15:00 Report from the Library

An unadventurous title for an unadventurous afternoon. I’m in Bill Bryson Library, in what seems to be a new experience for yours truly: namely, making a start on an essay more than twenty-four hours in advance of the deadline. I guess I learned a thing or two on my last written project after all. At least, I learned some more useful skills than a general history of banditry in Spain.

It’s already getting dark outside. The scaffolding on the cathedral tower is a glaring golden-white in the setting sun, rising like a great stone tree above the slate blue of the world below. It’s supposed to come down at some point in 2017, so we’re all hoping that some point is before graduation, but who can tell? It’s December, the last two weeks of term are rolling in and graduation seems a very long way away right now (insert generic reference to time speeding up as you grow older here). We haven’t had any snow yet, though some forecasters are predicting the heaviest snowfall in years. It obviously has been falling sporadically up in the Dales, because some mornings you see the cars driving through town with little palisades of snow clinging to the windscreen, but we’ve yet to see a single flake down here in Durham town. Some folk have all the luck! Still, with two summative essays in for the next two weeks, four gigs and a dinner party to bear in mind, I guess the last thing anybody needs right now is the distraction of Durham in snow.

Not all that much to report right now. Just a very Durham-y view from my post in the library before I knuckle down to work on money and Muslims in El Cid. It’s snapshots like these that I will look back on fondly over the next few years, when I don’t have such ready access to such a fine library. Even with the sickly, cough-a-minute student body crammed in here at the moment, it’s a wonderful place to be. Libraries are such wonderful places. BB x

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Walking to my Wednesday 4pm rehearsal with the Lights

Song of Autumn

I usually walk home across the Bailey after lectures, but today I turned left at the end of Kingsgate Bridge and took the path along the river Weir. It was the goosanders that did it, I suppose. The one constant of my three years at Durham University has been that, come winter, there’s a family of three goosanders on the Weir (don’t know what a goosander is? Look it up, they’re beautiful). I was done for the day and everybody else had gone their separate ways to study, so I thought I’d treat myself to a half-hour’s isolation.

I don’t think I ever forgot how beautiful England is in the autumn. In fact, I think I grew to appreciate all the more for being so far away from it last year. There’s nothing like thirteen consecutive months of almost total sunshine to give you a real heartache for a cold, crisp autumn morning. Well, it’s certainly been cold recently, even if the frost hasn’t settled in yet, but now that our boiler’s fully functional, I’m not complaining. Even so, after the madcap nature of the last two months – I really have had something to do every day, come to think of it – something I really had forgotten to do was to make time for myself. And I’m not talking the lying-in-bed-watching-Youtube kind of me-time. Everybody has something that fills them up again when they’re feeling low. Maybe it’s good food, maybe it’s a hearty jog, or that song that never fails to put a smile on your face. For me, it’s nature. Between DELE revision, rehearsals with the Lights and this many other commitments, I’ve scarcely had the time to think straight. I’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of being busy and having people around you that radiate good energy, but for me, there’s no substitute for a good hour or so in nature’s arms.

Mrs Goosander wasn’t about this afternoon. She sometimes goes fishing further downstream. Mr Goosander and his rather shabby-looking youngster (still moulting, but more impressively, still here) were going about their business in their usual spot. The father looks especially impressive at the moment, with his feathers flushed that special shade of salmon-pink that is so particular to his kind. I think I saw him catch about three or four fish whilst I was there. Sit long enough in a sheltered spot and the little world accustoms itself to you…

An inquisitive little coal tit came to have a look-in on one of the trees overhanging the river. A couple of blackbirds were making a lot of noise rummaging around in the undergrowth as is their fashion. The soundscape was so autumnal, I only wish I could have recorded it for you. Words will have to do: the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees; the machine-gun twittering of a roving party of nuthatches; the high-pitched seee of redwings overhead; the cawing of crows coming in to roost. The pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch-pitch of a chaffinch, tea-cher tea-cher of a great tit, and, once or twice, the distant shriek of a jay.

I don’t tend to talk about my favourite pastime all that often. Sometimes you don’t have to: the things that matter most are plain to see. Besides, who’d want to listen? I learned a long time ago that there are precious few who care about the distinction between wrens and robins, crows and jackdaws, mallards and goosanders. And, I suppose, the names are not important. What matters is that people know that they’re there. Planet Earth II seems to be extremely popular up here, and I hope it’s encouraging people to look around more when they’re out and about. 

