Desert Island Discs

There are few things in the world that mean more to me than music. If that wasn’t clear enough by now, here’s me setting the record straight. My tiresome Chinese Bluetooth headphones might instil an odd lethargy whenever I put them on, but they provide a welcome lifeline on the five-minute walk to school on Monday mornings. So it strikes me as rather odd that, in two and a half years of blogging, I’ve yet to pen my own Desert Island Discs-style blog. Perhaps that’s just as well, as one’s taste in music is as much a part of growing up as one’s outlook on the world. It would surprise me greatly if I ever met a man whose tastes had remained unshaken since the beginning. I know mine haven’t. That is, not too much.

I’m going to keep to the BBC Radio programme’s format: that is, eight tracks, from which I will have to pick a favourite. So, whilst I’m still young, naïve and idealistic, here’s my Desert Island Discs.


1. Circle of Life (Elton John/Lebo M.)

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Say what you like about the 90s, but they did give birth to one of the greatest animated films of all time. I haven’t the least shame in admitting that, to this day, Disney’s The Lion King remains one of my favourite films of all time. It’s simply perfect. I used to spend hours gawping at it as a kid, and watching some of my private lesson kids crawling around the room pretending to be all the animals in the opening sequence almost brings tears to my eyes. If there’s a better way to invoke a sense of awe and love for Africa’s natural beauty in four minutes flat, I’d like to see it.

When did you first discover it?
Given that The Lion King came out in the year I was born – a mere four days later, in fact – it’s very possible I’ve known this song for my entire life. I expect my first ‘real’ encounter with it would have been shortly after my first birthday when we got the movie on VHS.

What do you like most about it?
Lebo M.’s voice. The first twenty-eight seconds are pure gold. Who doesn’t love the opening? Even if most everyone gets the words wrong…

Any special memories?
I used it as my audition piece to get into Durham University’s A Cappella group, Northern Lights. Thanks to my dear friend Biff, we ended up performing it, and I got to pay homage to Lebo M. in Durham Cathedral itself in front of a crowd of a thousand. Riffing over the top of DUOS, Chamber Choir and the rest of Durham’s finest in the finale of King of Pride Rock will probably never be toppled as one of the happiest moments of my life.

2. Back in Stride (Maze feat. Frankie Beverly)

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Maze is far from one of the most famous bands of their day. The late 70s was a hard time to make it big as a new artist, with heavyweights like Barry White and Earth, Wind and Fire kicking around. But for me, this is a special one-hit wonder that floors them all. Back in Stride is neither ground-breaking nor thought-provoking, but it is feel-good, and one of the most feel-good numbers I know. There’s just an honest, heartfelt get-up-and-go about it that brings me out of the dark and into the light whenever it comes on. And Frankie Beverly may well be one of the most underrated male vocalists of all time.

When did you first discover it?
If memory serves, it came on the radio on one of the few nights I tuned in to a local Soul and Funk radio station, shortly before my great Spanish adventure. Like I’ve said before, if I’m proud of one thing, it’s my whim decisions.

What do you like most about it?
The delay on the rolling bass guitar line. Apparently Despacito has been scientifically proven to be catchy because of the deliberate delay in the chorus. I wonder whether it’s the same mechanism at work here. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if it were.

Any special memories?
This song once saved my life. Quite literally. When I was sleeping rough in the mountains to the north of Madrid, it rained through the night and my bivvy bag turned out to be a lot less waterproof than I’d hoped (though I suppose they’re supposed to be used in tandem with a tent, rather than as the sole defence). I couldn’t sleep, I was shaking from head to foot for hours, and I wanted my parents more than ever in my life. Listening to this song on repeat pulled me back from the brink. Which, I suppose, is what granted Back in Stride a certain legendary status in my Top Ten.

3. Forgiven Not Forgotten (The Corrs)

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Anyone who knows me will know that I go on and on (and on) about how black is beautiful when it comes to music. You only need to look at this list to see where my preferences lie, and it’s by no means a good sampling, with Fela Kuti, Tina Turner and the one and only Luther Vandross being narrowly beaten to the punch on this list. So it might come as a surprise that my favourite band is not black at all, but an Irish folk band. The Corrs and I go way back, and there’s hardly a song of theirs I don’t love. Forgiven Not Forgotten is a gem of an album and the title number is the standout diamond.

When did you first discover it?
Forgiven Not Forgotten was my first ever album, back in the days when a mixtape meant an actual tape. My dad used to put it on every once in a while on the way to school, where the novel was born to the sound of Sharon Corr’s violin. The cassette itself is long since missing in action, and – like many of its kind – probably ended up a mess of spent tape that no pencil could fix, but I still have the cassette case.

What do you like most about it?
Andrea Corr’s vocals are hauntingly beautiful. I’d have to say that the break into the harder-hitting second verse is what takes the biscuit, though. It sends me soaring.

Any special memories?
As a kid, knowing that my favourite childhood author, Michael Morpurgo, was also a fan of the group made me smile a lot; he namedrops the band often in his Scilly Isle stories.

4. Thriller (Michael Jackson)

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Who’d have thought that a song about zombies would be one of the most popular songs of all time? Who else but Michael Jackson? Thriller is amazing. I love it. I can’t shake it. The chords are insane. The bassline is unforgettable. And don’t even get me started on the dance routine. It’s MJ at his finest; no deep message, no heavy lyrics, just pure, all-out fun. Any one of these eight songs could be a strong contender for my favourite, but as far as the official list is concerned, Thriller has been in the throne for the longest. And that’s despite Vincent Price’s voiceover, which somehow adds to the charm…

When did you first discover it?
You know, I don’t know? I won’t even pretend I do. We had Michael Jackson’s Number Ones on our CD rack at home, and I don’t think it took me all that long to find it.

What do you like most about it?
The whine of the theremin during the third and final verse. No doubt about it. I get the shivers every single time.

Any special memories?
Turning up to Arrowsmith’s Halloween party in my Thriller outfit, to find fellow Light Luke had come in exactly the same outfit. The beginning of a long and happy friendship, grounded in a common love for one of the world’s greatest.

5. Love Theme from El Cid (Miklós Rózsa)

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Many of the songs on this list are songs I grew up with, and number five is no exception. I can’t have seen El Cid more than two or three times before returning to study the epic at university, which brought me back into contact with the endlessly evocative soundtrack of the film. It just screams Spain, more so even than Bizet’s Carmen. Rózsa knew what he was doing. No matter what happened, I was once a violinist, and to have a set of favourites without the beautiful violin solo of the Love Theme would be nothing short of criminal. There are many pieces from the soundtrack that I adore, such as the famous El Cid March and the Fanfare Coronation, but the Love Theme wins it for me.

When did you first discover it?
Technically speaking, I ‘rediscovered’ it whilst I was writing my El Cid essay last year. I had the album on repeat every time I sat down to write, so it surprises me that Spotify seems to think ‘dance-pop’ was my favourite genre. By all rights, unrepresentative as it would be, my fixation with this album in essay season should have pushed it to the top.

What do you like most about it?
The violin solo in the second half. It’s breath-taking, and makes me wish I hadn’t given up the violin years ago, if only to be able to play it as well as the soloist does.

Any special memories?
I believe I finished my dissertation shortly after playing it for probably the 53rd time. That’s a special memory if ever there was one… right?

6. What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)

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Stealing its way into the spotlight like a fine wine, Marvin Gaye’s pleading revolution song has been with me for a while, but only found its way into my heart recently. At a time in my life when music was taken from me (after a particularly music-heavy summer at the Edinburgh Fringe), Marvin found me and picked me back up. What’s Going On called out to me with a meaning it never had before and I fell in love with it. Grapevine might be one of his greatest legacies, but the subdued vocals of this particular number make it nothing less than spectacular.

When did you first discover it?
On my first serious fling with the world of Soul, Funk and Disco music in my final year at school, under the guiding influence of my former bandmaster, Mr D. I must have overlooked this diamond then, perish the thought.

