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

    Thursday, August 31, 2006
    More than just a dead tree
    Coincidentally, the publication of my blog on The Birley Tree in August's Coracle [download pdf] comes at the same time as the delivery of Shrinking Cities with its deeper analysis of the seismic changes to the urban structures of Manchester and Liverpool over recent years:

    "During the last decade, [Manchester] has tried to renew its derelict sites with a whole series of cultural institutions and events. Among these are: the Lowry Centre, opened in 2000; the Imperial War Museum North, designed by Daniel Libeskind; the bid to host the Olympic Games in 2000 and the holding of the Commonwealth Games in 2002. 'But the economic success of the city centre,' as it says on Manchester City Council's web site, 'stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding districts, whose inhabitants suffer from one of the highest concentrations of criminality, as well as bad health and poor housing.'

    Particularly hard-hit by change is the district of Hulme, near to the centre, which has been razed to the ground twice in thirty years. Its slums, built in the age of Queen Victoria, were demolished during the nineteen-sixties. The terraced houses were replaced by high-rise flats and a crescent 'la Bath'. Not long after the last of the new accommodation was occupied, however, in 1972, it began to fall into disrepair. In the empty blocks, a vigorous sub-culture soon grew up. Notwithstanding this, in 1992 the area was visited by a second wave of demolitions, in the shape of the 'Hulme City Challenge' programme."

    Reading Shrinking Cities' pages on Hulme made me realise how simple-minded my own article is; but the underlying reality remains true: generations of people ripped and torn apart by changing waves of fashion in urban design. But some of these people have reacted creatively: Hulme in the seventies and eighties was Manchester's new wave laboratory. Today the place is blessed by the presence of the Homes for Change housing cooperative, operating from a radically-designed building which holds the best of the area's modernist past and a communal present together. The story really is more interesting and more complex than merely one about a dead tree.
    Wednesday, August 30, 2006
    On the bill with Bill
    The Greenbelt Shop now has available cds and mp3 downloads of my Interview with Bill Drummond: here. And Martin has just sent me this picture of the occasion.

    Sydney Carter would love it

    Greenbelt brings surprises. Though at first I wanted to drink up and get out of there, in the end the Beer and Hymns takeover of the Organic Beer Tent was erm... inspirational. The singalong was led by a wonderfully authentic cockney landlord and the beer lubricated even the most reluctant vocalists. From being hunched on my seat as the singing began I ended up, like most others, standing on the table heartily joining in. Through all that remains of my life I'll never forget the riotous rendition of Lord of the Dance in Chas-and-Dave style and thinking that Sydney Carter would be looking down on this scene and loving it. Rachel's picture of the raucous occasion captures it very well.
    Tuesday, August 29, 2006
    Greenbelt threesome
    Post-Greenbelt, pre-hot tub and much-needed early night, three things:

    You can buy a download or cd of my talk Reading the Everyday here. If you want to.

    Among some very nice emails awaiting me was one from Gyan, thankful for my appreciation of Billy the Rabbit. I was telling a few people about it at the festival. Hope you've ordered your copy. The woman's talent is perhaps explained in her revelation that she's the child of Liverpool-born parents...

    I'm unwinding now to the new album by the venerable Lies Damned Lies, who provided my stand-out musical hour at this year's festival. After Virtue is so new it's not even on their website yet but I'm sure if you email them your request for a copy they'll oblige.
    Tuesday, August 22, 2006
    What a treat

    In the soundtrack of the week I am no longer in the sober place I was yesterday. An act of grace by the postman has brought me, all the way from Australia in just six days, a most wonderful package of music and art.

    The Australian singer-songwriter Gyan has taken some of the wise, witty, wonderful words of Michael Leunig and made songs of them. Gentle, reflective, finely-crafted songs on a cd called Billy The Rabbit.

    The worry I had about this project was that the music might have been a bit over-kooked; some of the lyrics would invite that. But it's not at all; the musical settings offer the space for the words to speak for themselves in all their delicate complexity.

