The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

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.

Countering Extremism 

Another remarkable discussion at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This time on countering extremism. How best to handle radical Islam is a contentious issue. And that’s a significant impediment in itself. But first and foremost, we have to be better informed.

Peter Frankopan, who chaired the panel of three (see * below for the participants) asked the audience, a full house in the town hall, how many of us had read the Koran. Maybe two or three put up their hands. We rely too much on opinions, commentators and hearsay, selective reporting and prejudice. Sadly I guess most of us won’t be rushing off to buy and read copies. But we owe it to ourselves, to the Muslim communities in our midst, and to our own futures, to be better informed.

Continue as we are now, and we will continue as polarised communities.

Radical Islamists argue that the West and Islam are incompatible, put a distorted view of Islam up against a immoral West beyond redemption. So young Muslims, already feeling excluded, feel they have to take sides.

As a society, whatever faith or non-faith we profess, we need counter-arguments, and at the core of these arguments must be inclusion – Muslims should be, must be, as much a part of this society as Christians. Prejudice is a conflicting and self-defeating agenda.  Achieve inclusion, and we can make  democracy, liberty, free speech shared values, across all communities.

Inclusion requires commitment on both sides, on all sides. We have a long way to go.

*Chaired by Peter Frankopan, and drawing on the experience of Sara Khan, founder of the charity Inspire, which challenges extremist ideologies in Muslim communities, Peter Neumann, academic and author of ‘Radicalised’, and Hanif Qadir, a one-time recruit to radical Islam now working with young people in danger from radicalisation.

Finisterre – a few hours at the end of summer

Finisterre (Fisterra), Sunday 11th September. There’s a story in the photos below.

Mist down all day, clears to my surprise at 4 o’clock, initially only over the Finisterre peninsula, and even then it’s always present, as if only the slightest movement of air will cause it to re-form. There’s a radiance, an iridescence in and about the air. Should we sail out now into the ocean, to a spirit world, or paradise, beyond, the seas will be calm. There’s a white trail on the water: might that be the route we take?

I clamber down, below and beyond the crowds. I have the far southern tip of Finisterre to myself. People have of course been here before me. Once upon a time pilgrims burnt their no-longer-needed and odiferous walking clothes here, but that practice has been banned. But not to be defeated several people have built a frame of poles and branches and strung their old unwanted clothes from it. They hang limply now. Come the next strong wind they will be shredded.

All the while the cloud is building from the north-west, as the photos show. How stormy the weather will be who is to say, but a long hot summer is slipping away.

The surf is gentle, breaking in concentric patters round untroubled rock. The clouds are wondrous, curtains of cirrus, swags of dappled white looped lightly across the sky, and the ocean almost impercetibly darkened beneath. The sky as it might be in paradise, and all the more a thing of magic because it might just disappear in an instant.

Sure enough the following morning breaks grey and damp, with the cloud down to rooftop level. It will not clear today, and rain will follow. And in England – the hottest September day on record. Cold winds slip down to the west of Ireland, leaving England marooned, cocooned and over-heated.

 

 

A little help from my friends

The referendum has left most of us convinced Remainers worried, angry, feeling cheated – and feeling the country has been cheated. Waking in the night my first thoughts have been referendum, and my first emotions negative.

I’ve been helped by a determination to ensure that an open and an open-hearted politics win out in the end – while at the same time taking on board a good few lessons. If I’d been aware in the past of resentment and anger among those who felt left behind, or that this was no longer their England, their UK – then that’s as nothing to my awareness now.

Getting away from it all also helps. Three books I’d mention –

Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a magical encounter with the Cairngorms – a landscape I remember well. No writer lives landscape quite as she does – the corries and snow and skies, the eagle and the snow bunting, the storm and the silence.

(Of the peregrine falcon and eagle) ‘The speed, the whirls, the torrents of movement are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. Or if it is … the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings achieve their beauty by a strict adherence to the needs of function – so much more is the mountain’s integrity vindicated. Beauty is not adventitious but essential.’

‘No-one know the mountain completely who has not slept upon it… Up on the plateau [on midsummer nights] light lingers incredibly far into the night…Watching it the mind grows incandescent and its glow burns down into a deep and tranquil sleep.’

‘Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shaped, should so tranquillise the mind I do not know…’ No one before, not even Wordsworth, has told it quite as she does.

She’s now destined, humble walker and explorer of the mountains as she was, to appear on a Scottish postal stamp.

At the other extreme, I delved into the poems of Sean O’Brien. But whereas with Nan Shepherd you feel you are living her memories as she is living them as she writes – we feel in O’Brien’s case that they are memories, and where Shepherd elevates he brings and keeps us down to earth – to the the sluices and dirty harbour waters in which fish yet swim, to drains, and empty parks, to deprivation sluiced through with politics. The landscapes draw you in, the language inspired because there’s magic in it, though the content may bring you down – and that’s the problem in my post-Brexit world. I want words to lift me up.

Someone with whom  I’ve shared my life for a few years now is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He sought God in the silence and moved toward Buddhism and political engagement as the years past. Whereas I in the turmoil seek silence sometimes, he in the silence could not hold back from the turmoil. Like thousands maybe millions of others I connect with the manner of his life and his engagement with it – if not the detail. And his diaries are matter of fact, and detached, but there’s always a wisdom interwoven, and I turned to his diaries on the Friday night after the Thursday referendum vote, and it was 1968, and Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and Merton wondered what else might happen that year. The Chicago convention, the death of Robery Kennedy of course – and his own accidental death.

This is 2016, and I wonder what else might befall the UK, and the world, this year.

If Merton on this occasion added a new dimension to anxiety, getting out beyond books in the post referendum week proved more successful.

All day in Kew Gardens with my partner’s grandchildren: you escape into their lives, and into Kew’s open and closed spaces – to the newly opened and magical Hive, where we literally tune in to the world of bees, and the Palm House, where the mist drips big drops of water on plants and people.

The Sunken Treasures exhibition at the British Museum – reclaiming remarkable artefacts from cities long sunk under the waters of the Nile Delta, a reminder of the transitoriness of life, civilisation and belief systems. And of course political life.

And finally, a day on a narrow boat of the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal, when after weeks of storm and rain and cloud the sun broke through and shone all day, and we could chug slowly to Gloucester and back through countryside hardly changed in a hundred years – the canal wide and the waters empty, and below us – yes below- the widening estuary of the river Severn.

No talk of politics, eight of us, a picnic of the river bank, and nothing to do. Just occasionally I took the tiller and took charge – though really it was the boat taking charge of me.

Revisiting the Camino – take two

This post is for Camino geeks. I’m revisiting in late May and early June, almost one year on. By car, but with short walks wherever possible.

There are good memories which stand the test of time, even improve on reacquaintance – and others which fall short, or simply disappoint.

Bilbao, YES. Off route I know, but the end of my stage one, June last year. The Guggenheim, and especially Richard Serra’s sinuous and space-defying structures.

Likewise the drive up into the mountains from Bilbao, in brilliant sunshine, unbroken forest as far as the eye could see. Beyond Vitoria, green hills with crags lining their summits, and I remembered the way they led me, guided me, when I walked that stretch from Punta la Reina to Logrono.

NO to Roncesvalles, though we did take a short circular walk up through the woods, then back down through meadows to join the Burguete path – meadows with rich odours of cow dung and deep shades of green beneath an equally deep shade of blue – that’s how I remember Navarre from almost a year go.

YES to all the following.

Larrasoena, the village, where I stayed my third night, and the bridge that takes you over the river and back to the Camino from the village – 6.30 on a misty morning last June. All alone, and I couldn’t quite believe where I was! Memories of Zabaldika nearby, and climbing the belfry to ring the bell out over the valley.

Pamplona, sitting and watching the peregrinos wander through, most of them without the heavy boots, the day’s walk over. They have still 4 1/2 weeks to go…

Zariquiegui, and the walk up to the Alto de Perdon. The path of the winds gentler than last time round, and more peregrinos. I had it to myself last June. We talked to several on the way up – we listened. New Zealanders. Then as now, there are stories to tell. This time as last time – where are the Brits?  Are we content, too content, with our own patch?

Puente la Reina, sitting out in Calle Mayor and having lunch, the bridge and the river moving slow and green beneath. Chatting to someone who walked to Santiago four years ago – and is now walking the other way.

NO (sadly) to Estella. Estella was my favourite place, almost, last time, but now the shops were closed, it being Sunday, and the streets were dirty, rubbish uncleared, and the churches closed last June were closed now, and the wonders therein will have to wait for a third visit (I fear unlikely). But the way the Camino drops down past old houses into the town – that still has magic. And I made good friends in Estella.

