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

    Tuesday, July 31, 2007
    Tunnel visions
    Good day for a walk around Birkenhead, especially good as I've never, ever, walked around Birkenhead before in my life. A plain indication of the great rift across the River Mersey, that I've never before been drawn to the truly wonderful and historic Birkenhead Park, the big water and big docks, the miles-long grid of vast Victorian avenues and the townscape's seductive hints and views of the changing Liverpool waterfront. It's an engrossing place.

    I walked in the good company of Jim and Dave and a highlight of our four-hour derive was the discovery of the entrance to the Birkenhead dock branch route into the Mersey Tunnel, now unused and barred to traffic but still open to pedestrian access. Not an Entrance to Hell, this, more a route back to a fairly recent time when these docks merited a direct link to the city 'over the water'.

    When college campuses and arts centres move into the former commercial buildings you know that the form and function of the town has altered radically. But there's plenty of small businesses dockside, modestly getting on and hopefully getting by.
    Monday, July 30, 2007
    Recording the Ordinary

    Every time artist Ellie Harrison has a cup of tea (or a different type of hot drink) she notes down the thought which is most on her mind during the first few sips. You can see it all on her Tea Blog, each entry colour coded to reflect the type of drink she consumed. The result, a delight of mundane detail which builds into something quite other.

    Ellie's art is all about exploring what Georges Perec called the Infra-Ordinary, responding to his plea for the necessity to observe, contemplate and analyse the things we see around us day in, day out. In her notes to her Day-to-Day Data exhibition Ellie notes that
    [Perec] urges us to consider the significance of the actions, objects and experiences that we take for granted each day, as he believes them to be the only things in life we can ever hope to understand. It is impossible to perceive the entirety of the world because of the distant, removed way in which we, as individuals, view it. It seems logical that the things we have most contact with are the things of which we have greater knowledge. It is therefore possible to see why everyday life is an instinctive focus of the Day-to-Day Data artists' work.
    Through the application of a scientific or methodical approach to objects, events or experiences which a normal scientist (or normal person, for that matter) may well overlook, the Day-to-Day Data artists create an absurd or humorous new vision of the everyday life we are all accustomed to.
    Beside her tea blog, another example of this is Ellie's Daily Data Log where she recorded details of steps she walked and other exercise taken, latitude, longitude, temperature, bodily functions (solids, fluids, sneezes, gaseous), her 'global outlook' at 20.00 (on a scale of 1 to 10, after watching the early evening news) and Personal Outlook at the end of the day, plus lists of all foods eaten and people spoken to. She compiled this for a year and exhibited the results via a specially created multimedia Data Display Wall.

    I'm taking the Day-to-Day Data exhibition catalogue with me on my writing retreat this week, because I think there's some rich resources there in preparation for considering the meaning of Heaven in Ordinary.
    Sunday, July 29, 2007
    The spiritual heart of Britain - just off the M6
    I've just discovered that the ever-stimulating Ian Bradley, in Believing in Britain; The Spiritual Identity of 'Britishness' argues that Liverpool is the most British of UK cities, 'with a regional accent representing a medley of Welsh, Scots, Irish and English'. I'm sold on it already. He also discusses how a small village off the M6 motorway is arguably Britain's spiritual heart; and what theme parks, airport shops and eating habits have to tell us about the contemporary national character. Too late to book him for Greenbelt instead of me, I guess?
    Saturday, July 28, 2007
    Excess doping mars Tour de France
    This year's Tour de France has been hit by a scandalous excess of doping, as jobbing journalists who'd previously never been near professional cycling pour onto the roads of France to file inane reports about the sport's supposed demise, at such ludicrous speed as to raise the suspicions of the world's 'clean' writers.

    Many are helicoptering in to the race directly after broadcasting reports which raised isolated water-shortage incidents in Gloucestershire to the level of national moral panics, a firm indication that these so-called reporters are operating at such high levels of dimness that it could destroy the integrity of their profession.

    Though the results of their 'Liggett' Tests are still awaited it seems clear that journo after journo are likely to be found guilty of performing ludicrously. Having spewed out thousands of words in praise of the glory and bright future of Le Tour after its massively successful London / Kent start, they now condemn it. Either their minds have been affected by performance-reducing drugs or they are just plain stupid all the time.

