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

    Saturday, May 20, 2006
    That's all Folk
    Last blog for a fortnight. But you can spend a little time, if you like, putting in an order for my compilation cd, which you'll get early June. Totally free; though if you want to swop it for a compilation of your own that'd be wonderful.

    Thursday, May 18, 2006
    We're none of us anywhere near perfect, and in fact mostly we are in very unsafe territory. This much is clear from the outset of Barbara's new book, I Am Somewhere Else: Gospel Reflections from an Emerging Church, which I took to read on retreat today.

    And this thesis was tested at lunchtime when on a walk out of Loyola Hall to the garage to get a butty, I was stopped in my tracks by a young schoolgirl who ran up to ask me a question which would haunt me, and dominate my thoughts for the rest of the afternoon. It was something she really needed to know, and she'd somehow identified me as one who might be able to help her. Her question was this: "Do you know where Duran Duran got their name from?"

    That rattled me. I squeezed my eyes shut, reopened them, rubbed my chin, grimaced, and told her that I really ought to know that but just couldn't remember. And walked on feeling a desperate sense of having let the young girl down.

    Barbara's book is an extended meditation on the experience of baking bread with an ever-changing gathered community of people in a room above a city centre cooperative bookshop. She describes so well the various stages of breadmaking, and with them the themes which they conjure, when breadmaking is an activity shared by a whole bundle of broken, breaking, angry, reassembling people around a very big table. And where some of the Christian gospel stories play their part in the interaction, as bread and soup are shared.

    One of the best things about breadmaking appears to be that it takes a long time and so gives the people around the table plenty of opportunity to share each other's experiences and really start to engage. Barbara has an interesting way of describing this:

    The starting point of understanding experience is to 'experience our experience' and to 'experience our experience without fear'. What I mean by this is the need to give ourselves space to listen and to honour the things that have happened to us so that we do not just have experiences but we pause and wonder at the things that are happening to us.

    And the book is full of stories of people who have baked and shared bread in Somewhere Else over the past five years, which clearly show how deeply they have 'experienced their experience', and how well Barbara has observed (and no doubt contributed towards) this.

    There will be much to return to, again and again, in this book. Some fascinating reflections in the field of what might be dustily called 'pastoral theology'. Today I was especially struck by a recurring question, is there a relationship between safety and salvation? Barbara describes her concern at having to step over rough sleeper Michael to get through the door on the morning of a day when survivors of abuse were being offered safe space in the centre. And this unfolds into a discussion which observes that nowhere really is completely safe, and certainly not the church (though it hides behind salvation language to pretend it is). The beginning of safety - and salvation - is in facing this difficult truth.

    Which takes me back to me being accosted by an appealing schoolgirl in view of staff and parents at the gates. It's perhaps just as well I didn't have the answer to her question in my head at the time, because it's an unsafe explanation. Duran Duran are named for the evil baddie in the steamy cult sci-fi classic Barbarella, starring the frequently naked Jane Fonda.
    Wednesday, May 17, 2006
    Very big in Leeds
    Listen to Ten O'Clock Curfew thrashing out Those Eyes ("Those eyes, the ones that follow me round the room / that scent, that's like a flower that's in bloom / the smile that brightens up my everyday / and when she moves I hope she walks my way..."). You think the singer sounds a little young but nothing prepares you for the news that bass/vocalist Scott is 12 and guitarist Jack is 8! They are the nephews of friend-of-this-blog Adrian and just now they are deservedly very big in Leeds.

    Tuesday, May 16, 2006
    War drags on for generations
    War drags on for generations. The people of Liverpool were reminded of this today, as were the passengers of the Irish ferry boats stranded for hours on the Mersey after the discovery of an unexploded World War II bomb in the Birkenhead docks brought all river and tunnel traffic to a standstill.

    As a Navy crew drags the 500kg monster out to sea for a controlled detonation and the city returns to normal there is a display of giant photographic prints attached to the fences of St Luke's, the bombed-out church, featuring images from the blitz of 65 years ago this month. Liverpool was a prime target because of its port significance, and the city was battered. While developers spent the sixties replacing the city centre rubble with since-discredited concrete shopping centres and flyovers St Luke's was bought from the Church of England by the City Council in 1968 as a lasting memorial to the civilian dead of that - and every kind of - war. Its peaceful gardens house a tribute to the victims of the Irish Famine and the roofless building itself is one of Liverpool's most loved landmarks.