So that’s my advice. The next time you’re out for a walk, whether you’re on your way to or from work, or just to kill some time, unplug yourself from the noise, find a quiet spot to sit down, shut your eyes and just let the world let you in. You won’t regret it. There’s no better music (and believe me, I’ve looked – my whole family are musicians).

Blackbirds, crows and redwings. The wind in the trees and the splash of diving ducks in the silent river. These are the sounds of my childhood. Of all the things life has taught me, I am no happier than in my knowledge of the world around me. I have my mother to thank for that, I think. That and my obsessive habit of chasing the details. I should probably have given journalism a little more thought. Then again… BB x

An old photo of mine from 2008, when I had nothing on my mind but birds!

Not the End of the World

If I let the events of the last few days go by without a word, I’d be failing as a writer.

The hysteria is real. Donald Trump is the next President of the United States. Social media has exploded. Race hate is on the rise. Politics has, after so many predictable years, suddenly got very interesting indeed. The UK’s decision to leave the EU is old news: there’s a larger finger on the big red button. The race for the White House may have split the States, but everybody would agree that America’s new president can mean only one thing: change.

In one of the strangest turns of events I’ve ever witnessed, the man widely heralded as the most laughable of all of the presidential candidates of the campaign has defied all expectations and, despite a slew of racial slurs, misogynistic remarks and just about anything and everything else that might have destroyed any other runner-up, Trump has surged into power and we must now accept the fact that, like it or not, the controversial tycoon is now one of the most most powerful men on Earth.

That is, as long as there is an Earth for him to police. There’s no denying it: so many of us believed that a Trump presidency would be the forerunner of the apocalypse.

But is it really?

Now bear with me, as I’m going to do something very radical and very out-of-character, and I’m going to suggest that a Donald Trump presidency may be exactly what the world needs right now.

Now, why on earth would I say something like that? How could a see-sawing, prejudiced, misogynistic, arch-capitalist with his hands on the nuclear codes ever be a good idea? Well, for starters, I never said it was a good idea, nor that it sat well with me at all. However, I’m slowly coming around to thinking that it might not be the travesty it first seemed (Or maybe I’m just disillusioned with reality after Brexit).

I’ll do my best to explain. Firstly, the mere fact that a firebrand like Trump managed to beat the system and defy all expectations means that the status quo has been given a serious shakedown. The slump of pendulum politics is officially over. Granted, Trump was no saint, but Clinton’s track record made it difficult for the Democrats from the very beginning. Bernie might have been our hero, and it’s easy to believe that he would have led the Democrats to victory, but something tells me that the United States would have sooner seen a certified bigot in the White House before electing a socialist. Old habits die hard. But it’s this desperate adherence to the status quo that has brought us to this. People are sick and tired of the ways things are, the way things have been for so long. Trump offered to give them that change. Clinton had a tried-and-true dustpan and brush, Trump was offering a Dyson. It’s as simple as that.

In that sense, the election of Donald Trump ought to be seen as a triumph, not just of prejudice, but of change. Maybe next time the Democrats will provide a more idealistic individual, one unmarred by scandal and unfettered by the chains of regularity. In the interests of good politics, let’s hope so.

So why now? Here’s the sticky bit. Think back to the last time there was ever all-out war between the world powers. I’m not talking Cold War meddling, I’m talking boots-on-the-ground assault. 1945. That’s over seventy years ago. Since then we’ve meddled with countries across the globe, but it’s been all quiet in the Western Front. And seventy years is a very long time to go without war by Western standards. Meanwhile the US, the UN, the EU, all of these ‘peace-keeping’ bodies have been policing the world, trying to resolve conflicts left, right and centre – and, in many cases, deliberately capitalizing on them. But the clock is ticking. If history tells us one thing, it’s that nothing ever stays the same forever.

I believe that we’ve been living through a Pax Romana, a necessary ceasefire. As long as everybody did as they were told, the peace would hold. But this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Humans are naturally belligerent, and we’d be fooling ourselves to believe otherwise. We have so much capacity for love and compassion, but instinct cannot be denied. Conflict is one of the most natural elements of existence and we’ve been stemming it for so long. It may not have looked like it until recently, but we’ve been sitting on a volcano for a long time now. The pressure is mounting and it’ll blow before too long, with dire consequences for us all.

