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

Finding Doré

Women’s eyes are always bright, whatever the colour.

HENRY RIDER HAGGARD, KING SOLOMON’S MINES

Sunday 27th March. Eight days until Italy, my first solo adventure in a long time. My desk is a little cluttered: a Marco Polo guidebook to Rome, a spare exam paper for Year 7 French, the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s Pirates: Fact & Fiction and various other odds and sundries. The pile of books I dip in and out of continues to grow. Previous girlfriends would have kept that habit in check, but in this bachelor’s pad, the library creeps through the house like an advancing army, billeting its troops on every flat surface in sight.

I don’t know what to expect from Italy. The last time I set off with a city break in mind I came home early. Barcelona was all a bit much, and I didn’t have much of a plan beyond seeing the old city. After three months of windowless boarding school life, however, I’m just looking for a change of scenery, really. Something to make my journal hum with anticipation (since this one is currently the least-travelled of the five, despite having the longest shelf life – thanks a lot, COVID). I’m hoping I’ll meet some interesting people who’ll give me stories to tell, and with whom I can share stories of my own, but the most likely outcome is a solid twenty-odd pages of sketches. And that’s no bad thing.

My primary inspiration in this field is the French illustrator Gustave Doré. You may have seen his works before, even if you don’t know the name: his was the creative genius behind the dark engravings that told the stories of Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno and Don Quixote, as well as various illustrations of the Bible. Some divine brilliance guided that man’s hand throughout his life. Half the hangings in my flat are prints of his, and all of them pillaged from desecrated copies of the most precious book in my library: an illustrated account of the Spanish adventures of Jean Charles Davillier.

It took me over a year to track down a copy of said book for myself. I’m not a collector of rare books, but I do take a small amount of pride in having a well-stocked Spanish library, and when I learned of the existence of this masterpiece, I knew I had to get my hands on one somehow – before they were all chopped up for their precious prints. Its rarity is evident in the ludicrous priced charged by some vendors on the internet: I’ve seen well-kept copies of the book go for as much as £1,350, with the most reasonable offers starting at around the £350 mark. So I could hardly believe my luck when I found an eBay vendor trying to get rid of theirs for £50. Collection only – as if that would prove an obstacle for such a prize. I’ll never forget the sheepish look on the trader’s face as she handed it over.

“Are you a collector, then? It was in a box in my dad’s garage along with all this other junk. Feel free to have a look. We’re converting the place and need to get rid of a lot of his old things. It’s funny, the day after you paid for it, I saw another copy going for several hundred. I guess I undervalued it.”

She did. Considerably. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to me, it’s more than just a rare book of Doré’s. It’s a window into another man’s head: another man who, like myself, came to Spain and was bewitched by its very own brand of black magic.

Of all Doré’s prints, I treasure his landscapes most of all, but it’s his portraits of the Spaniards themselves that I want to leave with you today – and particularly the fair Spanish ladies.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m as much a sucker for beauty as the next man, and when I’m sitting on the high street, or on the Tube, or scrolling through Pinterest, nine times out of ten it’s the girls who catch my eye and stir my pencil into action (Freud and a thousand schoolboys would have a field day with that sentence, I know). Double the prize if the sun is shining at the right angle, and Doré does this spectacularly – you can almost hear the midday heat in the image above with its shadows cast straight down by an unforgiving Castilian sun immediately overhead.

The grass is always greener on the other side, right? My grandfather found something that caught his eye in an English girl, a long time ago, but it’s his people who hold my eye. Not that I’ve ever held down a relationship with a Spaniard. It’s a hard thing to do when you live on this rainy rock, as Spaniards’ ties to their homeland are stronger than steel. I’ve met a few wanderers, but they are the exception to the rule. Cortes, the great conquistador of Cuba and Honduras and the Mexica Empire, came home to die. And when Spain is as beautiful a country as she is, who can blame them?

I’ll leave it to San Isidro of Sevilla to conclude with words more powerful than my own:

Of all the lands that extend from the west to India, thou are the fairest, o sacred Hispania, ever-fecund mother of princes and peoples, rightful queen of all the provinces, from whom west and east draw their light.