    In denial of the reality of drug abuse in all major sports, the media dopiness continues. Ignoring the lead being taken by cycling's governing body and its teams in cleaning itself up, the headlines continue to be made by reporters pumped-up on their addiction to controversy. And so tomorrow as the athletes end their three-week endurance race on the Champs-Élysées it seems likely that the honest endeavours of trusted journalists on Le Tour will be undermined by the shrill stupidities emanating from attention-seeking Sunday supplement columnists.
    Friday, July 27, 2007
    Sea Fever

    Good to hear from William Raban, writing to tell me about his visit to FACT next week. Sea Fever looks fascinating, I'm frustrated to miss it as I'll be away writing material for some upcoming summer speaking events. Perhaps you, reader, will be able to get along.
    Meat processing
    Driving past the old Stanley Abattoir in a rainstorm today I recalled the rumours that C of E high school for girls Archbishop Blanch plan to move to this site soon. And laughed out loud as I realised that I'll probably be the first to make the inevitable connection online should such a move take place (I am, I've checked). With due deference to Bruce Dickinson, how about this strapline on admissions adverts to lure potential parents to the new site: Bring your Daughter to the Slaughter.

    (Actually they're more likely to move across the road to the old Fruit Market but that's nowhere near as funny)
    Wednesday, July 25, 2007
    TRIP 2008

    TRIP stands for Territories Reimagined: International Perspectives. Their website is here and it points towards some other tricksters who perhaps I may encounter on the Manchester leg of my walk, such as the Manchester Area Psychogeographic:

    "MAP is a psychogeographic newsletter for Manchester and its surrounding area. Psychogeographic publications have poured out of London in recent years - we think it's time Manchester was looked at and recorded. Our aim is to bring to light the truth about Manchester that remains hidden by time, buried under layer upon layer of concrete, shoveled aside by banal culture. Our interests lie in the hidden history, the ulterior motive, and the suppressed geography that the consumerised city centre masks. To detect that geography we are prone to the use of disorientating and de-normalising methods in language and testimony."

    Oh yes, their raison d'etre (as I think they say in Crumpsall) resonates quite deeply with me.
    Tuesday, July 24, 2007
    Some shine
    The M62 at its best on a shining day today; skies above Scammonden as clear as they get, summit views so breathtaking they made it imperative to pull in to the slow lane to enjoy them, traffic flowing freely all the way from Windy Arbour (J6) to beneath the towers of Ferrybridge power station (J33). I pulled in to a layby on the A1 for a bacon roll and to lean on a fence to take in the view of Megawatt Valley - the cooling towers of Ferrybridge, Eggborough, and Drax dominating the low landscape beneath a currently rare South Yorkshire sun.

    Impossible to think that only a couple of miles from my destination, Henry's, while we enjoyed lunch in a secluded garden corner suntrap, people's homes are still under water and the long, painful process of returning them from mud is just beginning. The flood-hit people of Doncaster, Sheffield and region are angered that the national media has quickly forgotten their plight, which is every bit as serious as in the Home Counties but of course off most journalists' very narrow radar. Expressing this is to invite criticism as Moaning Northerners; so the soaking, homeless, wrecked folks of this region struggle on in silence.
    Monday, July 23, 2007
    Discarding Chavasse

    Searching for responses to this Private Eye piece online I'm struck by the polarisation between the champions (and beneficiaries) of the new build and what they call the Heritage Lobby... people who raise issues like those above are deemed to be standing in the way of erm, inevitable progress. If the debate could cool a little then we might get to feel some interesting nuances, like for instance the sense that in his day Chavasse (and his father) were champions (and beneficiaries) of the new build and that the Americanisation of Liverpool happened many years ago - which is why when you stand on Dale Street beneath many of our old 'iconic' buildings you might be in New York. That said, I have to agree with Piloti: names are important and if regeneration and blandness must walk hand in hand then I hope they take a route out of here.
    Sunday, July 22, 2007
    Enhanced design
    Seeing those great pictures of Everton's proposed new stadium I'm temporarily not that bothered where, round here, it's going to be. I shall be writing to the club, however, to propose a necessary adjustment to the design: it really needs, of course, a church in the corner.
    Saturday, July 21, 2007
    Thoughtless Acts

    This is a screenshot from Thoughtless Acts, a project by designer Jane Fulton Suri, which I discovered via an excellent article at Core77 in which Kevin Henry compares and contrasts Fulton Suri's mapping of everyday minutae with the approach of artist Richard Wentworth to the same task.

