View From the Bridge

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This is Clifton Bridge, probably the most photographed object in Avon county. Designed by the colourful Isambard Kingdom Brunel, completed in 1864, four years after his death. At least he knew it was being built. It is an extraordinarily lovely thing. Little-known fact: it is also an optical illusion – to offset the optical effect of the different heights of the cliffs on either side it slopes 3 feet upwards left to right in the picture, creating the illusion of being perfectly level.

It is, inevitably, the best-known suicide spot in Bristol, although fewer than 10% of the city’s suicides actually take place there, almost all male. I’ll tell you why.

Leaning over the edge you look straight down 246 feet – 75 metres. It makes your feet feel funny, which I posit is caused by your body making sure it is standing on solid ground, or perhaps blood rushes to your feet to lower your centre of gravity, thus making you feel light-headed, literally. Scary, anyway. There are much less challenging ways to top oneself. That’s why. (And they call it the coward’s way out. Hah!) But it does have the attraction, under certain circumstances, of certainty. 95% of the four who jump every year die, a far higher success rate than most alternatives. Jumping from the Clifton Bridge isn’t a cry for help. Presumably the occasional survivor hits the water at high tide. That would mean life in a wheelchair, for sure; your spine would fly to bits as your body flattened out at whatever angle you hit, meeting the water at about 120 miles an hour. (In 1885 a woman survived because of the ballooning of her skirts. She lived a healthy life into her 80s.)

I’ve had a few very difficult years. At times it has just seemed like all too much. How much more can I take, or more to the point, do I want to take? The end result is the same. After a particularly upsetting day a few weeks ago I set off on a walk and, without really planning to, ended up at the bridge. Was I being told something? Was my instinct giving me a hint? Standing on terra firma at that moment a quick end seemed frighteningly attractive. Yes. Maybe this is the moment. What a relief, if it is.

I thought by getting into position at least I would find out. Maybe, looking down at the rocks, I would simply know that it was OK.

They have halved the annual rate of jumping by putting wire barriers above the footpath, but at the Leigh Woods end there are viewing platforms with chest-high stone walls deemed too beautiful to disfigure with barriers; it would also spoil the spectacular view. I love that about Europe – in New Zealand the all-powerful health and safety Nazis who have virtually destroyed Guy Fawkes night wouldn’t hesitate.

So there I was, sitting on the parapet with my legs dangling over 200-odd feet of space, rocking gently back and forth, knowing that if I rocked just a little further I would have slightly less than four seconds to think whatever I might think in those four seconds. That, in those circumstances, is quite a long time. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I sat there for a quite a lot longer than that.

I discovered several things. First, that I had finally succeeded in ditching my childhood fear conditioning about suicide sending me to hell. I felt quite sure that wouldn’t happen because the most powerful force in the universe is benevolence. Destiny is on the side of the good guys. The Hitlers always lose. Whatever my uncertainties about deity I felt sure that the universe isn’t run by by a cruel force which punishes those who can’t take it any more.

Secondly, I felt a powerful sense that this just wasn’t my destiny. I felt as if the story of my life, though still unknown to me, had already been written and this wasn’t how it ends.

I was reminded too, of something I have known since I was young. Although a hell of a risk-taker – my mother told me later in life that from my earliest years my lack of common-sense fear was her constant nightmare – I seem to have a powerful drive to keep breathing. At times it has produced behaviour I didn’t understand at the time and only later realised were about self-protection. This isn’t fear. I wasn’t afraid to jump. It seemed a pretty attractive option, even gazing down at the distant rocks. But there was something strong that I would have had to tear myself free of. I couldn’t have just slipped off. I would have had to hurl my self off. I’m not sure I could have done it. It’s a strong force, like electromagnetism, and as we know, that’s more powerful than gravity. I suppose everyone has that to some degree, although we do read of people calmly stepping off cliffs or shooting themselves. Not me.

Although I’m listing these things in sequence, they weren’t a sequence. All sorts of things were going on simultaneously. The whole time I sat and rocked I was in connection with the suffering my suicide would cause, and painfully aware that it wasn’t enough. Numerically, I mean. It would savagely hurt a very, very few people. Too few. This was not a good feeling or a good thing to reflect upon even now. On the other hand, there was no-one it would please, which should have offset its inverse corollary but didn’t.

