When A Book Isn’t Just A ‘Book’: Newcastle Church High Jubilee History (1)

I asked Google for the definition of book today.  The answers varied: ‘a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers’ said its Dictionary; ‘a written text that can be published in printed or electronic form’ replied the slightly more up-to-date Cambridge English Dictionary.  The Collins English Dictionary told me that ‘book’, a countable noun no less, is ‘a number of pieces of paper, usually with words printed on them, which are fastened together and fixed inside a cover of stronger paper or cardboard. Books contain information, stories, or poetry’.  I quite liked this one.  Especially the bit about the stronger paper or cardboard.  Detail is important and a book held in the hand is a tangible thing.  True.  Old books bound in leather feel good.  They also have an amazing smell.

Newcastle High School 1886 Bickers Prize Binding in maroon leather and gilt.

But can a book’s contents ever really be bound?  Ah, there’s the rub.  And the reason for writing this post.  When is a book not just a book?  Partly it’s an intellectual thing.  It takes Wikipedia to remind us a book is also ‘an intellectual object, prototypically a composition of such great length that it takes a considerable investment of time to compose and a still considerable, though not so extensive, investment of time to read’.  Yes, much can be invested in books.  The way a book’s content works on the mind of a reader.  Triggers memory, thoughts, feelings.  A book reads differently in the hands of the folk who hold it.  Or held it.  But what is passed on of them via it, interests me most.

‘Old books tell you stories about their use. You can see where fingerprints touched the pages as they held the book open. You can see how long they lingered on each page.’

My younger brother, John, studied English at University too.  The bonus for him was he could use my books, just as I’d done with some of Dad’s texts.  The down side for me was he’d write notes in them.  Quel horreur!  Evidence of someone else’s thoughts in MY books.  Yet now, when I buy old books online, this is what intrigues me most.  A name, date.  A dedication, quotation or a prize bookplate.  They all provide a hint of who may have owned the book before me.  Even loved it perhaps.  So much so they had even kept things safe inside it.  I first learned that books could hold such treasure from a copy of Rupert Brooke’s Poems bought at Keelrow Books many moons ago.

Photo inside is presumably of Miss Spencer and Charlie.

So when is a Church High Jubilee Book not just another copy of the Jubilee Book?   If you’ve read ‘Walkabout’, a staple text of the Lower Fourth reading curriculum when I started teaching at Church High, you may recall the children’s search for food in the Outback. And discovering yams in particular. James Vance Marshall describes yams as an upside down plant, ‘one of nature’s paradoxes: a leaf and flower-bearing liana whose foliage grew entirely underground’. The image of the Bush Boy tugging at vines to unearth large tuber-like protuberances just below the surface has always stuck with me. These days, it serves as useful metaphor for the way online searches have led me link after link to unearth one NCHS archival gem after another.  Which brings me to my Jubilee Books, all four of them, and the key question, “When is an eBay purchase not just another copy of the same book?”  The answer has proved to be “When, like a mini time capsule, its covers have cocooned otherwise ephemeral things.”

I got my first copy of the Jubilee Book from School at merger time, desperate even then to ensure Church High was not forgotten.  If you were lucky enough to have attended the final Old Girls Dinner, you will know that Sarah Timney turned Room 6 into a veritable treasure trove of every kind of item possible related to the Church High School brand that she’d come across in the building clear out.  Then and on Heritage Open Day, it had the atmosphere of a very special Jumble Sale: smiles, shrieks and fast-filling-up carrier bags.

Room 6 continuing to fascinate folk on Heritage Open Day.

Clearly excess stock by 1936, that very first Jubilee History, which I remember reading from cover to cover in one evening sitting, also contained a piece of NCHS social history.  On yellowing paper, a compliments slip reducing the price to 1/6d: ‘Miss Gurney sends this copy of the Jubilee Book with her compliments, believing that members of the School will wish to possess this record of the School’s history.’ 

And so it began.  I have no explanation for the fact that the three further purchases I made online over time all contained a gem.  It was almost like every once in a while I felt drawn to have a quick surf and browse.  A book was there waiting.  Surely I should leave it for somebody else? (I thought).  Why do you need another one? (I was repeatedly told, eyes rolling and eyebrows raised in exasperation.)  And when the book arrived in the post: ‘voila!’  Clearly meant to be.  The piece of treasure trove I want to share with you in this post wasn’t a surprise though.  ‘1935 School history with newspaper cutting’ the description said.  On that occasion, it was more a case of fingers crossed, could it actually be …?  In Tyne and Wear Archives, there is a copy of a 1950s Newcastle Journal feature article on Church High.  I liked so much I had it photocopied.  A very poorly done copy, it has to be said, because the article was too big to fit onto one piece of A4.  As there won’t have been that many press pieces on the School, the odds were good, admittedly.  But delight was huge when it was ‘It’.

Thank you M. Dawe of ‘Tavistock House’ for loving your school so much that you safely kept a clipping from a newspaper you bought and read in 1954 inside the School history you had had since 1948.

So why was I so delighted to possess a copy of this article?  Because the writer, Harry Thompson, clearly understood the School so well.  ‘The Struggle for an ideal is the heritage of Church High’.  How true.  And what a heritage that still is.  His feature summarises the School’s history as ‘that seeming anachronism of the modern age, an independent school’.  He quickly distinguishes ‘independent’ from ‘public’ and proceeds to put his finger on what then – and continued to – make Church High so special, the self-sacrifices people made for the sake of a school they valued and loved, whether pupils, parents or staff:  ‘It is part of the precious heritage of the school today that so many of its pioneers had to struggle for an ideal’, he goes on to say.  He also understood the shaping hands and unimpeachable character of the School’s Head Mistresses, some for whom this was their life work: ‘The headmistress tradition, which can stamp a school with character or render it devoid of personality, was established in the classic mould, and has never been diverted from that high standard. … First there was Miss Ackerley, intensely dignified, then Miss Siddall, strict and just and sympathetic.  Then for 34 years, there was Miss Gurney, who was the architect of the school as it is today, so intimately identified with every circumstance of each day that, even now, when she has been gone from the place some 20 years, the evidence of her work is plain for all to see.’ 

The first three Headmistresses celebrating the School’s Jubilee together in 1935: Miss Ackerley, Miss Siddall & Miss Gurney.

Because of its independent nature, the School’s success was always reliant on the dedication, goodwill and professionalism of its staff.  If you worked at Church High, right up until its administrative end in 2014, you rolled up your sleeves, supported your colleagues and got on with the job in hand.  Always.  The School’s good name was all.  To his credit, Mr Thompson picked up on this too, back then in 1954.  He notes, ‘So the school went on, parents, pupils, teachers, governors, working together.  It was their school.  It was their business to make it supremely worthwhile.  So today the reputation of the Church High School is enviably high, where, from nursery school to Sixth Form, there is trust and skill and happiness.’  He got it so right.  And we all miss it a lot.

The article can be read in full screen if you click on the image below.