This Woman’s Work

Many years ago, I found myself weekly wallowing in the wonderful words expressed by the venerable Australian writer Clive James in a series of podcasts for the BBC, which covered a multiplicity of subjects, but which largely sought to focus on the overarching benefits of liberal democracy for those of us lucky enough to actually live in one.

These podcasts were brilliantly constructed, ten minutes tightly packed with illuminating analysis, coruscating critique and witty wisdom, delivered in that familiar Antipodean drawl with the knowing gratitude of a man who was attempting to sum up the arc of both his own life and of the decades we’ve all spent under the protective shield of liberal democracy, all at the same time.

Ten years later, these broadcasts largely stand the test of time, apart from the one in which he expressed diffidence on the reality of climate change, flimsily based on a scientific scandal in which some published evidence had been found rather wanting.

I can forgive him for that misstep, because in the final episode of the series, amongst all the usual quotes and effortless erudition, there came a blindingly laser-guided point that I’d never really given much thought to before.

In this final podcast, he had sought to highlight the turning point at which the Industrial Revolution became no longer defined by how carelessly it had ruined the lives of the factory workers who made it.

After World War 2, when industrialisation and modern technology had been employed and directed for the very worst of outcomes – destroying lives – it slowly and finally became more about being employed and directed for the very best of outcomes – improving lives.

It did this most strikingly in its delivery of reasonably priced labour saving devices to the population at large – most notably the fridge, the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine.

Everyday life was utterly transformed by the arrival of these electrical miracles, as postwar industrial consumer society unwittingly began the liberation of women, releasing them little by little, bit by bit, from the endless domestic drudgery that had forever held them in shackles.

En route from Caldas de Reis to Faramello, the point came back to me again.

Living as we do now, in the 21st century, it can often be hard to imagine just how grindingly hard daily life truly was a hundred years ago, particularly for women, when washing clothes, preparing meals and keeping a home clean would entail hours and hours of backbreaking, repetitive and reductive labour.

Having had this pointed out by podcast, attempting to grasp the simple and brutal truth of the inequities and inequalities of ordinary life in decades past in theory was one thing.

Walking through the tiny villages that line the Camino Portugués in Portugal and Spain, however, gave me a little window back into those times and to observe it in reality.

Whilst we Peregrinos ambled through their communities, ankles or knees or shoulders aching slightly under our elective decisions to put ourselves under rare physical strain, the locals were there, relentlessly toiling at their dark fields, battling the uncertain elements and the inexorable march of time to scratch a marginal living, pulling up potatoes and leeks and whatever else they could get to grow.

Not for them the opportunity to indulge in the (largely male) luxury of philosophising about the nature of their existence, the meaningfulness of their work, their future development, or any of that type of thing.

They just have to Get On With It.

The sight of a middle aged woman cheerfully shunting an enormous wheelbarrow towards us, piled to the edges with a pyramid of potatoes, was particularly humbling.

This was a timely observation for me, currently quite confused on a number of points after a year of frequent change and notable upheaval, which had left me more than a little bamboozled and in need of some clarity.

The writing was on the wall.

Quite frankly, perhaps I should just Get On With It too.

Getting On With It on this, the ninth day, entailed our little group pushing on from Caldas de Reis on the last forty kilometres to Santiago de Compostela, with a general agreement to go as far as we could, in order to leave only a short step left to reach our final destination the following day.

On leaving Caldas de Reis, having added a few more compadres into the WhatsApp group, there was a Difficult Moment as an unavoidably important zip finally broke on my rucksack.

I am unnecessarily sentimental about some things (some may remember my mourning over Right Hand Water Bottle’s untimely demise in Léon on the Francés last year) so this little death for the rucksack that had seen me through two Caminos and three Glastonbury’s was an undeniably maudlin event.

Nevertheless, the Lesson of the Day was to Get On With It, so the injured rucksack and I made our way with Lise, Peter and Tim towards Padrón, where on the outskirts of town, we met Aurelia and Criss once again.

The ambition was to push on a little bit further, another ten kilometres, to overnight in a small village called Faramello, where accommodation in a classic albergue appeared to be available.

Criss and Aurelia elected to stay in Padrón, so it was the four of us once more that made our way along gorgeous woodland paths to our resting place, but keenly looking out en route for the wonderfully named Hong Kong Hotel.

Disappointingly, the Little Yellow Arrows took us on a slightly different trajectory, away from the main road where this unusually named establishment lay.

Peter nearly turned back in order to retrace his steps to see it, but his feet argued against the idea and won the day.

It would probably have been phooey anyway.

The decision to extend ourselves into a 30km day paid huge dividends as La Calabaza del Peregrinos became the setting for the most raucous night of this Camino by far, with a fair sized gang of us exploring all of the alcohol options available to us, and exhausting more than a few of them along the way.

Peter had attempted to smuggle in his spare bottle of vino tinto, left over from the previous night’s overindulgence at Caldas de Reis, but we think we were rumbled by the mesmerisingly wonderful woman who’d made all of our evening meals, while cheerfully tolerating our idiotic carousing.

Her calm and grace in our boisterous company was extraordinary to behold, yet more evidence of the thoughts that had crossed my mind earlier in the day.

Some of us might like to Think, but many more have no choice but to Do.

Food for thought.

Albergue Report:

Hotel O Cruceiro, Caldas de Reis

At last, an albergue dormitory room again, with one bathroom between six pilgrims, lots of snoring and creaking beds. Absolutely brilliant.

Health Report:

Tedious Cough: it’s nearly gone

Blisters: 0 (1)

Trips, Slips and Falls: 0

Applications of Factor 50: 1 (14)

Filling of Water Bottles: 1 (13)

Rucksacks ruined: 1

Wrong turns taken: 0 (4)

Number of times “Buen Camino” was said: About ten

Unsuccessful Requests For Parmesan Cheese: 1

Song Of The Day: This Woman’s Work, Kate Bush

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