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

    Wednesday, November 30, 2005
    Deafen your local priesthood

    I'm half deaf already, Julian, due to excessive listening to your space rock over many years. And today I have the audacious enunciations of John ringing in my other ear. So I'm ready. Bring it on.
    Tuesday, November 29, 2005
    The anti-Santa

    I was starting to feel a bit bad about planning to remind readers of December's Parish Magazine that Santa isn't actually real, when I remembered one Glasgow man's anti-Santa campaign, which restores proper perspective...

    [Thanks AlterNativity, for the link]
    Monday, November 28, 2005
    Alt FM 87.7
    There's a glass studio installed in Asda at the end of the road. And all day today some familiar faces around the community have been in there, broadcasting on Alt FM, an experiment in community radio that's on for a fortnight from now.

    Good to hear - young voices (Year Sixers interviewing the bloke who runs the Rare Breeds Centre at Croxteth Hall Farm, teens hosting late-night chat-and-chart shows). Good to hear - Robbie the Bobby, everyone's favourite community policeman, who makes a real impression on the hundreds of schoolchildren he visits in the area through the year, hosting his own show. Good to hear - people I know who do a lot in the area, councillors, community workers, health professionals, having a lot of time to talk through their stuff, in some depth, on air.

    Because it's run predominantly by the police, housing and health services the agenda of Alt FM tends towards the daily concerns of those agencies. Because it's run predominantly by amateurs it has been an act of will to keep tuned in at some points through the day. But it's great that it's happening because the voices of the people of our area don't often get heard, especially our young people. And Alt FM may help break some stereotypes. Like tonight, two teenagers soon running out of steam talking to a script about what's happening on a celebrity TV show, but later readily coming out with some quietly profound stuff about more pressing real-life matters:

    "What's the worst thing for you about Christmas?"
    "It's the people who don't really get a Christmas, you know, the ones who can't really afford it and miss out."
    "And the ones living on the street..."
    Sunday, November 27, 2005
    Just about clinging on
    I did the Blob Tree with the congregation today. Had to admit to them that most of the time in this wierd job I feel like the character here: scared witless, just about clinging on.
    Saturday, November 26, 2005
    New expressions

    I can't read half the church press these days, it's gone potty. However, Steve Bell in the Guardian has been characteristically spot-on about it all this week.
    Friday, November 25, 2005
    The night they liberalised the licensing laws
    The night they liberalised the licensing laws the news vendor's poster, outside the Railway Inn at Euston Station, stopped us in our tracks. It read, "George Best Slips Away". And for a moment we thought that meant he'd died. Until on closer inspection of the Evening Standard it became clear that actually it meant, he's still alive but we wanted a dramatic headline to lure you into buying a paper.

    A moan about the dubious methods of the journalistic profession was short-lived because on turning the corner of one of the city's busiest commuter corridors, by the entrance to that pub, we almost fell over a man lying under a ragged blanket. At his waist, an abandoned empty bottle. Around his exposed head and feet, the cold of the night. A doubly-abandoned man, self-abandoned through drink, bypassed by those of us with warm coats and tickets to other, more welcoming places.

    George has since died, and I've been moved reading Gordon Burn's Guardian piece The Long Goodbye, which is an unsentimental account by one who knew him well, of the way he lived most of his life - drinking, self-abandoned, alone:

    Eamon Dunphy, a teammate in the early 60s, has described how Best always liked bars that functioned as "a home for those who didn't belong anywhere else ... Bars where human vulnerability was not frowned upon, was, on the contrary, celebrated." Through the eclipse years of the 1980s and 90s, Best could invariably be tracked down to a tiny local tucked away between the river and the Kings Road in London.

    At his corner table at the Phene, half-hidden but with an unobstructed view of the door, he didn't invite conversation and, if the look he shot them over his glasses didn't deter unwanted visitors from invading his space, he didn't mind letting them have the rough edge of his tongue. The Phene had practical advantages: his friends lied on his behalf and said he wasn't there when wives, girlfriends and creditors were in hot pursuit on the phone; the bar staff laced his "orange juice" with vodka and tipped brandies into his coffee in the periods when he was supposed to be drying out.

    But it had a deeper, totemic kind of significance which left his wife puzzling over "his constant desire to be at the smelly old Phene Arms". The Phene was the centre of his existence and he was content to spend entire days there, the days silting up into weeks and months, with the occasional foray to the betting shop, the off-licence on the corner, now and again (food was never high on the list of priorities) to Pucci's pizzeria on the Kings Road.

    I can't help thinking that extended drinking hours will most affect those who live lives like Best's - their families will see even less of them than before, places like the Phene will see far more. I can't help remembering that man on the Euston pavement. And I will never forget that George Best passed away on the night they liberalised the licensing laws.
    Thursday, November 24, 2005
    Enjoying Samuel Palmer

    Down in London for a Greenbelt meeting and enough time to enjoy the Samuel Palmer exhibition at the British Museum. I've heard so much about him (mainly through Iain Sinclair): wonderful to see his work, which seems to me to be to painting what Gerard Manley Hopkins' works are to poetry - startling and refreshing expressions of the inner life of nature. Or as many others have put it, visionary art. Beautiful with it.
    Monday, November 21, 2005
    No to No Music Day

    Bill Drummond declared today No Music Day, but I couldn't bring myself to join in. I just can't exist without it, and today what got me through that familiar dark spell of exhaustion late-afternoon (an hour's lull in a hectic day anticipating an evening of more draining activity) was fifteen minutes slumber with the latest Wire Tapper making oddly reassuring noises in my head.

    In our self-imposed reflective silence Bill invites us to consider the question, what do you want from music? I find that too difficult to know. All I know is that I simply, but dearly, want music.

    Mind, I can relate to some of the questionnaire answers people have given on the No Music Day site, especially this couplet:

    I will be observing No Music Day by: Working hard for a living in an enviroment that does not permit music to be listened to during the long working hours; I am observing No Music Day because: I am in the grip of Mammon.

    I am in the grip of Mammon when it comes to music. Which is why I shall end the day not on Bill's (very interesting) site, but with Cherry Red Records, purveyors of fine outsider music, considering the very kind offer they made me earlier today, three cds for twenty-five quid.

    [Thanks Paul, for the link]
    Sunday, November 20, 2005
    Sixty Second Sermons
    It's been a long day. Up at 7.30 to give a live-by-phone Sixty Second Sermon on the radio. Took half-an-hour of coughing, spluttering, all sorts of unsavoury expectorating, before my voice was clear enough to take to the airwaves at 8.00. Later, some parishioners requested that I make a habit of keeping my sermons to sixty seconds. It's nice to be appreciated...

    Saturday, November 19, 2005
    Save the New Piccadilly

    Protest seems to be the theme of the week. I'm not apologising. Now Pip points me to an article in the Society Guardian detailing the dilemma facing the wonderful jewel at the heart of London, the New Piccadilly , facing closure after the landlords announced their intention to increase the annual rent from £51,000 to £75,000.

    Thankfully the New Piccadilly's owner, Lorenzo "Lolly" Marioni, is fighting it (demanding a rent tribunal). Hopefully the Twentieth Century Society will put some weight behind it, because English Heritage are being no help at all. Viva New Piccadilly!
    Friday, November 18, 2005
    Christmas in Another Place

    This will be ace. This Christmas a group of very creative / daft people from my old church are putting on a once-in-a-lifetime nativity on Crosby Beach. Stars will include a real camel, donkey and sheep, a choir of angels and a real baby, and of course a number of those iron men statues sculpted by Anthony Gormley. They're calling it Christmas in Another Place. Anticipating this, and having just taken delivery of some very excellent Survival International and Surfers Against Sewage Christmas cards, I'm almost looking forward to the festive season now.
    Thursday, November 17, 2005
    Keep your thingy harmonious
    I don't quite know who Team Kernow are but their letter to The Tate is briefer and far more linguistically interesting than mine:

    'Keep your thingy harmonious and proportionate to the town - i.e. just as it is! You want too much and Kernow is wilting under all the cumulative pressure.'

    Team Kernow are evidently very concerned Cornish citizens, although the little I can find about them online suggests they're currently operating out of San Francisco, California. Surfers, maybe? They have quite a lot of criticism for Prince Charles. And they want the Tate to:

    'Take a look at something else that wants too much: www.eden-project-insight.tk. Show 'les autres' how to cultivate modest, reasonable, sensitive, proportionate and caring ambitions. Show them also how to reassess and withdraw overblown schemes with dignity and reawakened wisdom!'

    I couldn't say it better than that.
    Wednesday, November 16, 2005
    Pic of the Year, probably

    It may be a bit early for 'year-end' stuff but a programme last night on the events surrounding the G8 Summit in July brought this sorry image back to my mind. And I suspect that it will, regretfully, end up being my Pic of the Year. Because it demonstrates just how fully the self-promoting pop icons of popular protest against G8 policies were assimilated into the politicians' agenda, thus invalidating themselves and putting the whole movement at risk.

    In her essential analysis of the Make Poverty History events, Virginia Rodino reminds us that 'While Bono and Geldolf spoke from on high about saving the Africans, the rock stars took no action to pressure the UK government to let across the African protesters who were being denied entry into the country and denied participation in the events at which they had been invited to speak.' The London gig they organised took people, and media attention, away from the Edinburgh rally and further undermined the Make Poverty History cause.

    However, the thousands who went to Edinburgh (and hundreds who stayed for Gleneagles), got on very well without the discredited musicians. Rodino notes that the July protests saw the development of an important fusion of the anti-war movement with the global justice movement:

    'Importantly, the message of "Fight Poverty, Not War" was stamped throughout the huge Make Poverty History demonstration critically inserting the obvious and necessary linkage between war and poverty a linkage many in Blair's government were trying to ignore. Thus, although Make Poverty History organizers were not confident enough or willing to draw out the connection, the British anti-war movement succeeded in proving that the hundreds of thousands marching against poverty were also marching against war and the system that creates both.'

    These movements no longer look to sell-out rock stars for leadership, but the groundswell of early summer and the growing cooperation between anti-war and global justice protesters means that the struggle alongside the poorest will go on, and it'll be fascinating to see what further turns it takes in 2006.

    [CAAT Call the Shots campaign actions this Saturday]
    Tuesday, November 15, 2005
    I got somethin' I want to tell the whole world
    Last night's Channel 4 documentary Inside John Peel's record box revealed the 140 7" singles which Peel treasured so much he kept them separate from the thousands of others he had (except, no Fall ones - his complete collection of their massive output had a special place on his shelves unique to any group). Of these titles (full list reproduced by The Times here), I have those which probably everyone's got (Teenage Kicks, of course, and The Beatles' Come Together, Octopus's Garden and Something), one which I'm embarrassed about (The Nice: The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack), one often covered by The Fall live (The Move: I Can Hear the Grass Grow - perhaps The Fall connection is why it's in the box) and a few White Stripes ones (Peel had twelve White Stripes disks in the box; Jack White was duly humbled).

