always on my mind, but that makes it doubly special for me.

8. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (Michael Jackson)

DID5

If the Corrs get a second mention, then the other great light of my life needs to be up there too. And he’s not here by proxy. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is the happiest, grooviest, boogiest song I know. I just want to get up on a stage and dance. If there were ever a film made about my life, this would be song playing as they rolled the end credits. The music video says it all: MJ, MJ, MJ. Oh look, more MJ. Billie Jean, Wanna Be Startin’ Something, Earthsong and The Way You Make Me Feel are all serious contenders for my top twenty, but this one makes the cut. Because it makes me want to dance.

When did you first discover it?
It was the first song on the Number Ones CD, which means that, of all MJ’s greatest hits, this was the one I came upon first. I remember boogying about to it as a toddler, unable to understand the lyrics, but smiling all the same.

What do you like most about it?
The opening. Like Thriller, MJ felt like having a few spoken words thrown in for good measure. And though what he says is James Brown levels of inspired, it is almost exactly what goes through my head every time this banger comes on.

Any special memories?
When they played this track on a night out in York back in ’14, I went berserk. I’d been waiting for a song I truly knew to get my mojo on, and then Don’t Stop came on and I lost it. I remember grooving with a couple of great dance partners on the dance floor and feeling like I’d stepped back in time to 1979. What a year to be young and free…

‘…and if you had to choose just one?’

Tough call. But it’d have to be Erin Shore. I might be on that desert island for a while, but Erin Shore would take me home in my dreams.


Special Recommendations:

Someday (The Corrs); Mother Africa Reprise from The Power of One (Hans Zimmer); A House is Not a Home (Luther Vandross); Shosholoza (Ladysmith Black Mambazo); Ukuthula (Soweto Gospel Choir); Truth Gon Die (Femi Kuti); I Wish (Stevie Wonder); Proud Mary (Ike & Tina Turner); I Feel Good (James Brown)

 

Fancy doing this yourself? Be my guest! Isn’t it wonderful to take a trip down memory lane through music? BB x