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

    Monday, April 30, 2007
    The steps, the stones and the stories they hold
    The Shorefields are amongst the most filmed streets in Liverpool. People familiar with Carla Lane's stereotypical-but-amusing Boswell family sometimes call these 'The Bread Streets'. Steeply hanging a hundred feet above the old south docks, they offer a breathtaking view across the wide Mersey. They're part of the iconography of the city. I lived in the area a decade ago and it remains one of my most treasured places.

    In the sheer cliff face below the Shorefields, commuter trains disappear into the deep, dark Dingle Tunnel. Beneath this, on land reclaimed from the old Herculaneum Dock, where tiny archway workshops used to host many small businesses, a leisure club / executive housing complex has recently risen. And at the far end, connecting the high redbrick terraced streets to the riverside apartments, are The Steps. A long, long flight at the far end of Grafton Street, built with the dock, to give the workers access. When you walk them breathlessly today you may be aware of the age of the stones and the countless stories they hold.

    People have never stopped using the steps. Today, children, as ever, play on them. Workers walk them en-route to the bus stop or Brunswick station. Joggers intent on punishing themselves slog up them on routes which carry them from this wondrous waterside through some of the greatest parks in Britain. According to their taste in public houses, friends either walk down them to the riverside food-and-couples pub The Britannia, or ascend for the more folksy delights of The Beresford. I would sometimes take them as a route down to the river's edge, to the place which used to be called The Cassie, The Cast Iron Shore.

    Just a flight of steps. Just a pile of stones. But the stories they hold ... which is why it's been good today to read a booklet called Stories of Steps [download pdf], an outcome of a community arts project which got local people out on the steps to tell, share and celebrate their stories . Artist Janette Porter of Late Exchange, described the process as 'an attempt to research the way in which people and places have been linked via their steps ... to understand how, over time, those lives have been affected by the city’s developmental process.' The result is very impressive, a real rich mix of life past, present - and future - in the words of the people who use the steps. True stories, not a Boswell cliche in sight.
    Sunday, April 29, 2007
    Not an escapist mantra
    Like The Fire This Time before it, Eliot Weinberger's What I Heard about Iraq relies on the effect on an audience of hearing the unexpurgated words of presidents and colonels, squaddies and civilians describe the developing invasion and situation of Iraq, plainly, without embellishment. It is powerful.

    It was powerful being in a group which in March last year, sat and read aloud together the text of Weinberger's first LRB article. It was powerful again last night, watching the touring production of Simon Levy's adaptation-for-five-voices of What I Heard about Iraq at The Unity.

    The James Seabright production keeps Weinberger's list of quotes about the conflict bang up to date: the refrain throughout the show is "I heard..." ("...the President say...", "...Condoleeza Rice say..."). Last night the five actors ended by standing together across stage front to each share a statement from the morning's papers: "Today I heard..."

    I think that the production's power is carried in that "I heard..." refrain. That, and the silences between each statement:

    I heard Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, say: ‘American soldiers will not be received by flowers. They will be received by bullets.’

    I heard that the president said to the television evangelist Pat Robertson: ‘Oh, no, we’re not going to have any casualties.’

    I heard the president say that he had not consulted his father about the coming war: ‘You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.’

    The thing is, we are absolutely familiar with statements like these. They're with us all the time, washing vaguely through our consciousness via background breakfast radio news items and the flickering disengagement of our TV screens. But Weinberger / Levy's contextualising of them into a structured script turns the reader / audience into active witnesses.

    I heard an Iraqi man say: ‘We have at least 700 dead. So many of them are children and women. The stench from the dead bodies in parts of the city is unbearable.’

    I heard Donald Rumsfeld say: ‘Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.'

    I heard these statements. So now they challenge me to own them, engage with them, respond to them. I heard these statements. So now the silence which follows each one begs the question, how shall I make my response?