    And one, which I still have on a treasured, hissy old cassette taped off a Peel show in 1985, Drag Racing by Big Stick. It's surreal, scary, sexy, and all over in barely a minute - in short, everything I imagine drag racing to be. A gasoline-rich breeze. Peel played it a lot at the time, and it's evidently endured for him. For me, it's a very welcome blast from the past, and mining Big Stick's website for more gems I rediscover another favourite of mine which I owe to Peel's exposure: the exemplary Jesus was Born on an Indian Reservation. Which may not be strictly true, but hints at one great truth about Jesus, also very true for Big Stick and for John Peel: they are outsiders, all. Glorious, liberating outsiders.
    Monday, November 14, 2005
    The working disciple
    Read a good paper tonight, by Jim's mate Dick Cartmell. As vicar of a Blackburn parish he decided he needed to look more closely at the working lives of his church leaders. So one week he spent time with each of them, assisting them in their workplaces: video repairer, school caterer, cleaner, delivery driver, manager in an armaments factory, sewage treatment worker, bus driver, pub waiter.

    Nothing especially radical about that idea, nor about Dick's observations about the highly-pressured lives they each led (public pressure - 'the customer is always right', and management pressure - 'if you can't compete you're dead'). But it was a rare initiative, and offers a good model for keeping our eyes open. Came on the same day as I read (in the Economist, of all places), about John Sentamu's 280-mile Lent trek through the West Midlands, visiting hospitals, schools and 200 churches en-route, and where I also spent time with some detached youth workers telling me the good things they've found in the lives of the young people they've met on our supposedly (listen to many critics from outside the area) mean streets.

    All this provokes me to keep on my own walks of discovery through the ordinary - keep on, though the cold and darkness is tempting me to stay indoors.
    Sunday, November 13, 2005
    Folk Is Not a Four Letter Word
    Folk Is Not a Four Letter Word - Andy Votel has done it again, a glorious collection of never-lauded, long-forgotten true gems from the folk-acid underground. It's beautiful. And the man's a genius.
    Saturday, November 12, 2005

    Jim, suffering with depression, nevertheless made me coffee the other morning and invited me into a view of the world which he's been sharing of late. An epic, awesome and in many ways awful view - seen through the lens of Sebastiao Salgado and the photographs which make up the book Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age.

    It's a visual survey of the working lives of the many, in what Salgado rightly calls the Majority World. And the photos make clear just what hard, desperate work the majority endure: hand-cutting sugar cane in Cuba, disassembling ships with blowtorches and by hand on Bangladeshi beaches, mining coal for only twenty-two rupees ($1.30) per day in Dhanbad, India.

    Jim lent me the book to take home, and tonight I've been staring again at the barely-believable shots of the gold mine of Serra Pelada, Brazil. As Salgado says in his notes, 'Not since the building of pyramids by thousands of slaves, or the Klondike gold rush in Alaska, hs such an epic-scale human drama been witnessed: fifty thousand mud-soaked men digging for gold at Serra Pelada in the Brazilian state of Para.' The pictures are astonishing - contemplating the reality they portray is mind-blowing. How desperate (or full of hope) does a man have to be to spend his days scaling slippery ladders 1,310 feet high carrying loads of 130 pounds which may earn him just twenty cents (the average pay per sack).

    I'm revisiting these pictures after a day in Manchester at the CAP conference, in which the connections between the majority world and our world were made, helped by speakers from Cafod and Oxfam's UK Poverty Programme, and where work was often on the agenda. Just as people will travel vast distances to try to strike gold at Serra Pelada, here, too, migrant workers arrive in hope but find themselves exploited, abused, and impoverished... Here, too. It's that bit which is the hardest to comprehend, even harder than all which Salgado has brought to light.

    I left thinking that alongside the very valuable Poverty Hearings and Debt Hearings which various local CAP groups have hosted over the past decade, ought to now be Work Hearings, where migrants and others on or below the minimum wage can share their stories and awaken the rest of us to the true nature of work in the UK today.

    [More Workers gold mine pictures here]
    Friday, November 11, 2005
    In digital
    Today I bowed to the inevitable and bought an iPod Shuffle. First sound I burned to it? The voice of young Wesley Wroe reading Everywhere, a meditation written by his dad Martin, from Life, Death, God:

    God - within and without
    God - underground and overground
    - everywhere and nowhere
    - always and never
    - sometimes and all times
    God - inside and outside
    God - here with us now

    - figuring that if I'm travelling about, it'll be good to keep these things in mind....
    Thursday, November 10, 2005
    My new Godson

    Highlight of the day: this picture of my new Godson, Gregory, sent to me by his Mum. Aaaah. (I don't get any cute pics of my other Godson these days; but he is nearly fifteen. That ages me.)
    Wednesday, November 09, 2005
    Knowing our places - investigations in the Book of Ruth
    Led a retreat for colleagues today, at Loyola Hall, teasing out some 'theology of place' with The Book of Ruth as a basis. It seemed to go well - certainly we had a good natter afterwards about the life and places of our parish. I've posted my notes here.
    Tuesday, November 08, 2005
    Liverpool Future
    Liverpool Future promotes itself as 'Liverpool's liveliest ideas magazine'. Perhaps its promotional team haven't heard of Nerve. I'm not sure that Liverpool Future could claim to be very 'grassroots' - its Editorial Board consists predominantly of academics and the arts elite, and Issue One features a disappointingly revealing interview with the Swedish manager of the SAS Radisson ("It's kind of like living in a self-contained village" - not too culturally engaged, then, Olav). But its appearance is a good sign that after years of nothing, there's at last some movement in the city's alternative publications scene.
    Monday, November 07, 2005
    John Jorgenson and the Larry-Leon connection
    Nashville musician plays Childwall! A very special night as Frank, friend and sidesman from my previous parish, brings his pal John Jorgenson over for the only English date of his current tour, a parish club in a Liverpool suburb.

    Frank's done this a couple of times before - scooped a local gig by this international 'A'-list session man. Jorgenson has played with artists as diverse as Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti, Bonnie Raitt, and Benny Goodman, as well as fronting bands of his own and co-creating The Desert Rose Band with Chris Hillman. Tonight the hall contained some of the region's finest guitarists, sat among mere punters like me, all gazing in awe at the man's hands working that instrument like magic.

    The whole evening was great, but the highlight for me came early. Jorgenson's covers are excellent and he unearthed one which I love: Leon Russell's Stranger in A Strange Land. It's a masterpiece of tumbling gospel-blues which I know, of course, through Larry Norman's treatment of it on Streams of White Light Into Darkened Corners. Dear, contrary Larry, wanted to satirise those mainstream artists who were bringing Jesus into their songs because it was fashionable at the time. With the likes of Spirit in the Sky he succeeded, but Russell's song, along with the Stones' Shine a Light, were just too strong to diminish.

    And Larry's style, which in fact owed so much to Jagger / Russell and other great contemporary rock showmen, brought the song alive for me. It made a deep impression which has stuck. John Jorgenson revisiting Stranger in A Strange Land was one of those truly fine moments - an epiphany in a smoke-filled bar room. That's what great musicians can do.
    Sunday, November 06, 2005
    Tate think twice
    I've been writing protest letters to The Tate this weekend, at the request of the owners of my St Ives holiday apartment, and in line with the majority of local people's opinion, in opposition to proposals for the expansion of Tate St Ives. The protesters think it'll tip the very delicate balance between local and tourist provision, and spoil it for everyone.

    I think the Tate is great - and Tate St Ives a fantastic piece of architecture which just fits, so well, into the shorescape of that wonderfully cluttered old town. But if it expands it'll become misshapen; locals are not at all sure that visitor numbers really merit it and they think that a bigger Tate might even keep people away.

    Certainly I'll be looking to stay elsewhere if The Tate takes away the precious car parking spaces above the present gallery, the only spaces anywhere near that area. And I reckon if I'm thinking that, then plenty of other regular visitors to the top end of St Ives are too. Bigger just doesn't feel better in a modest, shoulder-rubbing, lovely but vulnerable Cornish town.
    Saturday, November 05, 2005
    To light a fire
    ... to light a fire is the instinctive and resilient act of men when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery, and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

    As the firework-formed fog begins to lift across this damp estate and overhead explosions diminish and fade I end the day with the very dependable Ronald Hutton, who, in Stations of the Sun, quotes Thomas Hardy whose view, expressed so powerfully in The Return of the Native (above), was that winter-eve bonfire nIghts had always been in existence, a primal expression of the people of these islands.

    Hutton gently - but characteristically thoroughly - debunks this, underlining the truth that prior to the Act of Parliament in 1606 commanding the church to set November 5 as a holy day, 'Bonfire Night' didn't take place. So it began as a political festival, but over the centuries has been kept for all sorts of reasons, adopted for all sorts of causes. Today, as Hutton observes, it is regaining something of a communal edge, albeit tamed, as people flock to large civic displays. Out in the suburbs it reflects the times inasmuch as it's a private, back garden, family affair.

    But I think it's only private in the same ambivalent way as mobile phones are private - you think that the noise you're making is just between you and your family and friends but in fact you're doing it in public and everyone can hear it. I'm glad that at the end of his survey Hutton turns to agree with Thomas Hardy's deeper intuition, about the need in us to light fires to protest the onset of dark, deathly winter. Whatever else Bonfire Night is about, it does seem there's a great truth in that.
    Friday, November 04, 2005
    There is an udder way
    Operate Google Earth and you get to feel like a god: spinning the world at will, keeping an eye on all and any places, zooming in to check what's happening at ground level, deep into the rock and soil. Google Earth doesn't come Mac-compatible as yet - they're obviously saving the best till last - so tonight, round at Rachel's, was my first prolonged play on that fascinating program.

    Gods'-eye view: funny how it always seems to move rapidly from the big picture down to the detail. Spinning the globe is fine but there's far more fascination in zooming in, down deep into the detail. Perhaps not so strange, because it's in the detail, on the ground, that real life takes place, and real life is endlessly fascinating.

    So imagine my facination when Rachel, Jonny and Mark told me about a project that took place on the wasteland next to St Gabriel's, my old stamping ground, this summer. A project called The Udder Way, an experiment in making creative use of abandoned urban land, involved five cows and five calves, three stockmen and a small support team with a milking parlour, setting up home on the tangled waste ground beside the church for nine days.

    What a risky idea - placing a herd of expensive Devon show cows on a brick-strewn inner city field which (I know first-hand) can be a violent place, and is always a bleak place. The idea came from a group of architects working on the Shrinking Cities project, looking for imaginative ways to address the fact that our cities are getting smaller and large gaps are appearing especially in places like Liverpool 8, a formerly overpopulated working-class dockland area increasingly abandoned as the city's population has shrunk and gentrified.

    But what a brilliant idea too. Because in their risk assessment the architects and farmers had evidently predicted that the people of Toxteth would be welcoming, intrigued, supportive and fully engaged with the whole idea when they saw it land in their midst; which, indeed, they were. Much more here.
    Thursday, November 03, 2005
    The Answer is Still Peace
    Timely. Greg Tricker's Francis of Assisi on the cover of this month's Resurgence. And the magazine's insistent headline. Still true. Even after all these tears. It had to be November's Pic of the month.
    Wednesday, November 02, 2005
    Vicar stabbed in London
    Difficult to comprehend that this has happened to a man I've laughed, wept, and smiled some more with so many times. Seasonal chat about saints and martyrs now feels way too cheap. I dearly pray for Ian's recovery; and Linda, Ben and Joseph.
    Tuesday, November 01, 2005
    Celebrate your saints
    Saints of God in Glory
    be with us,
    rejoice in us,
    sing praise with us,
    and pray with us now.

    (Bernadette Farrell)

    Not necessarily the great ones: the ordinary ones count as saints too, in my reckoning. A day for naming them. I'm into this in a big way this year. Saints and Souls - seems to have warmed and lit the transition into winter darkness.