    Wentworth's Making Do and Getting By is an ongoing series of photographs illustrating the tiny details of everyday environments in a way which raises the viewers awareness of them, and of how we humans interact with them. His actual everyday environment is the Caledonian Road, a messy urban corridor heading north out of King's Cross, a road I've walked many times and which Wentworth describes as An Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty.

    Wentworth takes the inspiration from his daily walks along The Cally into his work as a sculptor. An interview at the time of his Liverpool Tate retrospective noted that:
    "Street litter may cause distaste in most of us but Wentworth finds these sights constantly illuminating about the way man is changing his environment. Typically, he points out that a folded cigarette packet beneath a wobbly table leg is more monumental than a Henry Moore sculpture. 'There are five reasons for this, firstly the scale. Secondly, the fingertip manipulation. Thirdly, modesty of both gesture and material. Fourth its absurdity and fifth, the fact that it works.'"
    Fulton Suri organises the various ways in which we subconsciously engage with the world into seven suggested categories: reacting?, responding?, co-opting? exploiting?, adapting?, conforming? and signalling? and the website accessibly details what she means by each of these (as above).

    All of this endeavour to illuminate the quotidian leads Kevin Henry to speculate on
    the way that photography has 'been used by social scientists, designers, and artists to document minutia since the medium began.'
    [Photography] instantaneously captures a slice of life for later examination which, as Susan Sontag wrote, "thickens the environment we recognize as modern."
    This got me thinking just how much of the material which has helped me to deepen my understanding of the mundane, quotidian, everyday, has been photographic: Martin Parr, The Caravan Gallery, etc; and filmic: Keiller, Kotting etc.

    And Henry encourages reflection on the significance of social networking sites like Flickr and MySpace - 'repositories for all these quotidian images'. Seems that more of us than we'd imagined are reading the everyday, indulging in monitoring and promoting our personal Thoughtless Acts, and quite possibly becoming increasingly open to the idea of encountering Heaven in Ordinary.
    Friday, July 20, 2007
    You rang, sir?
    Researching my walk it's quickly become clear that the publicists of Leeds are keen to promote it as the most up-and-coming, the fastest growing city in the UK.

    Chapeltown residents may not quite see it this way, but Leeds is now the 'Knightsbridge of the North', destination Harvey Nichols. All this hype got me thinking that if I'm going to stay there a week on my travels then I ought to test-drive this Leeds lifestyle to see if it's all it's made out to be.

    And so, before I could stop myself, today I booked myself a week in a luxury Leeds serviced apartment. Well, after slogging across East Yorkshire, meandering around Wakefield Europort and sleeping in pub rooms and Travelodges maybe I'll be ready for a little pampering.
    Tuesday, July 17, 2007
    Galactic Zoo Dossier

    Disregard the inclement weather; summer has arrived anyway. Because the publication of issue #7 of Galactic Zoo Dossier with its accompanying cds, Teenage Meadows of Infinity (Rare Psychs and Stomps) and From the Ashes Perfect Attainment Shall Be (Modern Freaked Sounds) signals months of glorious obscure and wonderful psychedelia ahead.

    As its publicity [pdf] pronounces, Galactic Zoo Dossier is the premier hand-drawn pyschedelic dossier, a lovingly-sketched appreciation of outsider sounds embracing (among many others) Tiny Tim, The Stooges, Mungo Jerry, Julie Driscoll, and Acid Mothers Temple.

