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

    Tuesday, January 30, 2007
    It's her mouth

    It's her mouth. There, at the top of the cd cover. Emphasising the title of this, her seventh solo set. Learn to SING Like a Star. Not look like a star; nor dress like a star; no - SING. That's all a serious musician really need aspire to, and that's all Kristin knows how to do. She's been doing it for rather a long time now and she's doing it every bit as well as ever. I celebrate and give thanks.

    First time I saw her was a Throwing Muses set in a small Liverpool bar. It was at the end of a day when one of my grandmothers had died. I'd tied myself in torment about whether or not to go out and enjoy myself that night. But a Kristin gig embraces mere enjoyment - and goes way beyond it. It was probably just what I needed. Seeing Kristin, the vulnerable woman with the mighty voice, rolling her eyes into her head in ways which confirmed to my youthful mind what I'd read about her in the music press: here was a woman who had come through bouts of serious mental illness. Come through fighting, scarred, and with an acuity which showed - brilliantly - in her art.

    That night Kristin sang, "It's just that mean old Texas sun / It makes me dizzy, dizzy, dizzy in my head". But we all knew, in that intense space, it was more than just the sun making her dizzy, making us dizzy. It was her potent poetry of the inner mind. It was the way she connected her abstract inscapes of self-revelation through wheeling neck, naked arms, working fingers, to the most engaging, energising and moving guitar music. Kristin sings with intensity about the deepest, brightest, darkest things in her heart. It's very personal music. But probably because of that the attuned listener can connect, and occupy those inscapes for themselves.

    The latest time I saw her was in 2005 at that wonderful Camden Barfly gig where Linda and I thrilled to an intimate and joyous set where Kristin was supported so well by The McCarricks. Kristin, mature, at ease with herself and her audience, and awesomely skilled, whether with ballads or her blazing twisted blues. The same group of musicians played together on this new album and are out on UK tour together again in March. I dearly hope to catch them because on the evidence of Learn to Sing Like a Star it will be another memorable night. Kristin Hersh is no celebrity. She's a true star. Ie, stellar.

    Tonight in my ears Kristin sings, with characteristic terseness, "nerve endings / think they see pleasure coming / I know better / put a rock into my brain / I feel almost everything". A great new song, like all her other great songs, it seems to make no sense at all. And yet it makes every bit of sense.
    Monday, January 29, 2007
    I should have been in advertising

    To say that coming up with this slogan gave me the greatest thrill of the day, reveals something about the wretchedness of my life...
    Sunday, January 28, 2007
    Simeon, the Grumpy Old Man
    Simeon, the Grumpy Old Man. Today's sermon, in a week the church's grumpy old men made primetime.
    Saturday, January 27, 2007
    Liverpool's future in the coming Time of Noah
    Some of the city's great and good, plus a few imposters like me, spent 90 minutes in The Lady Chapel this morning where John Flamson of the Government Office for the North West whisked through a powerpoint presentation on The Future of Liverpool's Economy and invited responses from two theologians and various representatives of the city's life. It was one of a number of events marking the last weekend in office of Rupert Hoare, Dean of Liverpool, who will be remembered for working hard to encourage such valuable conversations in our city during his seven years here.

    For an exploration of the future, Flamson's presentation had rather a lot of the past in it (canonical version of the Liverpool story - trade city looking to arrest postwar decline), and rather a lot of the present (we're 'off the pace' of our Competitor Cities: must do better). It also included some fine quotes by Rowan Williams, T.S. Eliot, William Blake and C.S. Lewis, but only flashed up on screen, not dwelt on in his talk, which was a shame.

    Eliot's Stranger asks a haunting question: "What is the meaning of this city?" Some of those gathered went a little way towards answering this, in telling various stories which illustrated the internal contradictions in our populace who are at once outwardly assured and strutting and simultaneously deeply scarred and lacking in self-confidence. And in noting that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive here but often finds its outlet in an underground economy which if nurturted into the mainstream, could turn our fortunes around.

    Eliot asked his soul to "be prepared for the coming of the Stranger. Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions." It struck me that most of the people who contributed today were dealing with questions which - stuck in the assumptions of moribund capitalism - didn't project us forward in our thinking. It took a relative 'stranger', Michael Northcott of Edinburgh University Divinity School to guide us towards engaging with questions around Liverpool's contribution to coming climate change, and to encourage us to consider how we might begin to relocalise our economy - to take back our money from the globalisers and to reconnect it to ourselves, here.

