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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, September 30, 2004
    Becoming unconscious
    We have a habit of taking out communion to our housebound parishioners on the last Thursday of each month. This is a fixture I walked into when I arrived here. It has its plusses: clarity, covering everyone in one go, getting volunteers easily. A downside is that by the end of the day my throat is horribly lined with the sugary taste of ruby red ecclesiastical wine, my head slightly dulled by all those quarter-chalicefulls I've had to finish off at every place we've called.

    Today's round was punctuated by a community forum at which we had a farewell lunch for a guy leaving a major Croxteth community development post after nine-and-a-half dedicated years. After drinking a toast to him and gazing into the last of another glassfull of red, I turned to a friend to share the realisation that I'd probably put myself over the limit, and that I still had more rounds to do this afternoon. Only at that point did I realise I was confiding this to the community police officer.

    "We'll probably be able to turn a blind eye to that," he said, generously. I walked between the rest of the afternoon's calls.
    Wednesday, September 29, 2004
    Becoming conscious
    The view from St Beuno's is quite spectacular, high on the edge of the Clwydian hills looking westwards towards Snowdonia and Great Orme's Head nudging the Irish Sea. No wonder past resident, trainee priest Gerard Manley Hopkins described it as one of the most beautiful places on earth.

    During Hopkins' final year at St Beuno's College, their website tells us, "Poetry simply poured out of him, including God's Grandeur, The Starlight Night, In the Valley of the Elwy, The Sea and the Skylark, (written at Rhyl) and The Windhover, which he said, was the best thing he ever wrote."

    Well, this afternoon I was thinking the sorts of thoughts you think on retreat - how unfocussed I am (anyone reading this blog for a while could tell me that), how un-conscious in contrast to the calls to extremely conscious living demanded by trailblazers like Walter Wink, whose words (from Engaging the Powers) we'd studied together earlier.

    Thinking these thoughts I was sat somewhere near where Hopkins must have been sitting when the images of The Windhover came to his mind's eye, up the hill above the house. And I became yes, conscious, of a bird of prey spiralling slowly below. And I recalled, yes, that poem, in all its wondrousness.....

    Tuesday, September 28, 2004
    It's all about the here and now

    It's all about the here and now, football. So David Moyes is right to be savouring the moment:

    "There are a lot of good things going on at the club after one of the worst summers that Everton have ever had. From the players' point of view and speaking personally it was a horrible time so forgive me if I enjoy it just now."

    Forgive you? Bless you, mate, bless you.
    Monday, September 27, 2004
    Life cycle

    - That's how they describe Norris Green Fingers on the St Christopher's website. And since their humble beginnings plenty has happened. "Norris Green Fingers is taking root," they say. A Poly Tunnel is in place and producing, as are some raised beds. Some keen local allotment folks have put their hearts, minds and heavy labour into the task and in a fortnight's time they're having a Harvest Celebration where the first produce will be celebrated and sampled by a multi-faith, multi-age gathering.

    How sad to hear that Eric, one of those hardworking Green Fingers heroes, died suddenly today. As the produce of the soil he turned ripens and shines, we reluctantly anticipate the dreadful returning words of his untimely funeral service: "Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; when the wind goes over it, it is gone ..."

    The only comfort is that at the Harvest Celebration, when the breeze blows through that lovely little urban garden, we might feel Eric present, deeply present.
    Sunday, September 26, 2004
    Unbalanced diet
    Another 'if only'. If only I weren't so skint I might just take up the invitations which have come to me from (a) Lloyd Robson himself and (b) the Dylan Thomas Centre to go see (a) at (b) this coming Thursday. Wouldn't that be great? Live in Swansea: "Iain Sinclair's bastard son, his roots in the alluvial slurry of Cardiff"... maybe next time.

    Nevetheless there's poetry in the offing this week in a variety of forms.

    First in North Wales where we're having a day's retreat at St Beuno's, noted for its Gerard Manley Hopkins connection. He wrote much of his celebrated poetry at St Beuno's, while studying for the priesthood there. This will recall for me my much-loved visits to Little Gidding to get the authentic T.S. Eliot vibe. I'm wondering if St Beuno's may do the same for one of my fave scouse poets (after leaving rural Clwyd, Hopkins served as a Liverpool priest).

    Then at the weekend, a real northern treat. February's postponed Fall gig at the Academy supported by Mancunian punk word-magician John Cooper Clarke. Greatly anticipated.

    It will be quite a journey this week, you may be thinking; what on earth will a diet of Robson - Hopkins - Eliot - Clarke do for my sanity?

    easy on the olives: not keen on them little black babies in me food but doan wanna be rude so jus leave em at tha foota me bowl soakin up all that olive oil like coal nuggets marinatin in diesel

    My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

    the children in the apple-tree / Not known, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea

    the rain whips / the promenade/ it drips on chips / they turn to lard / i'd send a card if i had a pen / i mustn't go down to the sea again

    Saturday, September 25, 2004
    Win or lose
    Outside, the post-match traffic flow. Today they're emerging from Anfield, a couple of miles away at the far end of this avenue. They slow down and stop here tailed-back from the lights and there's more of them than usual just now because of the diversion off the East Lancs Road.

    Red or blue, they all come this way week by week. Out to nearby Croxteth, Kirkby or the pie-eating hinterlands of East Lancs, or further: one of the fleet from Collingtree Coaches of Northampton just crept past my window.

