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

    Friday, February 29, 2008
    National Psychogeographic

    John Rogers spotted the potential in a website bearing this name, and promptly registered it. Good man. Keep an eye on it; stick some stuff on it; it'd be nice to see it take off.
    Thursday, February 28, 2008
    Strong love, strange peace

    Reading Steve Turner’s punctilious Guardian obituary it strikes me that Larry Norman’s star rose and fell quite quickly, really. The most influential and likely only enduring work of his was mostly contained in the trilogy of albums he produced for MGM, Only Visiting This Planet, So Long Ago the Garden and In Another Land, which emerged over here in the mid-to-late Seventies.

    It also strikes me that the mid-to-late Seventies was when I was coming of age and into a Christian consciousness and that one of the reasons I so mourn Larry’s untimely passing, at 61, was the major influence this maverick and his music had on me at such a formative time in my life.

    The dear daft iconoclast fell out with the mainstream music industry for being ‘too Christian’ and fell out with the Christian music industry for being not ‘Christian’ enough, and he fell out with Greenbelt in 1980 for - as he would always allege in front of every British audience ever after - their ‘stopping’ him talking about Jesus onstage. I think he manipulated each of these fallings-out for, as Turner writes, Larry was ‘instinctively an outsider’. Outsider status authenticated an artist so singlemindedy devoted to the man (messiah) he called The Outlaw.

    And so Larry’s insistence on possessing this peripheral vision lent me a certain sense of what it must mean to follow the wilderness wanderer, unwelcome prophet, family-leaver, man-abandoned-at-the-last-by-his-closest-friends, the tortured so-called Christ. A certain sense which has never left me, though today I cringe at some of the Larry Norman crystalline certainties which first led me to embrace the vision. I find I can write this in all good conscience now whilst still sipping whiskey from a paper cup.

    Steve Turner omits to suggest that Larry’s work had a prophetic edge, prophetic as in the wild-haired ranter confronting the powers, but it should never be forgotten that when he was invited to perform at The White House their novelty guest gospel rocker stood up with his guitar and spat these words out before the President:
    Your money says, In God We Trust
    But it’s against the law to pray in school.
    You say, ‘We beat the Russians to the moon’
    And I say you starved your children to do it.
    You say, ‘All men are equal, all men are brothers’
    So why are the rich more equal than others?
    Don’t ask me for the answers I’ve only found one,
    That a man leaves the darkness when he follows the Son.
    No wonder he moved me to a politicised view of faith, this man who performed like Jagger and Jeremiah combined.

    Larry was one of the great performers - in my all-time top two for the skill he had in entertaining and captivating an audience, even those who were disagreeing radically with his uncompromising message. Comedian, counsellor, coach, great with hecklers and fully cognizant of context, a defining Larry gig for me was one at the Methodist Central Hall, Liverpool where he coaxed the audience (many uncomfortable with the idea) into compiling and singing along with him a medley of Beatles songs, spiritually reshaping each of them in ways which John Lennon (or some church authorities) would certainly not have intended them to go... which, you sensed, added to Larry’s enjoyment of the moment. Transformational, that, on many levels. He did a pretty good Scouse accent, too, for a San Franciscan.

    Now that I’m (almost) grown towards maturity and a deeper appreciation of the mystical, I’m grateful to Steve Turner for reminding me that in this aspect, also, Larry has played his part. For he was, Steve writes, ‘a powerful lyricist who could turn complex theological ideas into simple statements ... but was also a master of obliqueness, preferring to see his songs as threads in a tapestry rather than as individual pictures of Christian doctrine.’

    And so one of the songs of Larry’s which most moved me back then (and moves me to tears today as I hear it in my heart) is a confessional story of the trials and torments of being a performer hounded by reporters who misrepresent him and critics at odds with his vision, all forcing him into defending his work and words with wearying regularity. Sounds a bit like the life of the vicar, and other outsiders under duress. With us and for us he sings heavenwards this poignant appeal:
    We're all so trapped, we need release,
    We need your strong love and strange peace.
    Rest in that now, Larry, and thanks.

    Sunday, February 17, 2008
    A brief blog break

    A brief blog break. I'll be back eventually from the loud hills of Wales.
    Saturday, February 16, 2008
    Mr Tapscott

    Spend time with these words, for they tell a longer-sighted and less heralded story of Liverpool. A brief extract from Mr Tapscott by Bill Griffiths, a long poem from 1998 which trawls a wealth of Liverpool sources, written and spoken, contemporary and historical, and comes to rest on an incident in pre-riots 1981: the death of John Suffield, a Toxteth betting shop manager, which resulted in the (alleged) wrongful conviction of Ray Gilbert, still imprisoned today.