    Northcott (who isn't that much of a stranger to us really, he's a canon theologian of Liverpool Cathedral), left me with an image which will endure. He suggested that our present environmental (and associated economic) crisis has biblical parallels with the story of the flood. Which made me think that in the history of the world, and of our city's economy, we're entering another Time of Noah...
    Friday, January 26, 2007
    Walls in the Head and bringing them down
    Lynsey Hanley's Estates; An Intimate History is disquieting reading. The first part of the book describes her experience of living on the Chelmsley Wood estate as a child. I nearly gave up on it, because it's unremittingly sobering; I wanted to abandon it to something cheerier because:

    (a) her descriptions of the 1960s concrete blocks she lived in seem to come direct from the journalistic school of shoddy negative housing estate cliches and I'm tired of reading them;
    (b) Chelmsley Wood is outer Birmingham, a city which, despite having (had) some good friends in over the years, I've somehow never understood, never warmed to, never managed to empathise with;
    (c) Hanley is a leaver - one who got out of the estate as soon as she realised she could - which again reinforces privileged assumptions I'd prefer to challenge;
    (d) and she's not an urban walker - as my previous post on this attests, Hanley makes the mistake of assuming that drifting has to be pleasurable. It doesn't. It just has to be truthful.

    But I'm glad I persevered with the book, because Hanley is a good writer and, despite my last comment, she is throroughly truthful about the state of estates throughout their chequered history. Her interpretation of that history is haunted by her own grim experiences - latterly in Tower Hamlets - which legitimise her sobering descriptions of estate life (though I, and many other estate dwellers, would counter that it's not all like that). Her intimacy with her subject assures us that the book's politics and social science are grounded in lived reality.

    I mentioned the other day that Cutteslowe and other estates are surrounded by walls which separate estate residents from their better-off neighbours, and for me the book's most powerful chapter is the one in which Lynsey Hanley utilises the idea of The Wall in the Head, which describes the mechanisms of shame and loathing which imprison the socially stigmatised estate dweller. Those who live outside are fiercely implicated in this critique, which demonstrates that far from being merely economic, poverty is socially imposed.

    The book's conclusion is more hopeful than the introduction. Hanley's involvement in Tower Hamlets' Housing Choice initiative demonstrated to her that with proper tenant involvement, good decisions can be made about social housing, even though they may involve difficult choices. In Hanley's case she and her neighbours were voting to be made homeless so that the council could demolish their homes and start again, a painful but ultimately positive situation in which the tenants were fully involved in designing their own future.

    I'm left energised by Hanley's insistence that if housing had been given equal precedence to health in the great post-war welfare reforms, then the peculiarly British antipathy to social housing may never have developed. Just as the majority of us deeply value our health service and free schooling, so we may also have grown to love our council housing, and that rather than isolating them and running them down to be the places where currently only the poorest and choiceless have to live, our estates might have been celebrated as vital signs of an equitable society. So I applaud her parting words:

    My vision - my hope - for the future of social housing is simple. I want it to come to be regarded as an integral part of the national housing stock, and not something that is seen as shameful. I want the desirability of home ownership not to come at the cost of denigrating council housing at every turn. I want the people who manage social housing to be given all the resources they need to maintain the estates for future generations, so that we don't have to go through an endless cycle of building and knocking down. We may have to accept that the era of mass council housing is over, but that doesn't mean that the housing that replaces it - whether owned by councils, by housing associations or by management organizations - cannot be better and more satisfying than what went before.
    Wednesday, January 24, 2007
    A tale of Alan and Eve
    Here's Alan: Head of The Defence Export Services Organisation, the unit of the UK Ministry of Defence which helps UK companies sell their military equipment and services overseas. Through DESO, the UK taxpayer subsidises the export of arms into areas of conflict and to governments that abuse human rights. The trade in military equipment also damages economic development at each of global, regional and local economic levels. Personally, it makes me ill to think that I have to payroll Alan and the organisation he runs.

    And here's Eve: a little lady bringing light and joy and hope into the world. Her parents are both women and I'm happy to know them. They're in love with Eve and each other and will do their very best for her, which is a lot. Personally, it makes me feel like dancing in the streets to celebrate when I consider all that Eve and her two mums have together.

    "Rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning" say the Archbishops. Seems to me that rights of conscience are made subject to legislation all the time, and today my conscience is troubled (yet again) by the Church's choice of which matters of legislation it wants to get worked up about.
    Tuesday, January 23, 2007
    Following atmospheres

    Can't fault Isambard Kingdom Brunel for trying. For two years the tireless inventor and innovator of the great industrial era had a train running between Exeter and Teignmouth on atmosphere alone. Or as we'd say today, it used air pressure or vacuum. He called it the Atmospheric Train and it was probably better for the atmosphere than the coal-guzzling steam train (though the Atmospheric Railway relied on pumping stations which put out a lot of smoke - as the picture shows).

    Brunel's plan was to take the line all the way to Plymouth, but it never got further than the Teign because the bold exercise fell down on inadequate sealing valves which frequently broke and cost fortunes to replace. While the engineless Atmospheric Railway ran it was a safe and almost silent form of transport. Gentle giants, those trains - we can imagine the stirring trackside atmosphere they produced. I imagine also that once dismantled the old line retained an atmosphere of its own, or nurtured new atmospheres, like all old lines do (as I found when walking the Liverpool Loop Line some time ago).

    As part of the Brunel 200 celebrations last year Phil invited people to join him on a series of Atmospheric Walks, using the route of Brunel's Atmospheric Railway as a snaking landmark. But participants were encouraged to deviate, if required, in search of atmospheres. Almost 50 walkers took part.

    One consequence of these walks is the production of Atmospheric Maps, a folded booklet which includes photographs, poetry and prose taken and written by many of these walkers. Phil's written an introduction and 1,200 copies are to be distributed free of charge in the Teignbridge area, in the hope that others will be inspired to further exploratory walking around these ‘Atmospheric’ routes.

    Atmospheric Maps are being launched in Newton Abbot on 10th Feb, which will involve a short performance by Phil based on the walks and the discoveries made, followed by a new walk. I can't make the launch, but Phil's sent me a copy of the neat, colourful and lively little booklet. Appropriately I find that reading it creates a very pleasurable atmosphere here:

    Dark to light and light to dark
    Engineering art
    Monday, January 22, 2007
    BB and Rene on Thought for the Day
    "But this is not just a contemporary row. This is also a timeless drama. It struck me that Shilpa is a scapegoat, the subject of the loathing and disproportionate blame of others"

    - Catherine Pepinster's Thought for the Day on 19 Jan takes an explicitly Girardian theme. Like my blog of 18 Jan. That's affirming. Thanks Keith for spotting that.

    [Adding to it briefly, it's interesting to reflect on the mechanism through which Jade was also scapegoated, a sacred victim in equal measure...]
    Sunday, January 21, 2007
    Monkey Swallows the Universe

    ... by Monkey Swallows the Universe. It's beautiful. You can listen to it here
    Saturday, January 20, 2007
    Try me, Lynsey

    - Lynsey Hanley, Estates; An Intimate History, p.124/5
    Friday, January 19, 2007
    Entrances to Hell

    An astonishing revelation. An army of fearless investigators has been, for the past few years, compiling photographic evidence of entrances to hell in the UK. This vital work, done at no small personal risk by these secretive carriers of digital cameras and notebooks, has revealed such portals of the underworld as Braaashteeefunorvallishhtuuu, between Currys and the hairdressers in Wallasey, which is only 80 years old and is where 'Satan's heat-image can sometimes be seen ... and it has recently been proven that all of the earth's insects were born just inside the metal door.'

    Geg, in Bloomsbury, looks like a door in a railway arch but it reportedly has a 2400 sq ft photography studio located 1 mile from the surface, 'used mostly by the devil's PR people but it can be rented at a competitive rate depending on availability'. I like the website entry on Geg because it also gives access to an mp3 of the sound of Geg which is, as you might expect, quite chilling.

    The website displays over 100 entrances to hell, has a fascinating news page and a thoroughly entertaining letters page. The site's Compiler-In-Chief, Dr Rae Gates, is careful to warn potential explorers of entrances to hell of the safety risks involved, and strives to keep the site refreshingly free of rude and/or naughty words.