    I always know the results, of course, by this stage, which is just as well because seldom would it be possible to discern how the team had done by looking for clues in the punters' faces or body language. Win or lose, there are clapped-out cars carrying overjuiced young men joshing each other, dropping fags and pie crusts from their windows as they go. Win or lose, there are replica-shirted individuals alone in long-distance salesmans vehicles intent on bullying their way through small gaps in the traffic. Win or lose, there are dads at the wheel hosting humourous dialogues with their chatty backseat daughters. Win or lose, there are taxi-drivers talking animatedly with their shaven-headed customers. Win or lose, by this stage in match-day the shouting is over and home (or a home-from-home, a bar somewhere) beckons.

    Some are sunk into the match programme - three quid, nothing in it we don't already know, but its glossy smell is the freshest thing about the day - fresher than the morning's tabloid transfer tattle, fresher than the time-worn shouts of ticket touts outside the ground, fresher than the pre-match beer, fresher than the replica shirt after three hours among thousands. Fresher than that feeble centre-half. The match programme engrosses the introverts who need to process the game and its aftermath alone. The extroverts and the children wind down the car windows and holler or converse across carriageways.

    And others stare blankly out of side-windows. If only we could see ourselves in vehicles: somewhere between sleep and utter boredom we look like the undead. Today the Red Undead goggle upwards, occasionally into this window but usually at next-door-but-one whose massive radio masts dominate the avenue. Our amateur radio hobbyist neighbour is probably hooked up to a ham in Belarus or Beirut; the passing car radios are set to Merseyside (for overexcited, biassed reporting) or Five (for the rest of the days news).

    You can tell the few non-footy travellers caught up in this stadium outflow at the wrong time of the week: they're listening to a music show oblivious to the events their fellow-travellers have just witnessed, alongside them in traffic, but completely out of communion.
    Friday, September 24, 2004
    Preserving Hardman
    May be another sign of age, but I'm starting to think it may be a good idea to get membership of The National Trust. This is mainly because of the Trust's recent creative investment in Liverpool properties - John Lennon's childhood home, and now 59 Rodney Street, home and studios of the celebrated Liverpool photographer Edward Chambre Hardman.

    The Guardian's Martin Wainwright described Hardman as "the great photographer of hills, haystacks, the Ark Royal and the cream of Liverpool society," which I'd only qualify by suggesting that 'cream' doesn't mean 'best', it merely means 'most monied', because Hardman's studios was the most expensive in town. Even people like the actress Patricia Routledge said they felt "unworthy" to be photographed by the great man.

    Being guided around 59 Rodney Street today felt quite sad, in a way, hearing about how how Hardman and his wife, so devoted to their work, neglected their home, how one of the city's greatest 20th century artists died, in 1988, virtually penniless and in squalor. It was sobering seeing the stacks of work piled up in backroom cupboards and observing the shambles of their kitchen.

    But it was good to hear the story of how Hardman's collection has been saved for posterity, by the intervention of a creative social worker who put the director of the Open Eye Gallery, Peter Hagerty, in touch with the failing 81-year-old in 1979. Through the enthusiasm and collaboration of Hagerty and others the E. Chambre Hardman Trust was born.

    It was good to hear that the city's record library is holding most of Hardman's collection and its staff are assidiously cataloguing it - a work which will take years, because of the volume involved. Good to know that all this effort, and the National Trust's purchase of the Rodney Street home, means that the city will house the only known complete collection of a leading 20th century photographer.

    Seems that Hardman's pricey portrait work allowed him the financial freedom to pursue his greater photographic interests, his landscapes and his cityscapes. The house displays a small number of his better-known works, and is worth a visit if just to to see his most celebrated picture: The Birth of the Ark Royal, 1950.

    It is a breathtaking sight - the Mersey dockyards' last great ship shining above the huddled Birkenhead streets. The awesome power of war emerging from passive suburbia. The contrast between the small, lonesome schoolboy and the vast, dominant vessel. It's a wonderful example of Hardman's eye for composition, his use of light and subtle manipulation of shades in the darkroom, which he called 'control by patience'.

    The only shame in the 59 Rodney Street tour is that they keep you moving through the house, there's little time to linger over this and other classics. The joy is that eventually, through the patient work of the archivists, the city will be able to make Hardman's work accessible to all.
    Wednesday, September 22, 2004
    This is good. Smoke: a london peculiar. It's a magazine about the city, written by enthusiasts for the city. Deals in minutae, with features like BUS OF THE MONTH (this issue: Number 325, East Beckton to Prince Regent DLR) and articles like THE BINS OF PIMLICO ("... small urban disclosures, both candid and discreet, right there on the side of the road as you trudge to the tube.")

    Some of the contributors are walkers - Laura Oldfield-Ford walks diagonally through Epping Forest, Jude Rogers does a (satirical) Mayday walk between the six Hawksmoor churches. Many of the contributors are possessed by the highs and lows of London Transport. Some are poets, some photographers, and some cartoonists. Others are skateboarders - Stuart Hammond celebrates London's skatespot netherworlds, Southbank, "a high temple of skatedom" and the winter wonderland of the London Wall Car Park (which is "like stumbling into a vivid wet dream concocted by Andreas Gursky, JG Ballard, and the pop-video director who styled Michel Jackson into a youth-gang-leading, street-fighting nutter.")

