Ode to the Scaffold

I am the child of an unlucky generation. They come around every once in a while. I doubt I am alone in thinking that those born in the middle of the nineties were dealt a very poor hand by the powers that be. The downsides range from the petty to the preposterous. As children, we were the last to sit KS3 SATs. We were the first to do those banal functional skills tests and we were the last to do official coursework before controlled assessments came in (though in all honesty I’m pretty thankful for that). The housing market is dire, the economic recession goes on and now our own country is following America down a frustratingly intolerant road. And to top it all off, we were the first generation to have no escape from the tuition fee hike, leaving us £6,000 per year worse off than those born the year before. It’s a rough world.

I guess growing up with the Disney Renaissance in full swing was a deal sweetener. That, and knowing nothing of the silent fear of the Cold War – though I shouldn’t be so surprised if war doesn’t come to us sooner or later.

But there’s another, less-discussed downside to being a child of the mid-nineties: the scaffolding. By some divine trick, ours is the lot to find half of the world’s wonders in need of repairs when we go on our travels.

Or maybe that’s just my luck.

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I mentioned the scaffolding on Durham Cathedral tower in a previous post. It’s got several affectionate names in the student body, most commonly ‘the Condom’. It’s a fitting title, I suppose, balancing the right level of good humour and disdain. If you saw the last music video of the Northern Lights (see below), you can see it in the background in several of the wide shots. One of the reasons we moved the filming of this year’s music video into the city streets was to keep the Condom out of shot. Watch this space.

All old buildings need a good deal of looking after. Durham’s cathedral is almost a thousand years old. Repair work of this type is vital and takes time, and I’ve grown up around Canterbury Cathedral, so I’m well-acquainted enough with scaffolding to know that it’s rarely finished in less than a couple of years. Unsurprisingly, then, it wasn’t completed ‘in 2017’ as we’d been told, and it may well take another year or two to come down. Even so, I’ll be back in Durham to see it when it’s gone, of course.

So our university cathedral was under scaffolding for my graduation. Big deal. Well, I thought I’d use my time in the north to visit some of the most beautiful sites England has to offer. Of course, I’m talking about Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island. Even the name sounds magical. The reality, however…

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…was a little frustrating.

If Durham Cathedral’s condom was a pain, the Lindisfarne scaffolding was nothing short of a disfigurement; so much so that when we looked for its silhouette as we drove north along the coast, it took some time to realise that we were actually looking at the priory. I should consider myself lucky, really. I only had to travel some forty minutes from Durham to see the priory under iron. I feel sorry for the Japanese tourists who came a good deal further than forty minutes away…In the end it meant we got to spend more time exploring the rest of Northumberland’s historical beauties, which I can’t complain about, but it gives me a real reason to return. Perhaps that’s the upshot of all this repair work.

It is, however, becoming a very frustrating trend. One such occasion where I was in the shoes of the Japanese was on my trip to Fes in my whirlwind tour of Morocco back in 2015. Fes is famous (or perhaps infamous, for want of a better word) for its labyrinthine medina, which is almost unnavigable without a guide, but also for its tanneries, a pungent but colourful sight.

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Not on our trip, though.

Even my flying visit to Chefchaouen was memorable for the scaffolding. I don’t have any photos of the building work there, for various reasons… you can refresh your memory of that particular adventure here. I do have plenty of sketches, though.

Repair work is a necessary fact of life. Without it, many of our most precious monuments would simply fall apart. And if it deters initiatives like the Junta de Andalucia’s plan to ‘refurbish’ its Moorish castles, I’m all for it. If anything, it’s become something of a game to me, and I can’t resist a chuckle when I see the next building under repairs. Perhaps next it’ll be the Sphinx, or the rock church of Lalibela. It’s a lottery, and I’m fairly certain my being born in the nineties has nothing to do with it.

The one truly good thing I can take away from it is that it does one wonder for us all: scaffolding tends to be the bane of the camera, and without one’s eye glued to the viewfinder, one finds there is so much more to see. I’ve taken to using my sketchbook to capture all the details the camera cannot see. Imagination and a pencil can create far better memories than any digital record.

