Syria – Monday 30th November

There’s a vote coming up in the House of Commons on the subject of bombing Syria –  bombing IS, something very different from the vote on bombing Assad’s forces which was lost two year’s ago. (Bombing Assad would have been a disaster, but that’s another subject, for another time.)

What are the arguments? Should we bomb, should we join France, Russia, the USA? Would we making the same mistake as we did in 2003? How valid are comparisons?

The two situations are radically different. IS is a clear and present danger, terrorising, a very literal sense, destroying communities, espousing a brutal ideology, with no spiritual content in the way I’d understand the term. Inaction isn’t a strategy. Bombing cannot win a war, but it can contain, it can limit IS’s expansion beyond its current boundaries, and if sustained break its lines of communication and its oil-based ‘economy’. Removing IS from Raqqa and Mosul is another matter, and will indeed require ground forces, and there is real danger of loss of innocent life and widespread destruction. But concerns over Raqqa and Mosul shouldn’t mean that we don’t act now to restrict IS’s operations, and at the same time break its hold on the imaginations of potential recruits.

Our engagement with the Middle East arguably goes back to the Battle of Lepanto in the 16th century when we first began to turn the tide of Arab and Ottoman dominance. There followed centuries of Ottoman decline and growing British and French interest in the trade and politics of the Levant.  Our Western instinct, that we know better, our instinct to interfere, is deep-rooted. The second Iraq war in 2003, which I strongly opposed, was born of that instinct, and a radical misjudgement. But this isn’t to say that all engagement is wrong, and the situations in Iraq in 2003 and in Syria in 2015 are radically different.

I’m well-aware of the argument that the bombing to date has been ‘ineffective’. Though in what sense? True, IS haven’t been defeated. But how much further might have they have extended their reach had they been (with the exception of the Kurds) unimpeded, without any disruption to their supply lines?

The answer now cannot be to withdraw, or to fail to support allies (and that in itself is a powerful argument) who are very much engaged. I don’t doubt that bombing on a much extended scale, well directed, and with a much broader political support, can be effective.

I don’t buy into the argument, which has been picked up across political spectrum, that we should have a clear end-strategy, and not approve a strategy involving bombing IS without one. What we can guarantee is that whatever that end-strategy might be, it won’t be what happens in the end. We have to proceed  step by step, deal with immediate dangers, and move forward from each new position we achieve. There is common ground at this time between the French, Russians and to a degree the Americans, and we need to take full advantage of this – as of now.

We also need to recognise that Syria in the short and medium term will comprise several different authorities and spheres of influence. Assad will remain in control of Damascus and considerable territory along the Mediterranean, and to the north. The Free Syria Army will have, I would hope, its own sphere of influence, and Kurdish territory will be well-defined. I wouldn’t expect them to fight side-by-side but their action could nonetheless be coordinated if all the various parties involved, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, work toward that end.

We may have a dream of a Western-style democratic Syria, but it’s one we should put out of our minds for now. The aim has to be an end to violence and reestablishing political authority in whatever form proves most viable. Once that’s in place and security is guaranteed refugees can begin to return home. They have to be the first steps.

The aim for ten years time has be a Syria, or a Syrian territory, at peace, and that peace needs to be a guaranteed peace, ideally with UN involvement. The return of refugees will be well underway if not a complete, and the traditions of civilised life which were well-established, along with religious tolerance and educational opportunities, before 2011, will have a chance to reassert themselves again.

Cornwall in the rain

Back to walking after four weeks, this time with heavy winter boots, the better to trudge through Cornish coastpath mud. To Falmouth from Truro, by a two-coach train which is as inconspicuous as a railway can be, leastways the stations, all away from the main town. The giveaway is the viaduct.

