I confess that my visit to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela was not preceded by an 800-mile walk, pilgrim-style, nor indeed by a walk of any length at all. In that sense I cheated, and so was more connected to the clumps of tourists outside the cathedral, huddled under their umbrellas in the Galician rain, than to the steady trickle of pilgrims arriving in the square and giving each other celebratory hugs, waving their traditional walking sticks and massaging their feet.
I have never been a great one for relics, but it would be a hard-hearted soul who didn’t respond to the sight of St James. As you climb the steps under the extravagant façade and enter the dark of the cathedral your senses are assailed – as they are meant to be – by the flash of gold and silver behind the altar, a riot of shimmering colour that puzzles: the blaze seems as if it must escape and light up the whole vast space yet stays contained above the shrine like a burning furnace. Each day at the noon Mass for pilgrims, the fire becomes real when the botafumeiro, the enormous thurible hanging from the roof, is made to swing from side to side like a giant pendulum and dispense its incense. Never mind that the original purpose was to deal with the odour of the massed pilgrims below, it is a coup de théâtre worthy of the place, and its history.
Shuffling past the dazzling silver casket under the altar, said to contain the remains of James the Apostle, I wondered why the scene – in some ways so artificial, not to mention overrun with tourists – retains its power. Partly it must be the sight of those bedraggled pilgrims with their wet capes, bruised legs and worn boots, who arrive in little groups day and night and come for all kinds of reasons – some connected to faith and others more secular. I watched a group of them. There was exhilaration and relief, and no doubt great pride at having completed whatever part of the medieval pilgrimage route they had followed. But I fancied that there was something else at work too: a feeling that they had defied the contemporary urge for life to go faster and faster. Quite deliberately, they’d taken the other way.
I had warmed up, so to speak, for the bones of St James with a brief visit to Sark. Naturally, the main purpose of carrying a pair of binoculars on its few winding lanes and cliff paths is to see if you can spot a Barclay brother, the Channel island being the lair of the reclusive billionaire businessmen. Yet not a single one did I see, which was vaguely disappointing. As was the fact that the Occupation Museum, telling the story of Sark’s brief annexation to the Third Reich, was closed. (I knew this because I was told that if the curator’s blue bicycle was leaning against the wall it was open, if not – bad luck.)
I did, however, discover SAstroS (Sark Astronomy Society), which apart from being one of the better acronyms I’ve come across in recent times, is a signal of one of the island’s great gifts. Sark has no light pollution. The population of 600 doesn’t need street lights, not least because there are no cars. Consequence? Clear skies that have led to its designation by the International Dark Sky Association as the world’s first “dark sky island”, a status that will be celebrated at the end of October by its inaugural Starfest. The whole business has clearly taken hold of the island and everyone assumes that the galaxy will put on quite a show for this first festival, so I felt it impolite to mention the phrase “cloud cover”.
SAstroS’ newsletter also bade farewell to the Space Shuttle, following the final visit of Atlantis to the space station last month. Sark’s unpolluted skies meant that its residents, unlike the rest of us, got such a good view of comings and goings in space that the shuttle became for them the celestial equivalent of a No 19 bus by which they could almost set their watches.
My current preoccupation with slowing down, the unpolluted sky and the simple life, may have a simple explanation. The other day I entered the world’s fast stream with a discernible whoosh. I sent my first tweet.
It has been a long time coming. I have had a Twitter account for a while (@naughtiej), but for pure voyeurism only. I have followed the doings of a few energetic or useful tweeters, even boggled at the excruciating torrent of messages from Stephen Fry telling me too much (“Night, night campers”, I expect him to say any day). For how long, though, can you loiter in that universe without declaring your presence? So I sent a tweet.
It could hardly have been simpler, fulfilling my self-imposed rule that it should be neither banal nor falsely titillating (“Guess what John Humphrys did with his muesli this morning?”). In other words it was, I think, forgettable without being too silly. Little did I know what the effect would be. An hour later I checked back and found that I had acquired 2,000 followers! A second tweet, equally harmless, produced another increase, though naturally a smaller one. When I last looked I was hovering around 3,000, a pitiful figure compared with some colleagues who’ve been whipping up the masses for many months, not to mention certain celebrities, whom I assume have teams of gag writers to feed the multitude.
But here’s the terrifying thing: I’ve hardly started yet.
Just you wait, I’m tempted to say. But I also hear a whisper in my ear – “Why not get off the roller coaster before it gathers more speed?”
Get thee behind me …
There’s a great deal to be said for slowing down, though, especially when you are speeding up in another part of your life. When the tweets start to flow, I’ll need to remind myself that, from time to time, a good old pilgrimage might be an idea. The thought stirred in my mind earlier in the summer when I stumbled across a tiny chapel in the Tuscan hills where St Francis of Assisi used to stop for a night on his way from La Verna, not far away.
I sat in the quiet there for a few minutes and remembered “Assisi”, a poem by Norman MacCaig. He was a man of great humanity who had no time for organised religion but who certainly preferred pilgrims to tourists. He wrote of seeing a beggar – terrifyingly misshapen and curled up – at the door of the basilica in Assisi and ended his poem like this:
A rush of tourists, clucking contentedly,
fluttered after him as he scattered
the grain of the Word. It was they who
the ruined temple outside, whose eyes
wept pus, whose back was higher
than his head, whose lopsided mouth
said Grazie in a voice as sweet
as a child’s when she speaks to her
or a bird’s when it spoke
to St Francis.
Anyone for a long walk?
James Naughtie is a presenter on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme