29th May 2010
Well [the school party] didn’t quite stay up all night but the DJ had them singing all their favourite pop songs at the tops of their voices until quite late. I’d gone to bed at about 8.00pm leaving M to finish off his (2nd) bottle of wine. I always feel very anxious when he starts drinking. Slept all but 11 hours with a few interruptions. M unzipped the tent several times and told me he’d spent £40 on a [phone] call …… in the night. That’ll teach him!
Woke in the morning to the sound of 50 suitcases and accompanying children being herded right past the tent. Daren’t get up for a piss even, as they were overrunning all the facilities. When calm was restored 2 hours later I went to the toilets only to have myself photographed several times by children on the coach which I hadn’t noticed was overlooking me. Left M sleeping and went for breakfast – better than last nights dreadful pizza and chips. 2 coffees, fruit juice, pain au chocolat bread and preserves. Did all the washing in the morning and left it to dry in the sun. Dozed by the swimming pool. After minimal lunch – picnic – went to Conques.
All very picturesque but the abbey was cold and, for me, spiritually meaningless. The town itself is overwhelming but ultimately a gift shop. If you came here looking for faith I’ve no idea how you would find it. Resting again now. Meal booked at the auberge along the road for 7.30. Owner looks just like the one of the *Two Fat Ladies who died. As the days go past we just walk, sleep, eat and search for toilets. That’s about it really. What a strange way to spend a summer. Not very religious and not remotely what most people imagine we’re doing.
* well known TV chefs of the timeJournal
Thirteen years is a long time; long enough to change perspectives, long enough to be led out of Europe by a bunch of liars; long enough to see poisonous and cruel ideologies strip away our security and dignity; long enough to see our civil rights taken away; long enough to see the poisonous fruits of environmental degradation set fire to the atmosphere forcing the thought that my memories of a pristine landscape and historic culture may have already been erased; long enough to know that I’d never be able to undertake such a long walk again. In truth it’s likely me who’s disappearing and I’m finding it hard to adjust to the loss. The sense of morbidity grips like winter – grips my joints; grips my hearing and my eyes; grips my heart which is always liable to go off on a cadenza of its own devising.
This week, on the television we watched “Partygate” – the horrifying documentary that chronicles the carousing and lawbreaking in Downing Street, going on while thousands of people died of Covid. We watched Tory Party conference speeches that were psychotically detached from reality, and we watched the David Olusoga documentary “Union” which dealt with the bloodshed, greed and corruption that fuelled the union of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Any residual faith I once had in our human capacity for compassion, generosity and communal life is being slowly crushed. I was born in Bristol and raised on the horror stories told by my father and grandfathers of the Bristol riots; how the middle classes allowed the miners of Kingswood and South Bristol to fight for the reform acts knowing that their sacrifice would only benefit a couple of thousand wealthy property owners. I was fascinated by Rolinda Sharples’ painting of the trial of Colonel Brereton which still hangs in the Museum. Brereton was court martialed for losing control of the riots, but had been made a scapegoat and committed suicide before his trial ended. Nobody knows how many rioters were killed by the Dragoon Guards.
History and its relics makes fools of us all. I wonder if the only way to conduct a real pilgrimage today is to start with the pot of fools’ gold bought in the cathedral gift shop and then walk away with it into the reality of twenty first century suffering. Who knows? the alchemical work of walking might transmute it into real gold; spiritual gold.
In my twenties I went into a prolonged period of anxiety and depression and so I curse this mood as if it were an estranged acquaintance turning up out of the blue. The doctor diagnosed morbid anxiety and assured me that I would get better with a bit of human company. “Go down to the pub!” he advised. “Pills are no good”. I took him at his word, and months later I met him at a party. I was standing at the top of a rather ornate Georgian staircase. He climbed towards me clutching a large glass of wine. “Ah, I see you took my advice” – he said – and then toppled drunkenly backwards down the stairs in a well practiced cartwheel. Months later it suddenly dawned on me that – of course – I was going to die; but not yet!” Those few imagined words were what you might call a performative utterance and I got better. Ever since, but mercifully rarely, winter trees take on the appearance of blackened lungs and the feeling returns but I’m reasonably hopeful it won’t last
So possibly this wasn’t the best time of year to start remembering the Camino. On the allotment, autumn is my least favourite season because the crops are harvested and all our energy is directed towards clearing up weeds and dead plants. The Camino has always felt like a comprehensive personal failure – so much so that I can only manage writing about it for a couple of days at a time. And yet I go on writing because there’s a tiny part of me that knows the only way to move on is to turn and face the black dog. When faith becomes fetid and blocked with the debris of false belief, the clearing out has to begin. I have to drag the bindweed out of my heart.
My photographs of Conques were enough to set me off on this gloomy excursus. We came down from the Aubrac Plateau exhausted but buoyed up by the landscape we’d been walking through, and were then thrown into Disneyland; the relic of a town, dusted with cobblestones, and rolled into a preserved, boned, rolled and stuffed religious experience.
If you’ll allow me a small biblical moment, some may be familiar with the Gospel story of the Transfiguration – when Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter James and John they see him transfigured – glowing – and talking to Moses and Elijah ( a heap of theology there!). Peter, as always, gets over excited and offers to build three shelters so that (presumably) later pilgrims can return to the place. Jesus (and I’m translating roughly from the Aramaic) shouts at Peter and says don’t you effing well dare you moron – that would be an epochal piece of misdirection. Sadly, ever since then, generations of Peters have been throwing up more and more effigies, buildings and reliquaries in complete defiance of the instruction to remain silent. Now I realize that this is a very loose interpretation of some greatly loved and important verses and that some will think it’s heretical but the central idea is that God can’t be trapped in a location or a building or relic. The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao.
So there’s a sense in which Conques was a kind of turning point for me. The coldness and emptiness of the Abbey exactly mirrored my feelings of coldness and emptiness. The rest was gift shops, bars and bakeries specializing in sweet treats baked with chestnut flour. We got our pilgrim passports stamped and wandered down to the bottom of the valley, knowing that we’d have to sweat it out up the other side in the morning – see the photograph at the top. The untouched beauty of the small town was rather undermined by its chocolate box alleyways and streets and oddly (to most people who don’t know me) I became fascinated by the leadwork gutters and downpipes and took any number of photographs – which I’ll spare you.
This was where the idea of walking away from the iconic place was born. Next time I’ll write about the phone call that changed everything.
My friend Rose reproaches me mildly by sending some photographs of Fontenay Abbey which she says is “scoured free of crap” – and I agree entirely. Getting rid of the clutter, the explanatory material and all the accumulated cultus at least allows the buildings to speak. But it still seems to me that occasionally the still small voice can speak through the carnival of distraction – however I think those occasions are determined by grace and not design. So here are a couple of pieces from the past that – I hope – paint a more nuanced picture.