    This production, and the writings on which it is based, feel and sound somewhat like a mantra. I heard... I heard... I heard... But it's not an escapist mantra. Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman got it spot-on when she wrote that '[What I Heard about Iraq] strikes a magnificent blow in the struggle of memory against forgetting which, as Milan Kundera once said, is the struggle of man against power.'
    Saturday, April 28, 2007
    It's great up here
    A week in Fellfield reading some deep, dense, detailed space theory / place theory from Doreen Massey and Kim Knott, was brought to an apposite, wonderful, guffawing close yesterday when in Hawkshead's branch of Henry Roberts Books I treated myself to a copy of Stuart Maconie's Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North. I read it through in one long, satisfying sunny, sitting.

    The book's been slated by northerners whose own places were neglected by Maconie on his (North-West, Lancs and Cumbria-slanted) travels; and, of course, by southerners who just don't get it, especially when he gets at them (which he does very often and usually very well). But if you share his prejudices (and I certainly do), this book is a gem. And it reveals some hidden wonders, such as the deli in Bury market which - as Maconie rightly says - if it was in Camden or Brighton would never be out of the Sunday broadsheet columns; and great odd truths such as the (spiritual) regeneration of Skelmersdale which is the consequence of the Transcendental Mediation movement making that isolated planned town its unlikely headquarters.

    Full of writing which made me laugh out so often, so loudly, that the sheep in the neighbouring field seemed quite upset, the book is full of things like this lovely little vignette from Maconie's childhood Wigan days:

    Sunday, April 22, 2007
    Mapping decline
    Discovering the joys of Flickr mapping whilst uploading all the photos of our recent West Derby Pilgrimage. Now my mouse hand aches, a suggestion of oncoming RSI to add to the general decline of my ageing carcass. Time to escape to the Cumbrian hills (That's Cumbrian, not Cambrian, for a change) with no media, digital or audio, for distraction / slow destruction. Just some books. A reading week away, and hopefully some post-Easter refreshment. Back in time for the demise of Man U at Goodison next Saturday....
    Friday, April 20, 2007
    Mersey: The river that changed the world
    As 2008 approaches the 'Local Books' section of our, um, local bookshops are getting noticeably fuller, with a pleasing mix of small-press memory lane biographies, academic histories, photobooks of all descriptions and reprints of classics such as Margaret Simey's polemics and Robert Griffiths' 1907 gem The History of the Royal and Ancient Park of Toxteth Liverpool.

    Pleased to read in the latest issue of Source, the magazine of the Mersey Basin Campaign, of their forthcoming publication of a book immodestly titled 'Mersey: The river that changed the world'. It may have been more accurate to call it 'Mersey: A river which changed the world a bit', or more pithily 'Mersey: A World River', but 2008 seems to inspire bombast. However a look at their blog, and a read of the extract in Source suggests that this will be well worth reading when it comes out this autumn.

    Source editor Matthew Sutcliffe writes, 'we feel the time is right for a beautiful book honouring the Mersey's 20-year transformation'. The extract [download pdf], an account of life on the Liverpool docks today, accompanied by some excellent photos by Colin McPherson, is keen to underline that the port is now more productive than it's ever been, and challenges the notion held by 'scousers of a certain vintage' that the heyday of the docks was at the height of the British Empire. Correct challenge (if at odds with the title of the book), but the language used in it raises suspicions that this might be closer to a publicity tract for Peel Holdings (owners of the port, and also Liverpool John Lennon Airport, the Manchester Ship Canal and Trafford Centre, and, since January, Cammel Lairds) than a piece of honest social history.

    However, this suspicion is offset by another aspect of the book: its intent to tell the human stories of people whose lives and work have been tied to the river, including a Mersey River Pilot, a sea angler, an oil terminal worker and, interestingly, Michael Hestletine, Minister for Merseyside in the 1980s, whose legacy it will be interesting to contemplate, hopefully with the help of this book.

