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

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!

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/