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

A Step in the Right Direction

I love blackboards. They’re quirky, they’re the very definition of old-school and, more importantly, they’re reliable. Grab yourself some chalk and you’re good to go. The sad thing is, they’re on the way out.

Wait, what? I thought they were done away with years ago, I hear you say? I remember a grand total of two years of blackboards in primary school before whiteboards and whiteboard markers edged them out, to be replaced almost instantly by the firestorm that was the first wave of interactive whiteboards. Well, blackboards are still the status quo here – or rather, they were, until last week. The twenty-first century has arrived in Extremadura, it seems, and the herald is the interactive whiteboard.

It’s been highly interesting to watch the reactions, as my scope as a teacher covers kids from five to eighteen along with several seniors. Unsurprisingly the youngest are the most in awe, and I’ve had to play the fool and feign ignorance, living through the ‘brand new toy’ atmosphere along with the rest so as not to spoil it for them. How are they to know that I was no older than nine years old when I had my first encounter with an interactive whiteboard, some twelve years ago?

As such, I’m long since past the shock-and-awe stage, and I see them as more of a nuisance. Not only have you got to spend time mucking about with the computer and projector, but you’ve got to keep an extra eye open, because kids just love to touch the damn things (I’ve already banned its use in my two primary classes because they just won’t keep their hands off). On top of that, if you’ve planned a lesson that requires the technology and it decides, for whatever reason, to screw you over by playing up, that’s the entire lesson out of the window.

And that’s without mentioning the calibration nonsense. How does one even draw properly on one of those things? As such, I’m definitely in Camp Blackboard.

All I can say is that if my generation made the same fuss over this new technology, I’m truly sorry. The last two weeks have been comparable to trying to plug a burst water main with one’s hands.

So, apart from lapsing into his old Luddite ways, what else has yours truly been up to?

In a complete turn-around from the way things were at the beginning, my state school kids have been nothing less than complete angels of late. Our school hosted a charity event last Friday in aid of the Syrian Refugee crisis, which I agreed to sing for. When my backing singers bottled out, I ended up having to improvise a new number, which was a mish-mash of several of Tolkein’s walking songs set to music, half from the 1981 BBC Radio adaptation (my childhood, right there) and half from the 2003 Return of the King movie – specifically, Billy Boyd’s The Steward of Gondor. And what do you know, it worked! I’ve had people coming up to me all week telling me how it sent shivers up their spine (or the Spanish equivalent, piel de gallina), which has done my crushed ego a world of good.

Alicia of 4º ESO delivers a brilliant monologo

On top of that, I had a wonderful surprise yesterday when I turned up to a class to find four people missing: three students and, crucially, the teacher. Of course, nobody thought to tell me until that moment that she’d be on a school trip. As it turns out, I’d arrived just in time, as most of the kids were on the verge of following their three classmates’ example and doing an early runner. For reasons I still can’t fathom, instead of making a break for it – unwisely, I did give them the opportunity – they stuck around to see what I’d got in store for them, after giving me a demonstration of the songs they’d prepared for this year’s chirigotas (satirical songs, often covers with the lyrics rewritten to local effect).

It was halfway through the second when a cover teacher showed up and tried to take over. I managed to persuade him that I had the situation under control (Nixon never told a bigger lie) and let him have the afternoon off. From the moment he shut the door behind him I had the unwavering attention of the whole class for the presentation I’d prepared, and that in itself was nothing short of a miracle.

But better yet was when I got to school the following morning to be told by their teacher that not only had they enjoyed the lesson, but that they’d told her that they really learned a lot from it. It’s little moments like that that really make teaching worthwhile. It truly is a vocation and I can’t help but feel I was called a long time ago. And so what if it’s a family tradition? I’m a traditional sort of guy. I can handle that.

Not so nice was what came later, when I voluntarily took an hour out of my free time to pay a visit to the Upper Sixth class, which (for reasons beyond my understanding) is the one year group in the school which has no contact with me at all. Most of them were really keen to see me at last, but I also had the first example of hostility I’ve ever faced in a classroom when one of the students, pressed to ask me ‘a question, any question’ by the teacher, said in perfect English that he ‘quite honestly couldn’t care less about [me]’. He shut up pretty quick when I revealed that I was actually part-Spanish myself, but it did sting a little.

It didn’t hurt for long. I had a primary class right after which took my mind off the whole thing, to put it lightly, and for the rest of the afternoon I had my hands full trying to keep the restless upper tiers of my private school kids under control – which came to a head in one of the funnier instances of the year so far.

We were discussing Netflix, illegal downloads and streaming on the internet and, naturally, the subject of porn came up – what do you expect in a Catholic school? Now, one particularly chatty kid always gets that class’s goat and today one of them decided the kid had simply gone too far and brought him down to size royally, joking that he watched porn, but on his Smart Watch, ‘because it’s a lot more practical that way’.

He didn’t need to demonstrate. I couldn’t keep a straight face for ten minutes.