    If it ignores the pain of the people experienced during the dockers' dispute of 1995/6, the historic struggle against what one writer called the 'new depths of brutalism' in global capitalism (well documented by Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy), then 'Mersey: The river that changed the world' will be the poorer. But I'm hopeful that this will be quite a truthful book, and it will certainly be good to look at.
    Wednesday, April 18, 2007
    Top 30 Argos Catalogue Product Descriptions

    You may recall that I'm planning on starting something called a 'personal bible'. Consisting of words, possibly images, which have been especially meaningful and helpful to me over the years. Well, I rediscovered this in the depths of my walllet today. It's a cutting from a very old NME and it's been a constant companion ever since my first rib-tickling encounter with it years ago. Seems like I'll have to come to terms with the fact that rather than being over-weighty, my canon is going to have to include humour and The Surreal.
    Monday, April 16, 2007
    I'm tapped
    Ah; the mighty privilege of a reading week. Only days to go and them I'll be away from this demanding screen and hopefully reawakening my mind to the joys of reading: four days with the work of Doreen Massey and Kim Knott. Four days away from that tyrannical Telephone Thing, against which I call on M.E.S. and Coldcut to lead the rebellion:

    How dare you assume I want to parlez-vous with you?
    Sunday, April 15, 2007
    O Lucky Man

    I was reminded of this absolute gem from the Homes of Football collection as I stood on that very corner this afternoon, people-watching, noticing the groups of families and friends going about their matchday rituals of meeting, queuing, eating, all bright and hopeful in the sun. Half a mind, like the rest of us, on the occasion being marked down the road, with a service at Anfield: the eighteenth anniversary of the deaths at Hillsborough on a day just like this, an epic peacetime tragedy which scarred so many families and neighbourhoods of our city.

    Contemplating this picture, studying the real-life moving picture outside Goodison this afternoon, recalling the earlier conversation with my next-door neighbour still haunted by the events of 15 April 1989 when his friend died at a football match, it struck me again how in places like ours, at times like this, community, family, place, presence - all these unfashionable things - still flourish.

    If you have a friend on whom you think you can rely - You are a lucky man!
    If you've found the reason to live on and not to die - You are a lucky man!
    Preachers and poets and scholars don't know it,
    Temples and statues and steeples won't show it,
    If you've got the secret just try not to blow it - Stay a lucky man!

    (Alan Price)

    And lucky too, all of us, to be the privileged ones who witnessed first hand James McFadden strike the goal of the season.....

    Friday, April 13, 2007
    A little flutter on Sally Sunshine

    Choice of the day: to spend time with the horsies at Aintree, or drifting past horsies on the Rufford branch canal. No contest. Skirted the voluminous race traffic to enjoy a very relaxing afternoon on a narrowboat called Sally Sunshine.
    Thursday, April 12, 2007
    The walker and the public house
    Someone has probably already written on the fascinating subject of the relationship between long-distance walkers and public houses. In a way, Charles Hurst and his ilk do it as part of their wider narrative. His fuel stops and overnight stays were also the scene of meaningful encounters, valuable conversations, and adjustments of perspective to the loner on the road. And one pub in particular was the place he picked up his forward companion - a dog called Pontiflunk. The dog's owner wanted to give him a new home, but instead set him on a journey which would be long, enjoyable and (due to an unfortunate collision with a speeding car) his last.

    Our first pub stop the other day (pictured below) was typical of what the romantic traveller might expect - a village pub with a sense of history about it, and community, with conversation flowing easily around local characters, local places, and the tale of Hurst's visit warmly received and contemplated by all present (landlady and three regulars).

    But it was the interchange in the second one which was the more fascinating. In Ratcliffe on Trent, a commuter town just outside Nottingham, one of those pubs floating in a sea of car park concrete which is eerily empty during the day, relying solely on retired local couples taking their lunch from the (limited, preprocessed, but bearably passable) menu. Three strangers bearing backpacks were a most unusual addition to the clientele, sitting beneath the Golf Society rolls of honour which hint at the fuller sports-based fraternity who meet there in the evenings.

    The traveller asks questions which aren't normally addressed in such places, and tells tales which seem extraordinary there. The barmaid was visibly astonished that we were walking into Nottingham - "You mean, not getting a train or a bus...?" (the pub is close to a station which gets Ratcliffe residents to and from their Nottingham offices in just sixteen minutes). To the story about Hurst's acorn-planting walk her responses were mostly of the "wow" or "really?" variety. It wasn't that she was scandalised or cynical about what we were doing, it was just that it seemed to be completely outside the frame of reference of the usual (probably quite scant) conversation she was invited to join in this place.

    So when Phil gave her a copy of his Crab Walk picture cards as a parting gift, and we bade her farewell, she wished us good luck and gave Phil a very warm kiss, a kiss which might have been saying "be careful out there, intrepid traveller", but seemed more to be her way of thanking him for weaving her into a lovely story, the like of which, in her carpark sports bar, she might never hear again.
    Wednesday, April 11, 2007
    Half mad half genius
    We shared some great Bono stories on our ramble yesterday (the best being Mike's mum in the lobby of The Clarence, at the swaggering hotelier's invitation to choose a song for him to play for her on the piano, she - not knowing who he was - asking if he knew anything from Phantom of the Opera).

    This prompted me to recover my fading friendship with Half Man Half Biscuit and enjoying some audio extracts from Achtung Bono I also discovered the otherwise unreleased Epiphany, a true classic of English madness and manners:

    I can recall the day quite clearly:
    a Friday in July, a sweltering eighty degrees.
    Martin Jarvis was completing his week in Dictionary Corner.
    He'd been reassuringly average.
    Somewhere in the Shires surgeons had entered the mind of Mr Stinchcombe
    and found black apes gibbering on dark lawns.
    I'd spent the afternoon becoming increasingly frustrated with the grooving agitator on my lime Dyson.
    I was due in Parbold at 7.15 and wasn't going to make it.
    Telephoning the person who needed to know this
    I found myself caught up on a crossed line, something I'd not experienced for years.
    I listened in with quiet delight.
    It appeared that someone called Bill, whilst out walking the bounds that morning,
    had looked into Top Acre and been horrified to see
    the almost visible ribcage of a foal
    which belonged to the straggle-haired girl from Keeper's Cottage
    whose name, if this was a Helen Fielding novel,
    would be something like Martha Flanagan.
    But the countryside is never as romantic as townsfolk believe it to be
    And the girl's name was Karen Henderson...
    Tuesday, April 10, 2007
    Trent Valley wanderings

    A day out with Phil and Mike following in the footsteps of Charles Hurst, from Burton Joyce to the centre of Nottingham

    Are these Hurst's oaks? On the island between Burton Joyce and Shelford

    Englishness at its best: a roaming playwright, an art gallery director and a Church of England vicar combine with the lady publican of Shelford for a fine session of story-sharing in the very bar where Hurst enjoyed 'many a ponderous jest' with 'a few callow youths, ranging in age from fifty to one hundred years'

    Across the Trent from Stoke Bardolph - possibly an Entrance to Hell

    Boat crews out at the National Water Sports Centre

    Trent boathouses nestle beneath The Brian Clough Stand

    A lovely scenic setting for a football ground - and Notts County are on the opposite bank
    Saturday, April 07, 2007
    Pics from a West Derby Pilgrimage, today

    Easter chicks on a tree: Sure Start Children's Centre, Linbridge Road

    Barbara at the corner where the entrance to her childhood dairy farm used to be

    Jim strolling towards Tesco, on the site of Deysbrook Barracks

    Lunch in the grounds of Croxteth Hall

    On an island in Stonebridge leisure park, surrounded by fast-food franchises

    No choice for the consciencious, but thirsty, consumer, here

    Jim just makes it through to the Isis night club car park

    The children marvel at St Teresa's - school with a playground on the roof

    Outside the TA Barracks Mark explains the ongoing poignancy of Oliver's Army

    Margaret goes back to the start of the story of St Christopher's, The Children's Church

    Our children at the monument to the children of the Liverpool deaneries whose fundraising built St Christopher's in the 1930s
    Nil satis nisi optimum

    You mean is, pal: is an Evertonian ... Pic from When Skies Are Grey
    Friday, April 06, 2007
    We, too, have been crucified
    Thanks, Andrew Martin, who in today's New Statesman takes his (and my) beloved left-liberal media to task for its negative attitude to Christianity. 'Where have the lefty Christians gone?' he asks, reminding 'the average funky young columnist' that they're forgetting where the philosophical roots of their tradition lie when they mock Cliff Richard whilst neglecting to acknowledge the vital faith which drove Wilberforce, the Chartists, Octavia Hill, Gladstone, Attlee ... and today drives Gordon Brown.

