Inspired by a friend I’ve never met

Corona Chronicles I

I follow Niall Gooch on Twitter. He is a clever and compassionate person and I always benefit from his tweets. A few days ago, he tweeted,

This seemed to me a good idea so on this blog, until such time as the coronavirus abates, I will try and record what’s going on in my little corner of the world – Islington, London, U.K.

First of all, home life.

Yesterday, our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, ‘urged everyone to avoid unnecessary social contacts, to work from home where possible, and to stay away from pubs and restaurants.’ This doesn’t affect me too much as I work from home, and don’t have the money to go out very much, anyway.

The above quotation comes from the BBC website, here. The same report states that ‘[p]eople in at-risk groups will be asked within days to stay home for 12 weeks.’ My mother and father are 79 and 80 so are definitely ‘at risk’. I still live in the family house so am now part son, part shield. The latter fits my love of chivalry perfectly. Are there any medieval romances where the Knight washes his hands a lot?

A concern for my parents now informs all my actions when going out. For example, yesterday (16th March) I had intended to take a walk across town to Westminster Cathedral to go to confession. Because of the worry that I might pick something up, at the cathedral if not along the way, however, I decided to stay at home. Now that we are being told to avoid unnecessary social contact, I suspect I will not go to confession again until the summer. It’s not ideal but the thought of bringing an unwelcome guest home is even worse.

Now that I am avoiding going out, what about my daily walks? I am going to do more exercise at home, even if it is just walking on the spot while watching a film on Netflix or a You Tube video.

Speaking of exercise, you may recall me mentioning my dodgy leg in last year’s Camino posts. Well, back in January I finally – FINALLY – got round to submitting a request for a physiotherapist appointment with the NHS. I thought I might not get an answer until later in the year but within a week or two, I was offered an appointment. Three weeks ago, I met the physiotherapist and he gave me some exercises to do. I have been carrying them out religiously ever since and let me tell you, while my leg is not perfect, it is SO MUCH BETTER than before. The old pain is almost entirely gone. Not quite, but almost. I am amazed. And all it took was ‘some’ stretches. Unless the medical centre has been closed, I am meeting the physio again this week to let him know how I have been getting on. I can’t wait to tell him.

There is one fly in the ointment – part of the physiotherapy involved walking in a slightly different way and I haven’t managed to perfect that yet. In fact, I am a long way off it, so that’s something I need to work on whenever I do go out.

Away from home.

I mentioned above not going to confession. I will keep going to Mass unless one of us in the house falls ill or until/unless the churches are closed. How extraordinary it is that I have to write these words. Who could have foreseen it, even at the start of the year? It’s like we have gone back to the time of Shakespeare with the closing of the theatres. The other day, someone on Twitter said that when W.S. was quarantined he wrote King Lear. The implication was that you should do something similar. Nonsense, of course, but I hope I can be at least a little creative. I have one or two ideas in this regard and will mention them if I can realise them.

All sporting events in the country have been cancelled or postponed for the time being. The one that affects me most is the calling off of the first few Formula 1 races. I can do without football or even rugby but F1 I miss. Depending on how things go we won’t get any races until May or June.

As I said above, I don’t go out the often. I am the secretary of The Keys Catholic literary group, though, so attend its meetings every month. I had already decided not to go to this month’s meeting but yesterday the Master decided to postpone it. I immediately sent the e-mail to all the members confirming this. Thankfully, the ones who have responded have been very understanding. We haven’t decided what to do about April’s meeting, but as with the F1, I don’t expect there will be another one until the summer.

Further Afield

There is just one thing I would like to write here. Business Insider reports that the American President, Donald Trump, ‘tried to poach German scientists working on a coronavirus vaccine and offered cash so it would be exclusive to the US’. You can read the report here.

If the report is true – the German government says it is, the company for whom the scientists work say it is not – it really is the most diabolically selfish act on Donald Trump’s part. Of course, given his past behaviour, we should not be surprised by this, but I think we may be surprised by the depth of his selfishness in this regard.

Thank you to Niall for letting me quote his tweets in this post! (It’s true I’ve never met him so I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him a friend).