Keep on working, O men and women of the scaffold. And for all the fury you hear from the building site, remember that you’re preserving more than just the masonry. You’re preserving a real memory. BB x

Sloth Break

My time at university finished almost a week ago, now. In light of the rather hectic run-up to graduation, and the even more hectic month yet to come, I unashamedly spent the last three days in total idleness. After a year of trying (and mostly failing) to squeeze productivity out of every spare minute, I squandered the first few days of summer and am now fully recharged. It’s that time of year again when I rediscover my inflexibility, when I yearn for a bike and reconsider another shortlived exercise regime whilst the sun still shines, before I accept my fate and return to the world I know best: reading, writing and procrastinating, none of which require the ability to touch one’s toes or do a one-leg squat.

It’s a beautiful summer’s day here in Sussex. There’s a pastel dusting of white cloud in the blue, but otherwise it’s a rare blue sky overhead. I lay down in the garden and almost immediately I spotted the far-off shape of a buzzard circling lazily towards the south. I might have missed it if I hadn’t chosen to look up at that moment. Life is full of instances like that. I wonder how many such creatures simply go by unnoticed every day? It must be in the millions.

I’m currently absorbed in the annoying process of filling out the usual admin tide for next year’s job. Frustrating, but more tedious than rage-inducing like it was the first time. If anything ever puts me off teaching, it just might be all the paperwork involved – though I appreciate that, as professions go, it’s probably a generous one.

Whilst I have the time to be idle, I’m finally making a dent in the large pile of books I’ve accrued over the year, starting with Aimee Liu’s Cloud Mountain, a fantastic find in a tiny old bookshop in Edinburgh that had me hooked from the comparison on the jacket to M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, to this date still my favourite book of all time. If I can learn to write a novel of such brilliance, I’ll know I’ve made it as an author.

Work begins in a week’s time. If it’s anything like it was three years ago, I’ll be up to my ears for a full fortnight. Busy, however, is the best thing to be. It should be said, five days down the line,  that I certainly prefer the idea of free time than the reality of free time itself. BB x

The Big Graduation Post

It doesn’t happen like you think it will, graduation. I suppose the same can be said of all those grand rites of passage of life: like as not, you speculate a great deal about how it’s going to be, until the day itself is over before you know it, and a lot less grand an affair than you thought it was.

Certainly, when I tried to imagine what graduating from Durham would be like four years ago, I didn’t ever imagine that the cathedral tower would be under scaffolding. You win some, you lose some.

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One of the most difficult things about graduating is that it’s so very easy to use it as your last chance to say goodbye. It makes sense; for some, it might be the last time in a while you see the people who have been your friends through thick and thin for three or four years. Regrettably, for others it might even be the last time you see them at all. That’s a humbling thought. If I have any advice to give, it’s to say your farewells before the big day. Of course there is time for the odd one here or there on the day, but with everybody mingling with friends and family alike, it can be nigh-on impossible to track everybody down in time – especially if you end up on a time limit yourself.

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I’ve had a lot of time to think over the past few weeks, and a lot of things to think about. One of the most enlightening conclusions I’ve come to (and late in the realisation, too) is that, for all of my best efforts, I am not first and foremost a linguist. And if it took missing a First Class degree by less than one percent to realise that, it was a lesson well learned. Language tests, and perhaps grammar in general, have never been my forte, not that that’s ever stopped me from trying. Writing is, was and always will be my trump card. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about not reading fiction back in Year 13, I might well have let my doubts get the better of me and gone for a degree in English Literature instead.

The fact remains that I didn’t. For all the disparity between my English marks and my marks in French and Spanish, I went for a degree in modern foreign languages. Why? Precisely because of that; because languages were not my strongest point. Talking to people was something I really struggled with. I had no opinions of my own, I felt hopelessly outclassed whenever I had to take part in any kind of intellectual discussion and I tended to avoid any unnecessary socialising.

And in my own particularly sadistic way, I threw myself headlong into the one degree that would give me no choice but to talk to people, to face my fears head-on. And when you’re getting yourself into an extra £9000 of debt per year, it makes no sense whatsoever to go on studying what you’re best at.

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My time as an undergraduate at Durham has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the best four years of my life so far. I might have been to some extraordinary places had I gone for my second choice, St. Andrews, but I most likely would not have found myself in a metro station in Münich with a portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson. I might well have had access to researchers in my primary field of interest, al-Andalus and the Maghreb, but I probably wouldn’t have written such a cracking essay on Spanish banditry. And I might have got involved in a musical, or a choir, or maybe even the funk band I longed for since my schooldays, but I almost certainly would not have found myself wrapped up heart and soul in the collegiate a cappella scene.