Clouds look heavy, and threaten, but the wind’s blowing from the north. I follow the rain remnants out to sea, and I’m taken by surprise when cloud suddenly rides lower from the hills behind, and the rain is torrential, but brief, and there’s a tunnel under the viaduct to shelter me, then a little later, just as it deluges again, a beach cafe, no inside, but canvas outside, and just enough shelter for me, a cappuccino and a flapjack. Though the flapjack does get a little soggy. And then at Maenporth, another deluge, and another cafe, empty, but an awning outside is enough – and this time a hot dog and cup of tea. Two real dogs, black, bedraggled and thirsty, arrive while I’m there.

Inbetween times, Gyllyngvase. One place where the Cornish name (Gilenvas) is so much simpler. And beyond Swanpool  I climb away from the road and through woodland, now a threadbare canopy, all transferred beneath, but better the oak leaf carpet than the mud and the muddy pools that lie beyond. But I love the big skies and the sea stretching south and west reflecting a watery sun, which I’m amazed is there at all. No blue sky, so the further landscape is all shades of grey and silver and winter brown, but close to it’s a rich green, and there’s a variety of ferns, including bracken, and tucked below the bushes a few campion still flower, and there’s a late – or early – violet or two as well.  A bramble carries one or two flowers, and the gorse is abundant yellow in places. All beneath that grey sky.

And it’s the 28th day of November.

Beyond lie three headlands, each one stretching further south, the third the Lizard. Tempting, but too far.. much too far to walk this day. First there’s the Helston river to cross, a ferry in summer, an additional ten-mile trek via Gweek in winter.

Advent Sunday tomorrow and I’m singing out loud an Advent hymn – O come o come Emmanuel –  with its lovely cadences and a special history – the tune has been sung in one form of another for maybe 1200 years. I pass a memorial, to a girl who died aged 20 a few years ago. ‘Now in God’s safe hands,’ I think it read.

We imagine a better world when we look out west beyond the sea, beyond the horizon. There lies paradise, and the safe hands of God. West is finis terrae.

But there’s another memorial, above Swanpool, to the Home Guard, who watched through WW2 for ‘a thousand days’ in case of the Germans landed. A memorial to war. There’s been a fort at Pendennis Castle since the time of Henry VIII. Now no-one watches, and there are only concrete bases where the gun emplacements once were.

I look out to sea with a sense of eternity, beyond war, as others have done, almost forever. For ten thousand times ten thousand days. When you walk alone, and I hardly met a soul, that sense is almost palpable.

(Ten thousand x the thousand years I wrote first. 100 million years BC. That would mean dinosaurs and not homo sapiens or homo habilis, or whatever. Not certain they had an ‘sense of eternity’. But who knows?)

A few other policies we might say goodbye to

Time for a brief, and serious, political digression. We’ve just had the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, focusing on the government’s spending plans. There will, to everyone’s surprise, for now be no cuts to tax credits. And this after all those arguments we’ve heard from sections of the press. Tax credits – a disincentive to full-time work if you’re part-time, or to bettering yourself if you’re in a poorly paid job. The implicit assumption that people on any kind of benefit lack aspiration. Pain is good for you.

Are these arguments suddenly no longer valid?

The New York Review of Books has the text of an intriguing conversation between the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson, and President Obama. Robinson has the following in response to Obama asking her whether politically she’s just ‘in the mix like everyone else’.

Well, if I’m going to be honest, I think that there are some political candidacies that are much more humane in their implications and consequences than others. I mean, if suddenly poles were to be reversed and what I see as humanistic came up on the other side, there I’d be.

Basing myself on that ‘humanistic’ principle, I wondered – if the government can abandon one core policy, how about one or two others?

Free schools, for example, much-loved by middle-class parents who worry about poor performance in existing local schools. Much better to incentivise recruitment in existing local schools, so that the good and great teachers schools need can be more readily recruited.

Junior doctors: if the government has lost their support, they’ve also lost the BMA, and much of the rest of the health service. So let’s have a rethink there too.

Social care: councils will now have the ability to levy an extra 2% to support social care, but while useful this is hardly a joined-up policy to allow the much wider provision of care in the community we need to take pressure off hospitals.