A Priestly Woof

Milestones
Memoirs 1927 – 1977

Joseph Ratzinger

A week ago I returned home from Germany after enjoying a wonderful two week holiday there. I stayed in the south-east of the country with my Camino friend Ellena. Every day, I got to look out of the window and see the schwarzwald, the Black Forest; it was heavenly.

During my visit, I decided to read the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s memoir, Milestones. Well, he is German, after all!

I first read the book a few years ago. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find my copy of it (I am surrounded by books at home, which rather ironically makes the task of finding any somewhat difficult) so downloaded a copy to my Kindle App.

The book is a very short, around 150 pages, and lightly written account of the first half of Ratzinger’s life. Reading it was a joy – admittedly, this was partly because I am Ratzinger fanboy, but also because he comes across as a very humble individual.

Of course he does, you might say, he wrote it! That’s a fair point. On that note, if I have one regret about the book it is that it is much too short and constantly glosses over the controversies of Ratzinger’s life, whether they involved him (and, for example, his teaching career during the tumultuous sixties) or events that he was part of (Vatican II). I wish he had decided to say more about them.

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has been a titanic influence on the Catholic Church in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first; if you are interested in either him or it, Milestones is a super read. I would also read it to get the low down on someone who will surely, come the day, be declared a saint (and, I hope, a Doctor of the Church). When you do, you will be in the presence of a calm, God filled man who as it seems to me entirely in the light of his Faith.

Credit Where It’s Due
Front Page of Milestones: Amazon

29th June 1901: Rome

But as I slept, Rome, Rome still beckoned me, and I woke in a struggling light as though at a voice calling, and slipping out I could not but go on to the end.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.437

Belloc’s day had a martial start to it. He saw a sign saying ‘”The Triumphal Way'” (The Path to Rome, p.438) – ‘I wondered whether it could be the road where ritual had once ordained that triumphs should go’ (Ibid) – and two soldiers from the current Italian army out on manoeuvres.

Not long later, however, the military gave way to the spiritual. Belloc climbed a little hill, and between the walls of a villa, he saw Rome at last.

This sight marks the beginning of the end of The Path to Rome. Belloc now launches into a long and operatic goodbye. It has a touch of the mock epic about it, for while the farewell begins with Belloc it ends with no less than God and St. Michael in the heavenly heights. And that’s just the beginning. Where does one go after the Lord and his most powerful servant?

Home, of course. Belloc made his way down the hill and walked across a plain to the gates of the city.

… I went on for several hundred yards, having the old wall of Rome before me all the time, till I came right under it at last; and with the hesitation that befits all great actions I entered, putting the right foot first lest I should bring further misfortune upon that capital of all our fortunes.
And so the journey ended.

The Path to Rome, p.445

Belloc passed through the gates and made his way to the nearest church – Our Lady of the People. Mass was just ending, but another would soon be starting. He retired to a café for a breakfast of bread, coffee and brandy and to write the ditty with which he ends the book.

So, there we are! 29th June is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (unless you are reading this in England or Wales, in which case the feast has been transferred to tomorrow). Belloc has walked from Toul to Rome.

I think this is the fourth year in succession that I have read The Path to Rome and I am still not bored of it. I don’t think I ever will be. To be tired of Belloc as he recounts his journey is to be tired of living because that’s what he does, with all its ups and downs, commitments made and commitments broken, joys and griefs – all these things that mark our lives also marked his journey.

In terms of friends and friendships, Belloc made no flashing friends along the way. He did, however, experience friendship many times – The Path to Rome is a wonderful book to read if you want to experience the kindness of Men towards strangers.

Ultimately, though, I find my thoughts being directed away from the idea of friendship in the book and towards what I said about The Path to Rome being about living. I have to admit, I never thought of it that way before. Perhaps that will be the theme for next year’s reading: The Path to Rome as a microcosm of life.

28th June 1901: Rome Beckons

At daybreak, Belloc reached Montefiascone. The path to Rome did not run through the city, however, so he ignored it.

