Friday, 22 May 2015

Back in time with the Brontë family

       With the sun actually shining for once, a free day ahead of me, and the determination to achieve at least one of the zillion things ‘to do before I die’, I set off with a friend for Haworth and the famous Brontë Parsonage Museum an hour and a half’s drive away.

Haworth Village
       Situated in the glorious Yorkshire moors, the Haworth is a tiny village with steep, cobbled streets and quaint little alleyways along which Ann, Emily and Charlotte used to trip in dainty little boots to post their latest manuscripts. On Sundays, the sisters and their brother Branwell would attend the church at the bottom of their garden to listen to their father’s sermons.
       Today, in this same small garden, furnished with plants popular in Victorian times, were crowds of people of all ages and nationalities. A whole class of (amazingly respectful) US teenagers were standing patiently in line with their tall, imposing teacher as a coach-load of well-to-do pensioners, who’d obviously pre-booked, were allowed, ever so politely, to jump the queue. As for the rest of we itinerant tourists, there was little choice but to wait. But hey, the sun was shining and the camaraderie was warm.
The Parsonage
       At last we reached the entrance to the Parsonage, which is large, spacious and remarkably cosy, though whether this was down to residue vibes from the 19th century Brontës or from the 20th century radiators is open to debate. According to the free guide at the door, Patrick Brontë arrived with his wife and children in 1820 to take up his post of Perpetual Curate. This was their home for the rest of their lives; sadly, Mrs Brontë and the two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, died within a few years of arrival, while the remaining children were also survived by their father. Patrick reached the grand old age of 84 before expiring peacefully in 1861.

Mr Bronte's study
       His study was the first room we entered. This was where Mr Brontë conducted all the business of the parish, founded a Sunday school and campaigned vigorously on behalf of his flock. One of his missions was to improve Haworth’s sewage system which was apparently worse than that of London’s slums. Unfortunately, despite their prominent pews in church every Sunday, his wealthy neighbours refused to heed the parson’s call to action, so his plans were scuppered. In the corner of the study is a small wooden desk on which his magnifying glass still lies. This he used for reading when his sight grew dim due to cataracts, a condition alleviated by an operation.

Dining room

       Most of the furniture in the parsonage is original and still in situ, bringing the family vividly to life. In fact, you almost feel as though you’re trespassing. In the dining room, for instance, Ann Brontë’s writing slope is resting on the table and you can almost see her writing, sitting in her rocking chair by the fire, or ‘taking turns’ around the room with Emily and Charlotte as they chatted about each other’s work. After Emily and Ann died suddenly and within a tragically short time of each other, a family servant told how her heart ‘ached to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking on alone’.  The sofa where Emily is supposed to have died is also in the room, yet the atmosphere is far from melancholy.
Charlotte's room
       For me, the most poignant item is in Charlotte’s room upstairs. Sharing a display cabinet with the exquisite bonnet Charlotte wore for her wedding is a tiny little lace cap – a gift for the child she was expecting but which died with her only months into her happy but tragically short marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate. Her room also contains a plaid day-dress – or rather a bodice and skirt, beautifully tailored and finished.  What struck me was how petite she was - but then, most people were small in those primitive days before Big Macs and heavyweight carbs!
       Other personal items included jewellery (tiny, tiny rings), cuffs, boots and stockings, all in perfect condition, along with collars and nightcaps of delicate lace created by Charlotte herself. There was even a lock of her mid-brown hair, amazingly glossy and untouched by time.

Mr Bronte's bedroom
      By far the spookiest room in the house is Mr Brontë’s bedroom where he moved after the death of his wife. It was here that Branwell also slept once his alcoholism had taken hold, endangering him and everyone else. The half-tester bed where Branwell took his last tortured breath is an exact replica of a sketch he drew, showing Death in the form of a skeleton summoning him to the grave. As I gazed at the copy of the drawing on display, a young Japanese man stood beside me to read Branwell’s inscription, written in spidery almost illegible letters. “Creepy!” he exclaimed, and shivered. No, he hadn’t read any of their works, but he’d certainly heard of the Brontës and travelled thousands of miles to pay homage.
       Actually, I felt a bit sorry for Branwell. Growing up as the only boy in a cultural hothouse with three geniuses for siblings must have been extremely tough. How is a simple guy to make his mark amidst such literary giants? His answer was to carve a career as an artist, and he certainly had plenty of illustrious patrons judging by the portraits in his studio. But while they are passable, his works could hardly match the towering achievements of his sisters – but whether his lack of talent stemmed from his drinking or was the catalyst which drove him to drink would be hard to fathom. There have, after all, been many hard-boozing artists (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Lautrec to name a few) whose gifts, unlike their livers, were scarcely touched by their excesses.
       Finally, in the Exhibition Room, amidst glass cases full of original letters, manuscripts, and other personal effects, is a huge wooden cupboard with 12 panels each depicting one of the Apostles. This impressive piece comes from the home of Charlotte’s dear friends, the Eyre family of Hathersage, Derbyshire. Their turreted house is thought to be the inspiration for Mr Rochester’s mansion, while the Apostles cupboard, which must be 8’ high, features in the scene where Jane Eyre is left alone with the mad-wife’s injured brother.
      I’ve actually been to the house in Hathersage on a recent mammoth walk with my daughter when we also visited the grave of Little John.....but that’s another story.

Cults versus Christendom

       Mormons, Moonies, Scientologists, Born Again Evangelists and Jehovah’s Witnesses – seems any religion that departs from the mainstream is regularly tarred with the same brush, as this interesting twist on proselytising bears out.
       The following incident happened to someone I know who was recently rushed to hospital in a state of acute heart failure. While being attended to, he was approached by a minister from the local church (don’t know which denomination, but obviously not Catholic as the ‘reverend’ in question was a woman)
       “Do you have a religion?” she asked, no doubt thinking he’d be glad of the Last Rites.  
       “Yes,” he replied. “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.”
       Not overly friendly to start with, the minister’s face contorted with contempt. “You people!” she spat. “You’re everywhere! Building your halls, hanging round street corners, knocking on doors, pushing your literature….how dare you go around forcing your views on people?! No wonder they hate you…..!”
       The diatribe continued, the woman’s voice getting louder and her face redder with every word.  After 50-odd years going door-to-door, the unfortunate object of her rage had certainly had his share of abuse – but never while lying in Intensive Care!  He could only wait, open-mouthed, as accusations spewed unstoppably and with utmost scorn from the minister’s mouth. 
      It was the next bit that did it. “You….Witnesses,” she added. “You’re just a cult, that’s all, just like the Moonies, you’re a CULT…..”
      Finally, having vented her spleen, she paused for breath, giving the gentleman a chance to respond. The nurse’s ears were twitching, awaiting the rebuttal that would surely come. Gazing steadily at his accuser, the patient began to respond in a calm, clear voice.
       “Was it a cult that caused so many senseless deaths in the Reformation? Or that backed the Crusades? Was it a cult that tortured people during the Spanish Inquisition? Was it a cult that preached young men into the trenches during the First and Second World Wars? Was it a cult that supported the Nazi regime - the regime which gassed millions of Jews and other minorities? Was it a cult that fuelled the hatred in Northern Ireland?” 
      He held up an article he’d been reading in a magazine – illustrated by a wood carving of a man tied to a stake. “And was it a cult that had this man, William Tyndale, strangled and burned for translating the Bible into English?”
       If the minister’s face had been pink before, it was now the colour of a sunburnt tomato.
      “Could I ask…?” wheezed the patient, “Do you have a Bible in your bag?”
      No, she hadn’t!
      “That’s a pity,” said the patient, “because I’d love to talk to you about the beliefs we have in common….”

       But, as far as the minister was concerned, the discussion was at an end. The only sound now emitting from the saintly lady was the sound of her feet as she disappeared rapidly down the corridor.  

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Supernanny! Where were you when I needed you?

        Where were you when my two-year old was throwing tantrums in Tesco, screaming her head off in Sainsbury’s, crawling over tables in our local MacDonald’s, or darting traffic-wards from my grasp?
       Yes, I know I’ve got competition but I’m convinced that, had there been a prize for the most horrendous toddler West of the Pennines, my daughter would have won it hands down. In fact, two years after her appearance, there was a significant dip in birth rates in the area – no doubt due to otherwise fertile people having travelled on the same train with me and my hyper-active, utterly uncontrollable, ear-piercingly noisy little girl.
       And then, 2 decades too late, along comes TV nanny, Jo Frost (the ultimate Mary Poppins) who, with firmness and gentle persuasion is able to comfort, reassure and discipline the most headstrong 2- to 20-year old. Does she hypnotise them? Threaten them behind the scenes, resort to bribery? Or is she simply a miracle worker, sent from heaven to show mere mortals the way? 
       Sorry Jo, it’s all very impressive, but here’s the million dollar question – would you be as effective if the child you had to tame was your own? The reason I ask is that one of the most desperate mums I knew from our local toddler group had, in the distant past BC (Before Cate), been an excellent primary school teacher who never had cause to raise her voice, despite having a class of 30 very small people. Yet, just two years into motherhood, she was a broken woman.
       Another case in point is my own sweet child who was an absolute angel for anyone else. Like a miniature Jekyll and Hyde, her personality changed dramatically once I’d dropped her off at playschool or the home of a friend, only to revert to the growling, snarling monster which I had to cope with every day. Please don’t think I didn’t love her – she was (and always will be) the light of my life and genuinely adorable for most of the time – and after twenty-odd years she’s learnt to communicate without the blood-curdling shrieks. In fact, she was actually getting to be really good company before disappearing down to London, leaving me bereft. But that’s another story.
      The fact that I survived the first 5 years of motherhood – with no help whatsoever from supernannies, grannies or beneficent fairy godmothers - is due in no small part to the one thing I actually got right (and which, sadly, Cate’s mum didn’t ) - Bedtime.
Winning the bedtime battle
       Oh you Mums, happy are you if your baby is big. Mine was extremely small and colicky, so needed to be fed every 2 hours, then soothed for at least another hour before she’d doze off again. As she grew, feeding became less of a problem, but getting her to sleep was a nightmare. In fact the only way she’d settle was if some kind of motion was involved, which meant my pushing her round in her pram with older more experienced mothers nodding their heads sagely as they passed while trying to disguise a streak of sadism in their collective dirge: “It gets worse, you know”.  If I’d been given a pound for every time I heard that expression.......
       What I was given something infinitely more valuable - a pearl of wisdom by somebody I can’t remember but who has my undying gratitude and respect. It helped preserve my sanity and it’s one I’d like to pass on to all you other desperate mums.
      Apparently, ten months is a pivotal period in a baby’s development. This is the time when parents must establish a good bedtime routine which will not only benefit the child but may also tip the balance of control in your favour. For some, it may be easy. For others, like me, it is a fierce battle of wills involving every ounce of nerve and determination. But you have to win. With almost every family featured in Supernanny, there’s a real problem getting the children to bed. If the parents fail in this, they’re likely to fall short in other areas too.
       Why ten months? Well, by this time, a baby is used to having every need catered for. One cry brings Mum running - to feed, change, cuddle and pamper. No wonder he believes he is the centre of the universe and that adults are his slaves. Somewhere along the line, the child’s perception needs to be altered so that he learns to follow the parent’s lead instead of the other way round.
       In my case, having endured several months of broken nights with an infant clinging permanently to my hip, it was essential that I gain at least a couple of hours to myself. Colic was no longer a problem and a warm bath followed by a good feed and a bedtime story helped my daughter to relax. Even so, she refused to settle and the upstairs downstairs ritual seemed unbreakable. Until one evening, I put her to bed determined not to bring her down again, no matter how many times she protested. I kept checking on her, making sure she was dry and leaving her again. It wasn’t pleasant, but it worked. After that one nerve-jangling night, bedtime was a dream!
       So, to the person who gave me that invaluable piece of advice a great big, if belated, ‘thank you’. To Jo Frost, I wish you’d been around a little sooner!

