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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Brown’s Self-Interpreting Family Bible

Brown's self-interpreting family bible

Is it sinful to destroy a bible? I fear I may have committed sacrilege, not just once but three times over: to God, to my ancestors and to lovers of old books everywhere.

A few years ago I inherited a small suitcase containing a copy of Brown’s enormous Self-Interpreting Family Bible, which my father in turn had inherited from his Grandad Dunham. “You’d better take this” he was told, so he rode home with it balanced on his bicycle handlebars.

It was in pitiful condition: torn and loose pages, detached spine and end boards, faded gilt titles and tarnished metal stubs where clasps once fastened. It was stuck up with yellow tape where someone had tried to repair it. It smelt old and fusty. It deposited dusty specs of decaying leather and paper wherever you put it down. It seemed to be infested with mites. A metaphor, perhaps, for Christianity in the twenty-first century of the Common Era.

It was like a breeze block: about 13 x 10 x 3¼ inches (33½ x 25½ x 8½ centimetres) with over 1,100 pages. Once it would have been very beautiful book. Grandad Dunham, a devout Methodist, would have kept it constantly on display on a special table in the best room of the house, open at the page he was currently studying.

However, it was not really his. It was his wife’s. The inscription inside reads:

Family Bible Inscription
Miss E Mann
A present from
Her Dearly Beloved Mother
On Her twenty first
Birthday March 30th
Amber Hill
Sutterton Fen
It must have cost a lot of money, a sacrifice, but she herself was unable to read it. When she married Grandad Dunham she could only sign the Register with ‘X’ her mark. It seems unlikely that her parents could read it either. Perhaps they gazed in awe at the beautiful pictures inside, learnt their stories and meanings, and got someone else to write the inscription.

Title Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

The full title was:
Browns Self-Interpreting Family Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, to which are annexed marginal references and illustrations, an exact summary of the several books, a paraphrase of the most obscure or important parts, explanatory notes, evangelical reflections, &., &., by the late Rev. John Brown, Minister of the Gospel at Haddington, with many additional references and numerous illustrations.
Nothing like a snappy title is there, but how was it self-interpreting? It seems to be down to the copious explanations and cross-references throughout, so thorough they effectively paraphrase the whole thing. For example, on the following page from Genesis, the notes are longer than the actual text:

Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

God, with most exquisite art and skill, formed man’s body of the dust ... and so made him [human] the Reverend Brown interprets Verse 7 for us, and then cross-references this to similar assertions such as: we are the clay, and thou our potter. He continues in similar vein throughout the whole of the Old and New Testaments, exactly what you might expect from a man who despite minimal formal education taught himself Greek, Latin and Hebrew. His fellow members of the Secession Church in Scotland felt so inadequate they thought his learning must have come straight from the devil. He was like a living computer with the NVivo software.

Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

Yet there is more. As well as the Old and New Testaments, there is a section on the life of the author (1772-1787), followed by a multi-chapter introduction which includes the geography and history of the biblical nations. He really had it in for Moslems:
About A.D. 608, Mahomet, a crafty Ishmaelite, assisted, it is said, by a villainous Jew and a treacherous Christian monk ... contrived a religious system ... promising to those who embraced it manifold carnal enjoyments, both in time and in eternity.
Mahomet’s followers are likened to locusts and scorpions, with men’s beards, but hair plaited like women’s, who ravaged and murdered the nations. They pretended to a masculine religion but their character was marked by lust for women, revenge and cruelty.

Text from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible
If you think that’s not very complimentary, look at what he says about the Romans. When they weren’t burning multitudes of Christians in heaps for Nero’s nocturnal recreation, they were having them torn to pieces by lions and tigers, or pulling off their flesh with pincers, or mangling them with broken pots, or roasting them between gentle fires, or pouring melted lead through holes into their bowels.

Who needs Game of Thrones? Bring on the heathens and their manifold carnal enjoyments. The Reverend Brown’s fire and brimstone sermons must have left his congregation shocked and awed to the core, wishing they could go out and buy the box set so as not to have to wait a whole week for the next instalment.

But, sadly, the bible is beyond repair and too big and dirty to keep. It has come to the end of its time. I have tried to palm it off to various relatives but none will even entertain the idea of having it. In good condition it might be worth £150 or more, but not this one. So, I have cut out and kept the inscription page, along with the pages between the Old and New Testaments where the details of family marriages, births and deaths have been recorded in various hands between 1889 and the nineteen-fifties. The rest is now in the paper recycling bin – not so different from what my dad imagined as he got older: a skip outside his house piled high with all his most treasured possessions: his books, his stamp album, his Panora school photograph with its frame and glass all smashed up, and the family bible on top. 