Next, he came to Viterbo. The road didn’t go through this city, either, but after a brief debate with himself, Belloc decided to enter it. Viterbo was a famous place, after all; and on a more practical level, he needed ‘wine and food for the later day in the mountain’ (Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.427).

Viterbo was teeming with life but Belloc stayed only long enough to buy his provisions. He may have been a man who loved – needed – companionship but right now the call of Rome was stronger on his soul.

As the morning wore on, the heat increased but thankfully remained below the furnace-like levels of ‘the oven of the Garfagnana or in the deserts of Siena’ (The Path to Rome, p.429). Indeed, the air was so cool in the horse chestnut forest that Belloc walked through that it reminded him of home.

Upon leaving the forest, Belloc came to a ‘a bare heath’ (The Path to Rome, p.430). He started to sing. Two carabinieri passed him; they also were singing. The two parties saluted each other, friends in song.

Belloc stopped to eat at a house. A woman served him while an old man sitting nearby refused to speak to him. Belloc did not hold this unfriendliness against the man.

… I should dearly have liked to have talked to him in Lingua Franca, and to have heard him on the story of his mountain: where it was haunted, by what, and on which nights it was dangerous to be abroad.

The Path to Rome, p.430

In was still morning when Belloc arrived at the Campagna where – am I correct in saying this? – the armies of Rome once trained. He looked into the distance for city itself, the dome of St. Peter’s, but the Sabinian hills blocked his view. Something which he did see was Soracte.

… Soracte, of which I had read as a boy. It stood up like an acropolis, but it was a citadel for no city. It stood alone, like that soul which once haunted its recesses and prophesied the conquering advent of the northern kings.

The Path to Rome, p.433

Soracte, which played such a big part in the life of another famous English travel writer, perhaps the greatest, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The Campagna seemed too small to be the place where the destinies of the world were worked out. Belloc could barely fathom this. He ate his food and drank his wine and did so in a reverie as he tried to make sense of what he had seen.

After eating, Belloc turned off the road and fell asleep. When he woke up, it was evening. He started walking and entered Ronciglione where he ate once more. He spoke to a lot of people – but about Rome.

Belloc kept walking. He passed Sette Vene – where he had intended to stop for the night. Nothing mattered now except Rome. Eventually, though, he did stop. And now, he stayed at an inn. Belloc flit ghost like between the tables before settling down at the end of one where he ate a good meal, and drank good wine. Belloc took strength from the atmosphere of the place.

Unfortunately, there was no room at this inn, either; the inn keeper kindly showed Belloc his granary. It would do for the last night of the pilgrimage to Rome.

27th June 1901: The Carts to Rome

Belloc spent the night climbing the ravine. As the sun began to rise in the east, he reached Radicofani. A man lounging on his doorstep wished him good morning.

Belloc passed straight through the town and left by its southern gate.

Ahead lay another valley; it looked even rougher than the one Belloc had just passed. As he didn’t have the heart to cross it in the increasing heat he looked about for somewhere to rest. At that moment,

… a cart drawn by two oxen at about one mile an hour came creaking by.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (ignatius Press 2003) p.411

The driver was asleep. Belloc jumped on board and closed his eyes to rest.

The oxen plodded along. Occasionally the driver stirred but made no move against his unexpected guest. The sun reached its zenith then began the long descent into the west. Finally, the cart reached the foot of the hill that lead up to Aquapendente, Belloc’s next destination.

The driver woke up.

He looked at me a moment and laughed. He seemed to have thought all this while that I was some country friend of his who had taken a lift.

The Path to Rome, p. 412

The driver urged his oxen onwards. As they trudged up the hill, Belloc gave him a cigar by way of a thank you for letting him stay on the cart. The driver promptly smoked it with great satisfaction.

Aquapendente. Belloc notes that the town was famous but can’t understand why – ‘To the pilgrim it is simply a group of houses.’ (The Path to Rome p.412). He ate there, and then left. Outside the town, he settled down on the bank of a stream and slept until evening.

Tonight, on 26th June 1901, Belloc walked into San Lorenzo. Leaving by its southern gate, he saw ahead of him the lake of Bolsena below.

