Withdrawal

My school has a band, now. Secondary school or not, I have to admit I was a little excited when I found out. It consists of a piano, a guitar, a trombone, two saxophones, a drummer and a singer. Three guesses who that last one is. Better still, the music they thrust into my hands upon my return was by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s For Once in my Life – in my opinion, not one of his best (I WishSuperstition and Uptight are in a godly league of their own), but better than a poke in the eye.

The first rehearsal was a bit touch-and-go. The drummer had an egg-shaker and I had to explain the concept of counting in.

The withdrawal is real. I’ve written two and a half arrangements for my old a cappella group in three days. I’ve had Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits on repeat and I threw myself at the Concha Velasco Band as their most avid supporter at their gig in Villafranca last night. I lost my voice from shouting the lyrics so much. That’s probably a good thing. My Romanian neighbours are spared another day of me wandering in and out of the house keeping my unused tenor voice exercised. Saturday morning means gym for a lot of folks here, time to work on their bodies. My voice isn’t getting the workout it used to. I have to keep practising.

This week, perhaps more than ever before, the blow of severing ties with the musical world has come down hard. Perhaps doubly so because almost all of my old Lights buddies will be back in Durham this weekend for a reunion gig of sorts. I made the decision not to go, even though it’s the Puente del Pilar this week and I haven’t been at work since two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t break my heart as it might once have done, but the aftermath hurts. We all have to make tough decisions, sometimes. It’s got a lot to do with growing up and moving on. The collegiate music scene, brimming with talented musicians from near and far, is behind me. I’m here now, in a country which a friend of mind once described as simply having no ‘afán’ (desire) for music for its own sake. Even my holdfast, the Concha Velasco Band, are set to disband soon. Real life, work and responsibilities have risen like the tide, and as is so often the case, it’s only the lead singer who’s pushing blindly for unity in the wake of disarray. It’s as much a reflection of how things could have been had I not let go of the group I loved the most. I needed that.

If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it again now. Spain is not ideal for the musician. I laughed at the notion that it would get to me like it did to my parents, thinking that with twenty-odd years’ less immersion than them, I’d be alright. I was wrong. The lack of a music scene hurts. It hurts a lot. I think I’ve done more listening to music here in the last week than I did in an entire term at Durham, discounting the obligatory use of my essay-writing playlist. Granted, I’ve compounded my situation by living not just in Spain but in the sticks. But even so, music isn’t as much a part of this world as it is in England. In a class the other day we were discussing activities you might do at a youth club, and I genuinely had to spell it out that music was or could be an option. One of the brightest girls gave me a nonplussed look and said, very matter-of-factually, ‘music is only extracurricular’. Make of that what you will.

Flamenco is more than music. Flamenco is an art form which, like so many, has its masters and its endless amateurs. And so much of it is tied up with dance. The joy of making music for its own sake is lost here. As the son of two music teachers, it hurts. Having been in choirs, groups and bands my whole life, it cuts deep. I feel lost, and more than a little distant recently.

On the way back from the library, I saw something in the sky and I looked up. It was a vulture. I’d just been writing about them in my book, so I felt pretty fortunate to see my own material brought to life before my eyes. Riding the thermals on wings spread wide, with tapering fingers splayed in the current, it circled the park for a few minutes. Within a minute there was another one, closer. They rode higher and higher until, finally, they tucked their wings into that upside-down W shape and, like spinning disks, soared motionlessly from the top of their spiral to the west.

I could have cried. I love this country. I love it so much. I love the language, the people and the food, and I especially love the animals that live here. Especially the vultures. Music lifts me high, but nothing lifts me higher than being where I want to be, in a land where such magnificent creatures still roam the skies on your way to and from the supermarket. My heart bleeds a little. I had to give a queen to take the king. I may yet regret my decision. Or, I may find some new wellspring of energy in this country. I may not have my music, but I still have hope. That’s all I can ask for. BB x

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The Swing of Things

Routine has returned. The dust has settled, and I’m not talking about the kind that’s tinting the sky a dirty grey every day, nor over the Catalan situation. My life as an auxiliar de conversación in IES Meléndez Valdés is back in shape, much the same as before, with a few noteworthy changes. They’ve decided to streamline the programme a little more this year, with me working through the coursebook rather than preparing a random talking point every week. Honestly, I’m rather relieved. It was fun coming up with something new and bold every week, but I found myself questioning more than once whether it was really the most efficient use of my time and theirs.

