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

    Monday, December 31, 2007
    Quote for the turning of the year
    "Old relatives and unconditional lovers, they really don't care about getting it right, they just care."

    I think this does nicely as a quote for the turning of the year. It's an observation which rings true at this season of one-off visitations and half-cocked gestures of inappropriate generosity which make our winter festivities so dreadful and so wonderful. I don't do resolutions but it seems like a good idea to me to try in future to behave more like an old relative and unconditional lover. And just care.

    The quote is from Kristin Hersh who is generously posting her new music online for fans to download, free, but with the request that we subscribe to this service as support for her and her good art. Her latest song Torque segues moments in her life when she found herself waiting to be rescued, and of it she writes: "This is how songs work; they take your life stories and mix them up because, like old relatives and unconditional lovers, they really don't care about getting it right, they just care."

    [If you missed it, my Christmas letter / Review of 2007 (pdf) is here]
    Sunday, December 30, 2007
    Slaughter of the Innocents
    My last talk of 2007 - on the Slaughter of the Innocents. It's been that sort of a year.
    Sunday, December 23, 2007
    Life's more complicated these days. Christmas holidays used to be a time for soaking in the delights of the NME Christmas special. These days there's not much of a holiday for me and the NME is no longer much of a read. But despite all that, after a recent binge in some alt.mag shops my reading matter for the next week or so will include:

    Fortean Times
    When Saturday Comes
    Plan B

    That's if I'm not sidetracked by one or more of the distinctly book-shaped Christmas-wrapped gifts awaiting my opening on Tuesday morning. I'll be back... with some reflections I hope, from all this input... quite soon. Meanwhile, reader, season's greetings.
    Saturday, December 22, 2007
    Picking up the detail
    Christmas, as often happens, comes early for me. The next three days loom heavily as work... but the past 48 hours have been mostly devoted to catching up with various friends and family, eating out, calling in, swopping gifts, exchanging stories of the past months when the demands of our ludicrously hectic lives have kept us apart.

    I've been tempted to assume that all that I gained from my sabbatical has disappeared in the return to routine; but in truth some good things seem to have lingered. Perhaps the best thing I have - so far - held onto is the ability to listen more closely than before, to the stories of familiar people and familiar places, something I tried to cultivate on my two-month journey through the obvious and the mundane.

    I've noticed this today in reflecting back on the conversations of my early-Christmas. Though I spent this time mostly with the people I'm most familiar with in life, I realise that by staying attentive I've actually learned a whole lot more about them than I knew before. Our reunions have been routine but every one of them has revealed something fresh and new... not necessarily remarkable, but sufficient to make me think there's enough in all our lives to keep our friendships fresh for a long while yet. If we keep the eyes and ears of our hearts open to each other.

    Hopefully I may be able to find the same thing happening as I now have to turn again to the work of illuminating that nativity story which is very like an old friend with whom over-familiarity might have bred complacency.
    Wednesday, December 19, 2007
    Revolting Liverpudlians

    What a good idea. They've drilled a hole in the latest issue of Nerve and devoted most of its pages to what they're calling the Merseyside Resistance Calendar. It's a magazine which will last all year on my wall, because its theme is a celebration of the 'People's Culture':
    While the official art world has been gearing up for the [Capital of Culture] celebrations, at Nerve we have been burning the midnight oil, collecting stories of activism, resistance and rebellion. We think that a celebration of the 'People's Culture' is in order: the culture that has shaped the city over many years, and won't end with the dawn of 2009.
    January's picture is a photo taken of Mike Jones' mural in the dome of the former People's Centre, Hardman Street. It's an artwork I've strained my neck muscles many times to admire on visits there. A tribute to Liverpool campaigners of many types and eras: 1990s dockers, Peoples Marchers for Jobs, construction workers, womens rights activists, and at their head the undersung slave trade opponent, Edward Rushton. At 19 the ships mate Rushton was blinded by opthalmia which he caught from slaves who he insisted on serving with food and drink, after the rest of the American ship's crew had battened down the hatches on them. He turned his career - and his poet's pen - to fighting slavery, failing to endear himself to Washington by sending them verses like these:
    How can you, who have felt the oppressor's hard hand,
    Who for freedom all perils would brave,
    How can you enjoy peace, while one foot of your land
    Is disgraced by the toil of a slave!
    The Nerve researchers have done us all a service in compiling a calendar which details many moments in our city's history which are vulnerable to being sidelined by the mainstream. It's heartening to report that the people of Liverpool have been revolting for a long time. Usually for very good reasons.

    Photo: Bob Iddon
    Tuesday, December 18, 2007
    Bill Griffiths
    The day I walked out of Goole, following the long straight line of the Aire and Calderdale Canal in parallel with the Dutch River, stumbling in the dusty heat - the poet Bill Griffiths died. He who lived and wrote for many years on a house boat, The Amra, until welders mistakenly set it and most of his life's work alight. I only heard the news of his death today.

    And the day I stood at the very core of the motorway network in the thunderstorm funnel where the M62 and M1 meet, staring northwards - further up that seething road in Sunderland they cremated Bill Griffiths. Today I re-read his words and they commentate on my journey.
    a street will lead to Russian Orthodoxy
    or a golf course.

    You are lost.
    I know Bill Griffiths through Iain Sinclair, who remembered the pioneering writer as his London Orbital journey led him through Cowley Lock, Uxbridge where Griffiths had lived ('tactfully removed from the scene') until the fire. Sinclair wrote:
    Griffiths' work atomises, splits off into discrete files or songs; his poems are many-voiced, resolutely non-hierarchic. You learn to navigate the tributaries, while waiting to be carried back into the main stream. He's a musician who deploys subtle and shocking rhythms.
    That was true at many levels. For the one time Hells Angel with L-O-V-E tattooed on one set of knuckles and H-A-T-E on the other, had a grand piano in his final home, a terraced cabin in sea-coal port Seaham on the Durham coast. The one time I saw him perform was at Sinclair's Barbican do; in an eclectic set which included rudeness from Ken Campbell, metal from Jimmy Cauty and the appearance of a cardboard cut-out of J.G.Ballard, Griffiths played Bartók - beautifully. And recited some of his ingenious, playful, wonderfully suggestive verse.

    Having spent the best part of this evening reacquainting myself with Griffith's epic A Book of Spilt Cities I shan't pretend I'm yet at one with it. He radically bends and reshapes language, at a pace which can leave your head spinning. As Sinclair puts it, 'Through momentum, he achieves prophetic instability'. But I've connected with enough in his work to make me want to know it more; and I can see what they mean, those who know his work far better, when they say (as does Nicholas Johnson here) that one day he will be regarded as an English great.
    the surge of the new azoic prairie
    the mechanical country
    the plain / playing fields
    gardens / grass
    sportsland / spareland
    roadtrim / recreational
    first the levelness
    then TENNIS
    behold POSTS & PALACES
    where life failed to reach
    (odd parcels)
    we need an alternative commitment.

    Griffiths photograph from Salt Publishing website.
    Monday, December 17, 2007
    Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus
    I've been on a Liverpool Nativity high all day. Oddly numerous bloggers seem to be intent on (or content with) criticising last night's play for not being biblically accurate or slick enough, and others feel it necessary to damn the people of Liverpool for so explicitly enjoying ourselves. I'm sidestepping the urge to get embroiled in dead-end conversations on those unpromising themes. Instead I recall that enthused by The Manchester Passion but yearning for a more left-field version, I afterwards rewrote the set list entirely using songs by The Fall.

    None of that sort of silliness tonight but just a yearning to dig deep back into my personal musical prehistory (I'm talking mid-eighties) with a desire to illuminate and celebrate again the music of the Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus. Using them as a soundtrack to last night's events would have radicalised things somewhat. In a good way.

    Rupert reminded me of RAIJ recently, sending me a link to Lost-In-Tyme, a website where it's possible to download a substantial amount of their back catalogue. On that site Thomas Jones describes them (accurately) as "...an anarcho-Christian collective [who] brought all of these elements together: Acoustic-electronic, innocence-wisdom, lucidity-confusion, Christian-pagan."

    The Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus were a singularly classy and mysterious Liverpool group. Their music combined classics, Orthodox chants, madrigal, mediaeval flutes, echo-chamber percussion, chopped-up European film soundtrack samples and stark electronic soundscapes. Their songs included: Joy Of The Cross, Hymn To Dionysus, Nostalgia, Theme De "L'Homme Qui Ne Croyait Pas En Lui-Meme", Psalm, Nativity. They kept the lowest of profiles but performed with a rare passion. I once saw them on stage silhouetted behind heavy net curtains in a set which ended in an explosion of onstage violence, band vs. instruments and props, as the keyboard drone segued into a painful feedback loop and clouds of dry ice spilled out from the stage to shroud the audience... glorious!

