Heatwaves and Boogie Nights

It was a good year for the vultures. The sun, unfettered by even the promise of cloud, laid waste to the land with biblical fury. Men cowered in the shadows of their houses, praying to a younger god for salvation, while their sheep and cattle died by the thousand. Crops perished, forests blazed in the night and rivers that had once thundered through the mountains ran dry. Only the Tagus, the mightiest of these, stayed its course through the parched land, though it too had suffered, to which the broad halo of white mud that lined its banks from east to west stood as a grim testament. The vast plains south of the great river, once several shades of green, lay barren and brown under the white sky, scarred with huge marble wounds that ran like veins across the earth. In the heat of the afternoon even the mountains seemed to melt, shimmering somewhere beyond the cloudless ether; and it was from these mountains that they came, in ones, twos and hundreds, scouring the world below for the dead and dying.”


I wrote that old opening paragraph to my novel a few years ago during the sweltering Covid summer, when temperatures soared before the school term was quite finished. Half the trouble with writing a book set in Spain is that it was an awful lot easier to write convincingly about the place when I was living out there – since moving back to this rock, my wellspring has dried up somewhat. In truth, I’ve only ever experienced a Spanish summer twice – despite spending almost three years living out there, I’ve always managed to avoid the tres meses de infierno – but the current flick of the claw from Thumberg’s nemesis is giving me a pretty good idea of what it might feel like.

The UK is on red alert. Heck, the radio even said this morning that there was to be a Cobra meeting about the high temperature crisis (things really have reached that kind of an extreme, it seems). It’s a balmy 26 degrees out there right now as I write, and the happy-clappy Christian camp have long since retreated indoors, taking their frisbees and their babies with them. All the forecasters are pointing to a record-breaking 40 degree high on Monday. The current record was set two years ago, with a garden in Cambridge registering 38.7 degrees. That seems absurd, but that’s where we are. The last time I was caught in temperatures that high I was living in Jordan, on the edge of the Syrian Desert, where one expects that kind of celestial fury in the summer months. Not here. Not in West Sussex.


Scorching afternoons aside, I’m enjoying my current routine. I’m up on my feet almost as soon as I’m awake, which is usually around six thirty (yes, even in the holidays – I’m a creature of habit). I’m up earlier (and faster) if I find myself on the sofa. That thing is a death trap – I don’t know what enchantment was cast upon it by its previous owners, but it lulls whoever sits on it to sleep in a matter of minutes. If I don’t have to make the shopping trek (an hour into town and another one back on foot), I get an hour and a half in the sun with a book on the ha-ha. I’m currently working through Hernan Diaz’ In the Distance. When I return, I’ll make myself some lunch and kill the hottest part of the day with a round of Age of Empires II (if I’m feeling uncaringly unproductive), which usually knocks out a couple of hours – especially if I do a little follow-up historical reading afterwards, as I often do. By four o’clock the sun is no longer dead overhead so I pick a different spot on the ha-ha facing the South Downs and get another hour of reading in. I usually get distracted in that spot and end up watching the world. The presence of a summer school right behind me doesn’t bother me overmuch. It’s very easy to forget they’re there when you’re engrossed in a good book, or a panorama as beautiful as the one I have on my doorstep. Sometimes there’s a red kite or two riding the thermals over the Weald and I lose myself in the moment. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine I’m somewhere else, like the shade of that special oak tree beyond the Puente del Ajoli on the Raya Real. And sometimes I just count the contrails. It’s a peaceful life. I’m grateful, really.

At the end of the day, after dinner, I retreat to the living room, put on some Soul, Funk or R’n’B and jam, with or without my liquid red bass guitar. I spent a good hour with my bass yesterday, to which the bandage on my thumb and the blister underneath will testify. I’m not much good at the bass, but I find it next to impossible not to get involved when I hear music I love, and I’m slowly starting to get the hang of my favourite bass riffs by ear. Always by ear. It’s the only way I know.

Last night I managed to get to grips with two of my all-time favourite basslines: I Need Your Lovin’ by Teena Marie and Till You Surrender by Rainbow Brown. I improvised around The Cardigans’ My Favourite Game and had an honest go at Billy Ocean’s Stay the Night. One day, hopefully, I’ll be good enough to nail the incredible slap bass in Ain’t We Funkin’ Now by The Brothers Johnson.

I can’t share my love for all things Soul and Funk with my students anymore on account of the colour of my skin. They say it’s not my place. But it remains my favourite music genre by far, and they can’t stop me listening to the music I love. It’s just a shame I have to be so selfish with something that really should be shared, not least of all on account of the power within.

Marvin. Tina. Stevie. Lou and Luther, Sam and Dave, and Aretha, Minnie and Michael. They’re in my ears most nights. But nothing and nobody can lift me out of a dark spot like the hardest working man in showbusiness, the Godfather of Soul, soul brother number one, Mister James Brown. If only I could have seen him live…! James was a living legend, and one of the few artists I know whose recorded work pales in comparison to his live shows. Any try-hard can stand in front of a microphone with a guitar and croon. James could move like lightning and his band hung on his every movement for their cues. I reminded myself of his mastery the other day by watching his performance at the T.A.M.I. Show back in ’63, when, in a fit of pique over being snubbed as the closing act in favour of the Rolling Stones, he and his Famous Flames blew the opposition out of the water with an up-tempo run of Out of Sight. That and his legendary mike-drop in Montreux almost twenty years later (check it out at the 4 minute mark).

The Trinity in the Mega Drawing (2017)

Forgive the fanboying. There are few things I love more in this world. I’d like to think that the sheer amount of time and love I’ve invested in my passion for Soul and Funk and its history over the years renders my taste in music sincerely reverential rather than appropriative. The way I see it, it’s steered me through the darkest waters in my life and always brought me back to the light, and I owe it to my old bandmaster Mr D who introduced me to that world. If I can share that light with somebody, even just one other person, I’ll have passed on the torch. Nothing so powerful and so precious should be preserved for enjoyment in private. That’s definitely not what James would have wanted.

Well, it looks like the sun is slowly starting to sink at last. Time to pick up where I left Håkan on the trail. Though the world is already blazing hot out there, keep the funk alive, y’all. 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

Rewind, Reset, Refocus

Diary Entry: 14th March, 2012. Ten years ago today.

Heavens above, the first night of Fiddler is less than a day away! This year has flown by… Today went by in a similar blur: four frees (essentially), Spanish and English raced past with a quick thrashing of Peter at chess over lunch and a Yearbook planning session. The dress rehearsal was superb – a lot to be ameliorated for the night itself (apparently) but otherwise very good. I must say, personally, I’m impressed with everyone. Our Tevye in particular: he’s come a long way since only just deciding to put his oar in… One of the big five is almost out of the way! The only question is… what next?


When I was seventeen, lists to me were everything. I think it was a long hangover from the teenage bird-watching days: garden lists, patch lists, year lists and lifers. That kind of thing. I wasn’t really the kind of kid who had it all figured out from the beginning, but I did appreciate a tick list to motivate me. I must have the original “bucket list” of fifty miscellaneous tasks I wanted to achieve before the age of fifty stored away on a memory stick, buried deep beneath a hundred other forgotten half-finished jobs, books and games. The irony isn’t lost on me.

I still remember the big five, though. They were the “ultimate goals”, the quests that I had to complete, come Hell or high water. It went something like this:

  1. Play the part of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof
  2. Get a place at Durham University
  3. Travel from Cairo to Cape Town
  4. Get married
  5. Publish the book

You’ll notice that two of them are struck through. Completed. Dicho y hecho. You might well think it more than a little foolish that I managed to get two of my five “great quests” completed within six months of each other, and by the age of eighteen, to boot. You might also question the logic of making the First Quest so very specific, which relied upon a great many external factors, but as the descendant of a lost Jewish family driven into hiding, Fiddler on the Roof holds a very special place in my heart. I was also uncommonly blessed with a musical director for a mother, so I did, I admit, have a significant advantage in achieving one of them early on.

Is there a blessing for a sewing machine?

Durham? Durham wasn’t even up for debate. I simply had to get there. And though I do my very best to advise my own students against such stubborn folly, I was more than prepared to take a gap year and have a second shot when I didn’t get a place at the university of my dreams the first time around. Call it madness, but I wasn’t prepared to accept anywhere else. It was a gamble I ended up making good on, shored up by a much more favourable set of A Level grades. A combination of luck, hard work and stubborn pride secured me the Second Quest.

Of the remaining three, one was swapped out a few years back for a new quest:

3. Find the family

As I got older and my desire for reckless travel steadily fell away – the pressures of holding down a job and being in a relationship will do that to you, I guess – the idea of making the great overland trek from Cairo to Cape Town by any means at hand drifted further and further into the nether realms of lost dreams. Living in Uganda very much whetted my appetite for all things African, but in the years since I’ve been made to question that interest so often, through the lens of anti-colonialism, BLM and the downfall of my Gospel Choir. Eventually, the risks outweighed the allure. I buried that dream a long time ago, and replaced it with a much more personal Third Quest: finding the lost family I had never met.

I found them. That was five years ago – you can read the story here, if you missed it. Of all my quests, the search for my family has been the most precious, and I live in its afterglow twice a week every week as I guide my youngest cousin towards his English B1 exam.

That leaves only two of the original five: arguably, the two chambers of my heart. The book, and the one. I’m not afraid to admit that my single greatest ambition since childhood has been one and the same, and combines those two into one; and that is to read my own stories to my own children one day. It’s an image I’ve had in my head for almost twenty years: sitting on the edge of the bed, my life’s work in my hands, putting on all these silly voices and painting the world I’ve spent decades creating for my children. Leading them there, chapter by chapter. Watching them grow up with my heroes, until they find stories of their own and take up the mantle my great-grandparents passed on to me.

Of course, there’s a small but fundamental stepping stone that must be crossed first: the Fourth Quest.

Getting married and publishing the book. The two quests go hand in hand. That, perhaps, is why coming out of a long-term relationship has been a bit more jarring than I thought it would be. The derailing of two quests at once. A future rerouted, rewritten, a page of thoughts and ideas and names scrubbed blank. It’s not disheartening – nothing can be when the birds are singing and the year is on the turn – but it does leave you knocked out of orbit.


Ten years ago tonight, I was psyching myself up for the first night of Fiddler on the Roof. Tonight, Russian forces continue to cut a burning path through Ukraine. Kiev shelled. Mariupol in flames. Hospitals in ruins. As Motel, I took my young family and fled west into Europe. The radio today was talking about how the British government is offering a tax-free allowance of £350 per month to those willing to put up Ukraine’s refugees. According to the Beeb, some 43,000 have already signed up to help, only five hours in.

The events described in Fiddler took place in 1905. More than a hundred years later, the parallels seem alarming. They put one’s troubles in context. Personal quests and family pride must be denied and set aside and mortified and all that. Perhaps it’s high time I set myself a new quest. In the meantime, there is work, and work is good for the soul, even if marking GCSE translations is a far cry from any soul food I’ve ever eaten. BB x

Tevye: Work hard, Motel. Come to us soon.

Motel: I will, Reb Tevye. I’ll work hard.