I had made the discoveries I needed to make: this wasn’t my destiny, and the suffering I feel intermittently is too far short of the hurt my suicide would cause, so the whole thing was a no-go.

I wasn’t quite ready to get down. It was a special place, a moment in time. Unfortunately none of my discoveries had cheered me up even slightly. The opposite, if anything. But it felt nice, sitting there, rocking, looking down at my unattainable quietus.

Then an arm locked around my neck, I was dragged rapidly backwards and two guys were sitting on me.

CCTV. I could have guessed, but I just wasn’t thinking about it at the time.

So that was that.

Back to the Land (and Vegetarianism) – The Great Hippy Blunders

In 1974 I and about 30 other young dreamers bought a magnificent 1200 acre farm in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. We were going back to the land, like thousands of earth-children throughout the western world. We were going to feel the earth between our fingers and toes again. And the sea – Sandy Bay was on our doorstep, the sea teeming with abundance. We would till the soil, make art and music, love each other and share.

Back to our roots.

Forty years later, it’s a pretty miserable scene. Not that much tilling, less art and even less sharing. A hell of a lot of bickering over insanely trivial issues. An underground river of venomous gossip and grudges lasting decades.

Just like thousands of its counterparts around the world. Why?

In a nutshell, because they were never our roots. They weren’t anyone’s roots. In fact they were, ironically, further from our roots than our urban lifestyle. Even that didn’t tie us down to a few people on a few acres.

Three events widely separated in time have provided me with the understanding why this enterprise was doomed to failure.

First, in 1967, I went to a film festival in Brisbane which ran a documentary I never have, never could, forget. Someone with a 16mm camera and a tape recorder spent weeks in the Australian bush moving along with an extended group of Aboriginal hunter gatherers. I recognised the most natural lifestyle I had ever encountered and the sanest, happiest people I had ever seen. Unfortunately, a few years later, swept up in the beauty of Moehau and the energy of making a new community, I forgot.

Earlier this year I walked the Camino de Santiago, hefting my pack on my back every morning and walking fifteen to twenty miles.

And this week I heard an extract from a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.

For 200 millennia, more or less, we lived like pilgrims on the Camino. We had no fixed abode but did have a sense of a larger sphere in which we moved. Every morning we rose, gathered our few belongings and walked. It is no accident that a human child learns to walk around about the time that it gets too heavy to be carried any distance.

By and large the females gathered and the men hunted, but there was a fair amount of cross-over in response to what was available. No rigid plan; rigidity came with farming. When the fish were running everyone fished. When we came across an abundant vegetable resource everyone gathered and feasted. At night, we lit fires and ate.

Becoming farmers cursed us well and truly. We had to defend what we invested months, years, accumulating. Warfare and violent death became normal. As farmers, it wasn’t enough to simply create food. We had to build storage and then build defences for the storage. Powerful parasites called priests and their soldiers descended on us and demanded tribute. We farmed the land and they farmed us. Groovy. Soon populations grew so large that the door to a return to hunting and gathering was closed forever. We were trapped in a miserable, everlasting lifestyle. Little wonder that religions still make a virtue of large families and call birth control sinful.

By comparison, when a hunter-gathering clan ran into a superior competitor it moved out of the way, instead of fighting tooth and claw to defend … what? We didn’t have anything to defend. There was always more space because hunter-gathering prevented over-population. You simply could not have six children, it wasn’t viable. I have no idea how they prevented large families, but they did.

These are our true roots, and the real reason, I believe, why almost everyone who sets out to do the Camino finishes it, no matter how unlikely that may seem at the outset. It’s in our bones, our blood, our genes. Pushing on, keeping going – we’ve been doing it literally forever. And of course it is the reason why we feel wrong, unsatisfied, down, in the days after we stop. We have just spent a few weeks doing what we were designed to do since the dawn of our species.

One of Harari’s many theses is that mankind didn’t domesticate cereals 10,000 years ago – cereals domesticated mankind, very much to our disadvantage. We got a grossly inferior diet and a host of diseases – arthritis, digestive disorders, bad teeth, under-nutrition due to mineral and protein deficiencies and more. We lost, the cereals won, becoming the most widespread and successful plant group in history. The life and diet of the hunter-gatherer is constantly diverse. We had hundreds of different foods, changing with the locale and the seasons. As farmers, we inherited a miserable and insufficient handful. Vegetarianism, from an evolutionary perspective, is dietary self-flagellation. Enjoy.

