Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies, for instance. JOHN RUSKIN

Friday, 5 February 2016

On Books And Reading

It's true that we're all only ever passing through this world, but part of being alive is that magical process of making it our own. ROB COWEN Common Ground

I love books, but I'm not precious about them. Although books seem to collect around me, I don't consciously collect them. Books pass through my library and life like people: fascinating certainly, often memorable, even life-changing — but one moves on to the next thing. I lend books, borrow books, sell books, give books, am given books, chuck books, even lose them. I have few fine editions with polished spines. Books on my shelves are there to be read, not to impress or gather dust. No doubt this cavalier but rather liberating attitude comes from my previous career in publishing sales. I used to get scores of free books by post every week for many years. I really didn't know what to do with them. Some I sold or gave away. Others I kept, thinking I would read them later — but I hardly ever did. I had far too many books of my own choosing to read!

At some stages of my life I've read omnivorously. At other times I've not read much at all. During my recent trek along the Via Francigena I packed only a guide book. But, of course, I read lots of other things too:  shop signs, marker posts, graffiti, newspaper headlines, snatches of magazine articles, random fragments from the Bible in churches, words of nonsense and wisdom in pilgrim visitors' books.

At the moment I'm going through a huge bibliomaniac phase. I'm reading library books rather than buying books. I tend to read books in different ways and at different speeds, depending on the form, the content, the style, the density, the difficulty. I've no problem reading some books in a day and others in a year. War and PeaceIn Search of Lost Time and The Alexandria Quartet still lie unfinished on my shelves, though I love these novels more than I can say. I also have no problem reading some books twice, some poems countless times and some texts not at all. Life's too short to feel you have to read certain books just because you think you ought to or because others have praised them.

Having said this, I'm lucky in that I do seem to have a wide taste in subject and styles, and, strangely, this compass is getting wider the older I get (you might think this would be the reverse). I don't read books simply for 'escape' or 'entertainment', though I realise that most people do (I hasten to add that I've nothing against this, naturally, and am in no way an intellectual snob). I read to be moved, enlightened, educated, inspired, transformed. Although I've travelled quite a bit, books take me much further than my feet will ever take me. Books really do enlarge and stimulate the mind, and provide the hope, beauty, joy and consolation so necessary for us all.

As examples, let me take two library books I've just finished with. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a debut novel by Jon McGregor, which was first published on 2002. I remember the sparkling reviews at the time. But after reading the first few pages, and then skimming through it, I really could not bear it. He writes of ordinary life in an ordinary street in an ordinary town. But it's hard to write interestingly about everyday life and, for me, he doesn't quite achieve it. I also could not stomach the pseudo-Beat or Whitmanesque style of the opening paragraphs:

And all these things sing constant, the machines and the sirens, the cars blurting hey and rumbling all headlong, the hoots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles, all come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the counter and solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices . . . 

I found this too general, too contrived, too artificial. I prefer something more specific and gutsy. But that's just me — one's taste is so personal. Many people really did love this novel.

Turning now to Rob Cowen's Common Ground, I came across this book serendipitously in a local library. I'd never heard of it before. It came out last year and focuses on a small triangle of edge-land — borderland between town and country — in Bilton, a suburb of Harrogate. I read it quite slowly — you are forced to, as the text can be densely textured (though not difficult) and startlingly, dazzlingly metaphorical. It's staggering, thrilling writing about the symbiotic relationship between man and wild animal. Cowen manages to convey both the crude blandness of life — with its sewage works, factories, chip shops and traffic — and the magic of nature in this ordinary yet extraordinary corner of England. The mundane and the mystical coexist side by side, and he creates something truly wonderful out of this apparent dichotomy. Cowen is without doubt one of our best current writers on landscape, on a par with Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane.

In this passage from his book Cowen writes about the brief life of the mayfly:

Time is of the essence and yet there is no sense of time. Not as we know it. No fear of the coming, inevitable unknown; these are prehistoric creatures of the present, 300 years in the making. An order older than dinosaurs. Time to them is in the frequencies of the surrounding birdsong, the fluttering of wings, the sun moving through the foliage, the colours that move across their compound eyes, the vibrations that spill down from a passing heron's croak. Light spills down too, a hot afternoon light that fractures the wood, falling in shards between trees and water. The infinite motion of the river runs in one direction; the endless flux of sky meeting wood in another, and into this strange dimension, as though an irresistible force possesses them, the spinners* rise on stained-glass wings, like angels.

And here he considers the importance of the countless, tiny, overlooked miracles to be found in the the natural and not-so-natural world: 

These long days. These late-summer days, immense and golden. It's Tuesday. I walk up the lane at lunchtime troubled by the thought that I may have been lax in my own recordings of this place. The microscopic details of the here and now seem to possess an inexpressible value that I'm worried I've overlooked. I wish I'd kept more rigorous data. More snapshots. The changes in a single leaf in a single location from day to day.The biodegradation of a discarded fag butt on the stone track. The minute-by-minute movement of a single bird through the wood. Maybe these are the things of true importance.  

* 'Spinner' is a name for the adult form (imago) of a mayfly.        

Sunday, 31 January 2016

What I Did Today

Normally I sleep well and am alert as soon as I wake. I like getting up early, so it was dark when I went downstairs. I like this time of day: it's quiet and peaceful, with no one about. Every morning I do some exercises and every other morning I go for a brisk walk-run. Today I just did my exercises, which are like old friends: bending, stretching, skipping, running on the spot, cycling with my legs in the air. Then I made some Lavazza arabica coffee and wholemeal toast, which I ate watching the TV news.

After I could stand hearing about death, destruction and dispossession no longer, I read a chapter from one of my current library books, Rob Cowen's Common Ground. This is a thrilling, poetic book about our links with the landscape, about those forgotten edge-land places on the border of town and country which are steeped in history and teem with flora and fauna and are full of magic — if we had but the eyes to see. I'm using Amazon less and less (which I'm happy with: look how they treat their staff, look how they avoid paying tax) and borrowing library books more and more. I belong to two county libraries — Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire — and you can reserve and renew books online. It's very convenient. Nottinghamshire lets you have 24 books at a time and charges 25p for reservations; in Lincolnshire there's no limit to the number of books and reservations are free. Britain's public library system is one of the best things we have, along with the National Health Service, and it must be fought for and protected. Sadly the long-term health of both is far from certain.

Later in the morning I drove to Waitrose where, if you spend £10 or more, you can get a free newspaper. I came back with bread, milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, frozen berries, fresh tomatoes, cans of tomatoes, cans of soup, sausages, coffee and the Saturday Guardian. After a simple lunch of muesli and an apple, I did the quick crossword on the last page of the Guardian Review, then leafed backwards through the section. After reading about the art of Joseph Beuys and the childhood of Alfred Brendel, the 100th birthday of Vogue magazine and the sleaziness of the London rock 'n' roll scene in the 1960s, I arrived at the lead article — a posthumous piece by the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and died last autumn, aged 67. That's only six years older than I am. 

This made me think of all the recent deaths of people in their 60s and early 70s. There seem to have been so many of them lately: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy from Motörhead, Cilla Black — and, just this second, I see that Terry Wogan has gone. Not to mention all the thousands of unknown, uncelebrated, ordinary people like you or me. (Not that I think any one of us is ordinary in the least — no, not at all.) I considered my own mortality, as I do quite frequently. I thought about how common cancer is, particularly among the older population. I reviewed the lifestyle factors which may contribute to causing cancer in later life. And I resolved to continue to live as healthily as I could, to maintain an exercise programme and a balanced diet. But do past destructive lifestyle choices still take their toll on the body despite current healthy regimes? 

