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, 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) American teenagers were standing patiently in line with their tall, imposing teacher as a coach-load of 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.

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!

       The portrait below is 'Elysha', the daughter of mutual friends - it's slightly reflective as I photographed in its glass frame!

** 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.