Reductions in housing benefit: Osborne’s announced further cuts in the autumn statement. House prices rise, housing benefit is cut. New flats rise above the old streets of Vauxhall. Hard for old communities to survive. And new communities, new identities can take decades to establish.

And another policy which is closely associated with George Osborne:

Infrastructure: scrap HS2 and invest in a nationwide infrastructure, not just a link which will take a decade to reach Birmingham, longer Manchester, and longer still anywhere else. We need transport links which benefit the whole country, and brought in over a much shorter period. What about the North-East, East Anglia, Cornwall… and Scotland, if the Scots hang around for long enough?

And there are of course a few other policies….

The Celts at the British Museum

What I wonder would it have been like to have travelled the tracks and pathways of northern Europe not just one but two thousand years ago?

That’s one thought I had in mind when I visited the British Museum’s Celts: Art and Identity exhibition last week. And I didn’t quite find the answer.

What the exhibition does do is combine wonderful display and lighting to give life and meaning to everything from a horse-drawn cart and Celtic crosses by way of the ubiquitous torc to swords and the carnyx, a serpentine and over-sized battle horn.

I remember the BM’s Viking exhibition from last year, and how the artefacts on display linked to trade routes stretching as far afield as Byzantium and Russia.  The Vikings were extraordinary adventurers. You just can’t do that with the Celts. The word keltoi dates back to the ancient Greeks and was applied loosely to anyone north of the Alps. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did it take on its association with the peoples of the western shores of Britain and Brittany, defined by similarities in language. So while these days we connect the term with Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, the landscapes behind the exhibits in the Celts exhibition comes from across north-western Europe, and that makes it hard to link them to specific environments.

Galicia? I spent a week last month walking through Galicia, another Celtic landscape, which doesn’t get even the smallest mention here.

The exhibition’s final section, celebrating the Celtic revival, is all about Celtic identity, and how that identity was reinterpreted in Ireland and in the Celtic diaspora. It’s about literary and popular culture and there’s a big disconnect between the swords and torcs and the specific locations of the burials where they were found, and the imagery of an imagined culture, which could muddle Celts and Druids and anything that had a touch of mystery to it. Legends became almost real, and even now Cuthulain is celebrated in Ireland – a hero adopted during the Troubles by both sides, Protestant and Catholic. WB Yeats lived and breathed Celtic myth and landscapes.

Back to the real world of the Celts, let’s say 500BC to 500 AD. I missed a sense of the land, of landscape, a ‘Celtic’ way of life. The fact that so many exhibits come from burial hordes doesn’t of course help.

One term used in the exhibition set me wondering – ‘warrior-farmer’. Farming has to be a secure and sedentary occupation. So maybe military service was given in exchange for land in some kind of early feudal relationship. How they occupied, cultivated, travelled and fought across their lands – that’s what fascinates me.

None of which is to say that I didn’t enjoy the exhibition. It achieves brilliantly what it sets out to do, and it’s drawing in the crowds.

So many torcs – it’s as if they were a currency in the afterlife. And there’s an extraordinary cauldron, found in Denmark, made of plates of beaten silver depicting rituals within and gods without. Celtic crosses, looking a little out of place, tower above you: Christianity arrived in Ireland as early as the 5th century.

You can listen to the carnyx and its loud, grating, chilling note which would have attached itself to the enemy’s nerves, and sent fear through their ranks. It would have echoed across mountain, field and bog. I have there my own imagined sense of place.

Not quite an ideal world

A recent comment suggested I was writing about an ideal world, and that worried me.

The puzzle and challenge for me is the everyday: how we can better link insights into our human condition to our working lives, to our personal and our social lives, to the national agenda. The insights come from Zen and wider Buddhist ideas and practice, but they connect easily with our own Western traditions. Most of us fully appreciate the benefits of finding peace and calm in our lives, though we protest that we’re too busy to slow down. We regret our ill-temper, bouts of anger, self-serving pleasures. If we show kindness and compassion we’re pleased and rather proud of ourselves. We got it right for once.

