White Hart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half Time

Saturday afternoon finds me out on the side lines, camera in hand, supporting the boys. We put up a valiant fight and place third, thanks to a surprise goal and some seriously impressive goalkeeping. The ball comes my way at some point and I aim to block it, but apparently the ball was way over there and my leg was somewhere else. One of the boys saw fit to rib me about it in house later. I can laugh it off now as I did then. Football has never been my forte, or any other sport for that matter.

Working in a boarding school has got me more invested in sports than I ever was at school. There’s something magnetic about watching your charges do themselves and their team proud, whether they win or lose, that I never really felt when I was obliged to play the game. It’s not that my parents didn’t try to get me into sports when I was younger – goodness knows they tried their best – it’s just that then, as ever, it wasn’t in my interest. Which is why I’m here, not far off the age of thirty, and I still couldn’t name you more than about ten footballers at best. Somewhere along the line it seemed a great deal more important to consign to memory the sight and sound of every single feathered animal in the UK. I guess my excuse for stretching myself thin with the things I do – making music, speaking five languages, writing books and knowing my way around the natural world – might be construed as compensating for the fact that I could never do the one thing that comes naturally to most boys… that is, kicking a ball.

I can’t really remember a great deal about my sports lessons at school. If the truth be told, I’m pretty sure I used what cunning I had back then to wangle my way out of sports for good by the time I was sixteen. I think it was along the lines of “rehearsals for a musical” that I managed to stretch over two years. At least in my first year at school I was given an excuse when an angry sixth former stoved in a few lockers, including mine, with my sports kit trapped blissfully inside. Two memories alone remain: being made to play on through a blizzard in woefully short football kit, and the humiliation of being made to keep attempting the high jump until I was finally able to clear it – by which point it was almost level with the mat. And while I’d normally pull a face at using the same verb twice in succession, “being made to…” sums up my sporting experience pretty well. Understandably, this air-headed naturalist wasn’t ever really at home on the sports pitch.

Which is why it’s all the more surprising to me that I get such a kick out of supporting my boys in their games at the weekend.

Because leopards never change their spots, I turned my camera skywards a couple of times on the buzzards that came drifting over the pitch, as I once did during the summer fixtures a decade ago. Spring is here and the birds are pairing off already. There’s a part of me that sighs, but a sunnier, more hopeful side that smiles, and I cross my fingers and I hope theirs is a successful pairing. Successful being the appropriate word, since happiness seems out of sorts. We still don’t know for sure whether birds feel emotions like we do, but I’d like to think they have something close to it. You see hints every so often that they might: a swallow mourning beside its partner’s tiny body, crows sliding down snow-bound rooves, choughs hurling themselves from great heights seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.

It’s uplifting seeing the smiles on my boys’ faces during a game, and I find myself wondering whether that’s the same electric feeling you get after a concert, or from sighting one of our island’s most beautiful creatures riding the spring thermals. And now the sun is out again, I might just go for another heart-healing walk in the Weald. The forest weaves a magic that never dies. 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

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.

Marmite Man (A London Story)

Marmite Man

Marmite Man arrives in his chariot. He walks into a library, hiding from the autumn sun. He climbs up to the second floor, carrying a weatherworn traveling rucksack on his back, and finds a table hidden away on the west side. It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, there are only a few other people in the building: a couple of students, a woman in her mid-twenties looking for jobs on one of the desktop computers, a middle-aged gentleman or two. Anybody who can afford not to be working at eleven a.m. on a Tuesday.

Marmite Man takes off his windbreaker, lays it over his chair and slouches into the seat. His face is red and pockmarked, his beard more of a tired, uniform grey than cultivated salt-and-pepper. He looks about. Once. Twice. Pauses. Then he empties the contents of his rucksack noisily onto the desk.

First, a multipack bag of McCoys ridge-cut crisps. Then two bottles of water and a plastic Pret a Manger cup. A can of spray-on deodorant – no, two cans. A pack of Johnson’s baby wipes. A hairbrush and a bath scrubber. And, finally, four pots of Marmite.

He inspects three of the Marmite pots in turn, looks around, and after some rumination, opens the multipack bag and breaks into a bag of crisps. In the silence of the library, his feasting sounds like the construction work beyond the Bunhill Cemetery: an unhappy ruckus in a place of quiet. He munches and crunches his way through a second bag, then a third, and another, and another. It’s as though he is issuing a deliberate challenge to the librarian downstairs: come up and stop me, if you dare. But the librarian does not hear, or perhaps he does not choose to hear, and still Marmite Man goes on munching, crunching, sniffing, snuffling, belching and clearing his throat. He wipes his fingers, stuffing the empty packets into a plastic Tescos bag, and smacks his lips, looking around. There it is again: the challenge, who’s going to stop me? There are signs everywhere that say that eating is forbidden, and yet here he is, Marmite Man, rattling the sabre with his portable orchestra of sound: percussive plastic bags, guttural brass belches, woodwind grunts and groans. The anteroom stinks of synthetic flavour, a fabrication of burnt and powdered meat. He rubs his hands, his breathing loud and laboured, and applies a baby wipe tissue to his fingers and thighs. He rolls up his trousers and scrubs vigorously at his shins, scraping off a night’s worth of grime – or perhaps more. He stops – smarts – curses under his breath as he hits a sore.

Who are you, Marmite Man? Where have you come from? What brought you into the library today? The world has been unkind to you, I think. You swore at the man who left the anteroom a while ago, repulsed by the stench and the noise. “You got something to say? Fucking pig.” That’s what you said, through a mouth full of crisps. But maybe it was he who threw the first stone, the stone of silent judgment, as he turned his head, lifted his bag over his shoulder and promptly left the room. Perhaps what hurts the most is the silence, the everyday judgment of those who do not wish to see you. A vagabond is a part of the world gone wrong; a cog out of place, a dust blur on a family photograph; a purple brushstroke across the Mona Lisa’s coquettish face. We can choose not to see it if we so desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I notice you have not picked up a book since you arrived. To you, perhaps, escapism is dangerous – or maybe you have enough unhappiness in your life without imagining it through the eyes of somebody else. What is fiction, if not an experience of somebody’s else’s misfortunes? It is armchair entertainment for the comfortable, who sympathise enough with the poor to read about them, and would happily become them for a quiet hour or two in the afternoon, with a cup of tea on hand and the day’s work put behind them, only to return to reality as Mr Smith of Fulham, associate, papers due by close of play tomorrow. True misery is intangible to Mr Smith: it is merely something to be considered from behind a glass, and frosted glass if at all possible; the bubbling mire at the bottom of the ladder.

Marmite Man knows the mire. He has been cleaning it from his shins for the last twenty minutes.

Marmite Man counts his coins onto the desk. He is frustrated. He does not have enough. He pockets them again and sighs heavily. He plugs a charger into the socket under the table and wires in his phone, and sits. Looks about. Once. Twice. Then gets up and shuffles off in search of the toilets.

I am no longer hemmed in to my corner of the anteroom. I take my leave, packing my things away quickly and quietly. As I leave, I see Marmite Man again. He is standing in the history aisle, leafing through a book on the First World War. He does not see me go.


 

The Ladybird Tree

Regent’s Park is wide-open and cold. I have never been here before, except perhaps once when I was a little boy, and London Zoo was the destination. I hear they are closing down the aquarium today. I overheard a man in the London Review of Books talking about it, about how he’d taken his time coming to work because he wanted to see it, before it disappeared. What will they do with the fish, asked his associate. Feeding time for the penguins, he joked. It’ll be another ten years before the new aquarium comes along, so frankly I wouldn’t be surprised.

The benches are taken. It’s early afternoon, but we’re into the half-term holiday and the park is alive with kids on the swings, the climbing frame, running up and down the knolls, whilst mum and dad – but invariably mum – sits beyond the fence. And why not – the weather is gorgeous. The ground isn’t wet, and there are no ants about – none that I can see, anyway – so I sit down beneath a tree to eat my lunch.

I can see a ladybird on the bark. It’s not the kind you grew up with in kids’ picture books, post-box red with big black spots. It’s beetle-black with two red eyes, giving its wing-cases the impression of a cartoonish snake’s head viewed from above.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ladybird like that before. Point of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any of the ladybirds on this tree before either. There are yellow ladybirds with twenty spots or more. Red or orange ladybirds with no spots at all. I believe these might be the so-called harlequins, invading ladybirds from distant Asia. Up and down the trunk they go, in that apparently directionless march that beetles seem to adopt, racing in and out of the grooves in the bark. One stops. Its wings click open in a single motion, like the safety-catch on a gun, and then it takes off from the tree into the sunlight. As it goes, another arrives, jet black with those two red eyes like the first one.

