Guest blog: Herbie Agyemang-Duah

From Herbie, St Albans:

 Donald Trump is getting angry white men very excited. Unfortunately, they won’t decide the election.

In 2016, race trumps class in America.

The most important American political act of this year by some degree was Beyoncé’s performance at the Super bowl.  

Her homage to the 1960’s Black Panthers and her Black Power salute brought the Black Lives Matter -– the protests about the disproportionate number of African American men who die at police hands – campaign to the mainstream. And she foregrounded the fact that the Presidential primaries are – in reality – about whether race matters more than class.

In all of the agonised analysis of what Donald Trump means for the Republican Party,  apart from the fact that the GOP grandees have lost control, one fact is repeated again and again – this has been a long time coming. The Trump Supremacy is not an aberration in Republican history, it is the culmination of a strategy that started with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy; his 1968 law and order { rein in the black trouble-makers platform } which won the  white working-class Southern voters back from the Democrats with a strong populist appeal rooted in values. And again repeated in 1972  his “Acid, Abortion, and Amnesty” assault on George McGovern saying that Democrats were hippies, un-Christian and pacifists who wanted Vietnam deserters pardoned to Reagan’s “Morning in America” optimistic patriotism (plus Guns, God and Abortion) that populism won over working class white voters. Again race was not off the menu: His “welfare queen” rhetoric referred to single-parent black mothers on social security.

Newt Gingrich even labelled Black President  Barack Obama the “food stamp president” during the 2012 presidential election.

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#OscarsSoWhite

 

Inclusion is Hollywood’s Second-Favourite Activity

Guest Post by Herbert Agyemang-Duah, St Albans.

The Oscars have, for the second straight year, failed to nominate any actors of color. It’s not that they’re trying to be racist. It’s just that they can’t help it.

For the second year in a row, the Academy has handed out a whopping total of zero nominations to non-white performers in the four acting categories.

After accusations of racism from the mainstream media and Twitter’s “OscarsSoWhite” hashtag sullied last year’s awards, it’s hard to understand how the eternally progressive Hollywood community behind the Oscars couldn’t correct last year’s error and offer a measly one of those 16 nominations to an actor of color. How did this happen? How did this group of racial-diversity-embracing liberals offer up the exact same offense this year?

To answer that question, imagine you’re a person who really values religious inclusivity. In fact, you value it so much that your second favorite activity in the world is inviting Muslim and Jewish folks over to your house for dinner.

The problem, however, is that your favorite activity in the world is serving your dinner guests a piping hot plate of barbecued pork. In fact, you love doing this so much that you can’t stop yourself from offering the aforementioned porcine cuisine to dinner guests you know have religious objections to eating it.

So even though you really want to practice religious inclusion, and even though you don’t want to get yelled at for offering your Muslim and Jewish guests unclean food again, you fall into the same pit because you just can’t bring yourself to change the dinner menu. It’s not that you’re trying to exclude your Muslim and Jewish dinner guests. It’s just that exclusion happens when you won’t sacrifice the thing you love if that’s what it takes to embrace your guests.

This is precisely why the Oscars have, for the second straight year, failed to nominate any actors of color. It’s not that they’retrying to be racist. It’s just that they can’t help it. Of course the Academy wants to give statues to non-white actors and actresses. Of course it would love to have another Hattie McDaniel moment or hear another Halle Berry style acceptance speech.

Hollywood’s favorite thing is giving awards for performances in movies about upper-class 1940s lesbian college professors who bravely battled both unjust banking practices and homophobia.

But giving awards to people of color is currently the Academy’s second-favorite thing in the world. Its favorite thing is giving awards for performances in movies about upper-class 1940s lesbian college professors who bravely battled both unjust banking practices and homophobia—bonus points if they were persecuted by political or religious conservatives, double bonus points if they worked in Hollywood, and triple bonus points if they existed in real life.

Because the Academy insists on doing its favorite thing, because it insists on giving all its awards to films of this nature, it can’t help but exclude those of ethnicities that weren’t terribly prevalent in 1940s upper-class British academic circles or on McCarthy-era blacklists. So, just like the dinner host who won’t sacrifice his favorite thing (serving pork to his guests) for the sake of his second favorite thing (respecting their religious beliefs), the Oscars have no choice but to fail at racial inclusivity as long as they prefer to shower awards on cinematic stories that exclude most of the races.

