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

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Live Organ Transplant

These are interesting times.

I must confess that, from time to time, I do wonder whether I’ve made the right choice. As university drew to a close, I watched many of my friends leave for London and five figure salaries. If it had ever occurred to me that I might be interested in that path, I suppose I too would have followed it. But here I am in Extremadura, one of Spain’s poorer regions, getting by on a modest salary and picking up extras in private classes where I can. At the very least I have a job; for that much I am truly grateful. There are plenty of wanderers here. Worlds collide: the English graduate in me seeks confirmation, stability and satisfaction. The Spaniard in me wants to use the here and the now to go from job to job until I find the medium that suits me best. It isn’t often that I have such Jekyll and Hyde moments, but in this period of intermission, the two are often locked in combat. My devil had been long caged, and he came out roaring.

Putting my doubts and concerns into perspective was the King’s address to the nation this evening. In light of recent events in Catalonia – up to and including several counts of police brutality as the Catalans made another bid for independence – it seems foolish to break my head over my petty apprehensions. I’ve never really taken a stance on the Catalan question, treating it in much the same manner as the age old Real Madrid/Barcelona F.C. divide – that is to say, taking the easy way out (in the latter case, opting to support Sevilla’s Real Betis as a nonconfrontational middle ground). But at such a time of crisis, it is difficult not to have an opinion here or there.

I’m a reluctant supporter of the Spanish cause. And I’ll explain why. In studying for my novels, I have been paying especial attention to the year 1640 and the troubles that spiralled out of that most hectic year. Critically, it was the year that not only Catalonia but both Portugal and Andalusia all made a break for independence from a weakened, overstretched Spain. After more than a decade, and much blood, only one would achieve that privilege. Taxes, once again, were a primary concern for the Catalans, who felt unfairly treated by the government. In this case they may have had a point: Spain’s various wars were costing the empire dear and Catalonia often suffered the brunt of it. The upshot was that, despite French intervention, Spain crushed the revolt and Catalonia was reined in, thanks in part to various double-dealings with the French.

(DISCLAIMER: I apologise if my history is off. Working in the medium of alternate history as I do, I sometimes forget how much of the history I study is the product of my own alterations…)

Four hundred years later and many Catalans still want their independence. It’s been an ongoing concern for some time, rumbling along the undercurrent of Spanish news for as long as I can remember, but when images surface such as those of the clash between the police and the fire brigade and of armed men raiding polling stations, the cause becomes that bit easier to understand. Some of the pictures look as though they have been taken out of a Latin American country rather than on Iberian soil. It’s really quite shocking.

What would independence for Catalonia mean? A lot of things, of course, but not least of all, trouble. Catalonia supports Spain more than many of its autonomous communities because it has the money to do so. Were regions such as Aragon and Extremadura to shoulder the kind of burden Catalonia carries, they might easily collapse. Catalonia is strong; it’s one of their mean reasons for making a bid for freedom in the first place. Not only is it one of the wealthier regions, it also receives a significantly larger intake of the country’s tourism. If you ask a lot of holiday-goers where they’re headed when they’re off for a trip to Spain, many of them will tell you Barcelona. When it comes to a summer holiday, a weekend trip or a day out, the Madrid/Barcelona question is far more easily answered. In short, Catalonia is savvy. Whilst for much of its history Spain looked religiously inwards, Catalonia was looking out at the wider world. When the tourism industry kicked off, the Costa Brava was one of the first on the scene. Had he not been hit by a car on his way to the airport, my enterprising grandfather would have been one of the first to reap the whirlwind. Though Castilla la Mancha was his home, he responded to the call of Catalonia. You might say I have a dash of personal interest in the matter.