Yes, big YES, to Logrono, and its wonderful evocative churches, the Ebro as a boundary, my furthest west point last June, and starting point last October, and coffee in plaza in the shadow of the cathedral, cold bright sunshine, multi-coloured cyclists about to take off en masse. The pinchons, and a wonderful hotel, the Calle Mayor, which wasn’t a memory as such because I stayed in an albergue last time….

I restarted 1st October last year, in Logrono.

Navarrete, YES, the square and cafe by the church emptier than last October, all the noise outside an albergue one street below, and the wind was chilly but the sky was blue and the dark shadowy church was full of atmosphere, the gilded retablo overpowering at the east end, likewise the emotions brought out by the background music – combining Taize, Pachelbel, the Handel Sarabande made famous by the Barry Linden film score, and Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind in orchestral form. I sat with head bowed and tears in my eyes, re-experiencing some of the more powerful personal moments from last year.

Santa Domingo de la Calzado – YES, almost. Santo Domingo doesn’t allow you to sit and drink coffee and experience it at its heart – the street cafes are on the modern street just south of the old main street, the Camino route, and the Parador is while wonderful inside a dead space if you’re looking to get a sense of the Camino. The cathedral evokes mixed emotions – beautifully restored and lit, evocative paintings and sculpture, especially the outside choir stall walls, and a c1500 retablo tucked away in a side chapel, where it’s hard to see it properly.

The museum is full of medieval, early as the 14th century, icon-like Madonnas on the one hand, and crucifixions and saints full of that that exaggerated piety which rings false to the modern eye, on the other. Likewise a cartoon image of Santo Domingo, dire – the old saint will be rotating in his grave.  You have to squeeze back against a glass case with a reconstructions of earlier versions of the cathedral to see a marvellous 13th century painting of the Garden of Eden – creation, temptation and expulsion.

From there by way of an industry park – what would Santo Domingo have thought to see what’s been created on the site of his original village – to San Millan de Cogolla.The monks there turned him down back in the 13th century. Their reputation  and the grandeur of their Romanesque monastery must have been marvellous in the eyes of the young Domingo. Had they accepted him – he would never have been a saint, and there would be no Santo Domingo town.

Back on – or just off – the Camino

I’m back revisiting favourite corners of the Camino, and also taking in places and landscapes which tantalised me last year by being just off route. Above all the monastery of San Millan de la Cogalla, where I’m writing this post.

We’re not staying in albergues, but in hotels – and some are almost smart. Do I miss the dormitories? And the snoring? Maybe not! Though I do have ambitions to walk the Camino Portugues later this year.

The monastery has claims to be the birthplace of the Spanish language, where what became Castilian was first written down by an early 12th century monk as marginal notes to a Latin codex. I knew when I first read about San Millan, in Navarrete last year, that I had to visit.

I loved and love the history of the Camino – the vast church interiors, ancient houses with coats of arms, streets winding through towns and villages as they’ve done for a thousand years, the Templar and Cluny connections, tales of battles against the Moors, my hero Sant Iago, the porch of the ruined church outside Navarrete now gracing the entrance to the cemetery on the other side of town, churches where pilgrims who might not make it to Santiago could nonetheless receive absolution  – all the powerful spiritual connections.

I’d attend pilgrim masses when I could, and light candles.

Down the road from San Millan is Berceo, the birthplace of the first recognised Spanish language poet, Gonzalo de Berceo. Another reason for visiting.

From my hotel window in San Millan woodlands stretch up both sides of the valley into the heart of the Sierra de la Demande. And a cuckoo is calling, as it has been on and off through the day.

San Millan himself was a 6th century hermit, and around him gathered other hermits, and in the 10th century a Benedictine monastery was founded on the site. There are monks here to this day, though I’ve yet to catch sight of any! There are depictions of San Millan is sculpture and paintings in Benedictine attire (hardly a military uniform!) and brandishing a strange red zigzag sword, taking on the Moors as did Santiago Matamoros. Like Santiago he was a patron saint, of Castile and Aragon, but Santiago’s status has fared better down the years.

We walked up the valley this afternoon and climbed the hillside to one of the many hillside caves. The views up to the still snow-touched peaks were wonderful, likewise the woodlands which extend everywhere. We took out all our woodlands back home in the UK for firewood and building ships and to create pasture – not so here!

If you want to be a hermit, I can’t imagine anywhere better.