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

    Monday, July 31, 2006
    The compulsion of the artist
    The French painter Pierre Bonnard was feeling very depressed one day so his friends took him to the Louvre in Paris to look at the art - and it was observed that he spent a lot of time staring out through the windows. When the visit was over and the group had departed, they paused for coffee and reflected about what had impressed them most. 'I liked the windows best of all,' offered Bonnard.
    Another fabulous French painter, the prodigiously rebellious Jean Dubuffet, frequently expressed a related idea: 'When the pompous platforms of culture are erected and awards and laurels come raining down, then flee as fast as you can, there'll be little hope for art.'
    The compulsion of the artist, it seems, is not only to make art but to flee and flee and to keep on fleeing - out the windows towards what is personal and what is real. To flee the world of art!

    - I find myself reading Michael Leunig again tonight, for refreshment and renewal and because in a moment of strange clarity I realised that I wanted to compose next week's five BBC Thoughts for the Day in a Leunig style... which brought me back to a familiar and welcoming place somewhere very deep in my centre...

    The quote is from a recent article which Leunig wrote in The Age, linked from a new Leunig website which carries some great pieces of writing by the Melbourne cartoonist, some lovely pieces of visual art by the philosopher of the everyday.

    The quote describes very well the compulsion which gripped me today... to flee towards what is personal and what is real. I find myself writing common prayers about wheelie bins, shipping containers, plastic bags, phone masts, and shopping trolleys.

    Sunday, July 30, 2006
    Pic of the month
    Pic of the month a day early for a change ... partly due to Sunday evening brain-weariness, partly to extreme enthusiasm for my new-found web-toy, the Gascam....
    Saturday, July 29, 2006
    Gascam bliss
    It's been a quiet day today. All I have done is:

    Read the weeklies as they fell through my door- New Statesman, Church Times;

    Scanned the LRB and saved it for later as it requires lengthy and devout attention (a 'Dispatches from Beirut' edition plus Eamon Duffy on Lancelot Andrewes);

    Prepared a homily for the Book of Common Prayer devotees and a session for the 11-plus group;

    Produced two baptism certificates and eight godparents certificates;

    Set up in church ready for tomorrow (tealights on tin foil on round-here-essential white lace tablecloths), as I'm doing a foreigner in a neighbouring parish first thing in the morning;

    Written two reviews for Coracle (one on a footballer's autobiography, the other on a collection of cutting-edge liturgy);

    ... and between all that, delighted in following highlights of the arrival of the Clippers, using the fantastic online AISLiverpool Gascam, which gives a (live and archived) view across the Mersey, northwards to the Lennox oil and gas rig in Liverpool Bay. All water and gulls most of the time, but at 11:03:42 this morning the river mouth was full of boats.
    Friday, July 28, 2006
    The dockside internationalist

    A world of exploration on the Manchester Ship Canal today.

    The Fure Nord, born in Shanghai's Edward Shipyard, its home Donsö in the southern Göteborg archipelago, a 16,000 tonne, 144 metre-long tanker, heading towards the Irish Sea after taking on its liquid cargo from Stanlow.

    Internationalist Graffiti - dockside tags from visiting seamen and their ships.

    The Dutch-Irish grain carrier Arklow Racer, speeding past our modest ferry. Many grain carriers on the canal today - it's harvest time.

    For company in Irlam Locks, some very English narrowboaters. And below, two Scousers in the overheated pool of globalization, Salford Quays...

    Thursday, July 27, 2006
    If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
    Receptive, perceptive folk have been telling me for ages that I ought to read If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. I thought I better had, to all the better prepare for my Greenbelt talk (which I really ought to start writing soon).

    It's a novel about the ordinary, a poem about the glory in the mundane. I've only read the first two pages but these promise a great deal....

    Wednesday, July 26, 2006
    Spent some of today with some folks thinking about how to run a conference on the themes shaken out of Faithful Cities. I enthused about the model of walking-and-talking, photographing and film-making en-route as something potentially more stimulating than the standard sitting-and-listening one. It'll be an inter-faith event, if it comes off.