But we don’t act on what we know, and I’m arguing that it’s not so difficult. Meditating, mindfulness, walking, even standing still, shutting out 24-hour news and 24-hour noise, setting aside space for ourselves – start small, just get out for a walk, it’s no need to be heavy duty. You don’t need to sit in a triple lotus…

(A fridge magnet I saw today ran as follows: ‘Stress is the confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living shit out of some asshole who desperately deserves it.’ I love it – and it’s not quite what I’m arguing.)

You may have read about a new series: Ladybird books for adults. Already bestsellers. There’s even one on mindfulness. And one on dating. Mindfulness fits my argument slightly better. But if that’s too trendy, then I still like the basic idea. Start simple. (One date at a time.) Don’t over complicate.

Benefits – I hope they’re evident from what I’ve written elsewhere, if they’re not I’ve failed miserably.

I’m not anticipating a brave new dispensation just around the corner. If for some there’s a sense of a new consciousness, a new wisdom, which could yet change the world, then I thought that forty and more years ago, and it didn’t happen. I’m none too optimistic now about it catching on with readers of the Daily Mail, or indeed the billion plus who make up the Han population of China.

Though who knows, give them time.

For now 82 million members of the Communist Party in China have a lockdown on opinion. And mindfulness and the Daily Mail don’t go too well together, though if you’re into mindfulness and an avid reader of the Mail, then I apologise.

But if we can be simply a little slower to judgement, look a little more widely before we leap, then by small increments we can make the world a better place. And who know we might just have a Great Leap Forward.



After Paris

France, in President Hollande’s words, is now at war with IS. And that’s the way I think most of us in the UK feel as well.

War challenges us, challenges our humanity.

As I’ve often made clear in this blog, I aspire to time for quiet and reflection, for a life made more simple, where there’s time for close observation on the one hand, and time to rest in the sweep of the days and seasons on the other. It could be open country, or Kew Gardens, where we wandered recently amid cacti and orchids, or music …. in the way Autumn Leaves and its gentle melancholy accompanied me along the Camino.

How to combine a more reflective life with a political engagement, and with all the issues of everyday life, that’s the challenge I set myself.

When I returned from the Camino and read up on all the events of the month I’d been away I was grateful for the fact that nothing untoward had happened. Crises continuing, but nothing like the events of last Friday.

That shattered all calm. Anger and grief, and a desire for retribution, took over. But the enemy is elusive. It will take wisdom and detachment to find solutions. And also understanding other points of view – not the IS standpoint, which is beyond ordinary understanding, but the causes that lie behind their rise and their ability to recruit.

How to avoid giving IS a victory and closing national borders?  Remember – they are already in our midst and terrorists will funds ways of circumventing closed borders. IS has recruited readily among local populations in the UK, France, Belgium and elsewhere, where there’s unemployment, a lack of opportunity, alienation, exacerbated by anti-Islamic sentiment. Integrating those populations into wider society has to be a high priority, and it will be achieved by providing opportunities (no mean challenge, I accept), not by further cutting benefits.

Improved security along the EU’s external border is vital, not least shared databases. But closing that border, separating Europe off from the Arab and wider Islamic world – leaving them to fight their own wars – misses the point that they are our wars too. Populations intermix, resources and manufactures are traded and shared, and given our long involvement exploiting and influencing the region we have a moral responsibility too. More than that – the Arab world is not homogeneous – the difference between the before 2010 relatively mild and secular version of Islam practised in Syria and the Wahhabi variant in Saudi Arabia is vast. Iran despite the ayatollahs has a strong secular and western-focused culture, especially among the younger generations, and in the cities. The enmity between Sunni and Shia, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is another matter: nonetheless populations have lived adjacent to one another in Syria and Iraq since the seventh century.

