Spring, Michele Hanson, Pinker, Kahneman, Brexit, Ursula LeGuin – a few one-sentence blogs

Time is pressing and I’m off on holiday to an island where I’ll face south across the ocean and follow the sun, and climb up to the cloud forest behind. But there are blogs that I’ve wanted to write. So I thought – how about a blog of single sentence. (Max two, but you’ll see how this expands.)

Brexit: in his speech to his party’s spring conference yesterday, LibDem leader Vince Cable argued that “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” had driven some older voters to Brexit. In response to the uproar from some in the Tory ranks I’d simply say that some truths are self-evident – and add the reminder that without anti-immigrant sentiment Brexit would have been decisively defeated.

Michele Hanson: the Guardian columnist died a few days ago, after 34 years (I think) of writing a column for the Guardian. I knew her a little back in the 70s, we had mutual friends, and I’ve caught up today with a few of the columns I didn’t read, and found them both downbeat and upbeat, wise, warm and rather wonderful – whether she’s writing on care homes, dogs, family, personal hygiene – she engaged so many people with moments and issues in life they could connect with.

At the other extreme my old bete noir, the fluffy-white-haired guru Steven Pinker, paired in this instance with the 18th century Scottish genius-philosopher, David Hume, whom Pinker neglects to mention when talking about the enlightenment – and who stated clearly and succinctly that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. In other words, don’t give reason space which it oughtn’t to have – give it, I’d argue, shared space, let one inform the other, and take both out beyond our private lives into the public sphere.

Thoughts from Tim Harford in the FT, quoting Daniel Kahneman: “When faced with a difficult question we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” In the case of the referendum the difficult question being “Should the UK remain in the EU”, and the easier substitution “Do I like the way this country is going”.

The last item was two sentences – so I’m adding a third from Harford as a separate item – a rather obvious cheat. “No voter can master every issue … referendums instead invite us to ignore the question, give the snake-oil peddlars an edge, concentrate our ignorance into a tightly-focused beam, and hold nobody accountable for results.” Right on.

For something completely different … Alexander Harris in the Tate Etc Magazine: “So I became a collector of early autumn evenings. In the ancient analogy … the time of youth is spring. But I remember only one or two spring days from my childhood – it is all autumn: the orange of the late crocosmia flowers meets the spotted yellow fringes of hawthorn leaves; blue skies deepen above glowing stone walls, and then it all softens to a yellowy grey haze…” That set me thinking, and I only half-agree, and maybe that’s because my pre-eminent spring memory is of a day in May walking in the Cheshire hills with my first girlfriend, and spring was suffused with birdsong and a funny feeling of elation, of walking on air, that I’ve never quite recaptured …

(Treating Alexander Harris’ quote as one sentence …)

A quote from Neil Collins, an old-friend from the 70s who I haven’t seen in maybe forty years, in the FT, in the context of the collapse of Toys R Us and Maplins: “Is yours a zombie company… [zombie being] defined as a company that has failed to earn its interest cost for two consecutive years and is valued at less than three times sales. …[The Deutsche Bank] comprehensive analysis of the world’s 3000 biggest businesses implies that more of them [this year than last] have discovered a strategy for survival – [instead of just] clinging on, merely waiting a mercy killing from rising interest rates.” Two reasons for including: one, a reminder to me and anyone who enjoys abstruse speculation that there’s a hard business world out there, and if we choose to rant against capitalism we have to remember how bloody hard and ruthless the business world is  … and, two, whatever’s happening in High Street retail, things are getting slightly better – are they???

Rediscovering Ursula LeGuin, someone else who’s died recently: there’s a new book which collects together her non-fiction, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’. She had Taoist beliefs … that established an instant bond – the Tao, or Dao, the way, is the wisest, simplest yet most all-encompassing of notions; and she admired Calvino, Borges, Woolf, Twain, Tolstoy and Tolkien. And how about: “To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think that imitation is superior to invention.” I’ll add my own comment – never curtail that sense of wonder, of fantasy and myth – walk on the wild as well as the wise side.

Four sentences. Time to exit.

George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.

Time to chill out?

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Herefordshire for ten days’ vipassana (insight) meditation. Up in the very small hours and no contact with the outside world, and silent throughout. I will put all politics behind me. I will have no way of knowing the American election result until five days after the result is announced. Much as the result concerns me I will be better for it. Clinton or Trump, the world will take what direction it will. Likewise Brexit. I in my small corner will re-engage when the time comes, just to be part of the process.

But continue with my blog? Time to let the world loose, spare the world – and myself – my take on it? Who listens, who reads? All along, over seven years, I’ve tried to put over my own considered view. To understand the world from a (sort of!) Zen perspective, but at the same time to engage.

Some of us may choose to stand apart, others to engage. Both are equally valid. As I put it when I stared this blog seven years ago I wanted to [take] the trash and the hyperbole out of politics and [try] to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are. Can be very hard to find these days. Zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future….

