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Tom Holland’s Diary: Why I never finished the Camino

Walking sticks are offered for sale to pilgrims near Vega la Valcarce, northern Spain (AP)

Writing my most recent book felt rather like going on a pilgrimage. The theme of Dominion, which came out earlier this month, is that assumptions which saturate Western society, and which many – perhaps the majority – tend these days to attribute to “human nature”, in fact derive almost exclusively from our Christian past.

My ambition in writing the book was to trace the course of what one Christian, back in the 3rd century AD, termed “the flood-tide of Christ”: how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was.

Much as a pilgrimage might, the task of tracing a revolution over the course of 2,500 years obliged me to follow a long and winding road. It provided me with many moments for deep reflection, took me to many shrines along the way, and sites of martyrdom, and famous cathedrals and churches, and prompted me to read deeply in the great heritage of Christian writings.

By the end of it I felt both the profound sense of fulfilment that any pilgrimage worth its salt will inspire in those who undertake it, and very, very tired.

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Another reason, while I was writing Dominion, that I kept comparing it to a pilgrimage was that I knew how tricky pilgrimages can be to complete. Back in the early 1990s – so long ago that I can no longer remember the precise year – I travelled the Camino de Santiago with a friend.

Climbing the Pyrenees, we saw a tall, gaunt man on a horse holding what seemed to be a spear, and knew that we had crossed into Spain. In the cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzado we saw a rooster and a chicken in a cage. We drank wine at six in the morning from a public fountain. We were chased by geese. We got smellier and smellier.

Then, a day and a half’s journey from Santiago, I went delirious. A blister on my toe had gone septic. A doctor frogmarched me to a bus, and ordered me to go home at once. I never reached Santiago.

All the while I was writing Dominion, I dreaded that perhaps the book would be the same: that I would decide, only pages from finishing it, that I had taken a wrong turning, and my entire thesis was wrong.

Luckily, however, delirium did not set in. I reached my journey’s end. One day I hope that I will get to Santiago as well.

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I walked the Camino not because I am Catholic (I was raised an Anglican), but because it was there. Nevertheless, Catholicism has been a part of my life for many years now. My wife is Catholic, and my two children were baptised in the church of Corpus Christi, a hunk of half-completed neo-Gothic rising imperiously above the traffic fumes of Brixton Hill.

For years, while our children went to the local primary school, the church provided me as well as my wife with the hub of our social life. This owed much to the priest, Fr Tom Heneghan, who died suddenly in 2013, and who has a vivid place in my memories to this day. Tirelessly ministering to one of the most diverse parishes in Britain, he was, in the very best sense of the word, catholic. Warm and generous, gentle and fond of a drink, he was unfailingly ready to give of himself, and was as comfortable talking to a Somalian refugee as to an old boy of Ampleforth.

Fr Tom was the kind of man who brought people together – and that, in the world of today’s inner cities, was an achievement that made him much loved and still much missed.

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One of my favourite blogs is by Eleanor Parker, a fellow in English at Brasenose College, who publishes it under the moniker of “Clerk of Oxford”. Her great passion is the Anglo-Saxon Church, and over the course of the year she posts on the festivals and feast days which, in medieval England, enabled Christians to keep track of the passing of the seasons.

The rhythms of my own year are altogether more secular, and tend to revolve around cricket. At the beginning of last week, I played my last match of the English season. At the end of it, for four entire days, I watched the last Test Match of the summer at the Oval.

Next week, in the glorious and faintly improbable setting of Corfu, I will play my last match of the year. Then what is there to look forward to? Months and months of shortening days stretch ahead. I need something to lighten the gloom. Perhaps I should look at celebrating Michaelmas?

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is published by Little, Brown