But when a central authority is taken out, and ideologues and hotheads find space to operate, chaos and civil war ensues, as happened in the Balkans twenty years ago, post Tito, and in Iraq after 2003. Scrapping both army and police in Iraq was a tragic mistake, so too, and more controversially, imagining that a Western-inspired democratic revolution could transform a region with little tradition of genuine democracy.

The law of unintended consequences worked to brutal effect.

I’m also well aware that under the Damascus and Baghdad caliphates, and in medieval Spain, Islam inspired a remarkable civilization, intellectual and artistic – and tolerant, with Muslims, Jews and Christian living side by side for many centuries.

First and foremost now we have to act decisively to take out IS, with the West and Russia combining, not just in military action, but in a solution which will involve huge compromises but can lead, I believe, to an end to hostilities between Assad’s forces and the original western-backed rebel forces. Sykes and Picot drew the original Syrian border in 1916. The USA, Russia, France, the UK, and others, will have to decide how Syria divides and is governed as part of a post-war settlement. There may be multiple authorities, and that may be all that can be achieved in the short and medium term.

The refugee crisis requires safe havens financially supported by all the countries of Europe within the countries of entry, and plans to facilitate and finance repatriation at the earliest opportunity. Some Syrians may want to stay in Germany, but Syria has been and can be – will be – again a remarkable country. So much of our civilisation and our values, our culture and our morality, comes from that part of the world, and their people could one day rise again to the heights their forebears achieved. That has to be their aim – and our aim.

(I’m adding here a quote from Barrack Obama, which I read after I’d uploaded this blog, and with which I wholeheartedly agree: ‘It is very important that we do not close our hearts and start equating the issue of refugees with terrorism.’)

No-one in the West can easily conjure solutions to the enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Shia and Sunni. But take out IS in Syria and Iraq as a warzone, and destroy that sense of invincibility IS have enjoyed, then potential recruits to other battlegrounds in Yemen, Somalia, Egypt and elsewhere may think twice, and local populations left to live again side by side, as they have for centuries.

Likewise if IS is destroyed, its triumphalism punctured, and its followers in France, Britain and other countries of western Europe realise that violence and martyrdom are a fool’s game, then we can focus again on what we’ve failed to deal with over the last thirty and more years – the growing alienation of many young people in the Muslim communities in our midst.

It’s another area where skill and understanding will be required, and where closed minds and bigotry must be opposed at every turn.

We are all one people.

Down river – a week in politics

‘One log cannot support two bears.’ Sergei Shoigu, Putin’s defence minister, would, according to a one-time Kremlin adviser, have been unwise to challenge Putin for the Russian leadership. Be that as it may, it’s the idea of two bears on one log, and what they might be doing there in the first place, that intrigued me.

As for three bears… but I’m getting off the subject.

Who might we not want to share a log with? Boris Johnson, for one. It would be far too unstable. And he’s my villain of the week, for his crass comments on supporters of a trade ban on produce from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. ‘Corduroy-jacketed, snaggle-toothed, lefty academics,’ were his words. They need no comment from me.

Where else has my attention wandered this week? Let’s try Texas.

I’d also be loathe to share a log with anyone from the American gun lobby.  ‘Campus carry’ is a big issue in Texas, the eighth state to adopt legislation allowing guns to be carried on campus. Arkansas apparently permits ’only faculty’’’ to bear arms’ (Quote from the Economist). To universities, faculty and students, anywhere else in the world, this beggars belief. Encourage gun ownership, feign shock when shootings happen, in schools, on campuses, and elsewhere, and use that as a pretext for further gun-carry laws. There’s something not just crazy but evil at the heart of this.

And where would my log end up? With David Cameron on board it would be pulled to the right by unwelcome currents, and there’s a chance we could end up on the wrong shore – wrong for him, as closet European, and for me as an avowed one. Pronouncements that he has no attatchment to the institutions of Europe, on the one hand, and his averred willingness to fight heart and soul to stay in Europe if he gets the reforms he seeks rest uneasily together: it’s a scary log to ride.

