Jesus in the Electric Chair

Being Easter weekend, my news feed on Facebook has been clogged up with images and artwork portraying the crucifixion of Christ. Some respectful, some irreverent. But by far the image that most caught the eye, and the imagination, was the image of the sculpture by British artist Paul Fryer.

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Made of wax, wood, and human hair, the work was entitled ‘Pietà.’

Pietà means pity. A pietà is a painting or sculpture of Mary holding and grieving over the dead body of  Christ. There have been many of these paintings and sculptures done. The most famous is the sculpture by Michelangelo in St.Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This is the only work that the sculptor ever signed. The story has it that the artist was proudly watching a throng of people looking at his creation, when he overheard some admirers attribute it to other artists. Overcome by anger, he signed the statue, later regretting it and vowing never to sign any of his work again.

I guess even geniuses can be a little vain. And temperamental.

In 1972 a mentally disturbed young man attacked and damaged it with a hammer, shouting “I am Jesus Christ.” It had to be painstakingly restored. When I viewed this magnificent piece of art, when I was in Rome in 2009, it was through the bullet proof glass that now protects it. I suppose the logic is that if Jesus Christ can smuggle in a hammer, he can smuggle in a handgun.

pieta michelangelo

But back to Paul Fryer’s work of Jesus in an electric chair and the controversy it caused when revealed in 2009. It should be remembered that it was shown not in a museum but in a Cathedral in France – with the blessing of the local bishop. Monsignor Jean-Michel di Falco explained that he wanted “to make us aware once more that someone being nailed to a cross is a scandal. Usually, we no longer feel any real emotions in the face of something truly scandalous, the crucifixion.”

What do we think of this sculpture? In the 21st Century where executions still take place. Have we become blasè when confronted with images of the crucifixion? Does this work of Jesus, cradled in the arms of a wooden electric chair instead of those of his  mother, shake us from our indifference?

Respectful or irreverent?

Over to you, dear reader.

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Pariah

Well today is Good Friday.

I am called to be St.Peter.

Really.

Big sandals to fill. Although personally I think the pressure is on Jesus.

Have you ever read Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis? Well the role of Judas has not been cast yet. (An uneasy shuffling in the pews.) The community of Langley prepares to select this year’s social outcast.

It’s all gonna end in tears.

The Gangs of Manchester

gangs mancs

The first book that I have read since starting City Jackdaw. Which is fitting as it was from  this book that I got the title of my Blog. My initial interest was the Manchester connection: it is where I live, it is where my ancestors lived. One of the great appeals was that I am familiar with the areas and streets where these gangs roamed and in most cases got their names from. For example the memorable Bengal Tigers (Bengal Street, Ancoats) and the Clock Alley Lads, a few minutes walk from Victoria station. But this local knowledge is not essential for reading the book.

Scuttlers. The name of these brawling tribes of youths who fought turf wars against each other in the slums of Victorian industrial Manchester, who out of the depravity and squalor forged fearsome reputations and a notoriety. It was in this coming together that the first youth cult emerged- young people bonding together and wearing a recognisable ‘uniform’ that announced to all that they were members of a particular gang, in a phenomenon of violence that swept throughout the city.

It is hard not to read of the exploits of these lads (mostly lads, although there were girls involved too) and think of today’s youth, who are often castigated for loutish behaviour. Back in 19th Century Manchester they would attack innocent passersby, damage property, and often turn on beleaguered police officers trying to arrest one of the gang members. But what surprised me was the sheer numbers involved. Pitched battles would be fought between hundreds of stone throwing, knife wielding, belt swinging youths, with just a handful of police employed to try and bring order to the crime ridden streets. I think of the Manchester riot of 2011 and it pales in comparison as a one off event. Scuttling was no flash in the pan of disaffected young men- the gangs ran amok for three decades.

Another surprise was the lack of an honour code- although members of the same gang were bound together by loyalty and pride, they would confront other gangs, displaying all the bravado and willingness to maim their opponent, but as soon as they came off worse and were carted off to be stitched up at the infirmary they would name their attackers to the police, allowing the law to dispense their revenge.  No scruples about grassing in the Victorian era it seems. (Although a factor could be that the police officers weren’t governed by the kind of restraining rules they are now and were, perhaps, a little more persuasive.)