On the whole, there’s been lot of reasons to smile over the last two weeks; ever since I wrote that post on reasons to smile, in fact. Troublesome though they are, I still cherish the hugs I get from my primary kids on a Wednesday. It makes me feel appreciated. So too do I accept the hero worship I get from my cuarto class every time I pass their classroom, because it makes my heart soar when they scoff at my facts, laugh at my jokes and generally get so involved in my classes.

Oh, and the swallows and the martins are here. Already. In January, for Pete’s sake. I’m practically on tip-toes I’m so happy.

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Couldn’t grab the swallows, but the siskins that stopped by the park were pretty obliging

But perhaps the best thing that’s happened over the last two weeks has been the arrival on YouTube – at last – of last summer’s A Night at the Movies concert in Durham Cathedral. I wrote a blog post about it at the time, which you can read here to refresh your memory if you like, but needless to say it was the single best night of my life, and remains so to this day. To have the chance to watch it all over again has had my head spinning. I’ve put a link to the grand finale below. Listen carefully at 3:10 and you might just hear yours truly belting out the Zulu solo, despite having next to voice left by that stage of the night!

It’s been a love-filled few weeks, and I’ve needed it, all of it, as after what was supposed to be the date of the year became the friend-zoning of the century, I’ve not had the easiest start to 2016. As it is, I’m coming out fighting.

I’ll leave you with that Smart Watch image, I think. It stills gives me the giggles, in the most shameless, puerile fashion. But then, I am shameless. You know that. BB x

2016 Reasons to Smile

Hello you. Welcome to 2016. Happy new year, feliz año and all the rest. I’ve only really just finished with my first teaching day of the year and I’m already broken, but my Gold Box playlist is on at full blast, currently serving up a fantastically uplifting Son of Man courtesy of Phil Collins and all is as it should be. 2015 is behind us, a brave new year awaits. And it’s you who’ll climb the mountain, it’s you who’ll reach the peak.

What was it I said last year? That 2015 would be my year? In a sense, I suppose it was. It was, in all honesty, the very best of years. I took part in an international a cappella competition in London. I braved the Atlas Mountains. I sang the Circle of Life solo in front of a thousand-strong audience in Durham Cathedral. I recorded a single with the Lights. I saw the sun set over the Holy Land, swam with triggerfish in the Red Sea and watched a meteor shower over the desert in Wadi Rum. I found my old friends in Olvera after so many years and had some of the best nights of my life in my old hometown. I also had a close encounter with a griffon, saw the cranes come down for the winter and learned to harvest olives.

It wasn’t flawless, by any means. My essay ethic got worse and worse and my timetable got busier and busier, Persian was (sadly) a mistake, I had some Judas-level loyalty issues between the Lights and my official post as a musical director for Durham’s gospel choir and Year Abroad admin threatened to break me body and soul for several months. Amman, ever more of an obligation than a decision, practically drained me to the last drop of my will to study Arabic, and if it weren’t for having such good and honest companions about me, I might have tossed in the towel for good. And maybe, just maybe, I came home all the stronger for the ordeal.

But that’s looking back. Here’s to looking ahead. I’ve never been one for living in the past so much as in the future, which is equally problematic. One of my New Year’s resolutions really should be learning to live in the moment, which is a healthier state of mind by far, but… I guess I’d better be realistic. You can lead a horse to water, but if it’s not thirsty, there’s no point in drowning it just to make a point. So here, without further ado, are my reasons to smile in 2016.