What do you like most about it?
Whilst I don’t tend to go for songs for their lyrics, believing the music itself to be of far more importance, What’s Going On strikes a chord with the pacifist in me. And, of course, there’s the violins: the sailing strings of the third verse reach so high they trace the heavens and rain down gold.

Any special memories?
It isn’t often you discover a new artist you adore, but when it does, it’s a little bit like falling in love. Discovering Marvin Gaye ‘properly’ this year via this song makes for a special memory, I think.

7. Erin Shore (The Corrs)

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What do you know? It’s The Corrs again. I told you there was hardly a song of theirs I didn’t love and I wasn’t lying. It was a struggle not having at least three Corrs numbers in this list (you’d find the third if we were to expand this list to ten). Erin Shore is an instrumental, and it must have meant a lot to the band: it’s at the opening and closing of Forgiven Not Forgotten. In my head it’s the theme of the Royals in my novel, and thus this piece alone has had a heavy influence the development of the novel. The Love Theme from El Cid may have been beyond me as a dropout Grade 6 violinist, but I had the book of violin parts as a kid and I remember teaching myself this one, before ear and memory sufficed.

When did you first discover it?
Shortly after (and before) discovering Forgiven Not Forgotten.

What do you like most about it?
The bells, the flutes, the choir… the sounds of Ireland… And, of course, the wicked drumming before the final uplifting round.

Any special memories?
Every time I listen to this track I see the heroes of my book. It’s not a memory as they’re almost always on my mind, but that makes it doubly special for me.

8. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (Michael Jackson)

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If the Corrs get a second mention, then the other great light of my life needs to be up there too. And he’s not here by proxy. Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough is the happiest, grooviest, boogiest song I know. I just want to get up on a stage and dance. If there were ever a film made about my life, this would be song playing as they rolled the end credits. The music video says it all: MJ, MJ, MJ. Oh look, more MJ. Billie Jean, Wanna Be Startin’ Something, Earthsong and The Way You Make Me Feel are all serious contenders for my top twenty, but this one makes the cut. Because it makes me want to dance.

When did you first discover it?
It was the first song on the Number Ones CD, which means that, of all MJ’s greatest hits, this was the one I came upon first. I remember boogying about to it as a toddler, unable to understand the lyrics, but smiling all the same.

What do you like most about it?
The opening. Like Thriller, MJ felt like having a few spoken words thrown in for good measure. And though what he says is James Brown levels of inspired, it is almost exactly what goes through my head every time this banger comes on.

Any special memories?
When they played this track on a night out in York back in ’14, I went berserk. I’d been waiting for a song I truly knew to get my mojo on, and then Don’t Stop came on and I lost it. I remember grooving with a couple of great dance partners on the dance floor and feeling like I’d stepped back in time to 1979. What a year to be young and free…

‘…and if you had to choose just one?’

Tough call. But it’d have to be Erin Shore. I might be on that desert island for a while, but Erin Shore would take me home in my dreams.


Special Recommendations:

Someday (The Corrs); Mother Africa Reprise from The Power of One (Hans Zimmer); A House is Not a Home (Luther Vandross); Shosholoza (Ladysmith Black Mambazo); Ukuthula (Soweto Gospel Choir); Truth Gon Die (Femi Kuti); I Wish (Stevie Wonder); Proud Mary (Ike & Tina Turner); I Feel Good (James Brown)

 

Fancy doing this yourself? Be my guest! Isn’t it wonderful to take a trip down memory lane through music? BB x

A Waiting Game

Teaching’s going fine. It’s been a misty last few days here in Tierra de Barros. After a hearty Thanksgiving Party in Almendralejo and a decent slog at the karaoke for afters (via Tom Jones and Lionel Richie under my karaoke alter ego, Bem), it’s back to business as usual for the last three weeks of term (the fourth is always anybody’s guess). My old rule – never repeat a game – is holding fast. Amongst the games I’ve played with my classes are:

