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notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Monday, March 31, 2008Suffering, singing, dancing
No apologies for posting more Sydney Carter. He's proving to be a good companion on the journey. Today I took delivery of the sadly long-deleted Green Print for Song (Galliard / Stainer & Bell 1974) in which Carter takes time to explain in some depth the reasoning behind some of his songs. This text accompanies the very lovely Travel On and offers vital pause for thought to every self-conscious pilgrim.
Sunday, March 30, 2008BAE: Fooling no one ‘Our firsts in engineering help the UK stay a world leader in innovation... In the last two years we’re proud to have launched the Type 45 destroyer and Astute submarine’
Hmmm... destroyers and submarines: how innovative is that? And what price innovation - BAE projects are routinely late and over budget, and we foot the bill. Recently the budget for the Astute subs increased by 47 per cent and the budget for the Type 45 Destroyers by 18 per cent, costing the taxpayer £2.2 billion more than expected. Which could have been spent on truly innovative alternative energy or transport systems.
BAE: ‘We train more skilled engineers in the UK than any other company... We’ve always hired and trained the very best of UK talent’
There is a skills shortage in many areas of UK science and technology. But arms production enjoys extensive government support. In 2005, around £2,600m of government R&D money went to the military sector while just £37m went to renewable energy. A recent government report estimated that the number of jobs in the renewable energy sector could, given supportive enough policies, expand from 8,000 in 2004 to as many as 35,000 by 2020. In contrast to arms companies, this work would be a contribution to global welfare and security.
Ads: BAE's ukadvantage campaign
Critique: Campaign Against the Arms Trade Control BAE campaign
Your company killed my child: engraving by Emily Johns for a British Aerospace AGM
BAE AGM 2008 Wednesday 7 May
Saturday, March 29, 2008Accelerated writing Independent. Good one Pete.
Friday, March 28, 2008From Golgotha to the Prison, to the Temple on the hill Lancaster; a place you bypass on the M6 rumble north to the Lakes or beyond, or where you sit in snarling traffic on the jammed A589 headed out to Morecambe Bay. Lancaster; the stop before Oxenholme on Richard Branson's creaking West Coast Main Line. Used to be the capital of Lancashire before Preston sneaked in. Used to have a university and now it's got two.
Like anywhere, you won't really know much about Lancaster unless you walk it. So, in driving rain today, that's what Jim, Dave and I did. At the entrance to Williamson Park you're immediately aware that this city, sloping down to the wide River Lune, is dominated by the exploits of one James Williamson (1842-1930), 1st Baron Ashton, who made his millions in the manufacture of linoleum, connecting the large proportion of Lancaster's population who worked in his riverside factories with the people of Staines and Kircaldy (hosts, respectively, of the world's first and largest lino factories in the industry's late nineteenth-century pioneering days).
We would end our walk by slogging up to the Ashton Memorial, but began with a rapid descent through the tidy white stone terraces of Golgotha into the modestly impressive Market Square (Museum steps running with rain, we shelter beneath its gigantic pillars; impressed with the sympathetically rebuilt Market Hall we ogle the costumes in the party hire shop at the entrance). Through more streets dripping with yesterday's history and today's preoccupations (MERCHANTS INN 1688, SPORT SHOWN ON 3 PLASMA SCREENS) we make the ascent up cobblestones to the mouth of the Castle, as the condemned and their condemnors have done for the past thousand years.
Site of the notorious Pendle witch trials of 1612 and many 18th century Australian transportation sentences, it's still a prison, HMP Lancaster Castle, with up to 243 Category C inmates held within its grim sweeping walls. We pass by without breaking step, ready for lunch in the Cathedral cafe, stopping only to notice a giant crane dangling a large red hook over the castle wall and wondering if we may be witnessing an audacious prison breakout.
Blessed with beans on toast and warmed by the radiators and the Cathedral staff's welcome we head downhill, under lightening clouds, past a Roman Baths, beneath rows of shambling old quayside buildings and the impressive Custom House, all on St George's Quay. With its roadworks, HGVs, skip lorries reversing into spaces beside houses being cleared for refurbishment, and people stepping in and out of tiny jazz pubs this riverside road still retains a sense of the commercial bustle it's had since it was at the heart of Lancaster's eighteenth-century golden age as a sugar, cotton, rum and mahogany port.
The Lune holds pleasures, especially for those, like us, impressed by bridges. The Millennium Bridge ripples playfully over the Lune, for the pleasure of pedestrians and those whose riverside apartments look out on the scene. Thomas Harrison's 1788 Skerton Bridge is a delight on the eye with its five elliptical arches and stormwater channels running through the masonry, and further upriver the Lune Aqueduct carries the Lancaster Canal over the river and the violent A683 Caton Road, its stonework inscribed 'To Public Prosperity'.
