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The Way

I walked the Camino de Santiago in May and June. I’ve been meaning to write something longer, but in the meantime, here is a short piece I did for Psychologies:

This summer, I walked the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James, which is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the north east of Spain, where the bones of St James are supposedly buried.

The route has been walked by pilgrims since the 9th century, when it was an expression of the transnational unity of Christendom, and also, later, a celebration of the liberation of Spain from the Moors – indeed, one of Santiago’s less politically correct nick-names is Santiago Matamoros, or St James the Muslim Killer.

The route fell into disuse during the decades when Spain was cut off from Europe under Franco’s dictatorship, but has come back to life under the EU, who have put funding into maintaining it as a symbol of Europe’s new transnational unity.

Today, around a quarter of a million pilgrims from all over the world do the Camino each year, by foot, by bicycle, by motorbike, by bus, even by donkey. They start in many different places, depending on how much time they have and how much they want to walk. I met one pilgrim, a lady in her fifties, who had started from her house in Geneva, and walked over 2,000km to Santiago.

I started in one of the traditional starting spots – St Jean Pied de Port, in the French Pyrenees – and walked the 800km or so to Santiago over the next four weeks. It was an amazing adventure.

People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons. I met a Dutch lady walking the Camino while she considered whether to stay in her marriage (I think she decided to go back to her husband). I met an Austrian man wondering whether to change jobs to enjoy a more outdoor life (he got terrible blisters on the second day).

Some walk it for religious reasons – I met a crazy young Catholic convert called Oliver, who would sometimes walk well into the night and sleep in fields. He described himself as a professional pilgrim, and was adamant that proper followers of Christ should give up all their possessions and head out on the road. I asked him what he’d do after he reached Santiago. He instantly replied: ‘I’ll do another pilgrimage. A proper one this time.’

Some even walked the Camino to find love. I met a roly-poly Ecuadorean who’d been sent on the Camino by his mother to find a nice Catholic girl to marry. Others enjoyed brief romantic encounters – after all, pilgrims get their sins forgiven if they reach Santiago.

My friends wondered if the pilgrimage would be some sort of self-flagellating exercise in masochism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, walking 25km every day for a month is demanding, but it’s not that bad. In fact, the majority of pilgrims were in their sixties or seventies. (It’s quite dispiriting being overtaken by a sprightly seventy-year-old on the road).

And the Camino is very social, quite boozy, and a lot of fun. You get to walk through mountains, through Rioja’s wine-growing valleys, through cities like Leon and Pamplona, through Galicia’s misty hills. You get the beautiful simplicity of having only one goal each morning when you wake up: head west.

And you get the solidarity of walking with your fellow pilgrims – Catholic, atheist, New Agers, yoga instructors…I even met a saleswoman from Ann Summers. Their reasons for walking the Camino are many, but we all share the fantastic experience, and we all help each other on the Way.

Childish things

I’m in Faro tonight, on the south coast of Portugal, staying the night in a hotel on the harbour, after a great wedding of my friend Mike and his bride Anna. It was in a town called Serpa, about two hours north from the coast, where Anna grew up.

It’s a fairly small town, only 10,000 people, with sun-bleached squares and sleepy stray dogs sniffing at doors. At the dinner, I was sitting next to a young guy who’s in charge of the Serpa theatre. I have to say I envied his existence, in a small community where his life and work really matter. He said he liked the idea of London life – ‘being connected to the big world’.

Yes, well, I don’t feel that connected, though I did get a comment from the famous Guido Fawkes yesterday, on a blog post I wrote about ‘smeargate’. That’s about as connected to the big world as I get.

Guido’s the blogger who exposed that whole sorry scandal, which sadly involves Derek Draper, the former spin-doctor who left government in disgrace a few years back over a lobbying scandal, and re-invented himself as a psychotherapist. He invented the phrase ‘politics of well-being‘, by the way.

I met Draper at Demos two years ago, when I was talking to them about setting up a programme on the politics of well-being. He seemed friendly enough. A pity he got dragged back into the dirty games of power, like a moth to the flame…

His name is mud now, with his beloved Labour party completely disowning him. But let’s not forget he helped to bring in the Improved Access for Therapies policy, which will hugely increase the number of therapists working for the NHS. That’s a genuine achievement.