And in regard to the youth issues of today-how did the scuttling come to an end?  There were calls for flogging to be used, and long sentences were handed down in the days when prison, here the local Strangeways prison, was no cushy number. (There is a comical part where the mother of a lad, appearing in court, made such a commotion she was invited into the witness box to plead for the character of her son who was, she said, a good  boy at heart. The judge asked whether she realised,  though, that these were serious crimes which he had committed?  Maybe he was about to  be swayed towards leniency until a police officer pointed out that the mother had recently been brought to court for running a brothel. “Hes going to the house of correction!”)

Instead of these strict measures though, it seems the end of scuttling came about with the introduction of working lads’ clubs which offered sporting pursuits which channeled the energy and frustration of these young men and gave them something other to do,under the Christian ideal, with weekend camps at the coast or countryside a big draw for boys who lived in slum housing with no chance of holidays. And also that great British pastime -football. Teams were formed and venues agreed to hold matches instead of ‘scuttles.’ There was still that sense of belonging and competitiveness, but now it was on behalf of a club or a team, and didn’t result with a belt buckle wrapped around the head. Mostly.

This bodes well for the countless volunteers and youth workers who strive today to get our young people off the streets and engaged in something worthwhile. The blueprint worked!

My only disappointment? I never recognised a single, scowling ancestral scuttler within the covers of this book. If I continue with my family history research perhaps I will uncover a saint or great reformer. To begin with though, I think I had better give the prison records a try.

R.I.P The Death of James Herbert and My Childhood

James Herbert

I was so saddened to hear of the death of James Herbert on the 20th of March. Why? I never knew him. I never even met him. The closest I came to contact with him was an autographed leaflet advertising his new book, obtained by my mother, thirty years ago, who worked with his cousin.

The sadness arises from the passing of another link with my childhood. Perhaps its a turning forty thing. When I drank alcohol I could wallow in my beer. Now I cry into my coffee. Kicking off my slippers in frustration.

What on earth could the link be between childhood and books of gratuitous horror and sex? Perhaps  the answer is found within the question. But I began reading Herbert’s books when in my last year of primary school, aged around 11-12. Maybe not ideal fodder for a young mind-others were taking in Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. The author of the Bobby Brewster range even paid us a visit. But I was reading above my age, and my interest was horror. Bloodthirsty kid that I was.

‘To Andrew, glad you like the books so much. Best Wishes James Herbert.’ I’ve still got it. There was no postscript suggesting I seek a counsellor. Or take part in a NSPCC therapy session. Or a recommendation that my folks attend a parenting class. If they had them then.

We were on a coach one day travelling back to school from a trip to Jodrell Bank, our necks still stiff from gazing heavenwards in the darkness of the Planetarium, when I heard my teacher, talking to some girls a few rows behind, mention my name. She saw me turn and explained “I just said ‘even I don’t read the books that Andrew Murray reads!'”

It didn’t bode well for parents evening.

My Mum returned, and among the usual platitudes said “She was a bit concerned about the types of books you read.”

“Why?” I feigned innocence.

She suddenly developed a stammer that had never been evident before: “She wants to know what you do abb..bout the er.er.. when you get to..to the ..erm. ”

“The sex bits!” my Dad interjected helpfully.

Innocent schoolboy lover of just the horror parts,of course, I answered ” I skip those.” My mum latched onto that in an instant, “That’s what I said.”

“You can’t bleedin’ skip them,” my Dad added with more authority than I thought usual.

But James Herbert’s books are what my early diet consisted of. Midway through my last year at that primary school a new girl started who also read James Herbert. A girl too! How cool was she?

Anyway, I got older, I moved on (in schools and books.) From Herbert I moved to King, and then out into the wider world of literature.  James Herbert’s books moved on too-from the more traditional horror fayre to a more supernatural style, which I wasn’t as enthusiastic about. But I think back to those early ones-The Rats, The Fog, The Dark, The Survivor, books I loved in a period of my life that I loved. I would lend them to my uncle who took them with him when he worked the night-shift (he is no longer with us.) I lent them to my mum (she has moved onto Catherine Cookson.)

So, for the part he played in my childhood, and into my early teens, I felt that sense of loss when hearing of his death. A sense of losing something from my past. I have experienced that unexpected reaction before.

Bill Bixby. I can recall the Saturday teatimes spent sat eating my ravioli, wearing my Six Million Dollar Man t shirt (please-someone give me some good news about Lee Majors) and watching the Incredible Hulk. I loved that programme, and was gutted when he died.