We get to the heart of the matter. In her strength, Catalonia is one of Spain’s greatest assets. Just as much as she is wary of a merging with Portugal, Spain is anxious not to let go of Catalonia. A break with Spain, bloodless or not, would be a hammer blow to an already weakened nation. Whether Catalonia would prosper in the long term is beyond my understanding, but for the first few years at least, there would be trouble. Regardless of the political or economic outcome, Brexit resulted in a bitter taste in the mouth for many, both at home and abroad. The Catalan question outlives the Brexit debate by hundreds of years; I should not like to see that bitterness multiplied.

2017 is, in many ways, not too dissimilar to 1640. Alright, so there’s no pan-European war, popery is no longer anybody’s primary concern and explicit empire building is a thing of the past (or at least, as it was in the seventeenth century), but the point remains that it was a year of change and unexpected events. Last year saw both a British rejection of Europe and the election of what many considered to be a joke candidate to the seat of the most powerful man in the world. These are strange times. It is fitting, then, that Catalonia should choose this moment to strike out, as it often has before, at a time when predictions are off and nationalism is creeping back after a lengthy absence.

Even Farage made sure he got his oar in over the debacle…


It would not be the death of Spain. But it would come down hard, and upon a nation that has spent hundreds of years recovering from the slaughter of its golden goose. Stanley Lane-Poole once claimed that Spain had been ‘grovelling in the dark’ ever since the completion of its national genocide. Whether you sympathise with his damning appraisal or not, Spain is no longer the great power it once was, and if Catalonia broke free, it would be tantamount to taking one of her lungs.

One of the most beautiful facets of Spain is its diversity. There are few other places in Europe quite as varied, in people, countryside and culture. The Basques in the north are fiercely proud of their unique heritage, as are the Galicians, the Valencians and the Andalusians. In many respects, so are the peoples of all the other regions. Even the Leonese, within the very heart of Old Castile, have been known to make a bid for independence from their own autonomous community from time to time. In that sense, the Catalans stand out only in their dogged pursuit of independence. Where I would normally be strongly persuaded to empathise with their cause, as I was with the Scottish bid a few years back, my conclusion is much the same: one day, perhaps, but not now. With storm clouds looming, now is not the time for the severing of ties. There may come a time, and soon, when unity will be our holdfast. We should be proud of diversity where we find it and treasure unions where they can be made. It is easy to do things one’s own way. It is better for all of us, surely, if we work together. It’s the wishy-washy liberal answer, but I’m sure it’s the right one. If you knew that something you wanted would cause no end of hurt and disruption to somebody you knew, even somebody you had grown to dislike, could you take it from them? Really?

These are interesting times. I wonder what will become of us. BB x

Soundbites

11.04am

Would the last remaining passengers travelling to Bordeaux please make your way to Gate 101. 

The Duty Free at Gatwick North Terminal has grown twice in size since last year. I’m almost sure of it. It feels almost like the arcade section of an amusement park, endlessly shiny and Americanly bright. The cold, autumn sarcasm of England seems a long way off already – but maybe that’s the idea. Stepping through security into a halfway house, a no man’s land of toblerone trenches and swatch watches. There’s a stag party from South London or thereabouts on their way to Punta Cana, Arsenal shields emblazoned on their shirts and an emphatic fam thrown in after every seventh word. The Viennese kids next to me are discussing Pokémon Go in excited voices. I don’t speak German, but Pokémon is pretty international.

12.11am

Cabin crew, boarding completed.

I think there are more Brits on this flight than Spaniards. Pensioners, mostly. Grey hair, kindles and prescription glasses abound. There’s a round-faced girl with a very thick sevillana sway to her Spanish fishing for a book in the overhead locker, whilst her partner offers the usual machine gun suggestions as to where in her bag she might have put it. The woman to my left is reading a book about World War Two Italy featuring a man called Pino; her husband is browsing a Guardian article titled ‘Throw out antisemitic party members, Corbyn urged”. The tense is a little vague – either he’s taken stock of the warnings, or people are still urging him. Newspapers favour passive constructions. English is fiddly like that.

1.04pm

‘I owe you ten euros, we don’t have change. We never have change.’

