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

    Thursday, June 30, 2005
    Lancashire landscape and Liverpool manure
    It's fifty years since W. G. Hoskins first published his masterpiece, The Making of the English Landscape. It's one of those books which when it appeared, just did not fit into any existing categories, because it broke completely new ground. Or, to be more accurate, what Hoskins did was to go over old ground - the ground we tread on daily - in a lot of detail, investigating just how it got to be the way it was. His work was the consequence of a lifetime spent walking the hills and lanes of his native Devon and the Midlands where he lectured, asking questions of them: what created those ridges and furrows, why are those fields the shape they are, are those woods 'natural' (and what does that actually mean)?

    The Making of the English Landscape crossed disciplines like no work had ever done before, very creatively linking geography, history, ecology, aesthetics, and social science. It was also a polemic - against modernism and the encroachment of major roads, housing developments and airfields - criticism which was very out of place at the time, in the ambitiously reordering post-war Britain, but nevertheless was a trigger for the conservation movements which have become so influential in the intervening years.

    Today I sat in on a Liverpool University course in which Alan Crosby took us deep into Hoskins' work. It was a fascinating day. I learned many, many things about how human beings have shaped the land, and how to begin to read the land to see the signs of what's been done on it in pre-industrial, or medieval or prehistoric times.

    Reading the land tells us a lot about the people who have lived on it and worked it, and their relationships. If you do this there will be surprises. One lovely local insight Alan shared is that the fertile soil of the East Lancashire farmlands owes its richness to the fact that it was fertilised by Liverpool manure - human and street waste brought up the Leeds-Liverpool canal to Burscough's Manure Wharf. That illustrates a link between the rural and urban, of the kind this course is helping me make in all sorts of ways.

    Interesting to reflect on Hoskins on this vast housing estate where I live. 'Overspill,' Hoskins wrote, 'is a word as beastly as the thing it describes.' But this place is not beastly to the three or four generations of many families who have made it their home; they would disagree with the polemical Hoskins on that. The investigative Hoskins, though, gives us a lot of resources for learning more about our place - and I'm looking forward to session two of this very interesting course.
    Wednesday, June 29, 2005
    When did football start?
    Probably the deepest and most intense intellectual discussion I initiated as an undergraduate twenty years ago was in the snug at The Mackintosh, and the topic was this: "When did football start?"

    I never realised it would be such an issue, but this was a debate which went on a very long time, that evening and then forward throughout our student days. It's never been resolved. That night, as the crowd grew around our tables and more and more folk pitched in, it became clear it is a debate between two perspectives: the one I share which is let's say the Ur-game (football started the first time a prehistoric person kicked a spherical object), and the other which might be called the Sir-game which is that football started the day the toffs of the FA published the rules of Association Football.

    Now Norman Giller, in Football and All That, is with me, though he rejects Eric Morecambe's theory that Adam started it all by kicking an apple to Cain and saying 'On me 'ead, son'. But he reckons there's evidence that it might have been the Chinese in 255 BC who set the ball rolling. To me, the alternative point of view seems to forget that football is always evolving, and that the FA's rules are not the same as those we make up in our kick-arounds in the park but both are 'football'. But in that pub, some of those who held to the latter view were historians, so perhaps they've grasped something I've missed.

    Whatever, it mirrored the equally interesting debate we were having in our Welsh History classes about when Wales started, a face-off between those who saw its origins in the mists and ancient stones, in Arthur and Owain, and those (well, Dai Smith mainly), who insisted that the real history of Wales only starts with the coalfields - modern Wales, formed in the sweat of industrial labour (on this, I've a lot of time for Dai's perspective).

    Anyway, I was reminded of the footie debate tonight by that fascinating documentary The Lost World Of Mitchell And Kenyon about a recently-discovered series of Edwardian film shorts, including the first ever film of Manchester United, made within weeks of their genesis. On a day when that club's power to influence the TV presentation of all Premiership games is in the news again, it was wonderful to hear that this was the first ever screening of that film from a hundred years ago. Reason: the game was played at Burnley, and because Burnley lost 2-0 they suppressed the film, they wouldn't let the public see it in the music halls that evening...
    Tuesday, June 28, 2005
    How to Demolish a House
    a poem by Clare Shaw

    Start with the swing and the slide,
    hide the miniature cars and
    the trike with the squeak.

    Bury the gnome.
    rip the ivy out from the brick,
    cut the hedge right back

    to its root. Strip all the fruit from the tree.
    Open the door to the greenhouse.
    Wait for frost.

    Pick a fistful of stones.
    Take out the birds at the table
    one by one.