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Thanks to one last fling with the Northern Lights at the 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, graduation was not as final an affair as it otherwise might have been. Knowing that I’d be back in Durham in just over a month took much of the sting out of the farewells, and I left the city dry-eyed and carefree – which is not how I imagined it, but just the way I wanted it. I find that written words often carry meaning a good deal further than the spoken word ever can, and so I made my fondest goodbyes in card form, in case I didn’t get the chance to say so in person. That, too, made the process a lot easier to deal with. In a way, I’d said everything that needed to be said. I could do no more.

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I didn’t have a great deal of say in the matter of coming to Durham. My own mother dropped the name of the place so often as I grew up that by the time UCAS came around, it seemed sacrilegious to even consider anywhere else. And that’s exactly how it panned out, after an initial rejection and a gap year to try again. Bother the prospectuses, there was simply something magical about Durham. I had to go there.

It’s been one long week of thank you’s. To all the friends that supported me, both at home, at university and abroad. To the staff who inspired my interests and discouraged my careless wanderings. To my college principal, who sowed the seed of interest in a PhD in me; to my first Arabic lecturer, who through discipline fashioned a mature love for the language out of nervous enthusiasm; to those who have lived with me these last four years, for putting up with the day-to-day trivial madnesses and misinformed ramblings of yours truly. And of course, to music, for adding so much more to my degree than just books.

The wide world awaits with, at least for now, a smiling, familiar face (and a very strong Villafranqués accent). The far future – the beyond – remains as elusive as ever, but perhaps it doesn’t do to look that far ahead. Three months remain, and then I leave this country for Spain, only this time it will be for a much longer stint than anything I’ve ever attempted before. I can hardly wait.

And you bet I’ll be back to blogging for the whole affair. Just you wait. BB x

The Cycle Repeats

Almost two years to the day, the British Council have given me the go-ahead for the second round of applications once again. I’ve more or less had it sorted up there in my head, but it’s refreshing to see some hard evidence at last. Everybody else has been scurrying about fishing up internships in London, grad schemes in Leeds and MA courses in Edinburgh whilst I’ve been kicking back in the knowledge that I’m returning to a job I know and love, even if it isn’t anywhere near as well-paid as those London-based affairs. Besides a niggling long-term concern for my pension plan (and I’m not entirely sure why I bother, with things as they are), that doesn’t really concern me – if I get to spend another year in Extremadura, I’ll be in seventh heaven.

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La Vera – what Paradise looks like

I’m really looking forward to next year for several reasons, and one of them is my return to regular blogging. I’ve not been out of things to report this year – quite the opposite, in fact – but for some reason I’ve been awful at recording it. I’ve had something on in one way, shape or form every single day, from rehearsals to meetings to deadlines. I’ve never known a year like it, and it’s been a welcome relief after last year’s relative quiet. I may not be working 8am-8pm shifts like I used to, but the few hours I have a day are always demanding and highly rewarding.

Or at least, they were until this term. I have two contact hours this week, as well as a mock Spanish oral on Thursday. Talk about open plan.

What that does mean is that I’ve finally had the time to do a little work on the Mega-Drawing, and consequently it’s very near to completion. That’s something to look forward to.

I mustn’t fall into the trap of making my last few months in Durham a series of looking forward to moments. Time is running out as it is; in less than two months I’ll be out of here, and that saddens me a lot. I’m losing the treasure trove that is the library, the stellar music scene at Durham and, of course, the host of wonderful friends I’ve made here. If I spend too much time looking forward, I’ll end up looking back for most of next year, and that’s no good thing. Better to live in the moment.

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Monasterio de Yuste

I’m making no promises, but now that my British Council go-ahead is in, I’ll try to keep you posted on some of the events coming my way. Coming up:

  • Recording a new single with the Northern Lights
  • A trip to the Farne Islands (finally)
  • A weekend in Dunkeld, Scotland
  • June Ball
  • Graduation
  • The 70th Edinburgh Fringe

If that’s not blog material, I’ll eat my hat. At least, I would, if I hadn’t left it on the ALSA bus to Seville last month. Goodbye, boina. We’ve had some wonderful memories. I can only hope your next owner finds as much joy in you as I did. Like me, it came all the way from County Durham to you, O Sevillano. Treasure it, please. BB x

Bittersweet

It’s been nine months, three weeks and four days since I waved goodbye to Spain last summer. I was glad of the brief end to my labours, but it was the first time I genuinely did not want to go home. How I’ve left it this late to return says more about my dangerously overloaded timetable than anything else, but now, finally, I’m on the EasyJet flight to Seville with all of eleven days to play with and everything is as it should be.

Second term hit me like a truck. Since the January a cappella boot camp before the Christmas holidays were even over, it’s been the most intense ten and a half weeks of my life. Ten weeks of essays, translations and dissertations; competitions and commissions; meetings and meet-ups; catching up with old friends and catching up with work; and, of course, concerts, competitions and rehearsals. Never mind applying for jobs, that happened somewhere along the line. I forget when. It’s been fun, educational, even unforgettable, but ridiculously intense. It’s a damned good thing I dropped Arabic this year or I reckon the pressure would have torn me apart.


I feel truly honoured to have represented Durham’s own Northern Lights at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Semifinals last night alongside seven of the UK’s best a cappella groups, including longtime running mates the Accidentals (my favourite group by a league) and this year’s winners, Aquapella. After a knockout victory in the Quarterfinals in Edinburgh back in February and the added bonus of a masterclass with our EP-producer Johnny Stewart, I genuinely thought we might be in with a shot at placing this year, even though we’ve only been in existence for four years. Sadly, we didn’t take anything home last night, but hats off to the victors – it was a well-earned victory (especially to the soloist in Aquapella’s Purple Rain… goddamn, I didn’t think there were any Tina Turner voices left in this world).

The sting of defeat smarts more than I thought it would, perhaps because this was the first time I genuinely believed we could win. But every defeat is a lesson to be learned from, and as losses go, it’s a cheap one: not only does it save us £700+ a head on the flights to New York that victory would have cost, but I also had three of the best days of my life with the wonderful Lights in London Town. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And with forty minutes until we touch down in Sevilla, I can’t do anything but smile.


Eleven days in my favourite country in the world await. Semana Santa is too late this year to linger, but I’ll be sure to take in the three sides of Spain I hold closest to my heart: Doñana for the nature, Tierra de Barros for my dear friends Tasha and Miguel, and Yuste for my novel. It’s going to be magical. I’ll keep you posted. And that’s a fact. Now that I’m back in Spain, it feels much more natural to be blogging again. Life is good. BB x

Rush Hour

It genuinely took me all of twenty minutes today to find a seat in the library. The place is packed. Every single seat, booth, study room and square inch seemed to be occupied, or worse, occupied in absence. Here in the depths of the ground floor, I finally managed to carve a space for myself on the Palatine floor, and then only after getting a girl to begrudgingly take her feet off the chair. No love lost there.

It must be essay season.

I’ve come here to flesh out an essay myself, on epic and chronicle in medieval Spain. It’s one of those essays that I know I’ll actually really enjoy writing when I get into it – not least of all because I can resurrect El Cid for this one – but starting is always the hardest part. And there’s plenty of reading I could be doing… At least I can be thankful I’m not a mathematician. A sneaky peak over the screen of my laptop and the table beyond is littered with quadratics and algebraic hieroglyphs and other strange runes of that sort. I’m quite happy keeping to the medieval scrawl, thank you very much.

Three weeks left of term. Three gigs. Three deadlines. A total of 7000 words to be written in that time. Add to that the ICCA semifinals the week after term finishes and, of course, the dissertation. I don’t think I’ve ever been busier. But it’s not unmanageable. Busy is happy. Next year may or may not seem quite so hectic by comparison. When I look back and think over all the things I’ve done over the last month alone, I’m frankly amazed that I’m standing here in one piece. It’s been one hell of a ride.

Let’s take a look at the positives:

  • Job application for next year is away.
  • The commissions I had to finish this term are away.
  • The lorry-load of crisps and chocolates for my school is away (don’t ask).
  • Three summatives to go, but at least two are down.
  • 3,000 words into my dissertation. 9,000 remain, but it’s a good start.
  • Ice was forecast, but it’s been glorious sunshine all day.
  • The Lights are going down to London next Monday!
  • Biff’s up for the week. That’s always a cause for celebration.
  • I’m actually writing a blog post. Let this be a sign of new life.

I have so many reasons to smile right now. I didn’t even need to write one of those nauseating ‘2017 reasons to smile’ posts back in January to justify it. I just forget, sometimes, in the face of overwhelming pressure of all the essays I have to do, and the time it actually takes me to beat my brain into submission and focus.

A run to Broompark this morning put everything in perspective. You just can’t be stressed out when the sun is shining, the birds are singing and the light is sparkling in the river. I could have been reading up on Kingship and Propaganda, or on historiographical techniques employed in thirteenth-century Spain, but I decided that twenty minutes by the Deerness river doing absolutely nothing at all would serve me better in the long run. And so it has. Here I am, in the library, having finally conquered a seat for myself, ready to make a start on this essay run.

