Sunday, 29 November 2009

A star from the East

Yesterday a star appeared from the East. The star in the picture to be exact. It arrived in the post from the Island of Gotland which is in the Baltic Sea to the East of Sweden. It is a charming gift from Christine, a pilgrim, reader of this blog and regular correspondent. It will have a prominent place and shine on the journey to Christmas which begins today.

Over the next four weeks there will be a lot of preparation and a lot of fun. It is a time of the year I love and hate, sometimes in equal measure. But set against the crass materialism of this time of the year is also the sense of community and pilgrimage which can be engendered. My own programme is determined well in advance. Tomorrow evening around 50 people from around Clapham will assemble to form a community choir. Many will never have sung before. The inability to read music is the norm and the only requirement for membership is to join in enthusiastically. But by 9pm tomorrow evening this group of strangers who only came together at 7.30 will know each other a bit better and they will also be singing in three part harmony. The look of surprise on their faces when the three parts are brought together for the first time is always a joy. I’ve already prepared CDs of the parts so they can practice at home, in the bath, in the shower or in the car. Over the next four weeks they will laugh together and sing better and better. Many have no church connection but together they will lead a full candle lit carol service at 11.30 pm followed by sung Midnight Mass. Their achievement is quite magical. Perhaps more of that later in the season.

The route to Christmas is well waymarked. Special Advent services at 12.30 each Saturday attract 120 people who take a break from Christmas shopping on Clapham High Street. Then the Sundays of Advent with the music becoming gradually more festive over the four weeks. On Christmas Eve afternoon the turkey will be cooked and at 6 pm 600 people (including what seems like 300 children) will sing the first Christmas Carols at the first Mass of Christmas. A different 600 people will pack the church at 11.30 pm. Last year we finished at 1am on the dot. The community choir led an all-singing congregation in a rousing rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful, every stop was out on the mighty Hunter organ and all 1600 pipes heralded Christmas. The great procession left the altar and proceeded out of the church. Then a strange thing happened. Almost mischievously I segued into a setting of I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. It was meant as a light-hearted voluntary as people left. Only they didn’t leave. What started as a few voices joining in led to every single person staying in their places and singing their hearts our once again. The confused priests who had been waiting outside to wish everyone a Merry Christmas as they left came back in to to see what the delay was!

Then on Christmas morning two more full houses at 10 and 12 noon followed by Christmas lunch and rucksack packing on Boxing Day. Well anyway – that’s the plan.

The last week or so has also seen another beginning. A new Guide to the Camino del Salvador. It has been written by three friends, Laurie Reynolds, Rebekah Scott and Piers Nicholson. In a few days it will join the other guides available to download for a donativo from the CSJ website:
The list of on–line guides is getting longer – The Camino Inglés, the route to Finisterre and Muxía, the Camino Portugués – from Lisbon and from Porto, and the Tunnel Route. These Guides have all been written by pilgrims and will be regularly updated as other pilgrims send corrections or changes or new information. The new Guide to the Camino del Salvador is excellent. Reading it makes me want to walk the route. It is a challenging Camino but the selection of Laurie and Rebekah’s photographs guarantees that there are huge rewards for the effort of climbing over the mountains.
Writing a Guidebook for pilgrims on the routes to Santiago has parallels in music. I was very fortunate to hear the late Erik Routley speak many years ago. In his day a prominent musicologist and composer he said that writing a memorable melody with meaningful lyrics was like throwing a ball at the listener. If you stand too near them they can catch it so easily they won’t remember doing it. Similarly if you stand too far away and throw the ball it will be so impossible to catch they won’t even try. What makes music memorable, he argued, was the composer’s talent in getting the distance right.

This definitely applies to Guidewriting. If the Guide describes every waymark and every turning and gives too many specific directions to “walk 200 yards and turn left at the phone box” then for me it can minimise the challenge and the interest. I think this can also apply to routes and I feel very ambivalent about the Camino Francés where nowadays it is so busy all you have to do is follow the throng and there are so many albergues placed at such frequency the only challenge is deciding whether or not to race the others to find the best bed. But like people there are many kinds of routes and the Camino del Salvador sounds like a corker and I think the authors of the Guide have got the balance just right and give enough information on directions and accommodation to walk the route without getting lost.

Walking the Camino del Salvador is now definitely on the list of routes still to be walked.

Now to find the right place for the star... thank you Christine.


  1. Johnnie - I don't know if I agree with you about not having explicitly detailed directions when walking in unfamiliar countryside.
    When I walked the Via Francigena in 2006 there were no guide books in English. I managed to download a few instructions in Italian from the Gr St Bernard Pass to Roma from an Italian website. I did a Google Translation and the results were often confusing and sometimes hilarious!
    "Salt to the mouth of the dog. Anger to the opposite depositer." Mmmmm?
    Once we were there - we found that the mouth of the dog was the river Cane (dog) which we had to cross (anger) and climb the opposite bank (depositer).
    You can see why we called them our 'Cryptic Clues'!!

  2. ahhhhh very enticing photographs of the Camino del Salvador! Might be the sort of route I would prefer to have a companion for though...

    I have rejoined the local church choir for Midnight Mass for the third year. They very politely don't ask me which Mass I go to..... This year we are doing a song with a very beautiful SAB arrangement by a Kiwi composer. And it is one in which we altos get to lead off into the melody several times. I don't mind playing bridesmaid to the sopranos on most occasions, but I know I am enjoying our spot in the limelight with this song!!

  3. Hola both!

    Sil we are in the same place on this. Good guide books give what is needed but not too much - part of the adventure is finding the way so to speak.

    Altos in the lead, Margaret - whatever next! I'm sure it will be great. Happy singing,


  4. John, when we had lunch, you were fortunate that I did not take enough wine to start singing. The only choir I'm allowed to be in is the one at Christ the King, Birmingham Deaf Church. I will be signing with them at our Christmas Service. We don't have altos, basses, or anything else, but the signing is very beautiful.


  5. Dear John,
    you're making me homesick for Clapham with this story!!!
    Reading this makes me wanting to spent Christmas in Clapham so much!
    Heard from D. you're working very hard. Great!
    Hope to see you all soon again.


  6. Beautiful star.
    Sweet blog.
    Thanks, John.