I became aware with a sudden blinding clarity how essential it was to live each moment as fully, as deeply and as productively as possible — as if each moment was one's last. We have only one life, a life of great tragedy and suffering, yet also one of great joy and beauty. Both polarities are necessary to life, are inescapable parts of the complete picture. You can't have joy without sorrow, beauty without ugliness. Therefore we should try to embrace both, the all, the whole. Like children do unconsciously, to some extent. As Dan Chelotti writes in his poem, Compost: There is magic in decay. Later in the poem his young daughter, Selma, on seeing a dead snake on the path, guts spewing out, Belly up and still nerve-twitching / The ghost of some passing / Bicycle or horse, reacts like this: Pretty!

In his article, Henning Mankell writes how consoling books (especially familiar ones), music and art are to him. Each day he reads, listens to a piece of music and contemplates a picture. I turn to my Spotify list and select Mahler's First Symphony. I must play more classical music, concentrate on it rather than just use it as background wallpaper. I must listen to more Mahler, make my way through all the symphonies. Mahler believed that a symphony could contain the whole world. This first symphony is a delight — fairly traditional, yes, and influenced strongly, I think, by Beethoven. The first movement recalls Beethoven's Pastoral and evokes spring's awakening, complete with bird calls. The whole work is saturated with folk song; the third movement, a funeral march, is a take on the Frère Jacques tune.

Then I turn to a painting. Mankell says that two of his favourite artists are Daumier and Caravaggio. Daumier I know little about, but Caravaggio is one of my favourites too. I bring up on the computer screen one of his most famous pictures, Supper at Emmaus, which is in London's National Gallery.

Caravaggio was a difficult character and led a colourful life. He was driven, argumentative, swaggering, self-destructive. He was constantly involved in fights and once killed a young man in a brawl. He died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole in Tuscany. He was not in his 60s or 70s, but only 38 years of age.

Saturday 30 January 2016

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Fraternity In Impermanence

OCTAVIO PAZ Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature

Although I occasionally found this book annoying with its bold and sweeping pronouncements on aesthetics (Our painting seeks to be a language without ceasing to be a presence; the oscillation between these two incompatible requirements constitutes the entire history of modern art . . .), mostly I was incredibly impressed with Paz's vast but lightly-worn erudition and his practice of making stimulating connections and correspondences.

As in his poetry, he sees history, society, humanity and art as ever-changing processes, a perpetual dance of complementary contradictions: tradition and modernity, conformity and revolution, stillness and motion, being and nothingness. He likes to compare and contrast, to discover similarities and differences — and, again as in his poetry, explores these polarities by the use of paradox and, sometimes, a very dry wit.

These essays do show their age in some respects (most were written in the 1970s) — particularly when dealing with politics and technology; but their general pervading spirit and philosophy I found eminently sympathetic. Paz does perhaps rely rather too much on the 'logic' of structuralism and semiotics, but he more than compensates for this with his faultless (in my view) opinions on the equivocal merits of our machine and communications age, the dubious 'progress' of science and history, and the subjectivity, relativity and plurality needed for a vital art and culture.

How better to give a flavour of Paz, both man and writer, than by quoting some passages which leaped out at me while reading the essays.

First an example of his dry humour:

It is more difficult to maintain a tradition of good cuisine than a tradition of good literature, as England teaches us. At Table and in Bed 1971

Here he defends the individual against the collective, the lone voice against the system:

We must cultivate and defend particularity, individuality, and irregularity — life. Human beings do not have a future in the collectivism of bureaucratic states or the mass society created by capitalism. Every system, by virtue as much of its abstract nature as its pretension to totality, is the enemy of life. Iniquitous Symmetries 1979

And here he connects erotic desire with intimations of mortality:

The desired body and the desiring body know each other to be mortal bodies; in the now of love, because of its very intensity, the knowledge of death is present. The New Analogy: Poetry and Technology 1967

He is open to popular as well as high culture, and is aware that both constantly feed into each other:

The relation between the two [high culture and popular culture], like all relations, is one of opposition and attraction. At times there is a contradiction between the two extremes, and at times there is fusion. This is what makes a society creative: complementary contradiction. The Verbal Contract 1980

Plurality, particularity, the local and the regional are desirable, as opposed to uniformity and mass production. He would have railed against our current and increasing globalisation, though he was always wary of a too-narrow nationalism:

The nineteenth century inherited from the Encyclopedia the idea of universal man, the same in all latitudes; we in the twentieth century have discovered the plural human, everywhere different. Universality for us is not the monologue of reason but the dialogue between human beings and culture. Universality means plurality. The Verbal Contract 1980

Uniformity is death, and the most perfect form of uniformity is universal death; hence the collective extermination practiced in the twentieth century. Life is always particular and local; it is my life, this life of mine here and now. The resurrection of national and regional cultures is a sign of life. Ibid

This is a perceptive comment on travel:

The French poem is wrong: to travel is not 'to die a little'*, but to practice the art of saying goodbye so that, our burden that much lighter, we may learn to receive. The Tradition of the Haiku 1970)

Among a huge variety of other subjects, Paz was very interested in Eastern thought and Buddhism:

. . . that feeling of universal sympathy with everything that exists, that fraternity in impermanence with human beings, animals, and plants, which is the most precious gift that Buddhism has given us. Ibid

Fraternity in impermanence — I like that.

Finally, he believed passionately in the importance of the personal and the particular in art . . .

To suppress subjectivity is to cut the heart out of art.

. . . and how the history of art can never be measured according to the 'norms' of scientific advance or rectilinear time:

It is difficult — or even absurd — to believe that such a thing as progress exists in the realm of art. From the book Alternating Current 1967

Though it perpetually changes, poetry does not advance. Ibid

All translations from the Spanish by HELEN LANE

*I have traced this quote ('Partir, c'est mourir un peu') to the poem Rondel de l'Adieu by the obscure French poet and playwright Edmond Haraucourt (1856-1941). 

Monday, 11 January 2016


I’ve always loved walking. I like the simplicity and freedom of it. No tying or troublesome equipment needed — just a serviceable pair of feet. Planes, trains, ships, cars, bikes, horses and donkeys all limit you in one way or another. With foot travel — barring walking on air and walking on water — you can go wherever you want, whenever you want. You don’t have to look at a timetable, you don’t have to wait for a ride, you don’t have to spend lots of money and you don’t have to buy loads of gear.  All you have to do is point your feet to the north, south, east or west. Walking creates an intoxicating sense of possibility you don’t experience with any other form of locomotion . . .

This is part of a post on the Camino I was invited to write as guest blogger on Roselle Angwin's  Qualia and Other Wildlife. You can read the rest of it here . . .

Monday, 4 January 2016

Words Speak Us

Octavio Paz is for me one of the great Hispanic poets — indeed, one of the great world poets. Luckily he has been blessed with some talented translators, many of whom are fine poets in their own right: Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, Mark Strand, Eliot Weinberger. Reading and much enjoying A Tree Within recently — which contains more than fifty poems written by Paz between 1976 and 1987— I was struck by some common themes and techniques running through the work.

Romanticism, Surrealism, contemporary painting — all have left their very clear mark on Paz. In this collection he draws word pictures of paintings by Duchamp, Tàpies, Balthus, Matta, Rauschenberg —and Miró:

Blue was immobilised between red and black.
The wind came and went over the page of the plains,
lighting small fires, wallowing in the ashes,
went off with its face sooty, shouting in the corners, 
the wind came and went, opening, closing windows and doors,
came and went through the twilit corridors of the skull . . .

From A Fable of Joan Miró

Buddhism and Japanese poetry are big influences:

The whole world fits in-
to seventeen syllables,
and you in this hut.

Straw thatch and tree trunks:
they come in through the crannies:
Buddhas and insects.