  1. I’m alive. That’s as good a reason as any.
  2. I wanna know ’bout these strangers like me.
  3. I’m living in Spain. It’s what I’ve always wanted.
  4. I might be working long hours, but I’m being paid for it.
  5. Winter is upon us, and that means spring is around the corner.
  6. I’m going to be here in Spain when spring arrives.
  7. In three months’ time the bee-eaters will be here.
  8. Jesús and Laura, two of my primaria children, gave me a hug today.
  9. I’ve just seen The Lion King. Twice. Once on stage, once on film. Big smiles.
  10. Femi Kuti’s Truth Don Die has just come on.
  11. I’m going to learn something new this year.
  12. I’m going to go somewhere new this year.
  13. I’m going to live somewhere new this year.
  14. I’m going to meet somebody new this year.
  15. The world is huge, and full of life, and wonderful people, and beautiful moments.
  16. The sunsets here are nothing short of gorgeous.
  17. The novel is coming along better than ever before.
  18. You’re never lost if you’ve still got hope. And there is always hope.
  19. I’ve finally found my feet with serious photography after a few years’ absence.
  20. Get up, get on up; stay on the scene, like a sex machine.
  21. Durham chose me as one of its international bloggers.
  22. My brother and I are more alike than I ever knew.
  23. I know who my dearest friends are and I love them so.
  24. Erin Shore.
  25. I haven’t had to do a maths paper for almost six years.
  26. I haven’t started the TLRP yet, but it’s going to be hella interesting when I do.
  27. My passion for learning new (useless) facts hasn’t dried up.
  28. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba (sithi uhm ingonyama).
  29. Wa sangoma ngi velelwe.
  30. The 2015 negatives paragraph looks longer than the positives, but only because it ends on a positive.
  31. I’m not in Syria. Whoever decides these odds has dealt me a very fair hand.
  32. I’m an Englishman in a country where English is always in high demand.
  33. Consequently, I don’t hate being English anymore. Thank you Allan Quatermain.
  34. Dar baz ast.
  35. There’s plenty more fish in the sea. Oh, and the nearest sea is the Mediterranean.
  36. The Herculean backlog of stories I’ve got to read is still growing.
  37. The new Star Wars film is nowhere near as bad as the prequels.
  38. Zulu chant never ceases to lift my spirits, and it never will.
  39. I’m going back to Morocco in June.
  40. I’m not going back to Amman in June.
  41. Thriller.
  42. I might well be fluent in Spanish by the end of the year.
  43. Two of my Big Five life ambitions have already been accomplished.
  44. I’ll never stop chasing my dreams.
  45. I’ve still got two new pairs of socks to wear.
  46. Incidentally, the laundry is almost dry, too.
  47. Philip and Stephanie live happily ever after in the end.
  48. My childhood obsession with video games is over. Sméagol is free.
  49. I actually have three weeks’ worth of lessons already planned for once.
  50. I’ve got somewhere to live next year.
  51. I’ve got a roof over my head at the moment, which is more than can be said for many.
  52. Everyone is where they need to be, doing what they need to do.
  53. Everything that happens, happens for a reason.
  54. It’s raining, but I love the rain.
  55. All the setbacks in the world will never kill the romantic in me.
  56. I’d originally planned on twenty-six reasons. We’re now approaching sixty.
  57. There are only four of us left, but I love my family to pieces.
  58. It’s the little moments, not the major ones, which make life worth living.
  59. I’ll never give up on myself.
  60. My last class ends at half seven tomorrow, so I’ll have time to go grocery shopping.
  61. Chipicao might be gone, but Spain still deals a roaring trade in its twin, Bolycao.
  62. The last song on shuffle just happens to be my all-time favourite: Back in Stride, by Maze and Frankie Beverley. The ultimate in cure-all, feel-good songs.
  63. Don’t worry. Be happy.

If all else fails, put on a smile yourself. It’s not a failsafe, but it sure looks nice, and it makes everybody else feel nicer. And maybe they’ll smile too. And that will come around and make you smile, too. And that, in itself, is a reason to smile. BB x

Ariana Who?

I’ve been a bit idle on the blogging front over the last two weeks. About as idle as being “far too busy with end of term exams, final year housing admin, Christmas concert preparations and affairs of the heart” can be – if you want my honest answer.

Looking about me now, it’s rather hard to believe that I’ve been working here for almost three months exactly. But for the sporadic Christmas decorations, the staff room looks much the same as it did back in September. It was about 18°C back then, too. I tell you, it’s been an unseasonably warm winter. Perfect for the Romanians who came to Extremadura for the harvest, but mystifying for the rest of us. It’s almost Christmas Day, and the leaves still haven’t fallen from the trees yet. Stranger still, some have started to flower anew in the warm weather we’ve been having, so there’s a mix of browns, reds and vibrant greens. And at the same time I’m seeing photographs taken by colleagues of mine who remained in Durham, showing the place beset by magical, snow-dusted scenes that seem to have leapt from postcards or travel brochures. It’s so very hard to imagine when I’m having to go into school in a light shirt every day, because I’m still overheating if I take more than one layer. Bonkers, I tell you.

The Christmas concert is tomorrow, and it’s scuppered any plans I had on exploring Plasencia with Madre, who came to visit yesterday, as it falls bang in the middle of her stay. Technically it’s on my day off, so I could be an absolute Scrooge and demand my rights, but I’m not that much of a heartless bastard, so I’m chained into conducting two potential disasters tomorrow night. My two 2° ESO classes wanted to do Shakin’ Stevens Merry Christmas Everyone and Ariana Grande’s Santa Tell Me (I’d never even heard of that one), but democracy being the troublesome beastie it is, everybody has to have something to do: singing, dancing and…. <sigh>…. percussion. Cue twenty two boys volunteering for percussion, six girls for dancing and two for singing. Bang, bang, bang.

Fat chance. De eso nada.

 In two weeks’ practice (or rather, three hours apiece), we’ve just about got them down… Just. But it’s going to be more trouble than it’s worth, frankly, and it’s bringing back bad memories of thinking myself capable of being a Musical Director last year. Ha! I’m not a leader. At best I reckon I could make a good Ulysses, scheming from the sidelines, but the responsibility of leading everything – the percussion, the choreography and the notation, not to mention the discipline – is a severe (if deserved) punishment for my unstoppable enthusiasm. That’s what an exec is for; dividing responsibilities. Still, I’m learning at a ridiculous rate; and as I’ve said before, I’ll come out of this year with all the makings of a bloody good parent. All I need is a Spanish girl, the One, and she’s eluding me still.

Ill throw down a summary of the year in a bit, but before that, I’ve another six hours of class to get through today. England’s calling, but my phone’s on silent until the madness that is the Christmas term is finally over. Then, and only then, will I have true cause for the Hallelujah. BB x