SAINT ISIDORE OF SEVILLE, DE LAUDE HISPANIAE

See you soon. 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

Worldbuilding

I have a confession to make. For a wannabe author, I’ve always been rather guarded about my stories. As a teacher I make no secret about the fact that of my various hobbies I love writing best of all, above drawing, above being out and about in nature – and, yes, even above music. Why? Because writing is one of the few things in the world that you can truly call your own. You can’t compare your voice to somebody else’s any more than you can compare your ability to think. But, for all the show of carrying a journal around and self-consciously dropping into conversation now and then that I write for pleasure, I don’t really talk overmuch about my books.

There’s a couple of reasons for that. The first one is simple self-defence, the fear that somebody could steal your ideas and tell your own stories as though they were their own. Laugh if you will at that idea – what story hasn’t been told and retold a thousand times over since the dawn of time? – but an incident involving my artwork, DeviantArt and an alarming case of identity theft back in my schooldays has left me cautious about putting my work out there. In that case, I was lucky that the thief had been indiscriminate in their robbery: though some of the drawings they claimed as their own were odds and sods from the novel, more than a few were portraits of friends from school, so it wasn’t just my intellectual property on the line. Together with some friends, we kicked up a fuss and had the thief’s account taken down. To their credit, DeviantArt were pretty quick. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know who the culprit was, though reason tells me it could only have been somebody I knew. I learned a valuable lesson, though: art is easy to steal.

The second reason is the simplest one: there’s just too much to say in one sitting. I can see that on those occasions when somebody leafs through one of my journals. There’s so much going on in there and none of it in any particular order, and without a map, you’d never know where to start. Entering into a writer’s world is probably a rather daunting experience, like arriving at a house party and finding you don’t know any of the guests. You could try. You could sum up the Lord of the Rings saga by saying it’s all about a quest to destroy a magical ring, but that leaves out the silent terror of the Mines of Moria, the treachery of Gollum and the mournful autumnal kingdom of the elves; the details that make the world come to life. Story-telling is a necessarily one-sided pastime, and since my day job places such an emphasis on listening, my favourite hobby is something I try to avoid at all costs, because it feels selfishly out of sync.

Today, I’m going to break a habit. I’m going to let you into my world.

We can start where it all began. Where it all began to take shape, I mean. According to my journal, that was at 15.30 on Friday 13th November, 2015, on a rocky outcrop beside the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Montaña just outside the city of Cáceres. I’d been writing “the book” for about twelve years by then – I can trace the first draft back to 2003 – but it was here in Extremadura that everything suddenly fell into place. As I looked out across the plains of Cáceres and upon the city thrown into shadow by the setting sun, something magical happened. It was as though I was staring at a giant jigsaw puzzle that was suddenly arranging itself into perfect order before my eyes. I wrote myself a note in my journal – “What might this place have looked like in the 1600s?”. Sometime later I pencilled in two words above that line: “it begins!”.

And so it began. The cast of characters I had carried in my head and in my heart for over a decade moved to Spain, and the kingdom of Meridia was born.

Picture a corner of the world where the fields go on forever. A land of immense blue skies and sparsely-populated hill-towns, clustered like barnacles about the few slopes that rise out of the motionless sea of earth, where the merciless sun comes down with unfettered fury in summer, and in winter, chill winds howl unimpeded across the plains. A kingdom that has seen people come and go: Moorish forts atop the limestone crags that the vultures have not claimed for their own; Roman arches and theatres rising out of the earth like the bones of some long-dead giant; and, deep in the mountains that ring this hidden kingdom, the faded artwork of a people so ancient that they have long since faded into oblivion. And such mountains! Look to the north on a clear day and you can see them towering mightily over the fields, vast and blue like the sky above, their peaks scarred with snow well into the spring. That’s where the old forests cling on, fugitives from the axes that carved the Roman Empire from Spanish lumber many centuries ago. And where the forests give way to the water, powerful rivers bubble up from the deep, thundering through the hills and carving sheer ravines through the finger-like ridges that splay across the plains from the Sistema Central.

The best of it is that I don’t have to invent this world at all, because it actually exists, and her name is Extremadura. All I had to do was to imagine her in somebody else’s hands. My hands.

