‘Identity of Position’: Musings on Question Marks, Hot Works & Refining Fire, 8th July 2016

I can’t really recall why I was in Jesmond on Friday July 8th, but, as when we had to have Church High emptied by July 4th 2014, I was certainly no-where near to being packed up.  I remember that my intention had been to pack very, very quickly this time – for obvious reasons.  So perhaps that’s why I was there on the first day of the holiday.  I have more memory of walking up to Tankerville.  There it was quiet on the outside, yet no doubt a real hive of activity within.

Apparently, ‘hot works’ were in progress within the building.
Hot works meant welding on the sign.  Thanks to Giuseppe, I now know the Boiler Room was the hive of activity that day.
The six new boilers I told you about were all installed now.
Unlike Miss Bartlett in ‘A Room with a View’, NHSG should never again find themselves plagued by a ‘troublesome boiler.’

Gates have always been very symbolic for me.  Perhaps that’s why, as a searching teenager, William Holman Hunt’s ‘Light of the World’ replaced David Soul as ‘Hutch’ on my bedroom chimney breast wall.

Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World.’

I now know this painting has a tentative connection to Newcastle High/Church High School, through one of our founding fathers.  Yet another story I am holding up my sleeve until I have finally narrated NHS safely home again.  As a teenager I loved its jewel-like colours, the calmness it exuded and, of course, the story behind it.  As you probably already know, most Pre-Raphaelite works are full of symbolism.  This one tells the tale of Jesus and the Human Heart.  Sometimes referred to as ‘a sermon in a frame’, the writing beneath the picture is from Revelation 3 ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me.’  If you look closely at the painting, the wooden gate Jesus is standing beside is overgrown and it has no handle.  Just like the human heart, it must be opened from within.

If gates could talk, what tales would these tell?

How many times have you walked through the main gates at Church High, I wonder?  Like me, countless times I’m sure.  And, perhaps also like me, if you had been asked to describe what they actually looked like, I bet you would have struggled.  Black wrought-iron might well have been as far as you got.  Only able to speculate about the ‘hot works’ underway on the inside that day and acutely aware my days of being ‘locked out of’ the building were coming to an end, my eyes were drawn to the wrought-iron gates.  Having lasted this long, it seemed likely they would now be staying, living on to tell their tale.  I had never looked at them this closely before.  There was a lot of over painting evident up close, but the scroll-work was really very beautiful.  And whose hands would have opened those gates in the past?

Miss Gurney no doubt used this very handle.

I mused on the shapes.  Had the metal deliberately been wrought to resemble ornate ‘question marks’, I wondered.  If so, very prophetic for a building that started life as Newcastle High School in the 1800s, spent most of the 1900s as Newcastle Church High School and was about to become Newcastle High School once again in the 21st Century.  According to Wikipedia, ‘In written English the question mark typically occurs at the end of a sentence, where it replaces the full stop. Period.’  Right at the start, someone clearly knew this school was not in the business of observing full stops.  If trees had only vertical roots, they would be easily toppled when they faced their first storm.  No, growth is all about following Nature’s curves and asking searching questions.  I’m glad this is subtly made evident at the door.

In ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves ..’, Lynne Truss describes the punctus interrogativus of the late 8th century as, “a lightning flash, striking from right to left.” And in our gate. How cool is that?

A question mark plays an important role in a book very close to my heart, adapted by Merchant-Ivory in 1985 – the year I joined Church High and the School’s centenary year – to create one of my all-time favourite films: ‘A Room With A View.’  E.M. Forster’s charming novel was first published in 1908.  A later paperback cover alludes to the novel’s questioning theme by using a line of wrought metal coat hooks to mirror the enigmatic ‘Question Mark’ left in the room.

“By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes … “: George Emerson’s Question Mark, left pinned to the wall of the ‘room with a view’, is echoed in the coat hooks by the illustrator of this early Penguin paperback cover.

It is E.M. Forster’s most popular novel containing wonderful words on this thing we call Life: “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”; “Life is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.”; “… there are shadows because there are hills.”; “…though nothing is damaged, everything is changed.”; “She stopped and leant her elbows against the parapet of the embankment. He did likewise. There is at times a magic in identity of position.”  Is there a pun at work in the phrase ‘identity of position’, I wonder?  Identity and identical are not quite the same thing, of course.  And this is very apt for us right now.  The building may be about to become Newcastle High School for Girls once again, but the truth of Thomas Hardy’s observation ‘The same but not the same’ cannot be avoided.  And, whilst on the subject of allusions, it’s hard to avoid seeing parallels between the contrasting characteristics of George and Cecil in ‘A Room With A View’ and the ethos by which Church High and Central identified themselves.  Lucy says to Cecil: ‘When I think of you it’s always as in a room.’   But when she thinks of George Emerson: ‘The sky, you know, was gold, and the ground all blue.’ 

‘O Mio Babbino Caro’: Oh my beloved Father, when Lucy thinks of George, he is nearly always at one with Nature.

The bending of metal into delicate shapes, much like growing up and finding love, is no easy process, of course.  It involves close contact with white-hot heat and the repeated application of external force.   The forging process is a very skilled art and watching ‘Countryfile’ recently, I learned why a blacksmith’s forge is always kept dark.  It is only in darkness that the craftsman can detect when the metal is at the correct temperature for tempering.  It’s all in the colour of the heat. In human terms, we’re talking high pressure, stress and strain.

Blacksmiths work by heating pieces of wrought iron or steel until the metal becomes soft enough for shaping by hand.