    RAIJ always seem to have been wilfully elusive. I remember trying to make contact with them probably a decade ago, for a gig we wanted them involved in, and failing to find them then... By now they're probably running an underground Eastern Orthodox commune somewhere in mid-Wales. Or perhaps working part-time in Probe Records. Reader, perhaps you know?
    Sunday, December 16, 2007
    No one you can save that can't be saved
    The Flashmob Operas, the Manchester Passion, the Margate Exodus and tonight the Liverpool Nativity: all of them affirm the ongoing English love of gathering en-masse for a celebration of the deep mysteries which link people, music, story and place. And the latter three events also acknowledge that, as one writer put it this week, "ours is historically a Christian culture." That writer goes on to share a concern that "children who grow up ignorant of biblical literature are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished," and a great thing about events like these is that they play a significant role in helping these narratives resurface and be reborn, in the mainstream.

    The scene in the Liverpool Nativity which will probably remain with me the longest is the one at the Pier Head Landing Stage where Jodie McNee as Mary faces a mob trying to push her asylum-seeker Joseph back onto the Seacombe Ferry. In the middle of the brawl McNee/Mary spits out in brittle Liverpudlian defiance the words, "There's nothing you can do that can't be done / Nothing you can sing that can't be sung... // There's nothing you can make that can't be made / No one you can save that can't be saved / Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time..." Enveloped in trauma at the most difficult time of her young life she sings on through gritted teeth, "It's easy..." And that is powerful, powerful theatre.

    Like the excellent Margate event the Liverpool Nativity places the asylum-seeker / scapegoat scenario at the centre of its narrative, which brings the story home on so many levels, not least the political. It spins the story out into the life of our society with renewed relevance and vigour. Causes me to connect McNee's Mary to three other Liverpool mothers: Kate McCann, Melanie Jones and Gillian Gibbons, each of whom have displayed awesome dignity and personified the brittleness of slender hope in defiance of the terrors and torments visited upon them this year.

    "It's easy..." their stories sing, when they and we all know it's really not easy at all. But The Story somehow continues to offer something substantial to a Christian culture at odds with itself. Who is the writer emphasising the essentialness of The Story for our children's education? Richard Dawkins, in this week's New Statesman.
    Saturday, December 15, 2007
    White Goods and the Genius Loci
    Something makes me suspect that Tricity Bendix doesn't actually exist as a romantic novelist. Nor, for that matter, as an interviewee. I think she owes rather a lot to editor Matt Haynes who includes in Smoke #11 an alleged extract from her forthcoming autobiography, I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say Pwllheli.

    In just five pages this piece manages to convey many of the best things about Smoke: a sense of place (in this case Brentford Dock), observant depictions of human absurdities (real ale enthusiasts re-enacting English Civil War battles), flights of fancy (I hope - Tricity's crazed Foreign Office employee father who in 1973 confused the Palestine Liberation Army with the Port of London Authority and ended up firing shells into Brentford Dock), and sympathetically witty characterisations of quite plausible people (eg, one Sister Siena, a teacher at Tricity's school who failed to reconcile The Parable of the Loaves and Fishes with the Law of Conservation of Matter, and holding a packet of Sunblest and a box of Findus 100% cod fish fingers in her hands admitted before the class her loss of faith: “it couldn’t possibly have happened!”).

    This is exceptional writing. Brilliantly crafted. But the small things in Smoke are equally good: like the Urban Interventions series (No.78: Glue a cheap Woolworths light switch to each lamp post in your street along with a small printed note saying "Please turn off after use"). And the little pieces of found text: 'In a Liverpool Road Garden: To whoever took the sunflower, enjoy it. My 5-year-old who grew it is devastated. Next time, could you not try and buy one from Sainsbury's?'
    Friday, December 14, 2007
    Archeology in Reverse
    Archeology in Reverse: a revealing concept, the work of Stephen Gill who has published a book of 100 photographs - taken with a camera he bought at Hackney Wick market for 50p - of 'a place in a state of limbo prior to the rapid transformation that this area faces during the build-up to the Olympics in 2012.' It's the follow-up to his successful Hackney Wick series of pictures and Gill says that his book records the "traces and clues of things to come" in that contested liminal space.