There are no deer in Regent’s Park. I rather hoped there might be, but that just goes to show how little I know London. I think that’s Richmond Park – anyway, there are deer enough in my neck of the woods. I walked right past one the other day; a roe buck, fearless, much like the muntjac I’ve become rather used to encountering there. I did not move so much as a muscle as I walked past, which is doubly impressive as I believe I was singing George Michael’s Freedom ’90 at the top of my voice at the time. It just watched as I walked past, eyes unmoving but always facing me, like that illusion of Mickey Mouse’s ears. Teaching bottom set classes is both physically and mentally draining, but I do get the payoff of working in the countryside, and that’s a major payoff by any standards – but especially by mine.

The ladybirds seem to be increasing in number. I just had to brush one off my shirt. I think it’s time I took my leave. I’m not getting any reading done. It’s hard to read when it’s cold outside, no matter how bright the sun is shining. I remember reading somewhere that you’re supposed to kill harlequin ladybirds, as they’re an invasive species. The trouble is, how can you be sure you’re not killing the native ones? Spain had the same problem with red-eared terrapins, if I remember correctly. I found one as a kid in the national park. It’s not so easy to stomp on a baby terrapin, just because it shouldn’t be there. Easier with ladybirds, I guess. Perhaps size does count. Though that is, was, and always has been a rather unpalatable idea.

 

Hesperornis

At around eight o’clock in the morning, the sun isn’t quite all the way up yet and the beaches around Arenal d’en Castell are, for the most part, empty of swimmers. A few Speedo-wearing junkies hug the shoreline, and the running girl is back on the boardwalk as she was yesterday, same time, same place. Other than that, the beach is empty – except for one unexpected bather out for a morning swim.

The Mediterranean Shag – perhaps more appropriately dubbed in Spanish as the tufted cormorant – is a diving bird that one normally associates with the rugged cliffs and seabird colonies of the north. The last time I saw these odd-looking snake-necked seabirds I was standing atop the windswept cliffs of Inner Farne, where the birds had built their messy nests mere inches from the footpath. The Farne Islands are magical in their own right with their denizens so fearless and so close at hand, so I suppose I assumed the Farne birds to be a braver sort. In most other parts of the world, birds (and other animals for that matter) know well enough to steer clear of the capricious hand of man. The Great Auk didn’t – and is consequently no longer with us.

Before the tourism industry boomed in the Mediterranean, sea turtles and monk seals swam into the sandy coves to give birth and plovers nested on the shorelines. The human demand for a place in the sun has pushed many of these creatures to local extinction – the Mediterranean monk seal is now one of the rarest mammals on the planet – but some species have decided the only way to cope with the summer surge of noisy humanity is to simply go about their business as though nothing had changed. The shags of Arenal d’en Castell do not appear to mind the presence of their human neighbours in the slightest. The waters of the bay are still teeming with fish, and for this master fisherman, the presence of a few hardy toe-dippers is no obstacle to a morning’s hunting.

There are at least three shags in the bay, not counting those that haunt the rocky cliffs of the headland to the northeast. Like many “urban” animals, they lack the lustre of their wild counterparts. The shining bottle-green feathers of the Farne birds are absent here: Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii dons a more humble suit, with a touch of the sandy-grey “pardel” colour that flecks the coats of all Spain’s beasts, from its mice and rabbits to its bears and wolves.

Or at least, this bunch of townies do.

They really are masterful swimmers. This youngster did an entire length of the bay in a matter of minutes, displaying incredible agility as it darted through the shallows, oftentimes passing within a few feet of the day’s first paddlers, and avoiding what obstacles it encountered with incredible dexterity – with one exception. Perhaps age will bring wisdom.

Every once in a while, nature, that ancient mechanic, finds a form it likes and seems to say to itself ‘yes, that’ll do – no need for further adjustments’. Sharks and sponges and jellyfish have filled an ecological niche since time immemorial, and there is much in the shag that harks back to some of the earliest birds, not least of all the fearsome Hesperornis, a seagoing avian dinosaur with sharp teeth on its beak. There are no teeth on its descendant, but as it floats along the surface of the water, snorkelling often and propelling itself along by its back legs, it seems an ancient creature; and when it finds what it was looking for, it kicks with its powerful legs and dives. And if it looked a capable swimmer on the surface, that is nothing compared to what it can achieve below the waves.