I sat on the coping of a wall, drank a little of my wine, ate a little bread and sausage; but still song demanded some outlet in a the cool evening, and companionship was more of an appetite in me than landscape. Please God, I had become southern and took beauty for granted.

The Path to Rome, pp.419-20

To be honest, if that’s what it meant to be southern then I think Belloc always was. I can’t think of any point in his pilgrimage where he puts landscape ahead of companionship.

Anyway, another cart passed by. Its driver was awake. Belloc stopped him and boarded it. The two men sang of their homelands; they ate and drank together. It was a perfect time for Belloc. He writes,

That was a good drive, an honest drive, a human aspiring drive, a drive of Christians, a glorifying and uplifted drive, a drive worthy of remembrance for ever.

The Path to Rome, pp.420-1

His tongue is surely very firmly in his cheek but you take the point. He really enjoyed himself!

Belloc and the cart driver parted ways at Lake Bolsena. There, Belloc ate at someone’s home. He intended to carry on walking but they insisted on giving him a room for the night. Not wanting to be misunderstood, Belloc acquiesced. He did not stay the night, though; instead, he snuck out ‘not long after midnight’ (The Path to Rome, p.423) and continued on his way.

26th June 1901: The Kindness of the Cool

Belloc didn’t quite make it to Radicaofani today but note San Quirico d’Orcia between it and Siena

Belloc walked through the night and into the day. The sun rose and it was hot but interestingly he doesn’t blame the heat for soon making him stop.

It was not so much the sun, though that was intemperate and deadly; it was rather the inhuman aspect of the earth which made me despair. It was as though the soil had been left imperfect and rough after some cataclysm…

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) pp.401-2

He lay himself down in the shade of some bushes and remained there for the rest of the day, waking and sleeping in turns.

Belloc resumed walking late in the afternoon. He stopped at an inn where the Italians speaking to him tried to make themselves understood by shouting at him.

As the sun set, Belloc arrived in San Quirico. The cooler air made everything ‘kinder’ (The Path to Rome, p.403). He didn’t make any friends here but he did see kindness in action.

… for the first time I saw in procession one of those confraternities which in Italy bury the dead; they had long and dreadful hoods over their heads, with slits for the eyes.

The Path to Rome, pp.403-4

If you would like to see a representation of the people he is talking about, I thoroughly recommend watching A Room With A View – the Merchant Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster’s great novel.

As I said, Belloc didn’t make any friends in San Quirico, but he did talk to the people there, and they made a positive impact on him.

They were upstanding, and very fine and noble in the lines of the face.

The Path to Rome, p.404

Leaving San Quirico, Belloc walked across a plan that led to Radicofani, which was perched on the side of a ravine. He came to a farmhouse, and desiring companionship, entered it. There, a very kindly farmer immediately took pity on the weary traveller and insisted that he stay the night. He took Belloc to the stable and settled him down among the oxen.

Having slept all day, Belloc was ready to walk all night but so as not to insult the farmer’s kindness, he took the bed of hay being offered to him. After the farmer had left, Belloc listened to the oxen eat and decided that when he arrived in Rome he would buy two ox horns and on his return home have them hollowed out and mounted so that they could be used as cups. He even composed two ditties to be engraved on the side of each. Then, Belloc sneaked out of the barn, and resumed his walk.

25th June 1901: To Cut a Story By Telling a Story

Belloc neither started in Lucca nor finished In Siena today

Belloc walked through the night. He ‘saw nothing’ and refuses to tell us what he was thinking, even though

… my interior thoughts alone would have afforded matter for this part of the book]; but of these if you have not had enough in near six hundred miles of travel, you are a stouter fellow than I took you for.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome, p.389

As the sun rose, Belloc took his rest ‘under a tree of a kind I had never seen’ (The Path to Rome, p.390). He slept well and, as he thought, long but actually woke after just one hour. It sounds like Belloc had something of a power nap.

It was in a trattoria that Belloc found out the time (his watch had stopped working), and while there he counted his money – three francs and a few centimes. Not much, but money was waiting for him at the post office in Siena. Did he have enough to get there? Yes, if he took the train… And so, he did.