    A Guardian review article by Robert Macfarlane says that '[Gill's] subject is the imminence of mass construction, rather than its realisation.' It's little surprise that Iain Sinclair was Macfarlane's companion for the walk which frames his article. It is a good read and also a good resource which points to other fascinating work being done on the changes being made to the Lower Lea Valley and related areas, by such creatives as Jason Orton, Patrick Keiller and Emily Cole, Ken Worpole, William Mann, and the band/filmmakers Saint Etienne.

    Emily Cole's work particularly catches my eye, paintings of 'urban and pastoral landscapes', brightly coloured impressionistic scenes of fast-moving carriageways, abandoned railway land, vast empty car parks. And Sinclair is onto her work too (a small world, evidently, East London) with a recent article on her website which perceptively illuminates the role of public art in places like the Lower Lea which have been deemed to be of "No value. Until, of course, in zones hysterical with self-consciousness, guerrilla art is puffed into cash art. Trashed buildings and disregarded walls are prepared for property speculation by the imprimatur of a Banksy stencil."

    What's happening behind the construction walls in East London right now is of course happening to us all (lottery funds being ripped from the hands of needy communities in other parts of Britain to line the pockets of Olympic regeneration developers and shareholders). As ever it's virtually only the artists who are left saying anything remotely critical about these processes. These seem to be the ones worth engaging.
    Thursday, December 13, 2007
    On speaking unpredictably
    "God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart but in the voice of the stranger ... God must be allowed the right to speak unpredictably."
    Funny, those words of Thomas Merton (introducing the theme of the 2008 conference of the UK Thomas Merton Society) would have fitted well both in my talk last Sunday and in the introduction to my walk book - had I read them before. I'm realising how new Merton is to me, one of those writers I've previously just known of rather than really engaged with; however since returning to everyday routine (after the travelling routine of my autumn) people have put books (and quotes) of his into my hands, and I've begun to appreciate the great depth of insight of this 'monk with his eyes open to the world'.

    That last quote comes from Lynn Szabo's essay in the current volume of the The Merton Journal which Keith, who edits it, kindly posted me. Szabo writes about Merton's contemplations of 'the conundrum of human speech and its delimiting inabilities to inscribe spiritual realities'. But 'everything that moves is full of mystical theologies', Merton once wrote, and he tried to develop a simple language to unpack that mystery, rooted and grounded in his observations of everyday life. And there I was, on sabbatical if in a far inferior place poetically, just beginning to eke out the possibility of finding a language to unpack the mystical theologies present in our everyday settings: hence prayers at the Trafford Centre and Goodly Spirits in Goole.

    Of course Merton took himself off into a solitary place to develop his language whereas I'm committed to searching it out in the noise; however Merton's solitude was metaphysically engaged with, not removed from the noise, he was a poet of the nuclear age. Having been kindly prodded in his direction I shall enjoy learning more from Merton, and his unpredictable voices.
    Monday, December 10, 2007
    Good scheme
    Well, yes; if you're going to begin a tour of Britain (set to music, not unlike Sufjan's interstate adventure) then where better to start than at the junction of the A572 and M62, Worsley. That's what The Woodcraft Folk are doing with their friend Dollboy and their Travels Around Britain CD series, and the segment of chopped-up old OS map they sent me with the limited edition 3" disc details that section of roadway in the years before the M60 was thought of. Dollboy offer the most minimalist reading of Morrisey's Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me that you'll ever hear, while The Woodcraft Folk cover The Fall's English Scheme with characteristic digital whimsicality, clicks, loops, birdsongs and all. It's beautiful.
    "O'er grassy dale, and lowland scene
    Come see, come hear, the English Scheme."
    I wonder where they'll travel next: and which section of old OS map I'll be proudly collecting with that release. Pre-Spaghetti Junction Birmingham I wonder, with covers of Judas Priest and Black Sabbath?
    "If we was smart we'd emigrate"
    - no, you got that wrong, M.E.S. Not with art like this around.
    Sunday, December 09, 2007
    Another Eve
    It is I who am the part of my mother;
    And it is I who am the mother;
    It is I who am the wife;
    It is I who am the virgin;
    It is I who am pregnant;
    It is I who am the midwife;
    It is I who am the one that comforts pains of travail;
    It is my husband who bore me;
    And it is I who am his mother,
    And it is he who is my father and my lord.
    It is he who is my force;
    What he desires, he says with reason.
    I am in the process of becoming.
    Yet I have borne a man as lord.
    - On the Origin of the World, from the Nag Hammadi texts, thus describes Eve. Struck me that it's equally suggestive of Mary, as her week in Advent approaches...
    Saturday, December 08, 2007
    I'm often exhausted after a football match, but seldom before. I was tired and weary in mental torment before today's game, though, carrying a weakness which drained the energy from me even after a good warming fry-up lunch. It was the thought of having to make a twenty-minute walk to Goodison through sheets of heavy rain. It was the planning for the ordeal: considering waterproofing options, thinking of the best route - to avoid as much as possible the likelihood of being drenched by vehicles passing through kerbside floods. For once it wasn't the prospect of the game which anguished me, for Everton are in good form and a win against stuttering Fulham looked likely. It was just the old-man reluctance to heave my tired bones away from the glowing hot Dimplex out into the wild grey waterstorm.