For example, it’s not that the Academy was trying to exclude “Creed’s” Michael B. Jordan from the best actor race. It’s just that Eddie Redmayne played a kind-of-real-life transgender caucasian artist, and Oscar voters couldn’t possibly have taken that off the menu include someone who played a character as boring as a pretend black boxer from God knows where.

Steve Jobs’ story needed to be told again because the first time it had Ashton Kutcher in it.

Similarly, while in a down year Hollywood would gladly have nominated “Concussion’s” Will Smith for playing real-life forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, Bryan Cranston played an ever-so-terribly-persecuted-in-real life Hollywood Communist in “Trumbo,” and there’s no way the Academy could have overlooked a performance of that historic significance just to bring more diversity to Oscar night.

Dalton Trumbo’s story, after all, needed to be told, as did Lili Elbe’s (“The Danish Girl”). Steve Jobs’ story needed to be told again because the first time it had Ashton Kutcher in it. And it’s hardly the Academy’s fault blacks were too busy not being allowed to be screenwriters in 1950s Hollywood or that Latinos failed to adequately represent themselves in 1920s Scandinavian LGBTQ circles or that no one of Middle Eastern descent would have been believable as the half-German inventor of the iMac. (Unrelated fun fact: Steve Jobs was also half Syrian! Who knew?) Donald Trump take note.

Granted, one might argue Hollywood could fix its race problem by essentially keeping the barbecue rub recipe but swapping out pork for a more inclusive meat—in other words, by casting non-white actors in the kind of roles it most desperately wants to award. In theory, there’s no reason film studios couldn’t make this happen.

There’s no reason historical details like ‘Bruce Jenner wasn’t black’ should diminish the power of a biopic called ‘Caitlyn’ with Idris Elba in the titular role. he goesw on to say

If historical inaccuracies like Steve Jobs not saying most of the stuff he said in “Steve Jobs” didn’t diminish the film’s Oscar-worthiness, there’s no reason historical details like “Bruce Jenner wasn’t black” should diminish the power of a biopic called “Caitlyn” with Idris Elba in the titular role.

As much as the Academy would love to support a project of this nature, however, filmmaking is a business, studios need to make a profit to survive, and the harsh economic reality of awards season is that audiences simply aren’t lining up to see films with Oscar-worthy performances from actors of color like they are from white actors. Or the ‘right’ audiences aren’t?

What is the numbers story? “Creed,” brought in  $106 million domestically, as opposed to “Spotlight’s” $28 million, “Steve Jobs’s” $17 million (on a $30 million budget), “The Danish Girl’s” $8 million, “Trumbo’s” $7, “Carol’s” $7, “Room’s” $5, and “45 Years’s” staggering $341,000. Okay, those might have been seven bad examples, but you get the point—Hollywood and the Oscars really want to give non-white actors an opportunity to shine. Audiences just won’t let them?

Perhaps the Oscars wouldn’t have to be so white if people of color could figure out a way to make their history a little more transgendery.

So of course the Academy wants to be more racially inclusive. Racial inclusivity is, after all, its second favorite thing in the world. It’s just that, right now, the Academy’s favorite thing is hurling golden statues at films whose settings and characters prevent them from including any blacks or Latinos or Asians or Native Americans or anyone of an integument darker than translucent ivory.

So perhaps those inclined to once again fill Twitter with the “OscarsSoWhite” hashtag should show a little compassion towards the poor members of the Academy who, bless their hearts, just can’t let religious inclusion trump serving pork for dinner.

If we want to fix this problem, perhaps it’s time to look to the other side of the table. Perhaps it’s time to ask those Jewish and Muslim dinner guests to try a bite of the unclean cuisine. Perhaps the Oscars wouldn’t have to be so white if people of color could figure out a way to make their history a little more transgendery or Hollywoody or English-accented, or, at the very least, a little more staring-at-walls-and-coming-to-terms-with-things. – – – –

MEMO TO SPIKE LEE:  enough of the black angst, cultural clichés. enough of the the uncle toms, coons, mammies  and bucks images of your people. it might make you moolahs  but it reinforces and reinscribes  negative sterotypes. those age old racist caricatures are passé even as  parodies or political statements. a new script that transcends the tribe might score you brownie points.  {pun intended} and give your Black actors Oscars.A

Another note: Audiences, black or white or Hispanic don’t want to be preached at; or forcibly streamed through your kaleidoscope of Black consciousness. . Anyway Agit-prop doesn’t make money and that is why Hollywood doesn’t promote them.

