Making ‘Progress’ with Bunyan


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In a back street in Bedford is a museum dedicated to one of the world’s most translated authors. The author is John Bunyan, born in 1628 in the village of Elstow near Bedford. His writing, principally Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 and still remains in print nearly 350 years later. It is estimated to have been translated into more than 200 languages.

The John Bunyan Museum is a small, simple and succinct dedication to the clergyman author who, since 1678, has never been out of print. The 19th century site of the Museum is also home to the descendant congregation of Bunyan’s own.

John Bunyan’s most prominent work, Pilgrim’s Progress, was published in 1678 and is an allegorical telling of the Christian journey from sinfulness to the ‘Celestial City’. The Museum’s low key presentation could itself be allegorical of the humility and lack of ostentation typical of the 17th century Puritan Christian tradition, of which Bunyan was a part.

Pre-dating an abundance of secular works, Pilgrim’s Progress  has cemented the discovery story or quest, into a literary canon that lives on today .  It is an elongated dream sequence that tells of Christian, a man burdened with a sense of his own apparent sinfulness.

With the weight of the world on his back, Christian sets out on a journey of discovery, spiritual enrichment and fulfillment. His burden lightens as he travels through an undulating and often precipitous landscape. He takes several wrong turns, meets a litany of reprobate characters -some obviously so and others masquerading as friends – and passes through places that could easily have slipped out of modern day fantasy literature such as “The Palace Beautiful”, “The Enchanted Ground” and “The Slough of Despond”. Christian goes on to be imprisoned and beaten, but time after time he is guided back to the right path and onward to continue his journey.

Bunyan’s own life journey was from poor-ish son of a tinsmith to literary posterity, via two marriages, the military, non-conformist Christian ministry – during a time when conformity was decreed in law, and a decade in 17th century prison for failing to observe the religious requirements of the day. He wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while a prisoner.

At the Museum visitors can experience Bunyan’s pulpit and his prison, and learn more about the allegorical nature of his writing. The local Bedfordshire countryside is also revealed as an inspiration for the metaphysical landscapes contained in the Pilgrim’s story.

Don’t be disappointed at the apparent brevity of the display or the unfussy interpretation. Its worth pondering on what’s there and some knowledgeable guides will happily bring the story of the Pilgrim or Bunyan even more alive.

If you visit as a devotee of Bunyan you may feel you are walking on somewhat hallowed turf. If visiting provides an introduction to him and his writing, you might just be tempted to purchase one of the many versions of Pilgrim’s Progress available in the Museum shop, even if just to find out where or what on earth ‘The Slough of Despond’ is.

See: John Bunyan Museum

© Laura Claire H 2016





Subterranean scents of Sicily


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The Phoenicians were an ancient civilization from the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Renowned for their seafaring and trading feats, they got their name – a Greek version of purple, from their production of a purple dye made from the crushed shells of Murex sea snails. They occupied – or perhaps more accurately accommodated for a time, a fairly long time – the Italian island of Sicily, at the toe of the boot.

The Phoenician story marks the beginning of a Sicilian story, being told in the recently opened Ashmolean Museum’s Storms, War & Shipwrecks exhibition in Oxford. It is one that journeys a thousand years and more across time, and perhaps almost as many fathoms to the depths of Mediterranean sea.

The exhibition presents a tale of a culture with its beginnings in the Sican and Sicel native islanders. It starts with the arrival of the Phoenicians. Then the Romans, the Byzantines, and culminating in the Arab-Norman era to AD 1194 – and the arrival of oranges and Jasmine to the island. It also traverses pagan, Greek and Roman gods, to the arrival of Christianity.

This is not a tale told from land however, but pieced together from the numerous shipwrecks taking place around the Sicilian shores over millennia, and the accompanying finds from their cargoes brought to the surface of the Mediterranean in the 20th century. Not content to submit to the decaying forces of seawater, jugs, bowls, jewelry and religious ephemera have found a sedimentary savior in the sea, to survive in some cases almost intact for a 21st century Oxford audience.

It is the story behind the ancient finds that musters them to life. For me, a metaphorical jewel in the watery crown is a bronze perfume jar retrieved from the storm hit Camarina Shipwreck. Believed to date from AD 150-200, the jar’s façade is intricately embellished, in a way that seems to belie its age, with vine leaves shaped almost heart like. What would the fragrance have been then if the lid were lifted then, or now? Would it have contained a liquid, paste or grain-like substance? At the time the storm hit, was the perfume jar already a purchase or gift, or perhaps yet to be sold? These are questions the exhibition prompts but does not answer.

Although the Sicilian story being told is one of battle – between peoples, with the elements, for land – it most vividly presents a visual, textured, fragrant account of Sicily through its surrounding waters. It is a plentiful display of words, pictures, re-creations and artefacts.

An extra dimension will be added on 21 July when ancient Sicily will meet contemporary culture, as actor Luca Zingaretti – ‘Inspector Montalbano’ from the Sicily-set Italian detective series broadcast in the UK on BBC4, will join a private tour of the exhibition.

Storms, War & Shipwrecks is on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 25 September 2016.

© Laura Claire H 2016.