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

    Saturday, September 30, 2006
    Born not mad
    Paul blogged on his wedding day today. Some might call that dedication. Quite a few other Greenbelt bloggers were there, in Helpston, to celebrate the day with he and Emma.

    Later, at the reception each of us received a stone, with our name on, a reminder of the very creative way in which Paul proposed.

    When I said grace I felt I had to drop in a few words from John Clare, pauper poet of Helpston, whose pilgrimage I made today in the hour before the wedding: a look at the plaque on the wall of the house where Clare lived, a wander around the village memorial, a drink in The Exeter, where his body lay the evening before his burial, and a photo taken (thanks Martin) by his simple gravestone.

    Iain Sinclair reckons that Clare's wish was for his epitaph to read, 'HERE Rest the HOPES & Ashes of JOHN CLARE'. And notes that Helpston wouldn't have that. Instead the stone in a sunkissed corner of Helpston churchyard reads, A POET IS BORN NOT MADE. Though weather and lichen have combined to almost obliterate the final 'E'. Just one satisfying detail of a nicely satisfying day.

    [More in Pic of the month]
    Friday, September 29, 2006
    One year free -for you!
    If you Google this site for a search on LRB then you'll realise how much of an influence the London Review of Books has had on me since Jim kindly offered me a year's free gift subscription last Christmas. Most dramatically reading Eliot Weinburger's LRB articles led me to organise a public reading of What I Heard About Iraq back in March. Now my sub's up for renewal, and it will be renewed - giving me now the opportunity to pass on a gift subscription worth sixty quid. So here's an opportunity for you. First reader to email me expressing the desire for a year's free LRB, on me, will get it, no strings. It'd be my pleasure.
    Thursday, September 28, 2006
    Stolen Cadillac

    - Pere Ubu 2006. Listen here.
    Wednesday, September 27, 2006
    Wheelie good
    My Third Way article Reading the Everyday is now downloadable from Urblog. First time I've seen it. I like the pictures.
    Tuesday, September 26, 2006
    Remapping High Wycombe
    John and Cathy's Remapping High Wycombe is available now via Lulu. Including records of various drifts around the redeveloping town, a Grand Derive, a Nodules of Energy walk, a summer solstice derive, emails about secret tunnels and a fascinating Mytho-Historical map. Derives, they say, are 'purposeful drifts stalking moods, atmospheres, hidden histories and lost voices.' I'm guessing that before seeing this book, you may never have realised there was so much of all that in High Wycombe.
    Monday, September 25, 2006
    Over my head

    Over my head
    I hear rotors in the air
    Over my head
    I hear rotors in the air
    Over my head
    I hear rotors in the air
    There must be a crime somewhere

    O when I'm having breakfast
    I hear rotors in the air
    And when it's nearing lunchtime
    I hear rotors in the air
    And when it's time for dinner
    I hear rotors in the air
    There must be a crime somewhere

    Over my head
    I hear rotors in the air...

    O all the way to Anfield
    I hear rotors in the air
    And down to Dwerryhouse Field
    I hear rotors in the air
    I've been keeping my eyes peeled
    I hear rotors in the air
    There must be a crime somewhere

    Over my head
    I hear rotors in the air...

    Above the many mourners
    I hear rotors in the air
    And the watchers on street corners
    I hear rotors in the air
    The Echo hacks did warn us
    There'd be rotors in the air
    There must be a crime somewhere

    Over my head
    I hear rotors in the air...

    By shops with locked-down shutters
    I hear rotors in the air
    Under pigeon-frenzied gutters
    I hear rotors in the air
    With our vagrant Bill who mutters
    'I hear rotors in the air'
    There must be a crime somewhere

    Over my head
    I hear rotors in the air...