    But the Finest Hour project, responsible (I think) for the outdoor photo gallery on Hardman Street, contains, online, many spoken-word accounts of the blitz from local people who survived it, which demonstrate how their lives and many others have been totally defined by the horrors of that bombing campaign. Generations living in the aftershock.

    Today I've been reading about another war which generations later is still in our blood and in the air. I've been reading The Trophy is Democracy: Merseyside, Anti-fascism and the Spanish Civil War, a 32-page booklet by Dave Auty, which I found in News From Nowhere. It's a good primer to a conflict which preceded the blitz by a decade, and which involved many of Liverpool's ordinary citizens in a confrontation with fascism which cost 28 of them their lives, and caught many others in struggles which again, defined their lives, and those of their families and peers for generations.

    I'm privileged to meet families today whose ethic is a socialism of the heart and whose inspiration is a grandparent trade unionist or great-grandparent Spanish War campaigner. And their ethic, though unfashionable these days, continues to be absolutely relevant because the struggle against fascism, in our communities and in our craven hearts, by sad necessity must continue.
    Sunday, May 14, 2006
    Funny folk

    Good to have friends like Glen, who sent a handwritten letter asking me for a new compilation tape as the last one I did was years ago and she's wearing it out in the car on long work journeys these days. She's right, I haven't done a compilation for ages. So it was a duty and a joy at this time and in this place (while our road was full of people dressed in red walking up to Queen's Drive oddly intent on celebrating a draw against West Ham) to put together A Folk compilation. Two 45-minute cds. That's folk, in the widest - and wildest - sense. As you'll discover, if you'd like a copy.
    Saturday, May 13, 2006
    Darling don't you know
    I've got a murder list
    and your name's on it
    It's for the things you did
    that I can't forget
    That's the truth no lie
    only you know why...

    - the support act The Burning Leaves set the tone for last evening at Pacific Road. The occasion - first night in the UK for the awesome Handsome Family. The music - richest, gorgeous country; the mood - darkly humorous; the themes - death, love, mutilation and the activities of strange small creatures in our world.

    I enjoyed The Burning Leaves as much as I've enjoyed any support band, ever, which is saying something. Our front-table seats in the cabaret setting helped. Like the Handsome Family, they are also a twosome: gangly guitarist with big hair, Craig (21), and Indie Mae (18), a girl gifted with a golden voice and a beautiful smile. And like the Handsome Family, they also specialise in songs about the dark side. Beautifully crafted songs of melancholy and loss. They're from round here, I think. I shall keenly follow their (surely) upwards path in the music business.

    Then Brett Sparks, pretending (?) to be jet-lagged, ambled onstage a few moments after wife and leader-of-the-gang Rennie, holding a pink towel in his hands which Rennie explained was called 'Pinky', which he always carries with him and which she sometimes thinks he loves more than her. Thus began a typical Handsome Family set of surreal banter and the most finely-crafted songs about the most twisted (and very human) things:

    "Out in the heather where the sun burns bright she swore to love me the rest of her life. But, my hands they shook as the noon bells chimed so at the last bell I showed her my knife. And I laid to rest my beautiful bride out in the heather where the sun burns bright. Now all alone under the cool night sky where locusts scream and white moths fly, silvery moonbeams fall on her grave, but twisting black vines have covered her name. For I loved too much my beautiful bride and so gave her up to the cool night sky."

    This is songwriting of the highest order and for all their onstage pretence at amateurism these are fantastic musicians. Rennie's the one with the beautifully disturbed mind who comes up with songs so dark that part-way through the set the audience begins to give off involuntary guffaws when the inevitable punchlines come:

    "I wanted to tell you all the ways that I loved you but, instead I got sick on the train. Darling don't you know it's only human to want to kill a beautiful thing."

    Rennie and Brett played some fine songs off their new album Last Days of Wonder,

    a collection of love songs sung in airports, garbage dumps, drive-thru windows and shark-infested waters. The CD celebrates the little miraculous moments of beauty found in everyday life: a golf course shining in the rain, hanging lights bouncing in the breeze, pigeons singing from billboards, trees blooming in squares of dirt. The songs linger on those moments when we’re pulled from the ordinary to feel awed by mystery, bewildered by beauty, terrified by the vast unknowable around us (whether we wander through shady groves or crowded parking lots).