    Later looked in on Bill Drummond's The 17, which involves 17 people making music the likes of which has never been heard before. He trialled this in Sweden and Newcastle earlier this year, and he's put the scores online. Here's one which would do just nicely for our proposed event, I'm now thinking...

    Tuesday, July 25, 2006
    Ode to a Deadad
    Andrew Kotting's Ode to a Deadad, "Ranted in an Apocalypse Now! Hopper Flurry"...

    Monday, July 24, 2006
    Upsetting the hoardings
    Variant 26 is now online, and with it an article about Bristle, the South-West's alternative publication and their recently-published compilation of political street expressions also called Bristle. Where angry enlightened types used to kick over the statues now, on the streets of Bristol, they're upsetting the hoardings. Halleluia.

    Bristle bris’l v.i. – to show rage or resistance.
    Sunday, July 23, 2006
    Till London
    Got the dates in my diary for a Canterbury pilgrimage in eleven months time. In 2007 the Tour de France begins in southern England. I was there last time the greatest sporting show on earth came to visit - a family picnic beside the B2112 near Ditchling, waiting for a 50km/hr rush of steel, flesh, colour and noise which lasted a few electrifying moments. The English opening should be a great scene-setter for what ought to be a cracking event after this year's rollercoaster Tour.

    Prologue: Central London Sat 7 July 2007

    Stage 1: London to Canterbury Sun 8 July 2007
    Saturday, July 22, 2006
    A right carryon
    Listening to the frenzy of found English folk sounds which is Visionary Landscapes the listener is affected in, I imagine, a similar way to that person allowing themselves to be spun at the centre of a boozy village hall hornpipe dance. Or spending let's say two months on English back roads listening to the English back story as delivered by people who've never been more than five miles from their rustic sheds.

    It's the work of Jem Finer and Andrew Kotting, the soundtrack to a three-screen projection of outtakes from Kotting's film, Gallivant performed at a gathering of 'diverse voices and perspectives on representations of English landscape and folk culture' held at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 2003 [previously mentioned on this site here].

    My reawakened interest in Kotting's work prompted me to put my order in for the album and this afternoon (after brief tears of joy seeing Johann Cruyff grace a football pitch again) I revisited the film. The music stands alone, though, as an engrossing and lovely expression of Englishness in all its extraordinary ordinariness...

    "Cut-ups and smidgeons abound. Jem Finer and Andrew Kötting have assembled a veritable bricolage of things folk laureate. Voices from a bygone zeitgeist weave their way throughout the beautifully constructed soundscapes. Elegaic, beguiling and always haunting the compositions mend their merry way. Hurdy Gurdies, Zithers, Melodicas and Harmoniums transport the listener to places they have not been before. Contemplative sonic landscaping at its very best. A right carryon."
    Thursday, July 20, 2006
    Goole fishing

    After an excellent morning with Henry and Sylvia, the opportunity to do a reccy on some of the M62 route, eastwards - the part less known to me. So, an hour in and around the port of Goole, pondering the relationship between God and the docks...

    ... in this place where the church and the docks share the same ground.

    And one for the collection: what the town's leaders have thought about its people through the years, summarised in Goole's Clock Tower: erected in 1927 to mark the Centenary of the opening of the docks, adapted in the late 1990s to become the base for a huge CCTV camera set. No more potent symbol of how Goole's rulers (like those of most other towns and cities) have moved in attitude from civic benevolent to urban revanchist within a lifetime. From being at one with its citizens to being at war with them...
    Wednesday, July 19, 2006
    Casualties of war
    With "the gates of hell and madness" open in Lebanon I was reminded tonight of how far the shock-waves of each bomb reach. Thinking of course of the most-affected casualties of war: the familes and friends of the 300 people killed in a week of Israeli attacks. The 500,000 others displaced.

    But this is where the horror of this particular episode struck home: on the phone to my friend three miles away from here. A man closely tuned-in to the conflicts of the day and brilliantly self-educated in the parallel conflicts of history, he is also (and relatedly) a man teetering on the edge of deep alcoholism. He's had a bad week, he tells me. In other words he's hit the bottle again. The brutal war crimes of Israel have sent him back into the slough of despair, that and Blair's deceitful attempt to blame Iran and Syria for this latest Middle East crisis.

