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notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Sunday, October 31, 2004Keepin' it Rhyl Rough Trade weekly email offers far more robust cd reviews.
So - hallelujah for Plastic Rhino, a style mag which breaks out of all that dullness by devoting its second issue to a day trip around Rhyl. As handbag.com describe it,
Plastic Rhino despatched a team including a photographer, designers, writers, models and make-up artists on a train bound for the town to "document in a day, the reality of Rhyl". The results are revealing. There's a photo shoot starring mams with prams (with clothes by Wade Smith and mams who "combine wheels, child and vogue into one supremely balanced triangle of style"), several disses of pensioners with motorised wheelchairs aka The Dawn Raiders, homages to the £1 donkey rides on the beach, the legendary Sun Centre, SeaQuarium, Casino Corner and a Readers' Knives shoot which was inspired by the shops on West Parade selling "a small, but impressive range of guns and knives." It puts Tracey Emin's cutesy beach hut images of Margate into perspective: if you want the real seaside deal, head to Rhyl.
A highlight for me was the double page spread devoted to the team's attempt to RING THE ALARM in a phonebox outside Weatherspoon's. It takes a short while to realise that this is not an act of vandalism in an attempt to sound a siren; it is a telephone call to Rhyl's finest 1980s rockers, now reformed. Sadly Mike Peters is not answering, so the Plastic Rhino team turn their attention to noughties tricksters Gam, who sound far more interesting (eg, after Richey Manic famously carved 4REAL into his arm in 1991, Gam followed him by launching themselves with a song about pollution in the Dee estuary and, scrawled across their arms in red marker pen, the phrase 4RHYL...)
The knives page is very disturbing; but it's real enough. Which is what's so good about this refreshing rag. It revels in reality - raw, ribald, redemptive reality:
Head down Abbey Street and on your right is a storefront touting itself "Rhyl's Biggest Receiver of Stolen Goods." We did ask for truth in advertising, but: god damn. A bit further up on the left is Polish Joe's Cafe ... We're hoping to meet Joe but sadly find the place locked up, trays of beans are stacked on dusty tables and all the signs have been taken away and replaced with a single notice.
POLISH JOE WOULD LIKE TO THANK ALL THE PEOPLE WHO VISITED HIM IN HOSPITAL (TWICE.) THOSE WHO DID NOT VISIT, POLISH JOE IS GLAD HE SOLD UP.
Saturday, October 30, 2004A Year of Living Generously - October update A Year of Living Generously, and what's happening with that project.
The Generous team have emailed me to ask how I'm doing with the twenty actions currently on the website (the idea is to have a go at a couple a month at least.
Here's the things I already do consistently (details of each are on the site): Turn Off The Tap; Change the World for a Fiver; Bank Ethically; Shower More, Bath Less; Organise my Charitable Giving - Get the Tax Back Too; Take a Mug to Work - Don't Use Plastic.
Here's the things I have tried before but inconsistently: Say Grace Before a Meal; Slow Down, Calm Down, Stick to the Speed Limit; Switch to Energy Saving Lightbulbs (How About Six Over the Year?).
And here's the things I do not currently do: Get Rid of Some of Your Books; Put a Brick In It!; Stop Taking Carrier Bags from Shops (Just say No!); Share a Meal With Someone Outside Your Comfort Zone; Switch to Good Energy; Give Someone a Gift of Life When You've Gone on to Higher Things; Breathe Easy - Plant a Tree; Get Rid of Your Car!; Take Your Clothes Off (Well, Give Some Away Anyway!); Compost Yourself - Or at Least Your Leftovers!
There's another one of those which I've taken issue with: Recycle Your Old Mobile. I've taken issue with it because I don't have a mobile, never have, doubt I ever will. What that action triggers in me is a feeling that this Generous thing isn't all that radical at all - it's papering the cracks. Three or four years ago we probably wouldn't have even thought about recycling mobile phones because most of us wouldn't have had one then. We've succombed to the pervasive marketing of the telecomms companies that now we assume that mobiles are essential. I propose we ditch them all and re-learn how to communicate perfectly well without them.
(But, no, I admit it, I'm not going to be the one proposing we ditch the Web ... not just yet, please ...)
Friday, October 29, 2004Tracking Jill Magid Biennial was doing at the Tate today.
Many things to enjoy - the labyrinth with wooly walls which invites you in at the door of the exhibition; Esko Mannikko's portraits of laughing occupants of high-rise Altbridge Park; a documentary of a bunch of arts workers transforming Canning Street into Edwardian Dublin (featuring a nice couple, who work for FACT, who I married earlier in the year); Yuan Goang-Ming's City Disqualified - a slow-moving cinematic rotation around the streets of the city centre with all traces of human life digitally removed; a wall full of notes people had written about their mums prompted by Yoko's citywide display of intimacy My Mummy is Beautiful.
