Cambridge in November– Take an Art Tour and Make a Book

History, anyone?   Sixteenth-century choirboys…Anne Boleyn’s initials…mysterious walled gardens and long, winding passageways…this is the Cambridge, England I love.  One of the joys of living here is in being surrounded by the slow-moving past in a very fast-paced modern world.  There is the 800-year old university, of course, whose many colleges and iconic King’s Chapel create the focus of all that history and traditional past.

But there is also the Fitzwilliam, one of Britain’s finest art museums, whose rare treasures offer many interesting opportunities to travel back in time and an excellent way to spend a cold, dreary November day.  Art historian Sarah Burles is just the right lady to take you there.  She is the director of Cambridge Art Tours which are designed to introduce you to the Fitz’s wide variety of world class collections and exhibits.  But some of Sarah’s art tours may also take you outside the Museum.  I have had the chance to explore some of the architectural and archaeological wonders around Cambridge, and on my recent Art of the Book tour, engaged in medieval book binding at Cambridge Artworks before viewing the stunning exhibit on Illuminated Manuscripts currently on show at the Fitzwilliam.

Now, even though I have an undying love of books, signing up for a medieval book binding class on its own is probably not something I would ever do.  I am pretty hopeless when it comes to sewing anything.  The thought of punching holes in leather, messing with pots of glue, and trying to stitch it all together with sheafs of paper takes me back to those abysmal craft sessions at summer camp.  I try to write books, not make them.  But throw in an intriguing mix of monks, nuns, and artists laboriously creating manuscripts of unequalled detail and colour by hand, and you’ve got me hooked.  A story starts playing in my head and I get to be one of the characters.

So, fortified by cups of tea, I begin my journey back into the days before the printing press by taking up my needle, and promptly stabbing my thumb.  Blood smudges my neatly folded paper.  I have just transgressed the first rule of medieval book binding apprenticeship–never prick your fingers over a one-off manuscript that someone has nearly gone blind copying and painting by hand.

Never mind, I’m not fired!  My excellent mentor, Edel Hopkin, comes swiftly to my aid with a 21st century plaster (band aid) and I learn that good old medieval spit will rub out any bloodstain (sort of).

Once I get a rhythm going with stitching the paper to the spine of the leather cover, however, I find I am actually enjoying this hands-on approach to history.  Sarah and Edel make a brilliant team.  Edel is a qualified instructor in the art of book binding and often teaches school groups.  She guides us expertly through the process of binding our little books from start to finish.  We are sitting around a table in a well lit room with an electric heater.  I try to imagine doing this kind of work with only natural or candle light and somehow keep my hands warm and steady in a freezing cold medieval workshop.

If I had to do this kind of work continually, I would hope practice makes perfect.  As it is, my stitching on the spine is hardly straight.  There is a blood and spit stain on the paper.  But it is my book which I made, and I am somewhat proud of my little wonky, blood-stained achievement.  I am no artist, but my son is.  I am going to drop it in his Christmas stocking and ask him to fill it with beautiful pictures.

When we finally come face to face with the medieval manuscripts back at the Fitzwilliam, I am already part of their world.  “Painstaking” only begins to describe the detail, the hours of labor, the clarity and perfection of colour.  We moderns live such distracted lives.  In these manuscripts, the glory is in their focus.  They are paper cathedrals in which entire lives were devoted to their creation.

I am challenged in my own writing of books.  Thank goodness, I don’t have to copy words by hand.  But there is a lot of wonky stitching that goes on; layers and layers of it.  At times, I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth it, if I can keep focused enough to press on despite the blood and spit.

Life is like that.  We are the apprentices, in need of a Master Artist and Craftsman to bind us together and fill our empty pages with colour and light.  The medievalists had a great hunger for spiritual beauty and redemption.  It’s what drove them to create what they did, and the power of their work still resonates through the noise and din of our 21st century.

Colour:  the Art and Science of Medieval Manuscripts  is on display at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge through the 2nd January 2017.





Today is Remembrance Day in Great Britain.  On the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, 1918, World War I came to an end in Europe.  Eleven million were killed on the battlefields of that Great War in what was one of the bloodiest, most horrific wars of all time.  This day honors those who gave their lives in that war and every other war since then.  The symbol worn and displayed is a red poppy, the flower of “Flanders Fields” which was once saturated with English blood.  It is a day to reflect and remember what should never be forgotten, that the price paid for one’s life and freedom is often another’s life and freedom.  At 11:00 a.m., a minute’s silence is observed throughout the country.  One minute, one life.

The longer I live in England, which has now been twenty-one years, the more Remembrance Day means to me.  I have never lost a loved one in a war.  But anyone living in Great Britain for any length of time will inevitably be impressed with the enormous impact the two World Wars have on British society.  Every town and village has a memorial inscribed with the names of the local “boys” killed in World War I and II.  The list for WWI is always much longer, and most of them were just “boys,” straight out of school, dying by the thousands at 18 and 19 years of age.  That is my son’s age.  In the chapel of his old school at Uppingham, there are entire walls inscribed with the names of boys who left school between 1914-1918 and went immediately to a war they never returned from.  There are millions of these boys’ names inscribed all over Britain.