HERBERT CHARLES AGYEMANG-DUAH

FREELANCE WRITER /  EDUCATOR / SOCIAL ACTIVIST / MUSICOLOGIST

#Pilgrimage in #Terror: Day 5

Day Five: Trust. 

Zubiri to Trinidad de Arre (14km).

Honore-Daumier-Don-Quixote

Sandra and I began the day with a search for the post office. We were directed to a magnificent old mansion. In the style of the region, it was dusty cream-coloured stone on the outside and rich and dark with carved wood on the inside. I am trying to think what sweet would give the same effect – some kind of white chocolate with a dark fondant filling, I suppose, dusted with icing sugar. A chunky oak staircase rose from the hall and the floor was black cobble stones arranged in fan-tail patterns.

A man was standing in the shadows, next to four bicycles. We felt very silly in the intimacy of his private house. Clearly the house was not a post office. We apologised and explained what we were looking for. He motioned to one of the heavy oak doors: ‘There. That’s the post office.’

We were surprised, but tried to believe him.

He knocked on the door, but there was no reply. ‘I don’t know where she is,’ he said.

We went back out into the sunlight, with our friend following behind. ‘Ah! There she is!’

A woman was walking along the river bank with her shopping bags. He introduced us. She agreed that she was the post woman. What did we want? She waited attentively while we got the words out, and then looked a little disappointed. Oh, stamps. She didn’t have any stamps.

We stood on the mediaeval bridge where I had seen the old woman the previous evening while Sandra went into her musical Virgin-Mary-receiving-the-holy-spirit routine, tipping forward repeatedly and shaking her head. Certainly this visit to a post office had been an unusual one. After a while I became stern and drew her away from laughter onto the business of the day. We set off.

Sandra progressed in a lurching gait from one hedgerow to another in spasms of berry-led greed. I was reminded of times as a teenager when I rode some cynical old pony in a long line of cynical ponies on a ‘hack’ for horse-sick teenage girls. My creature would get his head down onto the grass and could not be pulled up or budged. Kick, kick, kick went my little heels, but without making the slightest dent on the consciousness of my animal.

The sun climbed. At half past eleven it began attacking in earnest. The path left the shade of the river and joined the road. There was no shelter now. I had on all the defences I could muster. I was smeared in cream and obscured by a floppy white nylon-straw hat and a pair of bug-eye sun glasses.

My friend began her Behold-the-handmaid-hee-hee routine again. In a serious moment she asked, ‘Do you always dress like that?’ Did she really imagine that I walked around London in a skirt with an elastic waistband, a huge pair of trainers, and a floppy nylon hat? But then, I suppose, she had never seen me in anything else, and my normal clothes were probably only a fraction smarter.

We passed a man in a dried up wasteland of a field. He was gathering armfuls of vetch to feed his livestock. Sandra asked him to take a photo of us. This was cruel, but she was carrying my things in our communal bag, so it was small price to pay. The man got the giggles looking at us through the view-finder and it took ages for him to calm down enough to hold the camera still and click the button.

For lunch, we walked down to the river through an orchard of cherry trees too old and shrunken to yield much fruit. Around them grass, vetch and herbs grew in a profusion of brown stems. They crackled underneath our feet and gave off gorgeous scents, half dying though they seemed, and flickered with insects. Clouds of butterflies rose ahead of us as we walked. I hadn’t seen such profusion of butterflies for years. I remembered holidays in Cornwall in the ’70s and ’80s when the stone-and-turf walls trembled with Meadow Browns and Cabbage Whites and the lilac bushes were smothered. But butterflies are so sparse now in England I had begun to doubt my memory. Here there were Cabbage Whites and Blues, presumably feeding on the vetch, and one orange butterfly and a large brown and white Fritillary.

We sat in the spattered shade of a grove of poplar trees. I dug into my potato crisps, Sandra spread her strawberry jam. We had known each other now for four days, shared long conversations, silence, evenings and mornings. We each knew the other had a boyfriend, but we had stayed off the subject with a delicacy, a desire not to fall into the clichéd confidences of normal female conversation. Now on a hot afternoon, sitting on tree stumps, curiosity bubbled up….

#Pilgrimage in #Terror Day 4

Day Four: Within a Tradition. Burguete to Zubiri (20km).  

Vue de Bizkarreta-Gerendiain.

‘The Navarrese fornicate shamelessly with their beasts, and it is said that a Navarrese will put a padlock on his she-mule and his mare lest another man should get at them. He also libidinously kisses the vulva of a woman or a she-mule.’