Oh, and there’s talk of a band or even choir in the making. Pretty revolutionary for a country where it takes a class of sixteen-year olds the best of ten minutes to realise that the one potential youth club activity they’ve forgotten is music. ‘Music is only extracurricular’, explains one of the girls who couldn’t understand why I was so confused that none of them had come up with it within seconds. I guess that’s Spain for you. This is a country that loves sport so much you spend your primary years learning theory of sport, for pity’s sake. Proof, if ever you needed it, that people vary in their tastes from country to country. I’ve been trying to enthuse about music here, but I’m fighting a lose battle. It’s not so much selling sand to the Arabs as trying to convince them of the merits of a pair of high-grade skis. Still, we live in hope. Enrique Iglesias, the Gypsy Kings and Camarón de la Isla all hailed from this peninsula. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

I found the town library. It eluded me all year during my last post, because – like many things in Spain – it’s so badly signposted that unless you happen to know that many libraries are located within the confines of the Casa de Cultura, you’d be lost. It’s certainly not advertised on the outside of the building. I found it, anyway, and it’s the perfect working environment. They converted what looks like a small factory floor into the reading area and the typist’s offices into the library itself. It’s a far cry from the Bill Bryson, but it’s a start. Before the year is out, I’ll give the bigger one in Mérida a look-in. I wonder if it has any material on Hornachos…

Just a short post today. I’ve little more to say. The air-con in this library is on at full blast and noisy. Most of the kids in here are wearing Spagnolo shirts, which means they’re almost certainly from one of the two private schools, though I can see at least one of my lot at one of the tables. But then, it’s five to six in the afternoon. Who in their right mind would be in the library when they could be out in the evening sun with their friends? BB x

Back to the Grind

The orientation day for the auxiliares de conversación in Cáceres stands out so far in being the only quirk in what is, for the moment, an experience rather akin to Groundhog Day. But for the rain-starved fields of gold, it really does feel like I’ve stepped back in time. Here I am once again in Villafranca de los Barros, settled swiftly into a cosy flat on the same street as before, no less. Once again, I’m sharing the place with an interim teacher, this time a science teacher from Seville fresh out of university, which makes a healthy change. And, in another mirror of 2015, I’m currently feeling more than a little sleep-deprived, having spent the night in Almendralejo with Tasha and Miguel and the Concha Velasco Band. Some things never change.

Choosing between living in Villafranca and Almendralejo was a rather tough call this year. At heart, I guess I knew I wanted to stay put in the town I now know so well. Anyone who knows me well enough knows that, given the choice between a town of seventeen thousand and thirty-four thousand, it’s hardly even a decision I have to think about. All the same, I found myself rather tempted this year to put old habits aside. Life, as always, has other plans. A series of consecutive events guided my feet, including an incredibly warm reception from staff and students alike, the discovery that Extremadura’s primary avian ecology centre, AMUS, is located just a stone’s throw from the town (how on earth did I miss that before?), the sudden arrival of a twenty-four-year-old sevillano looking for a flatmate and, of course, the ever-present majesty of the Sierra Grande de Hornachos. Like a moth to a flame I find myself drawn ever closer into a spiralling obsession with that lonely mountain range, rising out of the Extremeñan steppe like Kilimanjaro. Just as I could never fully convey my inability to adjust to life in Amman, so too does the true nature of my fascination with that town elude me. It’s just a fact of my life. Some higher force pulls me towards it, and I cannot nor will not resist.

I could have thought of no better a homecoming – if I should be so bold as to reinvent the term for my own purposes – than to spend my first weekend of my new life in Spain with Tasha supporting the Concha Velasco Band. Music is one of those necessary sacrifices I had to make in coming here, and like any sacrifice worth its name it was a painful one to make, so it pieces my heart back together a little to have such a spectacular band to support so close at hand.

It may not be as all-consuming as my devotion to the Northern Lights back in the day, but it’s a start. And at the very least they have a Pon de Mambo-style number in Radio Futura’s Escuela de Calor, which never fails to get me jumping about like a mad thing. I never thought I’d turn roquero, but where funk and a cappella are scarce, needs must. 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

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