'It' was the St James pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, the Camino. Nevertheless we both looked at him a little askance.
'Um, do I mean a monkey?'
He gave Emy the word in Dutch, but we had already pre-empted his meaning; Paul's English is normally very good indeed - of course, he's Dutch.
'No, a donkey. Yes, he was making the pilgrimage with a donkey. Anyway, he showed us some photos he had taken of it. One was of a road in Spain, a great long straight road going off to the horizon in an empty landscape, like a desert, with just groups of people as far you could see, like ants. I thought, that's not for me.'
'I'd rather walk the sentier des douaniers, round the coast of Brittany' said Emy 'just me. Paul could pick me up and meet me for dinner at the end of every day.'
Like Emy and Paul, I'm not a joiner, I tell myself I don't want to follow the crowd, and the current mania for the Camino, feeding and fed by books and films and TV, is drawing very big crowds. In all weathers and seasons the refuges, with their shared dormitories and Spartan fare, are always full; if you don't get up and on the road before first light, and on to the next stopover by about three in the afternoon, there's a strong chance you won't make it in the scramble for a bed for the night. The roads and paths along the whole principal inland route in northern Spain, the Camino Frances, are never empty of groups of pilgrims. Its rise in popularity coinciding with that of the internet, it must be one of the most documented, photographed, reflected on and shared journeys of our time. I don't claim to know a lot about it, and I'm not going to bother to try to put in any links about it or really much further information, there is so much about it out there already.
The images of this swarming, gregarious crowd, the lack of privacy, the competition for space and the drivenness of it all fill me with horror. And yet...
Some years ago, a friend reported on another:
'Mike made it to Santiago on his pilgrimage. He said he was doing it for his mother, she died last year. It was hard but he was glad he'd done it, he said.'
'Can't be doing with any of that kind of thing,' said J.
'Any of what kind of thing, exactly?' I asked, bristling at what I knew was J's knee-jerk anti-religious scoffing. I feel the same about knee-jerk religious reactions, only living as and where I do I generally tend to encounter more of the anti-religious than the religious, and I suppose I'm not really sorry it's so. I just get a bit cross at anyone's assumption that the way she thinks and feels on such matters is the only remotely intelligent and sensible way to be, and anyone who doesn't can only be stupid, and if I've got half a brain I can only agree. Especially from someone whose intellectual powers are in inverse relation to their not very intelligent prejudices on other matters...
'Oh, you know, Christian attainment and all that.'
Clearly, from all the people who do it, it's not necessary to be a paid-up Catholic or even a Christian to walk the Pilgrimage route, any more than you need to be a paid-up Lutheran to sing in Bach's St Matthew Passion. If you do it properly you get a card which you get stamped and various privileges that go with it (I don't think these include absolution or time off Purgatory any more). I understand sometimes there's a questionnaire about your reasons for doing it, whether religious, spiritual, cultural or whatever, but I don't know what the breakdown of responses to this is; a lot, I think still do it for religious reasons.
Brother # 2 has, over the last 20 years, covered much of the Pilgrimage route from various points in France right up to Santiago, mostly by bike. He is in general rejecting of the conventionally religious, but has had various experiences along the way which might, I understand, be called transcendent, and he has become deeply involved with and knowledgeable about Romanesque art and architecture.
He sometimes gets, in his own phrase, rather hippy-shit about imagining an atavistic sense of connection with the Way, fantasising that one of our medieval West Country yeoman forebears (whose patronym was James, as it happens) took himself off there with his scallop shell, and he, Bro#2, is retracing his steps. Since the routes were, relatively speaking, as well frequented in former times as they are now, and since you don't have to go back all that far before we all start sharing ancestors anyway, this may indeed be statistically possible. By the same token it's also not impossible that our forebears did all kinds of things from steeple-jacking to mass-murder, one might say, we don't choose to feel connected to all of them.
There are, it seems, a lot of Japanese and Koreans walking the pilgrimage route now. Whether any of them imagine lines of historical genetic connection to it I don't know. It's easy to get judgemental, bordering on racist, about this; oh well, now the Japanese tourists have got there... One thinks also of the Dalai Lama's suggestion that it might be better to stick to our own traditions.
But this is bang out of order. Westerners have been looking at the rest of the world on the page and the screen and saying 'I want some of that!' for ever; they' ve been hitting the hippy trail to the east, (or the Spice Road before that), visiting Japanese Buddhist shrines, colonising the beaches of Thailand and Bali in search of Paradise ; they were eager enough to swarm all over the Great Wall, the tombs of the Terracotta Warriors, the Temples of Angkor Wat, as soon as they possibly could. And it's not all in the pursuit of an exotic kick and easy escapist hedonism, there is a sense that the great monuments, the historic traditions, the tangible traces of supreme human attainment, material and/or spiritual, the possibility of revelation in touching the alien and astonishing past, belong to all of us, are not the preserve of the culture that owns them. Jung's positing that myths and archetypes, numinous and spiritual experiences, are culturally, or even racially, specific, brought him uncomfortably close to the Nazis. Helen Waddell, whose work inspired a love of the medieval period that would be one reason for taking up the Pilgrimage route myself, was born and brought up in Japan, translated Chinese poetry as well as medieval Latin; the boundaries between these cultures were porous for her, she compared them cheerfully.
Niece K, she who makes me laugh, has also done quite large sections of the route, mostly with her dad, Brother # 2. She'd mostly call herself a pagan I think, and is very into standing stones. She looks to find traces of the magical and pre-Christian past in the places and tracks, in the green men and monsters and fabulous beasts of the Romanesque, and in the rocks and woods and stones along the way. I must say New Age Paganism, with its pseudo-anthropology and pseudo-archaeology, and its over-active and sentimental imagination (back to the Bronze Age! Human sacrifice and a diet of acorns anyone? I once saw incontravertible proof that you could prove that all the Woolworths stores in the East Midlands were situated on and joined together by ley-lines...), frequently exasperates me beyond measure, as I'm afraid does much of the 'spiritual-but-not-religious' line, which sometimes seems to me to be a woolly kind of cop-out, a having of numerous cakes and eating them, and simply a rather trite, bland formula.
But then I am a great but inconsistent nay-sayer in so many ways, and I don't really mind about the paganism because everything K does she does with enthusiasm and aplomb, and she wouldn't care whether I minded or not anyway.
She also simply likes doing stuff with her dad, which is great.
Brother # 1, who is walking the Camino now, is a fully paid-up practising Christian, a former chaplain to a Seafarers' Mission, and one of the people-of-faith whose belief I don't like to see rubbished as stupid. He's had a fair few struggles with proselytising, power-mongering, arrogant and ignorant people within his church, with whom he is not in sympathy, but he sticks with it. It's not something I understand altogether, and though we are quite close, I don't seek to make a window into his heart about it, either to embrace or reject it, and he imposes nothing, beyond liking to say grace at meals sometimes, which is no real imposition. I don't think he's doing the walk to atone for anything or to get a privileged pass into heaven.
'I rather fancy myself as a Foul Fiend', said Tom, after teasing Brother # 1 about how dangerous and uncomfortable the pilgrimage route over the mountains in the rain was going to be, and generally besetting him round with dismal stories.
'I'll be a Goblin then,' said I.
' No goblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit.
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away,
He'll fear not what men say
He'll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.'
Both brothers and sister joined in. The younger generation looked at us with tolerant but puzzled amusement. Evidently in the ten years or so between my youth and theirs, John Bunyan's great hymn ceased to be part of everyone's cultural furniture, so they must have missed giggling at singing 'to be a pilchard' too. Maybe no one eats pilchards now either.
(Bunyan, the Puritan, came from a world which had rejected acts of formalised atonement and attainment such as pilgrimage, getting badges and certificates to buy off your time in purgatory and soften the blow of judgement. His idea of pilgrimage was fundamentally an inward and allegorical one, the places and personages which could seduce and destroy the valiant pilgrim were elements within the spirit of humankind.)
So, what's my point? Not sure I have one. Not sure I need one either. There are more than enough people with points in the world, nasty sharp ones they keep jabbing into other people. I suppose I wonder, in chucking out the frequently rank and toxic bathwater of conventional religion, if we aren't in danger of chucking out a few babies, whether these are artistic and cultural babies, or somewhat more numinous ones. On the other hand it doesn't look as though the bathwater's in danger of being chucked out any time soon.
Too many metaphors by half there, I fear.
No, not a joiner, I wonder though, if this much-vaunted independence of spirit, the refusal to accept mediation and intercession, the rejection of institutionalised belief and aids to salvation and insistence on finding our own way to grace, stems in part from a deeply ingrained protestantism, with a small 'p', if you like. Yet protestantism, with its accent on works and will over confession and forgiveness, on the word and the letter, became, in the end, quite as worldly, conformist, intolerant and repressive as the Catholic religion it supplanted; the Non-Conformists chapel folk (from whom my family largely sprang, not so long ago) ended up being as repressively conformist as anyone.
I'm not a joiner, and I don't want to follow the crowd, I say. I'll walk my own path, (if there's any such thing, or if there's anything else...). But for all that, for all the atrocious weather, the awful sounding communal sleeping arrangements, and my awareness of my own physical unfitness, I found myself hankering to be joining them. And every time I saw groups of wayfarers in groups or singly, chatting away in a babel of tongues, dour and cheerful, old and young, making their way upwards into the mountains, I felt an inadvertent longing and a lump in the throat. Even as we drove away up north and east into the Bearn region, along tracks and green ways, running alongside and crossing the road, small knots of them could still be seen, backpacked and waterproofed, with their sticks and hats, trekking south and west towards the great city and cathedral of St James in Galicia, hundreds of miles away, and I felt a bit sad to be going in the opposite direction, even though I was really more than ready to go home.
And the point of it is the joining; just finding any old sustained and challenging walk, like Emy's coastal sentier des douaniers, and taking it up would not be the same. Part of me, I know, wants to submerge and lose myself in this tide of moving humanity. And I am intrigued as to why it's calling to so many people - I know it's a craze, I know there's been a film, but why? Without getting religiose or hippy-shit myself, I do wonder if the outward course of the Camino Frances in particular, the verdant and lovely rivers and foothills from which pilgrims ascend to the arduous exaltation of the rocky high places, the passes into the dry and arid plains and the final approach to the wondrous city, with its gold and incense and crowded jubilation, offers people a spiritual narrative which either mirrors what is inside them, or furnishes an absence.
Whatever. However, it really seems as if the pilgrimage route, or at least the Camino Frances, has pretty much reached saturation point. While the companionship of the crowd, and the inevitable unplanned encounters and contact with others, are in a large part the point of the journey, probably very authentically mediaeval too, the infrastructure of routes and accommodation seems to be about full to capacity now, and there seems little potential for solitude, contemplation and going at one's own pace, which must surely also be important elements of the journey. The Northern Route along the north Spanish coast, in sight of the sea and with its own interesting history as the way taken in former times to keep pilgrims outside of the lands in Moorish occupation, would seem interesting and less crowded, but there is little accommodation, and the paths are poorly signed and maintained.
Anyway, I'm really not likely to be doing it any time soon.
So, to round off this lengthy post,a few pilgrim-related photos.
In fact, a day or two before their departure, when there was uncertainty about the weather and the route, Tom and I (and Mol) jumped in the car with Brother # 1, and said we'd just explore a little way up the road towards Spain. In fact we ended up driving the 24 or so kilometres to Roncevalles, their first stopover, and the most difficult part of the journey. I wondered if he would feel a bit disappointed about this, that it would seem like cheating, but in fact it encouraged him, as he was able to reconnoitre the route and the weather. It certainly was pretty chilly up there,
there was still a bit of snow around,
(this one I was back in the car for).
The abbey at Roncevalles is an austere sort of place, and the weather was awful, but we found ourselves surprisingly excited to be there; we were in Spain, people were talking another language,
and Brother # 1 would have less than 800 km still to go.
So here they are, on the (early) morning of departure, not looking terribly solemn or spiritual.
Tom saying goodbye to K. She is surely an incarnation of the goddess if ever there was one, we do love her.
And off they go down the road. We went back inside only to notice the stick, or pilgrim stave or whatever, that Bro#1 had made a special trip into St Jean the day before to buy, leaning in the corner. Tom picked it up and went in pursuit. Came back in due course, breathless and laughing. 'I can't believe it really,' he said 'there I was, a 74 year old bloke running up the road in his pyjamas waving a stick.'
They were actually going a couple of hundred yards in the opposite direction, then they turned left, crossed the river and took a side road up into the hills, passing above the house. We looked out for them but didn't see them through the trees, but we heard a distant whoop, and I whooped back.
The following day, we took my sister and the twins to Biarritz to catch their plane, and then it was just us, Tom, Molly and me, with a day to ourselves to wind up the house, pack our bags, and turn our faces towards home. Tom said he felt a bit like Sam at the end of The Lord of the Rings.
( There are some more pictures from the trip as we spent a day out with sister and nieces, then a pleasant morning just to ourselves in St Jean, and then an interesting stopover in another lovely B&B, or chambres d'hôtes since it was a French owned one, and some other oddments, so there'll be a few more photo posts yet to come.)