    And now it's nearly bed time
    I hear rotors in the air
    Still scanning us for gun crime
    I hear rotors in the air
    There's reason but there's no rhyme
    I hear rotors in the air
    There must be a crime somewhere

    Over my head
    I hear rotors in the air...
    Sunday, September 24, 2006
    An abnormal load
    There's been a police van parked outside the funeral directors' for the past couple of days. Keeping watch. And it'll stay there tonight. The pubs bordering the estate have been told to stay shut tomorrow. And the shops on The Strand, where this graffiti'd memorial to a nineteen year old shot dead last month complements the massive floral displays tied to every pillar along the road.
    At lunchtime when an allegedly lavish cortege will pass by here for a service conducted by my colleagues at St Teresa's, everything else will stop. And the police are on extra duties afterwards, which is when trouble is reportedly due to re-start.
    Most of the time people here exist in relative normality. With the ordinary tensions of a Monday morning post office queue. But when the teenage gangs take up firearms then we all have to bear abnormal loads, and somehow get through days like tomorrow. Thanks, arms traders. And those of us who let arms traders trade.
    Saturday, September 23, 2006
    Thick descriptions
    All this tenuous, half-formed stuff I've been writing about urban life on these pages, others have been doing with a lot more depth for many years. It's been good recently to meet some of these people and, through their acquaintance, step up the learning curve a bit more.

    This week Andrew Davey sent me an article from the good but pricey City journal, by Gareth Stanton, called Peckham Tales. It's an exercise in what social scientist Clifford Geertz calls 'thick description', looking at 'the meanings behind actions and their symbolic import in society or between communicators'. I never realised it before but I guess that's what I was trying to do in running workshops on wheelie bins.

    Stanton looks at Peckham life from all sorts of angles - how it's been represented on TV (Del Boy, Desmonds, and Damilola Taylor), its iconic buildings (The Pioneer Health Centre and Wil Alsop's Peckham Library), The Peckham Society and its archives, traditional butchers and the religious life of the area. It's the latter 'thick description' which chimed in with something else I've been reading since Thursday's National Estates Churches Network conference: Joe Hasler's excellent booklet, Mind Body and Estates: Outer Estate Ministry and Working Class Culture.

    Joe (who's been at this for thirty years) makes some valuable observations about the physicality of working-class culture, for instance the importance of 'doing things right' at funerals, how at ease working-class people are with the corpse, which 'has a place within a social context'. And Gareth Stanton observes that physicality is an important part of religious observance in Peckham:

    The walking from service to service, ‘traipsing’ [recalls Florence Pankhurst, born in 1917]. After morning service back home for lunch, then back for Sunday school. Then home for tea and back again for evening service:
    'At the end of the service we did not go home - oh no! The drunks came in from the pubs and the lights went out. The place was well equipped with a projector and screen; we also sang Sankey hymns. At the end of the service we had the journey home. Oh how my legs ached on Sundays with all that walking!’
    .. there is something in the physicality of these memories: the walking, the drunks belting out the Sankey hymns, the aching.

    I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do with these reflections with reference to this place. But when I collapse back home tomorrow after a ten-hour day of traipsing, maybe I'll take comfort that I'm not just knackered, I'm a little bit more inculturated too.
    Friday, September 22, 2006
    Leaving Liverpool takes a long, long time
    One of the good things about the Liverpool Biennial is that the organisers encourage the contributors to engage with the city, rather than allow a planeload of international artists to hit town with their own agendas (and already-prepared artworks) remaining disengaged from this place they're exhibiting in. Result - ace pieces of work like the two I enjoyed at FACT today, Kelly Mark's Liverpool A-Z (26 interviews with Liverpool residents about life here: great mix, great stories, great perceptiveness, and hugely enjoyable) and Matthew Buckingham's Obscure Moorings (an engrossing film about an old seaman who retires to a boarding house on the waterfront and spends his days wandering the Mersey banks and docks).

    Obscure Moorings is based on a Herman Melville tale (FACT tell us); the old seaman finds himself thrust into a world which has been transformed by industrialisation, economic change and a shift in world politics. Buckingham places the sailor in the new Liverpool docklands - 'an almost invisible area, yet one that perpetuates the city's centuries-old role in world trade'. It's a bit like a Patrick Keiller film in that respect, a slo-mo meditation on contemporary economic realities set among container stacks and cranes, the difference being the lack of commentary here: the old sailor is so taciturn that when he walks into a room he creates tense silences all around him.