The downside? Blogs take over. You organise your moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour thinking in terms of how it might appear in a blog. It’s harder to skim, to browse, to just absorb what you read or hear.

Worse, blogs and creativity, blogs and poetry are uneasy bedfellows. There’s a randomness, an complete unexectedness, something of the suck-it-and-see about poetry. You’ve a starting-point and a sense of direction. And no idea of an ending

With a blog it’s all about argument and conclusion. Though occasionally, as in my last All Hallows post, a little bit of creativity creeps in.

So will I return to this blog when I’m back from my time-out?

There has to be something obsessive about a political blog, and I may want to put obsession behind me. To walk and run and sing and play my guitar; to meditate and dream, to create; to give practical help to a charity, a church, even a political party. To go with the flow of the world, rather than try and arrest it – try and put it down in print and words.

We shall see. Maybe I’ll start Zentravel blog, and the Tao, the Camino, the way, will be my inspiration. Maybe Zenpolitics will become occasional, and less politicised. More chilled.

Do come back and take a look sometime





Rights, compassion and all that serious stuff

Our concepts of justice and social justice are closely tied to our ideas about the rights we enjoy as human beings. Rights easily taken for granted, and all too easily abused.

That takes us to another question, one that’s long concerned me – what lies behind the rights we enjoy? An external authority? Or something beyond that – are the rights we enjoy innate in who we are?

If this sounds heavy duty, please do bear with me. It gets to the core of why I set up the zenpolitics blog: how we can relate compassion, and the practice of compassion, to our everyday lives, and beyond that, to political life.

Negative rights assume self-interest is paramount: we respect the rights of others to pursue their interest to the extent that they respect our rights to do the same. Our loyalties are tied to family and community and to country: emotions attach to those loyalties, but they link back to our own selfish interest.

Positive rights assume a wider concept of interest, where the interests of self and others are ultimately the same, based on a natural justice common to all. From this derives everything from the right to vote and to an education, to the rights of the child, as in the UN Charter, and indeed to natural justice, where justice, and the legal system that enacts it, is common to all.

A natural justice common to all? Based on what? It can’t simply be a convenient construct, or rely on a hypothetical contract between citizens, which can be interpreted many different ways and swing as mood and opinion swings, or government or media interests dictate. (Though for many a construct or contract is as far as they’re prepared to go, following a trail blazed by Thomas Hobbes.) It must rely on something that goes deeper.

Religions avow an external authority, but I’m not sure we need religion as such. When we put ourselves beyond the addictive emotions, beyond anger, fear, desire, pride – beyond the attachments which cloud our judgement in everyday life, we find in the silence – a silence of mind – that compassion and fellow-feeling come entirely naturally. Compassion isn’t an emotion but a state of mind.

In Buddhist terms, your ‘original face’, in Christian terms, we’re back before the Fall, for the humanist we’re simply in touch with human nature. In the debate whether mankind is intrinsically evil or good I come down firmly on the side of good.

Silence – we have to find silence. Not a few moments walking to the station, or even walking the hills. Silence is silencing all the voices and emotions that take over our lives without our realising it. That’s where we go beyond our selfish selves, and find something else. Where the feelings of others are as important as our own.

The ‘others’ are not just our family, our peer group, community, country – they are by definition (compassion isn’t partial) all mankind.

We fall short all the time of course, sometimes a million miles short. But silence is our reference point.

Finisterre – end of the known world…

Last year walking the Camino across Spain I put all thoughts of politics out of my mind. I posted a blog when I returned, entitled ‘On being a European’. I had confidence a European and international outlook would win out in the end, whatever the short-term travails. The Brexit vote hit that confidence hard, but walking the Camino Portuguese, and the passing of the weeks, has helped bring calm and perspective. And a shrug of the shoulders – can we really be so daft?

At Cabo Fisterra, Cape Finisterre, where I ventured after Santiago, I clambered down the rocky slope below the lighthouse, and looked out west, over a stretch of ocean which to the Romans would have been at the very edge of the known world – finis terrae. The ocean as the Styx, and somewhere out there would have been Charon, with his boat, ferrying souls.

High cloud patterned the sky but didn’t reduce the sun’s intensity. Mist held to the coast behind me, but not out to sea.

In medieval times, likewise, this was the end of the world, and pilgrims would continue beyond Santiago to Finisterre. In the voyage of St Brendan he sails out west from Ireland and passes over into paradise.

I’ve this fantasy of May, Davis, Fox and Johnson, sitting in a restaurant, at the end of the world (borrowing from Douglas Adams!), having a last meal before they cut ties with Europe and venture off into the unknown. The ocean is peaceful just now but the autumn and winter storms will be mighty.

On another tack, but still in Spain, there’s a quote I like from Gerald Brenan’s classic book, The Face of Spain, about Spain, but more applicable to the UK just now: ‘I do not know where we are going, but I do know this – that wherever it is we shall lose our way.’

And China…. thinking walls, not oceans…. I’ve a sense that the Emperor Shih Huang Ti’s behaviour, as recorded in Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, might just have relevance to our own times: he ‘ordered the construction of the Great Wall and the destruction of all books preceding his reign, so that history would henceforth begin with him and his wall.’

In this post-expertise age, we are in a not dissimilar place. We might just finding ourselves using a new, unknown and very friable building material, not stone, not brick – but brexit. On one side of the wall, the old Europe, and on the other, the ocean.

Messages home from the Camino Portugues

or …… Travels with a very small bear

This is the alternative blog – based on messages home to my partner, Hazel. Carlos, by the way, is a small Steiff bear she gave me before I set off on the Camino Frances last year. He sits, usually with his head out, in a small side pocket of my rucksack.

Wednesday 31st August:

Eating a very good octopus and bean stew after a stroll round the very lively streets of Porto. One girl belting out an Eric Clapton blues. Marvellous evening views of the river from the cathedral, the port houses of the likes of Cockburn and Sandeman still lining the shore. Hotel OK. I’ve bunk beds in the room as well as double bed – should I need them!!!

Thursday 1st September:

I’m sending a photo of Carlos (now on his second Camino!) taking in the view (the Atlantic, lost in the heat haze) just before we finished our walk. We (he and I!) are staying at the monastery in Vairao – beautiful location. Countryside surprisingly green, given the hot weather. Walked 17 miles in the hot sun.


Started 10.30, after exploring Porto by daylight, especially the cathedral – I loved the cloisters. Slept well and walked well. Only problem might be a plantar fasciitis recurrence – felt sore even before of started walking. Not bad, doesn’t really hurt… Staying in the high 80s here. I think I like it! Carlos thinks Portugal is …cool!


Friday 2nd September:

18 miles in 88 degree heat. Yes I did wear my sun hat! Shade always came to my rescue. Eucalyptus woods have a sweet smell! Two great cafes en route – they love peregrinos and make you feel like a celebrity. Barcelos is delightful – somewhere for you and I to visit when we do our northern Portugal trip!! (Did you know about that?) Tomorrow – 20 miles and no cooler – I’ll probably do 12 miles [I didn’t – I did 21] and stop off at an earlier albergue. Ponte de Lima does sound special.

There’s a spiritual quality in all this, somewhere, must remember that, and too much mega hot sun doesn’t help! Don’t worry – I will be sensible.

Saturday 3rd September:

Today probably the toughest of any Camino day – close on 21 miles in 90 degree heat. Took a longish lunch break, mega amounts of water – camels have a good plan, and did the last three hours down to Ponte de Lima in stages – 15 mins then water, then shade. Think feet OK, but they’re sore, and a blister needs watching! Wonderful rolling wooded country, maize and vines in abundance, but too little shade. Carlos complains he’s getting a tan! …Tuesday forecasting 40 degrees here – over 100F. Won’t walk after 10 – will begin at 6 maybe and make it a short day! [That at least was the plan!]


Ponte de Lima beautiful and bridge medieval, long and narrow, for pilgrims and horses, but the whole place is touristy. Currently sitting outside after a shower (communal!) and drinking a local craft beer….

Sunday 4th September:

Got to Rubiaes about midday after five hours walking – and that is enough! Sheltering in the albergue, as is everyone, no-one daft enough to be out there walking! Wonderful walk from the Lima valley – a high pass only 1400ft but rugged and the sun already hot. They’re collecting pine resin from the trees – plastic bags attached to capture – so a sweet smell. And big views. Hot tomorrow again – aiming for the Spanish border…[News that Strictly Come Dancing has started already]… God help us all! They’d all die dancing in this heat… Planning a 6.30 start – not too early – Roman bridges don’t look special in the dark!… Flip-flops a big success. Sore left foot no longer sore! But sore spot on right foot. Such is life!


Monday 5th September:

Having a coffee in Valenca, fortress above the Minho – view upriver takes some beating! Left at 6.10, arrived 11.30. Off to Spain in a few minutes – just 2km to Tui….


Now well-settled in Tui. Mixed dorms but we’re spared mixed showers! Breakfast with eccentric ex-postman from Wigan and chatted to Polish guy who has his own travel magazine, takes own photos and hates smartphone cameras! Otherwise I’ve been swinging along through beautiful country, Roman bridges – it was once a Roman road, wooded paths, a few red-barked cork oaks, and singing, and happily lost in thought – walking as the good Lord meant it to be. Heat building, but OK. Tomorrow is the mega heat day – should I leave at maybe 4.30? Could be 2 hrs walking in the dark… Time now an hour ahead – funny gaining an hour going north. Mega hot out there – can it really be that tomorrow will be 6 or 7 degrees hotter still?

