One striking statistic marked the day. We’d a quiz via mobile phone in the afternoon and Miles, my partner’s eldest grandchild, asked us how many people died in World War Two. Mine was a massive underestimate. MiIitary deaths were 21-25 million, including about 5 million deaths in captivity. Include civilian deaths and the number rises to 50-56 million. Add in deaths from disease and famine, and that makes a total of 70-85 million. From the ambitions of the over-mighty came brutality and holocaust.
We had just returned from a wonderful walk up into the woods and back across the Common. From speedwell and periwinkle, via ground ivy and vetch, to bugle and early purple orchid, the abundance of flowers is mind-blowing. Chalk milkwort is rare, with white touches around the tiny blue flowers. Prevailing easterlies always bring clearer air, and pollution levels are hitting new lows. Sun and clear skies and clear air – the flowers just seem richer this year.
After the quiz we’d a street party, suitably socially distanced. Our neighbour had sat quietly with her two young children at 11am. She’d explained what the silence was all about, about how people had died, and how they celebrated on VE Day. The children listened, and kept silence. They will remember, as I remember the Queen’s Coronation, as a six-year-old in 1953.
Families everywhere are home schooling, and VE Day has been a focus for studies. Schools would normally have provided that focus. In times of lockdown it’s been family.
We’ve all got used to silence in recent weeks. We are fortunate. We have open country nearby. There’s one place deep in the woods, where the wild garlic spreads its widest carpet, and the birds never stop singing. Forget the morning chorus. This is 2.30 in the afternoon. The leaves of the beech trees are thick enough now to achieve full woodland shade, so the patches of sunlight in the clearing beyond stand out more sharply.
War and silence. I’ve been reading Anne Frank’s Diary. We’d visited the annex where the family had shut itself away last October. They could hear the Allied bombers overhead, they knew about the concentration camps. They must keep silence, and they did, remarkably so, for more than two years. In these coronavirus lockdown times that beggars belief. They knew the Allies would win. But would they be able to hold out? What hits home so terribly hard is that they were betrayed.
The big and terrible picture of war, set against the close observation of nature. The noise and joy of VE Day, and the (relative!) quiet of a street party under lockdown.
The day-to-day of Brexit is well written up elsewhere. Maybe one day I’ll put a timeline up here. As a matter of record. After it’s all happened and we’re out, or in, and staying whichever way. But for now…
I’m on the march for a People’s Vote. It’s 19th October 2019.
I’ve not marched before. Hazel and I returned from Amsterdam 11pm on the 18th. 11am on Saturday 19th I’m on a train to Paddington. I walk across Hyde Park, and join the march at Hyde Park Corner. Some walkers resting. Banners and placards likewise. Looking down Park Lane: full of marchers as far as the eye can see. Looking east, along Piccadilly, likewise. A million? Maybe.
I head down to join them. Shuffling along. The pace reminds me of the last ½ mile of the London marathon, when you’re struggling along Constitution Hill, toward the Mall. Would we were so close to an ending. There may yet/will certainly be more political marathons before any level of sanity is achieved. As one placard has it: ‘I’m not leaving.’ Or as Steve Winwood sang, ‘keep on running’. Or another placard: ‘If you leave me now, you take away the biggest part of me…’ I hum that all the way back to the tube.
A batch of Labour cabinet members give short speeches. Keir Starmer the stand-out for clarity and apparent commitment. LibDems old and new. Ed Davey more punchy that usual. Jo Swinson gets her message across well. And others. David Lammy brilliant. Likewise Jess Phillips. The biggest cheers at the end for Dominic Grieve and Hilary Benn, fresh from the Commons debate, and the vote by 322 to 306 to withhold final approval for Johnson’s Brexit deal until the relevant legislation has been passed. And finally big cheers for the old warrior hero, Michael Heseltine. Hezza as lucid and passionate as ever.
More placards. ’Stop the coup.’ Yes, in a way, that’s what we’re facing. ‘Let us be heard.’ Not easy with so much of the press in Tory hands.
My favourite slogan before, and still my favourite: ‘If a democracy can’t change its mind it ceases to be a democracy.’
The marchers are a wonderful, worthy, uncomplicated bunch of ordinary folk. All ages, some serious, others chatting, having fun. A trumpet here, a rallying cry there. A single line of ‘Ode to joy’. Sudden unexplained surges of noise. Helicopters occasionally drowning everything out.