    Added to all this, the cd comes in a package including a beautifully-bound hardback book full of Leunig's cartoons relating to the eighteen songs. What a treat. I'm tempted to copy it and spread it around liberally at Greenbelt. But I won't - instead I'll be telling everyone I see to get online and order a copy of their own: essential.

    [That's all from here till after Greenbelt. More next week.]
    Monday, August 21, 2006
    Ice Queen fridge magnets

    I've seen it all now. Diamanda Galas fridge magnets from www.arteto.com. Is this really all you can find to blog about today, you ask. Well, yes. I'm in Greenbelt-anticipation-distraction mode and I can't concentrate on anything for long: scanning maps of Cheltenham's one-way system and practicing my stage lines in front of the mirror are about the level of my current activity.

    Oh, and downloading files of some of The Ice Queen's scariest albums: Schrei-X and Plague Mass today, it's likely to be The Litanies Of Satan and The Divine Punishment tomorrow.

    Why I'm preparing for the year's most redemptive weekend by drowning my ears in the cries of the deadly diva of the dark side, I can't quite fathom. Something about purging, purifying, or perhaps just preparing myself to be rocked...
    Sunday, August 20, 2006
    Cadaverous Condition and other open-minded heavy metal wonders
    Acid Mothers Temple, Sangre Cavallum, Wolfmangler, Cadaverous Condition, Six Organs of Admittance, Comets On Fire and Sunn 0))). Google them here and you'll find most of them on my playlist (Google them in a few weeks time and you'll find all of them there). They are members of what The Guardian alleges to be the new rock underground, in an article by Julian Cope, who should know. He's been championing this sort of stuff for years on Head Heritage which remains a great starting point for launching into this netherworld of doom-merchants, gnostic meditators, free-fuzz sonic experimenters, or, as Cope puts it for his mainstream readers, 'open-minded heavy metallers'. It's a wonderful world.
    Saturday, August 19, 2006
    Approaching generosity
    I ought to take stock of how Generous I'm being at present, as I'll probably have to account for this over Greenbelt weekend.

    Things I started well at but now am failing at:

    Turning off the tap when brushing my teeth - I just can't overcome the instinct that there's something therapeutic in the sound of running water first thing in the morning... and something wierdly unsettling about unaccompanied brushing...

    Stopping taking carrier bags from shops - I do ok at refusing bags at bookshops and record shops (two of only three kinds of stores I ever shop in), but the big use is at supermarkets where I'm still failing miserably to remember to bring any other bags with me and come away laden with yet more wasteful plastic...

    Slowing down, calming down - sticking to the speed limit - sorry, officer, it's just that if everyone else does 40 down this dual carriageway where I live, and undertaking is a given rather than an exception, I find myself just slotting in...

    Posting my packaging back - great idea this, and fun, but in the end it got too much like hard work...

    Things I'm doing ok at, thanks:

    Shopping small - looking for local suppliers instead of always using online multinationals - it was easy to switch online booksellers once I discovered that News From Nowhere's website offered all that Amazon does - plus the bonus of the option to collect the order from the shop, from a friendly face, the human touch. I order so many books online - they know me now.

    Getting rid of some of my books. This was a very good tip: Green Metropolis, through whom I have sold four books in the past two months - Empire by Michael Hardt, The Satanic Verses, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and a spare copy of (the indispensable) Generation to Generation by Edwin H. Friedman. And this has provided me with the money to order Shrinking Cities Vol.1 which has been on my wish-list for a very long time.

    Putting a save-a-flush device in my cistern - well, this didn't take long. Only had to do it once. And I'm hoping that my companions-in-generosity will accept that the water I'm saving by flushing modestly will more than cover the ongoing excesses of my toothbrush fetish.

    The thing I need to take a serious look at:

    Am I taking the Generous project seriously enough? I tend to be a little stand-offish about the whole thing, and that's because I'm mentally dismissing these tiny middle-class lifestyle changing acts as mere window-dressing. Putting a water-saving device in the cistern??? A real act of generosity would be putting a homeless person in the spare room. Or putting a hammer to a Trident submarine. But in moments of blinding honesty I admit I'm nowhere near ready for that. Perhaps what I learn through taking these small steps might just open the way...
    Friday, August 18, 2006
    Over Booth Wood
    I woke today deciding that I was going to do some off-motorway exploration about 45 miles away; why 45 miles I don't know. Too much Bill Drummond in my head, perhaps. A grey, rainy and - on the hills - misty day suggested the destination: Moss Moor, the highest point of the M62, the highest point of any UK motorway, a wild place sculpted by extreme weather.