    Obscure Moorings loops, imperceptively, so it's impossible to determine where the filmmaker begins and ends it. If it bothers you then you have to choose your own ending. Having watched it through twice I decided on the lengthy shot which Buckingham takes through the rear window of a train slowly leaving Lime Street. It made me think just how long those railway tunnels are which connect the centre of town to daylight. Usually that thought comes when waiting impatiently to disembark after a long day's journey, wanting to get home. Buckingham's beautifully-captured reverse angle made me think of it altogether differently: that leaving Liverpool takes a long, long time.
    Wednesday, September 20, 2006
    Hear Ubu
    Following-up yesterday's blog: Today The Wire began offering a free download of Stolen Cadillac, a track from the new Pere Ubu album Why I Hate Women. Noir - only begins to describe this work of claustophobic genius.
    Tuesday, September 19, 2006
    The Pennsylvania in Thomas's head

    The Wire's interview with David Thomas has got me dusting off my Pere Ubu albums again. And none more favourite than Pennsylvania, a brooding, bleeding gigantic road album. I've never been to Pennsylvania but I've been to the Pennsylvania in Thomas's head and that's an awesome place. As the lyrics, above, demonstrate.

    'Pennsylvania is the space between where you are and where you're going and the roads are no good and the speed limit is stupidly low,' says Thomas, elsewhere.

    The Wire's Phil Freeman says that Thomas's so-called "travelogue albums" 'aren't about the real America in the way, say, Sufjan Stevens's songs delve into the specifics of locale and history. Instead they're about the disjunction between the streets a man walks down and the streets he imagines in his head, whether that gap grows because of the fallibility of memory or years spent away, or some combination of the two':

    Monday, September 18, 2006
    Start spreading the news
    Sunday, September 17, 2006
    No secrets here
    Synchronicity! While Peter Murphy was emailing this to me this morning I was using a Lennon song sung by George to top and tail my sermon! (Do you want to know a secret? from Please Please Me / He sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him from Mark chapter 8).

    Peter is exhibiting two of his panel paintings, including this new George Harrison panel as part of the The Triumph of Stuckism show at The Hope St Gallery from Monday 9th October. It's organised by a Liverpool Stuckist whose name I cannot resist admiring: Naive John. It should be good. It's on at the same time as that rich and wondrous (and sometimes plain lame) show which is The Liverpool Biennial, which now I'm home (pretty much) till Christmas I'll have time to get into town to explore.

    Peter asked me if I'd read Steve Turner's The Gospel According to The Beatles. I haven't, but I did download Steve's Greenbelt talk on that subject. Aparrently George comes out of it very well. Time to open up that secret.
    Saturday, September 16, 2006
    A good place for idling and rioting
    Getting a bit ahead of myself planning next year's walk, but Greenbelt and last week's conference created a bit of a buzz about it and friendly folks have been offering help, support and best of all the possibility of their presence with me en-route along the M62.

    And to write-up the experience immediately afterwards I've been offered the use of Bill Drummond's artists residency, a tower in Cushendall, Antrim which is made available free to artists provided that whilst there they come up with a piece of artwork (site-specific, any media) which they will leave in the tower's ever-growing exhibition space.

    The Curfew Tower was allegedly built 'as a place of confinement for idlers and rioters'. Some would say I come into the first category. I'd be happy to conform to that image; but after two months on the road by then, my feet may be telling a different story.
    Friday, September 15, 2006
    Boy on Bicycle, Man in Boats
    I feel privileged to have had two travel writers share their excellent work with me recently, two very different pieces of writing from two very different sorts of men but both deeply fascinating and life-affirming in their own way.

    Nick Thorpe's Adrift in Caledonia; Boat-hitching for the Unenlightened describes his thrillingly ambitious journey - a watery hitch-hike around Scotland. Nick's descriptions of the people and places he encountered en-route are consistently entertaining and engrossing and what emerges is a warm-hearted portrayal of the boating people who hosted him on his odyssey. He maintains a sympathetic tone even with the oddest or least helpful characters, and empathises with his hosts and fellow-travellers of all shades. And of course this is no empty-hearted quest but a spiritual journey of sorts, refreshingly non-linear and inconclusive and full of joyful insights. No wonder this book is on the travel section shelves of pretty much any high street bookstore you'll walk into. A delight.

    My friend Jim's book, Boy on Bicycle, is unpublished (though I've told him I'd love to Lulu it for him). It's his edited version of the best of the journals he wrote whilst making some amazing cycle journeys around Britain as a teenager between 1952 and 1955. Jim covered some astonishingly long and tortuous routes, often riding through the night with no lights, through all sorts of weathers, driven by an urge to explore - and often off the main routes. "My ambitions stretched and I covered most of central England, Northern Scotland, and parts of northern and southern England," this Suffolk lad wrote in 1955. "The long lines of cats' eyes; the glare of droning night vehicles; the dossing scenes in shabby transport cafes; gaunt floodlit factories; the sight of driving rain in the beam of a headlight; these became the real pleasures of my life."

    The voice of the adult editor in his seventh decade makes some wise and humoured commentary on the sometimes shrill but ever-entertaining writing of his younger self. I really hope Jim does publish this because although it's in a totally different league to Nick's work it's equally delightful in its own terms, a real slice of 1950s life which would appeal to all sorts of readers:

    Thursday, September 14, 2006
    Off the edge

    My best holiday shot, I think: the end of Seaside Road, Aldbrough, where I've just lived for a week. All along this coast the North Sea continues to reclaim the land. It's a worry for clifftop residents. It's a risk for careless drivers.
    Wednesday, September 13, 2006
    Pleasures of the Far East
    One of the greatest pleasures of my tour of the Far East (of Yorkshire) was discovering St Patrick's Church, Patrington, and its hinterland, the long, low, flatlands emerging (just about) from the wide Humber and the vast, deceptively violent North Sea. The church itself could be a cathedral, for its beauty and its light. And it's no dead monument - the reredos with carvings of our great saints is quite modern. There's not much in any church that brings me to my knees in devotion these days. This did:

    I kneel at the altar rail
    of the Queen of Holderness
    Kneeling beneath great Saints of the North:
    Patrick, of course, Columba, Aidan, Hilda, Bede
    And Cuthbert holding a severed head;
    Kneeling in this illumined place:
    Full of Estuary light
    Spilling through ancient windows
    From wide blue Humber skies.
    I kneel at this still point
    Sensing the measured steal of the centuries
    In which Holderness moves
    Outwards from here,
    Out, along drainage channels
    Out, along straight shining roads
    To lonely Sunk Island
    And the shimmering flats of Stone Creek
    Where I will kneel again
    On a slither of land
    In air; in light.
    Saturday, September 02, 2006
    Books for the beach
    I will be holidaying by beaches - on previously unexplored south east Yorkshire shores and Lancashire's nuclear cockle coasts. And after that straight on to a little Dales village for a conference titled Cities of Culture: whose vision – which agenda? Perfect timing, post-Greenbelt, and the festival's influence is in my choice of reading / listening material which includes:

    Adrift in Caledonia; Boat-hitching for the Unenlightened by Nick Thorpe who kindly sent me a copy after hearing my talk and identifying me as a fellow-spirit;

    The Neophiliacs: Christopher Booker's masterful study of the revolution in English life in the fifties and sixties which has sat on my shelf for many, many years, but came back to life for me in Kester's lavish introduction to Booker's festival talk;

    Martin Wroe's The Sky's Window, a poem each morning to awaken the heart;

    and iPod files of the festival talks by Bill Drummond, Christopher Booker, Cole Moreton, Doug Gay, James Alison, John Davies, Kester Brewin, Michael Northcott, Nicola Slee, Norman Kember and Steve Turner.

    Add to that Shrinking Cities, a lengthy and fascinating compendium of urban studies, and Boy on Bicycle, my friend Jim's collection of the best of his journals describing his amazing cycle journeys around Britain as a teenager. A wealth of good writing.

    So no more blogs for a while; but likely to be writing about some of this stuff on my return...
    Friday, September 01, 2006
    Pic of the month
    Pic of the month ... it just had to be one of Greenbelt in the rain.