One final thought on riding logs. Compare a long path stretching ahead as many times I encoutered on my recent walk. The wind may buffet, and the rain may drench you, but you know where you’re going. The river, especially the big rivers of Russia and Canada, where bears just might ride logs, can sweep all before them, currents can deceive, and you’ve no choice but to follow. The right wing in both the UK and USA want to claw back upriver, to a destination that isn’t there any more. They’ll still of course be swept downstream, but they won’t end up where they want – or expect – to be.

More on Europe another time. I’ve moored my log for now.

The eagle and the geese

Nan Shepherd has won many followers since Robert Macfarlane brought her to our attention. In The Living Mountain she writes in a remarkable way about the Cairngorm landscape, conveying both its grandeur and its subtlety. Written during WWII it reads as if written yesterday.  Light and shadow, rain and snow, the passage of the seasons, affect mountains, but time is slow time, geological time.

I’m comfortable with slow time

She’d be the subject, I’d decided, of a short blog. Later that day I was watching a TV programme on Alex Ferguson (retired Man United manager) and leadership. I saw a link between the two.

Nan Shepherd, walking on Ben a’Bhuird:

‘Once some grouse fled noiselessly away and we raised our heads quickly to look for a hunting eagle. And down the valley he came, sailing so low above our heads that we could see the separate feathers of the pinions against the sky, and the lovely lift of the wings when he steadied them ready to soar.’

A page of two lay she focuses down on to the almost infinite forms ice and snow can take, depending on the surface and the wind. There’s an extraordinary level of close observation, looking up, and looking down. I love to investigate in my own walking, to get close, to see the shape and form of things, though I couldn’t ever begin to describe it as Nan Shepherd does.

Alex Ferguson…. he’d look skyward at the Carrington training ground and point out to the players a V-shaped flight of geese overhead, how they fly together, and take it in turns to lead.

‘I’m going to tell you the story about the geese which fly 5,000 miles from Canada to France. They fly in V-formation but the second ones don’t fly. They’re the subs for the first ones. And then the second ones take over – so it’s teamwork.’

Shepherd and Ferguson have one thing in common here – they looked skyward, and looked closely. Shepherd drew no conclusions. The simple act of observation was personal, and enough. For Ferguson, it took players (and Ryder Cup golfers!) by surprise – and they never forgot image or insight.

Any message in all this – only that we can be too earthbound!

With Dante on the Camino

Back in June, my first week on the Camino, I met up with Daniel and Gabriel, 18 and 17-years-old, both strong walkers, one Czech, the other Italian. Daniel told me that his friend loved to talk about Dante, and they’d renamed him ‘Dante’.  I remember well a conversation with Dante in the main plaza in Pamplona when he explained as best he could, in English, the poet’s terza rima rhyme scheme – aba, bcb, cdc.  He the 17-year-old, me in my 60s. I resolved to read the Divine Comedy over the summer and before I resumed on the Camino in October – and I did.

A quote from Osip Mandelstam, sent to me by Graham Fawcett, has sent me back to the poet.

“Both the Inferno and, in particular, the Purgatorio, glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the footstep and its form. The step, linked with breathing and saturated with thought, Dante understood as the beginning of prosody. To indicate walking, he utilizes a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase. In Dante, philosophy and poetry are constantly on the go, perpetually on their feet. Even a stop is but a variety of accumulated movement: a platform for conversations is created by Alpine conditions. The metrical foot is the inhalation and exhalation of the step”. (Osip Mandelstam, Conversation about Dante)

To which my first response was ‘wow!’ I read Graham’s note two days out from Santiago, too late for me to practise ‘the step, linked with breathing and saturated with thought’. Maybe just as well.

You do think about walking and all it entails when you’re walking over 500 miles.

I walked the Camino with mind empty, with mind and senses open to the landscape, sounds and smells, with mind and feet in meditative step with each other – and with mind ‘saturated’ with thought. I found rhythm in songs and hymns, and had I a better memory for poetry I’d have been speaking out loud more of my favourite verse, to the occasional consternation of fellow-walkers.