Saturday, 9 May 2015

An artist's mysterious legacy

Unknown Girl by Josie Berriman

       Almost a decade ago, I lost my good friend Josie, a talented artist who lived most of her life in the High Peak. Her death was sudden and rather shocking, as she’d always looked so healthy and very much younger than her 74 years.
       A vegetarian, she was an amazing cook. Everyone in her acquaintance would turn down an audience with the Queen to dine with Josie, who was a remarkably generous host. Lashings of homemade soup, caramelised vegetables and exquisite puddings were washed down with good wine and conversation. She also loved a nightcap… taste for malt whisky developed after many cosy chats, sitting on an ancient leather sofa by the fire, musing on art, life, friendships, hopes and dreams.  
       It was by this same fire I found her early one evening, lying with her head on a cushion as she usually did when taking her afternoon nap. Only there was nothing ‘usual’ about her breathing. She was completely unconscious, only her lungs working desperately to suck in oxygen with every gasp. The ambulance came, Josie left and we never shared another whisky again.
       Though twice married, Josie had no children of her own but was never short of young companions. Several children, including my own daughter, learned how to wield a paintbrush thanks to Josie. This waterfall sketch shown here was literally ‘dashed off’ – demonstrating how to paint water with a few deft strokes. Yet, hurriedly produced as it was, it sparkles with skill.

Brief sketch of a waterfall by Josie Berriman

       Of course, nothing Josie created professionally was ever hurried. Her landscapes were amazing, her portraits brought to life with consummate skill. She never exhibited, preferring to accept commissions from friends.  Josie’s specialty was children - which many Old Masters struggled to capture – and animals, especially cats!
      Her main source of income was illustrating fashion and children’s magazines, such as Twinkle, and a wide range of books – one of which, “Dear Dear Mary” by Jenny Melmoth, is featured here: **
       After her death, some of Josie’s work was distributed to friends, including the above portrait of a smiling, fresh-faced girl, whose identity has so far remained undiscovered. 
       If anyone reading this can solve the mystery, I’d love to hear from you!

** Published by Alfresco Books 2005



Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Is this the face of Jesus?

Subject to renewed debate, largely due to Pope Francis, the Turin Shroud is thought to be one of 40 burial cloths!

Over the years, much has been made of this relic, the supposed burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth and, according to one website, “the single most studied artefact in human history” (Barrie M Schwortz).

Opinion has been divided since its supposed discovery in 544 CE, when an image seemingly created by supernatural means turned up in Edessa (now part of Turkey). It was later thought to be in Constantinople, although few historians believe this was the same image that came to be displayed in an airtight bulletproof case at the Cathedral of San Giovanni in 1998. During its 3 month exhibition and despite a strictly view-per-reservation policy, around 2.5 million visitors filed past it, some ecstatic or tearful, others merely curious to see the imprint of a man who supposedly met a violent death almost 2,000 years ago.

Measuring 14 feet 3 inches long by 3 feet 7 inches wide (463 x 110 cm) the shroud belonged to Geoffrois de Charny in the 14th century before coming into the hands of Louis, Duke of Savoy in 1453. It was then transferred to Chambery and was later taken to Turin by Emmanuel Philibert where it has been ever since.

But is the haunting image really that of Jesus? In 1988, radiocarbon dating seemed to place the cloth in medieval times yet, ten years later, Pope John Paul 11 seemed convinced it was “the imprint left by the tortured body of the Crucified One.”