Talking of drowning. Rain starts on the Mall, continues as we head down toward the Cenotaph. Briefly heavy. But we walk on regardless. Then big blue skies and dazzling sun. A big screen helps me keep up with the speeches. The crowd thins a little and I finally make it to Parliament Square.
A few placards are rather more direct: ‘Eurocrats not Brexit crap.’ Not quite sure we should be lauding Eurocrats, if we want to persuade waverers. ‘Bramm orth Bretmes,’ apparently (do I believe it?) a Cornish curse meaning ‘a fart to Brexit’.
Maybe my favourite: ‘Brexit is as shit as this sign.’ (On makeshift cardboard.)
Other favourites: ‘I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA.’ Right on. ‘Only tectonic activity can take us out of Europe’. A simple geographical fact.
Yes, we are serious, but we have fun. Shouts of ‘Shame on you’ as Andrea Leadsom leaves the Commons, so I read. She reports she felt threatened. This is as I experience it a very unthreatening event. But the press of course pick up on her comments.
Blue berets with yellow stars around the edge are popular. A teddy bear atop a wooden pole. A labrador with a rag doll Boris in its mouth. ‘Honk if you want to remain.’ Not so easy on roads from which cars are excluded. A goose with a Euro flag in its beak: yes, I like that. Some kind of vehicle moves slowly through the crowd, with a Boris mock-up in front, and a bigger puppet-master Dominic Cummings behind.
‘Hastings loves Europe since 1066.’ Really? But I support the sentiment.
And finally, ‘Plant molecular biologists against Brexit.’ As I would expect.
If I’d carried a placard … putting attempts at clever thoughts aside, I’d go with ‘keep on running’, or ‘I’m not leaving’. Keep it simple. Conserve energy.
I read that Ian McEwen has read everything on Brexit, admitted to being an obsessive. He’s just written a book, Cockroach, about a cockroach which wakes up to find it’s become prime minsiter. He admits to a lack of subtlety.
I keep reading on Brexit. Never was a subject so pervasive and invasive. But any kind of orginality requires deep reading. And life just now has other attractions!
What can a literature festival offer? The Cheltenham Literature Festival is on my doorstep. One of the great advantages of living out of town, in the country, but not as much in the country as you might think. Maybe the Hay Festival is my favourite, by a small margin – the scale and vibe is overwhelming, and I love it. Cheltenham is urban, and you’ve a cafe and street culture which sets it apart.
I’ll take language as my theme. Not maybe what the organisers of the Cheltenham Literature Festival had in mind. They’re celebrating their 70th birthday. But what is literature if not language. Though language may not be literature.
It’s Saturday morning. I’ve yet to read David Nott’s book, ‘War Memoir’, about his life as a frontline surgeon, operating, literally, in the world’s most violent places. He was our first event, and he came across, initially, in interview, as out of his element. But honest. He’d found when working under fire in Sarajevo a kind of high, an excitement, this was where he wanted to be. Less a moral compass than a vocation. But he found that compass and now trains surgeons to work beyond the specialisations into which they’re shoe-horned by modern hospital practice. He has met Mullah Omar, met ISIS, and his dedication to life made his denunciations of those who seek and exercised power and the language of power for its own sake, careless of death, all the more powerful.
Our next event, the debate ‘Populism: Death of Democracy’, was topical, though there was always the danger we’d simply be re-visiting well-trodden territory. So it proved. The debate was chaired by Leslie Vinjamuri, of the think-tank Chatham House. Matthew Goodwin brought a British perspective to the subject, and Amy Pope, ex Obama advisor, an American perspective. Do the origins of populism lie more in cultural or economic issues? Identity or issues relating to jobs and income? Populist leaders exploit both – the apparent undermining of national cultures, of ways of life – being left behind – victims – of a political system, of elites operating in their own interest. The issues are real, and the crisis, with hindsight, inevitable. But the debate went round in circles.
Focusing on language would have helped. The misuse of language has turned a crisis which might have brought people together in a common understanding into conflagration. Language brings together, its misuse divides. Post-truth was well-established before 2016. Fake news and disdain of real expertise took hold in 2016 and beyond. Current parliamentary debates have coupled disdain and anger in a way that challenges truth in language still further.