Tuesday 6th September:

Our international party, Polish photographer, Antonio, Czech student, Michaela, and me, walked 22 miles from Tui to Redondela, leaving at 5.40 and arriving 2.10, in 97 degree heat. Feet done in but otherwise beginning to recover, aided by beer, water, bread and cheese. We kept talking and and helped push each other along. On my own – would I have made it? Other people on the Camino today included – more Poles, a group of Spanish scouts, and a Mexican couple. No Brits save me!… [Tomorrow] heading for Pontevedra. Easy walk, I think. Assuming I can walk! Feet in rebellion!…

[Message from home: ‘No Brit would be mad enough to walk in that heat.’] Are you suggesting I’m not British?! I’m not one of your lily-livered Brexiters! Antonio called out a moment ago – ‘How is Brexit?’ (meaning me) ‘Do not call me Brexit!’ I shouted back. Such are the burdens we old-school Eurobrits have to bear!

Talking of bears, Carlos got some serious attention today – he’s feeling better about things. Brave bear – coping with the heat. And I’m doing the walking for him, of course.

Wednesday 7th September:

Arrived Pontevedra 12.45, having left at 7.40 – last person out of the albergue. Most are gone by 6, but sunrise 8.10 here, and I want to see where I’m walking! Easy day, two healthy climbs, but sun came out late and I had my favourite breakfast – fresh orange juice, croissant and café con leche. Bounced along after that. Lesson for and from today – think of nothing, just take it all in! Staying in a cheap hotel – Hotel Virgin del Camino – better than vergin’ – it’s actually on the Camino! Now off to eat and sight-see.


Carlos’s fur trapped in zip but I think he’s OK…[‘Might Carlos like his head out of the rucksack, so he can enjoy the views…’] Carlos does have his head out of the rucksack, all the time. Only the rain would keep him in. Sometimes he stretches out a paw and waves as well!… I loved Pontevedra but wandered around too long, and my feet are very sore…

Thursday 8th September:

Arrived Caldas de Reis at 12.15 – walked non-stop from Pontevedra, not far short of 4 miles/hr pace. Too many slow Spanish walking groups and I needed to get well away from them! They talk! Beautiful gentle country, bright sun, and temperature high 60s. That makes two happy bears – Carlos tambien! Wondering whether to call him Carlito – little Carlos. Ibuprofen and blister plasters helping – feet doing better than I expected. Now enjoying bread and tapas lunch!… Amazingly I’m now halfway through this jaunt!

Friday 9th September:

Arrived Padron 12.30. Enjoying a very good menu de dia in a local restaurant! …very modern albergue – bunk beds with curtains! Big plus – they’ve done all my laundry! Shortish but beautiful walk – oak, pine, chestnut, under a deep blue sky. Chilly first thing. Bumped into Martin, who I’d met in Tui, and we did a short tour – walking up the hillside to where St James [doesn’t sound right if you’re a peregrino – has to be Santiago!] is reputed to have first preached the Christian message in what must have been about 40AD. Martin an Irish Catholic so a good companion for this! House/museum of a legendary Galician poet – Rosalia de Castro – up the road so I trekked off for a visit. Early start tomorrow – will be tight to get there in time for midday mass.

Saturday 10th September:

Photo [sent home, to Hazel, and to my son and daughter] taken a moment ago, 10.30, local time, 8 miles out from Santiago [I’m looking remarkably sprightly, all considered!] …


Arrived to music and carnival an hour ago. A mere 16 miles this morning and I chose to explore the longer way in – being a glutton for punishment (and I knew I’d missed the mass). Once I start moving I do walk fast – all that running and marathons and the like. Wonderful place to be – on the steps above the Praza do Obradoiro. Met my Czech friend, Michaela, from our big walk from Tui. Big shout of – Chris! Antonio around somewhere. And others I recognise – we’ve all walked a long way!


Sunday 11th September:

Mist down low over Finisterre [I took a bus, and did feel a bit of a cheat], there’s a little overhead sun but wherever I walk I won’t see much. Maybe it will add to be mystery, and there’s a lot out there….

The mystery is now the view, on a perfect evening! The mist cleared over the last hour. This is where you would, in classical times, pass over the horizon, to the other side, to the spirit world. No-one is closer than I am at this moment. Back in the now – you’d love it here – sun, sea and waves breaking gently. And warmth….  a wonderful day, in the end. I’d set out for the cape  about 4pm and walked and scrambled and stopped and pondered and took photos till about 8.30. Magic, all a big surprise. No idea what I’ll do tomorrow. Just got back to the port (the cape is 2½km away) and I’ve a plate of salad, and a jug of wine, in front of me….

View from Cape Finisterre

Monday 12th September:

Damp, cloud down, forecast dreadful, no point walking 17 miles to Muxia [there will be, has to be, another time!], left Finisterre on an early bus, back to Santiago, thought I’d go to midday mass, but refused admission – my rucksack too big! Must have been by a centimetre! Maybe I look dissolute. [Tonight in a cheap hotel] tomorrow back at my favourite, the Balalada. So far a bit of a damp squib of a day!… Bought a shirt, so feel less scruffy, had a snooze, and a coffee with Martin … wonderful evening mass, felt inspired. A bit of a downer of a day early on but you can’t have the ups without the downs! Tomorrow it will rain, but I will smile!

View from my bedroom window over Santiago

Tuesday 13th September:

Sitting on the steps of the Praza do Quintana, near the Holy Door specially opened this year for Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy. But it seems to be just another entrance for the usual tourists – the message lost. Pilgrim mass in English this morning, lots of Irish, and an Irish priest officiating. We all introduced ourselves, said where we’d walked from – which was nice. Then I toured the monastery of St Martin, hard by the cathedral – full of altars and choir stalls which put San Millan to shame – but nothing quite to compare with the sculptures of Santo Domingo de los Silos. Galician (!) hamburger for lunch, with Stones tracks in the background. Sun now, after rain, but a chilly wind. Latest invasion of pilgrims has arrived – they’re everywhere! Each day they invade – proud to have been one of them. Funny to think – back home tomorrow night.

Wednesday 14th September:

Wrote a Santiago blog late on yesterday – still work in progress. But now fired up to get out and see things again! Funny being on your own – you can go anywhere, anytime you choose, yet you want to share it, and share coffees, and chat, as we did back in May [Pamplona, Roncesvalles, Castrojeriz…].

[Two big events, not mentioned in messages home – searching out the statue in the Alameda park of Rosalia de Castro, who is already my hero, and then the Museum of Sacred Art, with paintings and statues and much more on the Camino and on pilgrimages worldwide – few people there, and yet it’s one of the best museums I’ve seen anywhere.]

For cool damp weather, come to Santiago… Now queuing to board my flight…Bus to the airport took me via the last stages of the Camino Frances route into Santiago. Everyone wearing ponchos, and the rain then got harder. Lots of sun for them on the way – shame that Santiago lets them down now. But if they don’t know already – they’ll soon discover it’s one of the most remarkable places on earth!

[Carlos, sensibly, has stayed all the while inside his pocket!]

Carlos takes a break at Pedra Furada


It’s Thursday 1st September. Two weeks ago as I write. I’m starting from the Catedral Se in Porto after delaying awhile, with the heat building, in the wonderful cloister. A city built on hills, with the proud river Douro beneath, big vistas, and along its banks the old port warehouses of Cockburn, Sandeman and the like.

(Amazing in the twilight also – the previous, Wednesday, evening. Porto faces west, and silhouettes against against the sky. Street music I like: one memorable trio, with the girl belting out Eric Clapton’s ‘Before you accuse me’. If I want to sing blues and sing it seriously… I’ve a long way to go!)

10am and sun already hot as I set off past the Carmelite church (the south side covered, and telling stories, in blue azulejos tiles), along the Rua da Cedofeita, which seems to contunue forever, and on through the suburbs. I haven’t gone far when I’m accosted by a stranger and invited to inspect a newly-opened albergue (Albergue Peregrinos Porto), which brings together under one roof all the best features that Oscar, the owner, has seen on his pilgrim travels. Next time I’ll stay there.


All the buildings, almost, have azulejos tiles, not least the station, and they tell stories, and the cathedral cloisters likewise, less so the outer suburbs. After maybe 12 miles of endless roads I’m into countryside, and a few miles beyond I’ve reached Vairao: staying in a monastery, beds not bunks, and it’s oh so wonderfully peaceful. No monks in sight, and there’s a single volunteer in charge – a Brazilian guy doing a two week stint. The meditation room I’m told is two flights of stairs up. No lights on the stone stairs: I stagger up in the total dark, and flick the light switch: Buddha and cushions but no sign of anything Christian! Yet this is a monastery. As a Dutch lady said to me a day or two later, she loves it all, but compared to the Camino Frances it’s not spiritual in the same way. Being a Camino, that spirituality has to be rooted in Christianity. Churches on the route are closed too often, and I miss the pilgrim masses. And the Templars, and Cluny, never got to work down here and put money into anything like the great Romanesque temples I love on the Camino Frances.

All that said – still an amazing trail to be following. Comparisons maybe miss the point!

Friday 2nd. San Pedro de Rates, drinking water water water, and coffee, under an awning, the clock tower above, and the village square blasted white by the sun. The cafe owner (Cafe Macedo) loves pilgrims: big smile and handshake saw me on my way. Next – Dead Woman’s Peak – Alto da Mulher Morta. (Looked hard for Dead Man’s Gulch, but wrong continent.) Not enough shelter from the eucalyptus and pines as we gently climb. Pedra Furada – a megalithic disc, with a hole… stranded in a paved churchyard, but it still has mystery.

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Barcelos, commanding the river, famous for its legend of the cock which crowed just in time (the victim was already hanging) to save an innocent pilgrim’s life. Now a garish cartoon cock, and he’s everywhere. One marvellous octagonal church, ornate decoration, and another severely Romanesque, the river directly below, with a mill by the bridge. Colourful umbrellas float above the main shopping street.  My albergue was in Barcelinhos, where checking in I’m greeted by the most beautiful girl in the world: dead on my feet and glasses coated with salt and sweat I walk into and rebound from a plate glass door. Impressing women is never easy. Also hurt my head!

Saturday 3rd. Getting hotter by the day. Drink suspect water from a fuente, mild tummy upset – doesn’t help! Ponte da Tabuas, old bridge and river forms a lagoon, and someone’s swimming… Dirt tracks and cobbled roads (all minor roads are cobbled) take you through maize and vines, the vines forming a narrow screen next to the walls of cleverly laid, heavy, solid  granite stones. These are old landscapes, little changed, by the path side, but the fields are often big, and sprinklers throw their water far and wide, and are happy to dowse pilgrims.


A roadside chapel dedicated Our Lady of the Snows. You long for snow in summer, and you don’t have far to go to find it in winter. It’s a lovely evocative name, sounds even better in Spanish: Nuestra Senora de las Nieves. A pulpit sits outside the west door: this intrigued me – was a priest from back maybe in the 18th entity the radicalising Wesley or Whitfield figure of his time ? Preaching out rather than in. There’s a bandstand opposite – what does this signify, I wonder?

One big blister by the time I limp into Ponte de Lima. Wide river with long and spectacular medieval bridge. There’s a big kayak race – why kayaks? Whatever, it’s a big event!  They know how to party here and it’s Saturday night … Supper outside with a Canadian girl and a Italian guy: she works in England at Stevenage hospital, was born in Dubai, has lived in Canada since she was three, and her parents were originally from India, and her boyfriend who she came to England to be with is – Welsh. The multinational Camino represented in one person. She’s walking from Braga to Santiago, another variation on the Camino theme.

Not quite so many walk all the way from Lisbon. Places like Coimbra sound magical, and there’s Fatima, a pilgrimage in its own right. Someone, for much of the Portugues route, and beyond, has happily drawn blue arrows facing the opposite way, the Fatima way, wherever there’s a yellow Camino arrow.

Sunday 4th. Sleep not too easy. Street noise right below the dorm window!  And everyone in my dorm is up at 5.30 – start early and beat the heat. No way can I sleep – so I’m off early to. By 10am climbing sharply, a rugged path to 1400 feet, big views back to the Lima valley, two evocative stone crosses with memorials and mementos, and pine trees with plastic bags attached: they’re collecting resin, and it’s thick and crystalline, and the smell is sweet.

Rubiaes, another municipal albergue. Down to basics – they pride themsleves on how minimalist they can get – as long as there are showers and bunks, they’re right, nothing else matters! And it’s 5 euros! Most of us there by 1pm. Late arrivals sleep on mattresses in corridors. Not much to do, the heat it seems exhausts more by doing nothing than by moving through it, save shower and wash clothes and read and talk and sleep and eat. This is not a metropolis.

Monday 5th. Checked out a Roman bridge in the half-light, we’re following for much of the way the Roman Antonine Itinerary XIX. A major route from the 1st to the 5th century. There are six-foot and bulky inscribed Roman milestones along the way. I love tracing out Caesar or Augustus with my finger. I reach the Spanish border by 11 – Valenca, Portuguese fortress, on a massive mscale, this is serious border country! Fortifications inspired by Louis XIV’s remarkable engineer, Vauban: they are on a vast multi-levelled scale. The Portuguese did not, and rightly did not, trust the Spanish!


Views up and own the Minho river take your breath away. But most pilgrims head straight on, and tourists go for the nicknacks. Stop halfway across the bridge, straddling the border. River impressive – Ben (my son) and I went kayaking just below here ten years ago! Good memories.


Then on to Tui, Spanish border town, solid granite, cathedral a fortress, and cloisters the best place for cool! Carved portico inspired by the Portica da Gloria in Santiago. Dinner with Martin from Dublin (a retired engineer, he has a Camino tattoo on his upper arm) and Ken from Wigan. Broad Lancashire stalks the Camino..

Tuesday 6th. Big view from albergue up the Minho, first semblance of a breeze at 2, we’re all away by 5.30, 100 degree heat forecast. Stars bright, Orion already high, and Sirius just touching the horizon – winter stars, out of place in all this heat. We take the green route round Porrino, avoid the factories – three of us, a Polish photo-journalist, a Czech girl student, and a Brit. Pushing each other. After 22 miles we make Redondela, it’s getting close to 2pm. We get the last places in the dorm. Getting used again to mixed dorms – showers and loos separate. Male showers communal – back to school days! We’re close to a marvellous coastline, the Ria de Vigo: I follow the river and after a few 100 yards it opens out into a tidal creak – water flashing brilliant and enticing in the mega-sun.