    It's due out just in time for my birthday. Which will make it very happy. Though I'm happy now because last night I bought a copy of Rennie's book of stories of misfortune and menace, Evil. She signed it for me with a typical poetic flourish:

    Friday, May 12, 2006
    A very rare weekend off in seven day's time, and the dilemma is, do I spend Saturday at Liverpool Cathedral celebrating the life of one of our city's great philanthropist-campaigners Josephine Butler, or down in Little Gidding at an event marking the 70th anniversary of T.S. Eliot's visit there, and the launch of the T.S. Eliot Society in England.

    Deciding factors may be: (a) Anna Briggs who will perform her one-woman play A remarkable life, all about Josephine Butler, at the Cathedral on Saturday, will give our Iona Community group a preview the previous evening; (b) the church at Little Gidding only holds 45 people (at a squeeze) so I may be too late for a ticket; (c) it's a 3-hr haul down the A14 to Eliot's blessed Huntingdon beauty spot and I'll be driving to Oban on Sunday.

    I shall not be put off by Butler's observation that "It is not difficult to find misery in Liverpool", because I know she was talking about the conditions in the vast 5,000-people workhouse situated where the RC Cathedral now stands.

    It may come down to how much I'm moved by Eliot's persuasive verse to consider that of all the places / Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws, Little Gidding is the nearest, in place and time, / Now and in England. Or by his equally persuasive observation that whichever journey I opt for, the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.

    Or I may just have a lie-in before a fortnight of early starts on Iona.

    Thursday, May 11, 2006
    Poetry in Motion
    "It's often the same with poems. They always seem to get you in trouble." Roger McGough was talking about the Early Day Motion in verse which he had penned to encourage Parliament to share in the celebrations of Liverpool's Capital of Culture status. Parliament wouldn't have it, but not because it was in poem form (which would have been a first), but because of the inclusion of the word sarnies which was evidently one scouseism too far. McGough said, "I thought it was a smashing rhyme with Armanis." Here's Roger's banned Early Day Motion in full:

    That this House congratulates the people of Liverpool
    For scousers, as you all know
    Aren't given to boasting or making a show
    Stiff upper lip, that's our motto
    When we speak it's voce sotto

    But the city has something to celebrate
    European Capital of Culture, two thousand and eight.
    So it's off with the trackies and on with the Armanis
    Out with the champagne and the caviar sarnies

    The chance to invest in what it does best,
    Dance, drama, music and the rest.
    'The Town of the Talk', more sinned against than sinning
    If not a new Jerusalem, at least a new beginning.

    That this House shares the sense of pride,
    Of purpose and spirit, on Merseyside.
    Wednesday, May 10, 2006
    In Martin Parr territory

    In Martin Parr territory today - loose in New Brighton with a camera and an hour to spare.
    Top: a couple on the promenade wall.
    Above: the model boat club on a marina lake.
    Below: across the Mersey, home ground - a view of wind-powered Seaforth Docks and, to the left of the picture, the sands at the end of the road where I've lived half my life (click to enlarge).

    Tuesday, May 09, 2006
    A suggestion of cruelty in the English countryside
    Following up yesterday's theme because of a great email from Adrian who observes how brutal is the environment created by the new transportation systems: "As someone who regularly voyages along the A14 I can associate ... with the giant rectangular warehouses which line them - for anyone who thinks an Ikea store is BIG, they should see the Ikea distribution centre near Kettering!"

    This brutality is not 'pure' architecture but is the product of "the force of commerce which took (overtook) natural estuaries and shelter like Southampton Water and the Mersey and made them into those great acre-gobbling ports we used to know (and indeed the Manchester ship canal which I have recently been reading about on your blogs). Now the brutality seems indeed to be inflicted upon those motorway/A road laybys you can't get into 'cos of the artics and on the landscape of, for example, Northampton.

    "Maybe it is simply a different way of commerce and the benefits are on everyone's tables ... but, looked at a different way, there is a replication going on - the dangerous, back-breaking, low-paid work of the dockers replaced by the dangerous (often to other road users), back pain enducing - long hours-take the fuse out to kill the tachograph - culture of the long distance hauliers - and the low paid and family threatening lives of the Southampton and Liverpool sailors replaced by the low paid, family threatening lives of today's sailors now from China, Malasia, and all places much poorer than us."