    In the end it was the bind of the season ticket which got me moving - the unalterable truth that I'd already paid for my seat at the game, and paid plenty. So I changed into my heavy-duty hiking trousers and boots, squeezed my winter football coat over a thin waterproof jacket (in the knowledge that the winter coat would begin to take in water within fifty yards of a walk through today's torrents), experimented with a variety of hats and hoods, and set out into the dreadful weather.

    Being soaked makes a football crowd sit unusually still, quietly drying off, each conscious of their unique patches of cold and damp in particular areas of their bodies, the whole 32,000 breathless from a traumatic dash to the ground, gently and gratefully abandoned now to being under cover for the next two hours while the deluge continues to sweep the pitch and render the players saturated. Standing up to watch corners and other goal attempts offers the spectators opportunities to check on the slow evaporation of their outer and inner layers, to make small adjustments for comfort. Dancing up and down to celebrate goals squeezes just that little bit more liquid from 64,000 soggy socks.

    If you're winning you still sing when you're soaking, as today for hat-trick Yakubu: "Feed The Yak and he will score" (Cwm Rhondda). And if you've won then regardless of your own discomfort you feel generous enough to help out a fellow-fan in trouble. On the way home three of us risked slipping into deep muddy puddles as we pushed and splashed and heaved to help a van get off a muddy grass verge. The grateful driver was careful not to spin his back wheels too much or he would have caked us all in roadside slurry. By then, of course, it would have mattered little to us if he had. Wet through anyway, and bound for the warm glow of home.
    Thursday, December 06, 2007
    "Oh Liverpool, oh life!" - oh, stop it
    "Oh Liverpool, oh life!" - oh, stop it. Read too much of the Mersey Minis book series in one go and you get sick of the incessant exaltation of a city sentimentalised by outsiders who just passed through on a good day, expatriots seeing it through the naïve lenses of childhood memories and - worst of all - people who've lived here all their lives refusing to engage with the complexities, injustices and contradictions of the place, just lauding it like it were the unblemished heavenly crystal city. (I quote:) "the voice of its streets are deeper than all roses". Whaaaat?

    I first blogged about Mersey Minis here and my overall opinion of them hasn't changed, now all five have been published (and I've had four delivered, Volume Two presumably falling victim to the postal strike). They are a beautifully produced and collectable set of books, and what I like best about their design are the linocuts by Clare Curtis. Having discovered that she's selling prints of them I'll be down to Editions tomorrow (on my annual do it all in one go Christmas shopping trip) to price them up, maybe bring one home.

