Buck

Autumn is creeping into the Weald. The trees haven’t turned brown yet – I don’t suppose I’ll see that before I go – but the leaves are beginning to fall and there’s a whiff of cold in the air, mingled with the damp, rotting smell of mushrooms. From the top of Turners Hill you can see for miles, sometimes all the way to the high hills of the South Downs on a clear day. Not so much at the moment, with the Weald mist of early autumn settling in on an almost daily basis, but every once in a while.

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England truly comes into its own at this time of year. It’s a season of green forests, Scotch mist and crows calling overhead. Acorns adorn the oak trees, the hedgerows are full of blackberries of varying tastes and conkers grin from their spiny shells in the horse chestnut trees. The pheasants have moulted and are roaming the country roads and fields, looking in a very sorry state, robbed of their handsome gloss and tail feathers. For so foreign a creature – most of today’s birds are descended from eighteenth century Chinese imports – the cork-ok of the pheasant is as much a part of the English country soundscape as the crow or the woodpigeon. It’s a soundscape I miss dearly in the silence of the Extremaduran plains.

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Leaving the road for a while, I wandered along a winding country lane and went blackberrying in the verges. Over the distant drone of a bandsaw from behind the barn, a pair of buzzards called to each other. A phone was ringing in the farmhouse. It was a reality check, a ‘Moment’, as I call them. I wonder what it’s like to live on a farm, out here in the old country. Sometimes I think that I’m isolated here, but at the very least I live on a main road. Farms like this one are so far out that any experience of mine pales in comparison. The phone had stopped ringing by the time I’d come to my own conclusions, and I ate a few more blackberries. I swallowed them rather than chewing them, because if I don’t then one of the pips always manages to get itself wedged in my molars.

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I thought I’d run a short distance, regardless of the endlessly clinking two-pence coins in my camera bag. I didn’t get far up the hill before I stopped, because a sixth sense told me the noise might flush something up ahead. Sure enough, there was something up ahead, and it hadn’t heard the coins at all: a young roe deer buck, grazing at the edge of the woods.

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It was just one more of those ‘why didn’t I bring a longer lens’ moments. After my trip to the Farne Islands, I really should have been better prepared on that count. These days, however, I’m not so fussed by the photos. The buck continued grazing idly as I crept down the hill towards it, either completely unaware or completely uninterested in my presence. After a minute or so it found a fallen tree and busied itself with scent-marking, scraping its horns repeatedly on the branches.

I must have been within fifty yards or so, close enough to see the white circles on its nostrils, when it finally caught my scent and saw me. It didn’t bolt at first, but stared at me for a few moments. I think it was more curious than frightened. Eventually it made up its mind and tore away through the grass, leaping through the tussocks and over the fence back into the copse from which it had come. I followed it, but could not find it. I sat on a stile at the corner of the field and wrung the water out of my socks as the rain came down. Sheltered under the oak trees, I waited out the drizzle barefoot.

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After a quarter of an hour, I put my socks and shoes back on. They were still wet from the thick grass and squelched on each footfall, but I didn’t really care anymore. In the Weald a lot of the footpaths run over old watercourses, where thick slabs of stone jut out of the earth. One such dark gully ran down from the corner of the field and I followed it, soaking in the sound of the wind in the trees overhead.

A short way ahead I stopped to check the white balance settings on my camera, and – there it was again. That sixth sense. I looked up and, sure enough… there it was again. The roe buck, at the bottom of the gully, looking right back at me.

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He held my gaze for a little longer this time, and when he scampered off, it was a little slower than before. I felt so alive. Mum said she saw a muntjac on her morning run the other day. I know I heard them in the woods when I was working here in the summer. I’d sure love to see one; they’re one of the oldest kinds of deer in the world. There’s something more primal still about the roe deer, though. They were here long before the muntjac, the sika and the fallow, perhaps even before the mighty red. I’ve had brief encounters with them in the mountains of Spain and the forests of France, and seen them many more times in passing from trains, grazing away at the forest edge in some field or quiet garden. Bambi was a roe deer, in the original story by Felix Salten. Having watched the bold curiosity of the young buck this morning, it makes perfect sense.

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I read in a magazine once that encounters like that are what you call ‘RSPB moments’. Granted, it was the RSPB magazine, so they would use the tagline, but it’s what I’ve come to associate with such close encounters. There are Moments, when you open all of your senses to the world around you in that instant: the ringing of a telephone, the organised cluster of objects on your desk that tell a few stories and none at all, the never-ending sound of your own breathing. And then there are moments grander still, like an encounter with a wild animal. There is a power in nature I get from nowhere else, and it feeds me still. BB x

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Entitlement

I didn’t make it to Spain.

