Hearts high beneath the French flag

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The Independent Online
A CURIOUS lassitude overcame me for a while this morning. I lay about two inches above Mother Earth, on an air bed in a small tent on a campsite at St David's Head, Pembrokeshire. There was the mugginess you usually find in a greenhouse. There was the new skinhead Radio 3 in an earpiece in the right ear. There was the background need to trek through the wet grass for a pee in the ablutions block across the field. An egg was frying.

I was dozing in and out of an improving work. I had got to a bit about how many children die from typhoid in the Third World. The announcer (they are still well-spoken, thank goodness) said the concert of early 20th-century cello music would now go into a mournful piece Sibelius wrote when a child of his died of typhus, and I thought, wow, synchronicity, man.

There was more of this connectedness business to come. Yesterday, in the cathedral close of St David's, I bought my Mum a tape of plainsong from the monks of the French Benedictines of Solesmes. In my pit, I was just thinking that the gift's impact would not be dented much if I opened it up and played it on the camper van's stereo, when I was saved the guilt.

The disc jockey enunciated that he was going to play 17th-century Mexican church music and we were off into a setting for the Salve Regina (which was also on my mother's tape) by a Spaniard who fetched up in Mexico. You can't really beat the Salve Regina; in half a second I was zoomed back to the 12th-century masterpiece monastery of Santa Domingo de Silos, in the high sierra of mid-northern Spain where we took the kids last time we camped and where, a few years before, the Salve Regina (sung by monks in a cloister before a 14th-century wooden statue of the Virgin, by candlelight) had as near as maybe got me to have a smidgeon of temporary faith.

Not everyone is keen on the Virgin. Our own vicar, back in Herefordshire, is. He was therefore upset to find that the little statues of Mary which adorned alcoves in two of his churches were nicked recently. It might have been an act of common thievery, but the thefts might have been inspired by a dislike of this tendency toward the worship of graven images.

Knowing we would be in Wales, and having the 25ft collapsible flagpole to hand, I thought we needed to be able to put out bunting. So I went to the vicar and asked him if he had a flag of St George to spare. True, we are here with a Northern Irish family, one of whom insists she is Irish and the other of whom insists he is British. But they are, for Irish, very tolerant, and would not have complained too much about camping in the lea of the sign of the dragon slayer, especially one which had fluttered nobly at the top of the tower of a decent squat Norman church. It was not to be: the church's flag had been nicked a year or two before we came and never been replaced.

Luckily, the man who wanted to napalm the gypsies from a helicopter gunship was in even more than usually good humour when I asked him to feed the animals. Yes, he would, and why not take the tricolour of France with us, since he had one handy from an exuberant French camping trip of his own.

One's faith was all but restored. With our hearts as high and fluttery as the flag over the camp, we have lazed and boated and one dull day toured St David's Cathedral. The carving of the dragon eating the knight, one of a couple of dozen on the choir- stall seats, makes a fair reminder of the monsters and patterns which are everywhere in Santa Domingo's cloisters.

Feeling almost wholly beatific, a few of us went to evensong and there we had a dreadful shock. An eloquent, educated, elegant young vicar preached us a sermon. God, how well he spoke] But once he got your attention, out popped all these frightful certainties, about how God hated lukewarm religion and was going to come down among us smighting about himself on all sides if we did not buck up and recognise what a tremendous lot of love he had for us all.

I do not pretend I am anything but a spiritual tourist and what the church gets up to is really no business of mine. All the same, this chap's sermon put me out of sorts and reminded me of a handy dictum: only go to services in a foreign language - you cannot be irritated by the substance of religious utterance, only enchanted by its form.

On the way back from church, I played soul music and swore a lot, and gradually my equanimity returned. The memory of the noisome vicar abated. And so it was this morning found me in harmony with the world again. Pity then to hear, as the Salve Regina faded away, that our Irish camping partners had a message to phone home, to their house three doors up from where we lived when we were Londoners. They had, of course, been burgled.

So if you see a couple of virgins, a flag, a video and a ghetto blaster going cheap anywhere between Hackney and Hereford, do ring us, care of the excellent Hendru Eynon campsite, by our checking- out time: noon today. Thanks.

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