Would that I had an underwater camera and could show you just what I mean! Swimming around the headland this afternoon, I ran into the bird again, paddling only a few metres away without a care in the world. When it dived, I went under and followed it on its underwater hunt. Such speed! The bird moves like a torpedo through the water, powering ahead with powerful kicks of its bright yellow feet. I could only keep up for as long as it allowed; when it had enough of the lumbering tag-along, it kicked harder and took off through the depths. Were the sea calmer I might have watched it go, but the high winds stirred up the sand on the seabed and within seconds it disappeared into the gloom.

It’s moments like this that I wake up for. The flycatchers hawking around the climbing frame in the garden. The hummingbird hawkmoth that visits the hedge every day, the turtle doves that purr from the Aleppo pines, and the blue rock thrushes that warble from the cliffs of every rocky cove – and all of this within five minutes of the flat. Menorca is wild and, for the nature lover for whom a casual swim is simply not enough, it is a truly beautiful place to explore.

The high winds of the last few days are finally on the wane; the waves are not crashing upon the headland as they were this morning. Tomorrow I make for Fornells to explore the reefs on the northernmost cape of the island. I hear there are moray eels to be seen, though I should consider myself more fortunate if I should have the chance to swim with the shags once again. It was a real RSPB moment, up there with the vultures in the mist and the saltpan harrier, and I shall treasure it for years to come. BB x

Screamers

April isn’t normally a mad month. This one has been, though. Since getting back from La Mancha, I’ve been here, there and everywhere. Performing in the school play. Working at a Language Immersion weekend in Burguillos del Cerro with the local EOI. Attending extra Gospel Choir rehearsals in Zafra. Taking additional classes at school, cancelling my private classes (at last) and doing intensive research in the library. For what is supposed to be a twelve-hour working week, I’ve been rather busy. It’s never anything that I can’t handle, though, and with the end in sight now, lesson planning is becoming easier rather than harder. That’s some small relief.

DSC_0328

Parroquia de Santa Maria de la Encina y San Juan Bautista, Burguillos del Cerro

The weather, though… What is with the weather this year? Ignoring the fact that I’m English and that my first blog post in almost a month should naturally be to talk about the weather, it’s been one of the weirdest years for weather I’ve ever seen. First the cold, then the rain – three and a half weeks of it – then a week of glorious sunshine, then hard rain again, and now summer, with high humidity and thunderstorms forecast over the Puente de Mayo. It’s as though Spain just forgot to do Spring this year.

DSC_0325

I’m wondering whether that Star of David tucked away in there was intentional…

Winter was long, dry and freezing cold here in Tierra de Barros. Spanish houses are designed with the long, sweltering summers in mind, and though they’re well-adapted to shutting out the light and heat in August, they’re lamentably bad at keeping it in during the winter months. You basically need the brasero (a flat heater, often kept beneath a covered table) on every night. It’s a long battle between cold hands, feet and everything, and the bimonthly electricity bill, and the latest invoice that’s been lying on the kitchen table for the last fortnight serves as a reminder of the cost of the season’s war crimes. It’s a pity one can’t live in Spain for half the year and England for the other. You could make a killing on the savings.

DSC_0354 (2)

Booted Eagle (aguila calzada) from the castle at Burguillos

On a minor note, it’s impossible to get into a comfortable position on this sofa. There. I’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room. We can move on.

DSC_0340

Painted Lady taking a break on the castle top

I’ve been wondering what to write the next blog post about for a while. A couple of weeks ago the bee-eaters arrived, on the very day I’d commented on their absence, and that brought joy to my heart. Later, I had the Language Immersion, which raised some rather disconcerting news concerning my beloved Extremadura, but that wasn’t strictly blog-worthy. I also dug out the local library’s regional encyclopedias, which were filled to the brim with local information I could only dream about before… but at the risk of boring you all senseless, I’ll wait until I’ve properly processed the information before regurgitating it here and now. No, the answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.

DSC_0409 (2)

Or should I say, screaming.