Sinful? Yes I suppose it is. My only prayer now is that in the afterlife I won’t have to face the punishment of having melted lead poured into my bowels.

Pictorial Title Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Jephthah's Rash Vow Adam and Eve Faicum, Arch of Titus, and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Abraham sending away Hagar Noah's sacrifice Meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt Mount Sinai, Ethan and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible The descent of Moses from Mount Sinai The people of Israel murmuring for water Birds, offerings and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Joshua's defeat of the Amorites Death of Samson David slaying Goliath Animals and birds from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Job rebukes his friends The prophet rebuketh Ahab Baalbeck, Edom, Babylon and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Solomon's judgment Jeremiah lamenting over Jerusalem Daniel interpreting the mysterious handwriting Denarius of Tiberius and Augustus, quadrans, and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible The money changers driven from the temple Christ among the doctors Jesus betrayed by Judas The wise men's offering to the infant saviour Christ and the woman of Samaria Mary anointing the feet of Jesus The woman taken in adultery Bethany, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Jesus before Pilate Christ appearing to two Disciples on the way to Emmaus Tyre, Bethseda, Sidon, Samaria and Siloam

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Hornby ‘O’ Gauge Revisited

A couple of years ago I posted a visual reconstruction of my nineteen-fifties Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train set.

I recently came across the following leaflets that came with the set, saved by my dad between the pages of an old family bible (click to enlarge, or save image for full-size):

Hornby O gauge track layouts Hornby O gauge track layouts
Hornby O gauge track layouts Hornby O gauge track layouts

Did you know that the handle on the winding key was designed to test the correct spacing between the rails?

Hornby O gauge hints Hornby O gauge hints

It seems from the following that only boys who join are entitled to the privilege of free expert advice. Does that mean that girls had to pay? I’m tempted to send off one shilling and 3 pence (6p today) for the official badge and special booklet on my daughter’s behalf:

Application for Membership of the Hornby Railway Company Application for Membership of the Hornby Railway Company

Hornby train set guarantee Hornby train set guarantee

Friday, 1 September 2017

Doorstep Deliveries

Milk seems such an ordinary product, yet it sparks off so many memories.

milk bottles doorstep delivery

A pickup truck sounds in the night, footsteps trudge to the door, bottles clink, the truck drives off and I drift back to sleep in the silence. It was to be our last delivery. We had left a note to cancel the milk, to join all the other households who over the past forty years have forsaken the milkman for the supermarket.

Until a couple of months earlier our milkman had been Rodney. Like day follows night, he delivered five days a week, extra on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and called to be paid once a month on a Monday. But one month he surprised us by calling on a Friday, “… to make things easier for Monday,” he said. “Good idea to have a bit of a break on a bank holiday,” we replied.

On Monday there was double on the step: eight full bottles (the kids were at home). Where could we keep all that? And there was a note signed by Ben: “I have taken over as your new milkman”. Rodney had not let out even the tiniest hint. “I will be delivering three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I will not be calling for payment but will leave a monthly invoice instead. Please would you leave a cheque by return.”

Three days a week! Monthly invoice! Cheque! What a layabout. We replied on the Wednesday to say just four each time please. There wasn’t enough room in the fridge for more. On other days we began to buy our milk in four-pint plastic bottles from the supermarket. We never saw Ben in person at all.

*                         *                         *

How different from how things used to be: milk fresh to the door seven days a week. It had to be before we all had fridges. In summer, we had to keep the bottles in a bowl of cold water in the kitchen sink, covered with a wet tea cloth, to stop it going off.

When I was little, our milkman was Jack Hunter who had a van. Not so long before that he had brought his milk on a horse drawn float. He was already ancient, but we had him all the way through my childhood and beyond. He worked well into his eighties, tall, straight, white hair, khaki dust coat, bottle carriers at his sides. How did he keep going? I would not have got up in the early hours to work a sixty-hour week, snow, ice, wind and rain, even in my twenties. There used to be a joke about the milkman who joined the army and thought it was great because he could stay in bed until six o’clock. Jack usually got to us before breakfast time but one day it was dinner time before he arrived. “You’re late today Jack. You look terrible!” my mum commented. “Sorry,” he said, “Edie died in the night.” His wife had died in bed beside him yet he still came round with the milk.

old shaped milk bottle and doorstep boot scraper

Jack left the bottles in the boot scraper beside the front door. Bottles were taller and thinner then, not the squat dumpy ones we have now. I know because Sooty the cat is sitting next to such a bottle on another doorstep in 1964. Milk was always full-cream (full-fat, perjoratively). No one had semi-skimmed until the nineteen-eighties. Even in 1985, full-cream accounted for over 90% of sales. My dad remained loyal to it until the end. The “cream” floated to the top and he liked it over a bowl of strawberries or raspberries. It was a treat to have it on your cornflakes.

foil top depressor for milk bottles
It was always full-cream at school too. The government would not fund anything less. All school children under eighteen were allowed one-third of a pint free per day to alleviate poor nutrition, a major hindrance to learning. The Wilson government ended it for secondary pupils in 1968, and “Thatcher the milk snatcher” for all children over seven in 1971. Until then it came in little bottles exactly the same shape but one-third the size of those at home, sour in summer, frozen and expanding up from the tops in winter, slithering out at the necks like the heads of snails wearing silver berets. When not frozen we had a round, plastic, dimpled gadget for pressing in the foil tops, to avoid poking your thumbs in, but I didn’t like how it looked and felt, and it smelt as well, so I wouldn’t touch the nasty thing and used my thumbs anyway.

The ending of school milk never bothered me because I had left by then, and in any case, most of us had stopped drinking it by around fourteen. It was there if you wanted it, as much as you could drink, crates of it piled next to the lockers. When in the sixth form we started going to a friend’s house most days after school, and his mother complained about the amount of milk we were getting through, we began helping ourselves to milk from school. By the end of the year he must have had a hundred empty bottles stuffed under his bed. We got rid of them in a street bin around the corner.

So many memories! At one place I lived, the milk came around 6.00 a.m. but it began to disappear from the doorstep, stolen by an early riser or someone going home from the night shift. I entertained the idea of substituting a pint of sour milk until I realised it might get thrown through the window. I listened for the milkman in my sleep, dashed down to bring the milk in, and went back to bed. I suppose that’s why I still hear him in the night.

wooden milk bottle cover

When we moved to where we live now, Sandra, the milk lady, waylaid us as we unloaded the furniture. “Free milk for a month” she said, which was too good to turn down. Her round was later taken over by someone else, and then again, until we got Rodney around ten years ago. The only problem we ever had was that someone pinched our metal milk bottle cover which prevented the birds from pecking at it and giving us psittacosis. I made a wooden one. Rodney was impressed. “I could sell those,” he said. “It even has little feet.”

We imagined Rodney would go on forever until, one day, without warning, there would be no milk and we would curse him thinking he was just late. We never thought he would actually retire.

*                         *                         * 

The new deliveries just three days a week were confusing and inconvenient. Not only that, it usually came around midnight. What good would that be on warm summer nights, standing out in the early morning sun before we brought it in? And then we got a note to say the milkman was going on holiday and had not been able to find a stand-in, so there would be no milk for a week. Unbelievable – a milkman who goes on holiday! It seemed best to cancel it completely. The irresistible forces of home refrigeration, supermarket price wars and a milkman who wanted some sort of work-life balance had finally won.  

It seemed a pity. Despite paying twice the supermarket price for the privilege, it felt good to be supporting a local service. The milk came from a nearby farm and the reusable glass bottles were environmentally friendly. It seems that in some city areas, doorstep deliveries are making a comeback supported by a growing band of eco-enthusiasts prepared to pay a fair price for their milk. One London firm still uses electric milk floats. “We have started to become hip and trendy again” they said. “Customers are beginning to realise that cheap milk from supermarkets is not sustainable for farmers.”

We put out the note to cancel the milk, rolled up and poked in the top of a bottle. That evening there was a loud knock on the door: a very determined knock. It was Ben, the new milkman: the only time we have ever seen him. “I don’t want to lose volume” he complained. We explained our reasons – the need to store large quantities, the milk on the step in the sun. “Well,” he said, “I can do it in four-pint plastic containers like from the supermarket.” So we’re giving it a go. We get all our milk from him now and haven’t cancelled it at all. Two four-pint containers will fit in the fridge door, whereas eight one-pint bottles will not. It costs less than glass bottles too. I had to make a bigger milk bottle box though. The hinged lid is very satisfying but we’ve no idea what the new milkman makes of it. We’ve still only seen him the once.

wooden milk bottle box with hinged lid

It is not ideal to be using more plastic, but at least plastic bottles appear to be more easily recyclable than the Tetra-Paks they used to have. As for Rodney, it turns out he hasn’t retired. He has just cut down the size of his round. We still see him out and about but he no longer delivers to our street.