My bags were packed. I had my lightweight hiking clothes laundered and folded and neatly placed at the top of my rucksack. My flights were booked, hold luggage inclusive, my tent rolled up and my roll-mat tucked in along the side. I’d even learned a couple of lessons from last time, and I had stocked up on plenty of mosquito repellent, sunscreen and up-to-date maps. In short, I was readier than I’ve ever been before. But I still didn’t make it to Spain.

In the end, budgeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Five weeks ago, when I’d bought myself a decent tent at last and was eager to put it through its paces, it seemed perfectly logical to book a return flight to Spain and see what happened. I had a tent, so this time I could camp out in the wild for free and have a cheap trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in fact, so much. The more digging I did, the more dangerous a notion it became. Wild camping is a legal grey area – that much is certain – but as the economic situation worsens, those countries hardest hit hit harder. Where there is money to be made, the freebooter and the vagrant are unwelcome. Whilst a local farmer may take no issue to you setting up a tent on the edge of his property, a passing local just might – for a quick buck. For a simple denuncio, one might expect to receive a small cut of the fine meted out by the police which, depending on the whims of the officer in charge, can be hefty. I’ve heard of cases of campers fined up to 600€, which is a good 590€ more than what you might pay in a campsite, if you can find one. If Spain didn’t still cling on to such legacies of the Franco era, it might not be so risky a venture. But as it stands, when a local shepherd stands to make more money by turning you in to the police than in an entire week’s work, it gives him little incentive not to do so.

My girlfriend’s mother passed onto me a keen insight on my last visit: we see a lot less danger when we’re younger. At eighteen, it didn’t occur to me that by setting up camp in the middle of the woods on the slopes of the Guadarrama I might be putting myself at the mercy, not of hungry wolves, but of hungrier shepherds. I just did it and moved on. Now that I’m older and wiser – and more wary – I find myself second-guessing a little more.

It’s just a damned shame that Spain does not have as many campsites as England does. Northumberland, for example, has over a hundred campsites. Extremadura, which is more than eight times the size of Northumberland, has twenty-two, with twelve of them concentrated in one mountain range in the north. Perhaps the Spaniards don’t enjoy camping as much as the English do, but they’re missing a trick. Spain is absolutely stunning, with scenery – in the very biased opinion of this author – second to no other country in Europe. Without campsites, or the option to wild camp, they’re missing out on the chance to reconnect with their supreme natural beauty.

When you can put a name to something you see, it means so much more to you. Your friends matter because you know them by name, just as the pupils whose names you recall stand out in your mind. Neglect to know the world around you and it will never mean as much to you as it will to the naturalist, the tracker or the mountaineer. It’s a natural connection we sorely need as tech takes over the world. Going camping offers that connection to the next generation. Or at least, so I believe.

Part of the reason I so hastily splashed out on flights to Spain which I now can’t make or change without incurring heavy surcharges (thanks a bunch, Easyjet) was a disgusting feeling of entitlement that I just couldn’t shake. Having been up to the Edinburgh Fringe for one last, loud fling with the Lights, I needed to get out. To be myself. To travel. Isn’t that what everybody else does in the summer? Instagram certainly seems to say so, as does Facebook. You can hardly move for photos of Cuba, Malaysia, New York City, the French Riviera, German markets, Polish cafés, Incan ruins and Thai elephant baths. It’s a storm of what-a-wonderful-time-I’m-havings and wish-you-were-heres that build and build until you ask yourself why you aren’t out there seeing the world. A FOMO more potent than any shot, and one that, like a bad drink, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sooner or later, the travel bug gets to be like any other addiction, and after mowing through the next barrage of Phnom Penh sunrises and Carribean bikini lines you get itchy feet. I want to be there. I want to see that. What about me?

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It’s not the Inca trail, but it’s still bloody gorgeous

Let’s not kid ourselves. Travel is not for everyone. It’s just not. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s never free. Time is money, and if you’re not spending one, you’re spending the other, which means you can afford to spend it. Now that’s a privilege few of us have.

It isn’t often that I feel bitter about the affluence of the world around me, but it’s at times like this that I realise with a nasty jolt that it’s nothing short of madness to expect the same luxuries as one’s contemporaries. Life would be an awful lot easier if we stuck to telling people face-to-face about our adventures rather than bombarding them with photos twenty-four seven, and even then, do we have to yell? The blogger in me says yes. The writer in me isn’t so sure. I’m just a student fresh out of university with a modest job already on the cards, and that’s a luxury I can’t overstate highly enough. It’ll be many, many years before I can afford annual transatlantic summer holidays, and by the time I can, I don’t suppose I’ll want to.