DSC_0502 - Copy

The swifts have been here for over a month now, hawking overhead on their way north alongside the hundreds of swallows, martins, kites and storks also bound for northern Europe, but the Villafranca contingent only arrived a few weeks ago. How do I know this? Well, it’s quite simple, really. I know this because the screaming only began a few weeks ago. The collective noun for a flock of swifts varies, with some opting for a box of swifts, or the more alliterative swoop of swifts, though in perfect honesty I’m going to tip my hat to the chappie who coined the phrase a ‘screaming frenzy’ of swifts – because anybody who’s familiar with these peculiar creatures will know that they’re not exactly the most inconspicuous of birds, to put it lightly.

DSC_0466 (2)

Swifts are odd-looking birds, to say the least. In flight, they’re right out of a kid’s drawing: long, tapering wings with no trailing fingers, a stubby, featureless face and a cigar-shaped body which makes them look more like a fish that grew feathers and took to the sky. At the same time, their large brown eyes and tiny mouths lend something mousy to their appearance, too. They’re not even that closely related to swallows and martins, with which they share the skies. But whatever they are, they’re endlessly fun to watch, as they duck and weave and scream and perform some of nature’s most endearing acrobatics on a summer evening, seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.

DSC_0483 (2)

The saying “one swallow does not a summer make” holds more and more weight here in Spain, especially now that in recent years many swallows never leave at all, opting instead to take their chances with the Spanish winter rather than brave the journey across the Sahara and back. Swifts, on the other hand, are die-hard migrants, spending almost their entire lives on the wing. They eat, sleep, mate and collect all the material they need to build their nests in the air. The ancients believed they never came down at all: their scientific name – apus – derives from the Greek for ‘without feet’. Needless to say they do, like all birds, though they’re small and underdeveloped in comparison to their powerful wings. I’ve only ever seen a swift’s feet once, and that was because I found a dead fledgling beneath the eaves of the village church when I was thirteen. I remember Adisham being a haven for rare birds then: spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails, corn buntings, grey partridges and even local rumours of a lonely corncrake. I wonder how it’s faring now.

DSC_0433 (2)

There are five species of swift in Spain: the common swift (above), the larger brown-and-white Alpine swift and the chunkier pallid swift, and the two newcomers from Africa, the white-rumped and little swifts (you’ll see the latter a lot more readily if you take a wander through the streets of Marrakesh, where they make a habit of weaving between the heads of the shoppers on their way to their nests). It’s the common swifts we get here in Villafranca, the same kind we see back home in England, even though theirs is a sound I have come to associate more and more with Spain than England. Like the cuckoo and the turtle dove, the early summer screams of the swift faded into memory as I grew up and they began to disappear. It can’t be easy, sharing our little island with Man.

DSC_0476 (2)

Look close and you’ll see the fly that once was

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simpler things. When I was younger, it was all about the bells and whistles: hoopoes with their punk-rocker crests, rollers with their shiny blue jackets and gallinules in their resplendent purple glory. I’m still mad about the gallinules, but a long detox from the serious bird-watching of my teen years has done me wonders. Swifts and starlings are just as worth watching these days as kites and eagles, with the added bonus being that they can be counted on to be outside my window at any given moment… Although, that being said, it’s a rare moment when I look out the window and don’t find myself picking out a kite, stork or eagle in the blue sky. Yesterday I’d popped my head out for just a minute when a raven flew over. My flat seems to be on the flight path, because most everything I see passes right overhead.

DSC_0379 (2)

Time for bed, I think. Well, another chapter of Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One and then bed, anyway. There are some authors I just keep coming back to. Bryce Courtenay is one of them. BB x

Slow Clocks and White Socks

Good morning from the staff room. My second 1°ESO class are busy preparing posters on British food for next week’s Semana Cultural this morning, so I’m off the hook for an hour. It’s a shame, really; they’re probably the one class that could have really benefited from a presentation on the UK, seeing as it’s what they’re working on right now. My other 1°ESO class loved it, and I dare say the addition of a Honchkrow to explain ‘honcho’ helped a lot in the ‘foreign words in English’ section. Not that honcho – a Japanese term for ‘big boss’ – is a word you expect to come across all that often, but it makes the language learning process a lot more colourful. Going over the same ‘how much is a ticket’ dialogue every week gets a bit dry, eventually.