So wrote Aimery Picaud of Poitou, a French clergyman who made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the twelfth century. Afterwards, he wrote a guidebook to the route, in which he criticises just about every Spaniard he meets. But the people of Navarre, where I am walking now, are the most sexually depraved, according to him. (How did he find that out?)

My path led out of the hills and down into the river valley to pass through Viscarret. Viscarret was grand enough in the twelfth century to be a major staging post for Aimery Picaud, between St. Jean Pied de Port and Pamplona. Since then it has steadily lost importance. There are no modern buildings in Viscarret. The yellow churches and the great houses of stone and carved timber decompose gently amid striped vegetable gardens.

It was time for lunch and the eternal hope of potatoes. A sign saying Cafe Bar pointed through a bead-hung doorway. I pushed through the tassels only to retreat as a dog snarled and leaped about in the shadows. People of different ages were standing about or sitting at a small kitchen table. They motioned me to go round to the other entrance. Fine. But why have the sign pointing straight in through that door if it isn’t the entrance?

The other door was on the piazza of the village. Germans sat out in the sun like ripening tomatoes. I took my English complexion indoors. I was full of hope. I heard sounds of cooking in the kitchen, could smell frying. A young woman eventually came to the bar in this small, dark room. She was slim, with black hair but looked as though she hadn’t slept for weeks, perhaps had never slept. This look – the sallow face and shadowed eyes – was to haunt the village bars that I passed through. All that lovelife, taking its toll.

‘Habla usted patatas?’ I asked.

She called through a door to the kitchen which was out of my sight and, after some discussion back and forth, she replied that No, there were no potatoes. I presumed the smells of cooking must therefore be for the family and the savage dog and enquired if there was a restaurant in the village. Yes, across the road, she said.

I went out and found an impressive mansion with a sign saying restaurant and delicious smells of vegetables being fried. I strode in happily. In a little room to the right an old lady and an old man were preparing an elaborate lunch. ‘A meal?’ I asked, salivating.

‘No, we are closed,’ said the old lady, regretfully.

‘It smells so good,’ I tried.

They laughed with pleasure at the compliment and then waited for me to leave.

I was back with sallow-face behind the bar. We were no longer friends. Why on earth had she directed me to a restaurant that she must have known was closed? It was moon-faced idiocy. With resignation I ordered a sandwich, and crisps for my potato content, and a bag of pistachios and sat down at a brown formica table. The thinly sliced processed cheese arrived in its white baguette, speckled with blue spots of mould. I tried to comfort myself with the pistachios and grew a mountain of shells on my table top in the shadows.

From my corner I perceived that three men had come in and places were being laid for them. They even had a checked paper table cloth. A soup appeared, along with half a carafe of wine. The soup course passed and pieces of chicken appeared, together with salad and – !

I rose from my table, a fountain of pistachio shells cascading in all directions but as nothing compared with my incandescent indignation. I stretched out my arm to the enviable gobbling men and summoned my finest Spanish to the fore:

‘Senora! These are potatoes!’

At which the dark eyes flashed. ‘But that is a menu! Did you want a menu? You should have said. Do you want a menu?’

‘Well not now,’ I said, no longer bothering to speak Spanish. ‘Not after I’ve already eaten a mouldy sandwich, a pack of greasy crisps and 500 grammes of pistachios!’

She understood exactly the tone of my words and gestures and began a tirade, the words flashing across the little room like jumping fish. I remembered the woman in Espinal who had hurled my shopping basket across the minimart, eyed the bottles behind her, and decided it was best to leave.

May the name of Viscarret be remembered forever….

#Pilgrimage in #Terror: Day 3

Day Three, For Dave Mugridge. Roncesvalles to Burguete.

2012_Roncesvalles_18_Sepulcro_de_Sancho_VII

Being a student suited Dave. We were all lonely, lazy and languid then. He inhabited benches, wrapped in a large grey coat. Looking at photographs now I see how young and blooming he was. The light shone in his mane of chestnut hair and the vivid blue eyes were fringed with long lashes. At the time, he seemed older than us, like a man who had Lived. Perhaps it was that his skin was slightly pock-marked from a brush with acne and that gave him a wolfish, battle-scarred look. We discussed literature and his sallies with girls over chocolate Hobnobs in those cold student rooms.

One day in his final year he paid me a visit in my room. The mist was hanging outside the Victorian stone windowsills, turning the afternoon violet. He was serious and awkward. In a low voice he told me he was ‘HIV Positive’.

