SANTIAGO de Compostela has been the centre of pilgrimage for a thousand years. The first guide-book ever was written by a 'french monk in 1130 explaining the best routes and the best hospices on the way. July is a time of celebration culminating in the feast of St James on July 25.
first made the trip along the Camino Frances in Northern Spain in a Volkswagen and camping out over 20 years ago. There were four of us and our leader was more interested in the Romanesque architecture on the way than any spiritual uplift. We did wear the conche shell, however, and were given a few cups of free coffee on the strength of,. it. When we arrived I remember thinking the square or rather the four squares in which the,cathedral stands as beautiful as a,nywhere in the world.
Returning earlier this year direct flight to Santiago and room at the beautiful Parador thanks to the New York Times Santiago seemed even more worthy of wonder.
In the middle ages as many as two million made the journey to visit St James in a single year. Modern pilgrims see the great romanesque Door of Glory, the ornate baroque facade, the silver make's door, the jet-makers entrance and inside St James himself, at first in noble stone and later robed in gold and jewels, his shoulders worn smooth with the pilgrim's hug. My most exciting view of the cathedral's exterior came from the top of a big wheel set up in a pleasure ground on a nearby hill.
The best experience came from watching the faces of the walking, bicycling or riding pilgrims as they arrive at their journey's end. One had come from Paris, one from Bordeaux, another from Holland. If they had taken the trouble to obtain a Camino de Santiago passport from one of the pilgrim offices all over Europe, then they could have it stamped at each town and finally were given a certificate in the cathedral's office. Apart from spiritual prestige, it also allows them free meals at the Parador.
A recently published booklet called Santiago de Compostela: A Journey tells the story of two mens' pilgrimage on pennyfarthing bicycles. They were sponsored and giving the proceeds to the Help the Hospices charity in England and the Multiple Sclerosis Society in Spain.
They were also joined by a marathon runner and a Belgian family on horseback. However, none of these journeys rivals the manner of St James's return to Spain from the Holy land. Ile had been beheaded but his disciples escaped with his body which they put into a rudderless boat. Magnificently and mysteriously, it washed up on the north west shores of Spain, about 20 kms from Santiago. You can visit Padron too and see the stone to which the boat is tied.
We're getting there
GETTING out of London in the summer is always a pleasure. Well, usually a pleasure. Last week, in company with Claire Rayner, I caught an early train for Chester to address a literary lunch on the subject of my latest novel, Loving Attitudes.
Due to arrive at 12.35pm, we broke down somewhere in the middle of a Staffordshire countryside gloriously decorated with fox-gloves and poppies. An hour and a half later we started again, only to be stopped after 15 minutes by the train in front of us breaking down. Eventually we pushed that train into Crewe station and arrived at Chester at 3pm.
Our fellow writer, Monica Dickens, had given an extended speech and half our audience had regretfully left apart from anything else it was an exceptionally hot day. Feeling very sorry for the organisors, claire and I gave our speeches to whoever remained and even had time to whizz up a Roman wall before facing British Rail again.
On the way back I remembered the occasion when I spent three hours on a train broken down in the middle of Salisbury Plain. There had been no telephone on board. Nor had there been one on board our super inter-city train to Chester; oddly enough none of the passengers had one either, despite two of them being British Telecom employees.
A few months after the Salisbury Plain incident, I had a conversation with a British Rail official. The drivers, he said, on that line, had been so fed up at not having a telephone that they'd organised the collection and sale of all the abandoned material left by workers at the edge of the railway track. With the proceeds they bought their trains' telephones.
I offer this example of private enterprise as a tip for the Euston to Chester drivers.
LITERARY events are fraught with all sorts of drama. A couple of weeks ago I was chairman of the judges for the Betty Trask Award. This is given for a first novel of romantic or traditional nature, written by a British writer under 35.
We picked a novel called Lifegame by Nigel Watts. It is the story of an unhappy, sophisticated, youngish woman from London who goes to the West Coast of Ireland where she meets a 70-year-old Irish man. Through their relationship which gradually develops into love, she finds a new hope and meaning in her life. We judges were pleased with our choice, partly because it's extremely difficult these days to find a well-written and original book which even remotely fits the
category of "romantic or traditional". We seem to live in a cynical, violent and satirical age or at least writers do. "Romantic", as we define it, needed a positive possibility. Nigel Watts was duly presented with and gratefully received £10,000 from the hands of the Home Secretary in the Middle Temple Hall.
Meanwhile, the BBC Late Show wanted to do an item on the awards. I was interviewed in my home and Nigel Watts' who turned out to be rather romantically beautiful himself, in his home. It seemed straightforward stuff.
But when the programme was aired, it transpired that the producer, although reproducing my statements accurately, had spent the rest of the time parodying Life-game and Nigel Watts, reading lines out of context to make them appear even more ridiculous than Betty Trask's own novelettish out-pourings.
It was not funny and smacked of deceit. Luckily, the Sunday Times Book Review gave Nigel Watts the personal column and he conducted a defence, on the lines of strong attack, most ably. But what a pity BBC 2, making a programme devoted to books, felt the need to go looking "for an amusing angle".
My two eldest children have been doing exams this term. They have both been saintly about it, going off with determined faces on days too hot to be fit for anything except a book under the shade of a willow tree.
My daughter, doing GCSEs, takes them, like every other child in the country, under the pressure of doing as well as she possibly can. My son, however, who, after an interview, has a conditional offer to a Cambridge college, does it under the pressure of needing three As and a Step.
This seems an intolerable burden to add to already very difficult exams. Yet when I ask around my friends, I find, on the science side and at Cambridge, he is not at all alone in being given these conditions of entry. Of course he can go to his second choice of university if he fails, but it does seem unneccesarily unhelpful circumstances to take the last exams of his school years. It can't be impossible to devise a better system. Perhaps I should suggest he writes to the Sunday Times except that he's not the one who's complaining.