    I'd planned to walk the bridge which carries the Pennine Way over the motorway and which marks the Yorkshire - Lancashire boundary. But the fog was thick on top of Windy Hill, and the traffic heavy with vehicles pulling off the M62 to avoid a tailback caused by an accident above Scammonden. Consequently I twice overshot the parking place to set me on that walk, so decided in the end to leave that for another day. Instead, an expedition under, over and around Booth Wood reservoir and Scammonden Water, two of the area's many artificial lakes supplying water to the villages and conurbations of Pennine Yorkshire.

    Scammonden Water was drained lower than I'd expected, for it was certainly wet up there today. But though it is everywhere, the water seems like the secondary flow in this isolated area. The flow which dominates the sights and sounds of these high moors is that of the motorway. I got enjoyably soaked wading through wet high grasses and along muddy tracks to get some pictures of the scene.

    Above: an isolated farm in the lee of the motorway, washed with wind, rain and - above all - the constant sound of thundering vehicles. This farmhouse stands at the easterly point where the two carriageways rejoin. The Motorway Archive reports that this moorland stretch of the M62 'was built on geologically creeping side long ground and each embankment had to be anchored and benched into the underlying sandstone base. This called for separation of the carriageways over three-quarters of a mile which fortuitously enabled Wildes farm and buildings to be retained together with several acres of rough grazing. Access tunnels were provided under each carriageway for maintenance of the Water Authority catchwater, which also provided access to the farm.'

    This breaks the myth about a curmudgeonly Yorkshireman refusing to give up his land; how many times I have driven that stretch thus deceived. The hoarding by the farmhouse advertises Supply Chain Movement Solutions - an inducement to encourage even more vehicles onto this stretch of road and add to the noise which pollutes the lives of the Wildes and their neighbours.

    Above: eastbound queues pass under Scammonden Bridge; and left, the easterly view from that bridge (some time before the queues began).

    Walking this area brings home a sense of scale - the vastness of the natural features, and the enormity of the human constructions which have been expertly engineered to enable such traffic to make its way through otherwise inhospitable, at times impassable, land. The CBRD's album of Old Motorway Photos records some of these achievements: Scammonden Dam and Bridge, Windy Hill Viaduct, the Pennine Way overbridge, and those famous split carriageways, all so astonishing when encountered at ground level.
    Wednesday, August 16, 2006
    Musical first awakenings
    Doing some background reading and thinking on The 17 today, it seems that Bill's rationale for this project (creating music the like of which has never been heard before - and will not be again) is tied in with an ache to recreate that special moment when a piece of music first awoke something profound in him.

    I guess we've all had that experience, though just now I'm struggling to bring my personal musical epiphany to the surface. U2 at the Royal Court in October 1981 was a true awakening for me, a realisation that songs of the spirit could be sung with the energy and drive of punk, an embracing of that energy. But I'm sure there had been earlier awakenings than that. I'm probably hiding them for shame as they may well have come through the medium of Gary Glitter, Sweet or Slade (currently unfashionable but for a 10-year-old in 1972, very powerful).

    Bill's method of trying to rekindle that first flame of musical passion involves clearing away all semblance of memory or record of existing musics and starting all over again. That's an idea also behind another of his projects, No Music Day (which I've blogged about before), November the 21st, on which no hymns will be sung, no records played, no concerts held and no music shops open, a day in which 'you will not take part in any sort of music whatsoever', and - here's the point - 'Then you will decide what you want from music.'