Fringe, I accept, was my holiday. It was expensive, more than any holiday I’ve ever had, and I was a fool to think I could afford another, summer job or no summer job. In the end I was saved by the budget and, more poignantly still, saved by the bell. A couple of friends of mine are getting married in a couple of weeks, and it’s because of them that I had to return from Extremadura before flying back out again. The folly of making two trips to the same place became apparent only once I’d decided not to go.

I still have my dreams. I still dream of South Africa. But I can wait, until such a time as I have the time, the money and the maturity to go and to really make the most of it. For the time being, I’m going to focus on the humbler side of life. I have plenty of books to read and lessons to plan. I, too, am privileged to be where I am and how I am, and I should be grateful for that. Autumn is here, and autumn is always such a beautiful time of year in England. I should be making the most of it. BB x

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Purple Skies

My days left in England are numbered. There’s still a few things I have left to do before I leave for A Year in Villafranca de los Barros Part II, namely tying up a few loose ends at home, finishing as many of the books I bought this year as I can, arranging something resembling accommodation for the coming year and notifying Student Finance of my plans to leave the country for the next few years (an administrative hoop I hadn’t counted on, but one that I have most gratefully been made aware of).

The shooting star that was my last flight with the Northern Lights at the Edinburgh Fringe was still burning as it passed over Newcastle, a short stop on the way home. It was more than I could ask for, to see the north of England in all its beauty. When I think of you, England, this will be my lasting memory: not the twenty-odd years I’ve spent in Kent and Sussex, but the gorgeous sunsets and seascapes of the north. Northumberland, why do you have to be so beautiful?

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Even now, as I sit in my Sussex room listening to Janet Jackson’s Let’s Wait Awhile, I can still hear the chattering of the terns and feel the wind on my skin. Under the setting sun the evening sky was scarred all kinds of pink and blue, until the clouds were the closest to a natural purple I’ve ever seen. Apparently, some years you can see the Northern Lights from Northumberland. I hear you can see them in Durham, too, but if a cappella’s not your scene, the Northumbrian skies are just as much a feast for the heart.

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I’m currently halfway through Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. Not my usual taste in literature (I’m a sucker for plot-based historical fiction, preferably with larger-than-life characters and far-flung destinations), but it’s got me hooked. It’s so very enchanting to read a book that deals with fulmars and alcopops in the same breath without a touch of sarcasm, and the struggles between country and city living is something I can really connect with, insofar as a self-aware privileged middle-class male can. One day, I’d love to visit Orkney and the Northern Isles. It sounds truly bleak. And that’s reason enough to test it. For now, Northumberland keeps on giving.

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I’m off to Spain in a couple of days for a fortnight’s long-delayed camping and outdoor adventures. This time next week I’ll be somewhere in the mountains near Madrid. That’s quite an exciting thought. If I weren’t booked for a wedding, I’d be walking to Villafranca. As it is, this is just a holiday – my last one before work begins anew in October. The novel awaits, and the last piece of the puzzle lies in the Gredos. It’s time I got a move on. BB x

The Last Aurora

The wind is howling outside the window. Not a mild summery gale or bluster, mind, but proper banshee-style wailing winds. The ones where you hear shrieks and whispers in the fiercest squalls. Taken together with the dry hum of the lighting, the occasional click and whirr of the electrics and then the dull drone of the plumbing every few minutes, it’s a proper orchestra of silence up here in our Edinburgh flat. The perfect, saddening seal to what is, and perhaps what must be, the last glorious flight of one of the brighter stages of my life.

Everybody’s out or asleep. The post-handover drinks and DMC’ing lasted until the early hours of the morning, by which time yours truly and the usual handful had long since turned in for the night. With the last show over – and a resounding, successful six-in-a-row sellout show to boot – the fantastic fifteen are at their strength’s end. The Northern Lights now go their separate ways. Today was a new beginning for the youngsters, and a promising golden start it was too, but for five of us at least it was the last flight. The coming years may see many happy reunions and moments relived in coffee shops the world over, but somehow I do not think the same Lights will take the stage together again. Because whether we are the same crowd or not, we will all have changed. Time is the master of all things.

Were it not for Biff, loyal and enduring, I would never have known this world. I might never have met Luke, and shared a greater love for Luther Vandross. Or Sam, that most charismatic of leaders. Seb, the rockstar maestro. And though we crossed paths from time to time in the modern languages block, it was chiefly through the Lights that I found a loving friend in Aisha. My heart breaks a little more every time that I remember that I’m letting you go (like I said in Thursday’s Grapevine riff, even if it did fall flat on its face somewhat). But life is, when you think about it, one long string of goodbyes. And for a serial loner like me, I should be well-versed in saying goodbye. Perhaps that explains the lack of tears.