    It strikes me that what he writes about media people could also apply to those funky Emerging / Fresh Expressions Christians devoted to shifting to the shapes of contemporary mores rather than grappling with the realities of historical continuity or the challenges of philosophical integrity. Unlike many of these people, Martin says nice things about clergy:

    I think of the vicars I know, scurrying about from sick visit to charity event in their scuffed Doc Martens and modest estate cars. It's been a very long time indeed since the faith to which they cleave has been a catalyst for violence - not since the Enlightenment at the latest. Today, well, it strikes me that every time I see our parish vicar, I'm on my way to do something for myself (go to the pub, buy groceries) while he's off to do something for somebody else. What salary is he on? Fourteen grand a year? It's not much of a return for an Oxbridge degree. Does he deserve such flak from "progressives" earning five times that in the media? Why are they trying to put the poor bloke out of business? It's not as if he doesn't subscribe to the publications they write for. I know for a fact that he does.

    All this is welcome on a day at the heart of the most demanding week in the church's calendar which for most clergy ends, wracked and sore on Easter Monday morning, with a sense that it is we, too, who have been crucified.
    Tuesday, April 03, 2007
    Icons for some times
    Thanks Jonny for the tip-off about Oleg Ikona whose contemporary icons remind me so much of Peter Murphy's Rock Icons, which have often graced these pages.

    The artist keenly desires to announce that "the time of new iconography, the time of assembling of the global transcendent, appropriate for the consciousness renovated by the technological revolution, has come."

    He goes on (in a way which makes sense if you read it closely), "The conditional character of the borders allows value carriers to move freely from one cultural area to another. The carriers come into collision, correct and subordinate each other, creating communicative, free from local phobias plane in which national and continental fetishes of different configurations exist together."

    I was fascinated to note that in this project to announce the breaking down of borders through new technologies, he chooses The Beatles and Liverpool's century-old waterfront of Empire as his iconic figures. Of course half a century ago The Beatles and their peers were melting boundaries in music by bringing the underground sounds of Black America to the youth of provincial Britain; and a century and more ago Liverpool's burgeoning trade in cotton and slaves was similarly stretching the transglobal economy into previously unknown shapes. But I'd not have chosen either as icons of our times, myself, from where I'm standing.

    Nevertheless, a fascinating project (and thanks again Jonny for the big pics). I'm just left a little disturbed by this image in which our two cathedrals and the Liver Buildings appear to be slowly sinking into a Mersey marshalled by what looks terribly like a Trident submarine.
    Monday, April 02, 2007
    Good Friday Audacity
    Enjoyed piecing together my hour-long Good Friday meditation today. Evidently this past year I have mastered iTunes; I have also invested in a great piece of voice recording equipment, and to complete the transition to King Vox I today gained the benefits of Audacity mp3 editing freeware.

    So rather than having to juggle a hand-held microphone and various cds, with the devout in the pews having to live with all the thuds, bleeps and bloops that entails, this year I'll be simply introducing one pre-recorded cd then sitting back to listen to myself reading extracts of the Gospel of John and T.S. Eliot, and music from The Last Temptation of Christ, The Fire This Time, and Tarek Abdallah. If you'd like a copy drop me a line.
    Sunday, April 01, 2007
    Three Holy Week Sermons, by James Alison
    I want to say how very honoured I am that you should trust me enough to allow me into your lives at this sacred time. If Lent is like a long drawn out visit to the dentist, Holy Week is open heart surgery. So it's a very great honour that you trust someone to come and stand in the operating theatre with you. Fear not, Our Lord is the surgeon and the anaesthetist. I'm just handing around the scalpels and forceps. But because it's a question of our heart, we are in Holy Space, it's a very, very great privilege to be honoured by you, that you feel safe enough to come and share some of that time with me.

    - that's how James Alison introduces the first of his Three Holy Week Sermons from 2006, just transcribed online in time for three probably very fruitful days in their company.