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

    Saturday, December 30, 2006
    More ordinariness in 2007
    It somehow eluded me till Thursday when I was at the home of some Greenbelt friends, that my thoughts on the theme Heaven in Ordinary have been made more public than I'd realised. Nice. That great pic by Antonia Rolls was the inspiration. The GB website also mentions the Regional Angels Day for Leeds and the North on 10 March 2007, at which I'm booked to speak, subject to Everton not getting to the sixth round of the FA Cup – so don't count on my being there...
    Friday, December 29, 2006
    Wedding on J24 / There is a Light that Never Goes Out
    A real transpennine occasion yesterday, Paul and Tash cementing their Liverpool-Halifax connection by marriage in a hotel just off M62 J24. The motorway is up there in the mists somewhere. The party featured a fine selection of great northern musics: Kaiser Chiefs, Happy Mondays, The La's. I spent an hour in the hotel room reading Simon Armitage's masterful meditation on modern life on the wild Yorks-Lancs border, All Points North. And in this pic Paul's completing the North-West cultural corridor references by doing a Morrissey.
    Monday, December 25, 2006
    If Jesus was born today
    If Jesus was born today...
    Sunday, December 24, 2006
    My Christmas letter, for those who've not seen it
    Happy Christmas!

    Last year my epistle used satire to spice it up a bit. In other words not everything in it was true. It misled some readers. So just to clarify: I didn't actually get married in 2005, nor did I pose naked on Crosby beach with the Antony Gormley statues. Not that I wasn't tempted. However it is entirely true that in 2006 I appeared on Channel Four's Wife Swap and was spotted wearing a braided wig in a Shropshire country mansion [see notes below, if you're still interested in any of this nonsense]. This year I shall attempt, just for once, to get real.

    This life [as a clergyperson] can be crippling: always in the public eye, constantly dealing with people projecting their hopes / anxieties / hang-ups / expectations on you, forever returning home exhausted to find more messages on the answerphone to deal with there and then. People complaining you're never here. Actually, you're always here. It's exhausting. That's why you have to try to get away as often as you can. And though you may get away physically, you find it harder to get away in your head. But then again this life can be very creative: you can make time to engage in your particular concerns or interests, you get excellent opportunities to help people shape their lives - working creatively and at depth with families around funerals, weddings, baptisms, giving young people the space to ask questions and explore. The collar gets you into all sorts of fascinating places and conversations and the variety of those encounters - even within the space of one day - can be staggering. Many people, for most of the time, like to have you around. Bit like being a plumber, maybe. That's pretty special.
    You do live a lie of course. People think you're some sort of superhuman (or subhuman) constantly oozing niceness, tolerance and grace. That's absurd. You know the truth is far darker and that on your way out of the sanctuary after another encounter with someone with a dose of bad religion, those words you're muttering under your breath are closer to the vocabulary of Wayne Rooney than Francis of Assisi. People think you spend your leisure time reading weighty commentaries on the Book of Ezekiel when in fact you're burying your head in your whisky-stained hands listening to radio commentaries on Everton's latest let-down. Someone reading my website emailed me this year amazed that a vicar could like Julian Cope and PJ Harvey. Like them? They define me, get your head round that, was the gist of my reply, pretty shaken by their presumptions.
    Sometimes you want to give up - when another one of 'the faithful' tells you, 'I know I shouldn't really be saying this, but those Muslims....' and you realise once again that you've allowed yourself to be licensed to an organisation defined by crippling conservatism and bigotry of the worst order (because it masquerades as respectability). Sometimes you want to run - when you're holding the dead baby, your heart pounding and head empty, and the parents are staring at you waiting for a word of comfort. Sometimes you want to laugh - when in the old folks home your communion service is punctuated by an unhinged woman shouting 'HOUSE!' at every pause. And sometimes you want to cry with joy - when, in talking one-to-one, that same woman in a moment of clarity tells you something about her life that reveals to you the fullness of her humanity and the depth of her maturity and you realise once again how complex, mad and wonderful are these human stories you've opted to weave yourself into.
    My great joy this year was to present some talks and workshops, prompted by Radio Merseyside and Greenbelt, on ideas around the value of reading the everyday, of finding heaven in the ordinary. They've been really well recieved, encouraging me that I may be onto something. And that after two and a half years adjusting I may now be settled enough in my work to be starting to get creative with the mess and miraculous which is life in Norris Green.

    1. Vinny and Nancy, of our parish, were on Wife Swap and they did a bit of filming in our church.
    2. Our October parish weekend was at Cloverley Hall, Shropshire, and in an evening cabaret slot I portrayed Cinderella.


    Mon, Jan 2 - circuit of the Tilberthwaite Fells
    Fri, Jan 27 - adventures in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire
    Sat, April 8 - Mis-Guide launch, a derive around Horseguards Parade, London
    Sat, Nov 25 - Hightown to the Pier Head, the Gormley Statues and Dock Road walls pilgrimage
    Fri, Feb 24 - Julian Cope, Manchester Academy: 'A writer of some subtance... a self-aware rock-and-roll cartoon'
    Fri, May 12 - Handsome Family , Birkenhead Pacific Road. With The Burning Leaves, a really fine young duo.
    Wed, March 15 - Gervaise Phynn, St George's Hall: education for the children, hilarity compulsory.
    Sun, Nov 5 - Doreen Massey, FACT: geography for the people, and debunking globalisation's myths.
    Thurs, April 27 - Billy Bragg, in the Far East Restuarant, before his Liverpool gig. Exchanged jokes about overeating.
    Mon, Aug 28 - Bill Drummond, in a tent at Cheltenham Racecourse - I interviewed him on stage about The 17.
    Mon, March 20 - organised a reading of Eliot Weinburger's What I heard about Iraq, on the third anniversary of the invasion
    Sat, April 29 - wrote an open letter to local people at Local Election time, discouraging the BNP vote
    May 22 - 26 - co-led a week on Iona for folks involved in working with socially excluded groups
    Sat, June 24 - Picnic between M6 carriageways, Shap
    Fri, July 28 - Manchester Ship Canal Cruise
    Tue, Feb 7 - Dafydd Owen, Bangor Cathedral
    Mon, March 6 - Peter Firth, St Luke's Crosby
    Wed, April 26 - Lancel Ledward, Tarporley Chapel
    Roger McGough's autobiography, Said and Done
    Nick Thorpe's boat-hitching gem, Adrift in Caledonia
    Shrinking Cities Project: Manchester/Liverpool report
    Lou Rhodes: Beloved One, Current 93: Black Ships Ate the Sky, Gravenhurst: Fires in Distant Buildings, V/A: Folk, my 06 compilation - ask, I'll burn one for you today.
    January 23 - 27 - Radio Merseyside Thoughts for the Day series on the Stars of Norris Green.
    Sun, April 16 - I rewrote the set-list of The Manchester Passion using only songs by The Fall.
    August 7 - 11 - Radio Merseyside Thoughts for the Day series of Common Prayers including the now-celebrated We give thanks for the Purple Wheelie Bin...
    Mon, Sep 25 - I rewrote the spiritual Over My Head to describe 24-hour police helicopter activity around a local gangland funeral.
    Sept - Nov - To walk the M62. An idea well received so far by artists, geographers, industrial chaplains, vicars, playwrights, and all sorts of others each preparing to walk me around 'their place' on a pilgrimage from Hull back to Liverpool. Plans well in hand. Join me for a day or two...?
    Friday, December 22, 2006
    Mapping 2007
    As Christmas has effectively already been celebrated here, I've been looking forward to the New Year:

    A. By ordering a bumper treat from Boomkat, of Comets on Fire, Starless & Bible Black and Burial;
    B. By selecting and publishing the songs I'd like played at my funeral;
    C. And by spending a long time printing off the very excellent Motorway Map, inspired by Harry Beck's London Underground map, totally impractical but wonderfully engrossing, especially, of course, this segment:

    [Thanks Dave for C.]
    Thursday, December 21, 2006
    Tagged out
    Five things about me you probably don't know.