But I have yet to master linking my step with thought!

Frederic Gros in his book A Philosophy of Walking points out that for thinkers such as Nietzsche and Thoreau walking was key to their work. And in earlier times, when walking was the normal mode for getting from A to B, thinking your best thoughts while walking would have been normal practice.

What levels of thought and imagination were achieved by pilgrims to Santiago in the 11th,12th, 13th centuries? In an age when most couldn’t read or write. Our obsession with conveying our thoughts in written form, fed by this computer age of ours – and by blogs! – has downgraded walking as prime time for thinking. We are now overwhelmed with the thoughts of others.

In our city lives, too often when we walk we rush, and when we rush we don’t think. Gros has a better understanding: walking “is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found”.

Time for a walk.

Just four weeks to Santiago ….

Forgive me, this blog is called ‘zenpolitics’, and there’s not too much that’s political about what follows (though if you read through to the very end…). But if you want a taste of what it’s like walking the Camino, then read on.

Up at 6.30, it’s early October, and sunrise isn’t till 8.45 (the clocks haven’t changed and Spain is one hour ahead of the UK), so even if you hang around a bit and have a croissant (standard Spanish breakfast) and tea and a glass of freshly-squeezed jumo de naranja, even if you delay your start, you’re still out on the path by 8 at the latest.2014-07-30 10.35.34

Most mornings, happily, the sky is clear, and there’s a pre-dawn glow behind you. Always behind you. One feature of the Camino is that you’re always going west… There can be a gentle pinkish glow in the west mirroring the burgeoning glow behind you but it’s as nothing compared to the deep reds that run along the eastern horizon, silhouetting the mountains you’ve left behind on previous days.

Early October, and we have a remarkable morning sky: a last-quarter moon, receding to a crescent, and one morning no longer there (full moon by the time I reach Santiago almost three weeks later), and Venus as a morning star, and Jupiter, all together, within a degree or two of each other. Venus so bright that it only finally disappears with the first rays of the sun.

The way is marked, all the way to Santiago, by yellow arrows. At 8am you need your head torch to light your path, and you’re sometimes searching hard for that arrow, and taking the wrong route – and finding others are following you….  Like sheep we follow!

An hour passes, and you’re lost in an empty mind, or lost in thought, or simply measuring your footsteps, or listening to the first birds calling, or listening to silence. You’re singing a favourite song – for me it’s Autumn Leaves this time, as sung by Eva Cassidy, and much earlier by Nat King Cole. Appropriate, and a touch melancholic, but gentle and reflective, and so timely as weeks later I shuffle up the leaves walking through the wonderful oak and chestnut woodlands of Galicia.

Or try a hymn… a Methodist upbringing works wonder. One line, ‘the king of glory passes on his way’, stayed in my mind. God normally stays in one place, but maybe he’s a pilgrim too. That’s good for a few minutes speculation!

Another hour, and it’s a stop for a café con leche, and a cake of some sort. Or if you’ve missed out earlier, for breakfast. (Some albergues, the overnight hostels that put us up in bunk beds for 10 euros or less per night, don’t do breakfast and there may be nowhere else, so you walk on an empty stomach.) That’s a beautiful time. You’ve maybe six, seven or eight kilometres behind you, maybe already one-third of your day’s journey, and you chill out, savour the moment, feel good about yourself, maybe catch up with friends, have your first laugh of the morning.

Then it’s the toughest time of your day. Putting in some real distance. And the sun will be climbing higher, and if you’re back east, it’s still the early stages, and the summer’s not letting go just yet, then you’re hot, and your shirt is sticking to your back, and the straps of your rucksack which weren’t troubling you earlier are troubling you now.