It started with the dog, 10,000 years ago. In all likelihood someone found a wolf pup and raised it, discovering that the creature grew up identifying the human as its pack leader, driven to obey him or her. Then pastoral animals, then cereals. The wheat snuck up on us behind a bunch of cute animals. Fiendishly clever!

The biggest loss was that we became not only sicker but sadder, because we no longer spent our days doing what we had evolved to do – move constantly, see new things, deal with a constantly changing environment, walk, walk, walk. Homo sapiens, as you discover on the Camino if you’re paying attention, is a walking machine. People become utterly, stupidly happy walking the Camino. It’s now being said that the cure for almost everything is to walk two miles a day. Close but not enough – it’s more like three or four miles. And I do. If I don’t my happiness declines quickly.

The other big hit we took was over-work. We are absolutely not designed to work eight, ten hours a day, and doubly-absolutely-not designed to do the same work every day. (Walking isn’t work. It’s more like breathing with your legs.)

Eat meat, fish, and everything else that nourishes you. Consume all the parts of the animals you eat. Walk everywhere and (this is what I learnt from the aboriginal film) look around constantly, observing, thinking. Those aboriginals saw from two hundred yards away a goanna sitting on a rock that I couldn’t see from twenty. Take lots of rest, and share what you have. Accumulate as little as possible.

Live as much like a hunter gatherer as you can. You will flourish.

It really is that simple, because ten millennia is the blink of an evolutionary eye. It’s yesterday. We are still hunter gatherers where it counts.

And of course, don’t be so foolish as to voluntarily surrender to the tyranny of the cereal by putting roots down in the soil. Roots are for plants.

Hang on, I hear you say. I know happy farmers.

Really? I don’t. But I know farmers who are happier than their counterparts running the rat-race in the city, being carried around everywhere like shopping, heaving with 21st-Century insecurities. Farmers are outdoors a lot of the time, they have space, they don’t have a boss. Not bad, as modern lifestyles go. But their relative contentment isn’t in the same league as those Aboriginals wandering under the sky. They appeared to me to be transcendently happy, showing all the signs of a complete absence of inner conflict, living a Buddha-like existence in the permanent present.

We’re just not designed to spend our days walking 50 yards to the orchard and another 50 to the gardens, spending hours there doing back-breaking work, go back to the house for meals and sit around in the evenings on our bums talking and watching TV. And seeing the same handful of  people, the same set of scenery, year in year out. Thinking that would make us happy was a terrible mistake.

Not one I personally made for long, I’m pleased to say. A few months living in another community building a Buddhist temple was enough for me. I learned that living and eating communally, seeing the same faces everyday, was my particular hell. I had no idea I could come to hate someone because of the way they nibbled their rice.

Peace, man.

Might as well address the other common thesis, that we are ‘evolving to a higher state of consciousness’ which involves the peaceful, non-violent path of not eating animals.

For starters that is a gross and ignorant mis-use of the word ‘evolve.’ The only path of evolution, the only one, is adaptation by natural selection. So we won’t even start to do that until we start preferentially selecting mates on the basis of their vegetarianism and within those unions have more children who out-survive those of meat-eaters. Out-survive, in evolutionary language, has nothing to do with length of life. It means, technically, we will have more grandchildren who live to child-bearing age. One, it isn’t happening and two, if it was it would still take 50 millennia, minimum, to produce the slightest physical changes, the vital one being developing the herbivore’s ability to synthesise the essential amino acids from plant sources. Without complete (animal) protein we need to have all 9 essential amino acids in our system at the same time. Studies have shown various combinations of plant foods can provide these provided they are all consumed on the same day. To really thrive on this diet takes knowledge, effort and the availability of a wide variety of high-quality plant foods such as one finds in health food stores. I consider a lifestyle dependent on health-foods stores that bring together, year-round, food from all over the planet both unnatural and undesirable.

Evolving to become natural vegetarians has not even begun and is highly unlikely to. It would take an extended famine, during which one individual would strike luck thousands of times greater than that needed to win a national lottery and experience not just one but several gene mutations enabling that person to produce the necessary enzymes. It is theoretically likely that this person would thrive and have many healthy children when everyone else was starving. The gene would be rapidly dispersed through the population by preferential choice of mate and we would have evolved to become vegetarians.

