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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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].
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.