Amy Pope contributed an American standpoint: she sees hope in the wider race and gender representation in the House of Representatives. But as she admitted, that doesn’t address the issue of the resentments of the ‘flyover states’, everything, that is, between the East Coast and California.
Sunday morning. Time for my next event, a celebration of the life of the American novelist, Toni Morrison, who died in August. As an editor at Random House, the first black editor in US publishing history, she opened doors for black writers, and she herself opened up the realities of Afro-American life as never before. She didn’t whitewash, or glorify, or sympathise. She allowed language to tell it as it is, and as she saw it. And the language is wonderful, inspired, magic passages of writing which capture all the hurts and hopes and failures, resignation on the one hand and the search for identities and roots on the other. The panel were black women, writers and publishers, and I’m a white and male, and in a big minority in that Cheltenham tent. But I came away inspired. The panel spoke Morrison’s language – Miss Morrison as two of then called her. They quoted favourite passages, and the most resonant was the speech she gave at the Nobel-Prize-giving ceremony.
‘…the recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.’
‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’
Next, another debate, ‘Who’s Next for the White House’. Leslie Vinjamuri again, joined by Sarah Baxter and Adam Boulter, both now of the Sunday Times, festival co-sponsors. As a choice, this was interesting, intriguing, but probably a mistake. We were on the same ground as the populism debate. And the same radical uncertainty of outcome. I may for my part see hope in a new and raised awareness coming through, or at least a cause we can identify with, in the opposition to populism. But where lies hope in the battle to be president? The Democrats are divided centre and left. Theirs is at least a debate I can connect to. Elizabeth Warren a powerful candidate, but with big-state ideas which could panic centrist voters. Trump is Trump, widening his river of no destination ever further and carrying his supporters along in the turbulence. We were asked for a show of hands at the end. Who do you think will be the next US president? Two-thirds, at least, thought Trump. Not me. I’d thought – Trump, no way, last time. Not again, that I cannot believe. Though were I to expect a Trump victory maybe my penchant for guessing wrong would somehow influence the outcome – and Trump would lose …
In the evening we had ‘An Evening of Joni Mitchell’. Note the ’of’. She is recovering slowly from a brain aneurysm, re-learning how to walk. She is not travelling. I knew that. Some didn’t. They expected Joni to be there. A 40-minte four-way ‘expert’ conversation talked about her childhood polio, speculated on its influence, touched on her relationships – but never on the detail of her songs. We’re back to language. They never touched on the language of her songs. What inspired her to write them. They are her legacy to the world. Would that come over in the second half? No. Her songs were given the full jazz band, wild sax, treatment, and the words got drowned. Very occasionally her rhythms came through. But while the music was almost OK, the treatment was a travesty.
And, finally, two events on the Monday. Smaller venues. The first in The Pillar Room, in the Town Hall. Two writers. Philip Marsden writing about a single-handed boat journey from Cornwall via the west of Ireland to the Summer Isles (the title of the book as well – I love the name) off the north-west coast of Scotland. You’re face to face with the sea, with the world, when single-handed. He’d walked with his aunt who lived in the North-West Highlands, and she’d died out there in an accident. Her library was full of books on (if I recall aright) on simplifying life, on Zen. Also talking at the event was Dan Richards about his book, ‘Outpost’, where he writes about bothies and cabins and lighthouses and even sheds at the bottom of gardens – your stepping-off points, as an explorer, of wilderness, or as a writer, the open spaces of the mind. The idea appeals, and I will buy the book. The authors are different as personalities, Marsden aspiring to the slightly grizzled loner, Richards rather more (if he will forgive me) urbane. But for both experience is everything, and truth to experience, and truth to the way it’s expressed in language.
And finally, Laura Cummings, chief Observer art critic, and her family memoir, ‘On Chapel Sands’. Another smaller venue, The Nook: we sit round small tables, in greater comfort and more intimacy than usual. This was better for a writer whose book is about the brief and unexplained disappearance of a little girl for five days from a Lincolnshire beach, when she was only three years old. The little girl was the author’s mother. A long-time unsolved family mystery. She bravely followed the story where it took her. The small venue allowed intimacy and author tears. In pursuit of the truth about the abduction, she dug behind family stories, as we’d expect, but she also interrogated family images. Her art critic skills proved useful. Photos can tell lies, or they can be bland – just another family photo. Or they can, as in this case, hide secrets which only a practised eye can reveal. A husband and wife photo from 1910 – but posed like a Vermeer, but Vermeer was all but unknown in England back then.
