I rarely suffer writer's block. I put this down to my hyperactive mind and a low boredom threshold that sees me always eager to move on. Travel provides me with endless inspiration and raw material for short stories.
Last spring I went walking with my wife in Galicia (NE Spain). But this was no ordinary walk. Lorna had persuaded me to undertake the extended Camino Finisterre from Muxia, on the Atlantic coast, to the ancient cathedral city of Santiago de la Compostela. This is a Christian pilgrimage that supposedly began in the footsteps of St James, the apostle who went to spread the word of Christ. His remains are said to be housed in the cathedral. Of course, like many religious sites and pilgrimages, many historians believe that this pilgrimage pre-dates Christianity. Finisterre literally means Land's End. There was a large Roman settlement there and it is thought that wealthy Romans came, believing it to be at the end of the land (Earth) where one crossed over to the after-life. The sea mists and rocky promontories easily lend themselves to this image. Many people who undertake the various Caminos (the most popular is a long route across France and over the Pyrenees, via St Jean, Pamplona and Burgos) are not Christians, but they enjoy the sense of pilgrimage nonetheless. They, like my wife and I, would describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. In some respects I'm guessing this might have been true of many Romans.
The costal regions of Galicia in particular, represent an old style Spain. My wife and I lived in Spain (Barcelona) with our first child in the early 1980's and Galicia still seemed now to be further back in time than Catalunya was back then. This was a bonus to us. We spent each day walking along the ancient granite paths, through farmland and smallholdings with geese running about and friendly local people tilling the land. Outside each rustic stone cottage one could see a strange elongated stone hut with no mortar between the stones. These huts, called Horreos, are granaries and stand high on stone stilts with mushroom shaped stones at the top of each leg to prevent rodents climbing up. It makes for an ancient-looking, mystical landscape that seemed so different from other areas of Europe. There was little traffic. We saw fields being ploughed using simple wooden ploughs pulled by mules, yet the people were obviously not poor.
With little of the modern world to distract me, I quickly became mentally engrossed in the ancient way of life and the activities we saw going on at each side of the path as we passed by. Where did the women look for a husband? Did they still have local festivals where these rustic people went a bit wild with drink at the end of the harvest and found themselves with the cowherd or the landowner of their dreams? Were there feuds over undesirable marriages, pregnancies outside of marriage? Was divorce common? Did people go off to the city and make their fortune, then return to their hamlet to marry a childhood sweetheart? Was that old man with the crippled leg wounded in the civil war or was he crushed under a horse in a violent storm?
There was plenty of time to think about all this as we trudged wearily over hills and plateaux. I began to engage ladies at the village springs in conversation as they did their washing or collected water.
"How long have you lived here, madam?"
"I was born here, as my mother before me and my grandmother before that. Before that I don't know."
"Are you married?"
"No, my husband died twenty years ago, but I have a son who lives in the next town. He takes care of me. I have six grandchildren. One is a lawyer in La Corunia. My husband was killed by Franco's troops, God bless him."(she crosses herself)
"Have you ever travelled far from this place?"
"I went to La Corunia last Christmas. To my grandson's house, but I don't like his wife. She goes out to work – as a lawyer. My great-grandchildren come home to an empty house. She dresses like a tart and wears perfume. It's a sin, that's what it is."
"Do you have friends here?"
"Oh yes, many. We talk a lot about the old days and sometimes we drink brandy in the evenings together. We talk about how different life is now and how all the young people leave to earn money. Everybody talks about money now. They don't care about finding a good husband or wife so long as they have money. They don't talk to their children or their old parents – it's a sin. My son is a good son though, I tell you. He comes every Sunday afternoon and during harvest time to help out. He fixed the outhouse roof. Not his wife. She wouldn't get her shoes dirty. She was brought up in the town. But at least she stayed at home and looked after the children. She's not so bad and she has a sense of humour. She bears children well so I shouldn't complain. Do you eat almonds, sir?"
During our week of rural walking, I collected many such dialogues that will no doubt at some point find their way into my short stories. I was inspired by many of the things I saw and heard over that week and felt a powerful sense of history as we walked into the city of Santiago de la Compostela at the end. There was an aura of revelation about it, although I could not say it was specifically a religious experience for me. But it did make me feel closer to my fellow human beings and to nature – within which I had been thoroughly immersed. I would defy any writer to take a long walk in the countryside and not come back with inspiration for at least one story. It's probably the oldest solution to writer's block that there is, and I would argue that it is still the most effective.