Most churches closed but their Romanesque bell towers stand out against the blue skies. I always detour to take a look, while others walk on. One way to find peace. I love the cruceiros, wayside crosses which can sometimes pack the full biblical cycle from the Fall to crucifixion into tableaux carved out of the granite. Everything, all the way from Porto, is granite. Not least the walls, and the narrow posts which would once upon a time have supported the vines that line the field edges.


Wednesday 6th. A shorter walk, to Pontevedra, via the river route – alder and birch mixed in, we’re almost into English greenery. But it’s hotter, and the shade deeper. Santa Maria a remarkable Renaissance basilica – the life of Mary climbs and fills the western front. Sanctuaria de Peregrino  a perfect 18th century rotunda – ground plan shell-shaped. I take a breather – take a cheap hotel! The Asador Virgin del Camino, my oft-related joke being that it’s better than vergin’, it’s actually on the Camino.

St James is more and more entwined with the pilgrim route, the closer we get to Santiago.

Thursday 7th. But first Caldas de Reis. Chatted to Christine from Canada on the way, she’s running a leadership course near Lisbon, and all participants have to walk the last stages of the Camino Portugues. Young people, working in not-for-profit fields, from all over the world.

Caldas – thermal waters, baths and springs since Roman times. Bathed my feet: water seriously hot. Got a disapproving look from a local – no longer a cool thing to do! Ice cream in the Xardin Botanicas – that was a better highpoint. Too much time to kill. Down by the bridge over the rio Umia there’s a wonderful tree-shaded restaurant: if only I’d known!

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Friday 8th. Padron – where St James landed, or at least where he is supposed to have landed. Let’s assume he did! Much more fun that way. The stone to which he tied his boat lies beneath the altar in the Igrexa de Santiago. The hill above the Carmelite convent, the Santiaguino, is where he preached. After his execution his disciples returned to Padron with his body. I bumped into my friend, Martin, from Tui and we walked and talked the hill and its story together. Helps that he’s Irish! Below, in front of the Carmelite monastery there’s a vast platform – a viewing platform, for taking in the landscape, and not half bad for preaching either.

My albergue, all rather prosaic by comparison, is new, compact, and pristine clean – and the individual bunks had curtains. Also memorable: the menu de dia in a local restaurant, I’m now into main meals at lunchtime – do as the locals do. Not forgetting my evening pimientos de Padron, the local speciality.

Saturday 9th. James’s disciples buried his body in Santiago. What route would they have taken? My trail ran past the ancient Iria Flavia basilica, sacked by Almanzor in 997AD (he snatched the Santiago cathedral bells in the same raid), through run-down villages , through eucalyptus and pine, following a delightful wooded river valley, past the oldest of all the cruceiros, 14th century (I had my photo taken there, appropriate for someone who loves all the old stuff, the churches, the religion, however unfashionable that might be), then across the valley, through villages …then one river left to cross, just to tease, and a curiously rural valley for somewhere so close to the centre, another bridge, and finally tired legs into the old town, where it’s Saturday, and I seek out the traditional Portuguese gate of entry, and the different areas of the city are progressing in fancy dress and marching bands, drums and pipes, into the Praza do Obradoiro.

Sadly, as last year, the west front and the Porta da Gloria are covered in scaffolding, and that means I will have to come again! It’s Saturday, as last year when I arrived, but where last time it was politics this time it’s carnival in the streets, colourful costumes,  Galician pipers, big drums echoing down the ruas, captioned horses barely under control, high-steping middle-aged ladies looking gorgeous and showing off their legs, all the Santiago communities dressed up for a big day, and the rain holds off – just. Everyone heading for the Praza do Obradeiro. I watch from the steps with my friend, Michaela, from our big walk from Tui. By mid-afternoon it’s wet.


Behind me is the Portico da Gloria. Under wraps. Inside the cathedral, at the back, there’s plastic sheeting, and you can get down on your knees and peer underneath, and two girls are sitting on stools, under arc lights, chipping away the grime of ages. I think it’s the statue of Master Mateo himself one of the girls is working on. I’d love to have touched heads with him, as pilgrims used to do, in the hope that a little 12th century genius might transfer to the 21st. Outside, on the great western facade, it’s slow work there too, and there’s a lift that trundles incongruously up and down. Just how did they get their building material, and their craftsmen, up there in past times?