    All this chimes with Patrick Keiller's observations. It's a truthful, if different way of looking at the country:

    In the rural landscape ... the atmosphere is disconcerting. The windowless sheds of the logistics industry, recent and continuing road construction, spiky mobile 'phone aerials, a proliferation of new fencing of various types, security guards, police helicopters and cameras, new prisons, agribusiness (BSE, genetic engineering, organophosphates, declining wildlife), UK and U.S. military bases (microwaves, radioactivity), mysterious research and training centres, 'independent' schools, eerie commuter villages, rural poverty and the country houses of rich and powerful men of unrestrained habits are visible features of a landscape in which the suggestion of cruelty is never far away.
    Monday, May 08, 2006
    The stretched-out port

    Finally got to the end of the Shrinking Cities Project: Manchester/Liverpool report, a valuable compilation of various technical, social-scientific and reflective pieces of work on the story of these two interrelated cities of the North. The last chapter was a refresher for me, of Patrick Keiller's Port Statistics, from the book which accompanies (and elucidates) his film Robinson in Space.

    I've blogged before on what he reveals about the port of Liverpool - that although it has physically (and dramatically) shrunk, nevertheless it is 'the major UK port for trade with the eastern seaboard of North America. It has a successful container terminal, imports more grain than any other UK port, handles most of the UK's scrap-metal exports and a lot of oil, and has a new terminal for Powergen's coal imports.'

    What interested me more on this reading was his exploration of how present-day commerce redefines space: how practices which once made our ports great - in size - have been replaced by new ways of working, and especially of transportation. Our docks have shrunk as the cargoes have taken to the roads, and so in a sense you will now find the Port of Liverpool (and all our ports) stretched out and pumping diesel in laybys all across the country...

    Sunday, May 07, 2006
    Like father ...

    Duncan's last game for us (probably) ended in high drama (not untypically). And at the end he brought his baby on to blood her into his ways. She's evidently learned a lot from her father already - see that look she's giving the referee...

    We're now at the still point of the turning year ... the end of the season ... the point where it dawns that there will be no more (proper) footy for three months ... the point where the league table cements its truths, where old campaigners take their bows and new hopes are born ... the point where you stop to appreciate, again, what this beautiful game means ...

    ... at the still point, there the dance is,
    But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
    Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
    Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

    [T.S. Eliot]
    Saturday, May 06, 2006
    Today I am happily regressing. Thanks to the ace Easter sale at the Freak Emporium, this teatime I was able to put on a piece of music I last listened to twenty-five or more years ago: The Book of Taliesyn. So psychedelic! To celebrate, I did what my mum used to do on those Saturdays all those years ago when I'd have to flick the hair off my shoulders to stop it getting in my food - I prepared to eat a Vesta Chow Mein with chips. Tasty! And so, after tea, to complete the nostalgia (but bring it up to date), I fished out of a bottom drawer my old school football kit, in readiness for next weekend's Cup Final. It's claret and blue.
    Friday, May 05, 2006
    A day around Junction 12
    Went to News from Nowhere to pick up my new copy of Around the M60: Manchester's Orbital Motorway. And it was such a nice day that, after a brief consultation involving the book and Landranger 109, I decided to spend some time exploring around Junction 12 - the point where the Liverpool-Hull highway hits Salford and is subsumed into the Orbital for a few miles.

    Like so much of the Warrington - Manchester route this area is a busy mess of old and new transportation. Dead, dismal and dead-expensive railways cross the floodplains of the Mersey; the winding river in more than one place intersects the massive Ship Canal (which, the book tells me, was built to a depth of 26 feet (7.9m) - intentionally the same as the Suez). But the whole area has been since the sixties adulterated by big roads, fast roads.

    Where I leave the M62, the junction (which is J12 of the M62 and of the M60) is a national accident blackspot, 'abetted,' the book says, 'by steep gradients, narrow lanes and a concentration of 'lane weaving' manoeuvres by frustrated motorists. Indeed, peak time shunts are the major form of incident here.' And the A57 at Barton is equally bad-tempered today. I pull completely onto the wide kerb outside someone's house to look on the map for the turn which will take me down to Barton Locks.

    The map shows some routes to the lock but I don't find a way to it. Road entrances closed over by locked gates suggest that the lock keepers want to keep industrial tourists like myself at bay. The closest I get is Makro car park, which offers a tantalising view of the Canal across scrubby fields, and a breathtaking view of the Barton High Level Bridge - the M60 crossing - shining in the clear blue (blimey) Manchester skies.