    The questions these projects raise are interesting; the methods are pretty fundamentalist - even puritanical - it'll be interesting to see how the audience at our music festival next weekend, engage with it all.
    Tuesday, August 15, 2006
    Instant gratification in search of a numinous now
    Martin has just published The Sky's Window. It will be good. Martin is a man whose judgement I trust, even when he's talking about himself. So I believe what he says about it in his sales pitch (which gives me a nice little thrill of anticipation):

    The Sky's Window is the latest collection of readings from the London-based writer Martin Wroe. These 'lines and lyrics in search of a numinous now' offer a fresh take on the road of life, spotting the mysterious in the mundane, the sacramental in the apparently ordinary. From births to weddings, first love to last loss, some were commissioned for public reading, others are designed for quiet reflection. All try to offer a sideways glance, a fleeting glimpse, of the unseen love behind all things. They look at the ordinary 'with a hunch that it contains more than itself', with the hope that a prayer can become a poem and a poem can be read like prayer.

    Meg designed the lovely cover and Martin published the book via Lulu, which more and more people are doing these days. Like blogging, why wait around for publishers to get your work out there when you can do it yourself online. Just to spread the word a bit more about this publishing revolution Martin wrote about the Lulu process for the Sunday Times last week, with the typically witty title, Publish and get instant gratification with the iTunes of literature.
    Monday, August 14, 2006
    Everything's tragic if it's all that you know
    Though I tend to avoid this, for reasons of confidentiality and conviviality, sometimes some shapes and shades of parish life find their way into this blog. And today has been one of those days when I've found myself deeply moved by encounters with two families: one young woman, told by everyone that because of her disability she would never be a mother, whose one-year-old daughter and two-year-old son I shall baptise next month, another couple facing the loss of their baby boy with dignity and gentle spirit. And bringing his beautiful twin to me for his initiation rite.

    I'm moved not out of compassion - that would be patronising; not out of empathy - for unlike these precious people I have no experience of the void. I'm moved because these people - not churchgoers, just ordinary people working through extraordinary situations with fragility and mettle - are teaching me what it means to be more fully human. It is these people who help me grow.

    So it is a day also to replay one of the most human albums in my collection, Julian Cope's 20 Mothers, a life-affirming collection of often deeply personal songs, including the opener Wheelbarrow Man, a stomp celebrating the drude's first conversation for five years with his estranged brother, and Senile Get, a harrowing description of the last days of his alzheimer-aggressive grandmother-in-law. And one of the most uplifting songs I've ever heard, Highway to the Sun, which honours the memory of Jill Phipps, 'the Veal Martyr' in a tune which perfectly merges gentle lovingkindness and raging defiance... a song of growing-up emotions:

    We can race our race alone
    But I feel like nature's son
    Natural magic
    Spilling out, spilling out all those cosmic rays
    How I love my latest song
    'cos it tells me to go on
    Everything's tragic
    If it's all, if it's all that you know
    Sunday, August 13, 2006
    I could swear
    "Officer, can you tell me - if somebody phoned up the arms fair and said, 'there's a bomb in the building', would it technically be a hoax call?"

    I've been reading Mark Thomas's book As used on the famous Nelson Mandela (the title an actual proud boast from a small arms catalogue) and though he does it with biting satire and at times breathtaking gall, it does leave you feeling deeply frustrated and sullied - which is probably how any reflection on the arms trade should leave you feeling. Now I'm onto his DVD (Trailer :: DVD info) and that's even more effective.

    This year Greenbelt elevate Norman Kember from his usual position on the festival fringe (see here for evidence) to headline speaker. Understandably, given his recent profile, and justly given his peacemaking work over many years. Shame it took his near-assassination for anyone to take any notice. It strikes me that Mark Thomas would be an equally impressive GB speaker on the arms trade. It also shakes me that Greenbelt (self sadly included) might think twice about asking him. Why? Merely because of his generous use of Anglo-Saxon language (ie, he swears a lot). Or as a grown-up event these days perhaps by now we are over that. Considering what it is he's swearing about...