    Smoke is only two quid and whether or not London is your city there's plenty in it to illuminate and entertain.
    Tuesday, September 21, 2004
    Too much the Biennial bus
    They decided that Martha Rosler should lecture to us about her work not in a dusty hall or a gleaming gallery space but on a bus circling the city centre. Novel. Fits with her position as an artist very engaged with the life of the world, social, political, on-the-road. And with her Biennial project, Liverpool Delving and Driving, where she takes punters on a bus trip around town pointing out the places which, with close interrogation, reveal Liverpool's underground, forbidden, forgotten histories - the slaves, the Irish, and so on.

    Tonight's lecture-tour was a little frustrating, with all the usual careless organisation one comes to expect from the arts: unapologetically half-hour-late, no introductions or clarifications by the hosts, bemused punters, tired artist unsure what she was expected to say, a mystery tour without the magic. But it served as a decent introduction to Rosler's work; it was worth the ride for the background it provided to Delving and Driving. It became very clear that Rosler is committed to exposing the undercurrents of contemporary life through the lenses of those most in danger of drowning in them - the homeless, exploited women, travellers and other vulnerable people. I'll appreciate her delving and driving through Liverpool's story for sure.

    But - note to potential left-field lecture organisers: don't put a lecture on a bus and expect people's full attention. The city's stories keep unfolding as the roads rolls on. Tonight Martha stopped the coach at a major junction to take pictures of a police - stolen car swoop, and again outside the Princes Road Synagaogue to pass around honey cake (yum) in celebration of Jewish New Year; the bloke next to me kept interrupting my concentration on Martha's words (I didn't much mind) by pointing out various buildings he'd recently visited on the city's heritage weekend; my eyes got caught up in the lights of the city as darkness fell, fascinated by the new build all over the place and the old sights: gaggles of late-drinking office staff, early-eating theatre-goers, the occasional late-working traffic warden, rough-looking men killing time before the hostels opened.

    In Roadworks Rosler writes, "The constant renewal of the surface gloss of objects and images eschews the laborious work of construction demanded by that most concrete and fatal of metaphors, the road itself. Together, the glossy and the stolid are the orb and the scepter of the present kingdom of desire." Yup, heard it all and saw it all on that bus tonight.

    Monday, September 20, 2004
    Good question
    "Have you ever wondered why it is that the Mr Universe contest is always won by humans.....?" - Ross Noble on telly tonight. (What do you expect? It's been a very long day...)
    Sunday, September 19, 2004
    English Roots Music

    They don't get it far wrong at Probe. And one of the joys of shopping there is reading their sticky-label reviews on cd boxes, taking their recommendations home and realising they've come up trumps again.

    Well, I'm in a Wobble mood at the moment anyway but English Roots Music is all it says on the label.
    Saturday, September 18, 2004
    Scrapped / not scrapped
    Nothing too surprising in the second in The Guardian's series on life in 2020, Our nation in 2020: new diet, climate change, the continuance of religion and the benefits of wireless technology all feature. Nothing which couldn't be predicted by a close look at today. Tom Bentley wonders about how our national identity might alter, and points out that the alteration may happen without our realising it: "like our faces as we age, our cultural identity can change imperceptibly." It's only when we see ourselves from a new, unexpected angle that we see how the overall appearance has changed, and "Such reinterpretations of national identity are often triggered by an unexpected event: the abdication crisis of 1936; the blitz; Suez; the intervention of the International Monetary Fund in 1976; the 1984 miners' strike; the death of Diana - all had an impact on our national sense of self."

    He might have added the 1995 dockers strike, which was probably the final nail in the coffin of the trades unions murdered by Thatcher's forces on the coalfields a decade earlier. 500 Liverpool dockers were sacked, so they decided to picket the Mersey docks until they were reinstated. As Jimmy McGovern has pointed out, "the dispute was virtually ignored by the British media," and so with his help the ex-dockers became filmmakers to record their perspectives on those sobering seminal months which seemed to mark the end of the British Labour movement.

    Yesterday I sat on the grass at Chavasse Park and pored through Jimmy Jock, Albert and the Six-Sided Clock, John Darwell's photographic record of the Mersey docks in 1993, which I'd bought for three quid from the Bluecoat's bargain bin bookshop. Opposite me as I read, glowing gold in the afternoon sunshine, was the Albert Dock, built at the height of the city's imperial trading success, now a flagship in the new economy of the city's cultural industry. Darwell's excellent work gives a few pages over to the Albert Dock, but focusses mainly on the working northern docks close to where I was born and raised.

    It was a time of great change, as he writes: "At its peak, more than 20,000 men were employed on the docks alone. Now less than 600 men work the entire dockland system. Ironically the amount of cargo passing through the docks is at record levels."

    This was still true two years later when Patrick Keiller took his film cameras around the docks. In the 1999 book-of-the-film Robinson in Space Keiller notes that "Liverpool is the major UK port for trade with the eastern seaboard of North America. It has a successful container terminal, imports more grain than any other UK port, handles most of the UK's scrap-metal exports and a lot of oil, and has a new terminal for Powergen's coal imports."

    (The film's narrator says that "Liverpool imports coal for Powergen from the USA and Colombia and exports enormous tonnages of scrap, mainly to the Far East and Spain.")

    "This commercial success," Keiller continues, "belies the spectacular dereliction of the waterfronts of Liverpool and Birkenhead. While it may appear that this dereliction is a symptom of a decline in their traffic, and that Liverpool's impoverishment is a result of this decline, it is nothing of the kind. If Liverpool as a city is not what it was a hundred years ago, this is not because its port traffic has declined, but because, like so much other economic activity, a port does not occupy space in the way that it used to."