    I may carry back a couple of boxed sets of these books in my shopping bag, too, because they're well worth sharing. And I'll be recommending to whoever gets them that they read them in small doses. Because inbetween the sentimentality, the over-reliance on the port metaphor and the overemphasis on the city centre and bohemian L8/L17 there are also many entries which sparkle with truthfulness, awkwardness, daft and frankly shameful stories from the streets.
    Street door bursts noisily open. Heads turn. It's the woman who sells the Echo, a bundle of papers under her arm. 'Echo! Echo! Echo!' Front page banner headline screams 'JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD CRAZED GUNMAN CHARGED'. 'Hey doll' shouts a drinker 'gimme allofthem...be worth a lot one day.' Muted snorts of laughter. Heads shaking in disbelief. This is Liverpool. Imagine.
    - Walter Menzies, Shot Dead, in Mersey Minis Volume Three: Longing.
    Wednesday, December 05, 2007
    When you arrive you are ruined
    In a Zen koan someone said that an enlightened man is not one who seeks Buddha or finds Buddha, but simply an ordinary man who has nothing left to do. Yet mere stopping is not arriving. To stop is to stay a million miles from it and to do nothing is to miss it by the whole width of the universe. As for arriving, when you arrive you are ruined. Yet how close the solution is: how simple it would be to have nothing more to do if only - one had really nothing more to do. But the ripe fruit falls out of the tree without even thinking about it. Why? The man who is ripe discovers that there was never anything to be done from the very beginning.
    - Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Quote of the week for me, having 'arrived' back into busyness, wishing I had nothing left to do...
    Tuesday, December 04, 2007
    Gill Gibbons and The Teapot Prize
    I can't say that I know Gill Gibbons though I'm certain that I was at a few parties with her when I worked with her (now ex-) husband Pete, then head of Beaufort Street Primary School in Liverpool 8 a decade ago. But what a joy to watch her press conference, back in Britain after her release, showing such warmth and graciousness towards everyone involved in the wierd episode of her imprisonment, including her captors. In a good 24 hours for our city (hosting both the Turner Prize Award and the Royal Variety Performance last night) I think Gill's generous spirit says as much about the culture of this place as will all the glitzy events planned for 2008. "I wouldn't like it to put anybody off going to Sudan. In fact, I know of a lovely school that needs a new Year Two teacher," she said, and later, thinking of her own situation now and putting a very different spin on a well-worn Liverpudlian expression, "I'm looking for a job..."

    Odd how things re-emerge in unexpected combination. I've set aside this week to clean out my room, to clear some shelf space so as to be able to reclaim the floor and declutter my desk. Thus hopefully decluttering my head space too. I've been doing things I've never contemplated before like chucking out rows of old journals, stacks of magazines and newspaper cuttings and the bulk of my papers from university and various colleges, which have followed me from house to house in the five moves I've made since that first one in 1995, to live and work in the community which Pete Gibbons and his staff served so well.

    I began this task of clearance quite ruthlessly - not stopping to re-read all those old notes from Welsh History (Cardiff Uni 1985) and Modern Critical Theory (1987); resisting the temptation to revisit my collection of Ship of Fools (the publication, from the early 1980s, many years before the website was conceived) or to bask in the triumph of Wallop!, the staff magazine of The Ranch which I created and produced bimonthly in my year there on the office's inky old Gestetner mimeograph. These latter collections remain, of course - priceless and irreplaceable - but of my college work I've kept only the typewritten essays, ten large files reduced to one thin one.

    However I was bound to stop and linger somewhere, and it was when I got to the box full of papers from my time in Toxteth, and to what I consider one of the best pieces of work I've ever completed, a 36-page page booklet published by The Bluecoat Press called Bye Bye Bewey Board: Beaufort Street School 1875-1998, a Souvenir History which I co-edited and loved working on. This sepia-toned tome was distributed to all connected with the dockland school on the closure of its crumbling buildings and merger with another local primary in my final year as a community worker in the area. It was the fruit of a year's work with Year Six, a project to research the history of the school involving field trips, teaching sessions (a new experience for me) and hosting visits of ex-pupils and staff whose stories were recorded by the pupils. Then-current teaching staff keenly supported it, as did the Parent-School Partnership (a school within the school to support and resource local adults) and the Friends of Bewey, a lively group of staff and parents past and current who cared deeply about the school - and each other - in which the boisterous Pete Gibbons played a lead role.

    In the Victorian era Bewey kids would have been described by posh moralising commentators as waifs and strays. They were certainly among the poorest in a city of very poor children. Many of the pictures in the book witnessed to this remaining the case right through to the 1990s. Poverty, of course, brings all manner of health and behavioural problems in its wake. But the Bewey book shows that throughout its history these children were given dedicated teaching by people who knew they were up against it but who committed themselves sacrificially to the place and its people. Among them Mrs Richmond, a head who in the 1970s instigated the annual Teapot Award which was given to the pupil who, she then said, is 'always smiling outside, and more importantly, inside.'

    BBC Radio Merseyside's Roger Phillips was a Bewey governor in Mrs Richmond's time and in the foreword he wrote for the book he said that 'she was more of a social worker than a teacher and fiercely proud of her school.' She set the standard which Pete Gibbons and the other colleagues I worked with, followed so keenly. That's why I was so proud to produce such a rich record of their achievements as the story of the school came to an end.