    (POSTSCRIPT: Since writing this I've learned that GB have invited MT to the festival several times, and that other commitments have kept him away so far ... but maybe next year...)
    Saturday, August 12, 2006
    Connection on the pebbles

    It doesn't get much better than this: Iain Sinclair describing the view from his St Leonards apartment, as an introduction to a review of Andrew Kötting's Deadad. These two artist-travellers share a great deal in common. Including their connection with the pebbled beaches of the East Sussex resorts. Sinclair sums up Kötting's extreme / intimate / exaggerated English approach to filmmaking just perfectly when he writes, 'Kötting's art is physical, manic and remorseless: seaside-postcard Herzog.' It's worth subscribing to the LRB for this alone.
    Friday, August 11, 2006
    Those Common Prayers in full
    1: The purple wheelie bin

    2: The bus stop

    3: The mobile phone mast

    4: The traffic light

    5: The shopping trolley
    Thursday, August 10, 2006
    Anticipating Alison

    This kind of thing is why I'm getting very excited about hearing James Alison speaking at Greenbelt. This extract from Faith Beyond Resentment also gives me the framework for this week's sermon ... and a whole lot else besides.
    Wednesday, August 09, 2006
    Trying to be a better human being
    If I was a better human being then I'd be far more involved in the activities of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Like other shrivelled, self-possessed, so-called citizens I fail to be roused to action against the UK government's sponsorship of the worldwide weapons industry: even when as a CAAT supporter and reader of their publications I regularly see the evidence before my very eyes.

    The trouble is, to a SSPSCC like me a campaign to close down a government department doesn't seem the most thrilling ride to hitch myself on. I did manage to write to ol' Bob Wareing asking if he'd sign Charles Kennedy's Early Day Motion to shut down the Defence Export Services Organisation, and to his credit he did. The EDM is:

    That this House notes that the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) is the unit of the UK Ministry of Defence which helps UK companies sell their military equipment and services overseas; further notes that through DESO, the UK taxpayer subsidises the export of arms into areas of conflict and to governments that abuse human rights; further notes that the trade in military equipment damages economic development at global, regional and local economic levels; and calls on the Government to close the DESO, not to transfer its functions elsewhere in the public sector nor to allocate public funds to enable them to be undertaken in the private sector.

    Each issue of CAAT News details more of DESO's bloody work - most recently their involvement as key organisers of Farnborough International 2006, which is essentially an arms fair under cover of an air show, and where, as Israeli bombs were raining down on Lebanon, BAE Systems were showcasing their latest Unmanned Ariel Vehicles whose 'lethal-payloads' were first used in Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

    Mark Thomas, who has just published a book detailing his adventures in the arms trade, asserts that the UK government (ie, the taxpayer) subsidises each job in arms exports by £13,000 per year.

    What do you do with information like that? Well, he's taking himself off on an 80-plus date tour around the country to share it out a bit. I think he has it about right:
    Tuesday, August 08, 2006
    Greenbelt beckons
    Managed to complete the preparation for my Greenbelt talk today. A piecing-together of tried, tested material and new stuff. I'm also booked as a guest on Last Orders (presumably to exploit the comedic value in my concept of a walk along the M62), to interview Bill Drummond about The 17 (presumably because they think it's best a non-musician talks to him about his non-music music project), and on a panel helping to launch CAP's Just Church programme (which has the potential to really energise people in local churches for involvement in justice and peace issues) .

    Should make for a fascinating weekend, with plenty of time to sit at the feet of James Alison and get to the front for Maria McKee (for old times sake) and Lleuwen Steffan (for Welsh times sake). The biggest challenge will be in getting used to the concept of living damp and horizontally again - camping, after five years in a comfortable B&B.
    Monday, August 07, 2006
    Common Prayers #1: the purple wheelie bin
    We give thanks for the purple wheelie bin
    Receptacle of all our rubbish.

    - my first radio thought for the day this week. It created general hilarity in the studio, which I consider a result. The guy there to review the papers following on the 7.50 slot, having listened to my 100-second blessing-of-the-bins, coined the phrase 'papal purple'... brilliant!
    Sunday, August 06, 2006
    17 @ GB06
    The Greenbelt website hasn't caught up with the alteration yet, but Bill Drummond's site is telling us that he's decided now to perform The Seventeen over August Bank Holiday weekend: seems there were second thoughts over Prepare to Die. Perhaps because mydeath.net is still down.