    There's only one entrance to hell listed for Liverpool, which actually isn't in Liverpool, so perhaps we ought to be keeping our eyes and ears open for any others there may be... this comes immediately to mind.

    [Source: Andrew Kötting in Vertigo Magazine]
    Thursday, January 18, 2007
    Shilpa Shetty - sacred victim of mimetic violence
    If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. This process quickly snowballs. Since from the beginning the desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but now they want to destroy the same enemy. So, a paroxysm of violence would tend to focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him [or her].

    Big Brother is, of course, the perfect model for René Girard's mimetic theory. It is enshrined in the contest rules: the stability of the house depends on the regulated evction of the least popular occupants. Girard reveals the meaning and significance of this event:

    The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. [She] becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back.

    The ubiquitous human system of mimetic violence has become exposed this week as the Big Brother victim has chosen to speak out about her scapegoating, prior to her (probably inevitable) expulsion. An embarrassed Gordon Brown tries to persuade his Indian audiences to believe that Britain "prides itself on tolerance and fairness" [1]. And the victim (probably under pressure from the programme makers anxious to keep their sponsors) has retracted her earlier statements [2]. The upshot of it all is the realisation that this truly is reality TV. For once the actuality of human group behaviour is raw, and real, and revealed.
    Tuesday, January 16, 2007
    Shameless's Sheila and the Cutteslowe wall
    If the lumpen working class is contained in places where no-one else dares to venture, their children attending schools that no-one else in their right mind would allow their own to attend, there is, surely, no obvious problem. If the poor will always be with us, isn't it best to leave them where they are and condescend, with wringing hands, from afar? Or to suppress the lingering shame of inequality with gallows humour? For today's middle class, contamination is the fear that dare not speak its name.

    If Lynsey Hanley's Estates; An Intimate History is starting where it means to go on then it will continue to be a rip-roaring read. The above paragraph follows a segment describing the wall which was built by the developer of the private estate in Cutteslowe to separate its residents - illegally and immorally - from the people of the neighbouring municipal estate. It's by no means the only wall, physical or metaphorical, which has been built around the poor of our estates over the years.

    I love Shameless because I feel real warmth for its full-on characters, and it's a scream from start to finish, but I can't decide whether or not the programme functions as another one of those walls. It could be said to 'suppress the lingering [middle class] shame of inequality with gallows humour'. That the Gallaghers 'aren't like us' is a perfect distancing mechanism for viewers. Except that we know that its creator, Paul Abbott, is writing from his own real-life experience. He was a child in a long-term parentless house. And that knowledge permits nuances to emerge and the possibility arises that Shameless - a real human story - might serve to bring down the walls of class division. In Shameless there is someone for whom 'contamination is the fear that dare not speak its name'. It's prescription-drug-addled Sheila; so perhaps she's not part of a distant lumpen lost caste after all, perhaps she's everywoman.
    Monday, January 15, 2007
    The methods beneath Sinclair's surface madness
    Robert Bond's book on Iain Sinclair (in the Salt Studies in Contemporary Literature & Culture series) turned out to be a densely academic tome which I (being dense in another sense) struggled with a bit. But also got a lot out of. After all its subject is a writer whose whole project involves the weaving of signs, references, stones, symbols and forgotten tales together into a very dense and complex web of pulsing new meanings. That's why I like him. And that's why Bond's book - the first full-length study of Sinclair's work - leaves me keen to search for more riches through the references provided in its lengthy bibliography.

    Disappointment - that the later books get less treatment (because I've come to Sinclair later). But I'm sure Bond's work will embrace those as time goes on. Pleasure - to find someone able to explain, to great depth, the methods beneath Sinclair's surface madness.

