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Book review: The Crossway, by Guy Stagg

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n 2013, following his partial recovery after a long period of mental illness, which included alcoholism and a suicide attempt, Guy Stagg set out on a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem, following medieval pilgrim routes. Although an atheist, he hoped that the religious ritual of pilgrimage would somehow heal him after his illness. He walked for ten months and covered 5,500 km, passing through 11 countries if you include England.

This is a travel book in at least two senses: it narrates the author's arduous journey on foot and it also describes the accompanying inner journey through his own mind and memories. It's a long book—over 400 pages—and I have to say that I found reading it somewhat of a pilgrimage myself. I needed to take breaks in which I read other books to change the mood. Although there is certainly a sense of constant movement through different landscapes and variety in the encounters with people met on the way, this did not always counteract a sense of claustrophobia induced by the author's descriptions of his earlier depressive states.

This wasn't because of any lack of skill on Stagg's part—quite the contrary. He is a very 'literary' writer (some have compared him to Patrick Leigh Fermor) and the book is artfully constructed. The writing is complex and allusive and demands slow reading. The title reflects this, combining as it does multiple meanings within itself: the choosing of paths, suffering, Christ's cross, and a reference to the fact that in earlier times suicides were buried at crossroads rather than in consecrated ground; no doubt there are other meanings to be teased out as well.

Stagg began his journey on New Year's Day, which seems an eccentric choice, given that he would have to cross the Alps in midwinter on foot, but he felt that if he postponed starting until summer he would probably never go at all. The Saint Maurice pass in a snowstorm was quite as hazardous as one would expect, and even when he reached the other side the dangers didn't disappear. He nearly drowned trying to cross a river by a shaky footbridge and then was almost run over by a train when he used a railway bridge instead.

There is plenty of drama in the story, but Stagg's main interest is less in his adventures or misadventures than in the people he met along the way. Some of his encounters, related with deadpan humour, are very funny, but the dominant impression we get is of the extraordinary kindness of strangers. Often he stayed in monasteries or presbyteries, but also in private houses, and nearly always he was made welcome—until, ironically, he reached the Holy Land. The Turkish villagers were particularly hospitable and he acquired enough knowledge of their language to converse with them.

What one would expect to be the high .points of the journey, Rome and Jerusalem, were somewhat anticlimactic; especially Rome, where the Easter crowds occasioned panic and a psychological collapse. Later, in Greece, he went on an alcoholic spree in Thessaloniki and then was overwhelmed by a sense of failure. More than once, not surprisingly, he thought of giving up, and in fact decided he would do so when he reached Istanbul. But after making friends there and joining them in anti-government riots enlivened by tear gas, he changed his mind and went on.

So why didn't he give up? I don't think this was entirely clear, even to him. He no longer believed that the pilgrimage would heal him psychologically. But the root cause of his continuing seems to have been that he has, to a marked degree, what Thomas Nagel has called the religious temperament. He remained a convinced atheist but he found a deep meaning in religious ritual, at least in the form of the pilgrimage. His attitude to religious ceremony was more complex; he attended Catholic services in the monasteries where he stayed but what they meant to him is less clear..

He includes a good deal of historical information about the places he passed through. Some of this is well known (the First Crusade, the abolition of the Templars), some less so (the Bogomil heresy). He is evidently well read in this respect, which makes his reaction to Eastern Orthodox religion rather surprising. He apparently knew little about it in advance of his arrival in Greece and was disconcerted by its unfamiliarity, although his attitude changed somewhat after he spent a few days on Mount Athos. Here he met two Western converts to Orthodoxy who made the faith more comprehensible to hjm. He followed this up with a conversation with a monk in one of the monasteries he stayed at. The monk asked him to stay on indefinitely, and for a moment Stagg contemplated the possibility, before thanking the man hastily and making his escape.

He had to depart from his planned route after leaving Istanbul, owing to the civil war in Syria. He made a detour through Cyprus keeping to the high ground because of the heat. He crossed back to Lebanon, where he narrowly escaped a terrorist bombing in Tripoli. He reached Beirut, but then had to take a plane and several buses to Amman, before continuing his journey on foot over the Golan Heights into Israel.

The end of the book brings no final resolution or illumination. In an epilogue he describes leaving Jerusalem and heading south. He passes through Bethlehem but does not visit the Church of the Nativity because what he wants to see is the desert, which he describes as the most beautiful landscape he has ever seen. Arriving in the afternoon at an Orthodox monastery, he is refused accommodation because he has no letter from the Patriarch. He is advised to spend the night in a cave on the far side of the valley, which he does. Next day, he says, he will continue walking east.

08-08-2018
%T The Crossway
%A Stagg, Guy
%I Picador (Macmillan)
%C London
%D 2018
%G ISBN 978-1-5098-4457-9
%P 416pp
%K travel
%O hardback

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