    1. After a wearying day at work the last thing I want to discover is that two folks have decided to tag me; feels like the online equivalent of coming home to more phone messages;
    2. I have an intrinsic distrust of anything which has originated inside the head of a Californian lifestyle coach;
    3. I get a lot more honest down to earth and useful wisdom from Edna and Elsie (old mad women of our parish) than I'll ever get from anyone's 'Innovative Whack Pack';
    4. I'm very, very tired; and I don't like imposing myself digitally on people;
    5. So I'm not tagging you. Unless you really want me to.
    Wednesday, December 20, 2006
    Such earthy glory
    Last night Norma Waterson wasn't quite the stage presence she usually is. Not because she'd lost any of her massive style or substance but whereas usually there are three others with her onstage, each equally brilliant, on the Frost and Fire tour there are eleven others, yes, each equally brilliant too.

    But Norma - excelling as ever on the vocals and hand jive - also provided a series of pithy intros to the tremendous mix of songs, folk dance, brass and mummery offered by members of Waterson:Carthy and The Devil's Interval plus assorted others. And in that role she offered one of the evening's memorable messages, in explaining the rationale for the event as being a celebration of 'a time when Pagan rite and Christian rhyme lived side by side'.

    Of course, in the hands of excellent craftspeople, such a time can be revived for real today. The great thing about Frost and Fire, and the accompanying album Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man, is that with this project these great artists kick aside all those wearying cliches about the commercialisation of the season, and instead just celebrate. Waterson:Carthy and friends celebrate all that our rich folk tradition has to offer in such a full-on way that they create fresh and fulsome moments in time where Pagan rite and Christian rhyme truly complement each other once again. It's a rebirth. It's incarnational. It's inspirational.

    The joyful Newtown gig did Christmas for me, roll on the new year now. And those great hymns they fill with such earthy glory - I want them at my funeral.
    Monday, December 18, 2006
    Spooky sounds of the A666
    Great discovery: a dub delight, Paul Rooney's Lucy Over Lancashire, on SueMi Records who explain the strangeness thus:

    The record comprises a single voice monologue above and amidst music influenced by dub reggae and Lancastrian post-punk. The voice on the piece is that of Lucy, a 'sprite of the air', an airborne spirit, who is possessing the grooves of the record itself, and is damned to endlessly repeat stories about Lancashire she has been told by the evil and shadowy figure of 'Alan'. She cheerfully relates, partly in Lancashire dialect, a twisted tale about the pivotal role that the English county of Lancashire has in the plans of Satan, ranging from the Pendle witches and the 'dark Satanic mills' of the Industrial Revolution, right up to the bile of the Red Rose Radio phone in shows of Allan Beswick (who also appears on the record). Other Lancashire linked characters mentioned within the work, with names changed or slightly distorted, include Lee Scratch Perry, Marx and Engels, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, The Fall - particularly the debt that the band owes to dark Lancashire folklore - and the Radio Lancashire On the Wire programme itself, whose longstanding commitment to dub reggae provided one of the inspirations for the work, and on which the piece was first broadcast on 18th November 2006.

    It's out on 12" red vinyl, can be downloaded from the BBC Radio Lancashire On the Wire site (it's 1:27:40 into the show). And if I get the chance between cremations in this funeral-heavy season I'll be taking a trip down to Rochdale's Touchstones arts centre to listen to it in situ as part of the gallery's Art in Communication project. It's silly and lovely, it's sixteen minutes long and it's an absolute scream.

    [Lucifer Over Lancashire is of course, a song by The Fall. 'Alan', I suspect, has been listening to a lot of Fall.]
    Sunday, December 17, 2006
    On Worth
    For the lost women of Ipswich (and all of us lost ones): On Worth.
    Saturday, December 16, 2006
    Hand Washing Technique - Government Guidelines
    i.m. Dr David Kelly

    1. Palm to palm.
    2. Right palm over left dorsum and left palm over right dorsum.
    3. Palm to palm fingers interlaced.
    4. Backs of fingers to opposing palms with fingers interlocked.
    5. Rotational rubbing of right thumb clasped in left palm and vice versa.
    6. Rotational rubbing, backwards and forwards with clasped fingers of right hand left palm and vice versa.

    - Simon Armitage: from Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid.