Fiddler on the Roof, Act II, Scene 8

Pygmalion

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. If you hadn’t noticed, you probably have a much healthier relationship with your devices than I do. Being naturally cautious when it comes to writing about trending topics – and keeping a wary eye on the growing stack of marking on my desk – I wasn’t originally going to write anything on the matter. In previous years I might have jumped on the bandwagon and sang the praises of women from history who I find inspirational, but that muse didn’t find me today.

It only occurred to me after a couple of hours’ highly productive procrastination on the novel last night that there’s one woman who I’ve been writing about since I first got bit by the writing bug, now twenty years ago. A divisive woman who has been at times a distraction, at others a channel for my doubts, but always a polestar, burning bright, night after night, though the other stars around her blink in and out of the darkness.

This is Leonor. And this her story.

I’ll be twenty-eight this summer. For no less than twenty of those years, the red-haired princess has been living rent-free inside my head. Whether she was inspired by a childhood friend, the Little Mermaid or a double-page cartoon from an Art Attack! magazine, I don’t suppose I’ll ever be certain. Like as not, she sprung into being as a combination of the three. One thing I know for sure: of all the cast and characters of the books I’ve spent the greater part of my life writing, she’s been the one constant. The world has shifted beneath her feet several times, sometimes drastically, but she has weathered every storm, survived every crush unaltered and resisted every rewrite. When I brought the book over to Spain a few years ago, she was the final frontier, the last character to trade in her name for a nombre.

Leonor in her “Stephanie” days, back in ’04

Without giving too much away, I’ll introduce you. Leonor is one of the two central characters in the story, though arguably it’s her story that’s the one being told. The princess of Meridia, she’s playful, sharp-witted and short-tempered, with a sense of duty almost equal to her stubbornness and pride. Descended from two legendary heroes from our own timeline, she is catapulted into the role of Queen by a series of tragic events and, amid the fires of war and personal tragedy, she becomes one of the greatest rulers Meridia has ever known, captaining the sinking ship of her doomed kingdom to its final hour.

She’s an avatar of hope and a rallying flag in human form for her people. And yes, I’m sure I play into the “fiery impetuous redhead” stereotype more than once.

My little princess grew up so fast…! ’18

In the saga’s early days, when the concept was still very much a fantasy/sci-fi adventure, I had her imbued with magical powers. These days her greatest power is her charisma: in a saga filled with reluctant rulers, ambitious bureaucrats and silver-tongued servants, Leonor comes into her own as a woman who stands her ground in a man’s world: adored by her subjects, respected by her contemporaries and feared by her enemies. It’s no surprise that in recent years I’ve looked to two other fierce red-headed rulers to bolster her character: Boudicca of the Iceni and Elizabeth I of England.

Now here’s the question. Am I in love with my own creation?

Of course not. For one thing, I wouldn’t dream of playing the third wheel to my hero! But you’d be surprised how much of a flashpoint it’s been in the past. Two previous girlfriends have challenged me about my attachment to her. Try to put yourself in their shoes. I suppose it’s not all that different to inviting a partner over, only for them to discover objects left behind by a former lover. As I’ve tried to explain before, if you want to get jealous about one of my characters, you might as well take it out on the rest of the cast – I have no less love for my other creations.

And yet the fact remains that, by the age of twenty-eight, I’ve had a longer and arguably closer relationship with my central characters – Leonor included – than I have with anybody I know, outside of my family. I wonder whether that’s why I’ve always been so comfortable with my own company. It’s easy to handle solitude when you’re never really on your own.

She’s not my idealised woman by any stretch of the imagination, though it’s possibly due to my long connection to her that I’ve always had a weakness for dark eyes and red hair. She’s no imaginary friend, anymore than Desalma is a shadow that haunts my dreams. I neither love the women I conjure out of the air, nor do I fear the monsters I create. She is a figment of my imagination, and though she’s found her way into journals, homework diaries, used envelopes and maths book margins over the years, if I were to disappear one day, so would she. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never stopped trying to tell her story.

Do you know what I’d like? If I should be lucky enough to have a daughter of my own one day, I’d love to tell them her story. To bring them up to tales of her courage, her unflinching hope in the face of overwhelming odds. To show them that, though she wasn’t perfect, though her pride got her into trouble, she kept on fighting for what she believed in.

She’s not my Galatea, but she is my muse, my inspiration, and her story needs to be told. That’s why I write. That’s why I’ve always written. After all, it’s hard to say no to a princess. BB x

I’m the Bad Guy: Writing Villains

Somewhere in my room there’s a programme from a school play I was in back in my prep school years. A few of the lead roles were interviewed about their respective parts, and the boy playing Cardinal Richelieu said he “liked playing the baddie because it is more of a challenge.” My reaction to that line has changed very little over the last twenty-odd years.

Bull. Shit.

If twenty years of writing stories have taught me anything, writing villainy is easy – sometimes, alarmingly easy. Ambition, greed, selfishness and ego are everywhere. Depending on the orientation of your moral compass, you might even be inclined to disregard some of these behaviours out of hand as simple human nature. If you want a challenge, try writing or playing a hero. Finding convincing dialogue and/or motivations for a hero is hard because heroes require hard work: they are what we can become if we can find the strength and the courage to rise above our own desires. Selfishness, the root of villainy, however, is in us all by default. It doesn’t take much to make a villain, just – what did Heath Ledger’s Joker say again? – “a little push”.

What’s the first image that comes into your head when you think of a villain? I imagine it’s rather different to the image in my head. If I were a betting man, I’d wager it’s probably not the moustache-twirling Dick Dastardly-type, which went out of fashion a long time ago. The movie-going public seems to have lost its taste for gleefully evil baddies (so much for Palpatine!) in favour of the tormented anti-hero with quasi-legitimate motivations (a la Thanos). Avatars of utter darkness are on the out, and they’re taking their more rational minions with them. In some cases, this has led to the near-total disappearance of the bad guy altogether (see Inside Out and Moana, or even Encanto).