    Cut down the lines to the phone.
    Scrape off the name
    from its plate. Dunrovin.

    Erect a high fence to deter intervention.
    Dig out the foundation. Observe
    the slump of the roof like tarpaulin.

    How the rain pools
    where the cat used to watch in the morning.
    Plough up the garden.

    Ignore the old bones, the pink panic
    of worms. Step across
    the limp grey felt of the moles.

    Now the black crows rise
    like bad news.
    Steal the spare keys.

    Don't make a noise. Avoid
    the tangle of boots in the hallway.
    The shadows of coats on their hooks.

    Now place a small bomb.
    Don't mention a thing.
    Don't warn anyone.

    I was drawn to this, in Nerve #6 which I picked up in News From Nowhere today, but you can also read online. The articles about CCTV surveillance in Liverpool city centre and demands to Make Wealth History, the interview with George Monbiot and the page given over to the Save the Florrie campaign, all engaged me. But I had to stop here, ask, why did the poet come up with that title? How did she decide to describe it that way? It's odd. I like it.
    Monday, June 27, 2005
    Peacemakers in the battleground
    Theme of the day: feisty old Christian agitators of the mid-twentieth century. First, an email from Richard who noticed I'd blogged here about George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester whose condemnation of the Nazi regime from 1933, followed by his wartime efforts towards peace with the people of Germany, campaigns to help German refugees, and his public condemnation of 'saturation bombing' didn't endear him much to the establishment.

    Visiting Chichester recently Richard noticed that the local Education Authority has re-named Bishop Bell First and Middle School, Oaks Primary School. And had a letter published in last Saturday's Brighton Argus asking why. If his instinct is that George Bell's struggle for integrity must not be forgotten, I share it.

    It's unlikely George MacLeod will be forgotten too easily. Especially now that the Iona Community have published a 2xCD set of Every Blessed Thing, Ron Ferguson's one-man play, based on his conversations with George MacLeod, along with material drawn from George's sermons, prayers, diaries, letters and stories. It's performed by Tom Fleming in a voice just like MacLeod's. The publishers tell us that,

    The first CD presents MacLeod in the raw - brilliant, inspiring, annoying, obsessive, provocative, courageous, prophetic, magisterial - in a kaleidoscope which is intended to give the hearer a sense of what it was like to be exposed to the man at the height of his powers. On the second, the old prophet sits in his room and reminisces about his 96 years on earth. George MacLeod would no doubt be pleased that just when people thought it was safe to go out again he was still, through this double CD, hectoring, maddening, inspiring and challenging listeners about the issues so dear to his heart.

    The audio extract [download] whets the appetite, with George saying, "Iona. Sometimes I hated it. People go on about how peaceful and calm it is. For me it was a battleground." Going there felt to him like it had when returning to the front in the First World War.

    "Why did I go to Iona? I had the same kind of nudge I had when I decided to become a minister; and when I decided to go to Govan. I didn't want to go to Iona. But every time I passed that ancient ruin it seemed to be talking to me just simply saying, 'Why doesn't somebody rebuild me?' ... Why do you shout at me, you most uncomfortable ruins?"

    These men, formed and forged in the middle years of the last century, were willing to risk being peacemakers in the battleground of their times. What examples they were - and still are.
    Sunday, June 26, 2005
    The canal is still the reason why
    I got through some books on holiday. So much so that I had to buy another one in Truro on Wednesday to keep me going. Back home my reading time is seriously undermined by routine, so this will last a while: Tristram Hunt's Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City which is a major history describing the people and the ideas which shaped our cities, whose influence we're still under today.

    As the publisher's blurb rightly says, Hunt challenges our common perception of the Victorian city. 'Rather than just a byword for pollution and poverty, the nineteenth-century city boasted an unrivalled sense of civic pride and provincial power.' Yesterday's canal trip underlined that - what a massive vision, what a major investment, what a technological achievement, back in 1894. As Primal Scream disgraced themselves onstage, a banner flew high in front of the Pyramid stage this evening, saying 'MANCHESTER > THE WORLD'. If that proud statement is true then the canal, arguably, is still the reason why.
    Saturday, June 25, 2005
    All about the people
    The BBC digital coverage of Glastonbury is a tiny bit closer to the real experience than previous TV has been. With it you can do what you do at the festival itself:

    (a) Select in advance your one must-see band and - see them in full (this year swamp brother, beat sister Jack and Meg White with their seething onstage chemistry and joyful, raging blues);

    (b) Take or leave - but mainly leave - the many samey mid-table bands on offer (Doves, Coldplay, Interpol, Interplay, Coldpol, whatever);

    (c) Go on a voyage of discovery to emerge raving about some obscure folkie busker you saw on the Mushroom Stage or a vegetarian mime act in the Theatre field; and in this quest:

    (d) Spend most of the time meandering around enjoying the buzz, getting into long, rambling, pointless and perfect conversations with merrie strangers.