‘Ah-ha?’ I said neutrally. I thought it was important to show that one of his good friends wasn’t alarmed or disgusted.

He looked at me bewildered. ‘Do you know what ‘HIV Positive’ means?’

Some fluke, some twitching in the DNA, gave Dave haemophilia back there in the embryo. Neither of his parents was a haemophiliac. When he was in his early teens, Dave had to have a blood transfusion. That was in the 1980s, when Mrs Thatcher was declaring, ‘There’s no such thing as society.’ Before Dave had ever kissed a girl, he was infected with Aids. Someone well-meaning gave him life and death.

After we graduated, Dave shared a rented house with a group of friends from university. They were turning into young professionals. He was not. He had enough money to live on and too broad a horizon. This group of student friends, spread between three or four rented houses, hardened into one of those adult gangs – Were they a Nineties phenomenon? – professionals who lived together, spent their Friday and Saturday nights together, and eventually married each other.

Between the members of his gang Dave moved like the invisible man, unable to drink as his liver weakened, entertaining them with stories of his own foolishness. We all heard about the latest woman to be the object of his love and desire. He would pursue to the point of intimacy and then flee in terror. Once a girl clung on and he couldn’t flee. But as the relationship developed he started to wash his hands obsessively, taking on a guilt and dirt that didn’t belong to him. ‘You can still use them for fantasies,’ I suggested. He laughed, shocked.

Dave didn’t work. While he still had compensation money he couldn’t take it seriously. He tried once. He bought a suit and worked in the Government Statistics Office. His boss was a nice, earnest man who had high hopes of Dave. But Dave had his own room and was thus able to put his head down on the desk and go to sleep in the afternoons. A week came when his boss wanted him to go to Wales to tell the civil servants there what the Stats Office was up to. Dave took the train and faced the row of grey suits. He had nothing to say.

Towards the end of our twenties, Dave’s compensation money began to run out. And it was this that forced him to use his talents. He taught English in the prestigious Catholic comprehensive that was educating Blair’s boys. But the virus started to kick in. A boy shouted at him in the corridor – ‘Aids man!’

Dave looked in the mirror and saw how thin his face was. But research had produced a miracle drug that kept men living years longer: it gave him cancer of the liver. He didn’t know this until April. He kept on going into school, facing classes. In the evenings he came home and threw his clothes on the floor in heaps, too tired to sort them out.

After he was taken into hospital his friend Adam walked into his room and found piles of jeans and good quality jerseys, full of moths.

******

‘It is a very kind act to take a friend’s hand and show him or her the pleasure you have in something,’ says Natalie Goldberg, the writers’ guru. This was Dave’s gift. His enthusiasms – about certain musicians, certain writers – made him almost frightened. ‘Will I talk about this?’ he hesitated. ‘Let me know what you make of him. I think – I hope you’ll like him.’

We discussed the then-popular TV adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, for an hour. ‘Do you think,’ I asked, always earnest, always wanting to know what happens after the end of the story, after the chicken has crossed the road, ‘Do you think they got on after they were married?’

‘Like rabbits.’

He was my personal tutor in culture, introducing me to the Shuttleworths and Colonel Blimp, and Queen (Mama, I don’t want to die. Some times I wish that I had never been born), and Star Wars. That was a formal event. I took a day off work and went round to his shared house in Kilburn. We sat in while the sun shone outside, munching houmous, pitta and iceberg lettuce, imbibing Luke Skywalker. Now and again he would freeze the video to check I was following, or draw out the hidden meanings. Then we walked on the mown grass of the park, near the railway line. Meetings always ended more subdued than they began, with him starting to talk about his troubles – love life, work, health – and then hating us both for the serious turn of the conversation.

I confess those depressed endings scared me off. There was a year when we lost touch. I am walking today partly for that.

Then April, the first spring of the new millennium, Adam appeared in the front garden. He brought a pale blue letter from Dave.

I visited him twice, but after that he didn’t want to see me. There were too many crowding for his attention, people who mattered more, and he tired easily.

He quite soon made the decision to give up the chemo. In his hospital bed he converted to Evangelical Christianity. His sister, who was already a convert, introduced him to a local evangelical pastor. This bible-based faith was something he had been putting off for years. In student days, he would get inveigled into attending evangelical dinners and then run away afterwards, traumatised. ‘Why does it bother you so much?’ I would ask him. ‘Just put it out of your head.’ ‘Yes,’ he would say, unconvinced.

