Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Way

We have a dinky little arthouse cinema in Dunedin. There are maybe 50 seats, a coffee machine and a personable  guy with a few days stubble and an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies who sells the tickets, makes the drinks and chooses the flicks. We go as often as we can, and this Saturday afternoon past it was to see The Way. As veteran readers of this blog will know, we walked half the Camino Santiago in 2009, and we are planning on returning to Spain this coming September to walk the last 400 km from Sahagun to Santiago, so we had been wanting to see this particular film for a while.

The 2010 movie, written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Estevez's real life father, Martin Sheen is about an American doctor who "accidentally" walks the Camino Santiago. Travelling to Spain to collect the body of his son (Esteves) who has died on the first day of the Camino, the one that takes pilgrims over the Pyrenees, the doctor (Sheen) decides instead to cremate the body and carry it to Santiago himself. He walks the 800 km, teaming up with three unlikely pilgrims along the way, and encountering, from time to time, the image of his son.

I must say we enjoyed the movie, and I'm glad there were only 2 other patrons at our session to be bothered with our elbow nudging and stage whispering. "Look, Roncesvalles!" "Burgos?" "No, Logrono." "Sshhh! Hey look, Najera!" Ahh... The joys of being, at long last , after all these years, one of the cognoscenti. The Spanish landscape was the best bit, though, to tell the truth it wasn't a bad film: sort of a slow motion road movie, with some  memorable one liners and some strong and unusual characters.There were some bloopers and inconsistencies, instantly noticeable to peregrinos, but I won't bore you with a list.  By the end of the film  the four walkers are sitting in the Cathedral of Santiago and  all have made the personal journey required of this sort of film and which is engendered, in real life, by the Camino.

We walked home entertained but slightly unmoved. The Way captures some aspects of the Camino quite well: the camaraderie and the shifting temporary communities that form, dissolve and reform along the way; the sense of purpose that gradually absorbs everyone who dons the scallop shell no matter what their original motivation might have been; the breathtaking scenery and the centuries worth of cultural artefacts which fill it. What it doesn't manage to convey is what it is really like to be a peregrino, and neither Clemency or I could articulate what we mean by that. There is an engagement with the long sweep of the Path of Miracles that can only come from actually walking it, not from looking at it, no matter how well crafted the photos might be. There is the ongoing friendliness and decency of the Spanish people; there is the difficulty of walking a long distance day after day; there is the sheer length and monotony of some sections of track, interspersed with surprises and wonders at unpredictable intervals; there is the beauty and grandeur of it; there is the way that the rhythm of footstep after footstep becomes a form of prayer; there is the way that centuries of prayer have soaked into this strip of land in the way it has into the walls of ancient European cathedrals. None of this could possibly be known except by actually walking it.

The film is entertaining. It whetted our excitement over the prospect of September, and it is better than any YouTube clip for giving an idea of what the pilgrimage is like. But to know what is so special about this path, and why so many thousands fell compelled to walk it, there is no substitute, absolutely none, for a small pack, a pair of stout shoes, a stick and an air ticket to St. Jean Pied de Port.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


This weekend past we went to Stewart Island, whose Maori name is Rakiura, land of glowing skies. The long gentle summer we have been enjoying in the deep south continues, and the trip there and back was across a Foveaux Straight as flat and calm as anybody has ever seen it. We travelled, as usual, on the ferry, a large, modern catamaran which makes the journey in about an hour, and we stayed with Peter and Iris who run a very comfortable B&B on a hill overlooking Halfmoon Bay. It's the sort of place which manages the almost impossible feat of being simultaneously homely and luxurious, and our hosts were knowledgeable and engaging. There was a very fine dinner and good wine and lots of conversation.

On Sunday morning we woke to one of the skies from which the Island gets its name,

and a dawn chorus dominated by the sound of Kaka: a sound that must have once been common throughout New Zealand, but is now heard only in Oban. There was a leisurely breakfast and some more chatting before we walked a few hundred metres down the hill to church.Stepping out into the streets of Oban and I know I am somewhere very special, but I can't quite find words to explain what I mean by that. The Island feels different. Although it's possible to buy a latte in one of the cafes or use your broadband connection to check something on Google,  Stewart Island feels like the New Zealand I grew up in, in the 1950s and 60s. There is an unhurried calm. The bay is calm and filled with business like looking fishing boats, and is ringed with well kept and unpretentious houses. But there is something else; a kind of energy which comes from  this being a place on the edge. There are a few kilometers of road in the town of Oban, but only a few. After that the 1746 sq km of  hill and forest and rock is crossed only by tramping trails and not many of them. There are mollymawks and albatrosses drifting in the air, penguins and seals on the beaches and dolphins in the harbour. This is a civilised little town but the wildness is right here.

St. Andrew's consists of a small white wooden church and a hall which have both been meticulously restored over the past few years. The Sunday congregations are not large (The Island has less than 400 inhabitants) but the buildings are open and a constant stream of visitors comes, 7 days a week, to look and sit and pray and look some more. The church and its gardens are the ministry of this congregation: Stewart Island is a place with far more visitors than inhabitants, and many of the visitors find themselves in the little white church sooner or later. So, the Anglicans keep it open, and make it look nice and feel friendly.

I celebrated the Eucharist. We had lunch with Airdrey and John Leask and headed back to Bluff. Most of the congregation came to wave us off. "Come more often," they said. "Stay longer."
Good idea, that.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Downtown in the ruined city

For the last couple of days I have been in Christchurch at a meeting of bishops. We stayed in the Chateau on Park Terrace, which I remember being built and to which, when it it was new, and providing I had had enough time to save up,  I would take those girls I really wanted to impress. Back then it was about as flash as it gets in the Garden City but now  it is a comfortable, middle of the range place with quaint early 70s architecture. By and large it is in good nick for a Christchurch building: all that wood and pointy roofing and odd windows seems to have stood up to the rock and rolling pretty well, which is more than can be said for the bits of the city we saw on Thursday.

For an afternoon we donned dayglo vests and hard hats and travelled on a big red Christchurch bus through the CBD. I have some photos here. There are fences around the centre of the city and guards in camouflage jackets and we all had to be counted in and counted out and there was not a lot of traffic in the streets. There was rubble and a lot of dust. There were large machines slowly and methodically tearing things to bits. There were a few other people in dayglo jackets. We stopped in Victoria square and walked over the once pristine lawns, over patches of gray liquefaction and a giant crack running across about half the shaggy turf, past the dry fountain and the derelict town hall to where the statues stood amongst the long grass and the weeds. We drove around streets in which I once could have named every shop and I now found myself continually disoriented. In the square mile bounded by the four avenues 900 buildings have been totally demolished and another 300 partially demolished. Where there were once familiar landmarks there are now piles of broken concrete and tangled reinforcing iron. From the bus window I saw a man working an enormous, oddly shaped machine, separating the concrete from the recyclable metal, moving the tons of machined steel over the tons more tangled steel with a delicacy and precision which hinted  how many long hours he had been doing this.

In Cathedral Square we were allowed to walk close but not too close to the shattered and condemned cathedral. And then those of us who wanted to donned safety harnesses and stood on a small fenced platform as it was hoisted skyward by a crane, up over the cathedral roof and down past the gaping wounds in the smashed West end. The platform moved slowly and delicately, the driver of the immense crane moving it with as much skill as the guy sorting iron.  I looked from above into that still lovely ruin, at the aisle down which I walked to be married and to be ordained. I saw in the dim and dusty recesses of the chancel the stalls in which I had once sat to sing evensong. There was rubble everywhere. Every wall was traced with ominous cracks running scores of metres in every direction. Pigeons flew in and out, the only living things now safe in this once was sanctuary. I found myself interested in details of construction now revealed: the brickwork hidden behind the stone of the tower for example, but otherwise oddly unmoved. For all its iconic value this is now just another ruin in a city of ruins. Over the next short while it will gradually and respectfully be dismantled and someday another cathedral will rise in its place; a cathedral which I hope will be a numinous place and be sufficiently appraised of its environment that it will offer sanctuary to those who seek it for centuries to come.

The old Christchurch has gone, shaken to pieces but the energy and purpose and skill  which was as much evident in the CBD as the piles of rubble told me that a new Christchurch will rise. Thursday's journey was one of loss and brokenness but it was also one of hope. Life rises from death. This is the message the old cathedral has borne witness to for the last 130 years, and contiunues to do so, even as it fades back into the rocks from which it was erected

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

One picture is worth...etc etc

We've had the Sydney branch of the family over to stay for the Easter break. It's been wonderful: Picnic on the beach; breakfast in the Dunedin sunshine; youngest member of the household establishing, by divine right and with the rapturous approval of her subjects,  an absolute monarchy for the duration; time enough to pick up my camera for the first time in weeks;  you know, all the usual stuff.