When I first set out to create Meridia – named, of course, for the city of Mérida – I initially wanted to keep the real-world location a secret, until the close of the story, at least. It didn’t take me long to realise just how impossible that was going to be from a worldbuilding perspective, particularly over a saga spanning seven books, but since “big reveals” are and always have been a majorly appealing part of story-telling, I played along for a time. I was also still reluctant to fully transition to the use of Spanish people and place names, so I had a go at creating names of my own.

Casiers. Barosse. Meroon. Looking back now, I’m cringing already at how disgustingly English they sound. But then, few tales come into being in a matter of moments. Worldbuilding takes a long time, longer by far than it takes to tell the story itself. I can only guess at how many hours Tolkien must have poured into the creation of Arda. It’s taken me all of twenty years.

Here’s the same map, drawn about a year later. It’s the eighth of a total of ten maps of the peninsula in the same journal (when students ask me how I can draw a map of Spain from memory… this. This is how). It’s probably the most accurate, and the one I still use today when mapping out the events of the saga, the exception being the retroactive introduction of the “corredor cordobés” that cuts a swathe from Córdoba to the city of Cádiz, separating Meridia from Granada and providing a political flashpoint for the plot. Ringing the map, you can see the history I’ve had to build up around it. I tell you, writing a historical novel is one thing, but writing allohistory – that is, an alternative timeline – is a messy, time-consuming business. If I didn’t keep a journal, I doubt I’d remember all the details. Nevertheless, they’re absolutely essential to giving your world an identity of its own, just as the “Greatest Generation” and the “fight them on the beaches” speech are integral parts of our collective memory.

Creating five hundred years of history for a kingdom which never existed is quite the task. Beginning it is easy, as is the wrapping it all up at the end. It’s what you do in between that’s the trouble. How do you explain away, for example, the men who changed the world who hailed from that corner of the real world? How do you rewrite an essentially Spanish history in a timeline where Granada did not fall until the middle of the seventeenth century, where Seville was in foreign hands for the greater part of the Age of Discoveries, and – perhaps most importantly of all – where almost all of Spain’s conquistadors from Cortés and Pizarro to Francisco de Orellana and Núñez de Balboa hailed from a land that did not carry the flag of Castile?

To be honest, that’s half of the fun, trying to find radically new ways of retelling history. It’s why I wrote my dissertation on the Cronica sarracina, arguably one of the greatest works of fiction ever sold as fact in Spain (or was it fact sold as fiction?). I’m doing the same thing with Meridia: I’m telling the story of Spain through a glass darkly, holding up a devil’s mirror to the country I know best.

And once the world has taken shape in your head, it’s time to set your characters running across its empty plains, so your voice can follow them, painting their footprints with words.

I take my inspiration from the world around me. From books, mostly, but also from photographs, legends, paintings and even conversations with strangers. More than one character has slipped between the pages of the book over the years after a brief encounter with one of those larger-than-life types. In essence, the saga is my paean to my grandfather’s country, so I try to weave as many details in as I can. The madmen of the Hurdes. The seven chairs of Mérida. Goya’s fight with cudgels. The mystery of who really got to the New World first and the Lisbon Earthquake. The odd real person makes a cameo appearance from time to time: Diego Velázquez, Michiel de Ruyter and the lost children of the sack of Baltimore. I get the same satisfaction threading their tales into the narrative as I did from peppering each and every essay I wrote at university with “ursulas” (unnecessarily farfetched sidetracks that somehow relate back to the essay question, named for the sea witch in The Little Mermaid). When you’ve been writing the same story for twenty years, you’ve got to find new ways to keep the game fresh.

And sometimes, it’s not a book or a person that finds its way into the worldbuilding effort, but the real world itself, in real time. Like this little snippet from the journal. I’ll leave you with the date (24/6/2016) and let you guess what it’s referring to.

Worldbuilding is laborious. It takes a bloody long time if you plan to do it right. It took me a matter of seconds to decide to move the fictional kingdom of my childhood into Extremadura, but it’s taken my characters all of five years to finish unpacking. The central characters of the story have only borne their new Spanish names for a little over a year. But it’s easily one of the most entertaining parts of the story-telling business, and it doesn’t half smooth out the writing process when you finally find the time to sit down at the computer and have a solid crack at the next chapter.