    As I write this Roger Phillips will be preparing to take phone-in calls on his lunchtime show, where Gill Gibbons is bound to be one of the main topics for discussion. People will be reflecting on the words she spoke earlier today. "I'm just an ordinary middle aged primary school teacher," she said. Just! Ok, that's true: but also 'just' a remarkable person. The book reminds me - I've been privileged to work with many like her.
    Monday, December 03, 2007
    A tribute to our last protester

    Nice to have the Turner Prize here in Liverpool for a change. Even better to see it awarded to Mark Wallinger, whose State Britain is a tribute to 'our last protester' Brian Haw, whose peace camp was removed by police on 23 May 2006, just hours after the Tate agreed to permit Wallinger to install a full-scale copy of Haw's array of placards, banners, and t-shirted teddy bears in their Millbank Duveen Galleries.

    Though his work is consistently bold and challenging (remember Ecce Homo) Wallinger doesn't come across as a confident speaker. But re-reading what he said on recieving the award at the Albert Dock tonight, his vision and inspiration is clear: 'Brian Haw is a remarkable man who has waged a tireless campaign against the folly and hubris of our government's foreign policy,' he said. 'For six-and-a-half years he has remained steadfast in Parliament Square, the last dissenting voice in Britain. Bring home the troops, give us back our rights, trust the people.'

    The sensible bit of the BBC coverage of the Turner Prize award reminded us that 'since the mid-1980s Wallinger’s primary concern has been to establish a valid critical approach to the "politics of representation and the representation of politics."' He's certainly managed to set that up with this one. The challenge is whether the public discourse can rise above the usual predictable banalities surrounding modern art; it'd be good if it could; if for no other reason than as a fitting tribute to our last protester.
    Sunday, December 02, 2007
    Paperless Christmas
    My first day back after three month's sabbatical, and the Advent message from me (flying in the face of Tim LaHaye) was Don't get carried away (prepare to be generous). Meanwhile my good friends Martin and Malcolm with trademark wit and wisdom have scripted Paperless Christmas which is an Advent calendar you click on. No chocolates but plenty of enjoyment there.
    Saturday, December 01, 2007
    It's made with love and it can save you
    She's a great and highly-regarded artist, which makes it even starker to hear Kristin Hersh say,
    'The financial climate and current upheaval in the music business mean that musicians like me are genuinely poor investments for the traditional powers that be. We do not engage in lowest common denominator trendiness, and so don't warrant the expenses of marketing dollars and company overhead.
    'Okay, I get that; this is a business. However, I believe that when you sell toothpaste, you should be selling a goo that helps prevent cavities and when you sell music, you should be selling sound that enriches the listener's inner life.'
    Kristin's finished with record labels because they encourage a '"survival of the blandest" -- the result, I imagine, of mind-fucking marketing techniques, bandwagon appeal, hype. To me this stuff is ugly, not beautiful.' And she's decided to pioneer a community called CASH Music: the Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders, who are going to trade music without the corporations. And develop some meaningful, creative relationships along the way. 'I liken our situation to that of the family farmer's -- how can we keep from going under without going corporate?'
    'This is what I think: we specialize -- we offer an organic product. It is lumpy and expensive and made with love and it can save you. It's the right thing to do. It isn't shiny or poisonous, which can be disconcerting to people who've been raised on shiny poison, but it's natural, it's high-end and we want you to eat it.'
    Now I doubt that Kristin would include Radiohead in her 'lowest common denominator' criticism. Nevertheless, it's fine them trying to give the music corporations the slip by releasing In Rainbows as a download-only album and leaving the punters to choose how much to pay for it. They can manage the risk because they have the wealth and a safety-net of salability which means they will always find ways of clawing back revenue if they need to. Kristin doesn't have that security: I was astounded to read how close to poverty and near-collapse she and her hard-working, hard-touring band got when the 'Family Bus' blew up on the road to Minneapolis earlier this year.

    And so CASH music is a massive risk for her: relying on fickle folk like us to invest $3 on a download single each month [Slippershell download here]; inviting various levels of subscription support, but all of them at modest levels. She can only trust that her fans feel closer to her than do the evidently estranged followers of Radiohead, most of whom took In Rainbows for free. Well, I paid them £7 for it, which I don't regret as a one-off payment for an ok album. Kristin's CASH Music, however: that's something I believe in. I'll be subscribing to that for as long as I myself can afford it.