    'To match one's own marginal and excessive consciousness to the irrational social landscape, could be to rationally construct an urban cognitive totality', is the way Bond describes Sinclair's approach to redescribing urban experience on foot and through an intensity of creative connections. Sinclair elaborates (from London Orbital):

    I started to embark on monumental walks; do it that way, I thought, work the gap between personal psychosis and psychosis of the city: the crisis of consciousness lives in faulty synchronization. Sometimes the city was crazier, sometimes my fugues leapt ahead: fire visions, sunsets over King's Cross gas holders. We are part of the madness. Monitor everything: weeds, green paint on a wooden fence in Maryon Park, swans hooked by Kosovans on the River Lea, the way an Irish barman in Kentish Town stubs out his Sweet Afton and scratches a cut that never heals on his right wrist.
    Sunday, January 14, 2007
    Intemperate Christianity: the Good News
    Intemperate Christianity: the Good News. Today's sermon made all the more poignant by the presence of at least one fairly advanced alcoholic in the congregation....
    Saturday, January 13, 2007
    The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
    One of the most-anticipated days of the year arrives: the day that the latest Rough Trade Shops Counter Culture cd set hits the doormat. It usually comes in the second week of January and it sets me up for the months to come, a prompt for many more journeys of discovery in the collections of the previously-unknown but wondrous artists revelead within. This year an extra treat to mark the shops' 30th birthday comes with it - Counter Culture 1976: and what a fine year that was too.

    So - an evening sat listening to some of the finest alternative sounds around whilst reading the briliant epigrams of William Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. On my settee Blake's words seem to connect with the CC06 songs. I couldn't help joining them together...

    'Exuberance is Beauty' - Metronomy: You Could Easily Have Me (fantastically quirky pop riff-fest guaranteed to make you twitch uncontrollably)

    'The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom' - Gossip: Standing in the Way of Control ("Standing in the way of control we live our lives", Gossip celebrate)

    'Without contraries, there is no progress' - Wolf Eyes: Lake of Roaches (and if you want contrary, breathe deeply and enter the tortured, tortuous noise-world of Wolf Eyes)

    'The nakedness of woman is the work of God' - Lily Allen: LDN (in 2006 no-one was more frankly naked - or nakedly frank - than Lily)

    'Energy is eternal delight' - Ripchord: Lock Up Your Daughters (pure, unrestrained and lovely power pop)

    'Everything that lives is holy' - Burial: Night Bus (cracked soundtrack to an unknown urban future, an eerie beauty soaring up the streets)

    'The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction' - The Disco Students: The Rough Trade Song ("Never been on no Rough Trade compilation", these old punks angrily sing; last track on this Rough Trade compilation)
    Friday, January 12, 2007
    The first suicide bomber
    Humour can be a persuasive tool for protest and peacemaking, used well. Those who heard Bishop Riah the other night tell me he uses it well in his role as one who stands for justice and mediates between polarised communities in Jerusalem. He told his Liverpool audience that he's fond of reminding his Jewish friends who the first 'suicide bomber' was - Samson. And that reminded us of a story told by someone who had been on a tour of Israel in a party which contained a lot of American right-wing evangelicals, who were astonished to find that such people as Palestinian Christians existed. "When did these people become born again?" they asked their tour guide. "Oh - about two thousand years ago."
    Thursday, January 11, 2007
    Sacrilising the city
    I'm at my usual London blog-spot on Tottenham Court Road having just deposited a large cheque in the Cooperative Bank on Southampton Row. A generous bursary from Ecclesiastical Insurance towards my sabbatical. The friendly little awards ceremony and lunch took place in the Chapter House of St Paul's Cathedral and naturally, given that the whole nature of the project which Ecclesiastical are supporting is about urban walking, I journeyed there on foot from Euston.

    Great read on the train journey down, Robert Bond's introduction to the work of London's great footsore literary fetishist Iain Sinclair. Whereas I came to Sinclair, like many people, through his mainstream London texts like Lights Out for the Territory and - especially - London Orbital, Bond reminds the reader that Sinclair is first (and possibly still foremost) an underground poet. I also found revealing something that to cleverer readers may be obvious - Bond's suggestion that Sinclair's poetic method of finding signs in the city where others only see stones, of making mystical connections between urban sites which others just could not link - this is a work of sacrilising the city. And I guess I hope my project can do a bit of that, too.

    I sit now in the place where another great sacriliser of the city used to roam - William Blake, wanderer of the fields behind Tottenham Court Road, with whom Sinclair may be seen to have quite a bit in common. En-route to St Paul's and back, my walk took me past Newgate, marked now by a plaque which made me momentarily wonder why it had gone and what had happened there at what was once, I guess, a pivotal passing-point into the city.

