Camino 7: when I finally mourned my mother

The church of St Roche

21st May 2010

I told you to eat when you can!

No energy today.  Every step (all uphill) a struggle.  Jacqueline caught up with us and gossiped us over the first huge pass.  Stopped at a farm and had café au lait + fresh bread and a small cheese made on the farm. Wonderful!

Ctd next day:- No room at Les Sauvages so we decided to press on to St Alban sur Limagnoles – 35K and nearly killed us.  Arrived at the church at St Roch and unexpectedly burst into tears.  On and on – it seemed even walking downhill was hard.  Arrived at campsite exhausted and on the verge of quarreling.  Mercifully the campsite manager cooked us a toasted sandwich and some chips.  Slept 10 hours and breakfasted on two bowls each of hot strong and sweet black coffee.  Left at 11.00am thinking we had an easy (17K) walk but it was 25°C  and uphill (2 big hills and their corresponding valleys.  [M] had to help carry my stuff as I was about to collapse.  Arrived at Aumont Aubrac to find the campsite closed.  Broke in and picnicked on sardines and apricot tart + UHT milk.  Still tasted heavenly.   We were both feeling demoralized as all the campsites we hoped to stay in were closed for the next three days.  Discussed sending some stuff home to save weight.  Bed at 7.30pm as we want to leave between 5.00 and 6.00am to miss some of the heat. 25K tomorrow.  Can’t get fuel for our cooker anywhere in France. Sharing our vagrant experience with Alain and his wife – he’s made a cooker from the end of a beer can!  Crazy as a coot! 


Well we didn’t exactly break in but we did clamber over a locked gate. It was a weird experience because the facilities were all locked up with the entrances full of leaves – a sight we were beginning to be all too used to. We’d met Alain and his wife a little while earlier. They were sitting at a table outside a cafe and being mercilessly teased by some of the locals. The village was heaving with visitors partly there for the Pentecost holiday – which we’d failed to factor in; and also because the annual transhumance was beginning and locally it’s a big deal as the cattle, decorated with flags and garlands, are driven up to the plateau to graze the wildflower rich meadows. The French are among the most secular of people, but they don’t appear to have given up on the holy days, and there’s a deep sense of tradition surrounding the transhumance. I found it very moving to watch the cattle being driven up the drove roads, but the downside was a good deal of drinking which left us feeling a bit unsafe at times. That was the evening when Alain – a retired tax inspector – showed us the tiny spirit stove he’d made from the bottom of a lager can. Later on in the walk by which time we’d all got blisters, we found him walking in pink plastic sandals with plastic bags on his feet.

The church of St Roche was almost the only church I actually entered on the walk. Inside was the obligatory elderly woman in black and with rheumatic chesterfield legs hobbling around and completely ignoring me. My mother had died two months previously, but as she’d died with Alzheimer’s and hadn’t recognized either me or my sister for several years, any acute sense of mourning had been dissipated over a long period of what we called pre-mourning– or so I thought. So in a rather blokeish way I went into the church, saw the old lady, came out and completely fell apart; howling all the tears I’d had locked away for a very long time. M looked at me and said – “that was a bit unexpected” and the subject was never mentioned again. I didn’t need a therapist to help me see what was going on there, but a long time later exactly the same thing happened in a psychoanalytic psychotherapy therapy session. I was trying to describe how moved I was by the way that Odysseus’ nurse had recognized him by the scar on his thigh and once again I exploded with what felt like a volcano of grief. Grief seems always to be a work in progress.

The way down to St Alban was steep, narrow and rocky, and with our heavy rucksacks much more of a struggle than grinding uphill. It would have made our journey easier if we’d realized how wonderful it would be crossing the Aubrac plateau the next day, but that’s the way of pilgrimage – everyday is a surprise.

An end of the pier farewell to an old friend

Yesterday we said farewell to an old friend and celebrated in a muted kind of way, some of the places and things he had loved. Tennyson wanted “no moaning of the bar when I put out to sea”- and Colston (yes really – it was once a popular Bristolian first name) did all he could to avoid any posthumous moaning, but Nick, his son and Nick’s wife Kate – our good friends too – organised a kind of stealth celebration where everything we did, and everywhere we went, were things and places his dad would have loved.

Accountants, I know, have a reputation for being somewhat grey and boring but Colston was neither. A lover of choral music and choirs, singer, collector of stamps, harmonicas and Rohan clothes, an argumentative, lethally sceptical and well prepared member of church study groups, fluent reader and translator of ancient Greek; lecturer; enormous fan of old buses (the name Lodekka – see photo above – was apparently his suggestion – he lived a couple of hundred yards from the chassis works). Accomplished watercolourist and passionate lover of the Brecon Beacons (Bannau Brycheiniog) and a good friend to generations of young – now middle aged and more elderly – students both formal and informal and an exemplar of the virtuous life full of quirks and enough of the dodgy to make him infinitely loveable.

So we went, twenty five of us, in the open topped bus in a loop south of Bristol, taking the winding and narrow country roads down the Gordano valley – a nature reserve with a motorway through the middle – to Clevedon whose pier has always had a melancholy kind of feel to it; not helped by the hundreds of memorial plaques accompanying – or rather no longer accompanying – the cremated remains of their namesakes whose ashes have greatly enriched the swirling silted waters of the Bristol Channel. A nice little earner for the volunteers who keep it open. We sat in sunshine on the pier eating a picnic of his favourite sandwiches and I thought of Tennyson whose poem I was obliged to learn as a punishment for some minor offense at school. I owe my knowledge (and love) of poetry to my bad behaviour.

I think most of us are conflicted at wakes. As a culture we’re not good at death and feel secretly mortified at the sense of our own mortality and the moments of illicit schadenfreude that at least it’s not us this time. Meeting old acquaintances who have aged just as much as we have over the decades, and yet seem suddenly old when we would rather believe that we are not; seeing once again men and women who once played with our children in the garden, and whose children now also play in the freedom of the Goose field on the Bannau.

On the drive home we went through the centre of Bristol – the great age of the bus allowed exemption from the clean air zone – and passed St Mary Redcliffe church where Colston once sang; the school which Nick went to; the Paintworks where his grand-daughter once worked and the demolished bus depot, now a pub, where the bus was built. We finished the journey in Brislington where generations of his family had lived. Oncoming drivers tooted their horns and pedestrians rushed out their phones and tried to wave and take a photo at the same time. We sang silly songs and waved back and kept our thoughts to ourselves. I bought myself a new mug with a drawing of the pier at the gift shop. I’ll treasure it but I’ll also drink a lot of tea from it!

Once we were home we flopped in our armchairs, too exhausted even to drink a glass of wine. This remembering business always turns out to be a lot tougher than you’d think.



I fell asleep reading a new book – ‘Galileo’s Error’ today – absolutely no criticism of the author Philip Goff, I was just feeling exhausted, for no obvious reason save for the fact that we feel lost, confused, abandoned by our government; and my son had sent me the book after several of our long philosophical telephone discussions about materialism and consciousness.  One of the cruelties of the pandemic is being separated from our family. It’s been my mission. all my life, to find ways of talking about, and being, fully human; and the allotment, cooking, natural history, remembering and celebrating are all a part of the picture.

But being fully human seems to involve other, more controversial elements which can often become points of division. There are words I dislike using – like ‘spirituality’ or ‘soul’, for instance – not because they don’t correspond to anything meaningful but because the settings in which they’ve been developed and discussed have been fatally compromised. They became keywords in the history of religious slaughter and abuse. However, it seems almost impossible to do without them if we want to embrace life in all its fullness. My son recommended the book as a possible way towards a solution of the difficulty – ‘”it’s a popular book” – he said – “A four hour read, but a real challenge” 

I always find the very best books get me on my feet, pacing about; thinking carefully.  Sleeping isn’t normally a way of pacing around, but today – in a throwback to a previous life – I dreamed a part of the way out. Until today I would have associated the word Kaddish with Allen Ginsberg the American poet.

My dream took place exactly where I was, in fact, lying asleep but I seemed to be fully conscious of all the sadness surrounding us; and somewhere in the background was the sound of the Kaddish being sung.  I’ve never heard the Kaddish being sung but I knew for certain that this was it – glorious, defiant, haunting. There were dream tears running down my face and then I heard the altogether closer sound of a cat purring just behind my head.  I reached behind to the arm of the sofa where it was sitting and stroked it. And then I woke in the absolute certainty that this was what the Jungians would regard as a significant dream needing to be brought into the light of day.

If ever there were a more telling dream lesson of what we’ve neglected through our greedy materialism I’ve yet to hear it. We’ve had anger in abundance; we’ve had politics and economics, and every half-wit with a computer has offered their theory.  But there’s been no lament; no Kaddish for the dead but merely statistics, theories and the counting of money.

What about the cat? Well, the thing about a cat, or a dog or whatever other pet is that essentially there’s a relationship – even a relationship of love. But materialism has even turned big nature into a paid-for TV experience. We could perhaps do well to emulate our love for pets in our love for weeds and birds and insects and wildflowers.

I’ve no idea what to do with this insight – yet – but I guess I will one day.



%d bloggers like this: