I’ve been to some pretty spectacular places on my travels; certainly high places. But I have never seen views as I saw in Leon and Galicia this spring. Perhaps it was something to do with the amount of time I had to appreciate them. When you walk all day, from one side of a valley to another you can see your whole journey laid out behind you. And when you crest the hill and find the next valley waiting for you, you know you’ll end up on the other side of it somehow, but your no sure how you’ll get there or where that point it exactly. It’s a big beautiful metaphor for life.
There were times on this journey where I questioned what the hell I was doing. Slipping and sliding down the first mountain on my journey, in the rain, and fog. Every step threatening to turn my ankles or slam my backside into the jagged rocks, I had my doubts about the virtue of going any further. But with those first days under my belt I had learnt to listen to my body, give it time, let it rest, but also know when I was just being a bit pathetic.
That slippery day I decided that I wasn’t being pathetic, that I really did need to stop and let me jangling joints regather themselves. The fog stayed all evening. I was somewhere on the side of the mountain, surrounded by friendly Germans. It wasn’t until morning that I discovered I was in the sky. It was bigger and more full of drama than I had ever seen it. The Earth, the ground over which I would walk that day beckoned far below, blotted with sun and shadow. A view like that really gives you a reason to wake up and take your time over breakfast.
If ever I feel like giving up, I will remember that foggy day and the day that followed.
I am not usually an early riser. To my mother, who is unable to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time and constantly preaches the value of being busy, my late emergence into daylight each day smacks of laziness. Sleep, or daydreaming is not useful to her, whereas I have always found it a good way of sorting through worries and plans. That is until I began the camino and found a better way.
You have to get up early on the Camino. Besides the fact that most of the hostels, or albergues, turf you out by 8am, it’s a good idea to get the bulk of a long walk done before it gets even vaguely warm. Plus if you get to your destination around lunchtime, you have the whole afternoon to try and put your body back together again before you have to do the same thing the next day.
Mornings in Spain are beautiful. Dark and cold like most places, but the quality of the light when it washes across fields and up valleys and drips through trees and off statues is astonishing. Perhaps this is the case wherever you are, but on the Camino you have time to think and to see. Mornings are quiet. Well mostly. Birds are not quiet in the morning. They have nothing to compete with except each other and they seem to like the challenge. In the cool, windless, cloudless mornings, where you could still see the stars in half the sky, and trees swam in the mist and fog and cobwebs sparkled, hung heavy with dew, not much else mattered.
Do you ever catch yourself doing something that months previously you would never have thought of? I do. Often. This April I found myself in Leon in northern Spain, walking out of the city before dawn. Many things about this were things I had never thought of before. Firstly. I don’t think I’d ever walked out of city before. Right from the centre out into the countryside. It’s a strange thing to do nowadays I think. Usually you drive, or take a train. Well this particular Sunday morning I broke with that habit, heaved on a rucksack, extended a pair of walking poles and made my way on foot.
Secondly, I really don’t normally do any exercise, so the prospect of not just walking out of a city, but in fact walking a good distance into the dead flat countryside was a bit of a change. My aim was to walk about 18km to a small town called Mazarife. I had never walked that far in one day before, so I had no idea if it would be a breeze or if by lunchtime my legs would be burning pillars of jelly. It didn’t make a lot of difference, hobbling or crawling, I had to make it or I would end up sleeping in a ditch.
The reason for this bizarre situation was, to my shame, a film. A beautiful film. Perhaps a little twee, perhaps a little too sincere for my British tastes, but it stuck in my brain. It was called ‘The Way’ and it is about a man who takes a pilgrimage in northern Spain when his son dies on the first day of his attempt of the same route. For some reason I could see myself in many of the characters he met along the way. And unlike my similar appreciation of Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, there was at least the possibility that I could in fact become one of those people in real life.
I remember being seventeen quite clearly. It’s the age I think I’ve stuck to in my mind. Lots happened that year, not least an expedition by 30 students from my school aged between 16 and 18. We went to Kenya for 30 days in three groups lead by two teachers and four Leaders from World Challenge.
The groups were chosen surprisingly easily. The older and keener ones, mostly in Upper Sixth, grouped together and took the more hard core of the teachers, Miss Jones, who was ex-RAF and tough as old boots. The younger ones, all in Fifth form, were herded together by Mr Simons, a more archetypal bumbling fool you could not invent. He had a combover that in a brisk breeze could block out the sun.