  • Psychiatrist
  • The Triangle Game
  • I’m Going on a Trip
  • Chain Word Advance (Noun, Adjective and Verb)
  • Never Have I Ever
  • Kim’s Game
  • Mafia
  • Twenty-One

I’ve still got a few more in the bag before I run out of my set, but when I do, it’s only a matter of invention and re-invention. This teaching assistant malarkey is simply a case of giving the kids an incentive to speak in English, and what better way is there than giving them games they can enjoy in their own language once we’re done? Psychiatrist went down a storm – the kids play it at break-times, they tell me – and this week’s Twenty-One (courtesy of Tasha, an old hand at this game) has proven itself to be more popular yet. The Triangle Game left a good many of them boggled and more than a little frustrated, but my older classes found it immensely entertaining.

The key, I suppose, is not to think of these games as ESL activities in their own right, but as the kind of games you’d have enjoyed playing with your friends at school, or at university, or in any other setting. Parlour games are prime material, such as Psychiatrist (for which I am indebted to the French animateurs at my first summer job who rendered it Pussycat, after the French psychiatre). Campfire games are also a wonder here, and I find myself wishing that the younger me had been more sociable; an upbringing in the Scouts or Guides might have armed me with a good deal more material in this field. Last, but not least, drinking games are an unexpectedly rewarding resource, if modified correctly – especially as many of them are already corrupted games in their own right. Remove the element of drink and place a greater emphasis on speech and you have plenty of ideas at your disposal.

Of course, I have to keep this up for a full academic year. That’s thirty-one weeks of games; twenty-one, if we’re counting down (that’s as many days of games as Emperor Commodus declared in Gladiator…). As a point of pride, I will never resort to Hangman. Thus, the search continues. So help me God.

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Meanwhile, I’m finding myself drawn to the attractions of home more keenly than usual. Perhaps it’s because my old friend Biff is bound for South Africa in the new year (KwaZulu-Natal no less, the lucky so-and-so), or perhaps because it’s Christmas and – being in Spain – you’d never know it, or perhaps it’s the simple fact that, unlike the last time I was working here, I haven’t got the surety of returning home at the end of the year. The fact that this will also be my first Christmas away from home does factor into it, too.

Skyscanner went from a casual browsing affair to my most visited webpage overnight. By the end of the night I’d searched for flights to Gatwick and to Newcastle; to Stansted, Luton and even Durham Tees; and then to Durban and Cape Town; Paris, Toulouse and Berlin… With the Northern Lights’ annual Christmas Concert next week and several old friends due to return to watch, I found myself tempted to wing my way over if I could. But between an 8am flight from Málaga, a midnight bus ride from Durham to London and the knowledge that I’d have to take two days off work for it to be even possible, I decided to save the 180€ it would have cost me towards more worthwhile ventures (I could buy a decent bike for that kind of money – or even pay for two return trips to Gatwick in low season).

I still miss music, and I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into my a cappella arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, as well as tinkering with arrangements of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, The Sugababes’ Red Dress and an Afrobeat mashup of Thriller and Fela Kuti’s Zombie and Opposite People. The musical energy within me still needs siphoning off somehow, and even if the Lights have enough material for years already, all these arrangements are, at least, a temporary solution for my own frustration.

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To keep my writing muscles flexed, I’ve been building my vocabulary daily on the sly. Whether I’ll use my learning as part of a Pasapalabra-style test for the kids remains to be seen, as some of the words are downright impossible to divine without the right knowledge, but as a writer I’m hoping it’ll do me some good. Here’s a few of my recent findings:

umbrageous (adjective): (of a person) inclined to take offense easily

nonbook (noun): a book without literary or artistic merit

earthshine (noun): the dim light on the unlit surface of the Moon caused by the Earth

A good many of them are much too specific to wend their way into everyday conversation (see bombinate), but I’m hoping it’ll increase my vocabulary in the long run. Polygon and Scrabble would be a lot easier, for one thing. And, of course, Bananagrams. Until the next time. BB x

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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

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