Mr McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Peter Cushing-from the Hammer Horror films. Told you I was a blood thirsty kid.

George Harrison-I was a Beatles fan from being twelve, three years after Lennon died. I recall how I discovered about Harrison’s demise. It was my day off from work (I was a postman) and my partner at the time and I went into the local Global video store to get a couple of films. As she took them to the counter, I continued to browse, and one of my colleagues came in with the post for the store. He too was a Beatles fan. He greeted me, then “Hey-what about George?” With some trepidation, I replied “What about him?”

“He’s died.” I shouted across the store “Put those videos back-George Harrison has died!” It was a day of watching MTV instead.

Aww and recently Elizabeth Sladen-my Sarah Jane Smith. (The wife rolls her eyes.)

Each time one of these figures die, along with what to me they represent, it is like a fragment falls away. Another signpost removed.

Perhaps it is a morose, turning-forty-thing. The lot of the moribund.

Perhaps I am being overly sentimental.

But I have heard among the many tributes countless similar tales, of how Herbert’s books was a visual soundtrack to the teenage years of so many. Of course, many remained fans throughout without falling away.

It is a little disingenuous of me to refer to him merely as a stepping stone to Stephen King. I think I may revisit some of those early books from an adult perspective, albeit awash with nostalgia. I think back to my old primary school teacher. I like to think that curiosity got the better of her and she dipped her toe in and became a fan. Perhaps he was a stepping stone for her too.

Perhaps somewhere out there she is turning off her lamp, with the ubiquitous Mr Grey on her bedside table.

James Herbert R.I.P

Why City Jackdaw?

Birds. I like birds.

I am not a birdwatcher, and try to refrain from twitching. But when out and about I try to take notice of what is around me, whether I am walking along the coast, through the woods, or down the street. Birds pay no heed to our borders and our boundaries. They are everywhere. I like that sense of freedom.

 Corvidae is the latin name for the family of birds that includes Crows, Ravens, Jays and Magpies.  These are considered to be among the most intelligent of birds. Crows can do all sorts of things, regularly featuring on YouTube. Look them up. Google ‘Crow funerals.’ Crows dance. Use tools. Fly upside down (really!)  Recognise human faces. Upset a crow and its personal. I have been out and about and found a Crow studying me. Figuring me out. (Good luck says my wife.)

Jackdaws are the smallest of the Corvidae family. Maybe pushed to the margins by its larger cousins. They can be shy. Inquisitive. Raucous. Riotous.

But smart.

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In Celtic tales they sometimes spoke.

Generally wary of people in the forest or countryside, they are much tamer in urban areas. I am exactly the same since watching Deliverance.

‘This bird is considered sacred because it frequents church steeples and builds its nest there. It is said to be an innocent bird, though given to carrying off things and hiding them in out-of-the-way places. When ignorance of a fault is pleaded, it is a common saying, “I have no more knowledge of the fact than the Devil has of the Jackdaw.” The Devil evidently will have nothing to do with this bird, because it makes its home in the church steeple and he hates the church and everything belonging to it.’

–  Wales, Folklore, Myths and Legends.

City Jackdaw was a weekly penny magazine that was published in Manchester from 1875 to 1880.

I first came across this publication when I was reading a book about those oh so nice Scuttler boys of Victorian Manchester. The hoodies of their day, what was described as Britain’s first youth cult emerged from the slums and degradation of industrial Manchester, this fair city in which I now live, in a fury of swinging belt buckles and thrusting knives.

City Jackdaw advertised itself as a humorous and satirical journal. Its subject matter was broad, covering all things current.  Poetry, articles, sections on the theater and ‘Claws of the Week’ were regular features. With many advertisements, covering the front and back covers both inside and out, sometimes other pages as well. Twelve pages long, it was illustrated with plates.

I discovered it at a time when I was looking for a title for this blog, and I appreciated the synchronicity. It seemed to bring together many of the subjects I am interested in- poetry, literature, history, current affairs, and in its very title joins together my love of the natural world, with that of my urban surroundings, rooted as the original magazine was in this very place where many generations of my ancestors walked, and possibly scuttled, along these northern streets I know so well.

There is a great line from Birds of Britain about Jackdaws, which I think could also equally apply to some of those people of  19th Century Manchester, highlighting two similar aspects of our distinct species’:

-‘They may be rogues, but they are intelligent rogues.’ 

And so- City Jackdaw.

Look forward to seeing you.

cityjackdaw