    Anyway, as I mentioned last week, The Seventeen looks like a lot of fun and though I thought that there wouldn't have been any harm in exploring themes of death and dying at a Christian event, instead exploring how to make music that's never been made before is probably a lot more fitting for an arts festival.

    The one thing that neither website has mentioned - and I think I'm safe to say as I've signed the contract - is that Bill and I are due to have a conversation with an audience at Greenbelt ... which is one reason (my own talk sessions being the others) why I really ought to get doing some preparation this week for a rapidly-approaching (and as-ever exciting) event.
    Saturday, August 05, 2006
    Walking distance

    It must be four years at least. Probably five. So they've lasted well, the shoes I reluctantly threw away, only after their replacements arrived by parcel at the odd time of 6.40 on a Saturday teatime. I've been walking around rainy streets with a hole in one for the past week, in anticipation.

    You see, I may be a natural when it comes to purchasing publications and digital music, and I may be a relentless promoter of walking, but I very rarely venture into shoe shops. Well, why bother when the ones you're wearing are perfectly comfortable. I guess I am a heel wrap man, for their replacements were a straight swop.

    So tonight I am bidding farewell to those soft-shoe companions who have been on me pretty much every day for perhaps 1,800 days down roads, up hills, in sandhills, pacing plush galleries, sticking to gig-room floors, kicking the back of the seat in front at footy games, pressing the car pedals over many thousand miles. I left them at home only when work commitments made me feel I ought to put my 'decent' ones on instead, but I delivered myself to most people's doorsteps in these.

    There's a good Steven Wright quote on the box of my new Hawkshead ones, which I take as direct guidance for the next five years: Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.
    Friday, August 04, 2006
    Currently listening to...

    Music to rewrite the Shopping Trolley Trail to. That Parish Walk got me into trouble with one or two locals who understandably thought I'd emphasised the negative in it. I had - out of anger and in protest at the way they and their neighbours had been treated by the city planners. Rewriting it today for Nerve I included their perspectives; but I'd hope the anger still lingers (because two years on, the dereliction does).

    The sounds of scandalised urbanism - Barry Adamson's cinematic Moss Side Story and the newly-purchased sound barrage of Metalux and John Wiese - were ideal backing to my keyboard revisionism today.
    Wednesday, August 02, 2006
    Tuesday, August 01, 2006
    Born in a workhouse

    Quite an awesome discovery whilst trawling the web for local info tonight: I never knew this before, but I was born in a former workhouse. Walton-on-the-Hill workhouse, administered by the West Derby Poor Law Union, was constructed to accommodate 1,000 inmates, and on its opening in March 1864, the main building was already nearly full; a report of the day said that 'it is probable that in course of time the accommodation will not be too much for the numerous poor chargeable to the rates of the West Derby Union.'

    The report goes on to say that the Walton Workhouse 'gradually expanded and by 1930 could hold up to 2,500'. It's likely that the switch from workhouse to sick-house came with the genesis of the National Health Service in 1948. I'm just struck by the proximity - in years - between that and my birth there. By June 1962 it had become Walton Hospital and like most babies of North Liverpool of the time that was where I screamed my way into the world.

    Just 14 years ... and what had the city done with its destitute people in that time?

    I'm also struck by the proximity of other workhouses to where I was then, and am now: the West Derby Poor Law Union ran workhouses/hospitals at Mill Road, Walton-on-the-Hill, Belmont Road, Fazakerley, Alder Hey and Waterloo.

    So many institutions in a relatively small area - so many poor and insane at a time of the city's alleged flowering.

    And I'm struck by the proximity to another aspect of my family history: the Union 's Waterloo operation was Seafield House, a former convent converted to provide accommodation for 'mental defectives', mainly children. A nursing home in 1990, Seafield House was the place where my nan ended her days in the terrible confusion of age and illness.

    Was the madness in the walls of that sombre place?

    I'm not sure what all this means, except to reinforce the truth that the poor are always very much with you, a truth ingrained in the very architecture of public space and family histories in a city like ours.

    [Based on material compiled by Peter Higginbotham in his informative website www.workhouses.org.uk]