    This is still true. Three miles downriver from the scrubbed-up and gleaming tourist warehouses, it is all emptiness punctuated by mountains of coal and scrap metal.

    Lamenting the passing of our manufacturing base, in the Guardian Jonathan Glancey writes provocatively that by 2020 "we will have become a self-satisfied fringe nation, a people of insipid, if bloated, insignificance in a world dominated by more energetic and productive economies," but then suggests that "We might just become the workshop of the world again," our low-paid immigrant labour producing goods for the dominant Chinese market.

    I wonder ... but I feel quite confident that whatever the future holds for trade, the docks will carry on playing their part, even if vastly shrunken in size, and their people will still eke out a living from them, even though many fewer in number.
    Friday, September 17, 2004
    Naked Yoko and The Commons
    In the Biennial Centre today they were giving out free badges in a series of three picturing Yoko Ono's (a) left boob, (b) right boob, (c) genitalia. I could not bring myself to wear them, thinking that if this sets the tone for the whole Biennial then the people of Liverpool should emigrate till November. If we did decide to emigrate however, then at Liverpool John Lennon Airport we would have to pass beneath a billboard-sized naked Yoko. Walking through streets lined with banners of the offending breasts (see pic), face it, I thought - we are trapped in a sordid world of conceptual art for the next three months.

    The jamboree does not begin till tomorrow but the programme is out, and thankfully some of it looks very good. I've been struck especially by some of the events which bring artists, punters and others together to encounter and debate the city in situ. For instance, Liverpool Delving and Driving, with Martha Rosler: "A narrated bus tour with a twist. A unique two hour exploration of the physical and cultural underground that has supported the city and the suburbs." And a project called The Commons, which begins with the observation that much of Liverpool is built on a former commons, and sets out to "[animate] a discussion located in the idea of the commons ... The commons are not a universal value, but a contested set of expectations." The project will explore those expectations through a website and a series of "distributed conferences" taking place at different venues over a month, including the only registered commons in Liverpool, Wavertree Common, in my old stamping-ground. Has this got anything at all to do with the stuff Michael Northcott's been firing us up about all week? You bet.

    Thursday, September 16, 2004
    The tools of poetry and laughter
    There are other places
    Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
    Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city -
    But this is the nearest, in place and time,
    Now and in England.

    My back garden looks like a world's end. Now and in England. A wilderness. I haven't cut the grass for a while. It has grown, and grown, it has been been tousled by high winds, small birds have beaked around in it for worms, spiders have woven patches of grey nets across it, cats have likely left their smelly mark. The clergy conference in Lancaster opened many doors to me about God and the ground on which we walk. Now on my return, I have to face opening my back kitchen door to the world's end beyond it, to walk dishevelled ground, to trace deep lawnmower cuts through the wilderness I have helped create.

    If you came this way,
    Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
    At any time or at any season,
    It would always be the same: you would have to put off
    Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
    Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
    Or carry report. You are here to kneel
    Where prayer has been valid.

    I kneel upon the soil which surrounds this humble dwelling. Weeding.

    It was a good conference. Not least because it had poetry at its core. On Monday Roger McGough set the tone with a priceless performance: warm, witty, very considered. His portraits of all kinds of ordinary folks with their fears and foibles demonstrated deep insights into aspects of the human condition. He made himself vulnerable offering poems about his relationship with his father. He showed an understanding of the priestly task and smiled with us at its contradictions. And through all this McGough demonstrated how poetry reaches higher and wider than plain language ever can; hearing him brought home how the poet's voice eclipses sense and notion, burns way beyond the need for verification, instruction, or information to offer understandings into the deep complexities of our relationship with the earth and how our faith informs it.

    And this went on through the weekend. Michael Northcott offered considered reflections on the scriptural resources for exploring the present environmental crisis, drawn from the deep wells of the biblical poets - the prophets, Jesus' own highly inventive, radically subversive wordplay. Alaistair McIntosh surprised us all by using his lecture time to read extensive extracts from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, without much explanation other than occasional suggestions about how deeply that classic poem draws together so many of the themes we were exploring. And another of Liverpool's finest wordsmiths sparkled and shone, had us aching with laughter and crying with recognition of the bizarreness and beauty of our human condition on this earth: Ken Dodd was with us on Tuesday night. It was perfect.

    Now I'm gazing bemused at my garden and the bustling bus-lane carriageway beyond, thinking, the bishop's definitely onto something. In one of England's most urban dioceses it is the subject of the earth which has enlivened our fellowship this week and which gives us something to work at corporately, into the future. And the revelation that we will do it equipped with the tools of poetry and laughter, is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

    With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this calling
    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

    Sunday, September 12, 2004
    Green week
    Green week coming up. Green because it's my first-ever Liverpool diocesan clergy conference; not sure how I'll cope stuck with 300 vicars for four days. And green because the theme of the conference comes from the bishop's explorations in environmental theology. So I used James Jones' primer Jesus and the Earth as the basis of my sermon today and promised to get back to them all on it next week.