For many people, myself included, this is what the merger felt like.  In some cases the ‘heat’ applied was too much to bear and I don’t blame them for looking to themselves and leaving.  Being forced into a new shape is hard enough, but it causes real stress when the required form feels unnatural, retrograde or both.  But ‘what doesn’t break you makes you stronger.’  Ultimately that was true for me, one of the lucky few who managed to come ‘full circle.’  It has damaged me, but we were a church school.  We know of the ‘Refiner’s Fire:’

10 For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried.

11 Thou broughtest us into the net; thou laidst affliction upon our loins.

12 Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy [place].

The abundant place: the same iron gates in happier times.

As I left the new wing of the RVI last week following three delightful hours spent on the dermatology acute assessment ward, it was hard not to think of Job in his biblical ash pit scraping at his sores with a potsherd.  It didn’t help that we were in a ‘website wilderness’ either.  The blog had disappeared – as you may have noticed – and we were in the hands of an (incompetent) online Service Desk in Romania.  No comment.  But here we are again.  The story continues.  And as I stopped to take a photo of Armstrong College, framed so impressively in the glass entrance wall of the hospital, I thought of Miss Gurney’s beginnings, her father & his crystals and the fascinating old, old history I will soon be released to relate.  The blog will soon revert to the deep, background history. Yes, the best is yet to come.

Accessing our Archive at The Discovery Museum.

I knew that Church High’s archive was deposited with Tyne & Wear Archives, but it took the merger for me to make my first visit there.  There had been no need to up until that point, in fairness, and, if I’m honest, the prospect of actually getting to them felt a bit daunting.  If you are anything like me, it always feels a lot more comfortable being able to visualise exactly where you are going – as well as exactly what is to be found there.  So, thanks to the kindness of TWA, you can all now browse the entire catalogue up to July 2014 in the comfort of your own home via the website.  Initially, I was just consulting the paper copy of the E.NC17 catalogue, housed in one of the maroon lever-arch files stacked along the Search Room shelves.

Visiting the Archive Collection is free and if you are going to use it more than once, they will happily make you up a Reader Card and allocate you a reader number.  Everyone must sign in at Reception with their number and nothing can be taken into the Search Room other than a pencil and either some paper or a notebook.  You are only allowed to ask for three items at a time and can only have one item at any one time at your reader desk, so it’s not a quick process.  Providing you leave yourself enough time, it is fascinating though.

Once you fill out your request slips (in pencil) and hand them over to one of the Search Room staff, you sit and wait.  I usually spend this time browsing through the catalogue as I’m not good at sitting doing nothing.  However, it’s a lovely old-fashioned room with a distinctive ‘old book’ smell, so it is no hardship just to imbibe the atmosphere.  The reading tables are big because some of the building plans are large.  You don’t have to wear gloves, but the ‘tools of the trade’ of an archive researcher lie all around you: little ‘elephant’ stools for reaching general local interest reference books on high shelves; grey foam triangles and cushions on which to rest the old books while reading; and long, thin weighty plastic ‘snakes’ to hold down pages.

Sometimes you want to do more than make notes, of course, and so a photocopying service is available.  This extends from normal black & white copies to large coloured plan prints.  You have to order the latter and collect them at a later visit – or have them sent out to you.  They aren’t cheap, but the original elevations of the School look fab.  Alternately, you can pay £10.00 up front and take your own photos.  No flash is allowed and neither can you put anything on the floor, which is where those little ‘elephant’ stools can come in very handy.  If you know you will want to work from items at home, this is by far the most economical and helpful way to do research though.  They can also scan images to disk in a digitised form too.

A visit to the Archives is definitely a holiday job, if you work full time like me. The Search Room is only open to the public from Tuesday to Friday and between 10.00am and 4.00pm. I recommend it though – not least of all because the building was also designed by Oliver & Leeson (now Oliver, Lesson and Wood) 10 years after Church High.  Perhaps the little photo-story below, which I created with a future post in mind the day I picked up some of the archival material to be digitised for the NHSG website, might be your incentive for a visit.

There are obvious similarities between the architectural design of The Discovery Museum (built as the Co-op distribution warehouse) and the original Newcastle High building.
When you enter the Museum, signage to Tyne & Wear Archives is straight ahead of you.
Once you’ve walked the whole length of Turbinia, turn left.
Through the doorway ahead of you, the Archives signage is clear – both on the wall to your left and on the floor below.

Turn left and you’ll see a ship in a glass case ahead (above), then when you turn right a display board on the wall (below).

Immediately to your left is the first of two entrance doors to the Museum’s archive area.
A marvellous corridor lies ahead with the 2nd door at its end.

Through the door to your left you will see the Enquiries desk. Mark was processing search requests on the day I took these photos.
Immediately to your right is the Search Room. My favourite spot is the table at the very back in front of the window.
With the big window behind you, the light is ideal at this table for viewing larger archival items, such as Oliver & Leeson’s 1888 plan for Newcastle High School’s North Elevation.

In addition to a wide-ranging, comprehensively-catalogued collection of printed materials dating from c 1890 to 2014, the archive also contains a large number of fascinating photographs, press cuttings and architectural plans charting the history of the School from the earliest days of Newcastle High School right up to the final year of Church High.  Sadly, no photographs of the construction of the original building exist, but you may be interested to know that our archive does contain photocopies of all references to the School in the Church Schools’ Company’s minutes.  This record of day-to-day correspondence between Newcastle and the company’s Council in London isn’t the easiest of reads owing to the age of the photocopies and a range of different hands, but it contains some fascinating insights.  The page referring to GDST’s first attempt to buy the Tankerville Terrace site in particular.  From these minutes, we can see it was agreed that the representative of GPDST who made the overture was to be told that “the Council had no intention of abandoning their School at Newcastle on Tyne.” Indeed, just a little while later in 1902 the Company were soon advertising for a new Headmistress to further establish Newcastle High School for Girls.  The successful candidate would be Miss Gurney.  Thrilling to see first-hand.

From the Church School Company’s Minutes (T&W Archives)