Made out of thin air,
between the pines and the rocks
the poem sprouts up.

From Basho An

He is also massively interested in the relation and interplay between the world of language and the world of things both concrete (nature, the city, the body) and amorphous (feelings, the spirit):

Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.

From Between Going and Staying

One of his methods is the use of figures of speech, such as oxymoron, and literary effects, such as synaesthesia, in order to define but at the same time deliberately confound the separateness of word and thing, action and non-action or, as in this case, the bodies of both poet and sleeping lover:

But at my side, you are breathing;
buried deep, and remote,
you flow without moving.
Unreachable as I think of you,
touching you with my eyes,
watching you with my hands.

From Before the Beginning

Paz wants to shake up any preconceived ideas about language, time, distance, knowledge, love etc. and shock us into considering them afresh:

Love begins in the body
— where does it end?
                                     If it is a ghost,
it is made flesh in a body;
                                            if it is a body,
it vanishes at a touch.

From Letter of Testimony

Koan-like questions are inherent in his poems — for example: do we invent the world or does the world invent us? What is the nature of time? What is appearance and what is reality, and are the two interwoven?
speaks and listens:
                                it is real,
And as soon as I say
                                   it is real,
it vanishes.
                   Is it then more real?

From Between What I See and What I Say . . .

There is a constant mixing of interior and exterior worlds, dreams and actualities:

The day is short,
                             the hour long.
I walk through lots and corridors and echoes,
my hands touch you and you suddenly vanish,
I look in your eyes and suddenly vanish,
the hour traces, erases, invents its reflections
— but I don't find you,
                                       and I don't see me.

From A Song out of Tune

. . . and an opposing of transience and timelessness, illusion and reality, life and death — which ultimately may not be opposition, but reconciliation and unity:

                                       The art of love
— is it the art of dying?
                                        To love
is to die and live again and die again:
it is liveliness.
                        I love you
because I am mortal
and you are.

From Letter of Testimony

Paz is also fond of celebrating the world in all its beauty and multiplicity with Whitman-style litanies:  

. . . the fruits and the sweets, gilded mountains of mandarins and sloes, the golden bananas, blood-colored prickly pears, ocher hills of walnuts and peanuts, volcanoes of sugar, towers of amaranth seed cakes, transparent pyramids of biznagas, nougats, the tiny orography of earthly sweetness, the fortress of sugarcane, the white jicamas huddled together in tunics the color of earth, the limes and the lemons: the sudden freshness of the laughter of women bathing in a green river . . .

From 1930: Scenic Views

Certain valued words crop up time and again in Paz like signals or beads on a rosary: mirror, flame, river, landscape, body, brain, knot, glance, wordsyllable . . . These are symbols yet not symbols — another blended contradiction which is quite typical.

I leave you with some more lines from Letter of Testimony, one of the most remarkable poems in A Tree Within. Note the painterly eye and the preoccupation with language:

In love with geometry
a hawk draws a circle.
The soft copper of the mountains
trembles on the horizon.
The white cubes of a village
in the dizzying cliffs.
A column of smoke rises from the plain
and slowly scatters, air into air,
like the song of the muezzin
that drills through the silence, 
ascends and flowers
in another silence . . .

Let yourself be carried by these words
toward yourself . . .

Words are uncertain
and speak uncertain things.
But speaking this or that,
                                            they speak us.

All translations by ELIOT WEINBERGER

Friday, 1 January 2016

Inventing Anew The Reality Of This World

Lately I've been reading a lot of Octavio Paz.

Las puertas del año se abren,
como las del lenguaje,
hacia lo desconocido.
Anoche me dijiste:
habrá que trazar unos signos,
dibujar un paisaje, tejer una trama
sobre la doble página
del papel y del día.
Mañana habrá que inventar,
de nuevo,
la realidad de este mundo.