    I am very grateful to Jim Bennett, an accomplished Liverpool performance poet, for scanning me a rare copy of Griffiths' epic. It's a poem which threatens to give you a nasty bite if you start to grapple with it, and invites you to make the move, like all the best writing about this snarling mongrel city. It's a truthful alternative history in chopped-up verse, newspaper quotes and prison cell slang. Who is Tapscott? In Griffiths, he is two men: first a Liverpool packet ship broker who did very well out of the emigration trade, and at the end of the poem a plea-broker lawyer persuading Gilbert to change to 'guilty' so that at least 'your mate gets let off'.

    Jim tells me that he had been working with Bill on an update, prior to Griffiths' death last year, and that a new publication may still emerge. I hope it does, as on the ever-growing, groaning bookshop shelves of Liverpool writing in 2008, it will sit uneasily and very essentially.
    Friday, February 15, 2008
    We Are the People

    One of our favourite postcards in Tom Phillips' We Are the People collection [see yesterday's blog] was this shot titled Studio Aeronauts. c. 1911. Two blokes sticking their torsos through holes in a canvas to playfully cast themselves alongside Wilbur and Orville and other high-fly pioneers of their day. No wonder Phillips is selling prints of this online: it's a delight.

    The most disconcerting postcard in the exhibition had a similar theme: people in a plane. But this plane was a British bomber over Dresden and the people in it were gleefully strafing German civilians. There's no sight of that card on Tom's site or anywhere else I've looked; it's perhaps rather too painful to recall how We, the People delighted in a gruesomely vengeful carnage which in terms of casualties and damage far exceeded what had been done by the enemy over here (as if numbers matter though).

    Where to go with this sobering thought on the 63rd anniversary of the Dresden bombings? Perhaps to another anniversary: this weekend also marks the 50th anniversary of CND. Sad to reflect that We, the People have from time to time either delighted in or at least taken to coldly justifying the savage nuclear bombing actions at the end of the Second World War. And to consider that, though influential in two periods, the Fifties and the Eighties, CND has remained an outsider organisation. Time to celebrate, though, that at least CND has remained - thankfully proving that some of the People, some of the time, pointedly resist the high-tech ariel destruction of others.

    Top pic: Tom Phillips' We Are the People collection
    Thursday, February 14, 2008
    20 Sites n Years
    At The Williamson Art Gallery today to see Tom Phillips' We are the People: Anonymous Celebrities, his collection of amateur postcards from the first half of the Twentieth Century, a wonderfully revealing and often moving series of portrayals of ordinary people by ordinary people. Well worth a look, or seeing the book.

    Phillips is exhibiting other works in Birkenhead too (though only till next Sunday) and on the way out, footsore and satisfied, this one caught my eye and hooked me. It's a map about journeying and change which Phillips calls South London Dreaming.

    "In the spirit of aboriginal English art I perform my South London Dreaming which includes a dreamwalk devised in 1972, the circle of locations for 20 Sites n Years and the long lines of my narrow life from my Clapham birthplace to where I now live and work. This is my life seen from above with occasional emphasized places of remembered romance or hard nosed fact."
    That is how Phillips describes the work. 20 Sites n Years particularly grabbed me. Phillips explains that 'every year on or around the same day (24th May - 2nd June) at the same time of day and from the same position a photograph is taken at each of the twenty locations on this map ... which is based on a circle of half a mile radius drawn around the place (Site 1: 102 Grove Park SE15) where the project was devised. It is hoped that this process will be carried on into the future and beyond the deviser's death for as long as the possibility of continuing and the will to undertake the task persist.'

    The 20 Sites n Years website features slideshows of all the photographs which have been taken in the twenty positions since 1973. It's an engrossing record of change in a small city area. Phillips' written commentaries on the changes and evolution of each site add to the fascinating rich picture which grows, of a deep South London previously unimagined. He's chosen not to stray too far away from home, ever, Tom Phillips, in his 70 years. Good thing, too.
    Wednesday, February 13, 2008
    In Search of Pontiflunk