I went for a walk in the park yesterday. It’s been so warm and sunny recently, I simply couldn’t justify going straight home from work. Tired as I was, I slapped a small lunch together, downloaded a few In Our Time podcasts and crossed the road into the park. It was a little windier than I’d have liked, so I didn’t stay all that long in the end. Without it, it might have been as warm as 18°C. In February. But here in the plains of Extremadura, we’re ruled by the terrain. The wind that blows across the flats is cold and loud, like something out of the Old West. You half expect a tumbleweed to pass you by. It’s a shame that we think immediately of America when we hear that name: with its wide open plains, rocky cliffs and canyons teeming with bandits, and its historic code of honour and justice, I’d like to think Spain was the real Old West; the Ancient West, if you will.

The swallows are here. I watched a few of them twittering noisily as they careered about the pond, whilst one of the town’s storks soared lazily overhead. The trees were alive with goldfinches, and I saw a huge bat on its way to the park from my flat the other night. It was a lot easier to consider a job in England a month ago, I’m telling you, before Spain started thinking about her Spring clothes. Now that it’s feasible to go to bed without having the heater on for a full hour, and the blue skies are no longer laden with a biting cold air, I find myself in love once again. The saying goes: ‘nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno’ – nine months of winter and three of Hell – but Spain can be equally unforgiving in the grip of winter.

I spent a little while watching a robin – always one of my favourite birds – and a couple of hoopoes flapping about like oversized butterflies. Symbols of England and Spain, in my head. I should go to the park more often.

It’s hard to see the change in the seasons here in Tierra de Barros, with the park full of evergreens and the surrounding eternity of vineyards and olive trees, but the animals tell you. And where they fail, the town drummers do a pretty good job. Carnaval is over, and I thought that might be the end of their incessant weekly drumming, but I was wrong: last night as I lay dozing in the living room, I heard the unmistakeable march of the Holy Week procession. It’s a good month away, but preparations have begun in earnest. But I’m not complaining: Semana Santa is far and away one of my favourite things in Spain and I never want to be anywhere else when it’s on. Like countless Brits before me, I’m shamelessly enthralled by the primal magic of it.

And, like countless Brits before me, I’m steadily coming to understand that our humour and theirs – or anybody else’s, perhaps – simply don’t mix. My jape about my countrified accent got cut from the play this morning. I guess they didn’t see the funny side. One of my students did point out to me recently that imitating their accent is one of the few things guaranteed to rile an extremeño. As a guiri, perhaps I’m allowed a certain amount of leverage – it’s always funny to see a foreigner having a go, I guess – but patience, in the end, wears thin. Especially when I have to make that same joke at twenty-five minutes past eight every Thursday morning.

A few weeks ago there was an article in The Times titled ‘How to be Spanish‘ that caused uproar on Spanish social media. The Spanish, it seems, don’t like being told how to be Spanish by an Englishman (a puto guiri, to quote various Twitter users). Surprise of the century. Spaniards came out with war flags, claiming the author had no idea what country he was talking about. Whoever these folks were who eat tapas at the bar and never at the tables, swear so liberally and have a slightly more relaxed attitude to time than the hyper-punctual English, they certainly weren’t Spanish.

Shortly afterwards, the Spanish retaliated with an article of their own on how to be British, citing such customs as queuing for everything, wearing white socks, wall-to-wall carpeting and, of course, our penchant for exaggeration. It was a childish exchange, but you have to admit, there were a few cultural nuances both sides got spot-on.

It was a lot of fun to discuss in class, I’ll give you that, but whilst I agree that the original author could have been a little less damning in his exaggerations – a flaw I’m often party to (see the war flags remark) – it seems to me that the problem lies not in the content itself, but in how it was received. Of course not all Spaniards act the way the author describes, but then, he doesn’t go out of his way to make that clear. And, of course, it wouldn’t be so funny if every observation in the article carried a disclaimer. Remember those jokes that your friends make that you didn’t get, and they then had to explain? Yeah… They weren’t funny at all.

As Brits, we read such things with a smile, seeing the irony and the humorous comparisons, because as a nation that’s what we do best: ridicule. We love to laugh, to laugh at others, and (sometimes) to be laughed at in turn. It’s not a universal attitude, but trying to be funny on a regular basis is, I think, an inherently British custom. Most everybody else has a life to be getting on with. Great Britain is cold, rainy and – according to some – has potentially the worst cuisine in the world (the very un-English chicken tikka massala was our most popular dish for years), but we are fantastic at making light of this and everything else, from our politicians and our history to our friends and neighbours, even if the rest of the world looks on in confusion. I gave up trying to introduce my kids to Blackadder and Monty Python a long time ago. It requires too much explanation. By contrast, Mr Bean works like a dream… because there’s no dialogue whatsoever. Which, given that he’s portrayed by easily one of our wisest and wittiest comedians, is a crying shame.

So that’s all it is. The British like being funny. And when our jokes involve people beyond our remit, we get confused when they take offence. Why can’t they see the funny side? The answer is simple: they don’t have to. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make jokes anymore. British humour is, in the humble opinion of this author, king. But we could be try to be a little more aware of what cultural difference means. If the Spanish come across as having a lax approach to time, it’s only because we’re unreasonably pernickety about it. The whole and ungeneralised truth lies somewhere in between.

Jokes are fine. Our problem is that we expect others to take a joke, to know when we’re being funny and when we’re not… and it’s not always easy. Especially in print. BB x

Morito

Little Moor. That’s one translation for one of Spain’s most beautiful natural treasures, a gaudy creature of swamps and marshes that we know as the glossy ibis. Dressed as it is in chocolate brown with feathers that flash green and purple in the sunlight, it’s easy to see how this characterful bird got its name: its very being evokes another world, one that lies across the Mediterranean sea, of men of small stature dressed in jewels and shimmering silks. The Moors and their Spanish kingdom are long gone, but there are hints of that world all around to this day – if you know where to look.

DSC_0608

You can spot a flock of ibises from a long way off by their colour alone. The wetlands in which they live, such as the Doñana National Park, teem with white herons, egrets, spoonbills and flamingos, all of which stand out a mile against the Spanish skies. Down on the ground, however, the ibis is a good deal more conspicuous, rummaging around in the water in groups that can number as much as a hundred strong. Like their wading cousins, ibises fly in a loose V-formation. It’s quite a sight to watch them going to and from their roosts as the sun sets at the end of the day, with flocks departing in waves for the security of the trees. I’ve lost count of the number of times I used to stand on the rusty fences that border the village of El Rocío to watch hundreds of ibises, egrets, herons and ducks all making their way into the park interior.

You might think a bird as beautiful as the ibis would have a beautiful voice to match. You’d be wrong. As is so often the case in the world of birds, the best feathers do not necessarily mean the best voice. Ibises, like flamingoes, have a very inelegant call, low and grunting, not too dissimilar to a cow on helium. They make a whole host of other sounds at their roost sites, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. It’s quite the experience. And, I might add, quite the smell, too.

3436175734_527e434ac8_o

These are the ibises that the Egyptians worshipped. Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, was often portrayed with an ibis’ head. According to one legend, a plague of winged serpents descended upon Egypt every spring, only to be stopped at a mountain pass by scores of ‘ibis birds’ which devoured them all. Herodotus claimed that the birds of this particular legend were jet-black, which points towards the morito. This leaves their close cousins, the stately sacred ibises, in a bit of a fix; and if you have ever seen their kind rummaging around in refuse dumps as they are wont to do, their smaller, darker morito appears far more worthy of worship.

DSC_0663

Morito surely is a fitting name for such a princely creature. Spain has a long love-hate relationship with its African past, which centuries of church doctrine and cultural genocide have failed to quell. Al-Andalus faded into the fabric of history centuries ago, but it left behind the ibis, and it soothes my heart a little to think that maybe, just maybe, I am watching the spirits of that most beautiful and industrious past when I see a flock of moritos flying by.

BB x

A New Christmas

I’m back in Villafranca after a five-day sojourn in Córdoba. It was sunny when I left. The skies are grey and heavy with cloud now. There’s a strong wind in the air, and it’s blowing against the blinds, which are rattling all through the house. Olivia Ong’s bossa nova vocals fill the room, and keys click and thump intermittently as I type. Cars pass by. My family are so close and so far away. I find myself wishing I was back in Córdoba.

DSC_0622

There’s something truly special about Córdoba at any time of year. Granada is undeniably beautiful, Málaga has plenty of charm and Seville needs no introduction, but Córdoba is, surely, the jewel in the southern crown. After all, few other cities in Andalusia – or Spain, for that matter – can claim to have been one of the world’s greatest in their heyday. Like Granada, it’s been raped and meddled with over the centuries, but what remains is shadowy and beautiful in its fusion. I still get the shivers when I wander along the winding streets of the Jewish quarter, and if you stand on the Roman bridge after sunset and look towards the city from the south bank, the mosque shines like liquid gold in the river.

6319387365_2f4333ca2b_o

(No weddings this year, I took that one six years ago on a research trip here)

Normally on Christmas Eve I’d go to Midnight Mass with my mother. I could have done so here, but for me, the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or so-called Mosque-Cathedral) is like setting foot in the Holy Land. It’s an intensely emotional experience every time and I could not bring myself to open my heart in a place denied to those for whom it was far more important (have a read of this article to dig a little deeper). So I stayed at home instead, surrounded by a thousand babies on red carpets.

DSC_0623

Christmas Day in Spain came with the ringing of the bells across the city. Clouds drifted in from across the Sierra Morena, but as the day went by, sunlight came streaming down through the odd pocket here and there. I’ve never had a Christmas quite like it, but it was wonderful in a new way, seeing Christmas Day celebrated from start to finish in a very different family. We get glimpses into Christmastime when we visit friends and family, but it isn’t often you get treated to the whole twenty-four hour affair.

Doubly so, perhaps, when the food is also very different, too.

DSC_0643

Roast chicken with fios de ovos –

Córdoba is one of those cities that is well worth a prolonged stay. That’s where AirBnB comes up trumps. For a short time, it’s as though I was living in the former capital of al-Andalus. Like most Spanish flats, the building looked unimpressive and samey on the outside – many of them are so identical as to fool you into thinking they’re carbon copies – but on the inside it was dreamily homey. Just what you need at Christmastime!

DSC_0686

A short distance to the west of Córdoba, perched atop a formidable hill overlooking the Guadalquivir valley, is the castle of Almodóvar del Río. At a half-hour’s drive from town, and just ten minutes beyond the ruins of Medina Azahara, it’s well worth the trip for the day. Lovingly restored at the savvy hands of Adolfo Fernánez Casanova, it makes a welcome change from the rubble of the surrounding ruins. There’s also a fantastic asador at its feet that provides the perfect opportunity to wait out the hours until the sunset. I recommend the brocheta. It’s nothing short of divine.

DSC_0360

And that, of course, is precisely what we did. And we timed it just right to catch the winter sun as it was on its way down over the hills to the west.

DSC_0362

The fields around Almodóvar made Tierra de Barros feel like a barren wasteland. Crag martins zoomed about the castle walls, soaking in the last of the sun’s heat on the buttresses. Egrets and herons stalked the river, a single vulture flapped lazily overhead and I swear I heard the piping trill of a kingfisher. Best of all, within the space of five minutes I saw three black-shouldered kites on the road to the castle, a delicate, stunning little hawk I’ve never laid eyes upon with certainty before. I might just have to come back in search of them one day. In my books, vultures will always be king, but kites are the princes of my feathery kingdom. And what princes they are!

DSC_0379

A couple of trains shuttled back and forth as we waited for the sun to go down. I haven’t travelled much on Spain’s train network. Besides the short trip I took with Kate in Cantabria last time I was here, the only train ride I’ve ever taken here was the one from Ávila to Madrid. I’m told the railroad passes through some truly stunning scenery. Perhaps I should give it a go someday. It’s something that yet to come our way (see the Tren Digno Ya cause for more) but in other parts of Spain, it’s a doozy.

DSC_0487

Winter sunsets. Moorish castles. Mosque-cathedrals. Rolling hills. Night herons, kingfishers and cranes in the cornfields in their hundreds. The entire province of Córdoba is a jewel. If I could say for certain that I’d have a shot at being placed here, I’d be sorely tempted to put Andalucía higher up on my list for next year. But I stand by my beliefs: comfort is dangerous. It’s time I thought about moving on, before I take for granted what I have here. Spain is more than one city. She is more than one province. And, if the last few months have taught us anything, she is, quite clearly, more than one country. The city of Córdoba alone is proof enough of that. Vamos, kid. It’s time to see the rest of this land. BB x

DSC_0577