The doors of the year open,
like the doors of language,
onto the unknown.
Last night you said:
we must draw signs,
sketch a landscape, hatch a plot
on the unfolded page
of paper and the day.
Tomorrow we must invent,
the reality of this world.

OCTAVIO PAZ The opening of Primero de Enero (January First)

Tal vez amar es aprender
a caminar por este mundo.
Aprender a quedarnos quietos
como el tilo y la encina de la fábula.
Aprender a mirar.
Tu mirada es sembradora.
Plantó un árbol.
                          Yo hablo
porque tú meces los follajes.

Perhaps to love is to learn
to walk through this world.
To learn to be silent
like the oak and the linden of the fable.
To learn to see.
Your glance scatters seeds.
It planted a tree.
                           I talk
because you shake its leaves.

OCTAVIO PAZ The close of Carta de Creencia (Letter of Testimony)


Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Days 28 & 29: Pisa, Milan, Paris

Pisa's Cathedral Square (or Square of Miracles). Here you can see, from left to right, the Baptistry, the Cathedral and the Leaning Tower. Why does the tower tilt? Because it was built on ground too soft on one side to support its weight! (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The old year is coming to an end and so is this retrospective journey. Events at home were getting steadily worse, and it became clear that I would have to return to England sooner than planned. The final leg to Rome would have to wait until another day. 

I said goodbye to Margarethe, then Benji walked with me through Lucca's early-morning streets to the bus station. In less than an hour I was in Pisa. It's a magnificent city with a really ancient feel, and, like Florence, is bisected by the river Arno, the most important Italian river after the Tiber. I hadn't realised how big Pisa was — it has a population of 200,000 if you include all the suburbs. I also hadn't realised how much there was to see apart from the cathedral with its famous crooked campanile. I could have spent a lot longer visiting Pisa's numerous historic churches and medieval palaces, but I had a train to catch.

Milan's Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) in front of one of the grand arched entrances to the 19th-century Vittorio Emmanuele shopping mall. The cathedral, out of sight on the right, is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. Milan, with a population of three million, is a huge industrial, commercial and financial centre, with the third largest economy of all the EU cities, and is the second biggest Italian metropolis after Rome. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

In a few hours I had arrived in Milan. I had some time to kill before catching my next train, so I walked from the Art Deco and Fascist-inspired railway station into the heart of the city. It was dark, but no longer pouring with rain as it had been in Pisa. I passed La Scala opera house, then entered Cathedral Square through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a four-storey double arcade which was constructed between 1865 and 1877 and is one of the world's oldest shopping centres. I'd seen something similar before in Naples — the Galleria Umberto I, which opened in 1890. As you might imagine, the retailers here are the famous names of jewellery and haute couture. I found it all rather alienating and intimidating, especially in the dark. I felt dwarfed by the austere and monumental architecture, and unsettled by the fabulously expensive luxury items displayed in the shops — the icy, inhuman touch of wealth and commerce. The Camino seemed far away. Milan is, of course, a world capital of style and fashion, and I definitely did not fit in, what with my weatherbeaten pack and my mud-stained boots and the distant look in my eye.

The rooftops of Paris from the Butte Montmartre.

I took the overnight sleeper to Paris. At the French border we were woken (that is those of us who were asleep — it was a cramped, uncomfortable compartment) by customs officers and border police, who examined our passports and identity cards. A few people were turfed off the train. Border controls were obviously getting more stringent because of the increasing European refugee crisis and extremist threat.

I did manage a surprising amount of sleep, and before long it was early morning in Paris and I was walking across the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la République — soon to be shown on millions of TV sets as the national focus of mourning after the Paris terror attacks of 13 November (also my birthday, as it happens). I checked in to a cheap hotel just off the Rue Saint-Denis. 