Aint’ gonna happen.

Tale of a Shirt

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Sometimes an object becomes so special that it just deserves its own special tribute. This is actually three objects, all of the same design. In 1992 Linda and I went to the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s equivalent of Ascot. While there I bought two identical, expensive white shirts made of Indian khadi (handspun, handwoven fabric, lionised by Gandhi as the quintessential, noble item of Indian cottage industry.) What brilliant shirts! Loosely woven, cool in the hottest weather. I loved them.

Fast forward 22 years. One has vanished, the other is looking decidedly frail. We are off to India when, almost at the last minute, I realise this is my chance to have them copied. Woohoo! Into the suitcase it goes.

Darjeeling, March. Opposite my hotel is a little tailors’ shop – two men wielding ancient machines, with a third, foot-cranked one to cover for the frequent power outages. Tailoring in India is often a Muslim occupation, and I spot a calendar with Arabic writing on the wall. Putting my best foot forward, I greet them with ‘Salaam eleikum.’ Back comes ‘Eleikum salaam.’ A good start.

They inspect the shirt. Yes, no problem. This is good news – the neck and yoke are, despite their apparent simplicity, clever and complex, the reason they sit so well. I want three. Yes, no problem. How much? 350 rupees – £3.50. I’m hardly likely to quibble. How much fabric? They measure, look at me, suggest they might be improved with a little more length, give me a number.

Off I toddle to the Government of West Bengal khadi shop. Bizarre. In spite of Gandhiji’s emblematic khadi being, like mine, loosely woven and white, there isn’t a single length of white fabric in the shop.

Down to the bazaar. Nope. Nobody sells white khadi, or anything that looks like it. One particularly friendly trader suggests that ‘Sa’ib might find this an acceptable choice’ and shows me incredibly fine, soft, white, almost transparent pure cotton fabric, doubled over on the roll, i.e. very wide.

“Hmmm. Perhaps. What is it?”

“Bed sheeting, Sa’ib.” It’s perfect.

Because of the double width, he recalculates the amount needed. I huff and puff my way back up the mountain, gasping in the thin air, to the tailors.

“Atcha. Good. But not enough for three.”

I’m not up for another climb. Living here in my 20s, even as a weed of a junkie just released from three months lying around on starvation rations in a Thai prison I never suffered from the altitude. Now, 65 years old and fit, it’s exhausting.

“Is there enough for two shirts, one with a double layer?”

He brightens; clearly thinks this a good idea.

“Yes, Sa’ib.”

Two days later I pick up three shirts of the same design – one single weight, one double weight, and the skilfully repaired original, thrown in gratis.

An entirely lovely transaction.

Three weeks later I am in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago. What am I wearing? The double-weight shirt. It’s superb – soft but strong, warm in the sometimes chilly early spring, breathes better than any synthetic, dries quickly. But comes back with a blue stain across the back from my back-pack. I treat it with a product for whitening ladies’ underwear, which replaces the blue with a yellowish stain, which I treat with a good soak in bleach and voila! – a spotless white shirt again.

This is not the shirt in the picture. That is the single-weight version. Back in England, in a heatwave, I walk in it, charging up hill and down dale at 7 km/hr, my daily regime since the Camino and the reason I have gone from a 38″ to a 34″ trouser size and from intermittent depression to persistent cheerfulness. It is once again a brilliant garment. I can wash it, hand-wring it, hang it on the line for ten minutes and chuck it on again, its residual dampness dispelled by my body heat in minutes.

What a complete, simple pleasure it is to have these shirts. No-one would look at them twice, but they are gorgeous, swimming with history, precious beyond rubies.

I love them.

That Wondrous Camino


Two months ago I returned from a trip to India in the worst emotional condition I had experienced since my teens.  I had made the mistake of going back to Darjeeling, where in my 20s I had spent several of the happiest months of my life. I was hoping to meet my Tibetan landlady (and lover) and her son, seven years old at the time I left. Darjeeling, 7,500 feet up in the Himalayas, was truly a jewel of the Raj, an exquisite town of Victorian houses and shops surrounded by tea plantations, facing the biggest massif in the Himalayan range. Not only was Dawa dead, so was her son in tragic circumstances. Forty-five years of rampant, random, cheapest-possible-option development has destroyed the jewel. Only traces remain. Other influences bearing down on me – isolation, the failure of my book to find a publisher, and more – were crushing the life, and faith, out of me. I found myself wishing for death, utterly heart-sick.

 

With desperation comes inspiration. I remembered that some people from my parish in Auckland had done a pilgrimage in Spain a couple of years ago. Yes! Within days I was in Burgos on the Camino Francés, chosen as a starting point to land me on Maundy Thursday in Santiago de Compostela where the relics of St James are believed to be held.

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So God was looking after me after all. What a wondrous, magical thing is the Camino. Especially to do it in the way I and many others did it – alone on the walk, talking in the evening with kindred spirits. Or the opposite – both have their gifts when you’re in a watching and learning state of mind. 500 km, walking every day. With a 10 kilo pack on my back and my guitar slung over my shoulder I resembled a badly assembled dromedary. I crossed two mountain ranges, right up to the high spring snow line. Twice I walked almost 20 kilometres scarcely seeing another person. The old Roman road to Transalpine Gaul, the Via Aquitana, leading into the little village of Calzadilla des Hermanillos, leaves the vehicle roads completely and runs as a harsh, pebbly track straight across the high plains for a four-hour walk through nothing. No houses, no anything but scrub, broken forest and occasional wheat fields. And then, once or twice, the white bullet train appeared and rocketed by. I waved my stick around and leapt in the air like a madman, shouting “Praise God!” at the top of my lungs.  Pure impulse; it felt wonderful! Surely, liberation is simply the freedom to respond to impulse.

What an extraordinarily simple and beautiful thing it is to just walk every day. No wonder posties are always happy. Just drop into your rhythm, which in my case was precisely 120 steps per minute, 5 km/hr, and encounter whatever turns up, which is often nothing. Lovely, yummy, rich, meaningful nothing. Walking, thinking, praying, meditating, dictating poetry and ideas onto my phone, always walking, walking. Day after day after day. 

Distance comes to mean nothing – it’s all about time. In fact, the distance markers can be wildly unreliable. Shortly after the ´409km to Santiago´ sign I was photographed next to there was one saying 453 km! So you just walk. Unlike most, I didn’t have a guide book, just a print-out from a website which gave me a reasonable idea when I would find the next spot and whether there would be an albergué municipal, as they call the public pilgrims’ dormitories.

Of course there is so much beauty. So many remarkable sights. Like the Cruz de Ferro at the highest point of the Francés in the Léon Mountains. The +/- 9 metre pole surmounted by a simple iron cross dates back at least 1,000 years. The pile of stones at the base is maybe twenty metres long, six wide and four high, the product of a millennium, a pebble at a time. Tradition encourages pilgrims to leave a stone for some person or intention at the Cruz. I stuck a sharp little stone in a split in the pole to thank my mother for getting me there/here. (Too complicated and odd to explain.)

Going up to Cruz de Ferro was a hard climb. (But not the worst; that was to O Cebreiro in the Cordillera.) A remarkable thing: I approached the Cruz through cold mist and snow drifts, and literally as I walked away the clouds parted, the sun came out and ten minutes later I was descending through fields and the odd ruin basking in spring sunshine, the apple blossom thick on the trees and the air full of bird-song. It was exactly like the scene out of Shangri La where the travellers descended from a freezing, treacherous high pass in Tibet and found themselves in the land of perpetual spring. I came around a corner and wham! there in the distance was the full stretch of the snow-covered Cordillera. Just like that, completely unexpected. Beautiful. And then I slipped on an invisibly wet rock and smashed my guitar! The descent was wicked and falls are common. 

Up till then travelling with the guitar had been special. Almost no-one passes the first 100km of their walk with unnecessary weight, in fact there is a special postage rate to Santiago from anywhere on the Camino to accommodate the shedders. So the pilgrims really appreciated an evening with music. 

The Camino took my guitar but, typically, it returned it too, not only fixed but improved. I wrote to Camps, the manufacturers in Catalonia, with photos showing that only the table was broken and asking the cost of repair. Shocked by a two sentence reply saying it was uneconomic. For a €750 guitar! I didn’t believe them but had no idea who would affordably fix it. At English craftsman’s rates, assuming they would even be able to fix a flamenco guitar properly, it was a no go for me. But the albergué in Sarria, just over 100km out from Santiago, has walls and shelves full of woodcarvings made by the owners. Craftspeople. As I was leaving in the morning it occurred to me to ask them. Yes, there was a celebrated instrument maker just two blocks away! I checked it out as I went past. Closed. I knocked. No answer. Oh well. The urge to walk was irresistible, so off I went. Then I arrive at the albergué in Portomarin, my next stop, go to produce my credencial, the pilgrim’s passport which is stamped along the way. Not there! The one thing you do not want to lose, after your real passport, is your credencial. I call Luis and Beatriz at the Sarria albergué. Yes, they have it. Onto a bus back. The walk from the bus station takes me past the instrument maker’s workshop. Open! And yes, he will fix it, for $150, more or less. And he did. Incredibly well, and modified the bridge for more accurate tuning and a lower action into the bargain. I took a bus back to Sarria after Santiago, collected my beautiful new guitar and was treated to a performance on the xanfon, the traditional Galician hurdy-gurdy. Lust flared in my heart for the beautiful thing, made by Xerman’s own hands. Three thousand euros. Oh well…

Honestly, I could tell half a dozen such stories, as could most serious pilgrims. The only experience to which I can compare it is my time taking teachings from Lama Kalu Rinpoche. Like others on the same path, I found that things happened around me, unlikely stuff, to illustrate a point I was working on or to give me the sense that I was being looked after. Spooky? Believe it!

Finishing is hard. For most people there’s no apotheosis. You just stop at the Cathedral, and it’s over. The next day you feel wrong – you should be walking. For me it was a huge moment, engulfed with gratitude for the continuing existence of this ancient, holy, mysterious method of healing. I charged into the cathedral, tears streaming down my face, threw myself to my knees at the first pew and sobbed my heart out. No-one seemed to take any notice. I guess it’s common. 

The crying thing. Strange. I had this thing going on which I can only describe as splacxnomai, the Greek word in the New Testament usually translated as compassion, or sympathy when referring to Christ’s reaction to, for instance, the misery of the leper. But what it really means is a shaking of the bowels (the ‘noble’ bowels – heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.) I was very far from sad but cried at the drop of a hat. If the hat was hurt, so to speak.

They showed a clip of the Boston bombing on a TV in a bar, followed by a row of crosses memorialising the dead. Whoops! Here we go… Crying at television!! Crikey! It was a bit embarrassing, as you can imagine. But what goes with it is wonderful. Wonderful. I met another pilgrim, a devout Christian woman, in the cathedral at Santiago who was experiencing the same thing.

Sadly I feel my shell slowly growing back. Inevitable and probably necessary.

Now I’m back in Bristol, I’m well, and mainly I’m clear. Physically clear, like water from which everything has settled out. Of course, bump the jug enough and it goes muddy again, but the knowledge that the Camino is just a 24-hour bus and boat trip away means I will never get that desperate again. 

What a gift it is.  In Léon someone mentioned that of the 160 Holy Grails in Spain, two historians had just published a book establishing that in all likelihood the one at the Basilica of San Isidoro in Léon is the actual, real cup Jesus used at the last supper. I immediately jumped on the net and yes, it does seem very likely. So off I trotted to the Basilica, on the Camino so I had my full kit – backpack, guitar and baston, the pilgrim’s staff (endlessly useful, as it turns out). Said a little prayer, after which I was approached by the the delightful, elderly Fr Timeo. A musician? Yes. And a poet? Sometimes, yes. Aah, and a pilgrim. He launched into a paean to the saintliness of the pilgrim. I didn’t demur; it was making him happy. As far as I could tell, he was saying that we pilgrims benefited not only ourselves but all the faithful and we must be supported in every way. The basilica, he said, had a prayer group, a ‘spiritual army’ of twenty-four men and twenty-four women whose sole task was to pray for the well-being and safety of the Camino’s pilgrims. Words are cheap, you may think, but he followed through by insisting on buying me breakfast! I don’t usually eat breakfast, so I just ordered a coffee. No. I had to eat.  A croissant, then. He took nothing, having already eaten. I was deeply touched, although relieved when he left, my brain aching from the constant flow of Spanish.

And the grail? Unfortunately a) it was in the adjacent museum, not the church and b) big disappointment: since the book was published they have hidden the real one and have a copy on display. I asked at the desk and the attendant confirmed that it was actually in the building. It felt very strange and mystical, to be standing close to Christ’s cup. I returned to the basilica and prayed for my faith to be returned to me in its fullness.

And it was. Thanks be to God. And now I’m starting to cry. Oh well, that’s life these days. Joy.

Faith yes, but not religion. See:

And now for the pictures atA first cut of pictures from my Camino

 

The Camino Mirrors My Life Back At Me – Even the Schoolyard

It was only my sixteenth day; I would have bet, with real money, that it would have been six or seven more. But time, like everything else, puts on a different face on the Camino, or rather shows its true face. It has been wonderful, terrible, gruelling, easy, profound, irritating, painful, joyful and even hurtful. Perhaps pilgrimage is the Christian route to the Buddhist blessing of instant karma – whatever you need to happen to reveal what you need to know the Camino serves up. You just need to be paying attention.

The last three days have been coloured, although not dominated, by … bullying, I suppose. The incomprehensibly cold shoulder.

Evening One: I am seated at a table reserved for pilgrims in the Benedictine abbey restaurant in Léon, buying the table d’hôte pilgrim meal. The waiter seats me beside a strikingly beautiful young Brazilian of German extraction; no intention on my part. We talk, and discover that she has put the exact same image of the Camino as the new header on her Facebook page as I have. Of the thousands of Camino images on the Net, this seems an extraordinary coincidence. She invites me as an FB friend. We spend the evening in one of those lovely, deep conversations that the Camino offers.

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Two nights later I see her again in Rabana del Camino, the last stop before Cruz de Ferro. I stopped for a spot of tourism during the day and when I arrive she is already there, drinking with a handsome young American and two Australian gay men. We drink for an hour or so, big-time bonhomie all round. I play my guitar, the party cranks up, they leave to find more wine, but I just go to bed.

Over the following stretch I keep pace with the four of them – most people average 25km a day, so you tend to move in a loose cohort, seeing the same pilgrims repeatedly.

I say hi when I see them but … the blinds are down. The younger Aussie spends the first morning in blatant pursuit of the handsome American, who does a runner at lunchtime. From then on it’s a club of three and I am not included. It goes on for the next two days. At stops on the road, in the albergué at night, anything I say to them receives a closed response. Uh-huh. Hmmm.  By the end of the second day I stop trying. As I pull into the next town I see them gathered around a sign, checking out the map to find the albergué municipal. I say Hi and just keep walking. That night I’m put in a room with Hilary from the States, young Mary and old Joseph from Ireland. When I (Christopher) arrive Hilary derives great value from being with the Holy Family – Joseph, Mary and Christ, all Catholics. We have a riotous evening.

The next morning Justin the American-chaser passes me in the café and, for the first time in two days, acknowledges my existence with a ‘Hola’. I ignore him because I instinctively understand what’s going on.

They want me on the periphery, to define the boundary of their little clique. It’s no fun if you don’t have someone on the outside wanting in. My ignoring them was not part of the plan. This is so familiar – playground politics.

Later, as I enter Villafranca I pass the young Brazilian saying goodbye to the two Australians as they toddle off. I walk past, again having no interest in greeting them. But: I see no hugs, no love you, missing you already, be in touch, blah blah. Can the young woman’s earlier affection have waned?

It seems a little egocentric, but I can’t help wondering whether my lack of interest in knocking on the door of their little clique has taken the energy out of it. Or, perhaps she has developed a slightly guilty conscience, because my rejection has been very clear and, frankly, pretty hurtful.

The next day I run into her in a café in La Faba. She is effusive, says she is so happy to have caught up again. I am so delighted; I feel as if she has recovered from a bad trip.

Why did this happen? The only explanation I can come up with was that I wasn’t beautiful enough.

Hey – we’re the beautiful people, dahlings. We don’t want ugly, old people around.

It was a wonderful experience; a catharsis, laying the demons of the playground. I am, once more, profoundly grateful to the Camino.

PS: This post reached Justin, who essentially confirmed my conclusions in a cascade of increasingly abusive flaming posts on Facebook, culminating in ‘we didn’t want a crazy, middle-aged man following us around creeping us out.’

And yet, when I made a point of avoiding even the appearance of following them, he greeted me. Pleased to attract the ‘middle-aged’ though. Some people would call sixty-six old. 🙂