    In Lebanon and Gaza, military heavyweights destroy civilians and their homes. And in a Liverpool housing estate a man all-too cognizant of these events drinks himself into oblivion.
    Tuesday, July 18, 2006
    Something may come out of it
    There is nothing to say about anything.
    So there can be no limit to the number of books.

    E.M. Cioran: The Trouble with Being Born

    No-one ever says anything much about death. Which is why one more book about it is welcome. And as anticipated, the Kotting book is a delight and a drama and at times a (healthily) disturbing read.

    One of the things Kotting does in response to the death of his father is to write to 65 people (one for each year of his father's life) asking them to respond to four photographs of his deadad 'in order that something may come out of it'.

    Though he encourages 'confabulation' and sets no limits on the length or size to the work generated, and though he even sends a 'deadad' pencil as a token of his appreciation for the time and possible energy his potential respondents might put into this project, they don't all reply.

    Those who do, reply in all sorts of ways: lyrically, satirically, deeply thoughfully; with images, with fictions, with memoirs, using cross stitch, and in doggerel verse. I've still got the enjoyment and challenge of most of them to come, and the first one listed (Ken Arnold) gave me plenty to chew on. Contemplating the Kotting project Arnold wonders, 'What am I going to do as a memorial for my dad?' It's a question which, on reading, you can't help internalising.
    Monday, July 17, 2006
    Leave the Capital
    I've tried to appreciate Faithful Cities, and today had another go at reading the whole report. Doubtless there are some good sections in there, and many valid observations about contemporary urban issues. Including a good quote from James Jones:

    We are in danger in some of our cities of suffering from urban diabetes where you get the blood pumping round prestigious projects which everybody shows off and says they are wonderful, but the blood does not get to the extremities of the body. So you have communities on the edge which atrophy. What we have to make sure is that the valves are open so that these prestigious projects, the blood, the wealth of them, is actually channelled to the whole of the community.

    But I cannot get over a deep disillusionment and sense of betrayal on reading the introduction, which seems to me wildly over-keen to promote a new phrase (a 'fresh expression'): faithful capital. Linked to the equally odious term social capital this could appear like clever new thinking for church people wised-up to engagement with regeneration industry realtors. But to me it seems like jettisoning the prophetic and critical (and everyday) language of our faith tradition for that of the marketeers.

    In the global machinations currently ripping our city centres apart, the church holds little power. Which is good. It might as well, then, keep its integrity intact, mightn't it?
    Sunday, July 16, 2006
    Learning to crawl
    I'm growing up into this Girardian stuff now. I wrote today's sermon all by myself: John, Jesus and the haunting of Herod...
    Friday, July 14, 2006
    Samson ... take a bow
    We've spent all week trying to find something redeeming, some relevant contemporary meaning, in the bloodsoaked story of Samson. Failed to. But this week's LRB offers something useful, in the shape of Jenny Diski's review of a David Grossman book about Samson, which describes the blinded battler's ancient image as Samson the hero, and his modern interpretation as the tough Jew.

    Grossman situates [Samson the hero/tough Jew] in modern Israel. Those who would see Samson as a tough Jew, Grossman explains, 'esteemed his ability to apply force without any restraints or moral inhibitions, an ability which history withheld from the trod-upon Jews for millennia, until the establishment of the state of Israel'. 'Samson's Foxes' fought in the 1948 War of Independence; a 'Samson' unit was created during the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s; Israel's nuclear weapon programme was once known as the 'Samson Option'.

    I've been on train journeys to Sheffield and back today, musing on these things in the face of the latest terror. And listening repeatedly to Take a Bow, the relentlessly angry opener of the new album by Muse:

    Death, you bring death
    And destruction to all that you touch
    Pay, you must pay
    You must pay for your crimes against the earth
    Hate, feed the hate
    Feed the hate of the country you love
    And beg, you will beg
    You will beg for the lives and their souls
    And burn, you will burn
    You will burn in hell
    Yeah you'll burn in hell
    You'll burn in hell
    Yeah you'll burn in hell
    Burn in hell
    Yeah you'll burn in hell
    For your sins
    Thursday, July 13, 2006
    In Pennant Melangell
    Breathe in.
    Her gravity holds us. Hush. Her thought
    gives us a world - breathe out -
    where insects move like juggernauts.

    Breathe in. We swim
    to drown, Melangell, in your breath
    which drags us from our land-bound doubt
    towards you. Out...Breathe out...Breathe out...

    - part of a poem by Gwyneth Lewis, and me pictured taking the air in one of my favourite places, a beautiful valley saturated in one of my favourite stories. Day retreat earlier this week.
    Wednesday, July 12, 2006
    Open the box
    I'm reading the world's first book about the history of the shipping container. It's called The Box and it's an absorbing read because, as the subtitle accurately explains, this simplest of inventions 'made the world smaller and the world economy bigger'.

    Also, for me, it's another way of deepening my understanding of my immediate environment. For I have spent half my life living a mile away from a major container port, which abuts a dockland wasteland stretching about eight miles down the Mersey, the residue of an earlier (and far less efficient) way of shipping goods.

    Marc Levinson, writer on the Economist and Newsweek, brings this story to life and shows just how crucial the transportation industry's adoption of containers has been to globalisation. Those ubiquitous ugly metal boxes are the reason I'm eating Chilean apples so cheaply and with far more ease than finding a farmer's market able to ply me with Lancashire fruit. They've laid to rest the dockers distinctive community and culture, and the brutal dockside working practices which maimed and killed so many. They've emptied the ports and filled the roads, and are the reason why previously unremarkable stretches of the south and east Midlands, close to motorways, have been transformed into major distribution hubs.

    Reading this it strikes me that in a working-class area like ours many of my neighbours would have been dock workers in the past. Now, what do many do for a living? They drive big trucks. Because of the container and how it is used. Truly the box has changed all our lives.
    Tuesday, July 11, 2006
    That cat's something I can't explain
    In a way the mad and maverick visions of Syd Barrett were my musical first love. My youthful awakenings came listening to early Pink Floyd; the first album I bought was that majestic paean to the Madcap, Wish You Were Here; and though I had access to the wealth of fantastic material provided by punk's first wave, the songs which most delighted me in my teens were Syd's very English absurdities - Bike, Scarecrow, Matilda Mother ... I bought a tatty copy of Relics off Tiff Kazeem (not his real name but how he signed the lp) for 50p in 1976 and played it almost non-stop for at least a decade.

    In some ways, there has always been a sense of death about Syd ever since that momentous day in 1968 when he walked out of the music business. A sense of bereavement, certainly, on which the further career of his band was founded. A groundbreaking set of artists producing timeless classics of built-in melancholy and nostalgia, psychedelic pastorales of Albion recalling someone most of us never knew but grew up deeply missing. His legacy is well-established; we feel his loss all the more keenly today.
    Monday, July 10, 2006

    Regular readers will know of my admiration for the work of Andrew Kotting. This week's New Statesman review demonstrates that he's still got the muse; and prompted me to get onto the Herbert Read Gallery immediately for a copy of the book.
    Sunday, July 09, 2006
    Six miles on a canal path
    Spent my day off walking the towpath of the Rufford Branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Next best thing to narrowboating itself. It is a fascinating route in a busy triangle bounded on water by the Leeds-Liverpool canal (east-west), the River Douglas and the Rufford Branch (north to join the Douglas at Tarleton), on road by the A59 (Liverpool-Preston helter-skelter), the A5209 (equally overheated Merseyside commuter road) and the B5246 (windy, misty Parbold to Rufford moor road), and by two main railway lines: the Liverpool - Preston and the Wigan - Southport lines. Industrial history past and present, farmers using hosepipes in celebratory style, seven locks in under four miles, views of famed Lancashire Hills (Ashurst, Parbold, Winter), a swing bridge and ancient real-ale pubs.....