How could that ever be good? Again, it’s not. It’s terrible, and when war comes, I will be just as distraught as the rest of us. But, sooner or later, it is necessary. Resolving conflict by removing it from the equation can only work so many times, just as taking painkillers is no substitute for a cure. In the end, perhaps the best thing to do is to fight it out, to let it all come to a head. The rise of terrorism, the refugee crisis, pitifully low voter turnouts and the wave of race hate that’s sweeping the West… These are all the signs of a world that’s bristling for a fight. Between who, I cannot say. But it’s in the air.

Previously, wars have not only brought long periods of hostility and dissatisfaction to a decisive end, but they’ve resulted in massive social upheaval, often with various positive side-effects. In that one instance, war may save us all. I dread to think what may happen to this world if things go on the way they are.

Trump might not be the one to start the War That Is To Come, but you could interpret his election as the first of many thrown stones. Of course, it could all be a storm in a teacup, and the Mexican Wall and the ‘complete shutdown on all Muslims entering the United States’ may be as likely to materialize as UKIP’s £350m pledge to the NHS, but if we’re due a decade of change, for good or ill, this seems like the obvious trigger.

So what can we do? For starters, we can try to learn from our mistakes. The Democrats lost because they believed their idea of democracy would work. It didn’t, and now the age-old system has failed. It’s time to search for a new way of doing things, before it’s too late. I don’t pretend to have even the first idea what the new way might entail, but I can see plainly enough that holding to the status quo is no longer a reliable option. 

We should also get learning languages. Now. Obviously as a linguist I have more than a touch of bias here, but I mean it. In the current climate where nations the world over are becoming more and more insular as ‘us and them’ politics take the floor, it is more important than ever that we learn to interact with the world outside our own. Whatever you think of Trump or his policies, blind, beer-touting isolationism is a one-way road to destruction in the long run. So the EU has failed? Don’t walk away from it. Work on it. Change it. I’ve met so many non-Europeans who fell foul of the EU and had little love for it, so – despite espousing the Remain camp myself – I can see why people think it has failed them. But we could do so much more by working together. It’s just a question of time. English may be the world language for now, but there’s no reason to believe that’s the way it will always be, nor should it.

When Trump takes office next year, it’s difficult to know exactly what will happen. The bookies have been wrong time and again this year, so it’s hardly worth consulting them anymore. But if war comes, in ten years or in twenty, don’t say I didn’t warn you. BB x

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

100 Days of Writing: Day Three

Me and my wardrobe. It’s probably the best love affair I’ve ever had. Twenty-two years of bad ideas, gaudy shirts and triple denim disasters. Is it any wonder I change up my style every year or so? No matter what I wear, it always seems to be something… different. But that’s the beauty of clothes: the way you look is entirely up to you. If birds could change the colour of their feathers at will, I’m almost certain they would.

In my time I’ve favoured yellow dungarees, corduroys and camouflage (for birdwatching purposes), waistcoats and neckerchiefs, denim jackets and oversized t-shirts, peacoats and puffer jackets and, notoriously, Joe Browns shirts. Each and every one had its day and faded away (with no small amount of motherly relief) but it’s the latter that I’m probably the most well-known for, since it was the phase that kicked off in my first week at university and the trait for which I became known. Two years ago I could have been identified at a distance of a hundred yards from my shirts alone. These days I’ve opted for a more modest outdoor look. I daresay it’s a good deal more than possible that there’s a reflection of my ego there.

Clothes are a bit like food. There’s really no need to wear anything more than what is necessary, just as you don’t need to eat a mouthful more than what fills you up – but since when did anybody ever have any fun working on the basis of sufficiency alone? It’s taken me a long time to find a style that’s really my own, one that I feel comfortable wearing; one that I wear for myself, and not for the rest of the world. That, I think, is the cut-off point. Naturally, hispanophile that I am, it’s a certain range of Spanish wear that I’m into at the moment, and it’s one that I feel immensely comfortable wearing – and that despite the fact that most Spaniards would have me down as a foreigner for wearing them, because it’s simply not the thing that young people wear these days. But if that means hanging up the jackets, shirts and chinos for a sporty-looking set of leggings and a hoodie, excuse the pun and jog on. I know what I like and it suits me.