So, three days at the festival. For me it’s been, so far, above all about language. About the integrity of language. The natural substrate of a book festival you might think. But what’s struck me this time around is the importance of awareness of the role of language. A surgeon whose role would be so much less needed round the world if only power was subservient to truth. Politicians will, they must, use language as best they can to put an argument across. But to weaponise truth, which quickly becomes weaponising untruth, is a very different story.
Toni Morrison, and Philip Marsden and Dan Richards, opened/open up not narrow down the world. Language and shouting don’t go well together. Toni Morrison – a writer who engaged with an agonised world with extraordinary honesty – a writer of genius. And two writers who talk of quieter times, sailing or walking or writing. They’re not out to change the world, they don’t insist or demand. But they tell it like it is.
Yes indeed – time to walk, or if you’re so inclined, as I am, to run, out into the hills, through the woods, and the farmland. Seek out another perspective on the world.
Six weeks ago the first pale green leaves showed on the beech, now the wood is dark, and the light seeks out chinks, or clearings where the foliage is less intense. Many climb tall, planted close together. In time, many years hence, they will be harvested, fuel for our wood burners.
But, given the chance, beeches spread their trunks wide. On one, pollarded long ago, I counted ten trunks. It and its fellows mark the edge of the woodland, where it meets the big hedge-less field, where the barley now four-feet tall is growing abundantly.
Oaks are fewer where I run, but they are there. I know of none of the old, the 500-or-600-year-old, oaks. But across the Severn estuary, into the Forest of Dean, they are abundant. Felled for shipbuilding – and replanted (at Nelson’s instigation, so I read) for the same purpose. But by the time the trees had matured iron had become the main building material.
Can you mention the oak, without mentioning the ash? I often wondered about the old saw, ‘when the ash’s before the oak, there’s bound to be a soak’. When in my experience was the ash in leaf before the oak? Never. (I read that, back in the 18th century, the ash did sometimes beat the oak. But our climate has changed.)
The ash. … the ash is in crisis. They always gave a lighter cover, with their compound leaves. But now leaves are fewer, twigs and branches bare.
I used to sing the old Welsh folk song, The Ash Grove, at school.
The ash grove, how graceful, how plainly ’tis speaking;/The harp through it playing has language for me…/I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome…/The ash grove, the ash grove again is my home.
The lover found solace beneath the ash. And now it seems it is the ash itself we must weep for. Our only solace – there are resistant strains, we can replant.
The ash is woven not only into song but into our history – and Norse mythology. What off Yggdrasil, the great ash if Norse mythology? Must the tree of the gods also suffer dieback? (There is a symbol for our times!)
‘The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. …The third … root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root … [there] the gods have their court.’ (Extract from the Prose Edda, see also below.)
Tree recognition hasn’t been a strong point of mine. How might ash differ from sycamore or oak, or lime or white poplar? I knew the shapes, sort of, but I guessed. Now I know the ash. They are in groves, and near me, lining hedges, and especially, they’re where local farmland rises to a gentle summit, prominent, lording over the land. They are thinner now, you can see through them. When they go, so will our landmarks.
(Ash and sycamore – I puzzled a day or two ago over two trees apparently growing together, their trunks conjoined – it’s called inosculation.)
At a more mundane level, we were wondering over lunch – is there a plan, a national plan, to replant? Or at least recommendations? Or guidance? None as far as we can tell. A recent report in Current Biology estimated a total cost to the nation of the loss of trees (no mention as far as I am aware of replanting – of ultimately restoring the landscape) at £15 billion.
And the ash trees that line our lanes? Are they the farmer’s responsibility? The local council? Primarily the latter, according to the report. I’m told when they’re felled in the diseased state, weakened by fungus, they shatter, and there is a mighty mess.
I’ve recently returned from the Hay Book Festival. Robert Macfarlane was there, talking about his new book, ‘Underland’. There’s a marvelous chapter that focuses on the ‘understorey’ in woodland, where fungi spread their hyphae, a network which not only consumes dying matter but also supports the living.