    The televisual equivalent of this festival enjoyment strategy is fast-forwarding through the music to get to the chats involving lovely little Lauren Laverne and her various wide-eyed and muddy-trousered guests. And to me, this proves that the festival isn't really about the music at all, it's about being among the very nice people. Which, in a cruel, competitive world, is a very nice thing.

    But today, for me, the last day of my hols, I was 200 miles north of the mud and love and involved instead in a ferry cruise up the Manchester Ship Canal. The Pier Head to Salford Quays in the time it took me yesterday to drive from St Ives to Liverpool; very relaxing, a fascinating tour of our industrial heritage past and present, with brilliant Blue Guide commentary, some wonderful wildfowl moments and good company too. Including the pleasant surprise of seeing Chris, who I said I'd mention here, for blogs' sake. Hi Chris.

    Friday, June 24, 2005
    Under the rope
    I saved my visit to Land's End for the last hours of my holiday. Went yesterday. Waited till that precious time just after most tourists have gone back to their digs to eat, but when the sun is still high and the Cornish air a little cooler.

    I took the B roads right around the Penwith peninsular: St Ives to Penzance via Cripplesease; around the harbour side fairground at the hub of Penzance's Golowan festivities; Newlyn to Land's End stopping for fifteen precious healing minutes alone with the Merry Maidens, a gorgeous, vibrant stone circle; Land's End back to St Ives on the high, bouncing B3306 coast road, as the sun dipped gently into the Atlantic.

    At Land's End there are signs everywhere saying DANGER STEEP CLIFFS, and all the paths are roped off to deter those who would wander to the very edge. So, alongside the most westerly ice-cream kiosk on the British mainland I ducked under the rope and walked to the rocks at the edge, stopping to look out into the blue towards the little nearby islands dancing in the sun: Fillis, Kettle's Bottom, Longships. Just then I could see that I was the most westerly person in Britain. But it didn't make me feel any different.

    Looking down I noticed, wedged in the rocks some way below, a purple-coloured envelope. Evidently thrown from the path by someone who had made the journey intent on casting it to the sea, but perhaps blown back onto the rocks by the wind. I decided to help that person honour their intentions, to get that envelope to the water, and so I scrambled down to reach it.

    Towards the end of the scramble the rocks did get a bit steep, and I realised that one slip would send me tumbling onto the craggy edge fifty feet below. Within reach of the envelope, I stretched for it, held it between two fingers and pulled back to a safe stone to see what it contained.

    A week after Father's Day, the envelope was addressed DAD. It had been gummed, and later carefully opened, and the card inside carried something more profound than a simple greeting. It was filled with a lengthy message from a daughter wanting to make amends for some hard words she'd said 'when you left us', wanting her dad to know how loved and valued he still was, how appreciative she still was of all he'd done for her. Hoping for reconciliation, and a better future.

    I wondered, who came to the very edge of the country to throw this card into the sea? Was it the daughter, who having written those words couldn't face passing them on, perhaps fearful of a negative response? Or was it the father, having received it and read it, throwing it away as an act of rejection maybe, or perhaps making this gesture as a sign of putting past hurts behind and moving on?

    I couldn't know, but as the wind whipped around the rocks I said a little prayer for these two and those close to them, returned the card to its envelope and tossed it to the waves below. It may have been the holiest thing I did all holiday.
    Thursday, June 09, 2005
    Columba of Iona

    I wrote this on Iona eight years ago, at the 1400th anniversary Columba celebrations. Today's a special day for anyone attached to the story of this complicated man and the island with which he's eternally associated. You might like to read up on them during the fortnight I'm not blogging...
    Wednesday, June 08, 2005
    Women's footy: it's good up north

    March 1895: The first women's football match recorded was held between a northern and a southern team. The North won the game 7-1. Of course.

    Boxing Day 1920: The biggest ever crowd recorded for a women's game in England took place when 53,000 people watched Preston-based Dick Kerr's Ladies beat their closest rivals, St Helen's Ladies, 4-0. Venue: Goodison Park.

    December 1921: Women's football banned from Football League grounds. By the (London-based) Football Association.

    November 1972: The first official women's international in Britain was played at Greenock. England beat Scotland 3-2. The first goal was scored by Sylvia Gore of Liverpool. As you'd expect.

    June 2005: The North-West stadia of Blackpool, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Preston North End and Warrington Wolves stage Euro 2005.

    Today: I struggle to decide whether I really ought to download the FA.com desktop wallpaper of Everton and England's cool defender Rachel Unitt. I'm a vicar. I probably shouldn't.

    But, whatever: women's footy: it's good up north.
    Tuesday, June 07, 2005
    Whose idea of paradise

    Peace - Music - Ecology
    Liberty - Community - Democracy
    Alternatives - Knowledge - Altruism

    [- from Woodstock]

    "What," asked the young woman this afternoon, "is your idea of paradise?"

    We were having a picnic lunch together, we and twenty others, on the top of Paradise Street Car Park. Which was why she asked the question.

    Jean Grant had got us together - a mixed bag of city planners, punters, regeneration people, on this soon-to-be-demolished concrete slab, to look out over the enormous tract of reclaimed land which is The Paradise Project, and contemplate its meaning.

    Some people's idea of paradise involved fine wine and sunkissed islands. Mine was closer to the Woodstock ideal, not so much a physical place as a state of (well-) being. As the cranes swung overhead and down below, on the once-green Chavasse Park, men stood ankle-deep in mud surveying plans, I couldn't help thinking of Joni Mitchell's words:

    They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,
    With a pink hotel, a boutique,
    And a swinging hot spot.
    Don't it always seem to go
    That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?
    They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

    Actually it's naive to assume that this area has ever been paradise to anyone except nineteenth century sailors seeking the company of women. Ron's website informs us that a guidebook of 1816 advised visitors of the "spectacle of vice and misery in their lowest forms" on view in Paradise Street. And he names Maggie May, Tich Maguire, Mary Ellen, "The Battleship", Harriet Lane, Jumping Jenny, Cast-Iron Kitty and "The Dreadnought" - all famous prostitutes who hung around Paradise Street or Lime Street in those times.

    Paradise Street was one of the streets between the centre and the docks where brothels and pubs were particularly numerous, Francois Poirier writes, and "Liverpool was the seaman's heaven when New York was not, and Americans were seen by Liverpudlians as easy prey... No surprise then, that the fact of having been to Liverpool was the badge of manhood for the American sailors: if they survived it, they were truly Yanks."

    Out of all that rough stuff came a massive canon of shanties celebrating the raw life of the sea, many mentioning Paradise Street by name. The inevitable casualties of such extreme living were offered refuge and respite in the celebrated Paradise Street Sailors' Home, and The Mersey Mission to Seamen just around the corner.

    residential - retail - business
    John Lewis - Debenhams - Q-Park
    restaurant - wine bar - gallery

    [ - from The Paradise Project website]

    A flagship John Lewis store is planned for the site of the Sailors' Home. The Moat House hotel has already gone, Radio Merseyside and the Friends Meeting house will follow in a few months, and by the time we have our Iona Community Regional Plenary on the subject of cultural regeneration the view we had today will have vastly altered - from acres of concrete foundations the new Debenhams will be rising high.

    All this on the site of the old pool, Jean's subject of exploration, the waterway which attracted the settlement which became this city. This area has always been at the heart of the commercial life of Liverpool, and it's carrying on that way. But, has it ever, will it ever, be anywhere like paradise?
    Monday, June 06, 2005
    Birthday badge
    Birthday boys and girls often get given badges; I resisted wearing those I am 40 ones I got the other year, too cruel, what were people thinking, giving me those? But today I was given one, as a nice surprise, by the bloke serving me at Virgin with the new White Stripes cd. I like it. It's square. But not square, if y'see what I mean. And a pretty good expression with which to begin another year.
    Sunday, June 05, 2005
    Send that stuff on down to me
    I may have spent most of the week listening to ever-lovin' brother Julian, but for lyric of the week Nick Cave has clinched it. The whole of Abattoir Blues is thrilling, and There She Goes, My Beautiful World tremendous. Sums up my condition a day before my 43rd birthday.....

    John Wilmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox
    Nabakov wrote on index cards, at a lectern, in his socks
    St. John of the Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box
    And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks
    Well, me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears
    Me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears
    Me, I'm lying here, for what seems years
    I'm just lying on my bed with nothing in my head
    Send that stuff on down to me...

    Saturday, June 04, 2005
    Outside the Free Speech Zone
    We're running a coach to the Make Poverty History rally in Edinburgh; and it's oversubscribed. While I'm glad its going and hopeful that it may energise and galvanise us locally, I admit to feeling less enthusiastic about this than about any other rally I've ever been on.

