I was nine years old when I came to the North to live and it was like coming onto a different planet. People were hard to understand. It was not just the accent or dialect, it was attitudes and assumptions. People were difficult to read. The confusion must have been mutual because my older brother was beaten at school, harassed because of his ‘poncy’ southern accent, and sensibly reverted to the local lingo in weeks. I didn’t suffer because I was frozen with confusion and possibly dumb with grief at my father’s recent death. I spoke very little.
The domestic arrangements took some adjusting to. We stayed at first in my relative’s spotless house where the bath was tin and lived on a hook in the yard and the toilet was across the public back lane. I soon discovered that this toilet was a place of escape, of silence. I could sit on the high throne and read, eat stolen sweets, or just muse about how terrible my life was.
One day I was sitting there and my eye moved upwards to a high shelf above the door. On it were two large, glass jam jars. I clambered up to snatch ne so I could see it properly. Someone had filled it with shards of coloured glass, bright stones, broken, patterned pottery, and seashells. Holding it up in the beam of light streaming through a crack in the wooden door, I thought it was beautiful.
Later I asked my cousin what the jars were.
He looked annoyed. ‘Yeh shouldn’a looked,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ I said with unusual persistence.
‘What is it for?’ I said.
‘It’s not for anything,’ he said scornfully. ‘It’s boody. It just is. And it’s a secret. It’s always secret. Yeh have ter hide it.’ He punched my arm. ‘Yeh tell nobody!’ Then he ran off to kick a hard leather ball with his friends.
The boody jars were a great resource for me in the following difficult months of adjustment. I would take them down and hold them up in the stream of light and feel comforted. I never questioned the name. Boody jars were boody jars.
Years later I started to reflect on them. The name, I decided, could come from two sources. Boody could be a childish name for beautiful. It also called up the notion of booty – war chest items seized by force or looting on land, or by piracy by sea. Come to think of it, that fits the tradition of secrecy - hiding the haul.
I think now that because the boody jars consoled me at a difficult time of my life the image of them has stayed with me. I even have my own boody jar on a shelf in my upstairs, inside toilet. It’s not a jam jar, just an old glass vase that was hanging around.
When I was in Barcelona some years ago and saw the Gaudi wall in the Parc Gruell, I instantly thought of the boody jars. These gorgeous curving walls are faced with a mosaic of broken pottery tesselated into intricate, almost random, patterns. I was told that the workmen were given the pottery shards and they improvised the patterns, but I don’t know whether that it’s true. I like the idea of the democracy of artists and that explanation might explain the walls’ childlike appeal.
Then this June I visited the Abbaye de Valmagne in the Languedoc. Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries this Cistercian edifice was one of the richest abbeys in South of France. Here, as well as acquiring fine church artefacts and church based gold the monks grew plants to feed themselves, to cure illness and flowers to decorate the altar of the Virgin Mary altar.
Then in 1875 the Huguenots sacked the abbey and killed the monks. All the stained glass of the roses and clerestories were shattered.
The abbey was slowly restored, but after the Revolution in 1789 it was ransacked again, this time by revolutionaries. The last five monks fled and the church was sold off as a wine store. Paradoxically the huge vats that were lodged the nave and side chapels, saved the fabric of this great building from destruction. As in England, deserted abbeys were commonly used as stone quarries to build houses and more mundane buildings..
Fast forward to 1988, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2005 when there was serious flooding in the Gard and Hérault regions of France. The French use the word inondation which has a very biblical feel about it.
Anyway, during these floods very fine fragments of the Abbey’s first medieval shattered glass began to come to the surface. Over the years an artist collected them until he had sufficient to make this beautiful glass panel which, back lit, allows us to see through that same exquisite glass as did those early medieval monks.
And now I wonder if - through the years, as he slowly collected his bits of glass – the artist kept them in boody jars, colour coded.
"Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it." -