‘The relationship between plant and fungi is all about exchange, swapping chlorophyll for nutrients, but far more than this, ‘the fungal network also allows plants to distribute resources between one another … sugars, nitrogen and phosphorus can be shared between trees in a forest: a dying tree might divest its resources into the network for the benefit of the community, for example, or a struggling tree might be supported with extra resources by its neighbours.’ (Underland, p98)
But the dieback fungus is at another level, a fungus which feeds only to destroy. A dead-end fungus.
So I despair to see the ash die back. And I wonder what lies ahead. But I also wonder at what lies beneath. My eyes have been opened to something extraordinary. But as town-dwellers, most of us, we take it all for granted.
We take the ash for granted.
(Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, 15) “The ash is of all trees the biggest and the best. Its branches spread out over the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree’s roots support it and extend very, very far. One is among the Æsir, the second among the frost-giants, where Ginnungagap once was. The third extends over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir, and Nidhogg gnaws the bottom of the root. But under the root that reaches towards the the frost-giants, there is where Mimir’s well is, which has wisdom and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is called Mimir. …The third root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root is a well which is very holy, called Weird’s well (Urd’s well). There the gods have their court.
We’ve been out walking, 10km (not miles, that’s the way it is these days), for ‘Walk the Wards’, a charity event to raise money for local hospitals in the Cheltenham area. (My partner, Hazel, is a volunteer on the oncology ward at Cheltenham Hospital.)
There’s something wonderfully positive about such events. I’ve run marathons for charity, but this was more laid-back, more focused – one charity, not many, and walking, so time to think, and no crowds to cheer you on, just mud (too much rain overnight) and a sense of common purpose.
The mood continues into the afternoon, this afternoon, Sunday afternoon. It’s drizzling outside.
It was drizzling – raining – at Woodstock in 1969, when the singer Melanie came on stage for her first-ever performance to a big crowd. The audience were lighting candles to beat back the rain. (We had imagination in those days!) She came away, as she said, a celebrity, and with the chorus of ‘(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain’ in her head. ‘I left that field with that song in my head, the anthemic part.’
Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown./Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown.
We were so close, there was no room, we bled inside each /other’s wounds.
We all had caught the same disease..and we all sang, the songs /of peace.
I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I listened and lived it back in 1969. Listening to Melanie singing Ruby Tuesday (in the bath, after the walk!), and that catch in her voice – something of the old optimism came back to me.
Today’s walk, ‘Walk the wards’, did a little bit of the same. Brought back the optimism.
In this overly negative, too often backward-looking era, with Barack Obama a memory (though still an inspiration), we have to hang on to the ‘can-do’, make it new, share it with our kids and their kids.
Another Melanie song, ‘Peace will Come’:
And my feet are swimming in all of the waters /All of the rivers are givers to the ocean /According to plan, according to man …
Oh there’s a chance peace will come /In your life
Each generation feels the push-back, each new generation has to push forward, all progress is slow, but if the older generations can find it in them to join with the younger, as I did with my two children, very grown-up children, last year, opposing Brexit in Trafalgar Square, then there is hope…
And yet… a mention of Brexit slips in. Many walking today will be Brexit supporters. Nothing is ever simple.
We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.
Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.
Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent. I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.
I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.
Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …
Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.
Father, son and daughter in the Lake District. No talk of politics, just much sharing of music, all our of favourites, from fifty years back in my case, back to Grace Slick belting out White Rabbit – where did such amazing music come from when all had been doldrums only ten years before. Not quite so far back for Ben and Rozi, but they have good taste, and are slowly convincing me that I should love You can be heroes...wrong… We can be heroes… wrong again, just Heroes, and maybe come round to David Bowie after all these years. Now that he’s gone.
We try and avoid politics, though father and daughter are political animals. Whoops of delight when I see that all the election posters in Coniston are for the LibDem candidate. What, I wonder, does Theresa May talk about with her husband, and passing strangers, when out walking? And what if I met her out walking? A cheery good morning?
Bagehot in the Economist has a piece on Theresa May, under the heading Tory of Tories. Her Britain he writes is ‘the Britain of the Tory heartlands, a Britain of solid values and rooted certainties, hard work and upward mobility, a Britain where people try to get ahead but also have time for the less fortunate’. That made me wonder. What’s to disagree? Well, let’s get started…
Rooted certainties – that of course has never been England, or the UK. It’s our ability to change, to move quickly, to adapt, to draw on skills from around the world (here in the Lake District the Coniston mines and Millom tannery are two local examples) that has made us what we are. Not clinging to rooted certainties. ‘Solid values’ – a euphemism too often for closing ranks against the world. ‘Hard work’ – it’s inspiration, and we’ve drawn over centuries much inspiration, and wisdom, from Europe, we need as well. ‘Upward mobility’ – and what of those left behind? Not the JAMs, the just about managing, an invented concept if ever there was one, but those whose disadvantages of birth and position deny any opportunity of upward progress. The Tory world is too often a world where the barriers comes down, and the shutters.
There’s another free-trading Tory as well, a different breed, and they have a curious co-existence with the heartland Tory. Not Mrs May’s world at all, nor it seems that of her ‘guru’, Nick Timothy, who likes to quote Joseph Chamberlain as a hero, claiming him as a people’s champion against … free trade. Falling into the old trap of quoting history out of context, one that seems to be everywhere in these post Brexit days.
All a frightful muddle.
And if we’d met her out walking? A cheery hello, as I manage with most walkers, that would have to suffice. Puzzling over the contradictions of Mrs May would be for another time, and the certainties.
Walking is about the next horizon, and the one after that, and horizons open up as you travel to take in the whole world…
Easter Sunday, and a forecast of dullness belied by brilliant sun, and a blue sky which set off the white stone of Gloucester Cathedral. 8pm, early morning communion in the choir, before the high altar. Above us the great 14th century window reputedly commemorating the battle of Crecy. About thirty people at communion, come 11pm the cathedral will be packed, chairs await them in every corner of nave and aisle. After communion I waited awhile, and stood at the back of the nave, looking toward organ and altar, and all was (for a few minutes) empty, not a soul, just the great Norman columns in stately procession toward the transept, and the simple vaulted ceiling, in sharp contrast to the wonderful fan vaulting of the choir.
(Should anyone wonder why a blog with zen in its title should be comfortable with early communion… There’s a silence, a time for contemplation, in the early morning. I’ll say no more than that.)
In the cathedral precinct there’s major landscaping, and fences everywhere, but lift your eyes to the cathedral walls, the tower and the sky, and there is all the space, and all the serenity you could wish for in the world.
Ivor Gurney has a close association with the cathedral. The son of a Gloucester tailor, he was composer, writer of songs, poet, and a celebrant of the Gloucestershire landscape, in his poems from the front, and in his letters. Windows in the Lady Chapel commemorate him, and I always pay a visit when I come to the cathedral – but not today. The Lady Chapel is fenced off, major renovations until the autumn. They will make for easier access, and maybe more people will find sanctuary there, and take in the wonderful stained glass (by Tom Denny) of the Gurney memorial. He survived the first war, but his mind didn’t, incarcerated in a mental home in Kent he longed for his home county, and the Severn vale, where he’d walked countless times…
One place he walked was Cranham, whose woods he celebrated, and where I am now. Reached via the Portway, down and up which I drove an hour or two ago. Gurney would have walked, and he’d have seen that amphitheatre of woodland and meadow opening up ahead, farms either side, and a vast sky above. He was obsessed with the idea of beauty, above all the beauty of his home county. It gave him comfort in France. He recalls in a letter home how the tower of the church of Merville reminds him of Gloucester’s tower. Both churches rise above the landscape, are landmarks, and inspirations.
Walking back to my car, I passed along pedestrianised streets, stained, a little ragged, forlorn, and empty on an Easter Sunday morning. Only Macdonalds and Burger King open, and they only just. How would Gurney have responded to the decay of his old city? To the contrast between shops, and cathedral and precinct, an absolute contrast. How I wondered as I walked back could the city be revived, made vibrant and colourful as a city centre should be – and keep all the while the quiet and sanctity and celebration of the cathedral and its surrounds.
One of many questions this Easter, an Easter where questions seem to crowd in on all sides – so many questions where there are no obvious answers.
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.
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….
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!
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!]