    The only pages which look remotely like they may have been anywhere near a computer are those written - in 'freehand'-type font - by Scott Wilkinson, surveying the influence of the blues on psychedelia, garage and folk-rock. And besides the 100+ paged mag and the 2 hours 35 minutes of recorded music the pack also contains 72 collectable cards each featuring a pic and brief appreciation of an underground musical great, this issue focussing on Astral Folk Goddesses including Anne Briggs, Mary Hopkin and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

    They call them trading cards, but I'm keeping mine. Pick one at random, each week, and spend the subsequent seven days researching then relishing that particular artist's doubtless awesome contribution to out-rock culture, and the summer will last all year. [Buy from Boomkat while stocks last].
    Sunday, July 15, 2007
    Made under the influence of Enthusiasm
    The nature of the Roman Catholic Church is to make the here-and-now Christ grow and be available to all. The nature of the Protestant Church is to communicate "cheap Grace" - which is no Grace at all - through emotional, provocative and stimulating entertainment, especially through the twin talismans of noise and rhythm. Most of the records in this collection were made under the influence of Enthusiasm.

    I've been trying for a decade (on and off) to obtain a copy of American Primitive Vol. 1 - Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) and today thanks to Second Layer I have one. Worth exploring for John Fahey's provocative six-page theologising sleeve notes even before listening to the astonishing sounds therein. Fahey is onto something when he writes of this very primal music, 'I have to say that, Flannery O'Connor notwithstanding, underneath it all I hear pan pipes tooting and a cloven hoof beating time', and in his rich description of the collection's opening artist: 'Blind Willie Davis. Very exciting. Davis sounds like he came up right out of the earth.'
    Friday, July 13, 2007
    The Heart of Cheltenham

    Look at a map of Cheltenham Racecourse and you notice that it's heart-shaped. Use your imagination whilst map-reading and the town of Cheltenham itself has the look of that essential organ. I've been there for the last three days, planning out the route for the walk I'll lead through there from Greenbelt next month.

    There won't be many corny coronary cliches involved in it, more an exploration of the character of the town by following its sometimes hidden watercourses. But I will be calling it the Heart of Cheltenham pilgrimage.
    Sunday, July 08, 2007
    On Bidborough Ridge
    The view from Bidborough Ridge is awe inspiring: the land falls away steeply to the north, classic green English countryside scarred by the wide A21 sweeping down from Sevenoaks. Today though attention was on the more modest A26, for it was this old road which carried the Tour de France through Tonbridge and on to Royal Tunbridge Wells. And after a few detours trying to find my way through Winnie the Pooh country it was at the junction where the A26 rises to cross Bidborough Ridge that I spent a heartwarming couple of hours among the hundreds of others gathered there in the sunshine, and shared those heartstopping moments when the peloton swept through in a blaze of colour, light, speed and endeavour. Like any great journey Le Tour not only connects those who join it to a spectacle of epic proportions; it connects them to their land, their story, and something inspirational otherwise hidden in their hearts.
    Friday, July 06, 2007
    A Hove occasion

    Unusual for me - but that's what holidays are for, breaking from the usual - to spend an evening at a cricket match. So, my first visit to the County Ground, Hove, first taste of the Twenty20 Cup, was rewarded by sunshine and a storming performance by Luke Wright (nine fours and six sixes from just 48 balls). Unfortunately Hampshire were never going to match Sussex's first-half performance, the half-time entertainment was rather feeble (Majorettes reduced to just four due to various injuries), the corporate beer pricey and tasteless, and it got a bit chilly second half. So overall a typical happily quite-satisfying English summer sporting evening. Tomorrow: France comes to London, a quite different proposition.
    Thursday, July 05, 2007
    Girl and Dean
    A good move, stopping off halfway around the M25 for a trip into a gorgeous corner of London (Little Venice) to see comedy duo Girl and Dean perform a pre-Edinburgh show for their home audience, including a table full of various supportive Greenbelt bodies. Onetime GB programme manager Sarah’s given up her arts admin job to go for the comedy career full-on, and it's clear that she and Jess have worked hard in preparation: it is a very good show.

    Girl and Dean specialise in sketches which gently mock society’s pretensions and apprehensions; they do this with a very good turn of phrase and the aid of skilfully crafted low-budget visual aids (they are sponsored by a purveyor of knitting patterns). Of course no review can really express the fun they raise, but I must mention their excellent Corporate Takeover sketch (massive multinational factory unit in the form of a big cardboard box deals with the tiny threat posed by wholesome fair trade company next door, a far more modest invention, by parking itself on top of it) and their wooden-spoon-puppet schoolgirl romp King of The North (who is the King of The North? Sean Bean, apparently).