    Friday, July 07, 2006
    Two quotes for the Seventh
    God visits all lost souls
    To survey the damage
    We noticed a bonfire
    Burning in his eyes

    He whispered,
    "It's the atrocities of your story"

    God visits all lost souls
    To survey the damage
    And holding his bleeding heart
    A tear comes to his eye

    He whispered,
    "It's the atrocities of History"

    Then he falls to the floor
    For there's many more tears on the sunrise
    And now we must eat those tears
    Now we must eat our fill
    Of the Atrocities

    - Antony and the Johnsons: The Atrocities

    An interfaith conference was held on the holy Isle of Iona. From this a joint Moslem-Christian communique resulted in the decision that national interfaith services of reconciliation would take place. One would be in Edinburgh's St Giles Cathedral and the other in Glasgow Mosque.

    But a problem arose with the Edinburgh event. The timing was going to clash with the Moslems' evening call to prayer. They would be unable to attend.

    It was then that Dr Bashir Maan, the spokesperson of Glasgow Mosque, remembered something from the Hadith. This is the oral tradition of Islam. Seemingly Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) had allowed visiting Christians to use his mosque for their worship. Might it be conceivable, he wondered, for us likewise to do something in this spirit?

    Scotland's Christian leaders responded warmly. They would even allow Moslem worship to be conducted in front of the altar at St Giles Cathedral as part of the service. So it came to pass that Christians watched on as Moslems prayed in their church. Our silence felt respectful to the point of inner participation.

    The following week, on 25 October 1991, Imam Tufail Hussain Shah addressed Christians at prayer in the community hall of the Glasgow Mosque. Referring to the previous week's event, he said, 'We joined that night, and again now in this Mosque, to worship the same God, God as was known to the early Jews as Yahweh. God as revealed in the Christian tradition through Jesus Christ. God who we Muslims know by the Arabic word, Allah... We share a common commitment to love, justice, charity, mercy, piety and peace. Building these qualities in our hearts perhaps matters more to God than cleverness in arguing about religion. I believe it is God, Allah, who has brought us together. Let us try to stay together and work for peace not only in the Gulf and Middle East, but throught this planet, this Universe of God.'

    Some years later I was telling this story whilst lecturing in Edinburgh University. The son of a Nigerian imam came up to me afterwards. 'You know,' he told me, 'we read all about that in our newspaper in Nigeria.' He explained that at the time Moslems and Christians were killing each other in his country. His father and his colleagues were so astonished to hear that Scottish Christians could talk with Moslems that they decided to initiate the same approach with the Christian leaders in their area. The killings did not entirely stop as a result, but they had greatly reduced.

    - Alastair McIntosh, quoted in Growing Hope - Daily Readings, today.
    Wednesday, July 05, 2006
    Competent to heal our own wounds

    In a week of remembering the Toxteth riots and last year's London bombings, a helpful piece of writing by Leeds man Paul Chatterton, reflecting on the question How to live when the war comes home, the London bombers being young men from his area (though, as he rightly says, they could have come from anywhere).

    Earlier in his article he details the pervasiveness of violence in our society - from our bombing of Iraq to deaths in police custody in the UK, the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and the absence of under 16-year olds in city centres due to curfew orders. Even shopping is violent, he reminds us: 'Almost every act of consumption has in some way become an act of violence against someone or something - through environmental destruction, use of scarce resources, worker exploitation and transport pollution'. Acknowledging our part in society's violence is the first step towards eradicating it.

    The point he makes in the last line of this extract is a rare and refreshingly positive observation: ordinary people have the means to build peaceful community. Chatterton's piece is one among a number of excellent articles in the current online sample issue of the journal City, which is prohibitively expensive to buy, but I've been downloading gratefully today.
    Tuesday, July 04, 2006
    The return of MyDeath

    An extract from Bill Drummond's write-up of his Greenbelt experience last year. He's back this August and this time he's bringing a tent.

    [Thanks Paul for unearthing this nugget. The mydeath.net site is out of order (in limbo?) at present but promises to return soon.]
    Monday, July 03, 2006
    All riot now
    Of course I thought they were great at the time, the Toxteth riots. I was young then and thought I was radical, giving thanks for an uprising from the streets against the forces of rotten law, the racist oppressors. What's to regret in the loss of a few buildings and the stock of a few shops by comparison with the majorly crucial point made by this (class?) action - that the black populace of Liverpool 8 would take Sus and all that went with it no more.

