Camino – all about symbols

The Camino runs in, pretty much, a straight line, but I love the way it weaves itself into your life, with reminders here and there of that extraordinary heritage into which I tapped last autumn.

We stopped in Ludlow ten days ago, and visited the wonderful parish church, which has held on to its medieval heritage better than most. A palmer was someone who’d completed the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the palm was his symbol. Ludlow’s Palmers’ Guild was formed in 1284 and with wide commercial interests across the area they became very wealthy – and they put that wealth into the church.

But, curiously, I noted that another symbol of pilgrimage, which appears more than once, is the shell, rather than the palm.

The palm had other symbolic meanings, not least triumph and victory. The shell, very much the symbol of the Santiago pilgrimage, had become a symbol for all pilgrimages.

Once you’ve walked the Camino and knowing how many routes cross-cross Europe you’re always on the look out for the shell symbols. It’s there even in biblical representations of St James with no pilgrimage associations – his supposed burial place wasn’t discovered until eight centuries after his death.

I found one in an unlikely place last week, on a muddy track, just off Offa’s Dyke. It was – a large shell-shaped fungus, of guaranteed impermanence, and a clear case of the symbol being in the eye of the beholder.

Camino reminders don’t only come fungus-shaped.

The chancel of Leonard Stanley church near Stroud has a carved capital depicting Mary anointing the feet of Christ, his hand raised in blessing. There’s a wooden head of Christ at South Cerney, a little further east into the Cotswolds, that’s comparable, and it’s thought likely this was brought back by a pilgrim to Compostela in the mid 12th century. The way the beard curls apparently gives the clue: I love that kind of detail. A curling beard another symbol? (Acknowledgements to David Verey’s Cotswold Churches for this information.)

And finally, guess what I’m cooking for supper tonight – scallops, with bacon, and it’s clear from one or two looks in my direction that it’s time I headed for the kitchen…

The press and the bedroom

In an interview which focuses on where to locate parliament during the coming major refurbishment, the speaker (of the House of Commons), John Bercow, also took in other subjects, including the tabloid press, in a way that politicians, constrained by party, rarely do.

Would that more politicians felt able to speak truth to the nation.

He denounced much of the UK tabloid press as what he called the ‘more downmarket, low-grade, fifth-rate scribblers on newspapers – if they could be called such – that might be thought to be racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, comic cartoon strips’.

Right on! Few in the media will dare to repeat or report this, and yet it’s the way so many of us feel.

Another big cheer this week followed the Court of Appeal ruling that the so-called bedroom tax ‘discriminates against a domestic violence victim and the family of a disabled teenager’. The bedroom tax euphemistically called by the government the ‘spare room subsidy’ is one of those pernicious pieces of legislation which fails to take into account the realities of ordinary life – the lives of ordinary people. Reduces them to statistics.

Cameron’s comment that it is ‘unfair to subsidise spare rooms in the social sector if we don’t subsidise them in the private sector’, entirely misses its damaging effects. No spare room means no family or friends to stay, no room for emergency, no place to escape. What happens in the private sector is an irrelevance. The iniquity of opposing a Mansion Tax while supporting a bedroom tax, where the occupant in the one case by definition has resources and the other doesn’t, is self-evident.

Policy-makers have to mix with the real world, and have to remember as I’ve argued many times that if your policy fails the basic test of compassion, then you should scrap it.

Mindfulness – the Ladybird way

Predictably – and happily – I was given Mindfulness in the new Ladybird series for adults for Christmas. Only 54 pages – and sometimes it misses the mark, and sometimes if gets it spot on.

Clive practises loving-kindness meditation – and it ‘finds it easier than bothering to meet his friends and lending them money’.

‘In ancient times Guru Bhellend entered a state of mindfulness that lasted 35 years. During this time he thought about everything.’ When he’d finished he writes ‘the answer on a grain of rice’. ‘He never married,’ it concludes.

(In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the computer Deep Thought comes up with 42, as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, after a 7 1/2 million year search.)

The easy way and extreme way, and both miss the path. The good old middle way.

Though even that may not work out. Last week walking on Offa’s Dyke we took the middle way, and ended up in a field looking east when we should have been by a stream looking south….

Three political issues – getting it wrong

One or two political issues – London, and election for mayor coming up this summer, and the Europe referendum. And a third – Adidas withdrawing athletics sponsorship.

Three egregious examples of getting it wrong. And they’re all three in their different ways about identity – our identity as Londoners and as Europeans, and in the Adidas case, brand identity.

The Tory candidate for London mayor, Zac Goldsmith, was on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday. He accepts that the London building boom under Boris Johnson has pushed prices up beyond what ordinary Londoners can afford, but he still claims Johnson’s London to have been a great success story. A very partial success. Goldsmith claims to have a plan, should he become mayor, but such is the gap between average house prices and the income of the average Londoner, it won’t be enough to subsidise first-time buyers, and reductions in housing benefit have already made life much harder for low-income earners. Johnson has at the most basic level failed Londoners, and that point needs to be drilled home.

Goldsmith is a confessed eurosceptic, waiting on the result of Cameron’s renegotiations, a state of being which doesn’t impress me. Europe is a matter of identity, and part of our identity is as Europeans. The EU is a remarkable achievement, the benefits historic and tangible, but change and reform have to be ongoing – as they must be for any large organisation. The muddled scepticism and brave imaginings (of a brighter future outside) of the Tory right are a major obstacle to that process.

Adidas: it’s withdrawing its sponsorship I assume because it’s worried about damage to the company name and brand.  Did it take into account the damage it will do to athletics? It’s the athletes and not the IAAF which will be big losers. Make reform a condition of future sponsorship, yes, but don’t withdraw it altogether. The damage to the Adidas brand is to my mind now – their act of withdrawing sponsorship.

Who do we want to be? If we’re Londoners, London should be for all its citizens. We’re British – and we’re Europeans. As for Adidas, they and their brand should know be judged by what they give, and not by what they take away.

Country notes

The early sun below the hill was turning the dawn clouds orange as I ran down the hill this morning. The electric fence has been moved and the cows, Belted Galloways, now graze the eastern side of the common, whereas before they roamed more widely. I have to avoid cows pats and there are big dents in the hoof-trodden earth.

Back Saturday from three days in the Welsh borders, near Oswestry. Oswald’s tree: named for the defeated king and saint from whose dismembered body a bird picked an arm and where it dropped it a tree grew. I’m sure they have dismembered bodies in Game of Thrones, but do trees grow from arms? (Please advise.) We’re back in 642AD, so all things were possible then.

There used in the first half of the 19th century to be a racecourse on Offa’s Dyke above Oswestry, and the stone foundations of the grandstand still sit there, on the edge of the woods, a local equivalent of a Mayan ruin on the edge of the jungle…

Adjacent to the grandstand a common stretches east along the hill, and scattered across it last Friday were the remnants of a multitude, a small army, of snowmen which the locals must have had great fun building a day or two earlier. Now the snow has gone, but the snowmen remain…

I mentioned Game of Thrones. Also on TV, BBC TV, another army will be gathering, the Russian army, to face Napoleon, as the battle of Borodino looms. We’re back in 1812, and it’s War and Peace.

Zen hits the target

Not being one to waste a good quote here’s an entry I posted on Facebook just now:

‘The one who is good at shooting does not hit the centre of the target.’ (Zen quote.) Man U players are, we always believed, great at shooting. And they sure as hell ain’t hitting the target. I’m with my son – van Gaal out! This not hitting of targets has gone on too long.

Trying to relate Zen to everyday life should be easy – just go ahead and live – but something tangible, something you can get your boot onto, isn’t always easy to find.

This hits the target as Man U players can’t.

OK – and what does it mean? Zen koans are meant to be obscure. I’d interpret it as – if you try to hard, aim for the very centre then you reduce your chances of hitting the wider target. And my guess is that Man U players are simply too wound-up – simply trying too hard.

And just in case you aren’t a Manchester United fan of 60 years standing, Louis van Gaal is the Man U manager, and WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH.

What money can’t buy

‘Everything has a price.’ How far do we take that maxim? The American experience is a warning to us innocent Europeans.

Consider Harvard professor and Reith lecturer Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy, where he explores how everything (almost) is monetised in today’s world, and especially so in the USA. How far should markets invade ‘family life, friendship, sex, procreation, health, education, nature, art, citizenship, sports, and the way we contend with the prospect of death’?

Take, for example (American examples, but a warning to the rest of us) buying insurance on other people’s lives, so that you profit when they die, or advertising in schools, directly to children, burgers and sweets, and more, heedless of health risks. Money rules, so that if you’re poor you miss out – no level-playing field.

We devalue what we monetise, we devalue education, devalue sport, when ‘sky boxes’ (high-priced seats at stadiums) separate the affluent from the ordinary supporter (once rich and poor pitched into together in baseball crowds), devalue public service when police cars carry ads, and the fire service put ads on fire hydrants …

‘In 1983, US companies spent $100 million advertising to children. In 2005′ they spent $16.8 billion.’ Education in Sandel’s mind, and mine, is to encourage critical reflection, advertising is to recruit consumers. Two radically different functions, which we keep rigorously apart in the UK. Though advertising creeps in in many other places, many other ways

The USA is a warning regarding where ‘market triumphalism’, as Sandel calls it, can take us, at a time ‘when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance’. That’s a subject in itself.

And value spreads right up the chain. In the UK as in the USA. We monetise elections – he who pays the most dominates the news and bludgeons opinion. Many would limit government action and expenditure because it functions to interfere with a pure economic process – there is no sentimentality here. The only compassion lies in economic value: as the most efficient system it’s the most compassionate.

Ultimately I wonder if we’ve might we put a value on God. We put a high value on self, and all the possessions that define our identity, and the next step would be a God who we identify with our self and aspirations. The American Bible Belt already goes a long way in that direction.

Remember indulgences, paying to offset the wages of sin, and building chantry chapels and paying for others to pray for your soul.

Everything, but everything, can be priced.