From the way he writes it doesn’t look like Belloc seriously considered walking. According to Google Maps, doing so would have taken between 21-23 hours – but that’s if he had started from Lucca. By the time he reached the trattoria, Belloc had walked all night. We don’t know how many miles he had done, but let’s say it was around 12 and he was now in or near Castelfranco di Sotto. Depending on the route, Siena would have been between 52-59 miles ahead. That would have taken Belloc two long days or three shorter ones to accomplish.

He could have walked that. But only if he had reigned in his spending. It was wise, therefore, of him to take the train, for as we saw between Como and Milan, reigning in his spending was not one of Belloc’s strong points.

In Siena, Belloc collected his money, heard Mass and left. He had spent less than an hour there,

“After all, my business is not with cities, and already I have seen far off the great hill whence one can see far off the hills that overhang Rome.”

The Path to Rome, p.394

Belloc now skips over the next 20 -30 miles of his journey by telling an amusing story about human attitudes to bureaucracy, authority, and the long arm of the law. He justifies not telling us about his journey by saying that it was made in the dark ‘the description of which would have plagued you worse than a swarm of hornets’ (The Path to Rome, p.400)

And that is the end of today’s entry. As you can see from the above quotation, we have reached the 400th page (for the sticklers among you, today’s entry actually ends on p.401). Only 48 to go. Will Belloc find friendship further on? More to the point, will he tell us if he does?

24th June 1901: Soldiering On

By sleeping at Lucca during the day and continuing his journey at night, Belloc resumed what had been his original intention to make his a night time pilgrimage to Rome

Belloc slept badly last night.

I discovered this great truth: that if in a southern summer you do not rest in the day the night will seem intolerably warm, but that, if you rest in the day, you will find coolness and energy at evening.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.382

And today does not see an improvement in his desire to keep writing an account of his pilgrimage.

The next morning with daylight I continued the road to Lucca, and of that also I will say nothing.

The Path to Rome, p.382

Belloc knows the awkwardness of his position, for he has LECTOR ask ‘Why on earth did you write this book?’ (The Path to Rome, p.382). Of course, AUCTOR – Belloc – has an answer; and it is a suitably Bellocian – contrary – one: ‘For my amusement’ (Ibid).

The above notwithstanding, Belloc does share some details of today’s walk. He passed a town called Decimo. There, and in the surrounding region, he saw towers with numerous arches. He entered Lucca, which he found to be ‘the neatest, the regularest, the exactest, the most fly-in-amber little town in the world’ (The Path to Rome, p.385).

It was another extremely hot day, and rather than try and brave it out, like he did yesterday, Belloc checked into a hotel until evening. Of course, it was an unusual request to book a room just for the day, but happily, the hotelier was happy to accommodate him. Belloc ate ‘such a meal as men give to beloved friends returned from wars’ (The Path to Rome, p.386). And that’s a lovely, and very grand, turn-of-phrase to describe what is just a big meal!

It’s also as close as we get to anything resembling the idea of friendship in today’s entry. Belloc left the hotel in the evening and does not record meeting anyone along the way.

The villages were silent, the moon soon left the sky, and the stars could not show through the fog, which deepened in the hours after midnight.

The Path to Rome, p.388

23rd June 1901: Sillano and After

I don’t know for sure that Belloc stopped in Borgo a Mozzano but it is on the direct line to Rome so seems a fair bet that he ended the day there.

The transition between yesterday’s ‘entry’ in The Path to Rome and today’s is very vague. For the first time since the start of his pilgrimage, Belloc neither says ‘I went to sleep’, nor, ‘I woke up’.

Instead, he ends yesterday’s ‘entry’ with the quotation that I tagged on to the end of yesterday’s post, and opens today’s with a flight of fancy about the soul being able, in ‘very early youth’ (Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.374), to remember its heavenly origin.

From whence comes such an unorthodox thought? It’s because Belloc sensed something of heaven in the sight and smells of the Sillano valley last night. As might be expected, they made a deep impression on him. Belloc describes the feeling as ‘the blessing of Sillano’ (Ibid), and says that ‘here was perhaps the highest moment of those seven hundred miles – or more’ (The Path to Rome, pp.3734-5).