    I'm precisely 25 years older today and continue to kid myself that I'm radical, and I still think they were crucial, the Toxteth riots. That's not actually a radical opinion - even Michael Heseltine, in the title of his famous cabinet paper, declared that "It Took a Riot" to force the forces of law to re-evaluate their policing practices in Liverpool and other 1981 flashpoint cities.

    Today's anniversary is a good opportunity to take stock of how things have changed in the intervening years, and the most interesting local radio interview I heard was with a L8 community activist, then and now, who was keen to celebrate the achievements of ex-Liverpool police chief Norman Bettison who acknowledged institutionalised racism in the force and took steps to amend it on the streets of the city. The message from this interview was that things are much improved.

    It was noticeable that this same community activist did not once show any regret for the fearful and punishing events of July 1981. Clearly he too is of the opinion that "It Took a Riot". Today, he said, the main problem faced by black Liverpudlians is one which existed for decades prior to the riots and has hardly been acknowledged, and never addressed in the city - the institutionalised racism in Liverpool's employment market. If there were to be more riots today, or tomorrow, he said, then they wouldn't be focussed in L8 against the police, they'd be in the city's commercial centre against all those who keep our black citizens out of work.
    Sunday, July 02, 2006
    France all the way
    It's France for me all the way after that wonderful display. And the other reason to support them? It looks like their manager's a scouser:

    Saturday, July 01, 2006
    The tree which is no longer there

    This is the story of a tree which is no longer there. A Black Poplar, it was known as The Birley Tree because for well over a century it stood in the middle of a green space in the built-up area at the south edge of Manchester city centre. The land the Birley Tree stood on - Birley Fields - used to contain the high school, and this tree, the oldest in Hulme, was a landmark feature visible from major roads, which occupied a fond place in the memories of residents who recalled it standing at the school gates.

    The Birley Tree is no longer there because Hulme was designated for development, and Birley Fields was earmarked for the construction of a hotel. Thus the story of The Birley Tree is a story about regeneration.

    I have been on an old red bus today, touring Manchester as a guest of the UHC Collective who for the past three and a half years have been working in various artistic forms, 'on the network of power relations currently shaping our local environment, as Manchester swings ever more into regeneration overdrive.' They've been exhibiting their work under the banner Incursions In The Knowledge Capital, Knowledge Capital being the concept with which the City Council has taken to rebranding Manchester.

    So much of what I saw and heard on the old red bus seemed familiar from Liverpool - the massive scale of new developments ripping into old established communities, the immense power of the market to dictate the way we use city space (silencing protest, clearing beggars off the streets), the 'thin veneer of democracy' which hardly disguises the huge inequalities of power between the business class - sanctioned and fully supported by city councillors, and the majority, ordinary people of the city - disenfranchised, unrepresented.

    Sitting in the bus in the car park of a giant Asda Wal-Mart complex I heard that this monolithic intrusion - for which generations of people were cleared - was called Hulme High Street, that it was built for ease of access for out-of-town motorists travelling on the Princess Road, and that pedestrians have to access the place by means of a side security gate. Looking up the road I saw the spiral steel cables of the Hulme Arch Bridge shining in the morning sun and heard that this 'gateway' to the city cost Manchester's people £4million, twice the amount first quoted.

    As the bus chugged up the road I heard the story of the Birley Tree - the protesters' two applications for a Tree Preservation Order, twice refused on the grounds that it was in decline, diseased, and hollow; the consultant and fellow of the Arboricultural Association who declared the tree to be healthy, an ‘important specimen’ with at least another 25 years life. The petitions, the campaign, the strength of local feeling to keep the tree - as a symbol, perhaps, of another way of valuing the city.

    It all came to nothing, of course, because the power-brokers got their land. However, as often happens, the planned-for hotel investment fell through. The tree went, nothing was built in its place, and the Fields fell into neglect.

    Last week I took part in a discussion in which a group of thoughtful clergy mostly agreed that the symbols of our faith were losing their relevance to the people of today. But looking across the scrubby, fallow wreck of Birley Fields today it was pointed out to me that someone had created a memorial to the Birley Tree in the place it once stood. Made out of slender lengths of new wood, rising high from the debris of this once public space, there it is, a silent and poignant witness to this story of regeneration - a cross.