Printed in 1958, the Bible given to me as a child was illustrated with photographs of the Holy Land. I was particularly taken with the 'Native House near Bethlehem'. A woman broods over the baby on her lap, while her husband steadily returns the viewer's gaze. This calculated image, every shadow still imprinted on my memory, seemed both homely and exotic. Tethered to the stone wall, next to the manger, was what I recognised as a white-faced Hereford cow, like those which grazed around the farm where I was growing up. The incongruity was normal. Places I saw in my Bible ('A Fountain at Nazareth', 'Road from Jerusalem to Jericho'), and heard about at Methodist Sunday school, were as familiar to my imagination as the villages and farmhouses where my grandparents, aunts and cousins lived. Some of the local fields had biblical names. My uncle's land included a boggy patch known as Jericho, not far from our own Home Close. As far as I was concerned, the authenticity of the Bible was confirmed by the fact that the pictures in my copy were photographs, not drawings. But I thought that the sanctity of these scenes, dignified by sepia and artfully scattered rocks, meant that they could never change. The point of the photographs was to emphasise their actuality, but also their separation from the shabby modern world. I would often project myself into those austere landscapes, witnessing the events of Christ's life. They existed as a privately sacred extension of my own experience. 'I should like to have been with them then,' as we sang on Sundays. It was one of my favourite hymns.
LRB 20 April 2006 | PDF Download