Santiago’s history and tradition is now embalmed – explained and served up for pilgrims and tourists. Pick almost any period in its past and the story would have been radically different. In the 13th century destruction followed on a riot in the Quintana, and rebuilding followed. 15th century, another riot, the cloister damaged and rebuilt. I’ve been unable to find the reasons or the consequences, but stories of riots do bring us, as they brought the city centuries ago, back done to earth. What were the conditions the masons and journeymen in the 10th, 13th, 17th and all centuries inbetween worked under? Master Mateo and Archbishop Xelmirez may have been hard taskmasters.

Inside the cathedral it’s evening, and the Pilgrim Mass draws to a close. The great organ strikes up, the botafumeiro is released and pours out holy smoke as it swings in its great arc across the transept. Not I’d have thought the best way to fumigate pilgrims: it may not take our sweat but it does take our breath away. There’s a pilgrim mass in English every morning, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Irish well represented, including five men in orange T-shirts who are all cancer survivors, and cycling together. The priest is a jovial, over-weight 69-year-old Irishman. I too am 69. We all introduce ourselves, a marvellous diversity, though quite a few like me have come from Porto rather than St Jean. Along one wall a mitred medieval bishop rests, on his side, head on one hand and his other, upper hand clasping the good book to his thigh. He seemed so content, in the sleep of the Lord, death could not touch him.

So many sculptures, and I love getting in close and taking in their expressions. Adjacent to the Porto Sacra are prophets and fathers of the church, and bishops and popes, not psychological portraits, but the sculptors had their fun, making each one different. Calm faces, cool faces, classical faces, and some at the opposite bizarre, plum ugly end of the spectrum. All those empty stares. And noses don’t survive the centuries well.

For paintings and sculptures if you want to see them not with a craned neck but close at hand, then check out the Museum of Sacred Art, a modern miracle of a museum housed within the old Mosteiro de San Paio on the Praza da Quintana. There’s the tabernacle in which St James is supposed to have been originally buried, and statues and paintings of Santiago and pilgrims from all over Europe. What did they wear in their feet, I wondered. Mostly sandals it seems, though one pilgrim had his feet wrapped round in what I assume was leather – almost a shoe!

Pilgrimage is a broad concept. On a path, with a purpose. Once upon a time when we all walked we were all pilgrims… Jesus on the road to Emmaus was joined by two disciples who didn’t recognise him at first, and there’s a wonderful painting, 16th century, almost my favourite item in the whole of Santiago, of the three of them ambling along, talking animatedly beneath towering woodland. Small figures, and a big theme. Three modern pilgrims engaged in animated conversation wouldn’t look that different!


Jesus – lest we forget, the Pope decreed that that this should be a Holy Year of Mercy, and the Holy Door, the Porto Sacra, on to Quintana is open this year, as it would otherwise be only in those Holy Years when the saint’s day falls on a Sunday. But no mention of this in the cathedral: I saw a pile of unused leaflets, that’s all. And tourists were using the Holy Door as just another entrance. If you take confession, and mass, and are free not from sin as such but a disposition toward sin (wonderful semantics!) then you qualify for a plenary indulgence. I’m not a Catholic, and Luther railed against indulgences, but I love the idea of a Year of Mercy, and it’s a shame to see that’s it’s not impacting on the lives of tourists, and pilgrims, a little more.


But Santiago works its magic anyway. My hotel, the Balalada, on the Rua da Xelmirez  (Xelmirez was archbishop in the early 12th century, and the driving force behind the building of the  cathedral), hides out in an old house, and my bedroom window looks over roofs and trees to one of the cathedral towers. There’s a bar four floors below my bedroom and on Saturday nights the party doesn’t stop until 5am, but if you’ve just walked 150, or 500 miles, you’re likely to sleep anyway, and next year – you can drink into the small hours, outside, in the cool of night.

Staying over two extra days I wandered the streets, explored churches, gazed up at high statues, spent time in cafes and restaurants and shops, but nothing quite beat my discovery of the Alamada park, which stretches away toward the sunset to the west of the city, endless green open spaces, trees and walkways, the church of Santa Susana in the middle, a perfect place on a hot day. If lived in the city I’d be retiring there to walk or to run, or with my book, or simply to find peace. And on the far side there’s a wonderful statue of Rosalia de Castro, Galician poet and national hero, whose house I visited in Padron. She has strong features, and a wise face, and I like her. No military celebration, or or pride or pomp, just humility, and wisdom, set on high, so we can look up to her. Below, carved into stone, are the titles of her books – poetry and prose. She had a melancholy cast of mind, there’s a sense of loss, and maybe that’s woven into the Galician sensibility. Not for me to say. But in this place of triumph for pilgrims I’ll end with a quote that’s just a little bit sad, but nonetheless evocative. Santiago is also a place for reflection.

I can only tell you that my songs/ rise in confusion from my soul/ like a sound from deep oak groves/ at daybreak,/ a sound which may be/ the wind’s tease,/ or the flower’s kiss,/ or the simple, but mysterious harmonies/ which, lost in this sad world,/ seek a way to heaven.