Decisions, decisions. To buy a six-euro-sandwich on the plane or trek around Seville with my suitcase in search of edibles in three hours’ time? Lunchtime flights are such a pain. I guess that’s why they’re often cheap. There’s always a clicking wave up and down the plane when the seatbelt lights turn off, as though the long-awaited B is a starting gun. I can’t really concentrate on American Gods until I’ve eaten. As the trolley slowly wends it’s way down the aisle, I’m contesting myself with side-glances at the lady’s paper next to me. Apparently psychopaths prefer rap to Beethoven. Who knew?

That was a good sandwich. Worth the six euros? My stomach says yes.

3.47pm

‘Where are going after this?’

‘Oh. Somewhere.’

Alright, don’t listen to my stomach. He doesn’t know Jack shit. That sandwich was good, but not 16€ good. Turns out they really didn’t have any change at all. Serves me right for holding out for the paper brigade, I guess. We live in a plastic world now. No receipt either, so even if I were the arsey complaining type, I have no proof. I sure hope you EasyJet folks sleep easy.

I tried to start a conversation with a train of English tourists who didn’t know where the bus stop was. They were a bit suspicious of my friendliness, I suppose. What is it about the English that we suspect ulterior motives behind every act of kindness? It reminds me of a debate I had with a boy who went on to Oxford who had no faith in ‘genuine altruism’. Balls to that. You have your 16€ croque monsieur and eat it too. One thing’s for sure: there’s money to be made in tourism. If this flight is anything to go by, there’s no end to the line of retirees who’d rather be led around town by the hand for a fee than explore for themselves.

5.41pm

El autocar con destino Santiponce effectua su salida.

Plaza de Armas hasn’t changed much, though I suspect it’s had a paint job since I’ve been away. Also, the toilets seem to be free now. That’s a major plus. The tannoy still has all the audio quality of a GCSE Spanish cassette tape, so it’s just as well I’ve done this trip a good thirty times before. Once again I’m reminded just how attractive the Spanish are as a people. The first shopping trip to Tescos after a stint in Spain always feels like a bit of a bump back down to earth, for want of a better expression. Here in the bus station, I sit amongst hawk-nosed gods. They’ve almost finished the weird Expo-style building opposite, and I still have no idea what function it’s supposed to serve. Time will tell, I guess, and Spain being Spain, that means a long time. Perhaps years. Fortunately, years is one of those things I happen to have right.

6.52pm

‘Pero, ¡hijo de la puta madre que le parió!’

We just passed a dead eagle owl at the side of the main road. Not your average roadkill. Huge and scruffy it was, with mottled feathers and ear tufts blowing in the wind. There were a few rabbits further ahead, not as common a sight here as they are back home. Almost all the creatures of this earth wear the same dusty, black-flecked coat, from the owls and rabbits to the lynx, fox, mongoose and wolf. It feels so good to be back in a land that does proper wildlife. As I write, a herd of cattle is grazing in the golden dehesa, a small party of cattle egrets following in their wake. Spain does a very good Africa substitute. Goodness, though, how the place is dry. But for the stone pines and wild olive trees, the world is wheat-yellow beneath the clouded sky. The spring greens are long since gone, along with the hat I left on this very bus…

8.17pm

Pasanjeros con destino Santa Marta, Albuera y Badajoz Capital, cambia aquí.’

Fucking hell, the world is upside down. Now the earth is grey and the sky is sheet gold. I’d quite forgotten how breathtaking Extremeño sunsets are. With a sky this open, you can see for miles and miles, and the sunsets seem to stretch into the infinite. The last fiery slivers of light are dipping behind the sierras to the west and the clouds have enough shades of purple and orange in them to keep my old art teacher happy for at least a couple of decades. I’d take a photo, but my camera is in the hold and the girl on the left of the bus is nonchalantly texting and chewing, oblivious to the silent fireworks going on behind her.

What a world. What. A. World. I am so very glad to be back. 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 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

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