So that left a pick and mix group of us in the middle, some keen, but too young to be in the big boys group, others too nerdy, but mostly we were laid back almost to horizontal. There were no more teachers to go around so we took two leaders instead. Mark a former RAF Engineer on his first expedition as leader, so trying not to show his nerves, and Jenny, a 22 year-old in the TA and about to join the real thing.
She was there to be responsible for the only two girls in the group, myself and my close friend Cassie. We had shared a room in Third form and had remained friends, bonding over being outsiders. Me for my geekiness and her for her artistic/anarchic streak.
The boys had their alpha in Mike Elms, known to everyone as Elmo. He wasn’t typical alpha, pretty scrawny, into Grunge music, and faced every task with a nonchalance that drove Mark to the point of distraction. However, he was charming, clever, mischievous and slightly fragile, which meant he was a magnet for female dotage. Elmo’s right hand man was James Thumbwood, known to everyone as Bum. Less charming and fragile, but braver in his pursuit of mayhem. The pair of them had been a source of comedic commentary for a couple of years already. Now we were set for a month of it, non-stop.
The rest of the boys fit loosely into the category of slightly geeky, but well-meaning. And that was us. Ten students and two adults. A team ripe for making.
So I didn’t do what I said I would. I didn’t forget, and it wasn’t like I didn’t care. But when it came to sitting down and thinking about it, I always found something else to do. Something that didn’t involve looking to hard, searching for meaning, or committing to anything.
It seems to be a common theme now that I have sat down and thought about it.
I can’t say with any certainty that it won’t remain a theme. It’s one thing to recognise your weaknesses. It’s quite another to do anything about them.
But as I dot about, from one thing to another, it becomes clearer every day, that until I make a choice and stick to it, I will not feel like anything has changed. From where I stand, those around me; old friends, family, colleagues, have gained a great deal by staying in one place. By committing to one thing, be it a job or a person, they have achieved something tangible. As lucky as I have been; as widely travelled, as widely experienced as I have become, as many small things as I have achieved, I feel like I am always playing catch up to those who have notched up one of those great marks on the bed post of life. Marriage, Career, Children, House, Wealth. Like segments from Trivial Pursuit, it’s not easy to get all of them, but you expect to get one or two as you go around.
But maybe that’s the problem. Those marks, or segments have been ordained by History. They come from a world that assumes that nothing ever changes, that what people want is what they have always wanted. What if I don’t want these things? What do I do then? What segments should I aim for?
I could be playing catch up, or I could be playing a different game entirely.
BTW: Since my last post…I didn’t get into Film School, my brother bought a flat, two of my friends got married, I quit my wine job, only to get a job running a cinema and now that that isn’t panning out I’m seriously considering running away to walk 500 miles in 30 days in Spain and perhaps never come back. If I follow my previous form, I could be quite literally anywhere by the time I next write to this page.
So my plan to blog about making my film didn’t pan out. What can I say? Many a good intention turn awry. Suffice to say that I made my film. I was happy with it. I am happy it, but the powers that be in the institution where I was hoping to hone my art were not so impressed. I was angry and desperate for about a day, and then I wasn’t. Luckily I was amongst people I didn’t know very well, summer school EFL teachers. A more hardy and flexible bunch of people you will never meet. They had not idea how much I had invested in the film, not just financially, but emotionally and temporally, so they lent me a definite perspective on the whole thing, that it was just one of those things, not to let it overwhelm me and just move on. Many of them had faced similar hiccups in their life plans, so I was not alone.
So after my day of wandering about aimlessly, I just decided not to think about it too much. Obviously, I would have to begin thinking about what I was going to do instead of going to school, but not too hard. So over the last few weeks I have become a sponge, soaking up ideas, ranging around for possibilities and discounting nothing, just out of hand. I change my mind about five times a day. It seems to depend a lot on who I’m with, how much I’ve eaten and whether or not I’m at work. My ideas range from buggering off around the world again and becoming some bohemian travel writer to setting up shop as a cocktail and macaroon maker. When I say any idea, I mean any idea.
My New Years resolution was to not start a new career this year, be less adventurous. With that in mind, I have tried to tie whatever idea has been infesting my brain to something I have already done. Like wine, or music. I am a web of random and uncertified skills, a jack of all trades and certainly master or all none. There are gaps, big gaping holes in my knowledge and experience which others of my age have filled with years of hard toil. Time to fill in the gaps.