As a writer, this saddens me, for much the same reasons as the destruction of statues bothered me a few years back. Doing away with the villains of our world is like smashing up a mirror; just because you can’t see them anymore, it doesn’t mean to say they’ve gone altogether. We need to be reminded of the depths of our depravity from time to time. Every villain is a warning in his or her own way of the capacity for darkness in all of our hearts, and from them we learn to avoid their mistakes.

Unlike the heroes of my tales, the primary baddie has hardly changed since his inception. His wardrobe may have been updated a couple of times over the years, but his appearance has never shifted. The bald, skull-like head, the high cheekbones, the small black goatee and those piercing, eye-blue eyes… The latter have always seemed to me the most treacherous, wicked eye colour around, though that may have something to do with Daniel Craig’s early-career role as the fantastically sadistic Afrikaner Sgt Botha in The Power of One. Until very late in the Spanish rewrite he bore the name Jasper Snyde, and it was primarily the strength of his surname that held me back from Hispanicising the rest of the names in the book. It took a long time before I found a Spanish equivalent I was happy with. In the end I opted for De Salma, for the simple reason that, if elided (or spoken at the speed at which your average Spaniard speaks), it winds up sounding a lot like desalmada, meaning “soulless” – or, more literally still, “deprived of a soul”.

That’s right, middle school me. Authors do put that much thought into the names of their characters. It’s not just a trick English teachers play on you to get you thinking when it’s coursework season.

I think the thing I like best about Desalma is that he is nothing more and nothing less than a product of my own jealousy. Perhaps that’s why jealousy is one of his defining traits. Some villains you create to serve a purpose within the wider story arc, others are heroes who just weren’t good enough. Desalma is neither of these. He appeared fully-formed in a moment of weakness in my teenage years, moulded about an imagined rival for the attentions of a girl I had a thing for at the time. The crush didn’t last long, and the jealous rage that birthed him was even shorter-lived, but Desalma stayed, growing cancer-like from that first appearance into an evil that transcended all of the villains I’d written into my stories.

Like the Batman’s Joker, he wasn’t supposed to survive the story in which he first appeared, but over time his hold on me grew too strong, and for the greater part of the last decade he’s been the primary antagonist and tormentor of my hero. An avatar of desperation and despair to counterbalance’s the hero’s unyielding clutch on hope.

The other villains in the saga are, predictably, drawn from the other dark desires of my heart. One of my hero’s primary flaws was almost certainly one of my own in my younger years: that is, a magnetic hero worship of the tall, dark charismatic types who hold all the cards. The ones who have the looks, get the girls, crack the jokes and seem to have it all together. It was only too easy to morph the idols of my youth into adversaries whose intentions were not what they seemed, if only to repeat that old saying that has never lost any currency: handsome is as handsome does – or rather, looks can be deceiving.

If I’m being honest, there’s been more than one occasion in my life when I’ve asked myself that question: wait – am I the bad guy here? It was especially poignant in my university years, where my tendency towards strong opinions and the sharing of said opinions got me into hot water with my fellow students. I found my views challenged so often, so vehemently, and seemingly by everybody else that, for a time, I genuinely started to doubt my own convictions. It’s so easy to start thinking you’re in the wrong when it seems like the rest of the world is against you. Israel. Free speech. Gospel music. No matter where I went, I always seemed to be on the wrong side.

Fortunately, most people aren’t walking around with a fictional universe that exists only inside their heads, and have long since learned to see the world through the mature eyes of a working professional adult. Perhaps it’s only those of us who cling to the world of good and evil, and light and dark, that insist on still making such a clear distinction between right and wrong. The grey in between is good enough for your average Joe.

I’ve been working on a new villain this week, between teaching the passé composé and marking Year 9 Spanish assessments. In recent years I’m much more inclined to letting my heroes suffer if it makes them into stronger characters at the end of it. I gave up on Ildefonso Falcones’ La mano de Fatima years ago because I lost all faith in the protagonist, but the more I read my Spanish histories, the more convinced I am that the world was a much darker place back then, just as Ildefonso Falcones painted it, and my stories need to adapt to reflect that. It takes a serious brush or two with the dark side of our hearts for us to see whether we have hero material in us or not.

I’m leafing through Leanda de Lisle’s White King to clue up on the politics of Charles I (the Civil War era being contemporaneous with my saga), but also to glean some inspiration for a better-dressed baddie in the mould of a Buckingham or Richelieu. Desperados I have aplenty, and their motivations are easy to script: hunger will make a villain out of anyone. It’s the folks at the top I’m working towards now. Time, I think, for an exploration of power and its malicious influence.

Four years in, I think I have a much clearer idea of power. Because if you want to get a real handle on power, work in a boarding school. And that’s all I’ll say on the matter. 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

Living out of a Book: Adventures with a Journal

The Red Book (my first “Renaissance” journal) at the feet of Washington Irving, Granada (March 2016)

Let me tell you something for free: full-time employment is a writer’s bane. You knew that already, so neither of us lost anything in that transaction. Except me, and the ever-increasing gaps between the dates in my journal.

I spent so much of this weekend powering through marking after a week of KS3 assessments that it only occurred to me as I filed my Year 9 papers away that last weekend was the first time I’d given my novel some serious thought in a year and a half. Since you can chalk that “blip” up to the first lockdown, it’s probably safe to say the last time I made any real headway with my book was before I took up a post in a boarding school back here in the UK. That is to say, back when I was living in Extremadura, now almost four years ago. If it weren’t for the fact that I still carry a journal around with me, I’d have made no progress in that time whatsoever.

But since I’m more of a glass-half-full kind of guy, I’m going to focus less on the killing instinct of working life and more on the magic of keeping a journal. Because, as always, there’s a story behind it – and in my case, it’s a lot more personal than I ever knew.

I’ve written reasonably extensively about my journalling habit before, but in case you missed it, click here for an earlier piece on one of my favourite journals, the Red Book.

Sketching the windy peaks of Montserrat (April 2019)

I don’t think I’ve ever been without a sketchbook of sorts. Going back to my parents’ place for Christmas turned up quite a few of my oldest surviving books, dog-eared, half-filled and almost all of them featuring the same cast of characters that share a space in my head and my heart to this day. Studying Art for GCSE and A Level naturally fed the habit, though I seem to remember having separate sketchbooks for school and for myself right the way through. I suppose I should reach out to a couple of early inspirations here: to Mr Howe, for his no-holds-barred approach to sketchbook work (“unfinished pieces are often more interesting than finished pieces” has stuck with me); to my old friend Freddie, whose handwriting I secretly admired and have long since adapted into my own; and, of course, to my own mother, who must have kept several journals of her own when she was younger.

These first attempts were more art than word, though. It wasn’t until my eighteenth year that I took the craft of journalling more seriously, riding off the back of having successfully kept a diary for a little over a whole year – to date, the longest successful writing streak in my life. With many long months to go until the first day of my degree, I picked up a small flip-journal from Waterstones and penned some thoughts. At first, it was just lists: locations in my novel, possible pen names, key elements for fantasy fiction. On the second page I branched out and jotted down some facts that I found interesting, for a change of pace (my brother was quick to point out this was a considerably less interesting way to use a journal). I guess not everybody needs to know that the underside of a waterfall is called an undercutting; that Mullah Omar donned the mystical Cloak of the Prophet to drum up support in 1996; and that Dr William Bryden was the sole survivor of the Khyber Pass massacre of 1842.

Three pages in and the novel is the back in the limelight – and so it continues. Every so often, I find something in a book or on the news that I deem worthy of recording, but as a rule, the bulk of my pen-and-pencilwork concerns the fate of my cast of characters and the world in which they live, ever-growing, ever-crystallising. Sketches in pencil duck and weave through the gaps like weasels, giving over onto full page illustrations when I really found my mojo. It’s a formula I have deviated from very little for nine years now.

Gypsy Legends and Grenadine Gifts (2020)

When I was younger, and I still had these crazy notions (as the young and reckless always do) of embarking upon death-defying expeditions to Afghanistan and beyond, I remember thinking that, if something should happen to me, the world in my head that I had spent all but the first seven years of my life creating would disappear completely. That is, unless I left enough material behind for somebody to pick up the pieces. I suppose that morbid justification stuck, because there is now enough information spread across my various journals for somebody to put together the various stories I have always wanted to tell.

The rain in Spain on the plane (August 2019)

And perhaps there’s a logical explanation for that mindset.

My great-grandmother Mercedes was a woman ahead of her time. In a Spain teetering on the brink of Civil War, she found love with a poet and musician called Mateo. They corresponded in verse, quoting Oscar Wilde and Keats and Plato and Engels. Their handwritten letters to each other – safeguarded by my family for over fifty years – tell of a truly devoted husband and wife on an equal intellectual footing, flying in the face of the dictadura and the expectations of women outlined in the Guia de la buena esposa. Mercedes was well-known about town for her journal, which was as much a part of her character as her glass of brandy and cigars. Though her locally legendary journals themselves are lost to time, it is chiefly through her precious letters to her Mateo that I can see through a window in that past. It is a past which comes clearer into focus the more I get to know my family out there. The fatalist in me cannot help but wonder at the sequence of events that led to me arriving at my family’s door with little more than my journal in hand, unconsciously carrying the one item that would prove my connection to a great-grandmother I never had the chance to meet. Mercedes left this world the very same year I came into it.

I spent the greater part of my search for my family focused on the grandfather I never knew, but it is my bisabuela Mercedes who guides my hand these days. I’m a strong believer in upholding family traditions, and it doesn’t half lend a sense of purpose to the scribblings in my journals, even if they never lead anywhere. My ancestors left me a literal paper trail and I must follow.

Barcelona vignettes (March 2019)

Have you ever kept a journal? I’d highly recommend it. It’s less onerous than a diary and a beautiful thing to look back on. Through mine, I can read the world around me through the strokes of my pen: the euphoria of success in the a cappella semifinals; my bewilderment at Brexit; the shockwaves of the fire of Notre-Dame; and my bottomless love for the country of my ancestors. It’s all there, and since boarding school life makes it nigh-on impossible to knock out a couple of chapters a week like I used to, my journals do a thumping good job at telling the story.

And maybe, one day, that’s exactly what they’ll do, when they fall into the hands of my grandchildren. I’d like that. I think Mercedes would have liked that, too.

BB x

“…So I Became a Teacher”

Ten years ago, British comedians Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong ran a cracking comedy show on the BBC. The show has always been one of my standout favourites in British comedy, delivering some truly brilliant sketches including Perfectly Innocent, Kill Them, The Embarrassed Prime Minister and the Polish Plumbers, to name just a few. One running gag that hits close to home but still makes me chuckle is the comedy duo’s Be A Teacher ads, lampooning the common reasons why people “fall into” teaching:

“Failed in the real world? Then why not be a teacher?”
“Quite bright, but lazy? Need a safety net? Be a teacher.”
“Good enough to get a degree but not good enough to get a job? Be a teacher.”
“If your ambitions haven’t quite come off, remember: there’s always teaching.”

It’s a little tragic that one of the most important and time-honoured professions in human history often seems to fall into the category of “one of those jobs you do when you’ve tried all other avenues”. Conversations at school and university often went one of two ways whenever teaching came up: either “I just want to do something more worthwhile with my degree, you know?” or “God, I hate kids. I could never do that”. They’re hardly groundless as arguments go. Who in their right mind would want to get back into the classroom almost as soon as they’d left it? There’s surely something intrinsically sadistic about that kind of decision, and that’s before we even get onto the nitty-gritty of marking, differentiation and pupil management. And as for the hating the kids part… well, they say never work with children or animals – but maybe that’s just because you can’t ever truly predict or control either of them. And it is so very human to want to be able to do just that.

For me, at least, it has never been a question of “lapsing” into the education business. It is, like so many things, a family affair. Both of my parents were teachers. My Spanish great-grandmother was a teacher, and she married a teacher. I’m just continuing with the job. I might have had my wobbles along the way, but I don’t think I’ve ever really doubted that I’d be a teacher someday. Sure, that’s easy to say on a Saturday night, when most of the kids are out and boarding duties have been light, but it really is one of those professions that teaches you all the time, usually in ways you don’t expect.

I’m writing tonight because these last two weeks have been tough. The reality of teaching foreign languages to the English – ever the most stubborn of peoples when it comes to learning foreign languages – is beginning to bite. Not a week goes by when I don’t hear the line “Sir, why do I have to learn a language? Why can’t I just speak English?”, or variations thereof. The Modern Languages and Cultures graduate in me would love to give some solid answers, but these are fourteen-year old kids, for pity’s sake. A university-level argument on the merits of multilingualism pales in comparison to the fact that they have to revise twenty words they may very well never have to use in their lives – besides the end-of-year exam, of course.

So what use is the degree, then? What was the point in spending £9000 a year on the study of French, Spanish and Arabic history and literature if I am to spend the next four years teaching kids how to count up to thirty-one or discuss their plans for the weekend? These are questions I have been asking myself a lot these past two weeks. I came back to England with a mission, to do my part in a desperate campaign to save this country from collapsing into ignorant isolationism, knowing full-well what it would mean. And yes, whilst working in a boarding school does allow me to continue to channel my passion for music – easily the best part of the job by a country mile – the teaching side of it is hardly as scholarly as I’d have liked, sometimes.

At times like these, I do miss university. I miss staying up late with my housemates discussing political or social matters, I miss the excitement of sharing in the knowledge of others, and of sharing your own in turn, and I miss the challenge of stretching my brain. God, I miss that. I’ve been reading like a fiend these last few weeks out of a mad desire to tackle something more intangible than the days of the week. I ordered a book of ancient Spanish poetry off eBay the other day and pored over it during prep one night, something I admittedly would never have done at university. But then, my brain was stimulated in other ways then.

So what’s keeping me here? Why do I go on teaching?

Because I believe it’s nothing more and nothing less than one of the most important jobs in the world. For as long as there have been humans, there has been teaching, and even before then, there was teaching and learning after a kind. In the words of a colleague of mine, “I don’t care how much more you earn in the office, your job could disappear from the face of the earth overnight and nobody would notice. Not so with teaching”. You might see it as giving up on your own hopes and dreams to encourage others to pursue theirs, or that might have been your ambition all along. Teaching is the job that keeps on giving – both in reward and in workload, yes, but the rewards make up for it. I am a far braver, far more tolerant individual thanks to teaching. You don’t go into teaching to share your love with just the kids who love the subject back. That’s neither practical nor necessary. You do it just as much for the kids who don’t listen as for those who do. Teaching the subject you love to children with no love for it whatsoever will sap your zeal, strangle it if it can, but it does encourage you to see things from a different perspective. And, frankly, any job that does that on a regular basis is a job worth pursuing, if the ultimate goal of human existence is to understand each other – which is what I have always supposed it to be.

I still can’t fault Armstrong and Miller, simply because that sketch is bloody hilarious. But if you’re enthusiastic, passionate about your field, patient and have a drive to listen and learn, I cannot encourage you enough: be a teacher. Money might make the world go round, but somebody has to encourage and inspire the next generation (besides, the last thing the world needs is more businessmen). So go on. Be a teacher. BB x

Quote Unquote: STREET OF THIEVES

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This week’s read is a work in translation: Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves (Rue des voleurs in the original French). As a former student of languages, I have a somewhat conflicted view on reading works in translation. Part of me has always been a bit of a purist on the subject: if you can read a book in the language in which the author intended it to be read, why not do so? There are so many details and nuances that can be lost in the tricky process of translation – the author’s voice, for one. However, what you read impacts on what you write, and since I write predominantly in English, it always made far more sense to me to read works intended to be read in English, with the effect that I eschewed works in translation altogether. I grew up with English, therefore I must write in English. That at least was the argument I cleaved to for most of my time at university. A colleague once said to me he could destroy that argument in three words: Waiting for Godot. Unfortunately, uncultured pleb as I am, Samuel Beckett has yet to feature on my reading list – nor will he for some time, theatrical scripts not being my preferred reading material of an evening. However, I concede it a point well made, and in the years since I have relaxed my approach a little and tried dipping my toes in the water.

Street of Thieves tells the tale of Lakhdar, a young, idealistic Moroccan whose boyish desire to seek his fortune across the Strait is realised after a series of stark, harrowing underworld adventures that make Enard’s text a bildungsroman of the darker variety. There is enough of the everyman in Lakhdar to make him an instantly sympathetic protagonist, and no matter how you look at it, the sequence of events that set his journey in motion would humble even the strongest of wills.

The greatest strength of Street of Thieves is in its flawless realism. Every single event is wholly and utterly believable; some magic in Enard’s emplotment almost strips the story of its “story”, as though you are watching Lakhdar’s life in real time. Tragic events happen and caricatures come and go, but they are so very real, so human, they might as well be people picked off the street at random and given parts to play. Where there is grief, there is no melodrama; where there is rage, there are no histrionics; just the restless drone of everyday life, weaved seamlessly into the fabric of fiction.

The book’s title refers to a street in Barcelona’s Raval district, one of the seedier quarters of the coastal metropolis. Enard lived in Barcelona for a time and his knowledge of the comings and goings within the depths of the city paint a convincing picture, though even if he had no experience of his own, he could hardly have chosen a more fitting counterweight to the city in which Lakhdar’s story begins: Tangier, by many accounts one of Morocco’s seedier locales. There is a magic to both cities that draws tourists in every year – the ever lucrative vein of “pink gold” Enard so evocatively describes – but we don’t see much of it from Lakhdar’s perspective. Everything is huge, dark and dirty, as though we are seeing both cities through the eyes of a cockroach, scuttling from corner to darker corner. It is certainly an easier book to write about than it was to read.

I may not have read Waiting for Godot, but I have had the good fortune to explore both Barcelona and Tangier. I went to Barcelona earlier this year in the hope of finding material for my own writing. It was a wistful fantasy, to which I am often prone; I found little of any real value in my wanderings around the city, my interests being so far removed from the modern metropolis – say, by about four hundred years. I wandered around the Raval district a lot, carrying with me only my notebook and the card key to my hostel room, and found the place shadowy, dusty and surprisingly Arabic-speaking, but not as menacing as I had heard tell. Then again, I limited my explorations to the daylight hours: I believe Raval puts on a very different mask by night, if the stories are to be believed. All I really remember about Raval was a chance encounter at the end of a street with a flock of monk parakeets drinking from a puddle in the road, illegal immigrants of a different colour, but illegal immigrants all the same.

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Having traveled a good deal in Morocco previously, I found in Tangier a curious melange of the other cities I had seen, as though it were a human imitation of the work of Gods elsewhere. Here were echoes of Fes’ labyrinthine medina, without the medieval charm; echoes too of Marrakesh’s charming cafes, without the charm, Taroudant’s city walls, without the beauty of the desert, and the blinding white of Casablanca, stained brown and grey with age. All the same, Tangier had a far greater effect on me than Casablanca or Marrakesh, knocking both cities down in strength of character, showing that hybrid vigour that sometimes allows a mongrel dog to triumph over a prize-fighter.

I met a Lakhdar, once. Not in name, but almost identical in nature. He was friendly and sincere, with that almost too sincere character common to the folk of many African countries that puts a lot of Europeans on their guard. Had I been traveling alone, I would have undoubtedly abandoned my plans and gone with him to meet his family at his invitation. As it was, I did not, and I have never felt entirely happy with myself for how the ensuing drama played out. Lakhdar, too, is frustrated by visiting Europeans who, one way or another, lead him on only to let him down, concerned or agitated by his desire for friendship. That the story takes place in the turbulent months of the Arab spring gives more than a little credence to their caution, and yet… if you were in Lakhdar’s shoes, would you see things so clearly? The gulf between Africa and Europe is only nine miles wide at its narrowest point, and yet it yawns like Mariana.

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Favourite Scene:

Tough call. Street of Thieves is not a book of standout scenes so much as it is an exploration of the difficulties experienced by a young Moroccan crossing over. Maybe his lengthy descriptions of the sordid Raval district? Enard painted the side of Raval I wanted to see but was too cautious to venture out at night in search of – the Raval one sees through the slits in the blinds. A quarter inhabited by fleshy prostitutes, circling drug addicts and lecherous men who ogle the women one day and turn a blind eye the next on their way to Friday prayers. Like Goya, the Romantics and all the Victorians before me, I am drawn to the dark, if only to better understand the light.

 


Favourite Character:

Another coin toss, though this time, it’s between two men: Sheikh Nureddin and Marcelo Cruz. The coin analogy is not a bad way to start, for in a way they are two sides of the same coin, just as Tangier and Raval mirror each other. Sheikh Nureddin is the more sinister of the two: calm and comforting, fatherly and always dressed to the nines, he exudes moral strength and commands confidence, and yet all the while he drives honest men to commit brutal acts in his name. Scarier still, even after the illusion flickers and you see the demon beneath the dress-suit, Enard has you seeing his humanity when he walks back into Lakhdar’s life, like Lucifer with his wings restored. Marcelo Cruz, by contrast, is a grotesque caricature of corruption. A twenty-first century undertaker who races to be the first on the scene whenever the bodies of the unfortunate wash up on the shores of the Spanish Mediterranean, Cruz takes an almost inhuman delight in his profession. Death has lost its meaning to him; he has become corrupted by the stink of corruption, and only the endless spiral of ever-darkening videos on the internet keep him entertained as he waits for the bloody tide. Both men are avatars of fear; one wields it, one is possessed by it, and it is hard to say which is the more fearful of the two. The devil you know, and the devil you worship. It is a wonder that Lakhdar is as sane as he is at the end of the narrative – though perhaps you might come to your own conclusions.

 


Favourite Quotes:

He spread a terrible sadness; the rotten smell of a lonely soul.

Cities can be tamed, or rather they tame us; they teach us how to behave, they make us lose, little by little, our foreign surface; they tear our outer shells from us, melt us into themselves, shape us in their image – very quickly, we abandon our way of walking; we stop looking at buildings, we no longer hesitate when we enter a metro station, we have the right rhythm, we move around at the right pace; and wherever you come from, in the end they train you like dogs.

You try acting funny or charming in literary Arabic, it’s no piece of cake, believe me; people will always think you’re about to announce another catastrophe in Palestine or comment on a verse of the Koran.

 

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Quote Unquote: BEARSKIN by James A. McLaughlin

Somebody must have kicked the reading machine in my head real hard, because it’s working overtime at the moment. I suppose it’s the very real threat of having to read up on plotless educational policy and classroom management that is making fiction so damned attractive at this point in time. With lessons well underway and the dreaded Numeracy Skills Test now but a distant memory, the next task looming is the first of the PGCE written assignments – perhaps the first written assignment in my life that I will not be able to wing on the back of a clunky box of quirky and otherwise useless general knowledge. My capacity for absurdity became something of a badge of honour at university as I made it a personal prerogative to shoehorn the most bizarre comparisons into every essay I submitted. Samurai and pashtunwali found their way into an essay on Lope de Vega. The sea witch from The Little Mermaid popped up in an assignment on La Celestina. The Sack of Baltimore somehow drifted into a commentary on Spanish banditry. And then there was that unforgiveable allusion to the nest-building practices of great-crested grebes in a second-year Spanish language exam on cultural divisions (I got scorched for that one, justifiably, and I don’t think it was because my examiners stumbled over the word somormujo).

Nope. This is one essay that I will have to write with my own blood. And my head will not thank me for it.

So, conscious that I will scarcely have the time to do my own writing this year, I shall endeavour to persevere with my reading project. After muscling through Thin Air in forty-eight hours (a personal record), I threw myself right into another. This time around, I thumbed around for something different and picked James A. McLaughlin’s Bearskin off the shelf…

……..

“Gruesomely gorgeous” is certainly one way of putting it (New York Times Book Review). Bearskin tells the tale of Rice Moore, an Arizona ex-con working as a caretaker on the Turk Mountain preserve in the forests of Virginia whose decision to get to the bottom of a local bear-hunting operation brings him into conflict with the locals, the law, and ghosts from his past. At times hard-edged thriller of the “Dark South”, at others a quasi-mystical exploration of man in the wilderness, Bearskin is a powerful retelling of the lone-man-standing-up-for-the-forest genre, without the ego or distasteful pessimism of the twenty-first century eco-warrior. Rice makes for an appealing hero, a man with no illusions on whom the forest works its magic. Some of the characters are satisfyingly familiar: a John Wayne, no-bullshit sheriff; a thickset Redneck patriarch and his lawless, swaggering sons; a psychopathic assassin who says nothing and yet instils more fear at the mention of his name than any other man in the book. And then there are the others: Dempsey Boger and his hounds, the ethereal mushroom-picker and, of course, the bears themselves.

There are points in the narrative – fugues – when you cannot be entirely certain which world you are in. When the forest takes on a mysterious character of its own and colours and images swim before your eyes in unfamiliar patterns, and time seems to flow in both directions at once. Moore’s ghillie-clad seclusion on the mountain is ritualistic and deliberately so, serving in a sense as an awakening. It was almost stupefying to read. I’ve never taken magic mushrooms myself, but I felt like I had after one of the scenes. Trips may well be relatively easy to recreate through the medium of film, but McLaughlin certainly knows how to write one.

There was only one thing I was left wanting from the story, and that was something more about the bears. They serve as a springboard for the main events of the narrative, but I caught myself waiting for a gratifying (if cliched) encounter with one of the bears at some point towards the end. One gets the sense they are always there, on the periphery of Rice’s world, more like ghosts than creatures of flesh and blood. And perhaps that much is true of the wild, as man and his endless pursuit for dominance pushes such spirits further and further into oblivion. All the same, I reckon the bears might have appreciated some closure.

 


Favourite Scene:

The hellish image of the baiting scene deserves a special mention for its sheer monstrosity: the pawless, gutted carcasses of two bears beneath the totemic severed head of a Charolais, suspended from the trees above by a bloody rebar driven through its eyes. The buzz of flies above, the growl of worrying hounds below and the sickly stench of liquorice. I’d like to give a hand to the stalking scene towards the end for its pace and power, but this static freeze-frame is just one of those scenes that will stay lodged in your mind’s eye forever. Some stories produce characters of eternal weight, others moments of utter majesty, and others still paint pictures with flesh, blood and the stuff of nightmares. There’s a lot of human villainy in Bearskin, but the baiting scene takes the biscuit. Somehow the absence of the perpetrators does the trick: the aftermath is far worse in its silence than the act itself.

 


Favourite Character:

The mushroom picker. McLaughlin strings out a strongly convincing cast of Southern marionettes in Bearskin, but there is one oddity in the bunch who, like the pip of a blackberry, sticks in your jaw long after the cast has come and gone. I was never entirely sure whether he was real or not – and neither am I alone in my doubt, as Rice himself asks this question at least once – but his brief appearances were memorable, to say the least. Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he a mountain man, or something stranger – a vengeful woodland sprite or god, a green man, released from the deepwoods to send the protagonist on a quest? When first he appeared, Rice mistook him for a bear – a mistake he made again on the mushroom picker’s second appearance. To my eyes he is certainly more Beorn than Bombadil, and whatever the author intended him to be, he comes across as by far the most enigmatic and powerful character to emerge from McLaughlin’s narrative.

 


Favourite Quotes:

Information about the universe leaked from the open eye like poison gas.

“So many people hate snakes. I think it’s because they threaten people’s worldview – they’re alien, limbless, impossible, black magic: a stick come to life. But maybe we’re all sticks come to life. We want to think we’re exceptional, ensouled, angel fairies or God’s special children. The magic of being animate matter isn’t enough.”

They ate a quick breakfast, homicide having no effect on their appetites.

 

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