So… what would you like to know? Asking for somebody else’s thoughts on what is nothing more or less than the single most precious creation of one’s life is more than a little unnerving – I’m not afraid to admit I got the shivers writing that question – but the purpose of story-telling is to share, and I could do with airing the world inside my head for a change.

Alternatively, if you’re a writer too, does my experience with the worldbuilding process sound familiar? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 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

Dagobah: The Longest Night of my Life

Planning ahead for Italy this April has got me thinking about the last time I travelled solo, now almost a decade ago.

When I was eighteen years old, my mother gave me a copy of Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and a map of northern Spain. I joined the dots and bought myself a one way flight to Santander, planning to walk south as he did, until I reached the Mediterranean Sea.

It didn’t exactly pan out like that, but it was and is to this day one of the toughest and most formative adventures I’ve ever made in my life.

Travelling solo is not for everyone. You’ve got to be comfortable with your own company for long periods of time. You have to be able to think on your feet and adapt to whatever happens around you, because nobody is going to look out for you but yourself. Most importantly of all, you need to be brave. You’ll hear plenty of stories about the kindness of strangers, but nine times out of ten, it’s a case of shy bairns get nowt; if you aren’t prepared to talk to people, the loneliness birds will start to circle.

That’s what happened to me, all those years ago. My Spanish was good – more than good enough to hold my own in a conversation – but my courage was lacking. The bottomless charisma that comes almost by osmosis from working in a private school hadn’t sunk in yet, and I would have rather bitten my own tongue than enter into a conversation with a stranger. Consequently, I spent the greater part of those four and a half weeks in what can only be described as a state of monastic silence.

As a rule, I’ve tried to find a travel partner on every adventure since, as there are few things more reassuring than good company on the road. Back then, halfway through my gap year, I was cut off like never before: everybody I knew was either at university, at work or halfway across the globe on gap years of their own. So I didn’t have much choice.

I was young, inexperienced, and woefully naïve about how much I ought to be spending daily on food. Little wonder, then, that when I came home I was dangerously underweight. That first encounter with solo travel taught me a lot, but most of all it taught me never to skimp on food. Ever.

Looking back, it’s so easy to focus on the negatives, largely because of how didactic they all were. One stands clear above the others like a lonely mountain. Sleeping rough in the mountains above Madrid with nothing but a sleeping bag and a rucksack for a pillow. That endless night will be with me forever. Let me paint it for you.


Picture it. A patch of relatively stable ground in the heart of a dark pine forest, on the lower slopes of the mountains. At least two hours’ walk from the nearest settlement. Pine needles where the grass doesn’t grow, and the roots of the trees poking out of the ground here and there like toes in the sand. The light fading as dusk sets in, no sunset, just a gradual darkening of the grey light between the trees as the world before your eyes starts to fuzz and crackle like static on an old television. From somewhere far off, a raven croaks, and once or twice, an owl.

You put your head on your rucksack and try to shut your eyes, but sleep doesn’t come. Maybe it’s because it’s still light out there. Minutes feel like hours. You turn on your iPod and ration a few songs to pass the time. Maybe fatigue will get you in the end. But it doesn’t.

Night falls, but there’s no moon. The ground under your sleeping bag is cold. Wet. It sinks through the lining and into your skin. Your teeth are chattering. You put on all the clothing you’ve brought; three layers of socks, two sweaters and a makeshift scarf. It doesn’t stop the chattering. Then there’s the gentle sound of rain as the clouds roll across the mountainside, scattering water through the trees.

You check your watch. It’s only been twenty minutes. It’s still only just after nine o’clock. Most Spaniards aren’t even in bed at this time. You ration some more music.

The darkness is almost absolute. You can only just make out the silvery light of the trunks of the nearest trees, lit by the ghost of the moon, buried deep in the clouded night. The patter of rain echoes through the whole forest.