It was awkward to get news of him in hospital. I didn’t like bothering the nurses and feared discussing his worsening condition with his Dad.

In the end there were letters: tiny skynotes, addressed in his own increasingly spidery hand. I felt as if I were receiving words from beyond the grave, so far apart were we in prospects and daily experience. I didn’t know what to say, twiddled my ink pen sitting in cafes, etching some kind of empathy onto the void of white A4 sheets or just nattering on about my day. Then back through the British postal service came these miracles. I treasured those letters as if they were love letters, knowing that one of them must be the last. And yet there was nothing intense written on either side – we had no great words to say – just a couple of friends continuing until the whistle blew.

Thank-you loads for your letter which reached me today. You continue to lead an interesting life but I hope it is not getting in the way of your writing… I am full of regrets that I haven’t achieved (written) more but I am currently collating everything… ‘Blasted’ is a good word to describe this disease. I feel very angry and frustrated at the loss which will take place when I die. Still I have nothing to be too ashamed of or regret I think… I am moving towards a sense that it is all God’s will really – hard to accept – but ultimately true...

Later, when the morphine doses were raised, the writing shrank to a minute size and he went over his letter underlining certain words in a different colour: I’m glad you write, it gives me simple plans to complete. I sometimes feel so sad but I’m sure I’m doing the right thing here. It’s hard to wait for the end, equally its scary to think about it – meanwhile when I put strategies into place to deal with these feelings hallucinations get in the way!…. Woozy, Dave. Woozy he may have been but the post-code was always accurate.

The last card is John Constable’s Hay Wain and it’s faintly baffling.

Dear Katy – he alternated between the ‘ie’ and the ‘y’ spelling – This card is taken from a postcard book bought from National Gallery by Claire for me – and it’s about the only one I could bear to part with because they are all so beautiful – wonderful colour reproductions of Renaissance stuff…. My story is not getting written. I seem to be very busy with guests…

With returned good health have come all manner of political difficulties dealing with family and friends – it seems tough on me but politics never goes away, it seems. Now the crisis seems to have passed no one, including me, quite knows what to do with me. I have a deep sense of frustration at still being alive, to tell you the truth, but perhaps God still has plans for me down here. I found myself evangelising a nurse today and thought ‘Lord, please make that my last one!’

love Dave

The grip with reality was loosening and yet I wonder if, in amongst the veins and the lymph glands brimming with morphine and toxins, you knew that that was your last card. It is the only one you signed with love.

******

The pilgrims had marched out of Roncesvalles before dawn, leaving the monastery emptier than an empty building, scoured and sterilised, all atmosphere washed away by the nightly flow of guests. The massive interconnected cloisters stood stony silent among their groomed lawns. As it was a special holiday and there were many visitors, the museum was shut. In a telephone box near the restaurant three Filipino women were trying to sleep. We were disappointed, Sandra and I, that there wasn’t more of a gung-ho saint-thumping Catholic ambience, something to give us instant spirituality. But then maybe the point of a pilgrimage is to start from a state of godlessness and move towards God…

#Pilgrimage in #Terror: Day 2

September 2002. Giving up on protesting against the ‘war on terror’, Katie goes on a 13-day pilgrimage in Northern Spain…. 

Day 2, Mortality: over the pass to Roncesvalles (20km).

Vierge d'Orisson

By the time I left the barn where we’d slept, there were only two pilgrims behind me. They were an English brother and sister who were deeply involved in washing clothes and then attaching them to their rucksacks to dry. As we were going to be above the cloud line, there was little chance of them drying. However, these were the instructions given in the bright green laminated guide book of the Confraternity of St. James. We were to carry only three pairs each of socks and pants – one clean, one being worn, one being dried on the back of our pack. It was made as a practical suggestion, ignoring the fact that washing powder is as heavy as underwear, before you take into account the recommended scrubbing brush and plastic pot with screw-top lid for holding the powder. I suspect the deeper reason was to keep the pilgrims in a constant state of washing clothes, on the Magdalene Laundries principle, so that through all that external scrubbing our souls might be purified.

I haven’t often seen the dawn and it was hard to take my eyes off it and get on with walking. Shiny pink clouds hung all over the sky, like brand new cars in a show room. Below them and me the clumps of sweet chestnut trees stood out prickly among the pastures. Further away the stone walls of Saint Jean crouched by its river. I kept stopping and turning round to look at the hills heaving and spreading out below me.