Today, I went to visit a village near Cambridge called Godmanchester.  A special remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme was happening there.  Fourteen soldiers from this one little village alone died in this battle.  Their names are displayed on silhouettes on the houses near or where they lived.  Cascades of red poppies adorn the door frames and windows.  They strangely bring to mind the blood on the doorposts of Israel that was supposed to safeguard against the angel of death striking down the firstborn sons of Egypt.

One of the fourteen villagers was an eldest son named William Sneesby.  He was 19 years old.  Probably nothing remarkable ever happened in his short life.  He worked on a farm before enlisting.  Then he got on a train and went to France along with millions of other young men who never came back.

Yet, a hundred years later, there is his name on a house covered in red poppies.  I stop to read about him.  He was a son who was loved and mourned.  One hundred years later, William Sneesby still matters.  One minute, one life.

At eleven o’clock, I went into St Mary’s church and listened to the chimes tolling the hour before the silence.  Then, I thanked God I did not have to watch my 19-year old son get on a train and go off to fight in a war beyond all imagining.  One minute, one precious life.

It is good to remember what wars have cost us and what they are costing still.  That’s what the poppies are for.  They have a way of changing your perspective.  The repercussions of this election week may have long lasting consequences, leaving us all in a state of uncertainty about the future.  But I am grateful for the importance of the past and the opportunity to pause and consider what it stands for.  It will not be forgotten nor the loss of so many young lives.  We will remember them.

Blue Skies/Grey Skies

chicago-riverChicago “Cubbies Blue” River

Dreams really do come true!  For the first time in over a century, the Chicago Cubs are World Champions!  I am so proud of my native town for producing such an awe-inspiring team.  And what a World Series!  I’ve never really been a baseball fan, but you have to admire a group of guys who just refused to give up, game after game, even when the ultimate prize was sliding away from them and they had to stop playing because of the rain.  Something tremendous happened in that locker room and on the field.  They had to decide how much they wanted to win.  They hadn’t come all this way down the line in history to give up now.  When the rain stopped and the game resumed, they were ready.  They came back and won the World Series.

That’s tenacity for you.  The Cubbies went from being the joke of baseball to the most celebrated team of all time.  Chicago was a literal sea of blue as fans turned out in record numbers to greet their champions.  Even the Chicago River was dyed Cubbie Blue–surely a first?!  It gladdened my heart to see the jubilation.  This is when I miss home and being part of all that is truly great about my country.  On the eve of an election that has been anything but elevating, the Cubs’ win has brought the heroic back into our national psyche.  When the chips are down, we don’t give up.  We fight on for what matters and we don’t let go.

It may rain in Chicago, but not like it rains here in Cambridge, England.  It just starts raining and it doesn’t stop, for days, for entire seasons including summer.  Everything goes grey and stays grey.  There’s a dampness to the atmosphere that chills you to the bone.  I tend to curl up indoors from November to March, not wanting to go out, much like my cold-averse cat.  I am a sunshine girl, after all.  Even in my Chicago days when the temperature was below freezing, if the sun was shining, I was out there, strapping on my ice skates.

Still, rain is rain.  I let it get me down wherever I am, instead of using my time “off the field” to recharge and focus on what matters.  What matters is not giving up–on dreams, on people, on the love of God.  It is all too easy to give up on these things when you think, “I’m not good enough,” or “It’s too late,” or “Nobody’s interested.”

One thing I have learned to stop saying is, “I’m not good enough.”  None of us are perfect.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  He is in the business of remaking us.  Our job is to let Him, to keep going out there and embracing life’s challenges.  Whatever our task is, it’s because we are good enough.

That’s how the Cubbies won.  They stopped thinking “We’re not good enough” and started by thinking, “We’re enough.”  They were remade into a team of possibilities, of players who weren’t just good enough at baseball, but players who were teachable, who knew how to hold on when the going got rough, who understood their weaknesses as well as strengths and how to bring it all together on the field.

Nobody thought they’d pull it off, but they did.  Nobody knows what’s going to happen after tomorrow’s election, either.  A lot more is at stake than a World Series.  There will be a lot of cheering going on, by the side for whomever wins, but it won’t be the same kind of victory as the Cubs winning the World Series.  The U.S. presidential election campaign of 2016 will go down as one of the most degrading and divisive political campaigns in American history.  It has brought out the worst in people, causing us to question what kind of a country we have become and what direction we’re headed in.  It should sober us all.

But the Cubs’ victory has showed us at our best and what we are still capable of.  I may be a California Sunshine Girl at heart, but I am also a Cubbie.  I plan to keep going out there, trying to remain teachable, and keeping my eye on the ball.  Whatever happens next, Chicago will always have their Cubbie blue skies in November.  The skies may be grey in Cambridge, but I am learning the art of persistence in a country far from home.