And now, there are fresh attempts to verify this relic. According to the Telegraph, “a group of  Italian scientists conducted a series of advanced experiments which, they claim, show that the marks on the shroud – purportedly left by the imprint of Christ's body – could not possibly have been faked with technology that was available in the medieval period.” face of Jesus?

As a result, many theologians thought this was the actual face of Jesus, but gospel accounts firmly contradict such a claim.  In his account of Jesus’ burial, the apostle John describes how, not one long sheet, but bandages are used to bind the body of Jesus with spices – a method of anointing used by many Jews today. (John 19:39-42)

Later, the apostle Peter entered the (now empty) tomb and “viewed the bandages lying, also the cloth that had been upon his head not lying with the bandages but separately rolled up in one place.” (John 20: 6,7) Had there been a long winding sheet, would it not have been mentioned, especially if it bore the image of Jesus’ face?

So, whether the Turin Shroud is the result of some supernaturally superimposition or a clever con-trick by a clever technician, the evidence does not point to it being in any way sacred.

It’s also worth mentioning that the worship of relics, images, statues and other idols was and still is strictly forbidden under the Ten Commandments.

PS. Would like to add my own personal observation: As a perfect man, Jesus would have been extremely handsome – unlike this image. It’s also doubtful that he'd wear long ‘hippy-style ‘hair, given that men in Israel generally kept their hair short in line with Jewish law and tradition.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Runaway Children and the Purple Cave

The Runaway Children and the Purple Cave

Slowly and steadily, they continued along an underground river, the tunnel now so dark and narrow Odi began to hyperventilate again.
"Just what I need" he whined "another bout of close-to-phobia!"
"Claustrophobia." Alice corrected him. "Seems pretty close to me!" replied Odi, for once unable to think of anything clever to say. To his great relief, they soon reached another, bigger cavern. So big, in fact, it resembled a magnificent palace, adorned with shafts of sunlight from above. As the Judith Mary approached it's mooring, coming to rest on the banks of a crystal lagoon, all aboard gaped in astonishment.  Not only was the cavern wonderfully bright and airy, it was like no other they had ever seen before.
"It's purple!" Joe cried. "All purple and shiny!"
"We must be in the Blue John mines." Laurel suggested.
"But it's purple!" insisted Joe.
"Blue John IS purple, Silly". Alice tutted despairingly. "Don't you boys know anything?"
"Oh, so that's why it's called blue!" said Odi with a good dollop of sarcasm. "The stuff's purple, so naturally, you call it Blue. That's cool, and not at all confusing!" – “The Runaway Children Vol 1 – Flight from the Nunjas”

No wonder Odi was confused. Despite its name, Blue John – a semi-precious stone from Castleton in Derbyshire – is generously threaded by bands of purple which tend to predominate.
However, there is also a yellow banded variety of this rare fluorite and one theory is that, during the reign of Louis XVI, it was exported for use by French ormolu workers who dubbed it ‘bleu-jaune’ (or ‘blue- yellow’ to Derbyshire folk like me!) Another source for the Blue John name may be miners drafted in from Cornwall. They referred to the stone as ‘bleujenn’, a Cornish term for a flower or blossom.
According to “Gem of the Peak” by 19th century writer William Adam, Blue John was discovered by the Romans but, as no evidence has ever been found for such a claim, we might put it down to historical embroidery! What we DO know is that Blue John was a popular material for fireplace panels during the mid-18th century. A Blue John plaque dated around 1760 can be seen in the Friary Hotel in Derby, while Robert Adam, the famous architect and interior designer used it to decorate nearby Kedlestone Hall.
At their 18th century peak, the Blue John Cavern and Treak Cliff Cavern in Castleton (the only sites in the UK where Blue John is mined*) produced 20 tons per annum. By the late 19th century, 3 tons per annum was mined, a figure further reduced to a mere half a ton today. Castleton is highly protective over its unique resource which is why all items made from Blue John, such as boxes, pots, vases and distinctive jewellery, are created by local craftsmen.
*The only other place where Blue John can be found is the Deqing Fluorite mine in the Zhejiang Province of China.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Ark of the Covenant. Does it still exist?