Suddenly, a harsh bark breaks the silence. It shouldn’t scare you out of your wits, but it does. You freeze, listening, half expecting – wait! There it is again. It’s a roe deer, you know that. You’re sure of it. You’ve heard that barking cry so many times before back home. It’s just a deer. Harmless. But what good is that knowledge when you’re wrapped up in a sleeping bag, alone, and nobody knows you’re up there? And what if you’re not so sure? What if it’s something… else?

It’s funny how the mind plays tricks on you in the darkness. How quickly you can unravel. For a time I am certain I had managed to convince myself it was not deer but wolves I was hearing – that ancient terror of the deep forest that all of us carry, buried deep inside.

The barking goes on for hours. Or maybe minutes. The minutes feel like hours. The hours feel like days. Time seems to have slowed to a crawl. The night is endless. No moon, no stars, no light from the distant towns. Just the static darkness that creeps through the trees, and the rain, the endless, endless rain.

You count the barks. You count sheep. You call home, consider bailing there and then. You talk to yourself, argue with yourself. You turn to God, perhaps for the first time. You swear. You laugh. You cry. You drain the iPod to zero to keep your spirits up, trying not to picture the prowling things between the trees that your eyes are so keen to paint.

Sleep is fleeting: a minute or two of semi-consciousness here and there, leaving you more and more tired, and yet less able to find that rest you now desire above all things.

And when the dawn comes, that first blessed grey light between the trees, you don’t even care anymore how little you’ve slept. You hardly notice the gnawing aches in your legs, or the numbness in your teeth from all the chattering. You’re just overjoyed to see the light once again – because there’s a magic in the dawn that is timeless. The darkness is on the run, and there’s a new day on the way. Dawn was ever the hope of men.


Looking back now, there’s so much I didn’t do that I know I should have done. I didn’t tell anybody where I was going. I didn’t pack enough food. And any of you with even a little camping experience will have spotted one glaring absence: never mind the obvious lack of a tent, I didn’t even bring a roll mat. No wonder I spent the night shivering.

One thing’s for certain: there’ll be no repeats of that night in the Guadarrama, not in Italy, not ever. I’ve had some long and painful nights in my life, but that one stands head and shoulders above the others. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone. But that makes it all the more powerful a memory. It’s a lightning-rod for my fears. Whenever I’m feeling down for whatever reason, I think of that night in the mountains. I was miserable, I was lonely, I was terrified – but I survived.

In the old Star Wars stories, Master Yoda went into exile on the swamp world of Dagobah, a planet with a strong connection to the dark side of the Force. Hubris had laid his order low and taken everything from him; only by humbling himself in isolation and communing with the dark was he able to understand it – and, in so doing, learn to rise above it all.

At some point in our lives, we all need to be brought to our knees, if only to understand who we really are when it all falls apart. I wouldn’t say I look back on that night with pride – the whole enterprise was nothing short of madness to begin with – but it did settle once and for all what I believed.

Darkness is not something to run from. It cannot be escaped. There’s darkness in all of us, as sure as shadows lengthen in the light. But, like a shadow, it must be faced head on if you would not be afraid. We have to confront our fears if we wish to understand them – and to understand how we react it to them. And to face your demons, whatever and wherever they may be, you need your starlight. I call that starlight Hope.

Hope and despair. The light and the dark. All that I am today is built on that bedrock. Hope is my raison d’etre, my polestar, my core value if you will, and it was forged in that endless night on Guadarrama.

Travelling alone can be tough – especially if you’re inclined to sadistic escapades like sleeping rough in the mountains like I was – but I can think of few better ways to find the meaning of life.

And if you’re wondering why I put myself through that ordeal, there’s a perfectly logical answer: there’s a chapter in my book where my protagonist is abandoned in the wild, and my English teacher once told me to “write only about what you know”! The things we do for art…

I don’t expect anything nearly as dramatic in Italy. Heck, I’m mainly going to fill some pages in my journal. But I am going with a hopeful heart once again, to feel that brush with the world beyond.

And to find a better Margherita pizza than the ones they make at Lirios. Maybe. BB x

Kicking the Habit

I can’t believe it. I’ve done the unthinkable: I’ve booked myself a holiday, and for once, it’s not Spain. Well, that’s not strictly true. I should say I’ve booked half a holiday that isn’t in Spain, because there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be in Holy Week than with my family, especially since the procesiones haven’t happened for two years now. But after an evening spent stuck in a rut over where to go and what to do in the week prior, I decided it was high time I broke the mould and explored somewhere new for a change. It’s a place I’ve never been before, and yet it’s also a place I’ve had so much to do with over the years that it would be nothing short of criminal to keep ignoring it.

The destination…? Italy!

For years the excuse for passing over Italy has been my (completely unfounded) belief that “everything Italy can do, Spain can do better… plus they speak Spanish”. Spoken like a true tercio, but not exactly the most grounded of opinions, nor a particularly sensible idea for somebody who’s supposed to be a modern foreign languages teacher.

So I’m giving myself a week out there to open my eyes and blow my mind.

I have six weeks to teach myself some basic Italian. Given the almost daily contact I have with Italians at work, that shouldn’t be too difficult – and hey, I could use a challenge.

Part of me feels I’m getting a little old for this solo travel malarkey, and yet there’s another part of me that’s been getting restless for months. I need something to take my mind off how messy 2021 was, something to jumpstart the thrill of adventure I used to feel all those years ago… and, most important of all, something that will give me stories to tell on here that aren’t always about my grandparents. I could certainly do with some fresh material for a change.

A slightly mad move on my part, but if I have to spend another holiday at home I’ll almost certainly go mad. 2017 Me is wagging a finger and calling this kind of behaviour entitled, but then, 2017 Me thought he had it all figured out – and he had just spent a week up at the Edinburgh Fringe, which was probably one of the most expensive holidays I’ve ever had. To throw more fuel on the fire, this year’s summer holidays are going to be little but driving lessons, and as the Camino de Santiago has yet to return to normal, I have no excuses. So it all hangs on Easter.

I have a start point in Venice. And I have an end point in Rome. Eight days is what I have to play around with. I suspect there’s so much to see in both cities that I ought to split the week in half between the two rather than trying to cram in anywhere else en route, but I’ll cross that bridge later. For now, I have a language to learn.

Gee, I haven’t felt this motivated in ages. It’s time to fall in love with the open road once again. Fatti sotto, Italia! BB x

Streets of London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tzompantli: An Ode to Extremadura

On Monday, I kick off my new role as the middle school gifted and talented programme coordinator with a lecture on the Aztecs. It wasn’t the obvious choice, as Mexico is a country I have neither visited nor researched nearly as extensively as my grandfather’s country. As a matter of fact I made a conscious effort to steer well clear of Latin American affairs at university, cleaving to the Iberian modules even when it meant the pickings would be slim. If Durham’s only Cervantes specialist hadn’t been on maternity leave in my final year, I could have stayed quite happily in my fairy-tale world of knights and princesses and Moorish warlords and binged on ballads, and I wouldn’t have had to go anywhere near strap-on wielding Catalans and metaphysical Madrilenians. Oh Quijote, en mala hora me abandonaste!

Ordinarily, for such a school project I would have stuck to my guns and wheeled out some Moorish magic with a talk about Islamic Spain, something that is close to my heart; or El Cid, a man whose legend (and whose 1961 movie) is embedded, thorn-like, a couple of inches deeper. I even briefly considered whipping up something about pirates, but I haven’t read nearly enough to do that one justice. Not yet.

I landed upon the Aztecs for a couple of reasons. One, because the book I have chosen to read with my IB students is Laura Esquivel’s Malinche. Two, because my school – or rather, the people whose money built the house in which I now live and work – has a long history with Mexico, a connection that is plainly carved into the stone in several places.

But I think the main reason I wanted to explore the Mexica was because it ties me back, through the ruthless conquistadors, to a place that is still very dear to me: Extremadura.

My first contact with Spain was with Andalusia, with her jagged crags and whitewashed mountain villages. If I wasn’t spellbound there and then, my mum and dad must have been, because they made the crazy decision to up sticks and move us there in 2006… right on the eve of the financial crisis that was already driving many of Spain’s expats out. It might not have been the wisest move for three out of the four of us, but after a year of weekend hikes in the surrounding sierras, gecko-hunts in the streets by night, Holy Week spectaculars and vulture-chasing in the misty heights of El Gastor, I was absolutely hooked. Andalusia was my polestar for many years to follow, and her light shone brightest on the paradise of the tierras rocieras of Doñana National Park.