    My quest to enjoy my free time in London led me to do some pilgrim searching - around some underground bookshops on the Sinclair trail and ending up at Bookmarks where I discovered Judy Cox's William Blake: The Scourge of Tyrants, a small book which 'cuts away all the romantic and reactionary drivel written about him, and reveals him as a prophet of liberation - political, artistic and sexual liberation.' [Paul Foot]. Blake can't be too easily placed among the ranks of those Sinclair calls the reforgotton, authors whose urban outpourings have been left outside the canon of London writing, because so much has been written about him, and more will come in this 250th anniversary year. But in attempting to re-member the whole Blake, to recover crucial aspects of the man which have nevertheless slipped from the canon, Cox's is a good and valuable project.

    And in that book on Blake I find a reference to Newgate - site of the climax of the Gordon Riots in 1780 when Newgate Jail was burned and the prisoners freed. Blake was one of the ringleaders of this 'proletarian' attack on a major institution of the 'imperial ruling class', the first of its kind in London's history. I tremble now to think that in simply journeying from Newgate back to here (Holburn - High Holburn - St Giles, stopping only to gaze at the stock of Shervingtons the tobacconists) I may have retraced the steps of Blake on that fateful day, clothes scorched, smoke in his wild hair, revolution in his eyes.

    I don't quite know what to do with that knowledge, nor do I quite see how it relates to present-day Newgate with its massive sites of international finance, nor contemporary Tottenham Court Road, its internet cafes and audio showrooms a buzzing global marketplace. Maybe these imperfect connections, made on foot, are an encouragement that other spirits are still at work in the city, that hidden, reforgotten works are still being made and though they will always be outside the canon, they are there to be discovered in the city's details.
    Wednesday, January 10, 2007
    Time of Year
    Missed the opportunity this evening to hear The Bishop of Jerusalem address a Liverpool audience on the question, Israel and Palestine - Is Peace Possible? Instead I found myself with a rare two hours in which I collapsed in front of two episodes of Friends and a documentary about the making of The Vicar of Dibley which brought tears to my eyes. I'm now having to excuse myself this indolence. I put it down to (a) grief exhaustion - these weeks around Christmas have brought about as much as anyone can cope with; (b) my suspicion that I knew the answer the Bishop would give to his own question - the answer we expect bishops to give (and hope they will, being the custodians of a mad but beautiful faith); and (c) the time of year... it's dark and cold out there.
    Monday, January 08, 2007
    I already knew that
    I thought I'd enjoy Watching the English by Kate Fox as a good easy new year read but I've ended up just skimming it, this time around. Perhaps because I preceded it by reading Simon Armitage's excellent All Points North - a work of poetically insightful Northern observation where Fox can only offer semi-witty Southern social science. Perhaps because it states the obvious a bit too obviously. Like the section on our 'Default Religion', the C of E, which we hardly need reminding is the 'least religious church on earth ... notoriously wooly-minded, tolerant to a fault and amiably non-prescriptive'. Actually, on second thoughts, I think it's good to be reminded of that. It's worth celebrating that such a random religion enables God (whoever that is) to remain accessible to whoever thinks they may need a deity, no questions asked. And it's a lovely thing that such a shiftless institution permits its leaders to continue in roles gloriously and liberatingly undefined...
    Sunday, January 07, 2007
    Wisdom comes from the East
    Wisdom comes from the East - and yes, I do mean Hull.
    Saturday, January 06, 2007
    New songs on The Burning Leaves site
    New songs on The Burning Leaves site.
    Go on, treat yourself.
    Friday, January 05, 2007
    Beneath the Paradox
    Beneath the Paradox it's Gambling Central. History crumbles from the building's art deco exterior, gambling history: whether the story of the millions of speculative 'X's which were processed here in the building's Vernons Pools years, or memories of the thousands of speculative moves made by Saturday-night hopefuls when the building housed The Paradox. The Paradox was a huge purpose-built mega-nightclub on the outskirts of town, with seven bars entertaining up to 2340 punters a night (most of them underage and dressed in purple lycra, if complainant clubbers were to be believed in the years of its decline). Today, the Paradox is a ruin. The low afternoon sun penetrates the empty expansive concrete box through smashed windows. But permission was recently granted to a developer proposing to turn the site into a wind-powered retail park, the latest in a line of speculative projects on this iconic piece of Liverpool industrial land.