    You may recall the day I went wandering the Trent Valley in search of oak trees, with Phil. His show, based on the walk, In Search of Pontiflunk, is touring the East Midlands this spring. I hope to get to one gig at least. Recommended.
    Tuesday, February 12, 2008
    Primeval Liverpool
    Primeval Liverpool [mp3] : a reading of the first ten verses of Genesis over crackling Hector Zazou electro-Inuit music, something I enjoyed putting together for a Lent study session on 'The Spirit in Liverpool' which also embraced conversations about photographs of Mersey skies and sands, and David Adam's meditations on Tides and Seasons. Elemental. Strange but well-received.
    Monday, February 11, 2008
    Thatcher's grandchildren
    I don't know these lads personally, [those who hang around Scargreen Avenue, Norris Green, suspects in the Rhys Jones case] but I meet plenty of them at the football. They act tough – they are tough – but so much of that posturing is integral to a lifestyle that has chosen them. Theirs is the first generation of kids born to Thatcher's Other Children. Much was made of her creation of a generation of youthful millionaires, but her government's accent on the individual to the detriment of the community meant that the close-knit spirit of areas like Norris Green was gradually, if not systematically, eroded. Young men and women who traditionally would have found apprenticeships from Merseyside's huge shipping and manufacturing base found those industries de-nationalised, de-unionised and fighting for survival. Between May 1979 and the next general election in June 1983, unemployment rose from 1.4 million to more than three million – the majority of new claimants aged between 16 and 24. Whereas once, there was one bad family in an entire community, whole tribes of school leavers were turning to drugs to fight boredom, and crime to feed the habit. These same kids are the parents of today's teen gangs. If it is the case that parents like these care little what their children are up to, then it's equally the case that they stopped caring about themselves some time ago.
    - Kevin Sampson, Independent, August 2007, quoted in Robert's letter (see yesterday's blog)
    Sunday, February 10, 2008
    On diligently compassionate churchmen

    Rather late this year, owing to the good man's slowed-down, 'cardiac rehab' condition, the delay has probably added to the joy - of receiving Robert's Christmas letter. The above is just the preamble to a characteristic rattle through various peripheral theologies, Duane Eddy stories, quotes from fervently unfashionable radicals, sparkling observations of life in gritty Granby, fiery critiques of creeping Church managerialism and Starbucks-style ministries, lines from Ken Dodd, impassioned defences of a parish church which is living 'Eucharist out there', the finest cameos of family life and poignant two-line eulogies of the lost remembered of Liverpool 8.

    It seems perfect to me that Robert's annual firestorm crackled into my inbox on the same day that I revisited my sermon about the 'pestilent priest' Bishop George Bell (who was cast to the wilderness for daring to publicly oppose the blanket bombing of Dresden in WW2) in the context of the same sort of casting-out today of Rowan Williams for his daring to publicly propose ideas of accommodation and hospitality in a multicultural society. Advocate and long-term practitioner of what he calls 'church as self-giving 'victim'', Robert sits firmly in the good company of such diligently compassionate churchmen. Sits, I write, because since the heart attack, he tells us, he's 'just let go of everything ... Very good.' On 'cardiac rehab' maybe; but a heart as big as Liverpool, still.
    Saturday, February 09, 2008
    Motorway media
    Priest walks length of the M62. Erm, that would be me, I guess. In the Liverpool Daily Post today.
    Thursday, February 07, 2008
    Systematic Death
    Who says it's madness? A woman I see from time to time in a care home, in the advanced stages of dementia (so called), only ever has one word to say to me, or anyone else. She says it when being addressed, and I guess she'll say it when being dressed by the devoted staff. She says it when we shuffle her around from one chair to another, she says it when we unsettle her on deciding that it's time for her to go for lunch, or medication, or some form of leisure.

    The one word which remains in this woman's once well-formed vocabulary is "System". When you take her hand to greet her she stares you in the eyes and says, "System". When they take her arm to lift her she turns to tell them, "System". When you're reciting the words of a simple eucharist to her residential group, when you're dropping that holy wafer on her tongue, she's there filling in the liturgical gaps with her contribution: "System, system, system".

    I'm always left pondering what this woman is saying with "System". Having failed to learn her language I can only guess. Seems to me that this sole linguistic remnant of an expressive past probably connects to some of her deepest, most formative, perhaps most traumatic life experiences. "System" is there when all else has gone because "System" is at her core. Is she saying "System" because she feels secure in a structured existence - "System" expressing a sense of well-being? Or is she saying "System" in protest at the structure which constrains, restrains, her - "System" her final and most persistent comment on the chains which bind her... and by which, perhaps (like so many others) she's always felt bound.