Next to the Yoko wall, a fascinating cd, LiverBeatlespool. Cildo Mendes has taken the top 27 Beatles songs (from the album The Beatles: 1), and layered one track on another across the central note of each. What happens is the longest track, Hey Jude, starts up, then a couple of minutes later Come Together joins it, then others are added until it is all white noise and texture, which gradually fades back down to the closing lines of Hey Jude. I leaned against the wall, closed my eyes and spent 7 minutes 4 seconds enjoying it. Doubtless dome visitors during that time passed me thinking I was an exhibit.
What I most enjoyed, though, was Jill Magid's Evidence Locker. The record of 31 days in one woman's life as caught on camera by the surveillance staff of Liverpool City Watch (Merseyside Police and Liverpool City Council).
City Watch's video surveillance is the largest of its kind in England, and Magid's decision to wear a bright red trench coat and knee-length boots, ensured she was easily identifiable throughout the city for the duration of her project. Each day Magid would call the police on duty with details of where she was and ask them to film her in particular poses - all using the public surveilance cameras in Liverpool city centre. The result is a number of short films at FACT and the Tate.
The one which most fascinated me is called Trust, in which, at the head of Church Street (the city's busiest shopping area) on a Saturday afternoon, she shuts her eyes and asks the CCTV operator to guide her to the other end of the street while she keeps her eyes closed. The result is compulsive viewing - amusing (seeing people's responses to her antics), shocking (reacting to her stops and starts as vehicles and people brush her by), moving in parts (sensing the operator's growing engagement with her task and his desire to help her through). By the end, this engagement between the artist and the operator becomes tangibly sensual.
The book of the film, One Cycle of Memory in the City of L (which I bought at the Tate shop but is available as a series of 31 emails here), strips back the layers of meaning in all this, as Magid and 'the operator' admit their feelings at the end of Jill's walk and many subtleties are exposed. It's very entertaining too.
Magid's artistic mission is to create new forms of human interaction using technological systems; as Ceri Hand says in the Biennial catalogue, this project 'enabled [Magid] to blur the line between reality and fantasy, social control and mutual trust'. And to get a ride on the back of a policeman's motorbike on a poignant last afternoon before easyJet carried her home to Amsterdam.
Thursday, October 28, 2004Seeing Sufjan Saw Sufjan in concert this evening. It wasn't life-changing but it was certainly life-enhancing.
"The most self-effacing American artist I've seen," Paul said. Everything about Sufjan is modesty, grace and understatement. That became obvious from his opening line, "This one goes out to the one I love." Knowing looks around the muso-heavy audience at the Night and Day; the guy was being cleverly post-modern with an ironic REM reference. But a few chords later it became clear he was actually starting his set with his own version of that very song, a gorgeous, gentle version. Captivating. Three minutes later his sheer craftsmanship had won most over.
That and the pretty-boy eyes, the modest smile, and what followed - quirky stories about old lovers which explain some of his wierder lyrics, songs about his sister and his dad in downhome Michigan state.
He played less than an hour, which was a disappointment, but within that hour held us transfixed by the beauty of his singular visions. Especially, for me tonight, Seven Swans - a lovely, lovely meditation on some sort of holy epiphany in the dark night at the parental home.
Outside we were sucked into Manchester traffic mayhem with the crowds emerging from the Arena's Lionel Richie gig. In their thousands they'd been enjoying Dancing on the Ceiling. We, far fewer in number, had been floating in wonder through The Great Lake State, captivated by a young man with a mandolin and a gap-tooth smile.
Wednesday, October 27, 2004Feeling like Eric Northern Earth 99, about Eric Williams of Brighouse who told the Yorkshire Post, "All I can remember is going down the hill and indicating to turn left; then I don't remember anything until I got out of the car", 'which', NE reports, 'was lodged in the front room of the same house whose front room he'd driven into almost exactly a year before. Gordon White could hardly believe it when he came home, and nor could the fire crew and recovery driver, who'd been there on the previous occasion too.'
I had those sort of moments in at least two meetings today. Feelings of going downhill and then blanking out. Fortunately I was stationary both times.
Tuesday, October 26, 2004John Peel - Rest in Noise Thanks, John, for everything.
James Dean Bradfield says that in the eighties Peel gave him access to music you just couldn't otherwise hear in Cardiff. I'd go along with that, for the eighties was my peak Peel listening era, and Cardiff the place where night after night I'd have my boundaries stretched by listening to his show.
I've still got some of the tapes I made those nights, deep into the small hours mixing Steinski and Mass Media into Bogshed into Half Man Half Biscuit into the ubiquitous Fall. I'll always have that happy memory of Peel reacting with suitable rage to the request I handed to him at a Uni club event. I'd written it on the back of an Everton FC team photo. He chucked it across the mixing desk in disgust.
He had crap taste in football teams. But years on I've still got the utmost respect for the man's musical vision. Steve Lamaq caught it well at the top of tonight's R1 tribute show (though, slow to the chase these days, I missed the record button). He said stuff about Peel being so good at championing the unpromising, the peripheral, the extreme. How right. And what grace and glory there was in all that. In giving a break to the beautiful crazies who would massively alter our lives: Smith, Sharkey, Morrissey, Bragg, Cobain, Bolan, Curtis, Beefheart. From where I was sitting it always seemed that Peel had the ears to hear what the Spirit was saying to the zeitgeist.
What I've taken most from John Peel's attitude, into my own musical journey, is an endless enjoyment of musicians who display rawness and energy and innovation. Risk-takers. Whatever their genre. Whatever their 'ability'. To honour his memory, all I can do is keep on searching for music that stretches my boundaries.
Welsh with attitude. Scary but cool. New Cowbois catalogue arrived today.
Monday, October 25, 2004The way we cross over Land, is this, from Edward Said:
"Our truest reality is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another."
He's writing of the Palestinian situation, of checkpoints and the perversely-knotted roadways described so vividly by Segal and Weizman. Of the way Israel has dealt with occupying the land. But it's one of those phrases which have universal application.
"Our truest reality is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another."
I'm thinking of some of last week's stories, not least Jan's farewell to the island whose community she served so well for six years. After a party, all decamped to Iona jetty where clutching bagsfull of gifts, Jan stepped into a local boatman's craft and headed off across the Sound towards her new home in Mull, all fondly waving her on her way.
I'm thinking of the death tales I've heard recently - John O'Donohue's wonderful story of the woman he prepared for a good death, who received her family one by one, making her peace with each of them, being ready then to pass on well. And of Cole Moreton's rather different (but equally profound) tale of three generations of his family's men struggling to talk to each other in stumbling attempts to address all the hidden hurts between them.
I'm thinking of the way it was when I moved here - ie, very, very, affirming on the one hand, with so many genuine well-wishers around me, and yet on the other hand how very, very, lonesome it felt - a taste of the curious liberation and loss of ministry.
And I'm thinking of the people of this area, especially those uprooted from their homes by local authority execs who fail to see the human consequences of their plans. Of the young woman getting married next April not wanting to leave for the church from the house on Broad Lane because she's ashamed of how it looks - a decent family home hemmed in by boarded-up properties, overgrown wasteland, urban blight. How she deals with that will say so much about her.
"Our truest reality is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another."
I shall take this phrase into the next stage of my studies on the theology of place and land. And I shall take it out into the night tomorrow on another of my walks which, under this dark winter sky, will perhaps be vey different than the bright and breezy walks of summer.
Sunday, October 24, 2004A vivacious extraness I see that Copey's new book is out: The Megalithic European, which the head describes as "my second huge guide to the first monuments of humanity, this time taking in over 300 prehistoric sites on mainland Europe and in its islands. The essay section examines the mystery of our prehistoric beginnings in order for us to understand and enrich our lives."
Cope last year delivered a lecture at the British Museum on The norse god Odin in Christian Symbolism appearing in multi-coloured face paint, combat clothing and five-inch platform shoes. In The Independent today the "writer, rocker, goddess-worshipper and self-styled shaman" explains his approach to unfolding the ancient:
"I try to inform what I do with a vivacious extraness", he says. "I want to make it appealing, to make people feel that their human side is being celebrated. Pre-history can be cool. It isn't all morris dancing and hoedowns and Tony Robinson standing in a field in his cagoule. To me, that could never be interesting. I like to think of myself as the conduit between the place and the person who goes to it. At the very least, I want people to think, "Cope's been here. Let's go and have a look"."
Well, it works for me. Can't wait to see his current work-in-progress, Let Me Speak to the Driver, a "language and landscape encyclopaedia of pre-Christian history"...
Saturday, October 23, 2004The duty of privilege Lesley Orr said that the bible was so full of violence and gender oppression she struggled wondering if there was any worth in reading it at all today. On day two Martin Scott gave us a thorough lesson in how to read scripture against the grain, using a hermeneutic of suspicion. And on the third day Susan Miller and Stephen Smyth gave us a taster of the Scottish Bible Society's Conversations, a contextual approach to sharing the Scriptures in groups. Lessons learned: take nothing for granted, be creative in criticism, enjoy doing it in context.
In the evenings small groups of members and staff got together for a series of conversations about environmental issues, from which I came away with a poem in celebration of Bulky Bobs, a written exercise which showed my CO2 emissions are well over average because of car use, some good books to follow-up, and plenty of prompting about things to get on with during this Year of Living Generously.
Plenty of great words shared, plenty of inspiration. Privileged to be part of all that, as I'm privileged generally in life.
Wasn't till the journey home, though, on the road somewhere past Lochgilphead, that I found the phrase which seemed to capture everything the week had taught me, in one of John O'Donohue's Greenbelt talks. A phrase which rewards much revisiting, which would trigger much good change in anyone taking it to heart:
Because so much has been given to us
the duty of privilege is absolute integrity.
Friday, October 22, 2004Another Wild Goose chase
Back from a week on Iona where much fun was had bidding in an auction of items from the Abbey, to raise money towards the Community's Growing Hope Appeal. I found myself bidding against Jan for this gorgeous Wild Goose Studio casting of The Dream of the Magi (After a 13th century Burgundy carving; the angel's forefingers link the star to the first Magi, whose suddenly-awakened eye indicates that the dream has arrived).
Jan outbid me in the end, though we'd pushed it so far she almost paid shop price for it. She was very keen to get it because for the past three years it has been a welcome part of her daily landscape - on the corridor wall outside the Abbey Warden's flat which was her home until very recently.
But on leaving the island early today in a choppy sea, I had the casting in my bag. Jan has given it to me on loan for six months, which she's spending mostly away from her new home; felt it would be better off on my mantlepiece rather than gathering dust in storage somewhere. It will be a great companion as the year rolls on towards Epiphany.
Thursday, October 14, 2004Iona - no bypassing the Sheela
Don't marry uh-huh-her
Don't marry uh-huh-huh-her
Don't marry uh-huh-her
Don't marry uh-huh-huh-her
Don't ask me
Why it's grieving
Don't marry uh-huh-huh-her
I am away this week, escaping from the parish where old ladies try to mother me, make me feel smothered; away to walk, eyes down, shamed beneath the gaze of the squatting old hag.
Iona's Sheela-Na-Gig discomforts me. I don't understand why a nunnery wall would display a crone, carved in stone, legs open, revealing all. I can't know how or why this shocker was once idolised, a local object of worship or love. I don't have the linguistic skills to comprehend the depths of meaning in the ancient Scots word for her, Cailleach, 'the veiled and hidden one', who represented both fate and death. I just walk beneath her, the exhibitionist, the words of that and one other P.J. Harvey song burning my inner ear...
I fill the sea
All with my tears
I drown the fields
You will remember
Beth's journal tells us that
In her most mysterious aspect, the Cailleach was the 'dark mother' who knew what the future held for all men. She was known as the 'Mother of All' and was the life-death force which came from the earth itself. The Sheela figure, or the Cailleach, were both symbols of powerful Celtic Goddesses of life and death. They represented the hag or crone aspect of the Triple Goddess.
The Sheela pointed to her vulva, the opening of her womb, which was the source of her power, the source of all life and of death. Her display of her genitals was not a seductive or a sexual gesture, but was understood as a talisman symbolic of the life-giving properties of nature herself. This was an ancient gesture believed to ward off evil and to bring good luck. Rubbing the genital area of the carved Sheela figures was thought to cure illness and provide protection. The 'living Sheela-Na-Gigs' tradition were old women who used the display of their genitals as a protective gesture against evil.
This is too much information for me. On the road to Iona Village Hall I want to escape the hag's gaze; but I cannot. In the shadow of ancient rocks I want to wrestle the life-death force out of her hands into mine; but I cannot. Above the throbbing sea I want to gain freedom from the mothers; but I cannot.
Polly Harvey's sentiments are Sheela-like: a mother's cry to an errant son. She sings it raw like a gender-bent Howling Wolf:
The valley is crying
The valley is grieving
The family and me
Don't marry uh-huh-her...
I fill the sea
All with my tears
I drown the fields
You will remember
There is something very primal in all this. The mother - the fields - the tears - the sea. The persistence of loss and continuity, the insistence of jealousy, pain, endless manipulation. Some people think going to Iona is some sort of holiday. It might be, but there can be no bypassing the Sheela.
Wednesday, October 13, 2004A Year of Living Generously A Year of Living Generously is underway. Now I'm gonna have to do some serious lifestyle thinking... was today's lazy two-minute drive to morning prayers because of a bit of drizzle, my last? Was that lunchtime gammon OTT? No, no, no, that's not the way ... I'm going to live generously - and enjoy it!
Tuesday, October 12, 2004Damaged Goods go travellin' Greenbelt 04: the wit and extensive wisdom of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Kester Brewin, Paul Cookson, Malcolm & Meryl Doney, Giles Fraser, Jeffrey John, Cole Moreton, Ann Morisy, John O'Donohue, Rowan Williams, John Bell and Ched Myers.
And also today a reminder that the trip ought to involve becoming acquainted with the new Elvis album; and a missive from that singular label Damaged Goods to let me know Holly Golightly's new cd, Slowly But Surely, is out.
The latest from the 'lipsmakinpunkreleasingfifteenyearoldrecordlabel', and more incisive lyrics from the post-punk prince of worldly perceptiveness, all in the mix with some liberating and laughter-making theology; should ensure I keep my eyes on the road...
Monday, October 11, 2004Get down The Dome You can't do everything, can you? I'm on Iona next week; which will be great, come rain or shine (last Oct it was, believe it or not, shine all the way). If I wasn't I'd be keen to get down The Dome for the European Social Forum. Looks thrilling. If you're into dialogue with folks active in justice, peace, democracy work across the continent. The website has 86 pages of programme details...
From a tiny Scottish island we'll be doing our own version; the Iona Community is a European Social Forum in itself, in minature. Next time round, though, I hope the dates don't clash. If you go to the ESF, let us know how it went.
Sunday, October 10, 2004If the war goes on The Biggest Sing in the World we held a humble event in Norris Green tonight.
In a church where candles burned near a book of condolence for Ken Bigley it seemed so very right to sing, from the new collection I will not sing alone, an anti-Gulf War song John Bell wrote in 1991 and has since revisited as the whole sorry mess has spiralled on.
"The song was both a protest against the first Gulf War and against the seeming inability of either commercial or church music to offer texts of protest or lament," he writes. It's a powerful song of questioning judgement.....
IF THE WAR GOES ON
If the war goes on
and the children die of hunger,
and the old men weep
for the young men are no more,
and the women learn
how to dance without a partner
who will keep the score?
If the war goes on
and the truth is taken hostage;
and new terrors lead
to the need to euphemise,
when the calls for peace
are declared unpatriotic,
who'll expose the lies?
If the war goes on
and the daily bread is terror,
and the voiceless poor
take the road as refugees;
when a nation's pride
destines millions to be homeless,
who will heed their pleas?
If the war goes on
and the rich increase their fortunes
and the arms sales soar
as new weapons are displayed,
when a fertile field
turns to-no-man's-land tomorrow,
who'll approve such trade?
If the war goes on
will we close the doors to heaven,
if the war goes on,
will we breach the gates of hell;
if the war goes on,
will we ever be forgiven,
if the war goes on....
Words & music John L. Bell & Graham Maule, music John L. Bell, copyright @ 1999, 2001, 2002 WGRG, Iona Community Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland.
Saturday, October 09, 2004The Welsh gene reignites Four minutes into the England - Wales game the Welsh gene in me reignited. How I reacted to Owen's flukey goal showed me where my loyalties lay. I groaned.
That's part fourth-generation Welshness surfacing, part Old Trafford aversion... impossible to support any team playing its home games there...
Friday, October 08, 2004You can see common sense from here Howies catalogue. Superimposed onto a lovely picture of the wide open space of Cardigan Bay, tide splashing the empty, tan-tinted beach, it says, "On a clear day, you can see common sense from here." A typical slice of Howies wisdom. I looked at it in silence for some time. The soothing effect was almost as good as physically being there.
A whole day of emerging church teaching from Aussie gurus Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost confirmed yesterday's feeling that by contrast the institution I'm in is submerging. Which isn't cheerful. But also, oddly, it seemed to suggest that we're actually not doing much wrong either. If mission is about proximity, presence, powerlessness and proclamation then that's all happening here already, out on the edge of this peripheral city. If leaders ought to be 'apostolic' then I think I'm correct in saying that's what was confirmed to me when the bishop put his hands on me head that day in 2001. If emerging churches feel like they're in a liminal state, then, hell, so do submerging ones, most of the time. Join the club. Truth is, there is no border between thrilling emerging church and struggling submerging church; they co-exist, deeply.
I felt more thrilled and definitely more affirmed last night when I heard David Hope speak at Liverpool Hope. Mainly because, unlike Hirsch and Frost the Archbishop had the grace and the wisdom to acknowledge who was in his audience - at both events a high proportion of people who, like me, got ordained in good heart and with the best of intentions and who are now embroiled in all the grimness and glory of an often mundane ministry. Feeling sullied and shamed by failure to live up to others' expectations (among them people like Hirsch and Frost).
The pastoral archbishop who is returning to an ordinary vicar's role soon, acknowledged all this because he knows it all very well himself. Said some very wise things about being in dialogue with the world, about interfaith dialogue, about raising people's religious literacy, about the value of faith-based schools. A man who served his curacy in the sixties just two miles from here, Hope encouraged us to enjoy all that the city of Liverpool offers as a way of engaging with God. Which I do, and I will continue to, gladly.
Best of all, he reserved a specific word of affirmation to those who toil in faithful ministry on the city's outer estates. That's us. It meant a lot and encouraged us a lot to hear that, from a man who knows and cares about our stuttering attempts to try to bridge the gap between so-called emerging and alleged submerging. Who puts it in local context because only there can you begin to understand it all. Who helps me lift up my shamed head this evening, to look out across the shining dual carriageway and think, "You can see common sense from here".
Thursday, October 07, 2004Enough dodgy metaphors emerging church because our church feels more like it's submerging most of the time and if I make splashes occasionally it's not because I'm waving, it's 'cos I'm drowning. And (apart from the odd comment on other folks' sites) I don't get too involved in online emerging debates for the same reason that I don't blog too often at all about churchy stuff - because, for me, the blog's a bit of a release from all that.
(Vinny reckons this blog reads like the Fortean Times, "a bit eccentric," which thrilled me... much rather that than it reading like the Church Times - essential but a bit lacklustre, or many emerging websites - frankly a bit anal.)
But Mark and I are off tomorrow to an emerging conference in Sheffield. It's already made some waves. I just hope that for us we don't find ourselves drowing in a sea of hyperbole, but rather, dipping our toes into a pool of promise.
Wednesday, October 06, 2004Forting up - West Bank and Croxteth Park connect Eyal Weizman's book A Civilian Occupation arrived today and the introduction makes a fascinating point which never dawned on me before. Basically, that it is possible to trace a link between Israeli settlements and gated communities in urban areas everywhere:
The ascent up the West Bank mountains coincided with the flight of the middle classes and their 'forting up' behind protective walls - both formations setting themselves against the poverty and violence of the Third Worlds they have produced. After all, is it not the same period of 1980s Reaganism that has produced the highest number of West Bank settlements and introduced the very terms 'gated community' and 'new urbanism'? Is the principle of exclusive bypass roads really that different from the deliberate carving up of poor communities with dead-end highways? Are we actually describing a unique place whose specificity renders its study a local curiosity, or is this not a worst-case scenario of capitalist globalization and its spatial fallout?
As a study of a local curiosity it is a fascinating book - now, it is becoming essential.
Tuesday, October 05, 2004Aberfeldy The Rough Trade indie sampler [link, here, seems to be down at the moment] put me onto Aberfeldy. It's summery music, really, light, lovely, pop. But perhaps just what's needed as a tonic these darkening days.
Monday, October 04, 2004Parish Walks #7 - The Shopping Trolley Trail
This was also an opportune moment to drop in on Vinny, a local historian based in the Carr Lane housing office who has spent some regeneration money very wisely, producing a book called A Brief History of Norris Green, also in cd form. Vinny's concern, like most other local folk: the growing unravelling of a sense of community, especially among the young. Vinny's vision, as he writes in his preface: "If this history can spark off an interest in younger readers then the whole project will have been worth while." Vinny's cd: free to anyone who asks for one.
Two cups of tea in the office kitchen and a good long chat later, I tucked the cd gladly into my pocket and set off reaffirmed in my own project, to try to bring to light at least a little of what has been hidden for too long - the stories of the thousands for whom Norris Green / Croxteth is home, the truth about the place.
Not that the truth is always very palatable. For the rural labourers who tended the damp and boggy land when St Swithin's was established in 1425, as for today's fourth-generation unemployed living on a gerry-built estate, now crumbling, times have often been tough. Today's walk took me into the unpalatable.
I think this is the route I took: Carr Lane, Hazelslack Rd, the sweep of Swallowhurst Crescent to Colesborne Road, Clanfield Road, Elkstone Road, Dencourt Road, across Stalisfield Avenue to Kingsdown Road, loop through Berkeswell Road, onto Monksdown Road, and all the way around the cycle of Norris Green Crescent / Glassonby Crescent, returning Monksdown - Frinstead - Braithwaite - Swallowhurst - Colesborne - Winhowe - Sandway - Carsington and out of the place, across Utting Avenue East, home.
I say I think this is the route I took because I went map-less, by instinct, testing my meagre but growing sense of the area. And also because, in these half-derelict acres, sometimes road signs are missing - sometimes the corner houses they were secured to, are missing. My one marker was a shopping trolley, abandoned at the one-time junction of Monksdown and Glassonby, now a wasteland. If I return there again and the trolley is gone, I will be lost. Seems fitting - only markers of impermanence guide me around this place of deep disruption.
When I saw the trolley for the second time I knew I'd completed a circuit, and that I could spin out via a link road onto the next cycle of crumbling concrete, corrugated windows and Boot Estate blight.
These things made an impression on me en-route:
People going about their business, from houses with neat gardens, pushing prams, carrying shopping, clearing rubbish, tidying up, in the face of the terrible dereliction around them.
An old man emerging from a well-kept house, the only one still occupied in a row of four, slowly shaking his head at the bright blue slogans newly-painted on the pavement outside, identifying PINHEAD as the author.
Fresh council signs on lampposts everywhere: NO TIPPING ... while the whole place feels like a municipal tip.
A pair of trainers laced together, hanging from a telephone line way above Colesborne Road. Sign of humiliation for whoever owns them, reminded of their theft and gleeful disposal every time they pass underneath; sign of great skill or perseverence by the youngsters who dispatched them there - doubtless the same youngsters who have been using a lamppost further down the road as a high hoopla - three bike tyres languish at its base, one hangs awkwardly from its broken headpiece.
I am especially impressed by this sign: MONKSDOWN COMMUNITY INFANT SCHOOL - WHERE EVERY CHILD IS SPECIAL. This is brave and prophetic language in a square where older children rampage each night and residents (who have told me this) live in fear. I know that it is founded on the good practice and great commitment of the staff, and the pupils, there.
And lastly, what grabs me is this house, which I think may have been on Braithwaite Crescent. Number Ten. As soon as I saw it, in my head I juxtaposed it with a more famous Number Ten. The irony, the disparity, the sinfulness, the shame in that contrast...
Sunday, October 03, 2004Wheeling Liverpool Delving and Driving. On later investigation I find that her other hour-long films cost about £1,000 to buy and not much less to hire. I can wait till it shows on BBC4 (or the surprisingly good - for art programmes - Five).
Went on Martha's coach trip today and it was interesting, though, as I blogged last week, you can't concentrate wholly on a film/lecture about the city when the city is going past outside the window, showing all its colours. Which is why I would like to see the film again, because Martha's sources are fascinating and will bear closer inspection.
I picked up on two in particular: Herman Melville's seafaring novel Redburn, which spends much time in the port in its prime, at once the wealthiest and the most impoverished place. Rosler dwells for a while on Melville's haunting description of the impoverished people of Launcelott's-Hey, where a sickly woman Redburn was trying to help, would not raise her head to him:
Observing her arms still clasped upon her bosom, and that something seemed hidden under the rags there, a thought crossed my mind, which impelled me forcibly to withdraw her hands for a moment; when I caught a glimpse of a meager little babe - the lower part of its body thrust into an old bonnet. Its face was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor; but the closed eyes looked like balls of indigo. It must have been dead some hours.
And linked to that, Rosler also uses a novel for older children, James Heneghan's The Grave, the story of a foster child with no family in his 'real' life in 1970s Liverpool, who stumbles into a pit in an excavated schoolyard and finds himself mysteriously transported back to rural Ireland in the grip of the potato famine of the 1840s, and investigating the story of a previously-hidden mass grave.
This is grim stuff, but it serves as a reminder that, at the height of Liverpool's trading prowess the city was second in the world league-table of child mortality, less worse only than Dublin. Calcutta was third.
Rosler's tour is good because she has taken care to link texts to places. The Melville quotes are read while the coach takes the subterranean cross-Mersey trip via the Wallasey road tunnel and emerges onto Scotty Road, at the city's deprived dockland edge, where Launcelott's-Hey may well have been. We hear the hidden history of the Liverpool Jewish community between Hope Place and Princes Road, base of two of the city's celebrated synagogues. Chinatown gets similar treatment. While we pass through the 'old' road tunnel we learn that we are not at the bottom of it - there is another tunnel beneath, cut for a tramline which was never built. And wheeling down past the Metropolitan Cathedral the film reminds us that this area was once dominated by a massive workhouse complex. As we pass the Cathedral's swanky new visitor centre we are read extracts from the LIVERPOOL WORKHOUSE BATHING REGULATIONS:
The only flaw in this seamless filmic-realtime documentary is the piece on the wartime bomb damage, because by then the coach is wheeling back towards the Museum steps rather than being in the places described as the worst-hit during that terrible blitz: Bootle, where only fifteen per cent of the houses remained intact, and "the area south of Lord Street - which has never fully recovered."
That area does still look like a bomb-site, but that's because it's the focus of a lot of regeneration just now, and soon, they tell us, it will be Paradise. Post-war reconstruction. Only sixty years on.
They came and took me away"
- today's Franciscan sermon.
Saturday, October 02, 2004Pic of the month Pic of the month for October is up. Continuing yesterday's Eyal Weizman theme....
Friday, October 01, 2004Urbanicide The Real New Fall LP. A song I'd hoped I'd be hearing tonight at MES's gig postponed from February. But posters outside The Academy are telling passers-by and punters that he's put the show off again, reason unexplained. Not a wasted day, though, in the city, for The Biennial put on a seminar and discussion called Occupation: Unknown which opened a few boxes this afternoon.
What is occupation? - something you do, a state of physical being in relation to place and land... exploring these themes were four speakers, two of them people whose work I've been interested in for a while - the Tel Aviv architect Eyal Weizman, curator of the banned exhibition A Civilian Occupation; and journalist Anna Minton who is doing a lot of work on the privatisation of public space, basing herself in Liverpool now after a productive time exploring the cycle of urban regeneration in Newcastle-Gateshead for her report Northern Soul.
Weizman's work is mindblowing. His mission is to politicise architecture, which has, he feels, been in denial of its position as a tool of domination and control in his native land, and elsewhere. I blogged here about his current work, The Politics of Verticality, which shows starkly how the physical landscape of Israel-Palestine has been cut, sliced, revised by a conflict in which conventional concepts such as borders are insufficient to describe what is going on. "Israel and Palestine are not two different places," he says, "They are two readings of the same place."
The West Bank is "a liquid frontier". Structures (such as Palestinian camps) are called "temporary", not in terms of time (some are forty years old) but in policy terms, so that they exist in a continuous state of emergency in which anything goes. In a return to biblical mores today's Israelis settle on dusty mountaintops again, this time to evade occupation laws which say the only areas you can seize are those you cannot cultivate. To evade and avoid enemy territory, settlements are linked by complex systems of roads and tunnels. The dense streets of Jenin have been widened, and the houses had ground floor outer rooms removed, creating overhangs just large enough to allow the throughput of Israeli tanks. "Cities are flexible entities," in the urbanicide of occuption Weizmann catalogues so well.
Anna Minton's work is concerned with other zones of conflict, subtler or more hidden, and worryingly closer to home. In her illustrations about how space is being privatised a shocking first emerged about Liverpool. This is the first British city to agree to privatise part of its centre. The Grosvenor Paradise Project, covering 42 acres in the heart of the city, due for completion in time for 2008, is to be privately managed. Traditional rights of way will be replaced by 'public realm arrangements' policed by Grosvenor's own 'quartermasters' or 'sheriffs', in which beggars, skateboarders and protesters will be outlawed. Grosvenor will buy-in facilities like security and waste management, usurping the local authority's role in its own city centre. "We are now seeing a real urban renaissance. A new Agenda - A new urbanism," says John Prescott on the Paradise Project website.
Minton outlined the consequences for such a shift; showing how "the rapid growth in the number of gated communities and the privatisation of shopping, leisure and office complexes in British towns and cities lead to exclusion and polarisation, as only certain individuals and types of behaviour are permitted within these enclaves." In the U.S. where these processes are more advanced fifteen percent of the population live in gated communities, and fifteen percent live in ghettos.
A growing culture of fear drives these gated developments, says Minton, which is unfounded in an era of falling crime, but powerful nonetheless. But she remains hopeful that we can overcome polarisation and build balanced communities, she affirms that for every Dome there is a Tate Modern, for every 'tick-box' cultural project there is one founded on genuine local collaboration and assets, helping to make connections between those two polarised fifteen-per-cents.
So, pre-MES let-down, it was very good to sit in a room full of internationals, in a building once a synagogue, the Unity Theatre which was founded as part of "a movement to make theatre accessible to 'the great mass of the people' both through production, acting, writing and as audience and to use theatre as a political instrument to bring 'new strength to the progressive struggle'." Good to know the place is still fulfilling its role, occupying a vital space in a time of urbanicide.