I wanted to give this blog days, to show how I progress with the project over time, but its a bit difficult to say when day 1 was. Was it the day I first had the idea, which incidentally I can’t remember, or the first day I sat down to write it? Or was it later still, the day I asked another person to get involved and therefore made something beyond the confines of my own head? I don’t think it matters that much. In any case I am at the beginning. I have a script, which has been read and critiqued by a select few of my friends. I’m happy with it and now I’m starting to put the enormous jigsaw that is a film production together.
To make it clear, I have some experience of making films, but not enough to yet call myself a film maker. I’m going to make this up as I go along, probably make a few mistakes and later I’ll probably cringe at how naive I was, but I can’t help that. This blog is to chronicle how and why I made those decisions so I can learn from them when I try again.
So first up. I have a script. Its a bit longer than I wanted it to be. It’s nineteen pages, which doesn’t sound a lot, but it could leave me with a film that falls between the gaps in terms of festival entry at the end. Despite this, I like it, the script, and so do most of the people I’ve shown it to. I don’t really know where it came from, but over about three weeks it came together in my head and another three weeks to write it down. It’s too difficult to explain in detail, so in general terms it’s the story of a decision. A decision to risk your life to go into Space and discover something new. So it’s got a Science Fiction element to it, but mainly it’s just a little drama set on Earth about now.
The next stage to the process is breaking down the script, working out where to shoot it, what props you need, when you need to shoot it, who you need for cast and crew and how much money you’re willing to spend on it. In the proper business apparently you would have to be mental to put your own money into a film project, instead you risk the money of rich investors looking for a tax break. Unfortunately, I don’t know any rich investors, nor do I really care for schlecking around trying to flog a script that has very little scope for making money, at least before it’s been made. So for now its just me, which does at least gives me control, but also a lot of work to do.
All children at primary school seem to be stuck with the same predicament, they study many different subjects in lots of different classrooms, but are not yet old enough to warrant or be trusted with a locker. They therefore have to carry around their entire days books in a bag, humping it from one place to another. The smaller children often seem to be carrying a large percentage of their body weight in paper on their back.
When I was at primary school we were forbidden to have the over the shoulder, satchel type bags because our young and supple frames were likely to be permanently damaged by the marked imbalance of a days books on our spines. But at secondary school there was no such restriction, and I do sometimes think I’ve got a knot in my shoulder that I might have had for fifteen years because of my unwise choice of school bag.
In Spain, or at least in Albacete, they seem to have come up with an ingenious solution, that has outdone fashion. The children still have bags, more rucksacks than satchels, but they do not carry them. Instead they each come with a little rack with an extendible handle, meaning they are dragged like carry-on cases instead. It was a bit bizarre the first time I saw thirty students lined up outside their class all trailing what looked like hand-luggage. It was reminiscent of an airport gate except not one of them was over the age of eight and you have never seen a bunch of children filled with less excitement and anticipation.
I get the feeling that children in England might take a while to adapt to the draggable school bag, but I have no doubt it would save a few of them some back trouble in the future.
The last day of February and it snowed. Not the light crust that forms on car bonnets or metal railings, but the heavy, dense and astoundingly beautiful layer that falls in sheets. I have never seen snowflakes that big before; the size of tea bags. To begin with they did what any snow does, and vanished the moment they touched the ground. When it started I was teaching my lunchtime class at a school across town, run by nuns. Although some are lovely, others have clearly not transferred the love of Christ to the love of children. I couldn’t imagine many of the children would have been allowed to even take a glimpse at the snow before a stern voice and possibly even a hand brought them back to reality. I used to love watching snow fall, such a rare occurrence when I was young, so for the last two or three minutes of class I just let them watch. They stood in a line along the window, eyes as big as the snow flakes, chatting quietly to each other, pointing out any flakes of extraordinary size or beauty. As we watched the snow began to settle.
I had the forethought to bring an umbrella, but I was still soaked by the time I got home. It snowed all afternoon and well into the night. By 9pm there were four inches of snow over everything and it was piled up in the dips at the pedestrian crossings. Children and adults had come in soaked and shivering all day and had left dressed like eskimos. Several of the teachers who live outside of town were stuck for the night and I wondered how long it would stick around; how much disruption it would cause and how good the Spanish are at dealing with these sorts of conditions. My questions were answered around 2am by the sound of a sweeper truck pushing its way slowly up my street. That took care of the road, but not satisfied with getting the traffic moving again, an hour later a team of ten men arrived and swept the pavements clear by hand. Noise beyond belief, but efficient nonetheless.