    This poem seems particularly pertinent in the week the government forced the decision to end the Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations of corruption around the sale of military equipment by BAE Systems to Saudi Arabia. Another instance in a long line of Government arms trade corruption. Good on CAAT and The Corner House who are considering a legal action against the Attorney General.
    Friday, December 15, 2006
    A certain Mr Lennon
    In 1962-63, there was another major attempt to finally put Liverpool on the map. A certain Mr Lennon from Liverpool was waxing lyrically about his city. His words were very descriptive like 'the transient, the complex nature, the irregular and unpredictable, the turbulence which is impossible to stabilise because it comes and goes in the opposite direction to the normal.'
    This could have been John Lennon talking about music or Scousers in general. But it wasn't. It was a Mr G. W. Lennon explaining to the Royal Meteorological Society how difficult it was to place Liverpool on a weather map due to the unique nature of its tidal storms and swells.

    - another gem unearthed by Steve Higginson and Tony Wailey in Edgy Cities.
    Thursday, December 14, 2006
    507 times removed from reality
    Current Government subsidy on loss-making but highly-valued Post Offices: £150,000,000;
    Government spending commitment to the proposed worthless, immoral and largely unwanted Trident weapons system: £76,000,000,000.
    Wednesday, December 13, 2006
    Croxteth's pioneering people
    Yesterday's blog got some interesting responses (I know, I know, I really must get my comments fixed). Particularly from Adrian who adds to the definition of 'edgy' places those which are on borders. Border town people can be difficult to organise. Partly because (in a rural area) they run not on industrial time or commuter time but on 'dairy time', which may be part of the reason for the rural distrust of things urban.

    These stimulating thoughts add something to my thinking about this place, which is miles from the Mersey and is actually border country - doubly so. For, standing on the edge of the city boundaries, our parish straddles two estates and the boundary between Croxteth and Norris Green actually severs the church building itself.

    Higginson and Wailey are mostly concerned with ports, so to them the Mersey / Irish Sea are the waterways which most define Liverpool. That's indisputable, but Adrian's email (I know, I know, I really must get my comments fixed) talks about the unsettling effects of inland rivers on those who live nearby them - he observes that the people of Bangor on Dee have been 'very river affected for the last week or so (with the road to Wrexham closed by 3 feet of flood water for much of the past week)'. Their state of mind has been understandably dependent on 'the level of Lake Bala (which feeds the Dee), levels of confidence in the river engineers who control the Bala flood gates, tide levels at Chester (which determine how easily the Dee runs out into the Irish sea), and wind levels (which can affect both the tide and might just push a high level river over its bank).'

    This got me thinking about our region's other river - one which winds its way around the outer ring of our city and which forms the outer boundary of our parish: the Alt. This was once pioneer country, and the Alt was the route by which Vikings arrived here - the name Croxteth deriving from Croc's Steath - Croc's landing place. As I wrote here, they must have found this to be reasonable territory for farming and husbandry, 'low-lying, relatively flat and drained (not always successfully) by a network of brooks, most since culverted and hidden to sight, but remembered in place-names: Deysbrook, Tuebrook, Fallbrook.'

    Here today the Alt is little more than a shabby stream, its deep cut banks overgrown with brambles and fenced off from housing developments, but I wonder if in trying to recover some of its historical significance (and in doing some psychogeographical retracing of its tributaries), some of the spirit - and the struggles - of Croxteth's pioneering people might also reemerge?
    Tuesday, December 12, 2006
    The dis-order of mari-time
    "You need not attach great importance to the rioting in Liverpool last night. It took place in an area where disorder is a chronic feature."

    - this quote from Winston Churchill is one of many new to me in Edgy Cities, a small book and short DVD package I discovered today in News from Nowhere. Written by Steve Higginson and Tony Wailey, Liverpudlians and also tutors at the London College of Communication, Edgy Cities is a set of stories which reflect on the particular character of port cities. Liverpool is the pivotal point of reference but like the port itself this writing reaches outwards to Naples, New York, New Orleans, Kingston, Boca.

    Time, Memory and Movement are the themes through which Higginson and Wailey weave their tales. And I found the opening chapter on time fascinating, in its insistence that port people work to mari-time, a time frame based on the irregularity and unpredictability of the tides. 'Port cities are 'irregular' places', they assert, and they regard this as the reason why Liverpudlians (and workers of other ports) never got to grips with the strictures and structures of rigid 'industrial time'. Scientists now agree, they tell us - we do have a biological clock, affected by our environment, which means that if we live in a tidal area then our behaviour will tend to clash with the movements of the solar clock.