    I'm inclined (and disturbed) to imagine that the latter is closest to what she's saying. What she says always rattles me, provokes me, and tonight it's dawned on me where I've heard this woman's words before. The other voice I've heard mouthing them is that of Eve Libertine:
    System, system, system.
    Deprived of any hope.
    System, system, system.
    Taught they couldn't cope.
    System, system, system.
    Slaves right from the start.
    System, system, system.
    Til death do them part.
    In the 70s/80s many dismissed the anarcho-punk outfit Crass as being deranged. More recently many have mocked US folkster Jeffrey Lewis for choosing to release a whole album of Crass covers including their savage critique of the capitalist nuclear family, Systematic Death.
    System, system, system.
    Death in life.
    If you call it death, "System", as Crass do, then you're resisting it and opening up the possibility of another sort of life. By staring it in the face and naming it, "System", as that woman does, then you're rattling the chains which bind. Some would call these ideas madness, of course. I'm not so sure. I sense instead that the so-called mad often make the profoundest protests.
    Wednesday, February 06, 2008
    Ash Wednesday

    Teach us to care and not to care
    Teach us to sit still.
    Tuesday, February 05, 2008
    Book launched

    Enjoyable evening at The Good Shepherd: where I launched the book to an unexpectedly large audience, read a few chapters, raised a few chuckles, raised a few issues too, took some good questions and served pancakes. Good to know that people 'get it', even when 'it' is expressed through such an oddball venture as a walk along the M62.

    Monday, February 04, 2008
    Bringing the blood pressure down

    How could I have ignored Mount Vernon Arts Lab for so long? Only a Plan B interview with Drew Mulholland (who is MVAL, really, to all intents) which reminded me of his collaborations with electronic co-celebrants of an urban otherworld Coil, re-alerted me to a musician with an avid, avowed and academic interest in psychogeography.
    "I did the album [The Séance at Hobs Lane, in 2001], and was asked if I was into psychogeography. I didn't know what it was at the time, but as soon as I looked into it and read people like Iain Sinclair, I got it straight away. It's something that I think ties back to childhood. It's something that you do naturally as a child, but when you're an adult with responsibilities it stops. But there's an entire history of walking as a creative thing. Thomas Hobbes had an ink-well in his walking stick in case he got ideas. If you can make the time for it, it really brings the blood pressure down, and should be encouraged."
    Last year Mulholland lectured on psychogeography at Cambridge. Currently he's an honorary fellow in psychogeography at Glasgow University and finishing a book on the subject. Looking forward to the publication of that, meanwhile tonight I raided Ghost Box and, of course Strange Attractor, to fast-track myself into familiarity with his musical back catalogue.
    Sunday, February 03, 2008
    Pre-match / pre-history

    Matchday picture from evertonfc.com

    Pre-match or pre-history: seems that around Goodison has always been a place where people met, proselytized... and worshipped... one of the many rich connections I've made reading the engrossing Mersey Sound book.
    Saturday, February 02, 2008
    Box clever
    Through the letterbox: the perfect antidote to the February blues (helping see off a two-day graveyard-iceblast-induced migrane) - the long-promised, nicely-packaged selection of jollity which is Saint Etienne's fan-club only Boxette. I've found myself a member of said club quite without intention or fuss. Saint Etienne have grown on me since I started taking notice of them through their extracurricular (film, football, and eighties) pursuits. Finisterre alerted me to the wondrous truth, and Tales From Turnpike House confirmed it: that here is a group of musicians who are also effortless psychogeographers, celebrants of the everyday spirits of the places they know best.

    "Don’t lose your pastoral heart" says James Woodward in this week's Church Times (frustratingly only available online to subscribers, not people who get it from the newsagents). "Clerics urgently need to recover their interest in people," he writes, "to take an interest in people for their own sake." Both parties might be surprised to be linked in this way, but I find the spirit of Woodward's position in the joyousness of Saint Etienne as they paint closely-observed pictures of South London life in all its glorious minutiae.
    Friday, February 01, 2008
    Being sixteen and homeless in Liverpool
    A good event to mark Poverty Action Week in Liverpool today, which featured this talk of mine (based on the previously-blogged-about poem by the children of Croxteth Primary), and also my reading of Martin Wroe's The Hands of God, but most memorable - as these things always are - for the brave sharing of their life experiences by people with first-hand experience of poverty in the UK. In this case it was two young women talking about being sixteen and homeless in Liverpool. They had us doing groupwork exercises to try to put ourselves in their position, which was challenging enough. Then they told us what it was really like. Which was far worse than we could imagine. Educational? It's so good to be taught by real experts for a change.