‘The Red Shoes: Working Creatively With Trauma’ was the name of the workshop I attended this morning. It took place in a conference room at The Holiday Inn, which has carpets reminiscent of ‘The Shining’ and a tacky central chandelier that threatens to crash to the floor at any moment.
When I arrived, I was not up for it. I didn’t want to think about the relationship between a dancer in a film getting her feet hacked off and the disocciation we all experience from our past traumas. Normally I love that sort of thing, but today I just wanted a chocolate twist and was sulking because I hadn’t managed to grab one on my way there.
“Oh my goodness, there’s a communist looking after my accounts!” Says one of my company’s most lucrative clients, as he spots my Jeremy Corbyn screensaver. Great. Now I’m trapped in a basement office full of Tories, ones that pay my wages, charged with the task of defending my personal politics, sans profanity. Rats. Perhaps I should have opted for a less controversial image instead; maybe the 2015 equivalent of Anna Kournikova picking her knickers out of her bum-crack, or Tom Hardy waving a big gun around.
A shaven headed young man with a Chicago twang and a backpack is eying ours and yelling, “Hey, are you guys going to Saint Jean? Wanna split a cab?”
“No thanks, it’s only an hour on the train”, I reply.
“Suit yourself,” he smiles, as a car pulls into the lay-by beside him, “I’ll see you there.”
That afternoon, in picture postcard market town of St Jean Pied-de-Port (Saint John [at the] foot of the pass), Rob and I join the queue at the Pilgrims Passport Office; a small community hall furnished with foldout tables. It is best, a leathery old woman with a clipboard informs us, in broken English, to avoid the full force of the mid-Summer sun. Starting early each day will ensure us a place at the next hostel and help us avoid sunstroke so we must not walk now, but get a bed for the night and rise with the birds.
“Drink all the water”, the old woman warns, wagging her forefinger, a finger that looks like a giant dried-out party sausage, “all the water.”
We collect the first stamps of our journey, pick up some simplified, photocopied topography maps (our bibles for the next 5 weeks) and allow ourselves to be drafted into one of the crowded lodgings down the road from the office. Here we are allocated a bunk bed; the one shoved up against that of the youthful, hairless American whom we met at Bayonne Station. This is our first inkling of the way the Camino chooses your friends and teachers for you.
I can barely cope with the delay. Some inner beast is trying to claw through my ribs to get started, but instead, Rob and I are chatting about home and breathing in the honeysuckled air of St Jean as we dally around the miniature undulating green hills decorated with picket fences and rose bushes. We are The Borrowers, clambering through a box of pink and yellow French fancies, stopping every now and then to lick the icing. ‘Just lead me to the pain’ is all I can think, ‘I don’t want to have a nice time, I want an exorcism.’
But life is a delay. The big thing never is… because there’s always something else looming on the horizon, just waiting to usurp the last challenge.
About three hundred of us have descended on St Jean, just today, and the place is over-full. A grey-dressed matron points latecomers towards the tiled floor and we thank our lucky estrellas that as yet, our insubstantial roll-mats remain unfurled, still strapped to our bulging backpacks. A sore spine is the last thing one needs right before a jaunt up and down a mountain, and that’s what we will be doing tomorrow, after a 5.30am breakfast of dry bread, and hot chocolate served in a bowl.
It is well known that the first day of the trek is the hardest on the body. Every latent muscle will be harshly awakened, each last lung cobweb rattled, by the arduous slog over a small portion of the Pyrenees; a 27km task that must be completed in one hit. If you’re fit, the climb is not a particularly big deal, but the chances of you having a weak knee or ankle from repeatedly slamming down on the tarmac on your morning jog, are high. We’ve all got our deficiencies…
Bodyshock is what happens when you throw yourself into physical exercise unprepared. Toxins released from between those stuck joints that are suddenly popping open with unfamiliar movement, begin swimming again in your blood. Your brain produces oxytocin and serotonin, flushing your thoughts with heightened emotion. Various latent bits of you grind and pump and creak into action; is it any wonder that dozens of buried memories are surfacing like bubbles in lemonade?
I’m angry with myself for not bothering to get fit before this stupid trip, or ever actually. Being chucked off the school netball team for fighting that aggressive lass with the big hips from our rival girl’s grammar down the road (she was using illegal marking tactics and the umpire was biased against me), pretty much put me off sport at 13. It’s only fun if you win, right? And if you’re not going to win, do something else at which you can be the best. All this kind of rubbish is going around and around in my head and I’m groaning at how obvious it is why I’ve gone from A* kid to underachieving kidult. My attitude stinks.
Rob and I keep pace, we chat about mutual friends and bands we’ve seen and gigs we were both at before we knew each other. On the steep bits we grit our teeth and pant and pretend it doesn’t hurt. Towards the summit there are numbered wooden posts at decreasing intervals and somewhere between 75 and 65 I decide it’s time to break out the Dictaphone. Somewhere between 35 and 25 I realise I’m just saying “fucking hell, oh my god I can’t breathe, ffuhhh ffuh fucking hell” a lot into the microphone, so I put the stupid thing away.
We reach the summit, relieved more than elated, pause for a high-five and then with rumbling bellies, begin the descent. It is day one: I’m still all about the goals and not the journey. Something I hope deeply will change.
Watching the body beautiful (in the minority) edge precariously down the steep incline on the last 5k, so as not to inflame those tendons, is strangely enjoyable to me, as I stride / slide down past those who had overtaken me on the gasp inducing uphill struggle. Uh-oh, this liberating holiday feels suddenly like a competition. And yes, I’ve accidentally omitted to be moved by the scenery because I’m too busy fighting the straps of my backpack and thinking about chocolate cake and how I wouldn’t need to do a fucking boring 500 mile hike to mark some sort of new beginning in my life if somebody loved me. I am 30, loveless, jobless, childless, up a mountain; who gives a shit if the nimbus cloud-formation looks heaven-perfect in the azure (there’s no other word for it) sky.
Starved, sweat-soaked and dehydrated (the nozzle of my hastily purchased ‘camel-back’ flask tastes like a wellington boot and I can hardly bear to chew the water out of it), we arrive in Roncesvalles, Spain: about 9 hours from when we started. Hostels are now called albergues, food is tinned, cured or stale and the conversation around us is conducted in French, Spanish, German, Portuguese or Italian. Rob and I have enough Espanol to get our needs met, but not nearly enough to make new friends. I allow myself to wonder how lonely this trip might be if we fall out or agree to go at our separate paces out of some spiritual (or physical) necessity. Am I having fun? Is the Camino working? It’s way too early to tell, but my whole body feels like it has been tenderised by meat-mallet wielding cannibals, so that’s something.
A simple stone castle, pristine and modern, the albergue sleeps 300. Back-packers stream through reception for the entire afternoon, and everyone has the same idea: boots must be removed immediately. It is sickeningly hot.
Feet disgust me; they always have. When I was a hormonal teenager and used to sneak into clubs, lie about my age and snog young men who smelt of Lynx Java and too much hair-gel, I sometimes considered actually going home with them – and then I’d picture their feet in my minds eye and think, ‘no, I can’t do it; I’m only ever going to be able to have sex with a person who has feet, when I am genuinely blinded by love’. This display of pungent body-parts in the albergue is a window into hell: all around me are stinking, moaning, barefoot pilgrims, and their swollen, blistered, bleeding stumps. Oh god, it’s so disgusting.
And this is a warning: if you ever fancy doing the Camino in Summer, do not wear brand new hiking boots, do not wear woolen socks and don’t think a packet of Elastoplast will protect you if you do. It won’t. You’ll end up like our new friend David who has to bin his sparkling Scarpa Kinesis Pro GTX’s, or whatever they are, in swap for some ten euro velcro sandals which he lines with Always Ultra to soak up the puss from his infected burst blister wounds. (Sanitary towel innersoles appear to be the brainchild of a motorbike doctor who whizzes up and down the Camino, doling out Betadine and painkillers to the broken and foolish.)
It’s about 7pm. I’m laying on a piss-proof sheet in a corridor of bunk beds with strangers to all sides. Rob has been allocated a bed somewhere out of view. Stragglers are still arriving, exposing their battered plates and tossing their full-sized shampoo bottles into the trashcan amnesties in every corner. That’s the other thing: carrying a ten pound back-pack feels like dragging a horses carcass along behind you, from a rope tied around your neck (but only for the first few days). We learn quickly to shed every unnecessary ounce in the name of alleviating backache. It’s a shame, there are some interesting-looking paperbacks, expensive hairdryers (hiking hairdryers?!), and shitty slogan-t-shirts I’ve got half an eye on, adorning a table by my bunk; but instead of taking them, I rise stiffly to add my spare cycling shorts to the pile.
On a stomach full of macaroni and wallpaper glue (food options are cheap, and limited), I dream about my seventeen-year-old self, sitting in the passenger seat, being driven to a hardcore show. The guys have picked me up from school, and I’m struggling into a black t-shirt with ‘Refused’ emblazoned across the front. The anger of youth screeches at us through tinny speakers. Our comps (compilation tapes) are crappy recordings of cheaply produced seven inches; whatever Vique Martin has recommended in the pages of Simba, or that guy who used to be in that band who now works in Select-a-Disk on Berwick Street. I choose ‘Lightbringer’ by ‘Fabric’ from our collection, most of which have covers lovingly crafted from the torn pages of skate-magazines, swap the tapes, close my eyes and home in on the drums. We have the distro in the boot (distro: small collection of records lugged in crates to community sports halls and dilapidated pubs to sell to other broke collector enthusiasts at little or no profit during scrappy, screamy, gigs, in order to feed the addiction of the next post-punk generation) and in my dream, I’m plotting to set fire to it. I have absolutely no idea why.
In the albergue in the morning, I don’t jump out of bed so much as slide awkwardly sideways off it, onto the tiled floor, where I try, and fail, to gather my thoughts. Many of the other pilgrims are already up, though moving about uncomfortably, like crabs. It seems none up us can straighten up. The whole place smells of farts.
A hot shower (one of the few to come) washes away my dream nostalgia and the dirty, guilty feeling it has left. I drink vending machine coffee and eat cereal bars, with Rob, in a canteen area. We check our topography map, pick another albergue about 25K from where we are now, and that is it. All we have to do now is walk. No other responsibilities, no entertainment: one plan, the same every day, for the next five or six weeks. I’m thinking we are going to run out of conversation pretty quickly: my boredom threshold and patience levels have always been somewhat of an issue. Am I having fun yet? Am I getting it? Oh no, I tell myself, no, no, no. It’s not enough to stomp out your frustrations. You have to really feel them first. Feel them and then let them go…
By Rachel James
Actually, they say a pilgrimage begins at home, so for me it started in Brighton, but I’m not counting the Easyjet flight to Biarritz, or the train to Bayonne and then on to St. Jean. That was just preparation for ‘The Camino de Santiago de Compostela‘ or ‘The Way of St. James Under The Stars’: a 500 mile trek from the South of France, up and over the Pyrenees and then all across Northern Spain. No planes, trains or automobiles between the first and last stamp on your pilgrims passport. Final destination for Catholics: Santiago Cathedral. Final destination pour moi: Finisterre – translation – ‘the end of the known world’. (Online pictures of clover-clad rocks, parting to reveal white sand flats against a topaz sea appeared worth an extra 54 miles of blistered heels and sunburn.)
It’s Sunday, the best day of the week. Poisonous remnants of last night’s vino destructo lumber around my cardiovascular system, but I wouldn’t call it a full-blown hangover. This fuzzy, achy feeling is nothing two of pints of Ribena and a day of frenetic activity won’t cure. I tell myself that feeling slightly woozy during yesterday’s somnambulistic drone gig was well worth today’s mild discomfort, but as I slide my diary from the bedside table onto the duvet, a searing bolt of pain passes between my temples causing me momentarily to doubt my Ribena theory. A blank page. Right then, I’d better make some art before apathy kicks in and leads me to the sofa; where I’ll have the option of remaining, in this unflattering knickers-and-a-jumper combo, whining at my housemates to bring me food from now until nightfall.
This is my view from the terrace of the Headland Hotel in Newquay, a vision of tidy tranquility. Roald Dahl’s The Witches was filmed here in 1990, but no movie memorabilia adorns the walls; instead, photo-realistic oil paintings depicting bits of cloth draped over suitcases, against fleur de lis patterned wallpaper. I sink further into an outside sofa, gazing out to sea, and try to relax. Cognitive dissonance: I’ve just devoured a slice of key-lime pie, the summer breeze is caressing my neck and I have no responsibilities for the next two days: I should feel contented. But I don’t. What right do I have to unwind whilst others are at the anti-austerity demo in London? What precious seconds am I selfishly wasting, here alone with my thoughts?
Before we found out what he’d been up to, half the girls at Weald fancied Mr. Rogers. Of course we did; it was an all girls grammar school and he was the only male teacher under thirty. We didn’t mind that he was a maths geek, at a time when NHS specs and ankle-swinging chinos weren’t a mark of roguish self-awareness and a killer record collection but a sign that you lived with your mother. Think Christian Slater in ‘He Was a Quiet Man’.
On Saturday May 30th, some hackers impose themselves on St. Mary’s Church in Kemptown for a day of code-breaking, patch-sharing, idea swapping and tubthumping. Afterwards, something skin-sploshing and nerve-tingling happens. This is NOT how it happens:
“Hello Vicar, do you want to raise some money towards fixing this leaky old roof?”
“Well yes boys, of course!”
“How about letting us put on an experimental electronic noise gig?”
“Oh yes, we’re very progressive here in Brighton, that sounds wonderful. I love a bit of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.”
For me, musicians have a special kind of draw, something like a shimmering forcefield of energy surrounding their bodies, sending snakelike tendrils through the ethers to wrap themselves about my wrists and pull me closer. I’ve never been a groupie; it’s not about getting my photo taken with some guitar-wielding Lothario at the end of a sweaty gig. The fascination comes from hearing someone’s soul represented in the sounds they make (chill out atheists, you can switch the word soul for ‘personality’ if you like) and admiring the drive that causes them to prioritise making
Wrestled up the grassy knoll, dragged through the graveyard and then placed inside the building to tower over pews like an icon, the piece is a tribute to industrial modernity exhibited within an archaic religious structure. Coley has appropriated the words from George Bernard Shaw (a known atheist) and is now installing his views in the sacred space of believers. The philosophy of architecture is Coley’s recurrent theme, with his work always asking us: What is my relationship to this space? What does this structure represent in relation to the society in which it was built? The piece is visually bold, politically rude and endlessly thought-provoking, well worth the uphill trek.
On Tuesday, I went to see Coley in discussion about his work at St. Nicholas’. He opened with a disclaimer along the lines of hating being asked to justify himself because the Art should speak for itself. Arrogantly insisting that he was “not trying to be provocative”, that “he didn’t care what viewers thought”, Coley, a Glaswegian, seemed most concerned with repeatedly congratulating himself on keeping his vote in the Scottish referendum on independence a secret. In response to questions from the public about ‘You Imagine What You Desire’, he said the statement was “ambiguous” and that he “wasn’t sure what it meant to him.” Fair enough I thought, but if you haven’t got anything to say, don’t take the stage.
Actually, I briefly considered asking for my six pounds back but then decided I like it when public figures don’t behave. It wasn’t quite as thrilling as that time Tracy Emin ripped off her mic and stormed out of a live channel 4 broadcast about the Turner Prize, but I did find myself fancying Nathan Coley, just a little bit, for having the ego to be so unduly hostile towards innocent fans of his work.
#TWO. The Same Face by Joseph Popper: A 1:1 scale model of a drone command centre installed in the basement of The Regency Townhouse, 13 Brunswick Square, Hove.
Some of you reading this may not be familiar with the term ‘affirmative consent’. In relation to sexual encounters, it means making sure you actively get a ‘yes’ from your partner/s rather than proceeding because you haven’t heard the word ‘no’. At the moment, in cases of rape and sexual violence, the law in England & Wales calls for the jury to have reasonable belief that the defendant didn’t believe the complainant was consenting. In other words, there must be reasonable belief that the victim said or strongly implied ‘no’. Obviously, asking a group of strangers (the jury) to make judgements about reported body language and ambiguous conversations is problematic when it comes to making convictions.
Importantly, the current law doesn’t take into account that ‘Freezing’ is the most common response to a perceived sexual attack. This is not an act of submission, but the physiological response of ‘shutting down’ when under threat: being unable to speak or move whilst the body conserves energy for an opportunity to escape. Not saying no / not putting up a physical fight does not mean consent has been given. Surely this common biology and psychology should be taught clearly in schools in order to make sense of why it is so vital to communicate in a non-forceful, non-threatening way when instigating sex.
It would highlight responsibility and help move away from the mindset of ‘male entitlement’ that is so prevalent in our culture today.
Jesus flippin’ Christ!!! Just watched Milibrand: The Interview. Apart from the repeated sexism that flowed from ‘heart in the right place, but in need of an education on gender equality’, Russell’s mouth, it played out like the best propaganda speech Labour could ever have hoped for. Ed has become eloquent. He must have won over a hell of a lot of ‘to vote or not to vote’ fence-sitters with his carefully agreeable approach. If Labour whips another few ballot-papers from betwixt the fingers of the Cons, it will be a small mercy, but it will be down to Russell. How is not being willing to engage with the current political system conducive to interviewing its champions? If Russell wants to maintain his stance that party-politics in the UK has become farcical and irrelevant, he probably shouldn’t be thrusting home the opposite message by inviting politicians to share his platform.