You might also have noticed that in all the ridiculous fashion trends I’ve tried, shorts don’t feature once. That’s still a thing. I wouldn’t be seen dead in them.

The clothes I tend to go in for these days are the high-maintenance kind. That is, I have an awful lot of shirts, and these need careful washing and regular ironing. Fortunately, I have no problem taking the time to do either of these things. True, it’s a longer-winded process this year than it was in Spain – you can’t just hang your shirts out over the balcony and expect them to dry in an hour up north – but I give it my best shot. If you can be disciplined with your wardrobe, you can be disciplined in your other affairs, I find.

In short, clothes are important. They’re essential to non-verbal self-expression. They can be great conversation starters (especially my infamous London Underground shirt – to this day, probably my best acquisition ever). They can make you curse in the morning as you mull over what to put with what and smile when something works out – and even more when it really doesn’t, especially in retrospect. And even if I could go back in time and beg my younger self to lay off the triple denim, I think I’d still let him go through it all. Because whatever I decided to wear in the future, I don’t think I could possibly go any worse than that.

That or the yellow dungarees.

Love out of Love

100 Days of Writing: Day Two

It’s been a long time now since I was in the vicious grip of infatuation. And long may it be until it gets me again! I don’t remember ever feeling so free or so happy over the last few years, and I suspect it’s got a lot more to do with me growing up than anything else. Today’s topic would have been easy enough to tackle, but the stipulation was that it had to be in verse…

Now I’m not a massive fan of poetry, even good poetry. And poetry about love is seldom good. Reading some of the tripe you came up with in younger years is gut-wrenching, to say the least, but if you thought that was hard, trying writing it when that’s all in the past… The words don’t come to you as quickly as they did then, when a bleeding heart makes for an endless inkwell (with the verbal talents of a stroppy teenager). And isn’t there something about the very art of love poetry which belies imbalance?

Nevertheless, orders are orders. So here’s Day Two: The Unrequited Love Poem.

Chasing Cars was playing
As we stepped into the light
And we went our separate ways.
I went up the road
And she went down.

There’s no easy method
To describe a broken heart
When the breaking is so soft.
‘Let’s be friends’
Hurts much more than it should.

Looking back is easy
From the freedom of release
When the world is more than two.
You can see
When you were blind before.

The traffic light is blue
The battle flag is waving
But it’s painted all in white.
There are no rules
All’s fair in love and war.

—–

Her every word is wisdom
And her laugh is summer rain
And hearts, parts and cupid’s darts
All blind you to the pain.

I’ve heard that nice guys finish last
Or something of that kind
That romance died off years ago
And love is hard to find.

The front row of the theatre
The poems she shared with you
They all mean next to nothing
If that’s what a friend would do.

Pity is a murderer
Luck does not keep giving
Fate is just a child’s word
Hope is unforgiving.

—–

It saddens me to think that when you’re young and love’s the end
The worst thing you could bear to hear is to be called her friend.

—–

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I am not a massive fan of poetry. Unless it’s Arabic poetry. I can totally dig that. BB x

Reflections from a Little Window

Since I’m no longer abroad (for the time being), the primary function of this blog is somewhat defunct at the moment. Even so, since it’s been such a crucial tool for keeping me writing this year, I see no reason why I should just leave it there for a year. So, to keep the old writing muscles flexed, I’m taking on the 365 Day Writing Challenge and using this blog as the medium. They won’t be especially long entries, but hopefully they’ll be good reading, and better still, good warm-ups for the essays I’m due to be writing over the course of the year, not least of all my twelve-thousand word dissertation.

