Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The Flight into Egypt

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The Flight into Egypt was always a popular subject with Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque artists. The iconography is always the same: Mary is wearing her customary red dress and blue cloak and holds the Christ-child in her arms; she rides side-saddle on a donkey, which is led by Joseph, who is much older than Mary. Usually they cross the picture from left to right: I don't know why this should be.
   The flight into Egypt occurs only in St. Matthew's gospel, along with the wise men (who are not named, or even numbered, and are certainly not described as kings), the star and King Herod, whose vengeance Mary and Joseph are escaping, having been warned in a dream. Saint Luke's gospel, by contrast, has the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, the Emperor Augustus's decree on taxation, The ox and ass at the crib, and the shepherds. Clearly there are two completely different traditions about the birth of Christ; the only point in common being that it occurred in Bethlehem, apparently to fulfil a prophecy that the Lord and Saviour would be born there. Only Matthew mentions the prophecy, but he does not explain how Mary and Joseph came to be there, when Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, far to the north. The gospels of Mark and John tell us nothing about the birth at all.   

Friday, 21 December 2018

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas to everyone!

I found this charming 15th century Nativity scene in the Petit Palais in Avignon.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Department Store Christmas

It wasn't long till closing time, but Martin was so sunk in boredom and lethargy that he couldn't even summon up sufficient energy to loook forward o the weekend. Nothing was happening; absolutely nothing. When he'd first taken up the job in the Bathroom Accessories department of BSDM (formerly the Kingdom department store, since taken over by a conglomerate) he'd put it down as something temporary; useful work-experience; but all he'd learnt to date was that he'd rather sweep the streets, or even live on the streets, than spend any longer in such an institution. More than once he'd considered simply walking out, but had rejected that as very boring and unoriginal. What he really wanted was to be sacked: not for some petty misdeed, but for something specatacular and original (but of course non-criminal; he didn't want his future prospects too blighted); something that would cause his name to be remembered for ever; to live on in legend amongst all the grey, tedious people of  BSDM. But what? He had no idea. His mind wandered round aimlessly.
    Then Muriel, his typically grey and tedious departmental head, shuffled up to him and addressed  him in her usual irritating whiney voice.
   "Oh, Michael!" she said, getting his name wrong as usual, "I wonder if I could ask the most enormous favour of you? I've got a dreadful migraine and I'm going to have to go home early. The thing is, after we close there's a meeting for the heads of department. Please say you'll go and stand in for me: there's no-one else to do it. I'm afraid you'll find it terribly dull, but someone's got to be there. Please say yes!"
   Nothing like filling me with enthusiasm, thought Martin. But before he could think of an excuse not to be there, Muriel continued, ""You'll be meeeting the new boss, Mr Armitage. He's only been CEO for a few weeks. He's a very interesting man, but a word of warning! You must never call him anything but 'Chief''; that's what he expects. Got it? And don't ever disagree with him in public; he can't stand that!"
   Martin brightened up a bit. That could be something: a man sacked for standing up to the boss, telling him he was talking rubbish and offending protocol by addressing him by his name: people would remember that! Perhaps the unions might get involved, and call a strike over unfair dismissal! Perhaps it would make the papers! So, rather against his better judgement, he agreed to go along.

He arrived at the committee room in good time. The only person he recognised was Derek, the cynical head of Books and Stationery, whosr department was on the same floor as Bathroom Accessories. Martin explained about Muriel's migraine.

   "Well well, who'd have thought it?" Derek responded. "Muriel having to go home with a migraine just before the weekend! You astonish me! I wonder whether she'll be fully recovered come Monday morning? Don't bet on it! Now, did Muriel tell you anything useful about this meeting?"
   "She said it might be boring. And I was to call Mr Armitage 'Chief' and never contradict him".
   "Both correct! You've never met our beloved fuhrer, have you? Well, he says he likes to be on first-name terms with everybody, and welcomes free discussion, but that's only to make him sound trendy and democratic. So he may call you Martin, but you must never under any circumstances call him Reggie: he hates the name!"
   Across the table a fat, balding red-faced man was holding forth loudly.
  "Roger, from Shoes", said Derek. "A foot-fetishist, naturally, but a gay foot fetishist .... My advice would be, avoid all contact. Unless you like that sort of thing, of course. It looks like he's downed a few! He despises our Reggie: he really does!"
   The people around the table rose to their feet. The Chief was arriving! Martin looked at him closely: a short man with piercing blue eyes which swept rapidly round the room. Behind him there walked a youngish lady with black hair and a surprisingly short skirt.
   "Jane, from Cosmetics", whispered Derek. "Everyone's bet to be the next Number Two. Selected on bra size. Now,she'll agree with everything Armitage says, and with a bit of luck Roger will disagree with everything. This could be rather more fun than I expected!"
   Mr Armitage took his seat at the head of the table, and said, in a strange nasal voice, "I see we've got a new face among us. Stand up and intoduce yourself, laddie. It's first names here, we're all friends, don't be shy!"
   What a revoltingly condescending way of talking, thought Martin. But he explained about Muriel's absence and how he was there to represent Bathroom Accessories. "My name's Martin, Chief", he concluded, and sat down inwardly seething. He'd chickened out! He hadn't intended to say "Chief"! He'd have to do better than that if he wanted to be remembered!