Unfortunately, this great moment has a negative consequence for the reader – Belloc now loses patience with the story of his pilgrimage; he apologises if he now ‘press[es] on much more hurriedly to Rome, for the goal is almost between my hands, and the chief moment has been enjoyed, until I shall see the City.’ (The Path to Rome, p.375).

Belloc laments that he has to tell the story of the ‘next sixty miles of way… as of a real journey in this very repetitive and sui-similar* world’ (Ibid) rather than being able to ‘wander forth at leisure through the air and visit the regions where everything is as the soul chooses’ (Ibid).

That would certainly have been preferable. Perhaps, then, he might have decided to come back to his book and told us about some of the friends he made during that time, and friendships that were created. As it is, today’s ‘entry’ contains no mention at all of either.

For the record, Belloc spent the day walking in punishing heat. He passed through a town called Castel-Nuovo (possibly Castelnuovo di Garfagnana) where he found numerous bridges before arriving in a town called Borgo (the second of this name that he has come across on this pilgrimage, though he avoided entering the first). By the time he got there, it was evening, and he decided to stay the night.

*I have never seen this word before. As ‘sui’ is Latin for ‘of itself’, I assume that Belloc is emphasising the sameness of the countryside that he passed through

22nd June 1901: Calm Went With Me

Belloc started the day some miles north north-west of Collagna and ended it in Sillano (though for the first time he doesn’t specifically say where he stopped for the night)

Today appears to have been a largely solitary day for Belloc, he records few friendly encounters, or indeed, encounters of any kind with other people.

We left him yesterday heading towards Collagna. As a result of a misunderstanding, he thought it was close by when it was actually still several miles away. As a result, he never reached it until the morning.

At around, or just after, midnight, however, he came across one of the few people he records meeting today.

Extreme fatigue made it impossible, as I thought, to proceed farther, when I saw a light in a window, and went to it quickly and stood beneath it. A woman from the window called me Caro mio, which was gracious, but she would not let me sleep even in the straw of the barn.

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), p.362

There is a moral in this story: always mean what our words say, especially if we speak kind ones; it is a sad thing – and quite wrong – to lift someone’s heart only to purposefully let go of it again. To lift it implies that we support it; to let go of it, therefore, makes a hypocrite of us.

After a difficult night – Belloc tells us that ‘my loneliness oppressed me like a misfortune and… my feet, going painfully and slowly, yet gave a little balance and rhythm to the movement of my mind.’ (The Path to Rome, p.365) – day broke.

… colours came back to things; the trees recovered their shape, life, and trembling; here and there, on the face of the mountain opposite, the mists by their movement took part in the new life, and I thought I heard for the first time the tumbling water far below me in the ravine.

The Path to Rome, p.366

Now Belloc lay himself down to take a well deserved and long overdue rest. He awoke when the morning was still young and entered Collagna. He doesn’t mention it, but presumably he ate there and hopefully met some kind people as well. After leaving the town, he settled down again to rest and remained in situ until later in the afternoon.

Upon rising, he climbed to the top of the valley.

After its laborious hundreds of feet, when the forest that crowned it evenly was reached, the Apennines were conquered, the last great range was passed, and there stood no barrier between this high crest and Rome.

The Path to Rome, p.369

Later, Belloc went through a Pass. He says,

… I went between the chestnut trees, and calm went with me for a companion.

The Path to Rome, p.372

Here is another good lesson: we can find friendship in more than just other people. Yes, it is better to have a human friend but we need not regard the things of nature as wholly a stranger to us.

Presently, Belloc arrived in the village of Sillano. There, he was ‘courteously received’ (The Path to Rome, p.372) in the local inn. He spoke to a priest in Latin and watched the ‘one star of the west [call] out his silent companions in their order’ (The Path to Rome, p.373) before retiring for the night.

The fire-flies darted in the depths of vineyards and of trees below; then the noise of the grasshoppers brought back suddenly the gardens of home, and whatever benediction surrounds our childhood. Some promise of eternal pleasures and of rest deserved haunted the village of Sillano.

The Path to Rome, pp.373-4