    Of course, Aintree has been Gambling Central for many many decades, since Mr William Lynn leased the land from Lord Sefton, laid out a course, built a grandstand and staged the first Flat fixture on July 7, 1829. And on Tuesday February 26, 1839, a horse called Lottery became the first winner of The Grand National. Across the road from The Paradox the racecourse is in an advanced stage of redevelopment, The Earl of Derby Stand and The Lord Sefton Stand each rising rapidly to meet the Aintree skies and presumably to also meet the Grand National 2007 completion deadline.

    So today I join the gamblers - by crossing the manic A59 Ormskirk Road and stepping down beneath The Paradox onto the canal path and the stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool which I suspect is least used by narrowboats. Those that do travel this way gamble on being pelted by missiles from the bridges (as I pass, four teenaged boys dressed in black parkas lob stones at the ducks). Or they risk encounters with people using the canalside seclusion for possibly nefarious activities (the other side of the road bridge, two more black-coated boys emerge from trees and a whiff of weed flits through the air). Or they may meet others perhaps unbalanced (further along the path towards the Melling Road bridge, a man sways slightly as I pass him. His work bag rests at his feet but he is drinking strong lager and has the air of someone who'd rather be staring at water than returning home).

    It's a nervous walk for me, until I realise that like everyone else I've encountered on the towpath I too am wearing a black hooded winter coat and probably the look of someone doing something most others wouldn't. That sense is heightened as I return along Aintree Lane just as two primary schools are emptying. I'm the one who parents have seen scrambling up the canal bank onto the Melling Road bridge, taking photos. I'm the one who the lollypop ladies do not recognise.

    Here's a paradox. All these parents, refusing to allow their children to take a chance on walking home, nevertheless gamble with their lives by bouncing their vehicles up and down kerbs, making dangerous turns and stopping for no-one. The roads evince an air of muted hostility as drivers spin their young away from their friends for a weekend behind closed doors at home. The odds on one of these impatient parents one day colliding with another vehicle or a small child ... must be short.
    Thursday, January 04, 2007
    First bit of kit for the road
    When I was a student journo working on Gair Rhydd I bought myself a Walkman which recorded as well as played back. It saw some good service - interviewing the likes of The Housemartins' Paul Heaton and Norman Cook (later Fatboy Slim), the classical guitarist John Williams and the Everest adventurer Chris Bonington, plus many NUS and local politicians and campaigners.

    I kept it for years as I continued doing freelance work back home in Liverpool while signing on, but as that work faded in the shadow of the nine-to-five, I used the Walkman less and less, and mostly for listening to music while in the bath. Which probably explains why one day years later, thinking I might have a use for the recorder again, I rediscovered it in a fatal condition - it had rusted up.

    The walk will require a voice recorder, to capture the rich conversations I hope to have with various folks en-route and help me translate them to text. And the funding for the project has been quite generous. So after Christmas I decided to invest in my first bit of kit for the road - an Edirol R-09 WAVE/MP3 Recorder. Jeanette, interviewing me for a documentary about Liverpool, introduced me to this ultra-portable and lightweight little box of tricks and the trade reviews are positive. So today mine arrived, all the way from Treppendorf. And it is indeed very good.

    So, here's my first recording (there won't be too many of these online, I promise), me reciting today's reading from Growing Hope, which is a great prayer by Tom Gordon: [.mp3] [text downloadable here].
    Wednesday, January 03, 2007
    Milk Wood and Manchester
    Starless and Bible Black. If you know from where that band takes its name then you're probably going to really like them. Whether your reference is the visionary and quite silly Fifties' folk poetry of Dylan Thomas or the sassy Seventies prog-rock protest songs of King Crimson. They're from Manchester and they're lovely. Folk commentator Nigel Owen Spencer will tell you far more.

    All I shall add is that I'm extra chuffed because their eponymous first album features among its eleven lovingly-crafted songs one called The Birley Tree, subject of one of my blogs last year, and evidently a continuing symbol of the fears, dreams and ongoing schemes of the people of Hulme. It's a song about death and resurrection, Jesus and The Tree That Died: "I know you want to know me again."
    Tuesday, January 02, 2007
    Crying out for a polycentric church
    Joe Hasler emailed me having found my blog about his excellent booklet Mind Body and Estates: Outer Estate Ministry and Working Class Culture. He wondered if I'd seen his recent book, Crying out for a Polycentric Church (£7.99 from Church in Society). He'd obviously forgotten that I'd asked him to sign a copy at the National Estate Churches Network Conference [Where Mark and I did our Norris Green thing - see pics].