So, without further ado, here’s Day One: Outside the Window

Mine is a little window. Perhaps that’s just as well, as it looks straight across the road to the girl in the house opposite. She’s been working flat out since eleven o’clock this morning, and if she were to look up from her studies, she’d have a pretty good view of my bedroom. But when I sit down at my desk to work, I’m invisible to the outside world. I like that. I might not be the shy, retiring figure I used to be, but I haven’t lost my fondness for disappearing from time to time.
The local jackdaw brigade is out in force. There’s a roost nearby, I think, maybe in the trees over on the Avenue. It’s nice to have something wild close at hand this year, but I don’t half miss the kites, or the storks and swallows I used to see every day from my balcony in Villafranca. The trade-off is regular rain, which is something I find myself curiously attached to.
It’s raining now, as it happens.
There’s nobody out and about on my street at the moment. I suppose that’s because it’s a Sunday afternoon. Everybody who’s not at the library or the gym is inside, wrapped up snug in their rooms and noticing, like me, that we’ve already reached that time of year when your breath comes out in a cloud, inside or out. Sooner or later I’ll have to stock up on hot chocolate.
I walked home in the rain the other night. It was after midnight, and the rain was coming down hard. It’s hard to say exactly how it felt, walking over Palace Green in the half-dark getting gradually soaked in my hoodie, with the mighty cathedral and its scaffolding-crown towering overhead. It’s not the first time I’ve seen rain since I got back from Morocco, but it was probably the first time I really thought about it. I always used to think that standing outside in the rain was something to be shared, something intensely romantic. Now that the six-year blinkers are off I see things a good deal more clearly. It’s a feeling as personal as a diary, and every bit as important. And if we really are sixty percent water, there must be something naturally therapeutic about getting soaked in the rain.
I’ve missed it.
It’s not raining anymore, and the sky is still light, in that English yellow-streaks-through-grey kind of way. The slate tiles on the roof across the road are proof enough that it has been raining, though, and that’s something beautiful to see.
The girl in the window opposite isn’t there anymore. She must have taken a break, and about time too. That’s what Sundays are for. Quite by accident, I’ve been working flat-out this week, all the while duping myself that I was ‘merely helping out with a few things’. I guess I just can’t help myself. When it comes to spare time, there’s only one day of the week when I can forgive myself for doing nothing.
The sky’s opened up. Through the fifty shades of grey in the clouds above there’s a break of blue up there, and the sunlight on the trailing edges of the breach is a brilliant golden-white. It’ll be gone again by the time I pen this down, but whilst it was here, it was one of those fleeting little moments of beauty you just have to stop and watch.

Bit of a reflective first run, this one. I’ll play around with style and voice over the next few and we’ll see where this takes us.

If you’d like to do something like this, the challenge list I’m following is this one here: http://thinkwritten.com/365-creative-writing-prompts/

 

Academia Nut

Dissertation is go. It’s taken long enough, let me tell you, but I finally have myself a clear subject, an innovative approach and, best of all, a reason for being in only the greatest music group Durham can provide: the university’s own Northern Lights. Because there’s no harm in getting all the bias out of the way before I get stuck into writing this 12,000 word monster. 

We’re already two weeks into my final year in Durham and I couldn’t be happier to be back. It’s a new, exciting year full of brand new faces and ways of looking at things, and for the first time in almost a decade I’m free body and soul from this debilitating search for Her. The shackles are off, the inspiration is flowing and the results are, correspondingly, something to smile about at last. The ticking-clock effect of this being my last year in the not-so-United Kingdom for the foreseeable future adds to the magic, I’ll give you that.

So it’s not all sunshine. Nobody likes reading blog posts that continue in that self-gratifying line forever, and don’t try to deny it. I’ve got the go-ahead from my former employer that I can return to work there next year, but I can’t help feeling I could do with something on paper, if just for peace of mind. The Englishman in me isn’t dead yet, clearly. 

And that’s no bad thing. My split personalities have bled through into each other over the last year, I’ve noticed, for the bettering of both sides. The feisty, sassy confidence of my Spanish alter ego keeps my reserved, reflective English psyche in check and vice versa. It’s highly entertaining to see one take the stage from time to time. Spanish BB kicked off when his speed of delivery and accent got knocked in a language class last week, and English BB spent the next hour trying to smooth things over. It’s not exactly schizophrenia – more like a natural precociousness on my part – but it’s a close one.

The DSU Café is pretty busy at this time of year. Then again, so is just about everybody in third year. But being busy is what makes me happy. I live and breathe it. The first week back was one of the lowest points of the year, if just because everybody seemed to have something to do except me. Then came the weekend, and overnight I went from facing the prospect of a year spent in the library to having a doubled timetable and a real excuse to sing again. To be happy, I need to be busy. Here’s to a busy year, and many more to come. BB x