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

    Friday, September 30, 2005
    Glasgow - going with the flow

    I've been on a walking holiday. Walking in Glasgow. Walking so far from district to district that by the third day my feet throbbed. They still ache a bit, from my various journeys of discovery in this epic city.

    Highlights, pictured above and below: the beautiful green Kelvin valley, wide and winding down to the Clyde through the University district, and the vibrant, raucous Gallowgate, heaving with folk shopping, shouting, singing in overspilling Irish bars, as I walked it en-route to Parkhead (or Paradise as the Celtic supporters call it) - for Celtic 2, Inverness Caledonian Thistle 1 last weekend.

    People say that the M8 has destroyed Glasgow, slicing through the heart of the city. Maybe it has taken something valuable away. But when I passed over it at Charing Cross and under it Clydeside, it just seemed like another flow. To me the city is enriched by a number of flows which define it - the flow of water, deep green Kelvin and sky-wide Clyde (and the sheet of sheer rain which drowned us on our ten-minute walk up Shields Road, Monday); the flow of shoppers, shouters and singers in Sauchiehall (mainstream), Byres Road (alt. / indie) and Gallowgate (rock and bleedin' roll); the flow of traffic, through the Great Western Road and M8; the flow of the Victorian dead, uphill above Glasgow Cathedral at the Acropolis; and the mystical underflow of the inner and outer tube lines. I dipped my toe into all these streams this week; liked each; shall return.

    Friday, September 23, 2005
    Dig the Green Man

    In my absence you may like to enjoy the streamin' happy sounds of Green Man Radio...
    Thursday, September 22, 2005
    Reclaiming the Iona vision
    If I blog at all over the weekend it'll be from Glasgow. I'm about to head up north to spend a good city break / Iona break, including some time planning a week on the island next year aimed at finding ways of opening up the island centres to those on low income, the otherwise socially-excluded. This was a major aspect of the original aim of the Iona Community project but in more recent time the island's become rather a cosy middle-class retreat centre (eg, see yesterday's blog). So our small group is hoping to find ways to reclaim it, to rekindle the original commitment of the community, and are keen to invite others who share that vision to spend a week next May exploring how that may happen. If y'r interested let me know. Meantime, watch this space.
    Wednesday, September 21, 2005
    Greenbelt on Iona 2006

    Sent off my deposit for the 2006 Greenbelt Iona week today. Well, I'm up there the week before, so it would be rude not to stay on. Asked for a bunk in the Mac. Have you booked yours yet?
    Tuesday, September 20, 2005
    Abbott on Television
    "Audiences deserve, and I believe crave, much more protein in their diet. Only by giving the viewer a workout, making them join the dots, use their own imagination, can we reclaim television drama as the challenging, exciting, life-changing medium that I and many others have known it to be."

    Good to hear Paul Abbott delivering the Huw Wheldon lecture at the Royal Television Society's convention. Not especially because of his criticism of shoddy TV dramas, which has inevitably grabbed the headlines; more for his positive enthusiasm for programmes which treated the audience - and the subjects - with respect.

    "The commonest excuse for drama being bland or inoffensive or just crap is that the audience can't assimilate complex story-telling. This is just patronising. Audiences today can handle as much as you can throw at them."

    The best bit of his speech I've not seen reported anywhere; it was about Clocking Off, that excellent series of factory-floor cameos which focussed on the life of a different worker each episode, and did so with integrity and depth. He spoke about his decision to jettison the usual working-class stereotypes and to explore the possibility that ordinary working people's lives were complex, vital, vibrant, intense, and so on. How right he was to follow that instinct; how good were the results.
    Monday, September 19, 2005
    Hear the narky genius
    "Avoid respectable television and respectable newspapers
    They have neither the talent of art
    Nor the instinctive snout of the media"

    - unsurprisingly, given his narky genius, it's Mark E. Smith who best suggests the reason why, after a week of lovely new Guardians, I'm back to not missing being without one today.

    And unsurprisingly, given his narky genius, it's John Pilger who puts his finger on what the problem still is with that paper, despite it being so good to handle now, despite it still being so much better than all the others:

    A law lord, Lord Hoffmann said that Blair's plans to gut our own basic rights were a greater threat than terrorism. Indefinite imprisonment for those innocent before the law and the intimidation of a minority community and of dissenters: these are the goals of Blair's "necessary measures", borrowed from Bush. Who challenges him? His Downing Street press conference is an august sheep pen, the baaing barely audible. In India the other day, reported the Guardian's political editor, "Mr Blair stood his ground when challenged over the Iraq war" - by Indian reporters, that is. The Guardian described neither these challenges nor Blair's replies.
    Sunday, September 18, 2005
    Voice of the Fire
    Well, Iain Sinclair and Roy (in Comments) were very right - Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire is quite outstanding. In a dark, er, fiery sort of way. Where fire equates with primal behaviour, high emotions and occult activity. It all takes place in a ten-mile radius of modern-day Northampton, where Moore lives, but starts with a story narrated by a traveller through that country 5,000 years ago. Each story draws us closer to the present and each is raw and real in its own terms. It's a singular novel, and its very engrossing.
    Saturday, September 17, 2005
    Return of the non-sexist Blobs

    Pip does one non-sexist Blob picture set in a disco; I used to use it a lot with groups, sometimes actually during discos, to help them get revealing their feelings to each other. I've been away from youth work for a long, long, time it seems, so tonight, sitting on the sidelines drinking Stella at the line dancing, contemplating getting back into youth work again, I was wondering what on earth to do with a potential new group forming tomorrow. Answer: get back to the things which worked so well before. The blobs, and other related stuff. It's not outdated or outmoded, still getting well-used, so much so that Pip's got a new book out, The Big Book of Blobs. Which I'll be after soon.

    Which one am I this evening? I'm keen to think I'm most like the one emerging from the hole in the ground, blinking at daylight again after a long while in the darkness. Which one are you? (See, it's catching)
    Friday, September 16, 2005
    Getting the Boot
    Flo Clucas, city councillor (straight-faced, to camera): "What we're doing here is not just building houses; we're rebuilding and sustaining a community."
    Audience: (shocked gasps, ironic laughter).

    This evening, an hour at St Christopher's watching the first public performance of Jane's film, Getting the Boot. It's a Mersey Film and Video production about life on our troubled estate, in which Jane, the Bard of the Boot, with a cast of local residents, youths in the park, line dancers, a mongrel dog, a policeman and various community leaders, tell it like it is.

    Jane's poems aren't going to win her any literary awards but they might just gain something far more valuable - the attention of the planning power-brokers who have tended to neglect the hard realities of outer-estate life, especially the hard realities imposed on people in an area marked for clearance and regeneration:

    "Five years and not a brick's been laid!
    Many tenants haven't stayed
    To see the demise of the Boot
    And the social problems taking root.
    The community's been rent asunder
    By official blunder after blunder."

    Two teenage girls on a motorbike tell their story: "They left us in a disgrace really ... they did! ... we had like, no houses round us, we were the only house in the street." A group of women confirm to camera that they, who have stayed in depopulating roads outside of Phase One of the new plans, are guaranteed nothing in the way of new properties. Three young boys in Norris Green Park simply ask for a marked-out football pitch. A group of young men make an impassioned plea to "Just build the community back up here, it's not a community is it, it's just a place for drug addicts to go, in empty houses."

    This 22-minute film also features Jane's battles against locals behaving antisocially, together with her struggles to get the support she (rightly) expects from police and council agencies; her stance means a life of constant surveillance, sleeping on the settee in the daylight hours, watching for night-time attacks. Her increasingly public persona (a regular on local radio and in the free press) belies the reality of her being a woman under siege, demonstrably let-down by those who could protect her.

    Because of this, this is a very brave film. It played to a modest audience this evening, projected onto a makeshift cotton screen in a vast church hall. She hopes to get it on TV and I hope she succeeds because it's a story worth telling; and best of all, it's truthful - the people telling it are the people who live in the reality day by day:

    "We're the experts we all know;
    But they're the ones that run the show."