Anyway, back to Serpa. Anna’s father is a short, stocky man who used to be a bullfighter. In Portuguese bull-fighting, they don’t kill the bull – instead, at the end of the fight, one plucky fellow walks slowly towards the bull, then when the bull charges, he jumps on the bulls horns, and the rest of his crew pile up behind him until they stop the bull in its tracks. Anna’s dad was that plucky fellow. Mike, meanwhile, is a very keen ultimate frisbee player. Wonder what the dad makes of that.

The service was, thankfully, Anglican – I was grimly prepared for a four hour Latin epic. One of the readings was St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.

I thought of my friends who have got married over the last two or three years, and indeed, they do seem to have grown up, to have changed, become more serious. I, meanwhile, have yet to put away childish things.

It’s strange going to weddings in your early thirties. I went to a wedding two weeks ago, and I was one of about four single people there. It was slightly better yesterday, but only just. I spent about an hour trying to chat up one of the few unmarried women there, only to be told by Mike she was a lesbian.

The guests included a lot of people I was at school and university with, including some I haven’t seen for a decade or so. I found myself humming Mad World: ‘All around I see familiar faces / Worn out faces’, but in fact, people seem to have aged well, and I found them all as charming and fun as ever. My school produced some likeable people.

Most of them are married. I got mixed reports about its blessings. One newly-wed seems to be quite startled by it – he says his wife is far more neurotic now than she ever was in the five years they were dating before they got hitched. On the other hand, I got a lift with another couple, from Faro to Serpa, and the wife called back to London to check on their five-month-old baby (it was the first time they’d left him for the night), then after the call, her hand quietly went over to her husband’s hand, and held it. It was very beautiful, and I felt a lonely old bachelor in the back.

Another couple showed me photos of their four-year-old girl, who looked charming. I think it will get harder and harder, not having a family, when my friends’ children are all around that age – at the moment, most of them are a year old or so, and there’s not much to envy in having a kid at that age, frankly. They just cry, eat and shit. When they’re three or four, however, they’re little personalities, saying funny things and being amusing. You get to see their personalities develop. I’m sure I’ll be very jealous.

It’s funny though – I’m sure half the pleasure of having children is that, actually, you get to be a child again, to enjoy the pleasure of childhood play. So in fact, when you’re married, you actually dust off your ‘childish things’ and use them again. What did St Paul know, anyway.

I was struck, this evening, by the words ‘bride’ and ‘groom’. It’s never hit me before, but where do those words come from? Is it implying that the lady is a horse, who when she gets married takes the bridle, to be led around by the groom? So marriage is, what, the equivalent of breaking in a filly?

It sadly rained yesterday during the wedding, but it was a beautiful, hot day today, and I enjoyed the long (long) bus drive from Serpa to Faro. It took an hour and a half in the car on the way up, but a mere four and a half hours on the way back down, on the ‘Express bus’.

Still, it was a lovely drive, winding around the green fields, past the horses grazing and nuzzling each other, past a falcon soaring over a field, past a stork in its metre-wide nest, past the swifts breaking over the long grass, the clouds watching over us, the sun bleeding out into the great wide sky. How wonderful it is to be alive.

I felt particularly good to be alive because I thought I had cancer last week. I’m a complete hypochondriac – this is the second time I’ve thought I had cancer this year. My GP, Doctor Malik, is beginning to smirk when I walk through the door. Anyway, once again my fears were proved wrong. Hooray, I’m healthy! That’s the good thing about being a hypochondriac – the constant fears of your imminent demise mean you gain a constantly-renewed appreciation for existence.

On the bus drive down, I listened to Calvin Harris’ new song, which is great (video below), and to the latest edition of In Our Time, about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which features my old tutor from Worcester College, Oxford – David Bradshaw. Good to hear his voice again, I have completely lost touch with him.

The discussion reminded me what a fine book it is. David pointed out that, in many ways, it is more utopian then dystopian: Huxley was genuinely worried about the collapse of European civilisation, and thought society needed to become much more controlled, including controlling population through eugenics.

I wonder if climate change will force us to live in more controlled societies. If the population of the UK rises to 100mn, as we take in climate refugees, and we are all crammed into mega-cities, and forced to control our eating, reproduction, travel and energy consumption, how would we cope with that level of social complexity, without serious outbreaks of crime and violence? Perhaps state-sponsored soma is the answer. We can all sit back, shoot up, and think of England.

Well, enough ponderings, here’s Calvin Harris: