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

    Monday, February 28, 2005
    The Enemy Within
    Twenty years ago she branded the miners The Enemy Within. Of all the breathtaking (life-sapping) ironies Thatcher uttered in her brutalising era, that one remains the starkest.
    Sunday, February 27, 2005
    The Idea of North
    Browsing Reaktion Books website today, for a title which might offer further insights into the sorts of stuff I've been into the last few days. Yorkshire culture, Lancashire identity - ideas about Northern lands which are pregnant with possibilities. And Peter Davidson has written a book called The Idea of North:

    As with the compass needle, so people have always been most powerfully attracted northwards; everyone carries within them their own concept of north. The Idea of North is a study, ranging widely in time and place, of some of the ways in which these ideas have found expression.

    Sounds fascinating. And it likely will be, for Reaktion Books tend to be. The other title of theirs catching my eye tonight is John Scanlan's On Garbage,

    ... the first work to examine the detritus of our culture in its full range; garbage in this sense is not only material waste and ruin, environmental degradation and so on, but also residual or 'broken' knowledge, useless concepts, the remainders of systems of intellectual and cultural thought. In this unique and original work (a kind of intellectual scavenging in its own right) the author shows why garbage is, perversely, the source of all that is valuable.
    ... By detailing the waste, ruin and nonsense that we have discarded, the author argues that we can learn new things about the accepted truths and basic building blocks of our culture; he throws new light on our modern condition by examining not what we have kept, but what we have thrown away.

    Love it. Love it. But will I ever have time to read it?
    Saturday, February 26, 2005
    Trouble at t'mill
    Charles Nevin's book is amusingly and self-knowingly bigoted, especially against Yorkshire folk who are characterised as humourless in comparison to the jollity of us Lancastrians. Well, consider Dodd, Kay, Askey, Coogan, Morecambe, Wood in relation to, erm, Titchmarsh, Whiteley, Boycott, er, Scargill - see what he means?

    I also like his silly theory that the further East you get within Lancashire (ie, the nearer you get towards Yorkshire), the less whimsical, romantic, carefree you get. Consider Liverpool, Blackpool in relation to Manchester, Oldham - see what he means?

    There are more sober streams to this book too. Today's reading made transpennine connections with yesterday's blog theme. Reflecting on King Cotton - the rise and demise of the mill towns, the demographic and cultural changes of recent times, race tensions in the likes of Oldham, Blackburn. And the less-headlined class tensions, the ever-widening inequalities which are Capital's continuum from the days the mills went up, and earlier.

    The whimsical Scouser in me, I guess, can't help but want to find some wisdom in the silliness to redeem the deadly serious. And Nevin helps me in that quest by interviewing a BNP councillor in Darwen who was actually all the way from Haslingden and had spent 'only about 15 years in Darwen.'

    'You have to be in Darwen 20 years before you're accepted as a proper Darwener,' he said. I don't think he appreciated the irony. I didn't until I thought about it later.
    Friday, February 25, 2005
    Salt of the world
    Titus Salt gifted a Yorkshire wool town a masterpiece of Italiantine architecture - the astonishing Salts Mill. Having built his fortune on the Alpaca wool he first discovered at a Liverpool warehouse in 1834. I spent some of today in Saltaire. It's a wonderful place. Edge of Shipley. Breathtaking architecture in the so-called grim north.

    Though the pub we supped in later was Royston-Vesey-Local these dripping valleys embrace the world. They owe their development to a South American relative of the camel; today the Salt buildings are matched by the impressive mosques which signal Bradford's multifaith mix; which sit alongside multinational shopping sheds and outlets of McDonald's Corporation of Oak Brook, Illinois.

    Saltaire is a World Heritage Site. Like Liverpool waterfront, to which Saltaire connects via the Leeds-Liverpool canal. World Heritage status seems to focus on buildings; but as now, so right back through urban history - the real heritage must be what emerges from the interface between these very different world cultures, clashing and collaborating.
    Thursday, February 24, 2005
    The missionary

    If Mike Mills could make the effort to get up off his sick bed to meet a commitment to playing before 8,000 people at the NEC, then as one of those paying customers I felt I should honour my side of the covenant, despite feeling heady with cold and anxious about travel-weather.

    But it has always been rewarding, watching REM, and so it was last night. It's rewarding for two reasons. First, it involves engaging with a series of songs-which-defined-your-life: over the past twenty years this band have offered us all a new language for love, loss, longing (consider how much everybody values Everybody Hurts) and have offered smaller miracles to each of their fans in elusive lyrics which somehow connect ('I'll be your albatross, / devil, dog, Jesus, God, / I don't wanna be Iggy Pop but if that's what it takes, hey...' - the wonderfully ridiculous lines of last night's opener, I Took Your Name.)

    The second reason watching REM is so rewarding is Michael Stipe. Though it meant we missed out on the visual show digitized on the screen above the singer's head, it was good to be upfront stage left to witness his energetic, quirky, generous, manic movements. He's a tremendous communicator, this self-effacing superstar, champion of love's fearlessness in the face of an awful, aweful world. He gravitates to the very edges of his stage, energetic to engage his audience. Politicised but not polemical, a poet of potential and abstract protest, Stipe is a twenty-first century missionary. His mission is one of the easiest tasks in the world - to persuade his audience to join him in celebrating his joyful vision.
    Tuesday, February 22, 2005
    Jettisoned to my settee with a fever today, a cold snap victim, I'm grateful for Boomkat, a truly wonderful music mail order website who, in timely fashion, just delivered me Harold Budd's Avalon Sutra (2xcd) and Khonnor's Handwriting, three exquisite pieces of music, a soundtrack to my woes. I shall keep them playing rather than having to listen to the tiresome Jim Beglin from Anfield on ITV2 tonight...
    Monday, February 21, 2005
    Steaming salvation
    The longest, toughest day for a while began and ended in steam. Began badly, taking my dying car, engine smoking all over the road, to the garage to face expensive treatment. Ended well, twelve hours later, in a gentle Ignatian group exercise.

    Which had been preceded by the most welcome and unexpected gesture of the day: someone coming into my 'vesty hour' (where I take bookings for baptisms etc) with a wonderfully welcome chinese chicken and rice meal to sustain me. Felt like a sort of steaming salvation.
    Sunday, February 20, 2005
    Five Thoughts
    I'm doing Radio Merseyside's Thoughts for the Day all this week - 6.40 and 7.40 Mon-Fri. Wake up and hear the wisdom ... ahem ... here
    Saturday, February 19, 2005
    Counter Culture 04
    Athough their website is frustratingly slow sometimes, it's worth persevering to receive news like today's: the imminent release of their latest best-of cd: Counter Culture 04. The compilations of the last couple of years have been mines of great new music, as selected by the folks in their shops - I'm trusting them to come up with some gems again. Out in a fortnight. Taking pre-orders now.
    Friday, February 18, 2005
    Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love
    Elvis, to Liverpool audience the other night: "Now I'm going to do The Delivery Man..."
    Scouse Heckler: "Mine's a pint of Gold Top!"
    Elvis, after due consideration: "You know, I've waited months to come to Liverpool to hear that joke...."
    Elvis, of course, hails from these parts, and shows it too with this quick-witted double follow-through:
    "Shows your age a bit, mate.... mine, too."

    I've spent today mostly with the thoroughly enjoyable Charles Nevin book, Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love. In his chapter on Liverpool he attempts, as all writers do, to summarise the essence of Scouse humour:

    "Nearly all of it is in the famous exchange between Cilla Black and her young audience during Jack and the Beanstalk at the Liverpool Empire: 'Now then, children, how are we going to kill the big bad giant?' 'Sing to him, Cilla!'"

    If you hail from these parts, you'll love Nevin's book too, honest. The title comes from the revered historian A.J.P. Taylor quoting Balzac, no less. Though Taylor goes on to say, 'I think this very unlikely. I have always assumed, though with little first-hand experience, that Lancashire women are brisk and businesslike in love-making as in everything else. The men provide the romantic atmosphere. It delights them to imagine that the women die of love. In reality a Lancashire woman would reply: "Come on, lad, let's get it over!"'

    It delights Nevin to roam the streets of the North-West asking folk what they think of Lancashire as the place where women die of love. Liverpool-born St Helens-raised London media wag, Nevin's style is wondrously witty and amply demonstrates what he regards as the strongest Lancastrian characteristic, whimsy.

    He finds the environs of Lancaster to be the true location of the Holy Grail, he finds romance in Rugby League, he spends a riotous day in Wigan with fifty Sons of the Desert, Laurel and Hardy fans, he proffers evidence that the streets of Paris were inspired by Southport, and at the Lancs medieval theme park Camelot he loves the Hollands Pies.

    As for his oft-repeated question, there are many illuminating answers. But perhaps the most Lancastrian one of the lot comes from Claire, on her hen night in Blackpool.

    "I asked Claire if she knew that Lancashire was the county where women died of love. 'I thought it was from the cold, or too many chips,' she said."
    Thursday, February 17, 2005
    Cope in British Archaeology
    Still got last night's typically storming, two-and-a-half-hour Elvis gig in my head, mixing oddly with The Superimposers gorgeous pop collection which I'm hearing for the first time. But yet again it's Julian Cope who predominates.

    Today I found him in the new issues of The Wire - and British Archaeology. A gig review in the former, and in the latter a page of his reflections on why megaliths took over his life - he blames his mother-in-law. Who was with him on a 'trip' (take it both ways) to Avebury in 1989 which started the whole thing off for him. He's now at No.1 and No.2 in the Amazon archeology sales charts. And still '... a prolific troubadour and ... leader of a bad-assed barbarian axe-wielding rock'n'roll raiding party'. The Wire reviewer sums up Cope in a great phrase I wish I'd coined: 'ever the showman, ever the shaman.'
    Wednesday, February 16, 2005
    Subverting the city
    Did my seminar, Towards an Urban Theology of Land, yesterday. Only a small gathering but nevertheless a good conversation afterwards, which moved between people talking about projects in their part of town which imaginatively investigated 'place', and debates about the way capital has promoted time over place to its own ends. Interesting stuff emerged about how 'the natural' always takes over eventually. Whether that's flowers breaking through the concrete or people reclaiming so-called non-places, it always happens. And as if to demonstrate that one of the city centre clergy walked in near the end to say he'd come from a meeting of a group of luxury loft apartment-dwellers who are breaking the isolation of their living and forming a tenants association.

    And on Channel Four last night, tonight and tomorrow at 7.55, Wrights and Sites and others are involved in the 3 MINUTE WONDER: SUBVERTING THE CITY, in which "Filmmaker Daniel Edelstyn joins four groups of artists and activists using urban environments as a stage from which to question and challenge the preconceptions built into the modern city." Last night - people climbing church walls, tiptoeing along safety barriers and lying down on street hardware. Thursday, apparently, will be a Mis-Guide to Milton Keynes. Tonight - dunno; can't wait to find out.
    Tuesday, February 15, 2005
    Eulogy for Muriel Jessie Murton, the one with the big hat.
    Monday, February 14, 2005
    We're rubbish when it comes to death
    One of the tasks of this very odd job I do is to respond positively and politely to relatives of deceased when they say to you, "We've got Dad in the front room if you'd like to go and see him." This is an invitation which cannot be refused. And so, in your complete incomprehension and overwhelming sense of inadequacy in the face of absolute mortality, you stand beneath a white cloth tastefully decorated with roses and look down on the dearly loved and lost one and find yourself uttering inanities whilst an alternative - critical - commentary plays out in your head.

    "Doesn't he look peaceful?" you say (Well, of course he looks peaceful you fool, he's dead).
    "They've made him look really nice, haven't they?" you say (Which is some sort of miracle considering when you think what an ugly bruiser he looked when he was alive...)

    Somehow (presumably beacuse they're just relieved you've generously opted to share your absolute uselessness and vulnerability with them) this consoles the mourners.

    Well, this afternoon Dad and I are off to see my aunt, his sister, in the chapel at the funeral directors. I'd like to imagine things might be different with her, but I doubt they will. I can already hear us saying it. "Doesn't she look peaceful?"; "They've made her look really nice, haven't they?" God help us. We're rubbish, aren't we, when it comes to death?
    Sunday, February 13, 2005
    My task for the next three days - to dream up five Thoughts for the Day for Radio Merseyside, to be recorded Thursday for broadcast next week. I'm struggling. Last time it was easier - there were anniversaries, themes for most days. This time - nothing inspiring. Must avoid being predictably pious; or deliberately provocative. They want me because they reckon I may offer something 'different'. Maybe I'll just recite five hymns backwards, one a day; that'd be a thought.
    Saturday, February 12, 2005
    The dowager Golden Goose
    A pic of Pip's most-loved cafe, The New Piccadilly, which I enjoyed pre-Christmas, brought me back to a fascinating article by Phil Baker titled, Secret City: Psychogeography and the End of London, which I'd read in lazy lie-in bed yesterday. in it he quotes from another good bit of writing, from the Classic Cafes website:

    "Psychogeography is the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments. The lost social ley-lines which make up the unconscious cultural contours of places...With cafes, a sort of dowager atmosphere comes to the fore, apparently drably familiar yet full of secrets."

    I've just written my auntie's funeral address, and that connects too. She met her husband-to-be in a cafe. Trainee hairdresser meets Merchant Navy sailor in the Golden Goose Cafe on South Road, Waterloo. Post-war (just), in a celebrated gathering-place by a Mersey beach. It is still there, with amusements and a summertime candy-floss kiosk. Reminder of a time when my birthplace was something of a resort - first stretch of sand north of the docks, popular watering-hole for folks from the suburbs.

    The Golden Goose Cafe - dowager, yes, dusty but alive with secrets, memories, little joys. The sorts of cultural contours we find ourselves walking around funeral-times; healthy, worth preserving.
    Friday, February 11, 2005
    Killing us with a glow

    Took a wrong turn outside Lymm tonight, ended up headed Runcorn-way rather than over the miraculously eight-lanes-open Thelwall Viaduct. Still, the slight detour around the Mersey Basin was worth it for the spectacular view of Rocksavage Power Plant, here captured on film by Richard Kempton. It is breathtaking by day, stupendous at night. Icon of the Cheshire chemical hinterland, what Rocksavage manufactures I'm not at all sure. It's probably killing us. But if so, then it's killing us, with a glow.
    Thursday, February 10, 2005
    O to be a psychogeographer, now that springtime's here
    I am absolutely delighted to discover that I'm described in the new Manchester Metropolitan University Psychogeographical Resource site as "Liverpool's leading psychogeographical curate". In among the ranks of such giants of rambling, agitation and pranksterism as The Guerilla Girls, Iain Sinclair, and Luther Blissett. Wow.

    Deeply honoured and a little guilty, as I've not been a-walkin' very much since the weather closed in. But the daffodils are coming through today so the time is right to get out discovering again.

    Next Tuesday morning I am due to present a group of Liverpool clergy my paper on an urban theology of land, so perhaps I shall discover then if my new-found title is accurate, or whether there are other covert walkin' curates in this diocese, waiting to challenge my hegemony... hope there are, it's nice to have company sometimes on the psychogeographical trail.
    Wednesday, February 09, 2005
    The one about tree fellers

    How many tree fellers does it take to trim rogue roots from our city's arbours? More than three fellers. There were nine outside my window this morning. One slicing twiglets with a chainsaw, a couple standing by with hacksaws, one ensuring the volume control on the van radio was kept at a steady high, thus spreading Britney throughout the area. And five others deep in conversation, no doubt about the finer points of arboreal science or lore, the condition of the dicotyledons along this stretch of central reservation, the myth of Yggdrasil.

    If this is where our Council Tax is going, I say, great. Lovely to see nine fellers gathered in communion around a winter tree, pacing themselves nicely, looking after the minutae of our city landscape. Just a small anxiety niggles against this enjoyment: aren't these the trees the council are planning to rip up when they start building the tramline down here? And if so, won't we really miss them? And what will become of these tree fellers?
    Tuesday, February 08, 2005
    Getting Back into Place
    Welcome break from visiting relatives-of-deceased, sitting at Neville's for an hour doing some reflecting on ministry, mission, parish, place. He's a 'retired' guy who's given his entire ministry over to the people of struggling urban places (Everton, city-centre fringe, Chinatown) and now he's offering time to listen to and advise a rookie urban priest like me. Lovely.

    Shared my observation that those who get carried away with concepts of network society / network church forget that the main use of the mobile phone - ultimate network symbol - is for people to tell other people where they are. "I'm on the train," "I'm by McDonalds," etc. Which is classic displacement / denial - and reinforcing this, from the back cover of Edward Casey's Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-world, which I picked up from News from Nowhere today:

    What would the world be like if there were no places? Our lives are so place-oriented that we cannot begin to comprehend sheer placelessness. Indeed, the place we occupy has much to do with what and who we are. Yet, despite the pervasiveness of place in our everyday lives, philosophers have neglected it.

    Except armchair philosophers like Neville and me. We know our place.
    Monday, February 07, 2005
    Fit subject for the analyst's table

    Getting very religious, this blog, lately. Maybe it's the onset of Lent, or perhaps it's my true colours emerging at last. The closer we get to the end of the footy season the more prayerful I become. Nice idea from Wild Goose Publications - e-cards for Lent. Though I prefer their actual postcards; I always nick a few when I'm in the Glasgow office... George MacLeod's words here are as vigourous and vital as the day he wrote them.
    Sunday, February 06, 2005
    The glory of God is in God's justice

    Sermon for Transfiguration day - combined with Poverty Action Sunday: The glory of God is in God's justice.
    Saturday, February 05, 2005
    The Lord is my Pace Setter
    Pace of work hectic at the moment. Many funerals. Compounded by uprush of early Lent / Easter, covering for various colleagues, the death of an aunt on Thursday and preparing to lead her memorials too.

    So ... good to lead a pre-Lent mini-retreat today. Only ten turned up but we needed it. I opened by quoting these words, which probably said as much about me as anyone else....

    Toki Miyashina, Psalm 23 for Busy People

    The Lord is my Pace Setter, I shall not rush,
    He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals,
    He provides me with images of stillness,
    Which restore my serenity.
    He leads me in ways of efficiency,
    through calmness of mind; and his guidance is peace.
    Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
    I will not fret, for his presence is here.
    His timelessness, his all-importance will keep me in balance.
    He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity,
    by anointing my head with his oils of tranquility,
    My cup of joyous energy overflows.
    Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruit of my hours,
    For I shall walk in the pace of my Lord,
    and dwell in his house for ever.

    Friday, February 04, 2005
    On Saddam, Bishop Bell and Beano
    Julian Cope is still a master of the killer rock riff and lyric. I've been on the road overnight hooting with delight at this, from his great new album:

    I'm living in the room they found Saddam in,
    Nothing ever came of my family planning,
    I'm living in the room they found Saddam in now...

    You have to have ears to hear what the head drude is saying to the churches...

    Meanwhile, at St Deiniol's, I've been staying in the room named for George Bell, wartime Bishop of Chichester who opposed Hitler and the Nazi government, supported Niemoller and Bonhoffer and other German Church leaders who resisted Hitler, criticised Churchill over allied saturation bombing of civilian areas, and established the Famine Relief Committee to attempt to help victims of the British economic blockade of Europe, in countries such as Belgium and Greece.

    When you sit in a room named for a man of such great vigour and integrity, you get your work done alright. Which is what I spent the last 24 hours doing - preparing a Lent course, writing Sunday's sermon. Other rooms at St Deiniol's would perhaps have a very different effect. The time will eventually come for me to discover the effect of occupying the room named after Minnie the Minx.

    Wednesday, February 02, 2005
    Pic of the month
    Pic of the month for February is up. A rough diamond from The Stuckists....
    Tuesday, February 01, 2005
    Fairy cakes and dark things on the Wall

    I love incongruous connections. And they come easy in Greenbelt. Spent yesterday in All Hallows, one of London's ancient churches, its position in London Wall saving it from destruction in the Great Fire of 1666, reconstructed by George Dance the Younger in 1767.

    Once hermits lived in cells in the church. Now the crypt is inhabited by the keen young beautiful people who somehow arrange the hopes, dreams and obsessions of hundreds of spiritual creatives into a four-day summer festival on a slick Cotswold racecourse.

    We met in the church, a neo-classical space arched and domed and decorated in the style of the ancient Temple of Venus and Rome in the city of Rome. In the heart of the City, in the guild church of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters we sat under chandeliers around utilitarian tables, sharing fruit and butties, boiled eggs brought by a religious sister and fairy cakes baked by a minister's wife in equally-historic St Albans. The cakes had 'dark things' in them (raisins, on close inspection) and the eggs had been purchased from a Hackney hawker seeking pity at the convent door.

    In our meeting we discussed how, once again, we will spend August Bank Holiday weekend transforming Cheltenham Racecourse's most exclusive venue, dripping with gambling wealth, into a house of prayer. We always seem to manage it - it is a beautiful place. But incongruous - yes. If Greenbelt had a middle name, it would be incongruous.