Pendulum

I’ve been teaching myself how to say goodbye this summer. It’s a skill that must be learned as much as any, and one that, like most other things in life, improves with practice. After an exercise like a year abroad – where one has ample opportunity – you get to be quite proficient at the procedure. Sooner or later, with school and university fading into the ether, it becomes all the more apparent that some of the friends you once thought so close will, like so many treasured sandcastles, fade away with the tide. Staying in touch with the ones you love is a choice; moving on is a fact of life. Work, love and death all conspire to put a strain on ties that were once inseparable, and in some cases, blot out all but memory. This summer I’ve witnessed all three.

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Whilst I was up in Durham rehearsing for our Edinburgh Fringe show, I received the sad news that my dear friend Maddie had passed away. For almost five years she had fought the cancer that beset her upon her return from Uganda. It took her in the end. I’d like to think that when the time came, it was her will to go. She was like that; she did things her way. I was so shocked by the revelation that I spilled out the entire story of our friendship and our Ugandan adventures to a man I’d really only just met, who very kindly shouldered the outpouring with sage understanding. If it hadn’t been for the show, it would have paralysed me for another day, I shouldn’t wonder.

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There’s surely a special place for you, wherever you are, Maddie. Rarely has any one person had such an impact on me as you did, and at so crucial a junction. Whenever I needed somebody to knock some common sense into my wandering mind, you were there, with your dry wit, your raw honesty and your harmonica. You were a star and a half, in a sky full of people whom I call stars on a regular basis. I’m sorry I didn’t come with you to the dance party in Buhoma, that I allowed my hunt for the roller to delay me from getting your class photo in time, and that I never did watch Joyful Noise with the rest of you. I’ll remember you by the Top Cat theme that was your alarm, your endless cut-off attempts at Somewhere over the Rainbow and by the two machetes you insisted on having made for you. I’ll remember you also by your staunch refusal to search the dormitories, your ‘washing-up’ dance routine and your sheer bravery. But most of all, I’ll remember you by the fact that yours is the first real goodbye I’ve ever had to make.

Godspeed, Maddie. You’ll be a beacon to me forever.

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Having said my goodbyes to one dear friend, three weeks later found me making a different kind of farewell to another. Just as the Edinburgh Fringe was a delayed farewell to my beloved Lights, Andrew and Babette’s wedding was the moment delayed after Graduation to take my leave of some of my nearest and dearest from my degree. I surprised myself; where death and departure had brought me to the brink of tears, it took the spectacle of the first dance at the wedding reception for the dam to burst. I felt like I had known the man for fourteen years rather than four. I guess that’s what weddings do to you. This is where we diverge, the parting of the ways of a group that has been a core of my life for the last few years. And as you all set out to work in Albion, I’m the one leaving you all behind as I chase my dreams in Spain. Still I wish you all the best over the coming years, Mr and Mrs Moomin.

Godspeed, but not goodbye.

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A funeral and a wedding. A loss and a gain. The Lord giveth and he taketh away, and other such phrases to that effect. Two roads have split off from my own and gone down paths I cannot follow. I could hardly have asked for a more humbling way to take my leave of this fair country before I make my own way in the world. In autumn, of all seasons, just as England puts on her most beautiful coat of all.

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In my book, there are three kinds of goodbye, all of which I have now learned to use:

See you around. The easiest of the three. It could be a week or a while until we meet again, but I know that it will be soon enough.

Farewell. The second. The future is immense, and when and if we see each other again is beyond my knowledge. For my own sake, I hope that we do.

Goodbye. The last and the hardest. By my own definition, goodbye is final, and in all but the worst cases, made in the indefinite absence of the subject.

I must take my own road soon. It leads me first to Spain, that much I know, but beyond that is anyone’s guess. It has been a most educational summer. BB x

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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

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