Fashioned by master craftsman Bezalel from acacia wood overlaid with gold, it measured 111cm x 67cm x 67cm (44” x 26” x 26”) and had a solid gold cover supporting two angels with bowed heads and outstretched wings.

Truly, the Ark of the Covenant was a treasure beyond price. Yet, to the nation of Israel, its material value was as nothing compared with what it represented – the presence of its original designer, Almighty God himself!

In fact, the Ark, which contained the Ten Commandments and, initially, a golden jar of manna and the flowering rod of Aaron, was considered so sacred that no one was allowed to touch it – or even to look upon it - on pain of death.

When the people of Israel came to rest during their 40 year wanderings through the desert, it lay in the Holy of Holies, an inner chamber screened off from the main tabernacle (or tent), accessible only by the High Priest for just one day every year - the Day of Atonement. And when the people broke camp, the Ark had to be carried by Levites on poles slotted through two rings of gold on either side and covered with blue cloth and sealskin to shield it from the gaze of the people.  In this way the Ark was carried into battle ahead of the nation of Israel, putting courage into the people and striking fear into their enemies, particularly after the spectacular fall of Jericho. 

Not a magic charm

However, contrary to the Indiana Jones movie, the Ark of the Covenant had no miraculous properties in itself. Success or victory depended entirely on the people’s loyalty to God – a lesson which the Israelites learned to their cost. Acting against divine instructions, Hophni and Phinehas, renegade sons of the High Priest Eli, took the Ark from the tabernacle in Shiloh, wrongly viewing it as a magic charm that would protect them against their enemies and help them conquer the Promised Land.

They soon realised their mistake. After a humiliating defeat in which 30,000 Israelites lost their lives, the sacred chest was captured by the Philistines who brought it back to Ashdod. Here, it was placed in the temple next to the half-man half-fish image of the Philistine god Dagon. But not for long. Overnight, the idol fell flat on its face before the ark. It was then put back on its plinth, only to be brought  crashing down again the following night, this time losing its head along with the palms of its hands.

Later, as the Ark was paraded on a seven month tour of Philistia, the people were plagued with haemorrhoids, the land was overrun by jerboas, and the city of Ekron was hit by death-dealing confusion. These woes were enough to prompt the Ark’s speedy return to Israel, accompanied by a suitable offering!
Eventually, the Ark was brought to Jerusalem, although it did not have a permanent home until Solomon’s temple was built. In 642 BCE, King Josiah arranged for the Ark to be brought back to the temple, although there is no indication as to why it was removed in the first place. It may have been for safekeeping during temple renovations; or it could have been to prevent its misuse by one of Josiah’s predecessors, including his own father Manasseh, who fell away to false worship.

Whatever the reason, the Ark is not mentioned again in Hebrew scripture and there is no evidence that it was taken to Babylon after Jerusalem’s destruction in 607 BCE. It simply disappeared.

Does it still exist?

Various archaeologists have spent years searching for the Ark of the Covenant without success. Some believe it’s in Axum, Ethiopia at the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, having been ‘acquired’ by Menelik, the Queen of Sheba’s son during a visit to Jerusalem. However, this does not square up with the Bible account (2Chronicles 35 v 3) which, as previously mentioned, places the Ark in Jerusalem during Josiah’s reign – nearly 400 years later. This might explain why the “Keeper of the Ark”, the monk who claims to have possession, refuses to let anyone see it.

Archaeologist Leen Ritmeyer claims to have discovered where the original Temple’s Holy of Holies was located, pointing to a bedrock section in the centre which matches the precise dimensions of the Ark. Whether the Ark is indeed buried there is likely to remain a mystery, as neither the Muslim or Israeli authorities will agree to an excavation.

To sum up, it seems unlikely that the Ark of the Covenant will ever be found, partly because it has served its purpose, and also because such a precious artefact would doubtless attract unwarranted veneration.