The other reason I was dawdling was that there was a large cow ahead. She stood astride the path and leered at me. A great bell hung at her throat. One horn pointed straight towards me like a javelin, the other was twisted back behind, giving her the lopsided look of a pirate. She eyed me and she didn’t budge. I kicked my heels, and threw looks over my shoulder at the tossing bed-clothes of hills below. Some way down I could see the courteous Frenchman whom I had met under the oak tree, ascending with two new friends. I decided I might as well be sociable and wait for them. After all, it was the Frenchman who had advised me to go ‘doucement’.

Just in front of the cow, the Frenchman introduced me to his new friends. Gilles, a smiling man with big blue eyes and a white moustache, was from Quebec, and had been on the road for a month already, having started from Le Puy in central France. The other was Sandra, a young woman from Berlin. I stepped politely onto the grass, to allow them to pass closer to the cow, and strolled along beside them.

We hadn’t gone more than a few steps when Sandra’s most characteristic trait began to show itself: the laugh. This was not because I was being witty, but because for her the mere fact of trying to walk with the quantity of stuff she had on her back was pure comedy. She certainly looked as if she had included the whole of her life in that bag, including a saucepan, coffee pot and cooker dangling from the bottom. I wondered if she was an itinerant or moving house the hard way. Anyway, at the slightest provocation she would tip herself forward (not hard with her pack) and emit four clear notes as sweet as the far-off tinkle of goats’ bells. The laugh said, ‘Aren’t I silly? Aren’t we a pair? Isn’t the human race beyond belief?’

She had golden straight hair and a fine small face with a golden glow to it, like the face of a Flemish High Gothic painting of the Virgin Mary. When she tipped forward to laugh she seemed to be at just the same angle as one of those virgins in the paintings receiving the news from the angel Gabriel. Perhaps indeed if we could hear those Gothic virgins, so silent in their paintings, they would be emitting a very similar resigned and musical laugh at the bizarreness of the holy spirit coming upon them. ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Hee hee hee hee!’

By this time we had reached the high, narrow neck of the valley. The rock was closing in on three sides. ‘So now you see,’ said our Frenchman, ‘It goes much quicker when you have someone to talk to…..’

Dirk Hendricksz, from http://www.FrancoValente.it

 

#Pilgrimage in Terror: Day 1

September 2002. Disillusioned with protesting against the ‘war on terror’, Katie went on a 13-day pilgrimage in Northern Spain.

Day 1: Invasion

File:From Citadelle, Saint-Jean-pied-de-port 01 HDR (1873202026).jpgOn the railway platform at Bayonne we were all waiting in our different ways for the train that would take us to St. Jean Pied de Port (‘St John at the foot of the pass’) and the start of the pilgrimage route. One man was smoking a pipe and his wife, a cigarette. They wore chic red rain gear. I wondered how they would make it, with smokers’ lungs, over the Port de Cize, the mountain pass that had brought the Romans and Napoleon into Spain, and now pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

We strung ourselves out along the platform. We were all clearly walkers, with our backpacks and boots. We couldn’t hide from each other that we were all starting off on the same rather zany commitment of time and energy: a pilgrimage. Even today, even when lots of the walkers on the route are atheists or agnostics, it isn’t quite like just setting off on a hike. The modern tradition of the route says it will change you, it will give you some kind of experience of truth or happiness or peace. Paolo Coelho and Shirley MacLaine are but two of the more famous writers who have talked of mystic experiences on the way to Compostela. And that made us all a little sheepish standing there, made it difficult to strike up a conversation, as if we were all sitting in a therapist’s waiting room.

Our train crawled into the station. It hadn’t been painted for years. It made me think of the Harry Potter train, taking us into the time-warp of walking, into a world where the rules are different. Very soon the land began to rise around us as the train rattled on, winding tighter and tighter into the Pyrenees. Grassy banks sloped up at forty-five degree angles from our window, waving bunches of trees at the top. A light misty rain blurred the distances.

Opposite me in my compartment sat a young Englishman, just out of his teens. He was well built, with close-cropped hair. I could tell he was English because, apart from pale skin and shyness, he was studying a copy of the bright green laminated guidebook produced by The Confraternity of Saint James, a British outfit headquartered in Lambeth.

Chugging round tight valleys in the Pyrenees, I wondered if the young man opposite me had met the same lady in mauve that I had met in the Confraternity’s Lambeth office. He certainly had great respect for the guide, which he was poring over. Would he like a conversation or would he think talking to fellow English spoilt the atmosphere?