For the rest of the day I simply walked — through the Marais and the Place des Vosges, along the Rue de Rivoli, by the Louvre and in the Tuileries Garden, up to Montmartre and the magical snow-white Basilica of Sacré-Coeur. I admired the view of Paris from the Butte Montmartre, astonished as always at the lack of skyscrapers. I watched the artists, buskers and street performers in the Place du Tertre. And I spent a long time wandering round Montmartre Cemetery, discovering the graves of Berlioz, Dumas, Heine, Stendhal, Truffaut and Zola. 

The Musée d'Orsay on the river Seine. The bridge you can see is the Pont Royal.

Before taking the Eurostar train back to London the next day, I spent a few wonderful but exhausting hours looking at the paintings and sculptures in the Musée d'Orsay — which is housed in the Gare d'Orsay, a former railway station on the left bank of the Seine. Here you can find the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world (these were originally held in the Jeu de Paume gallery on the other side of the river, where I'd first seen them in the early 1970s).

The Main Hall of the Musée d'Orsay. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I can't even begin to describe the treasures contained in this museum, so here's just a brief visual taste . . .

Dr Paul Gachet by Vincent van Gogh. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Alone by Toulouse-Lautrec. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Apples and Oranges by Paul Cézanne. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Monet's The Magpie. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Arearea by Paul Gauguin. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, 28 December 2015


I began writing a novel about the Camino in the summer of this year, but haven't looked at it for several months. Now I realise that it's seriously flawed and needs rethinking entirely. Oh, well. Who ever said writing was easy? I've salvaged a few sections . . .

I’d first heard about the Camino several years earlier. I’d been walking the Pennine Way and had booked my final night in a B&B close to the Scottish border. There I’d met another hiker, a merchant seaman called Martin. Martin used to spend months at sea, followed by equally long non-working periods on dry land. At first he had passed this ‘holiday’ time like many young men with cash in their pockets — drinking, taking drugs, lying on beaches, picking up girls. Then one day it struck him that he was bored and wasting his life. A magazine article about the Camino he’d picked up in a dentist’s waiting room piqued his curiosity. He went to bookshops and libraries, discovering more and more about this old pilgrim route. He was hooked. From that moment on he spent much of his free time trekking these ancient trails. He found that there was not just one but a whole network of paths criss-crossing Europe and beyond. And the more he researched and walked these paths, the more he realised that caminos existed anywhere you wanted them to be. There were caminos in every country and in every culture, caminos across time and through space — even caminos in the mind and in the heart . . .

The story of the Camino goes something like this . . .

After taking Christianity to the Spanish, the apostle James returned to Judaea, where he was tortured and beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. According to the legend recounted by various anonymous authors of the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus, and later by French scholar Aymeric Picaud, some of James’s disciples shipped the body of the martyr back to Spain, but their boat sank in a storm just off the northern coast. The undamaged corpse was washed ashore covered in scallop shells —the scallop shell ultimately became a potent symbol for the Camino — and was buried in a secret place. Centuries later a hermit called Pelayo saw a star shining directly over the spot. A bishop called Teodomiro had the site investigated, soon identifying it as the apostle’s tomb. This was a shrewd and farsighted move, promising much future revenue for the church. A chapel was built there, which later became a cathedral, and a city grew up around it, which was named Santiago de Compostela — ‘Santiago’ meaning ‘St James’ and ‘Compostela’ meaning ‘Field of the Star’.

During the Middle Ages, Santiago was celebrated as one of Europe’s holiest shrines. Routes led here from all parts of Europe. The four most well-known paths through France to the Spanish border started in Paris, Vézelay, Arles and Le Puy. It was in Le Puy, of course, that I had begun my own journey. The Reformation and the Black Death put an end to this enthusiasm for pilgrimage for a while, though a trickle of penitents continued to flow. Then, four hundred years later, in the mid-1980s, pilgrim numbers began to rise again, and they have carried on rising ever since. So, this year, perhaps thousands of hikers, pilgrims, tramps and vagabonds had already passed this way before me, vanishing into the dust. Or at least disappearing into the next bar . . .