Sixteen hours later. Sam’s electric toothbrush is buzzing away in the bathroom. The fridge is steadily being emptied. Four Lights have taken their leave, eleven remain. The fade-out continues, only not quite as harrowing as yesterday’s yellow afternoon. There’ll be plenty of time for reflection on my next adventure, and right now I could do with getting my head screwed on straight vis-a-vis living arrangements for next year. That’s what the next few days are for – that, and a welcome break from a very, very intense fortnight.


It’s time I went in search of a new project. Something that will occupy my heart, mind and soul for the next few years. Books are the answer, and there’s no better place to start than Edinburgh, truly the city of books. A solid hour in a second-hand bookshop off Grassmarket set everything to rights. There’s a word for that feeling of being surrounded by the writings of ages in an old bookshop, though I can’t remember exactly what it is. That is my life, though. I am sure of it.


The morning sun has set on my time in the Lights. The whispering winds lead me forward. Waverley station awaits, the only station in the world named after a novel. There’s a symbolism there, and I’m shamelessly abusing that for a final word. BB x

Stymied by the Laity

Summer rumbles on. My summer job is over, the Edinburgh Fringe draws near. It’s going to be a tough one, but I believe in my group. It may well be the last time in years that I find myself surrounded by such capable musicians, and I’m not about to let something like a ticking clock get me down. We’ll rise to the challenge, and we’ll do it spectacularly. We’re the Lights – it’s what we do.

Single release next Friday 11/8/17 – excited!

Breaking like the rainclouds overhead, I’ve just vanquished a dragon that has for a long time been lying in wait outside my door. I want to travel. I want to be free. And I want to see the real world, beyond the one put out on display. But for just over a week I’ve been hitting hurdle after hurdle in my preparations. And, like so many episodes of my life, it all centres on Spain.

Four years ago I set out on a mad solo trek across Spain, from Santander to Amería. The plan, insofar as one existed, was to walk from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean. I was eighteen, bored out of my mind on a rather-less-than-successful second half of my gap year and anxious to be free of the shackles of jobseeking or the threat of going on the dole. How that converted itself into ‘I know, I’m going to walk across Spain’ still eludes me. It was just one more of my crazy ideas, only this one I actually carried out.

In a manner of speaking, I succeeded. Armed with little more than a sleeping bag, a compass and a map of Northern Spain printed in 1967, I made the trek, busing some of the more tedious legs, and taking some notable diversions via Ávila and Olvera, before arriving at last at the deserted beaches of the Cabo de Gata. Along the way I almost caught hypothermia in the rainy mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama, procured a golf ball-sized blister on my heel and slept in forests, olive groves and under a lighthouse on the Mediterranean coast. It wasn’t a very well planned adventure – I came home dangerously underweight and with a face swollen to basketball proportions courtesy of the Almerían sandfly population – but I made it. And it was a real adventure.

Four years on, I’m itching for another shot. Now that I’ve done more research, however, it cuts me deep just how difficult it is to do that kind of thing anymore. Spain is, all bias aside, an absolutely magnificent country, one of the last great frontiers of Europe. But unlike Scotland, Romania or the Scandinavian countries, it’s not possible to just pitch a tent in the wilderness, wild as it may seem. The laws are fiddly, and vary from country to country, but where grey areas linger, the economic strain of twenty-first century Europe has been cruel. Tied together with irresponsible fire-starters and botellón fanatics, the future of free-camping looks bleak. Where there’s money to be made and taxes to be levied, there’s little time for the vagrant – even less so if he or she be so irresponsible a citizen as to be a vagrant by choice.

Beyond my own annoyance at the legal difficulties of wild camping – in my belief, the true camping experience – there’s a darker, more sinister side to this intolerance. How will we ever encourage our children to look away from their screens and rediscover the natural world around them when it’s illegal to let them wake up in the countryside once or twice a year? Televisions, computers and videogames are the present and the future, I’ve no doubt, but in a shrinking world, is it not all the more important to encourage our children to see the real world and learn from it? Five may have had their time, but there’s so much to be said for the joys of a night in the middle of nowhere, far from the bustle and false escape of a campsite.

There are, of course, instances when you can pitch up. People tend to be more accepting of Camino pilgrims doing so. But that’s a privilege only the Santiago lot profit by. What do those who wish to follow the other GRs (gran recorridos, or great routes) of Spain do? Spain is ripe for the wild camping route. It’s just a shame that a country so perfect for walking is so intolerant of camping.

Hopefully without the snow, come September

And so begins my resistance. Come September, before my second post begins, I’m bound for Spain to explore what routes I can. It’s not the same country Laurie Lee traversed when he set out one summer morning, but I refuse to believe the people have changed that much. I’m going storyhunting, and I will not be denied. 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