The ticket inspector entered our compartment. This created more awkwardness: the embarrassment of making those strange French sounds in front of a fellow Englishman. So we both of us confined ourselves to the relatively uncontroversial ‘Merci’, with just a glimmer of the vomit sound of the French ‘r’. The inspector didn’t bother looking us in the face, but examined our tickets disapprovingly from above a bulbous nose.

Having survived that incident together, we started to exchange bits of our lives. Alec was at ‘uni’ and seemed anxious. He only had enough money for two weeks’ walking and he wanted to get as far as Burgos, 257km according to the guidebook. I would never be able to walk that fast. Ah youth and maleness!

‘And what made you decide to do it?’ I asked.

‘Character building. That sort of thing.’ He was looking down. ‘I want to test myself. My Dad was in the army.’ So that explained the haircut. ‘He’s always told us that it’s important to have challenges in your life.’ Pause. ‘How about you?’

There I was, a recent peace demonstrator, walking against war, and in the very first moments of my pilgrimage I’m alone in a compartment with a soldier’s son. What magnetic material had they planted in those laminated bright green booklets to bring unlikely people together?

Faced with the politeness and forthright decency of this young man, my anti war arguments dissolved on my tongue. ‘I just wanted some time to reflect,’ I said, ‘Deserter!’ ringing in my ears.

I moved the conversation on to discussing the two routes over the Pyrennees into Spain: Napoleon’s conquering one over the mountain and Charlemagne’s path of retreat down in the valley. To my surprise, Alec agreed with me that the lower route would be enough of a personal challenge for the first day. Neither of us had done any training before we left, he because he was working day and night and I because I hadn’t managed to get organised.

But when we reached the tourist office in St. Jean, which was flooded out with pilgrims of all nationalities, their pilgrim staffs rolling over the floor and the shiny new rucksacks obstructing all passage, we were commanded to take the upper path, the ‘Route Napoleon’. The woman behind the desk raised an eyebrow and completely failed to comprehend when we suggested we might follow the modern lorry driver’s route. Brushing aside our qualms she told us to stay the first night at a hamlet called Huntto and attack the pass tomorrow. She pointed out the way on her map and showed us where, tomorrow, halfway along, there was a water fountain and shops. This I translated for my friend.

Alec was keen to get to a supermarket and stock up on provisions. I on the other hand was dreaming of a sit-down lunch with meat and potatoes. He was a little hesitant to abandon me in Saint Jean but I reassured him, so he shook hands with me and strode off. Over the next days of the walk I soon lost touch with him, polite and upright as he was. He rose each day with the earliest and launched off into the pre-dawn, swinging a plain baguette. I’m sure he reached Burgos and will do well.

In contrasting style I lingered in the mediaeval fortified town of St. Jean, eating a pricey meal of a whole duck with chips. It was late and I was the last person lunching, upstairs over a bar, with red and white checked paper tablecloths for company.

The town’s chief business seemed to be starting pilgrims on their journey. There was an entire market for pilgrims’ staffs. I wanted one of these, as I had read that they were a deterrent to dogs. I chose one with a spike. This was a bad mistake. The shock and ring of that spike on dry roads was to persecute me up and down dale for two weeks. But I clung to the thing in the hope that it would scare off territorial beasts who might waylay me at the gates of far-flung farms.

Before leaving St Jean, I climbed one of the stone staircases up onto the massive walls. Hills stretched away in all directions, blue and mushy with mist.

I had decided to dedicate each day of my walk to an aspect of the ‘war on terror’. I was hoping to find insights as I walked.

The theme I had picked for today, September 5th, was the plight of the Iraqis. Troops were already massing in the Gulf before I set off.

From my position on the fortifications, I gazed down on terracotta roofs, which the rain had stained dark red. Each had its own sliver of garden running towards the wall, dripping and shiny with the recent showers. Some were striped with different shades of green, the foliage of tomatoes, marrows, beans. Others had grown wild, but even those showed some sign of human providence – a walnut tree or an apple tree, a little easy nourishment in these pockets of land.

I could not think about a dry place. I could not think about suffering and fear. I could not think about hunger and the worry of parents. I could not both be here and somewhere else. How strange it was to be attacking a country so far away, none of whose people I had ever met, let alone hated. Here was full of enjoyment and there not. I chose here. I chose with an uneasy feeling of guilt.

So it was with a heavy heart and confusion, together with my usual expectant fear of dogs, that I crossed the river over the mediaeval bridge and followed signs for Huntto….