    Now I have to admit that I don't immediately warm to anything with a word like polycentric in its title. And having read the book I'm still not a hundred percent sure I understand precisely what it means. But it's a good book because it's helped me grasp its key point, which is that church needs to find ways of affirming and embracing many different cultures.

    That doesn't sound like a particularly radical proposal. Except that the cultures Joe is on about are ones like white working class council estate cultures. Which concentrates the mind. Because the church Joe is critiquing tends to embrace a white middle class suburban culture which is monocentric (I think I just made that up) inasmuch as it doesn't realise that it embraces a white middle-class suburban culture and it therefore doesn't acknowledge the significance of that or any other culture in our society. A church which can't comprehend how it relates to society is culturally vapid. It lacks the tools to joyfully build thick descriptions of its context, and flourish within it. Hence Mission Shaped Church with its many, many cultural blind spots.

    Joe's spent a long, long time living among the people of white working class council estates. Thirty years building an understanding of church and society from outsider perspectives. And this short book is consequently very powerful. It demonstates how networks and leadership function on outer estates; it critiques the urban church's gospel according to projects which, dominated by managerial and professional culture, may not be good news to local people at all. It surveys a lot of good contextual theology and it makes it clear that good thinking about culture is quite complex - we have to dig deep into the richnesses formed where geography and networks combine.

    Like many books written with passion Joe's is not the easiest read. But it is very rewarding. It is currently quite hard to find, but hopefully will become widely read because it takes a sideways view of much current in-church debate about mission, a sideways view strongly rooted in the everyday realities of many people's lives.
    Monday, January 01, 2007
    Going places in 2007

    The first thing I did in 2007 was to complete the jigsaw I'd started on Christmas Day, of an OS map of Liverpool with my house at the centre (thanks Linda). Interesting reflecting on how I approached the task, not being a jigsaw person usually, but definitely a map person:

    1. I started with the River Mersey: mainly as the swathe of gorgeous clear blue which the OS generously use to indicate our old grey waterway made the jigsaw pieces on the Mersey the easiest to identify in a box full of urban-industrial details;

    2. Next, I took the motorways: blue again, and so familiar in their shape (M57 arching anticlockwise around the city edges, M62 approaching cautiously from the east, prompting Epiphanies, stopping short in the Broad Green suburbs);

    3. Then it was place names, identifiable features which guided me. Not always ones I know well but ones which have for whatever reason stuck in my mind - Southdene, Woolfall Heath, Windy Arbor, Waddicar: places I've never been but somehow know where they are.

    4. I was struck by my ignorance of some road numbers and routes: and the leisurely pursuit of doing this jigsaw has educated me about, for instance, the way the A506 links ancient Walton Church with overspill Tower Hill, and the way that the A580 East Lancs splits somewhere near here, one branch ending at Goodison Park and the other at the hilltop T-junction joining Breck Road with Everton Brow where there are wondrous views of the city centre below.

    5. I was also struck by how the places I know best were among the last pieces I completed: perhaps because the city centre is reduced to a complex mulch of roads on this particular map, and suburban Crosby bears no obvious identifying marks. Or perhaps because I was saving the best till last.

    2007 may be the year when I take one jigsaw piece at a time and let each one guide me on an exploration of that particular area. I just discovered the great potential in this by selecting, at random, this piece, which turns out to be a fascinating bit of Aintree featuring the old Vernons Pools complex, sections of the Trans-Pennine Trail and the Liverpool-Ormskirk railway line, the shopping park where I guess today hundreds of people will be hunting for bargain beds, part of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal and part of Aintree Racecourse which the canal crosses. Above the canal there's a housing estate with a church in it, and the road the church is on is Altway, where I had my first-ever job interview 29 years ago.

    So a journey in this map piece will involve nosing around the old Vernons site to see what's going on there now, exploratory wanderings around the boundaries where commercial site and canalside meet, a personal pilgrimage down Altway (which I've never been back to since 1978) and of course, attempts to discover what the Canal Turn looks like out of season and from excluded zones.

    There are 255 pieces in this jigsaw. As you can tell, I'll be really going places in 2007.