    So I detour to the other side of the A57, rattle slowly down dusty farm roads which cross the M62, stopping at the bridges to take photos of speeding articulated wagons. And then I take the road towards Eccles, swing into a housing estate (one of those which Alain de Botton has been so disapproving of on TV this week), and find another path to Barton Locks blocked by the canal company. But this time I manage to get canalside and get to take these pictures - above, a rusty old scooter framed with Barton High Level Bridge; below, urban idyll: a swan drifts past beneath the green domes of the Trafford Centre.

    Refuel at Trafford Park, a butty and a flask of tea in the car park of the shining Imperial War Museum, and back to Barton Locks, this time by way of Urmston. Perhaps the other side of the canal bank will offer access. It almost does. Davyhulme Nature Reserve offers an easy ramble down to the Lock side.

    There is no access, but the water company do at least give ramblers the opportunity to get close to the lock, to sit alongside and be able to watch those (fairly rare) occasions when canal craft rise or fall a level through these gigantic gates. This really is a canal like no other; built for ships. Last time I went this way was on a Mersey Ferry cruise, a fine way to appreciate the riches of this 35-mile-long waterway.

    This area's biggest barons, Peel Holdings plc, owners of the Trafford Centre, the Manchester Ship Canal, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and Liverpool John Lennon Airport, like to get as many paying customers as they can travelling through their vast portfolio. But any who dare stray off the regulated paths find fences like these at every turn.
    Thursday, May 04, 2006

    Got my inspiration today for my Greenbelt-Iona workshop on exploring the ordinary. It was bin day down Sedgemoor Road. This picture (a slightly doctored version of the true shot) will be the starting point. Bet you can't wait.
    Wednesday, May 03, 2006
    Pic of the month
    May's Pic of the month is a contemplation of Englishness and the tensions of nationalism on the cusp of the council elections and with the help of this astonishing still image from William Raban's film Island Race.
    Tuesday, May 02, 2006
    The river: empire on ebb

    I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
    Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable,
    Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
    Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
    Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
    The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
    By the dwellers in cities - ever, however, implacable.
    Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
    Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
    By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

    William Raban begins his Thames Film with these words of T.S. Eliot, the poet's own voice from a crackly old recording as commentary on a boatman's-eye-view of the old river.

    Raban set out to replicate Thomas Pennant's voyage, London to Dover, for the same reasons:

    "'On Monday May 7th 1787 I took boat at The Temple stairs to make the voyage of the lower part of the Thames.'
    "Monday 17th May 1984. High water; 6:09. Crossing the time and place of your departure. Your voyage following the ebb tide down to the sea. Your search on the ebb flow. Looking for the signs of increase, production, exploration and empire."

    It seems significant that Raban's journey of exploration was on the ebb tide. His gorgeously-shot journey offers a picture of a river, still working, but tenuously, modestly. This is interspersed with archive shots of great liners, vibrant docksides - increase, production, and old Empire. The film is a fine exploration of what the river means now - and to me (anticipating my upcoming Humber to Mersey journey), it's a good resource for reflecting on what any great old river means now. It's a beautiful and powerful piece of work.

    While searching on Raban I discovered that this Thursday 4 May, UEL Docklands Campus are hosting Ports of Call, 'a new project being developed by the London East Research Institute at UEL with the Museum of London and local community organisations, with the aim of understanding patterns of social and economic change and rediscovering the rich industrial and maritime heritage of the Docks.' Raban's film is being shown, along with a mix of photography, discussion, poetry, oral history project presentations. If you live Thames-side and can get there, tell me all about it after - it looks fascinating.
    Monday, May 01, 2006
    Good golly Miss Polly
    PJ Harvey's 2004 tour DVD came out today. She didn't want a straightforward gig film; she wanted a chopped-up record of the whole touring experience in all its messy complexity. Result: a good little insight into Polly and crew on the road; but a bit frustrating because the strength of PJ Harvey onstage is her sheer sustained power and intensity - that gets lost in this DVD pastiche.

    Nevertheless, this, her first ever DVD, is a good record of a great tour - there are still some fine performances on here. And for me, this film serves as a nice reminder of the day she cheered up my Rooney-leaving-The Blues-blues by saying hello to me in the doorway of a Dublin bookshop hours before her storming Olympia gig.