And unlike the vast majority of grim countenances in this building, I’m actually feeling pretty chipper about it. BB x

My Most Treasured Possession

My first dissertation extract is complete, and after three somewhat hectic days I can finally relax in the library and read whatever the hell I want for a little while. My field of research and my area of interest are closer than I could ever have imagined, but the very fact that I have to focus on them makes them a little less attractive than they were before. That’s natural, and it’s primarily why I’d never make a career out of art or music. The minute something you like becomes something you have to do, it loses a lot of the magic it once held, I find.

Perhaps the greatest roadblock to making great strides with my dissertation is the fact that, wherever I go, I carry with me a battered little red notebook chock-full of notes, sketches and observations from the last year and a half. I’m almost never apart from it. If it’s a knee-jerk reaction to years of being warned against electronic addiction, it’s a damned healthy one. And whilst it might have got in the way of focused academic research from time to time, it’s actually been responsible for guiding me to some of the most useful books for my degree this year.

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Fresh from the Libreria Talia back in October ’15

At twenty-two, a one year old notebook seems like a strange object to consider my most treasured possession. You’d never know it was that young, looking at it now. It’s battered and bruised and dog-eared on all sides, and the binding holding it together has been heavily reinforced with generous layers of sellotape. But it’s been with me almost everywhere I’ve gone since I first tracked it down in a bookshop in Villafranca last year and, to me at least, it’s more than just a notebook. Leaving for Spain without a sketchbook was one of the more stupid things I’ve ever done, but the result is this absolutely priceless little book of memories. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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The Red Book at the feet of Washington Irving, Granada

It’s been all over the place. It’s been carried over the holy ground of Moulay Abdessalam and watched the sunset over the Aegean Sea. It’s sat on the walls of the Alhambra, felt the sea breeze of the Atlantic from Cape Roca in Portugal and sampled tapas in Salamanca (with the olive oil stains to show). These days it contents itself with regular trips to and from the library, which is intellectually stimulating at the very least, but perhaps not what the Red Book was necessarily born for. I expect it’s just as hungry for another adventure as I am. The trouble is, there’s only thirty pages left until it’s all filled up, and with the rate at which I’m harvesting new ideas, Greece may have been my eternal companion’s last fling. When I stop to think about it, that’s more than a little bit saddening.

We’ve had some pretty special memories, the Red Book and I. But probably the most treasured of all was its first ever outing to the sanctuary mountain east of Cáceres where, as the sun set over the old city, I had an epiphany and decided to base my series of novels in Spain. And, suddenly, it all made sense. What had been for some fifteen years a mishmash of fantastical borrowings and cliché leapt out of the chrysalis into a vast historical saga. The moment was recorded with two simple words scrawled at the top of a heavily-smudged first page: it begins.

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Full-page sketches like this one are not helping on the page-saving front…

 

Of those who have commented on my faithful travelling companion, the general opinion seems to be that I could get ‘so much money if I ever sold it one day’. Sacrilege incarnate. This little book and I have been on so many adventures now that it’d be like pawning off a loyal pet. But I suppose it’s more than that, because what the Red Book is, beyond a well-travelled journal, is an extension of my very soul. My whole world, the one I don’t tend to share with anybody, is stored within its pages in scrawled notes and sketches. Most of it wouldn’t make a jolt of sense to anybody else, but to me it reads like a map. I’ve kept a working notebook on me in various formats for the last five years – since I could hold a pencil, if you count the sketchbooks as well – but the Red Book is the prince of them all.

The sister notebook is already waiting, an equally eye-catching blue-and-gold journal of identical dimensions. It’s also a Paperblanks notebook. I swear by the things. It’ll be tough, starting afresh with a new book after all this time, like starting up a new relationship. Quite literally: all the memories I’ve stored in the Red Book are ours to share. The Blue Book will need new memories of her own. One day, many years from now, I’d like to think there’ll be a whole shelf of these things, tattered, bandaged and well-thumbed, but loved, and I’ll be able to take them down to explore them with my children, taking them into the worlds I have spent so many years creating.

An ode to a notebook… Well, it was a strange post for Valentine’s Day, I’ll give you that, but with all the time, care and attention I’ve lavished on this little book over the last year and a half, perhaps today’s a fitting day for such a post after all. BB x