(The author, blinded by the light since ’05)

Over the years I braved her jealousy and flirted with her sisters: a school trip took me from Barcelona and the magical Mediterranean town of Tossa de Mar up and into the clouded dales of Cantabria and the foothills of austere Asturias. Legends of the Cid led me to Burgos and the empty plains of Old Castile, the guiding light of my ancestry led me home to la Mancha, and in recent years I’ve swum in the crystal waters of Mallorca and Menorca. Throw in flying visits to Aragon, Alicante, La Rioja and the Basque Country and it’s getting to the stage where there’s hardly a corner of the country I haven’t explored.

But I don’t think I could ever have anticipated the rawness of my obsession with Extremadura. From the moment I set foot on her soil I was lost. It honestly felt like falling in love for the first time. Not the high school crush kind of falling in love, but that kind of mature depth of feeling, that gut-wrenching, iron-tasting jolt in your upper body that tells you something’s starting functioning inside that was only dormant before.

Oh, cut the poetry already, BB. If you’ve been reading this blog as long as I’ve been writing it, you’ll know I didn’t actually talk like that when I arrived in Villafranca de los Barros on that hot September afternoon seven years ago. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and any corner of the Earth that could convince me to jettison my plans for taking my teaching game over to South America for a second (and very almost a third) time must have an awesome power.

When Hernan Cortes and his men entered Tenochtitlan, one of the greatest cities of the world at the time, one of the things that shocked them most of all were the dreadful tzompantli, wooden scaffolds nearly two metres in height that carried between them the many thousands of impaled skulls of the sacrificial victims of the Aztecs. They came back to Spain telling wild tales of eagle warriors and war priests with matted hair and bleeding knives, and when one reads of the savagery wielded in the name of Castile upon the Mexica, it isn’t hard to understand why it’s been so popular until recently to discount the stories of tzompantli as a myth invented by the conquistadors to justify their actions. Until 2015, the year I moved to their homeland, when the bases of the huey tzompantli were uncovered in Mexico City, complete with row upon row of human skulls, laid out like so many candy calaveras on Dia de los Muertos. The conquistadors, for all their sins, must have had stories worth telling, if only people would listen.

Extremadura is one of those places I will probably write about again and again for the rest of my life. If Andalusia was my first crush, Extremadura was the lady who captured my heart for good. Not even the knowledge I have now that ties my bloodline more closely to Valencia than la Mancha can put a stain (no pun intended) on my devotion to her. Hers is a story I would tell and tell and tell until my tongue split in two.

Tzompantli: an image which struck no small amount of awe and fear. The presence of a God or Gods unknown (and a word that first threatened to split my tongue in two, but is now so satisfying to say that I have rather awkwardly made it the title of this post).

That is my Extremadura. Unknown. Disconnected. Hard to say. Trainless. Abandoned. The conquistadors couldn’t get out fast enough. Malaria festered in her hidden valleys long after it had been extirpated everywhere else, and the Mesta virtually enslaved her very earth to their will, subjecting her people to centuries of poverty. But it is precisely because of these fascinating tales – coupled with her unparalleled natural beauty – that I do believe Extremadura to be the jewel in Spain’s crown.

And oh, look – I started writing about Mexico and here we are, back in Spain. I’m nothing if not predictable. Some of us spend our lives traveling in search of that “something” that is just beyond our reach. I count myself amongst the lucky ones who found what I was looking for and need look no further – at least, no further than the light that shines on Spain’s shores. I can only hope Doña Extremadura forgives my curiosity.

Did Rodrigo, last of the Visigoth kings, truly disappear in her mountains after the fall of Merida? Did an army of ants reduce one of her villages to rubble? Were there really hordes of dwarves in Las Hurdes who descended into the valleys by night to terrify the locals? And what made Carlos, supreme ruler of the Spains, the Americas and all the Hapsburg Empire decide to spend the last years of his life in her wooded hills?

You will only find out if you go. Don’t hold on too tightly to your heart. BB x

P.S. Thinking about sharing some more stories from this part of the world… watch this space.

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