Sunday, 23 December 2012

...from the East Riding, on camels

This is the time of year when bishops do things like sleep under the stars on bales of hay in order to... in order to... well, they have their reasons, best expressed by themselves. I didn't intend to go down that path, (and I'm not a bishop nor likely to become one in my lifetime), but somehow ended up feeling I'd strayed in that direction when I set off for Hull on the bike during the current wet wet windy weather. The real reason I'd gone was because of that line beloved of nativity plays which goes something like 'And there came wise men from the East riding on camels*'. You only have to make the 'r' in 'riding' into 'R' to see the joke round here, so when it was rumoured that there might be wise men and real camels on the streets of Hull, I thought it an unmissable event, and somehow going over on the bus didn't seem to give the event the required solemnity (and my bike IS my 'cycle of prayer').

*I know, I know - the camels have somehow strayed from the book of Isaiah 60:6 into the nativity story.

Vanessa & Kier
I suppose I'd been unconsciously looking for a pilgrim route to fill some kind of void left by doing the camino to Santiago de Compostella in 2010, but little by little the road to Hull has somehow become that without trying. My trip over to see the drawings by Leonardo last Tuesday was quite eclipsed by the appearance of a star in a window in Gordon Street; several stars, all of them paper, and I had to go and take a pic of them. The makers, Vanessa and Kier, kindly came out to tell me , a complete stranger, how I could make my own, and I'll explain that fully in a separate blog entry. These originals are made from A4, and the miniature one in the jar above was made from little squares 4.5 cm across. 

This story could be very long, or very short, so since I am as tired as I got at the end of a real camino-day, I'd better make it short. I set off early on the day of the nativity performance, and was able to see the first camel unloaded onto the street outside Hull City Hall. By then I'd ridden 7 miles across from Barton, and was feeling a bit wet and soggy myself, and getting colder by the minute. Striding through BHS I sqeezed out the wet from my 'waterproof' gloves and was told off by the staff, at which point I realised I had made some kind of transition from looking like 'nice lady in discomfort' ("How can I help, madam?") to having a bit of a bag-lady look, and began to know just a little bit of how it might feel to be actually booted out as an undesirable. Didn't they know my hands were seizing up with wet and cold and I wanted to find a radiator to dry my gloves on? Of course, I was able to retreat to Cafe Nero and get a hot choc and bowl of porridge, so I didn't really get a taste of being in proper distress. (I was somewhat feather-bedded in my 'bale of hay'-type experience.)

Camel-stop for fish & chips
Anyway, waiting for this very special nativity play to begin, it was as though something had come and grabbed me when I felt a wave of camino-ness wash over me, and real tears started to flow as the an air of anticipation grew among the crowd, many of whom had had no idea that there was to be a major event staged in Hull that day. It was catching. It's best if you have a look at this: Nativity Live rather than me posting endless pics, though I can't resist the one of the moment when one of the camels decided it liked the smell of fish and chips, and poked its majestic head into the shop before being persuaded to carry on. Poor thing had only a couple of hours' standing outside in the rain to look forward to, so I congratulate the handlers on their powers of persuasion. But those stately creatures really made the day. (And see THIS! Surprise!)

I reconnected with that feeling of being part of a crowd - a rabble even - that can be so enjoyable, and we made our way along the narrow streets to Holy Trinity church, where the play continued in 'Bethlehem' after its start in 'Nazareth'. The church choir sang carols, punctuating the narrated story, and this perhaps was where there was disappointment - the crowd did not join in en masse; but this is why we need such a performance anyway, to re-ignite the faith in some way, to help them catch the excitement again. But why should they?

Oh look, I completely forgot to say that on the way over the bridge, there were these strange orange beads lining the path, 'just like the camino' with its yellow arrows. Did I pick any up? A few; and then on the way back, I scooped up great strings of them, since no-one else had: they had their chance! (Mind you I only met one person on the bridge in total today). A bit of a bio-hazard really, but somehow enchanting, and set me off thinking camino thoughts unexpectedly.

So 'at the end of the day' what came of it all?

Just one thing really; the day of the paper stars, I thought 'we are squandering the kindness of strangers'. There is so much goodness in people, that we have made a real mess of this world in organising it so that it isn't getting a proper outing. There's something wrong, many things, and don't expect me to list all of what it is - make your own list. One thing I'm really concerned about is how we don't share out work and its rewards fairly. I don't see that the move towards a more secular society is making anything any better. There was the sense that the world is crying out for some good news, and might the Christian gospel actually have something to say?
The journey back towards the Humber bridge was grey, grey, grey, wet, wet, wet; and the windows of the well-to-do houses in Hessle displayed their nicely-trimmed trees in a long and impressive line-up. I don't think I know what to make of any of it, yet; but I had to read T S Eliot's poem again: The Journey of the Magi and start all over again. I'd regretted leaving my star-in-a-jar at home, but somehow in the end it seemed right, and I was glad to come home to it. T'owd man was Jospeh-like and carpentering a ladder for a bunk bed in preparation for little people arriving, and I was tired and grumpy once the exhilaration of the ride had worn off. I'd called in at a big Sainsbury's where a seemingly alien people were indeed clutching their gods, but wasn't I clutching them too? ("Can you see if they have any DRY Madeira, love?)

Maybe I should end with a pic of a woman in the camel-gawping crowd; but she is turned the other way, and has just seen the young couple who are to play Mary and Joseph. She's got it, hasn't she?

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