The early parts of the meeting were deadly dull. Martin knew absolutely nothing about the isues under discussion, and had nothing to contribute. He tried not to doodle too obviously on the paper in front of him, though at times this was all that was keeping him awake. Then eventually Mr Armitage announced, "Next item: the Christmas display. Now I don't need to remind you that it's a big thing in this town: all the big stores compete to have the best display with a Christmas theme; it brings a lot of kudos and it's good publicity. So this year let's really go for it with somethingtruly original. Any bright ideas tostart us off?"

   "A Victorian Christmas?" said someone.
   "Been done! Many times! Boring!"
   "American Christmas?"
   "Scandinavian Christmas?"
   "Come on, guys! This is pathetic! If that's all we can think of, we might as well go completely over the top and have an Australian Christmas!"
   No doubt this was meant sarcastically, but Roger pretended to take it seriously, and began to discourse to no-one in particular about how puzzled archaeologists of the distant future would be to discover evidence that Australians had celebrated a midsummer festival by featuring an old man dressed in furs, riding a sleigh drawn by animals not native to that country. However, Jane, perhaps alerted by an impatient look on her boss's face, cut Roger short by saying, "I think that's a great idea, Chief! Santa at a barbecue on the beach! That would be different!"
  Martin's brain suddenly started whizzing. He remembered how someone had once told him that, when confronted with a silly idea, the best counter was not to contradict it but to extend it to its logical conclusion, so everyone could see how absurd it was. At this point his surrealist imagination took over.
   "I think it's a great idea too!" he announced, "There's such a lot we can do with it! A barbie on the beach, yes! And Santa come arrive from the sea on a surfboard! Wearing a red wetsuit! Surrounded by dolphins and sharks! All smiley, and with little red and white hats! And what about his helpers? Koalas, perhaps? Or if it's a night-time scene, we don't want reindeer! How about kangaroos?"
   He was on his feet by this time, making expansive gestures, and could have carried on longer, getting more and more outrageous, but Mr Armitage said quietly, "That's fine, Martin: don't get too carried away! We'll all give it some serious thought before the next meeting; okay?"
   The remainder of the meeting contained little of interest, and as they were filing out, Mr Armitage said, "Oh, Martin, a word with you, please!"
   Now I'm for it! thought Martin. But at least I've done something they'll remember, and I can leave this dump!
   Mr Armitage took him by the elbow as they walked off down the corridor. "Now, Martin", he said, "I like a kid with some guts and enthusiasm, who has ideas and isn't afraid to say what he thinks. Have you ever thought of putting in for a job up at headquarters? We could do with some new blood and fresh thinking. Bear it in mind. Don't let me forget, Jane!"
    "Thank you very much, Chief!" said Martin..

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Grinshill Copper Mine

Last weekend I was able to go on an exploration of the old copper mine underneath Grinshill, north of Shrewsbury. I'm not sure I would have volunteered if I'd known what was involved; including climbing down a very long ladder through a manhole, traversing above a yawning gulf, and crawling 50 yards along a tunnel. It was a good thing to have done, as distinct from a good thing to be doing.

The photos are by Mike Robins.
That's me in the blue jacket and pale pink trousers.

It's definitely not me disappearing through the hole at the top of the rope!

The experience was quite different from going down a coalmine. It wasn't damp, but very dry, with a coating of fine dust everywhere. There were no dangerous gases, so the miners worked with candles rather than Davy lamps. There were several levels deep below us, which had been worked from entries lower down the hill. In the walls, we saw patterns of brownish-red, indicating the presence of iron deposits, but hardly any signs of the greenish colour of copper.
    The mine was closed in the early 1960s.