    It felt just a little uncomfortable watching this latter sketch, in a West London room with a West London audience, wondering whether the audience really got Girl and Dean’s intention to lay open the daftness of southern stereotypes of The North (if that was their intention), or whether the audience were just enjoying laughing along with the stereotypes. Perhaps the satire would bite more if it was a tiny bit crueller on those being satirised - but there is a value in it all being so gentle and understated. Certainly few who see it will quickly forget the sketch about the Office Bigot, a man not unlike most of us, who, carried forward on a wave of his own reasoned argument, ends up suggesting that the best way to purify the office would be to unscrew all the marker pens in the stationary cupboard, thus creating a toxic fog, and locking all of the troublesome staff - those disabled, black, etc - in there to be gassed...

    So Girl and Dean make you uncomfortable sometimes; make you think about your own silly assumptions; they make you smile very often and laugh a lot too. They also make very good knitted clipboard covers and offer help with legal claims if you've been the victim of a Ninja attack. I’m glad that BBC Four (so I'm told) have chosen to follow their progress through their first Edinburgh festival and I hope they get on really well up there.
    Wednesday, July 04, 2007
    mydeath is back online
    At last, mydeath.net is up and running again. So I've updated my details....
    Tuesday, July 03, 2007
    Migraine Inducers/Antagonistic Music
    Some reviewers of the reissue of Martyn Bates' 1979 DIY cassette Migraine Inducers / Antagonistic Music say that the title is just right. It's certainly noisy and that it's an acquired taste is witnessed by my having today received signed edition number 34 out of 100, but there's a musicality to it and a depth to it which will keep it in my ears for a good while yet.

    It was Bates' recent interview in The Wire which put me onto this release, an interview which explores how an artist who began with such an extreme experiment in 'industrial' sound could also be so wrapped up in English folk:
    Bates's ... [collaborations] place him at the heart of England's 'hidden reverse', ... Coil, Current 93, Death In June, Nurse With Wound, Sol Invictus, et al. Bates goes back a long way with this UK avant garde; in the early 80s he sent review tapes to a zine called Stabmental, edited by one Geoff Rushton, later known as John Balance of Coil. "He liked the stuff," says Bates, "and actually gave me the first positive press for Eyeless, because he liked the stuff I'd done with Migraine Inducers."
    Folk and industrial are intertwined, notes Bates, in ways which have sometimes veered into dangerous territory:
    ... he is keen to distance himself from 'apocalyptic folk' or 'neo-folk', the terms commonly used to describe the post-Industrial shift from harsh electronics to a more folk based acoustic in the 1990s, and which have become controversial due to Death In June's interest in the same European historical/mythological continuum as that employed to justify the Nazi Holocaust, and references to European fascism.
    "If you look at the basic ethos behind the Industrial stuff," Bates cautions, "you've only got to make the slightest exploration of the key dark impulses of the 20th century, and if you look at fascism, one of the key proselytising aspects is folk music. If you're exploring that kind of thread, at some point you're going to come back to folk music - but I think I'm sailing far enough away, and I always like to think I'm coming from a benign place rather than the destructive aspects. You can only afford to put out so much hate, but it costs too much in terms of negative energy."
    And that last statement might be spiralled back to the Migraine Inducers tape to help explain why something called Antagonistic Music is certainly provocative, but equally carries a beauty of form and content which is - like much of Bates' future work - clearly expressive of positive energy.
    Monday, July 02, 2007
    I'm a square

    Every greyed-out square is a poem in waiting. The www.poem800.com website is inviting contributors to write their own Liverpool poem. Mine (first shared here with you, dear reader) is a click away at that blue-tinted arched window.
    Sunday, July 01, 2007
    This weekend's ordinations #2: In the largest modern cathedral in the world, hundreds of us feeling our insignificance beneath the great sandstone vault, the sheer size of the space rendering many of us blind to see what was happening and others of us deaf to the big liturgy, and numbed through sitting tight for many long minutes, we celebrated with friends and colleagues their entrance into ministry, using the best sense we had available, our voices: repeating the long, long chant through the bishop's consecrations: Come, Holy Spirit, come.