    The book is short enough to leave the reader with the task of testing such ideas. It's a joyful thing to reflect on, this illuminating writing which edges us closer to what our culture really is. As does this liberating little gem, also quoted in the book, from a Communist report of 1935:

    'Liverpool is an anarchic place where spontaneity and the flamboyant gesture are preferred to the disciplines of tactical thinking and planned interventions. Liverpool is an organiser's graveyard.'
    Monday, December 11, 2006
    The Flesh Made Word and the light of God
    Tonight I wrote 120 Christmas cards whilst listening to that astonishing King Mob recording of two Nick Cave lectures. Whilst licking envelopes and trying to remember babies' names I had enough time to listen twice to his shorter talk, The Flesh Made Word (full text reproduced here). As the contemporary religious world hardens over issues of law, Cave is an incisive and liberating theologian:

    What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law. What was Christ's great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees' preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: 'The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.' So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?

    The other talk, The Secret Life of the Love Song (48 minutes long, text here), is beautifully poetic and full of that vibrant faith Cave has in a restlessly creative deity:

    We all experience within us what the Portuguese call 'saudade', an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. The love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up though our wounds.
    Sunday, December 10, 2006
    London broke
    I like a London break once in a while and last week was exceptionally enjoyable, for spending time with valued friends and their friends, and family, for dipping into some of that city's current cultural offerings (London: A Life in Maps at the British Library, Spamalot at the Palace Theatre), and for the more serious business of attending the National Poverty Hearing.

    That was fascinating, having been at the previous National Poverty Hearing ten years ago and involved in other local ones since (blogged about here). It brought home just how much the Labour government had changed things for those living on or below the breadline. The minimum wage was the most evident adjustment for which the poverty lobby had been calling - unheard - for years before 1997, but positive steps have been taken in many other areas too. There is no doubt that over the past decade anti-poverty campaigners have been listened to. And though UK poverty issues still don't feature at all at election time even the main opposition party now feels it necessary to engage in them (Oliver Letwin was one of the speakers at Westminster Central Hall last Wednesday).

    That's not to say there's so much more to be done: the Minimum Wage is far beneath the Living Wage, for instance. And the government's aim to eradicate child poverty by 2020 is looking shaky.

    I was struck most forcibly by two presentations. A group of London schoolchildren described very clearly the traumas of being poor in the unforgiving school environment (which brought back memories of how we used to taunt and scapegoat the 'scruffy' kids and the ones who got free meals). Ice and Fire presented an extract from their Asylum Monologues, which simply and powerfully voices asylum-seekers' experiences of UK 'hospitality'. Which cannot be called that until the laws change. I guess I'd known before that the government actively creates deprivation among asylum-seekers as a disincentive to others, but it took ten minutes with The Asylum Monologues for the truth, and absolute immorality, of that to hit home.
    Sunday, December 03, 2006
    4am Madonna
    A seasonal Pic of the Month, and one which greatly helps my understanding of the meaning of Heaven in Ordinary. I release it today having decided not, after all, to use it on home-made Christmas Cards this year (I went for the charity option instead). But if Antonia Rolls decided to publish her work in that format next year, I'd be first in the queue. Lovely.
    Saturday, December 02, 2006
    Walking the M62 blog
    One year from now and I'll have just returned from my sabbatical, which is taking the form of a walk back home from Hull along the M62 corridor. Part of the idea is to journal the journey each day, online, inviting comments back. And it seemed a good idea to set up a dedicated journal in advance for preliminaries. So I'm now also on Typepad, with a blog called Walking the M62. My first post there is an updated attempt to explain the rationale behind the project. Be the first to leave me a comment: here.
    Friday, December 01, 2006
    This year's Christmas letter

    Spent most of my day off so far in my night clothes easing into Advent by writing this year's Christmas letter. After all sorts of misunderstandings over last year's satirical quiz (especially the bit about the Pig'n'Whistle), I felt I should play it a little bit straighter in 2006. A little bit.