    John Reader's Guardian Special report on the future of the city, No city limits, helped too. Sobering reading? Not entirely. His new book Cities looks a very good read. Pity he's not coming to the conference. But having Alastair McIntosh there should be stimulating enough. If I find a connected bolt-hole in Lancaster Uni I'll be blogging; if not, back soon.
    Saturday, September 11, 2004
    It's gonna be a Childish autumn

    I mean, I am looking forward to the Biennial, which starts next week. Though there's so much happening at venues all over the city that I'm not looking forward to having to wade through plenty of last-minute half-concieved and frankly uninspiring installations to identify the good stuff.

    But one thing is thrilling me in anticipation: Billy Childish is in town. Or at least, the spirit of Childish. The Walker is putting on The Stuckists Punk Victorian,

    the first major exhibition to recognize the Stuckists, the group founded in 1999 by Charles Thomson and Billy Childish, which has subsequently become an international art movement. Stuckism marks the birth of 'Remodernism' - "a renewal of spirituality and meaning in art, culture and society".

    The Stuckists oppose 'Postmodernism' and conceptual art, famously campaign against the Turner Prize and declare painting as the radical medium of self-discovery: "The Stuckist paints pictures because painting pictures is what matters."

    As he tells us in his biography, Childish never seems to stand still: "by far the most prolific painter, poet, and song-writer of his generation. In a twenty year period he has published 30 collections of his poetry, recorded over 70 full-length independent LP's and produced over 1000 paintings." And having started the Stuckists in 1999 he left them in 2001, but (according to their website) he continues to support their ideas in his life and work.

    If these artists have the vigour Childish has, their show will be a stand-out. If they are as creatively contrary as he is in his art and music they'll make many waves in Liverpool this autumn. With Thee Mighty Caesars Childish sang:

    "well there's a feeling in this world
    that causes unrest
    your ambition and success
    is what i detest
    i try to be true
    i'm trying my best
    i'm not seduced by your cheap love
    hatreds and mess
    you make me die now
    you make me die now
    you make me die"

    I came back from Piccadilly Records yesterday with Billy's retrospective 2cd set, 25 years of being Childish. It's raw, it's real, it's refreshingly good. It will be on my player a lot. In the sleevenotes Childish says, "All my work belongs close to the ground, to instinct and the elemental. I believe in home made music, home made art and home made cooking. I want to bring back the bike, the tram and the horse."

    "You better realise
    that I'm a lie detector aah-aah
    I'm a lie detector aah-aah
    I'm a lie detector aah-aah
    If you ever lie
    I'll detect you too"

    The autumn would be complete if someone could persuade Childish to come here and gig The Walker ... well, why not?
    Friday, September 10, 2004
    Watching the city watching you

    They let you make your own id cards at Urbis; keep one, stick one on the wall there with all the others for all to see. This is the one I created there today.

    I liked Urbis, Manchester's centre for urban exploration. Fine-looking building in the city's Cathedral quarter. Glamourous cable-car ride to the top on entry, then work your way down the four floors via many interactive displays looking at different aspects of city life. Often specifically Manchester city life, which is as it should be; the specific and the local readily inform the global. Other cities feature too, especially in a box playing quick-cut shots of urban fast-lanes from all continents. The effect of the whole experience - as no doubt intended - is to inform understanding about any and all cities - and especially, your own.

    Some simple ideas, like the id card, in an exhibition on surveillance and public order, and like screens where Mancunians talk about their city experiences under different headings - arrival: impressions of a new city, change: how the city is evolving, order: the challenges of city life, and exploring: imagining how the city might be.

    One of the simplest displays had me lingering for a long time, until I was convinced I'd seen all it had to offer. A set of audio-visual tables onto which were projected various images, book covers, film stills, artworks, portraits of composers and musicians all relating in some way to creative urban exploration. If you want a closer look at one of these you touch the table, the laser technology does the rest for you, playing music where relevant, detailing the item you've selected. Basically, it's a resource, er, source, for anyone wanting to look again at the city through the lens of popular - and sometimes peripheral - culture.

    So I was glad to see Iain Sinclair, J.G. Ballard and Patrick Keiller represented there; I came away with a list of others to check out, scribbled on the back of my Urbis ticket. The quite well-stocked shop, however, didn't have too many of these, which was perhaps a blessing for my bank balance. My Wish List will be taking a battering tonight as a consequence.
    Thursday, September 09, 2004
    How Soccer Explains the World
    To follow-up yesterday's mention of Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. I finished it today; a recommended read particularly if you understand just how much significance and influence football carries way beyond the ninety minutes, deep into society and the patterns of life itself. And want to understand more. And also if you have felt that someone, somewhere, eventually, must come up with a readable, understandable, educative and even entertaining book on globalization - Foer has done it.

    On my footy bookshelf this would go alongside Simon Kuper's Football against the Enemy, still the most revealing volume on football's deepest, darkest involvement with the cultural, economic and political powers. Except I've lost my copy of that, so just now Foer's stands alone, a fine addition. As Adam Gopnik said, "Franklin Foer has written a book that is significantly entertaining if you like soccer, and entertainingly significant if you don't."

    "In theory," Foer writes, "patriotism and cosmopolitanism should be perfectly compatible. You could love your country - even consider it a superior group - without desiring to dominate other groups or closing yourself off to foreign impulses. And it's not just theory. This is the spirit of [Barcelona]. I love it."

    The next must-read soccer book, on Foer's recomendation, will be Jimmy Burns's Barca: A People's Passion. Foer is openly biased about Barcelona, but understandably so given the club's uniqueness as a political powerpoint and one of world football's consistently greatest underachievers.

    [Thanks Pete]
    Wednesday, September 08, 2004
    Parish Walks #6 - Leisure pursuits
    Squeezing through a gap in the metal fence in a corner of West Derby Cemetery is an unconventional way of entering the leisure park at the side of Stonedale Crescent, best known as the site of the East Lancashire Road Showcase Cinema. But it is revealing.

    We begin our walk along Lower House Lane, named after the sole farm along this stretch a century ago. Along the walls of West Derby Cemetery, consecrated in June 1884. Wide, green and spacious, this cemetery is still not full. We peer through the substantial wire railings protecting the Jewish Cemetery; cover our faces as an enthusiastic municipal mower-driver skids through ninety degrees throwing a mess of soil, grass and debris onto the path we walk; and we pass through what is clearly a Roman Catholic area of the cemetery (stones marked with appeals to the saints to "pray for me"), wondering if this, like other Liverpool cemeteries, is segregated. As in life so in death, for generations of this city's Protestants and Catholics, the stones a silent witness to a sectarianism set irreversibly in the very layout of this place.

    Squeezing through a gap in the metal fence to enter the arena of corrugated sheds into which daily pour the shoppers and pleasure-seekers of Croxteth and Kirkby, we emerge on a service road behind Iceland Frozen Foods bordered by scrubby bushes. Here, men sit in a number of vehicles, engines running, appearing to be waiting for others who are queing up to a door in one of the cabins. They each hold papers - job sheets, perhaps, or pay slips. Whatever their business, it appears to be lively today.

    Our next discovery is the identity of the vast white anonymous building which has been the backdrop of our walk across the graveyard. It is the Gala Bingo, which does little to announce its presence but, at 3.30pm, attracts private-hire taxi drivers anticipating fares. Three women emerge together from the plastic lobby, and head towards Iceland.

    The whole site is full of these sheds: across the way from the bingo, a massive square building with faux-Grecian pillars is being renovated. Beyond, cream with red trim, is the squat, wide Showcase, its outer walls decorated with little signs absenting the company from any responsibility for damage or loss to customers vehicles on the great swathe of surrounding tarmac. And in the other direction, a long row of shops with Iceland at one end and Kwik Save at the other.

    This is anywhere-England, a collection of identical units with a back-story of economic colonisation. Here are two big supermarket chains both having their genesis in North Wales; Poundstretcher, controlled by Pepkor, South Africa's largest retailer; Superdrug, owned by Kruidvat Beheer BV, a Dutch drug store chain, Midlands-based Motor World, and a sun-bed centre whose provenance is probably more local, and whose decor is certainly the most creative and individual of any unit on this site: their lobby area painted wall-to-ceiling with gorgeous sunny beach scenes.

    The curve of the car park is tight here, but this does not stop large vehicles taking the turn at speed, to our peril. At the junction with the A580 East Lancs artery a combat-style off-roader with enormous tyres which have never touched anything but tarmac booms out bass sounds to the annoyance of others waiting at the lights, louder even than the sqealing airbarkes of passing articulated lorries.

    Now we are in Americana - here is the Deep Pan Pizza Co, KFC, a drive-thru McDonalds. Here, the city of Liverpool greets travellers emerging from the motorways with the banner DINER - THE GREAT TASTE OF AMERICA. This is a tatty sign, for the original diner has closed and the gleaming tin building now houses the Silver Wok Restaurant.

    The Showcase is run by National Amusements, based in Dedham, Massachusetts, which ranks among the top exhibitors in the world, operating more than 1,354 indoor screens in the United States, United Kingdom and Latin America. It is the parent company of Viacom, which includes Paramount Communications, MTV Networks, Nickelodeon, VH1, Blockbuster Video, and other major entertainment properties. A very American business. But the cover of the magazine we thumb in the empty cinema lobby carries a very Welsh icon: the face of Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is globalization personified, born Swansea on 25th September 1969 to father Dai, a factory worker, and mother Pat, a seamstress, the Showcase Magazine tells us she is now "the new queen of Hollywood."

    In this building which is any-place and no-place, Catherine helps connections to be made. Her latest film is The Terminal, set in an equally anonymous place. It is the story of a man (Tom Hanks) trapped in JFK Airport (by immigration) but 'released' by the love he discovers with a flight attendent he meets (Zeta-Jones). In an ironic line in The Terminal a fellow-traveller asks Hanks, "Do you ever feel you're just living in the airport?" Each night here this story is playing to houses full of factory workers and seamstresses and their peers.

    Finnigans Sports Bar sounds like an Irish theme franchise, but it may actually be the most authentic leisure venue on site, catering for the inhabitants of the outer edges of this deeply Celtic city. We smile at the gaudy poster advertising the highlights of Finnigans' week: MERSEY IDOL TALENT COMPETITION - £1000 CASH PRIZE.

    Inside, the wide dark venue is set out for maximum payola. On one side the tables are set for family steak meals, in the centre hangs a large screen ready to roll-down for Sky TV coverage, and at the far end are banks of gaming machines. There is a lot of standing room around the bar area to fill the place on big soccer nights and a-grand-for-grabs local talent shows.

    Here, over a Coke, we bring our afternoon's observations to an end. The topic is football - money - culture. On the wall behind us are two expensively-framed autographed shirts: a Michael Owen Liverpool top and a Wayne Rooney Everton top. Both players groomed in the city's soccer academies, both having very recently moved to clubs which Franklin Foer describes as "multinational conglomerates ... which buy championships each year." I am reading Foer's book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, which offers snapshots from soccer around the world which help describe effectively some of the complexities of our present economic situation.

    I reflect on the growing popularity of places like Finnigans in connection with the growing gentrification of our soccer stadia. With match-going being rendered unaffordable to the traditional football-goer it may be that the matchday rituals of the ordinary working person are being transferred to Sports Bars like this: the gathering, the drinks, the comradeship, the game. The only differences are that the bar won't close at kick-off and that the match is digitized. People, ever adaptable, are turning any-place and no-place into meaningful space.
    Tuesday, September 07, 2004
    My good friend Dot has started her own blog with a post on the subject of respect. Which resonates with me after Greenbelt, where at the entrance to Soul Space we posted a notice saying "You are now entering a quiet venue. Please respect the silence." And it struck me the key word in there was 'respect'; it seemed to express something of the experience people had during their time in there.

    Very hard to define, respect - I've spent time with Richard Sennett's complex but invigorating book on the subject today and am less clear about it than before: happily so. He suggests, from the sociologist's perspective, that aspects of respect include status, prestiege, recognition, honour, and dignity. And, from the musician's perspective (for he is that also) Sennett tries to explain the interaction between these synonyms by describing a performance of Schubert's Der Erlkonig by two great musicians, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the pianist Gerald Moore, an interaction of three characters (composer and performers) in which the complexities of mutuality play out in a sensitive and winning performance.

    This is a creative and enlightening way of trying to explain what respect is and how it works. In Soul Space it was more intuitive: expressed best for me in the way the children behaved in the venue. We had a regular group of young people who would be waiting for us when the doors opened at 9am, to get onto the 'colouring table', where they would spend long periods filling in black-and-white photocopies of celtic crosses, abstract designs, spiritual symbols using the felt pens provided. Unguided by our team, who would be on-hand just to support them if they wanted that, but who otherwise left them to get on with it in their own way. Simple but engrossing and for them a release perhaps, a form of contemplation perhaps, certainly something they valued.

    Also at 9am, our team would gather nearby for a half-hour of shared silence. I loved this rarity in an otherwise full and noisy day. And I loved the small noises off during that time - the squeak of felt-tips on paper, the childrens' small whispers which let me know they were respecting our silence just as we were respecting their space. The conscious mutuality of those moments made them very special to me.

    Sennett's search is for mutual respect in public life - specifically in proposing a welfare system based on respect. He rejects the prevalent idea that people earn respect by taking care of themselves. It does not go far enough; we are interdependent, he says: "individuals cannot sustain a sense of their own worth if institutions neglect them."

    Somewhere between neglect and nannying, somewhere between silence and the nuances of musical performance, respect lies. It's still an enigma; it's something to keep exploring.
    Monday, September 06, 2004
    Building the city of peace

    One of the most popular and celebrated bits of Greenbelt 04 turned out to be Sanctuary's City of peace. Simple idea (the best ones always are): they invited Greenbelters to build a city for God using the craft materials provided.

    The result was a colourful cardboard and crepe city of peace; people's place-dreams placed on the floor of a racecourse concourse, gathered together to witness to hope, creativity, fun, contemplation, aspiration. Like so much at Greenbelt, on the surface the project looked like play school; the deeper value lay in the title of the thing and how people resonated with that and responded to it.

    Today I noticed the bulldozers have moved in swiftly on our transitional estate during my time away, wondered how the present wasteland will be transformed over the next few months and what the first show house will look like, feared for the appearance of more half-conceived top-down constructions, hoped for the future of the people (likely me included) who'll be moving onto the Boot Estate in the coming years, wished that in the planning process we could have had a Sanctuary-style happening here.
    Sunday, September 05, 2004
    Pic of the month
    September's belated Pic of the month is one of Roy's Greenbelt pics. I posted it two days ago but kept it quiet in case any parishioners previewed the sermon which goes with it. I don't think any of them did.
    Saturday, September 04, 2004
    Year of Living Generously #1 - Send it back
    In our country we use more food packaging per person than anyone else in Europe. The way we look at things is this: It is better to produce less packaging than to try and get everyone to recycle more. To do this we have to convince just five people in the UK. The all powerful supermarket bosses...

    Howies will be good allies in The Year of Living Generously. Got this off their (soon to be improved - if that's possible) website today. First idea to store up ready for the launch of the Year's events (probably in October) - rather than bin all that used-up, useless packaging - send it back to the supermarket chiefs. Simple. And possibly, eventually, effective.

    Friday, September 03, 2004
    Wobble down the road
    One of my favourite-ever Greenbelt appearances was the set by Jah Wobble at Deene Park in 1994. And his recently-released retrospective I Could Have Been a Contender has been good company on my travels during this past Greenbelt week-or-so.

    In the sleevenotes Jah shares his rationale for releasing this 3CD set now:

    "I am 45 years of age and still extremely good-looking. I thought that it was really about time that there was some sort of official Anthology of my work. My reasoning was this: when you undertake this type of venture you have to do accompanying publicity photos. I realise that it is impossible to go on being as good looking as I am now forever: therefore I had better make my move now. Otherwise I would end up compiling a beautiful sounding record, whilst looking old and decrepit. This would have confused people. And I hate confusion. On the other hand I love Confucius. He was a great believer in order, in coherency, in things great believer in order, great believer in order, making sense."

    Self-conscious wit is part of Jah's craft (not always successful), along with a truly eclectic spiritual consciousness, a gift for creative collaboration and an undying Essex perspective. And so one of my current faves is his tribute to the eternally-inspirational A13, his road home:

    The Ancestral Trek Eastwards
    The Spiritual path from the crumbling shop facades of
    Commercial Road
    Many Flyovers to marshland of Essex:
    Land reclaimed;
    My soul reclaimed.

    Ceases to be an arterial road
    Becomes a guideline,
    Pathway of the astral plane:
    A way of life; a way of death;
    A giant metaphor for nowhere.

    Oh land of my fathers, ancient Celtic warrior race,
    How are your tomatoes doing?

    A13, forever 3am
    Around and around the Rainham roundabout
    In gentle rain

    Absence of hope; absence of pain

    A13: cars race thrusting back-to-back
    Like a ritualistic symbol of the sexual act.
    These brave men: sales reps,
    Overseers of the Ford production line,
    Their wives wear blue eye-makeup and drive a smaller car
    To see Mum in Poplar, when they have Thursday off from their job in Asda's.

    Ohh, A13.

    I don't want to move to higher spiritual planes.
    I want to forget Destiny.
    I want to travel the A13 for Eternity.
    I love your oil refineries, motor factors, motor works,
    Sewage plants, factory farming, theme pubs, launderettes,
    Transport caffs, haulage firms, betting shops,
    People who look so dour.
    Swaggering, aggressive young men who hate themselves,
    A carbon-copy of dad, who really passed it on.
    And their sisters, bleached-blonde, already typecast in the role of

    And it's perfect, Oh so perfect:
    It makes me feel so cold inside,
    And that's familiar territory.

    Oh barren, hopeless highway of Essex
    I love you.

    Thursday, September 02, 2004
    Dublin melancholy
    There are no pigeons here. In a scrubby piece of green - Dr P. Barnardo Park, alongside Dublin Castle, on Dame Street, one of the city's grey and choking rush hour arteries, where I sit to take tea. It is one of those urban spaces only the deranged, the hopelessly in love or the tourists dare inhabit.

    This evening, I am the tourist, seated on the edge of a circular concrete wall which may once have enclosed a tidy lawn or water feature but now encloses just more shabby concrete, filled with litter. Across the park, two twenty-something lovers sit. And in the centre a lone guitarist sings to himself REM melancholy and Radiohead malaise: he is not busking to the home-bound hundreds who are separated from him by the park edge as they pass busily by. For a short time I am joined by a youngish man with torn grey longcoat and wild black hair, who walks carefully almost the whole 360 degrees of the circular wall until my presence breaks his step. He does this with a deliberation which suggests this is a regular ritual; a comfort to him which I regret disturbing. He is the same man I later see sleeping on a ledge four feet up into a wall at the side of The Olympia Theatre.

    To the eyes in the thousands of buses and cars shuffling along between Christchurch Cathedral and The Bank of Ireland (Parliament House) I must look odd: still in a place of merciless motion, alone in a city of conversation, eating food in a dead park where, for some unknown reason, there are not even any pigeons.

    But I'm at ease in this place, at one with its mood, drifting sadly through the six pages of Red Rooney in the Evening Herald as the crumbs from my bacon butty fall to no-bird and the nearby guitarist seeks comfort in Coldplay's "Yellow". And, rising from the litter, converging in the motor fumes of this breathless corridor, the words of a Handsome Family song* enfold me and seem to suit this city melancholy:

    Ever since you moved out I've been living in the park. I'd rather talk to the wind than an empty apartment. I wish I could forget how a billion birds flew in my hollow dying heart the first time I touched your arm. Once there were a billion Passenger Pigeons. So many flew by they darkened the sky. But they were clubbed and shot, netted, gassed and burned, until there was nothing left but miles of empty nests. I can't believe how easily a billion birds can disappear. The park is empty now. It's so cold out and all the paddle boats are covered up with snow. Once again it's dark. The electric lights snap on, but I'm still here drinking frozen beer and throwing potato chips into the white snow drifts just in case a bird decides to fly through here tonight. I can't believe how easily a billion birds can disappear.

    [*Passenger Pigeons, from Twilight]
    Wednesday, September 01, 2004
    Meeting Polly
    [From Temple Bar Internet Exchange]

    When I said I was going to see PJ Harvey in Dublin I was thinking of tonight's front-row Circle seat at The Olympia. Not an eyeball-to-eyeball conversation half an hour after getting off the plane. But there she was, on the steps of Books Upstairs as I prepared to make the city's celebrated radical bookshop my first stop. So I said "Hello", we shared a few words about the upcoming gig, she said, "Enjoy it", smiled her trademark wide, generous smile, and I spent my first few minutes in the shop gazing unfocussed at shelves of James Joyce, telling myself what had just happened had just happened, happy already that this trip has been worthwhile.

    [From Avalon Hostel lobby, Thursday 08:50]

    ... and the gig itself lived up to hopes, too. Polly ranged right across her now-lengthy career and treated us to some classics alongside the excellent newer material. Highlights: 50 Foot Queenie and Meet Ze Monsta (proving I like her rockist Beefheartian stuff the best), plus lots of good conversation with those around me, leaning forwards over the front edge of the Circle almost overhanging the stage - best seats in the house. One of those special nights in a likeable, lively celtic city.