    [If you'd like a DVD of this film, drop me a line]
    Wednesday, September 14, 2005
    Mass hysteria - a domestic theme
    Excellent walk through the town of Halifax in the latest edition of quirky journal Strange Attractor. Tim Chapman's piece reinforces the point in yesterday's blog - it's a great piece of provincial psychogeography (which even references Alan Moore at one point).

    Chapman links the milltown's grisly-gallows past to its BNP-fascist present on a walk south-west to north-east via the sites of the 1938 incidents of the Halifax Slasher, 'two weeks of terror of a kind said to have been unseen since the days of Jack the Ripper', forty years ahead of the region's next great terror, Peter Sutcliffe. During this fortnight in Halifax, 'women were cut with razors; right-thinking men patrolled the streets; bystanders who looked a bit odd were beaten up'.

    The only difference between Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper and the Halifax Slasher was that in Halifax the incidents were largely proven to be false, the self-inflicted wounds of fearful or attention-seeking individuals at a time of mass-panic. 'In 1979, as in 1888, it was real - all too bloody real. In 1938, the verdict was mass hysteria. The Halifax Slasher simply never existed.'

    Facinating tale, fascinating walk. Fascinating to reflect on the characteristics of mass hysteria this week, whose domestic theme has been fuel queue madness.

    [A great 'found poem' on the Halifax Slasher in Further: the Strange Attractor blog.]
    Tuesday, September 13, 2005
    New generators of content
    I love it when things converge, and things don't come together much better than this for me: one of my favourite muses Jim gets me reading The London Review of Books (which he's now passing on in exchange for my back-issues of Planet); the LRB website points me in the direction of a millenium-year book review which brings together two of my other favourite muses. Today I've been reading a document which the LRB popped in the post to me, a copy of Iain Sinclair's review of Bill Drummond's book 45.

    Being Sinclair, it's not merely a review, it's an example of psychogeography at its best. In the first quarter of this 7,000-word article (LRB pieces are bountifully thorough) Sinclair describes his slope through Spitalfields, Hoxton, Shoreditch with one eye on Gilbert and George and the 'cultural ambulance-chasers' who are using the art industry to prepare this corner of London for the developers, the other eye (as ever) on the back story, which is deeper and more complex, hinted at on routes like Curtain Road which connects the city's first Elizabethan play-houses (the Theatre and the Curtain) with 'the Security Express building where Ronnie Knight, Clifford Saxe and the boys were alleged to have pulled off the robbery that funded the Brinks-Mat job at Heathrow.'

    '... now,' he writes, 'with ever increasing speed, the memory traces of market gardens, madhouses, priories, holy wells, 19th-century radicalism, are being wiped out by the new hip, SoHo, loft-living, sofa bar, circus school, art-scam makeover.'

    All this is purely by way of introduction to his subject who arrives in character: 'Loping up the steps of the Old Street underground station, pot of yellow, household paint in hand, comes the tall, country-dressed, purposefully under-arranged figure of the writer Bill Drummond'. A man who Sinclair says 'lives to be contrary'. He describes Drummond's creative quest succinctly and quite brilliantly:

    '... his stop/start dramas make for a strong narrative line and a driven prose that swings between remembrance and revision of things past. He finds it difficult to forget, until the bad karma has been written out. 45 belongs to the black-souled Scottish tradition of James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It's a great trick if you can pull it off, and Bill can, confession and justification in the same tale.'

    Perhaps that explains how Bill kept a Greenbelt audience so wrapt the other week.

    One thing in this wonderful piece which especially struck me was how Sinclair recognises that Drummond is one of a growing band of writers finding deep streams of literary potential outside the capital city: 'The centre is broken and Drummond relishes its discomfort', he writes. Drummond's places are Dagenham (In Praise of Council Houses) and Aylesbury, which 'allows Drummond to complete an affectionate field report on somewhere that isn't London. London with its massive self-regard, its endless recycling and pastiching of the back catalogue of dark history, its sound-bite novellas by fruit-fly celebrities, is no longer the sole generator of content.'

    From one of the capital city's most committed writers those words are very generous. I will re-read 45 with relish, and seek out Sinclair's other recommended provincial masterworks, Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire (on Northampton) and Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp)'s Crucify Me Again (on working-class Leeds). And, watch this space, maybe for a decade, and you never know: for one appearing on Liverpool...
    Monday, September 12, 2005
    Guardian controversy
    I'm unlikely to ever be a daily-Guardian man (at least till I retire) and I can go weeks without it, but I'm enjoying today's relaunch edition with its new shape and style. Enough to rekindle my interest in the one national paper I could still conceivably align myself with. I may go through the week with it, that'd be a first.

    The look is one thing; it's the content which will determine the level of my ongoing interest. Good start today, with this short piece of home news which is, in the light of recent blog comments on this site, deeply controversial.....

    Sunday, September 11, 2005
    Death in Docklands, continued

    Not cosy when you realise that the nice company supplying information, publications and training to the education, science and health sectors, and running the LexisNexis Total Research System used by academics and legal professionals - also plays a significant role in the arms trade. Reed Elsevier is this week providing shiny new coursebooks to keen new schoolchildren, and through its subsidiary companies Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, is also providing shining new weapons of torture and destruction to the world's political-military elite at the UK Government sponsored DSEi Arms Fair. I guess that makes them a very balanced company.

    Love and prayers to those who will be on the streets of Docklands this week protesting this awesome squandering of public money, human activity and civilian lives. Or at home writing to Jan Hommen, the Chairman of Reed Elsevier.
    Saturday, September 10, 2005
    The empty 'out' tray
    A threatening letter from those-who-pay-me forced my reluctant hand: I spent the day doing my annual finances. A dour, dismal job punctuated for three hours watching the most awful performance at Goodison Park for a long time. Job done, and having joked wryly with teenage Liverpool supporters passing-by outside, I congratulated / consoled myself by buying a new blue hoody in the Howies sale. Not the best of days, but an empty 'out' tray brings a kind of satisfaction.
    Friday, September 09, 2005
    Kiss me with Apocalypse
    "I can't get enough of it
    Kiss me with Apocalypse
    An instant hit "

    I sat too long to reflect on the world and the refrain of Super Furry Animals' Zoom! started to haunt me. It really does feel like we've been kissed by Apocalypse, staring unbelieving at the sunken wreckage of that iconic city New Orleans, angered into numbness and self-loathing by our leaders' refusal to shoulder any responsibility for this (withdrawn flood defence money from shamed outsider city), or bombs at home (fifteen years' unprovoked devastation of Iraq and Afghanistan), feeling helpless in the face of various friends' heartaches, heart-attacks and homelessness. I guess the world's always been this cracked, but the stinking Apocalypse kiss seems fresh and repulsive on my unwilling lips tonight.
    Thursday, September 08, 2005
    Seen on Sky

    (Thanks Paul)
    Wednesday, September 07, 2005
    Almost unchained
    A few beers and we're talking about mydeath.net again tonight. Mainly because we couldn't decide on what music to put on, so I ended up sharing one of my desired funeral songs, the awesome Unchained by Johnny Cash ("Oh, oh I am weak / Oh I know I am vain / Take this weight from me / Let my spirit be / Unchained").

    At Greenbelt Bill Drummond's little daughters, dressed in t-shirts decorated with the message 'Prepare to die', were giving out mydeath.net cards for people to slip into their wallets / purses / back pockets ('we recommend you carry this with you at all times'). Apparently some people thought it in bad taste. Can't understand why. All I need is some time to get my head round what other songs to choose for the crem, and what to write up under my entry in the mydeath.net rollcall, under these other headings too:

    Tuesday, September 06, 2005
    Tea shop behaviour
    Frustrating. Can't find the words to that Philip Larkin poem which someone used around the table in Steve's chaplaincy this evening, an uneasy introduction to an unconventional sharing of bread and wine.

    The evening was a first attempt between strangers to share something loosely defined as inclusive worship. The poem was about how we behave among strangers - tea shop behaviour, Larkin called it; how in tea shops we revert to the formulaic (setting down the cup on the saucer, leaving a modest tip) as a way of hiding from the unusual, unexpected, the revealing.

    Funny to be part of a group struggling to do something new - with food and drink - this evening, while deeply aware of having brought all our tea shop behaviours with us. Funny peculiar.
    Monday, September 05, 2005
    Third autographed cd release in a week! A few days a go I inherited the marker-penned signatures of David Tibet and Steven Stapleton on their new releases. Today the postman brought me One Man's Treasure by
    Mick Harvey, carrying the Bad Seed's signature generously scrawled across the cover. I'm not a collector and doubt there's any great material value in these, but it's nice to make a personal link to the artists who - in these cases, quite literally - have passed their work on to me. The music alone is tremendous, so now I'm doubly grateful.

    Similarly, I've been enjoying a pleasant exchange of emails since Greenbelt, with Bill Drummond's manager John. Thrilled to hear they're considering maybe returning to the festival next year to do something around mydeath.net. That'd work, I'm sure.
    Sunday, September 04, 2005
    Validating Cities of Culture
    How generous of the London Review of Books to make accessible online the whole of Iain Sinclair's recent article describing his trawl around the memorials of King's Cross (a war memorial containing the name of a distant relative of his wife's, the slab remembering the dead of the 1987 tube fire), Museums of Melancholy.

    As usual with Sinclair there are some gems within, short paragraphs which effortlessly zing to the gist of the zeitgeist. Having been very lost there a few months ago I can relate to his troubled wanderings in the dusty precincts of the St Pancras redevelopment:

    ... we join a straggle of flustered passengers carrying bags down a ditch between building sites. Red and white plastic barriers are conceptual artworks moonlighting as blast-deflecting shields. Hurt buildings have been bandaged for elective cosmetic surgery. Wind puffs gauze like the last breath of a dying man, puffs red dust around our feet. There are no memorials in the temporary station. Present wars are unmentioned and old wars forgotten. A 'Security Policy Statement' promises full CCTV coverage of public areas and the 'physical security' of all plant and equipment.

    This was days before the four bombs of 7 July. Poignant. But I was equally impressed (and somewhat shaken) by his observation that it is in this area that Antony Gormley has his workshop:

    And somewhere, behind all this, Antony Gormley has a factory-ashram dedicated to processing naked Gormley off-cuts which are required everywhere to validate oil-rich Cities of Culture: deserts, airports, highways, retail parks, museums and malls. Gormley is not a sculptor of consoling monuments, a grief technician healing trauma. He is a hands-on mystic, a philosopher of otherwise unconsidered spaces: roadside mounds, riverbank platforms. He works ahead of the next development. Challenged about the obsessive reproduction of his own body shell, he replies: 'I want to confront existence.'

    Having just been down to Crosby Beach again to stand by one hundred silent cast-metal Gormleys looking out on the oil platforms of the Irish Sea I think Sinclair both affirms his work, here, and challenges it ... the bit about validating Cities of Culture especially ....
    Saturday, September 03, 2005
    Future roads
    Re-reading Jim's paper Travels (previously blogged about here) because the 1,125 mile route he took from Ipswich to Belfast to Liverpool by way of Stranraer on the 2001 anniversary of the Irish Hunger Strikes embraced some of the way we went yesterday. I like his description of one stretch:

    [On] the A6 ... I have lunch in a transport cafe. I first travelled the A6 in the Fiftes when it was the main west coast road to Scotland. It climbs up to about 1,350 feet at Shap Summit and then drops down one-in-twelve slopes to High Barrow Bridge. During the fierce winters of the Forties and Fifties lorries slithered and stuck on those slopes. The Jungle cafe stood near the top, and displayed photographs of lines of lorries stuck in snow. This time it is dense cloud with a few yerds of visibility. I run out of this near Kendal and pick up the motorway, unable to face another set of lights or a roundabout.

    Yesterday it was brash sunlight, but Jim's in-car commentary built that picture of commercial vehicles in more vulnerable times struggling to complete their journeys. As we passed the former Jungle cafe the A6, so close to the motorway yet so distant in its difference, really felt like it was in another time. The really odd thing was that it felt like it might be in the future - the post-oil, post-car future, when our excess will be tempered and the small roads will host our slower, more healthful journeys again.
    Friday, September 02, 2005
    Alternative M6 and future routes
    An epic car journey today, with me driving, Jim navigating and his mate Dave providing colourful commentary on a route they'd done before on Jim's big Kawasaki: Alternative M6, Jim calls it. It's a route which follows the M6 without actually touching it, it's 270 miles to Carlisle and back from here on the tiny tracks of Lancashire and the hilly B-roads beneath the Howgills. It was amazing. The riches of the north-west enjoyed in nine hours at an average of 25mph.

    Highlights included bouncing through the hidden lanes of Bowland; standing above Scorton awed by the sweeping panorama of Morecambe Bay with the military-industrial landmarks of Heysham and Barrow shining in the noon sun, and endless cars and lorries washing the feet of the sixties-iconic tower of Forton Services across the fields beneath us; the wide, rolling perhaps Roman road connecting Penrith to Carlisle high on the west side of the Petterill valley; looking out across a shining Killington Lake towards the service station on its banks.

    But the very best was the bit badly illustrated here - a smoothly-tarmaced farm road running between the two carriageways of the M6, as they divide for quite some distance somewhere beneath The Calf. What a fantastic feeling of open space and freedom standing in the middle of a wide and gorgeous strip of green as car after car, lorry after lorry, whizzed past above and below, unaware of us, unaware of the beautiful route they were bypassing. Jim and Dave weed merrily in the trees while hundreds of northbound drivers ignored them.

    In a layby somewhere off Junction 34, enjoying the bacon and sausage burger served to me by a friendly man-in-a-van, I felt a strangely warm feeling enter my body and begin to rise. It turned out that I'd unwittingly tipped my styrofoam cup of tea into the grass beneath where I was sitting, wetting the seat of my pants. But the whole journey strangely warmed me in a more Wesleyan kind of way. Got me thinking again about the triumph of last Sunday at Greenbelt where Bill Drummond recited that section of his masterwork How to be an Artist which I've quoted enthusiastically before. Drummond's is a passion which I share and his work keeps me thinking how much I'd like to do another epic beside-the-motorway journey someday soon. Not beside-the-M6, however, wonderful though that is. Bill's performance got me thinking again of exploring around that cross-Pennine road which meets it to the south....

    I ... got out of Hull and on to the most alluring, powerful, even magical motorway on our lump of an island. Even saying its name fills me with a longing. The M62. The greatest motorway ever made. Chuck Berry can keep his Route 66. Kerouac his two-lane black top, Paul Simon his New Jersey Turnpike, Billy Bragg his A13. Give me the M62. Driving it east to west is always best, especially at the close of the day into the setting sun....
    Thursday, September 01, 2005
    I'm only flesh and blood
    If this is the new year then it seemed a fitting thing to do today, to visit a new-born baby, to see for the first time the boy who I've been asked to be godparent to in October. I'm a godparent to a couple of others, now well into their teens, and I'm a bit rubbish at it really. Like (I suspect) many other godparents, I don't entirely know what 'it' actually means. I work on it meaning what you think the parents want it to mean, but I guess some people might think that's a bit feeble.

    It'll be interesting in a month's time to be on the receiving end of those tricky vicarly questions, to be the one having to make those troubling public vows. So I make a new year's resolution in September - to relaunch my godparenting role, to get ready for the interrogation:

    Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
    If you want me to, but I'm not sure how long it'll last.
    Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?
    If you tell me what that means I might do.
    Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?
    Most of them, but there's one or two I'm still quite fond of really.
    Call yourself a vicar?
    Don't try and trip me up, mate, I'm only flesh and blood.