The meseta, that high and wondrous plateau land beyond Burgos, is mysterious in the early light, under the moon, but in the heat of the day it’s a brown and long-ago harvested expanse of stubbled or ploughed (despite all the stones, some ‘sacred’, why, I’ve yet to discover!) and horizon-stretching field, without break of hedge or wall, undulating vast distances. It’s almost hypnotic, and when, as it was for me, it’s blowing a mighty gale into your face (Caribbean hurricanes even stretch their lower limbs into northern Spain) you’ve a battle on your hands. Clouds build and race in the wind across the sky. All you can hear is the wind in your ears. Try and pick up the sound of the wind in the long grass and thistles and thorns along the side of the path, but no way. Tumbleweed, sharp and looking rather lethal, comes careering past me.

Further west, you’re up at 3000 feet and there’s a ground frost, and equipped for a late Spanish summer you’re wearing every last item of clothing. But only for an hour or so, you warm up, and the sky is a pure blue, and the sun does get to work and warms you. But beware, after 5 in the evening, it may still be shining, but it’s lost its warmth, and the chill over the land seeps into you, and those clothes you left optimistically to dry in the sun on the albergue’s washing line stay resolutely wet.


Mornings are chill but beautiful. But not always. And one afternoon is memorably dreich. Climbing up  to O’Cebreiro, at 4000ft, into the rain and mist and wind, it’s a wild and surreal version of winter up there. I decide I’ll take a room in a small and very cheap hotel. The sheets are damp, and it’s back to my sleeping bag. Night comes early, but a few yards up the road there a glow of light: the door is open, and there’s a Pilgrim Mass, and the church is warm and full, and a cocoon of wisdom and good feeling in a chill landscape. It dates back to the 10th century, and that makes more than a thousand years as a place of refuge.

The following morning is a nightmare, a slippery five-hour descent in the heavy rain. I dry out, just, and the following day, down in my river valley, the sun breaks through at 9.30, and then it’s four days of magic and bright-sky walking through the green and hidden landscapes of Galicia, cattle and corn cobs and big views, and every half-kilometre a way-marker telling me that I’m half a kilometre closer to Santiago.

Santiago now only a morning’s walk away… There’s a change in the weather, but the rain has stopped and I walk avoiding drips (they catch the head torch beam) from the chestnuts and eucalyptus above me through a dark dark wood until I exit into a faltering dawn. There’s an old church, with its open tower and two bells and locked door, and the path diverts round the airport, past the TV headquarters, and endless roads frustrate, and there’s rising excitement, but it keeps being dashed as you turn into yet another road. Then finally, into the old city, and I trek round to the Plaza  Obradeiro… only to find scaffolding hiding the Portico de Gloria, every pilgrim’s ultimate destination for 800 years, and a loud political, anti-government demonstration underway. Much drumming, and chanting ‘un pueblo unido jamas sera vencido’ (‘one people united will never be defeated). I almost join in: we chanted that in the 1970s. But it wasn’t quiet, and it wasn’t holy, and it wasn’t spiritual.

Later, later, I told myself, and with a thousand pilgrims alongside me and the singing nun leading us in the Jubilate Deo at the Saturday evening mass, and again at the Pilgrim Mass Sunday lunchtime, I knew I’d arrived – heart and soul as well as feet. And the great censer, the thurible, the botafumeiro, began its long arcing swing as the Sunday service ended, a pendulum to end all pendulums. I’m told it was intended originally to defumigate newly-arrived pilgrims. I can’t speak for our clothes, but all the albergues have showers, and we all make a beeline for them on our arrival. So we’re a pretty clean lot in the externals.

We’ve also cleaned out a lot of mental and emotional junk by the time we arrive.

The rest of the day we’re all of us meeting old friends and saying our goodbyes. The rain has relented and the sun, briefly, is brilliant, and Santiago is every bit as inspirational as I anticipated. If not a little bit more so.

Some head off to the coast, and Finisterre, finis terrae, the end of the world. For me it’s a plane home. The end of the world will have to wait.

(I said no politics, but as I left the old city I looked back and there was a walker struggling his last steps into the city, as I’d done two days before, and on the back of his shirt three words – END AUSTERITY NOW.)