    Maybe that's because of the vagueness of the campaign - and the impossibility of its headline aim. Before we go we already know that we will not Make Poverty History, even if the world's most powerful turned themselves around to operate with the best will in the world.

    Maybe it's because of a feeling of the protest being corralled into something so safe that it's bound to be ineffective. That's partly to do with the politicians adopting the protesters' rhetoric early on, to sound like they're already onside, an obvious blocking tactic. And it's partly to do with something more subtle - a growing trend for governments to use legal mechanisms to contain protest within boundaries they set.

    In Mute 29, in an article titled Free Speech Zones and Preemptive Detentions, Daniel Berchenko details the use of the Free Speech Zone at the Democratic National Convention. It was an area bounded by high fencing and coiled razor wire, and protestors were expected to voluntarily confine themselves there.

    The Free Speech Zone was a 'state of inclusion' where citizens' rights of representation were in force. You could protest in there, behind the wire. But their fundamental significance was that everywhere else became a 'state of exception' - where normal rights to protest were suspended and indiscriminate arrests took place. I just have this niggle that Edinburgh is our Free Speech Zone this summer, and that if you want to protest poverty issues anywhere else - however peacefully - you'd better watch your back, you're liable to be nicked.

    If you think this is barmy flick through a few back issues of SchNEWS. For the past 500 issues they've been able to itemise a Crap Arrest of the Week. This week's is instructive:

    Crap Arrest of the Week - For not wanting to fall off a cliff!
    At the demo against Brighton arms manufacturers EDO this week police corralled 50 people into a thin strip of land between a road and a crash barrier in front of a 50 foot drop onto a railway line. Anyone daring to step into the road was arrested for breaking an injunction, police also pushed people back towards the cliff!

    My strategy to get myself excited about Make Poverty History, is to focus in a bit. They have three areas of concern - trade, debt and aid. I'm going to focus on trade - specifically, the arms trade.

    CAAT's G8 briefing is instructive:

    The G8 represent the world's eight most advanced economies, an exclusive club which meets every year to develop a common agenda in global politics. Yet most of those countries also rank inside another group of eight; the eight biggest arms exporters in the world. In fact of the G8 countries, only Japan fell outside the top 10 exporters of major conventional weapons in 2003.

    In that year, the G8 countries exported arms worth in excess of US$24 billion. Whilst some of these exports were to other G8 or developed countries, more than half were to the developing world. Furthermore, the US Congressional Research Service estimates that of arms transfers to developing countries in 2003, around 89% came from just 5 members of the G8: the US, Russia, France, the UK and Germany.

    If you're selling guns to people who are short on clean drinking water then you're keeping them in poverty, and if your government heavily subsidises your trading, as ours does, then there's a lot of talking to be done. Inside - and outside - the Free Speech Zone.
    Friday, June 03, 2005
    Pic of the month
    Pic of the month is a long overdue tribute to The Caravan Gallery. A none-too-complimentary picture of Liverpool, which is truly accurate. And reminds me, must get the bin out tonight.
    Thursday, June 02, 2005
    From SETEIA EST to DVNVM SINVS today: the Mersey to the Tees. And in Waterstones, Middlesborough, I bought a copy of the OS maps illuminating the features of Ancient Britain and Roman Britain, in preparation for holiday explorations.

    In both these dock-towns little has changed since past times: there's still shipping, and still shopping (though both are bigger-volume than ever before); the sports stadia are central (The Riverside rises godlike beside Teesside cranes); but the chariots are faster - two-and-a-quarter hours door to door. A good day among friends.
    Wednesday, June 01, 2005
    The Condition of England
    "The condition of England... is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and one of the strangest ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition. What an iniquity of ways and means!"

    Inanition: Thomas Carlyle used that word 162 years ago in this quote which is still so truthful today. Inanition: n. emptiness, esp. exhaustion from lack of nourishment.

    The current exhibition at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art is called The Condition of England and the curators mix Carlyle's words about a nation in flux with the contemporary sage JG Ballard who similarly argues that "there are unseen shifts in the tectonic plates that make up our national consciousness."

    The exhibition is seven photographic artists' examination of the changing state of the nation, and they vary from Alice Anderson's deconstructions of traditional picture-postcard visions of England to The Caravan Gallery's uncompromisingly truthful postcards of today's English life in all its glorious idiosyncrasy and eccentricity.

    I'm visiting good friends in Middlesborough tomorrow, so I'll not lack nourishment, but I will miss out on a visit to the exhibition because Sunderland's just that bit too further north to do it all in a day. So I can only hope that The Condition of England comes here sometime; it looks like a cure for inanition.