On the canal path walk back into town we greet and are greeted by numerous cyclists, Dave exchanges a high-five with a passing (frighteningly athletic-looking) jogger and fishermen mingle with dogs of assorted sizes and moods. It feels friendly, even as we pass three hooded youths loitering at the back of Coniston Road, sharing a sly spliff. Leaving the canal the route becomes a slog uphill, but the sky has cleared and ten minutes inside peaceful Saint Peter's Cathedral clears our heads and prepares our knees for the ascent to that which has dominated the skyline all day: James Williamson's preposterously generous tribute to his late wife Jessy, the gigantic Ashton Memorial.
We enjoy the tea and cake served to us by the friendly girls in the cafe, climb the Memorial's stairs to be disappointed to find the viewing gallery closed, so instead end our walk at the nearby Temple Shelter, which looks back towards the marvellous Memorial. Here, Dave imagines James Williamson sitting and looking with the same wonderment we have, across the beautiful parkland towards his unique architectural creation, and thinking fondly of the beloved woman in whose honour he had it built. Disregarding all the comforts his wealth could have bought him, Williamson would have wished he simply had Jessy with him there again; but like us today, instead he found solace in his gentle, generous Temple.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008Heavenly Henry and the children's corner
A drive through delightful River Dee country today and the unexpected pleasure of standing in the pulpit of the astonishing Georgian St. Deiniol's Church, Worthenbury, thus placing myself in the lineage of 'Heavenly Henry', aka Philip Henry, puritan minister of Worthenbury during the Civil War and father of Matthew Henry, Bible commentator and diarist.
You can do things like this in buildings like that: breathe in history (albeit stretching historical realities a bit, as Heavenly Henry didn't actually preach in the present St. Deiniol's, but the one it replaced). Which is why it's so good that they get listed status and are protected for future generations to learn in, and enjoy, with the help of initiatives like the Open Church Network ("Opening the doors to the historic churches of Wrexham"). However you should also be able to do new things - like transform one massive boxed pew into a children's corner and another (an elite one, with a fireplace, no less) into a prayer space - with confidence that these humble efforts aren't destroying the place's heritage, but progressing it.
Adrian's priestly task involves persuading the heritage people that buildings like St. Deiniol's have a present and a future as well as an astonishing past, to ensure that the present-day and future worshipping communities of places like Worthenbury are allowed space to breathe and grow. That's a bit of a struggle at times when people enthralled with a place's history forget that it has a vital present too. It's played out in issues like: can we allow the education displays to say anything about what the church does now? and: where, before this visually obstructed congregation, is the best place for a couple to publicly conduct their marriage vows?
These are quite different tasks to any I'm asked to perform in my thoroughly un-Heritage parish, and it's been an education learning about these things today.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008Pontiflunk in Duffield
"Eccentric, resistant and unusual walking is a passion of mine," writes Phil in the programme notes to his play In search of Pontiflunk, which I saw performed excellently by Josh Darcy in Duffield this evening.
If you've read any of my other posts about this play then you'll already know it's Phil's portrayal of the walk he did last year in the footsteps of Charles Hurst, who a century earlier had taken it on himself to journey south from Manchester with a box of acorns, planting oak trees along the way. Hurst made it as far as Northampton before giving in to the pressure from the letters from wife and livid friends urging him back home; the tragic death of Pontiflunk, his canine companion, on the road the previous day probably triggered his journey's end. But the play shows Phil's delight as he discovers some oaks - clearly Hurst's - living and thriving in places en-route, an epiphany on the dangerous edge of a thundering trunk route into Nottingham, which took place a couple of days before I joined him.
The play is almost as good as going on a walk with Phil: full of inquiry, speculation, rummaging and making connections. "Walking," Phil writes, "is the encounter with the world, at the pace that allows the walker to affect the places they pass through, and allows the places to affect the walker." The play clearly has that affective quality too: the man sat next to me was gripped by the story because he was a keen planter of trees; the actor and others in the company I spoke with tonight had gained from their encounters with Phil and his other companions who they'd met on the road or in the various East Midlands theatres of this tour.
"Walking is part of the forgotten art of being a stranger, and it doesn't make the seas rise," Phil writes. I enjoyed being the stranger in an East Midlands town today adding that little extra to a few people's evenings by acknowledging my tiny role in this story. What made the day even more special for me, though, was ceasing to be a stranger to Dave, a college friend who lives in Duffield, who I had a pub lunch with fourteen years since we last met.
Pic: Phil's map from the In search of Pontiflunk programme
Monday, March 24, 2008Gavin and Stacey: the whole gamut
Uncle Bryn and Nessa in the cash booth at the Barry Island Amusement Centre where she works:
Bryn: Do you ever get bored working here?
Nessa: No, I finds it fascinating. I'm a people-watcher, Bryn.
Bryn: I get you.
Nessa: I see every thread of life's rich tapestry inbetween these three walls. The whole spectrum of human emotion.
Bryn: The whole gamut.
Nessa: I see victory, I see defeat, anticipation, emancipation and demoralization. And that's just on the Fruities.
So the BBC documentary makers failed miserably with their White series' blinkered view of white working class people. But their comedy department have more than made up for the error, in Gavin and Stacey, a show which keeps getting better and better, whose characters are tender, complex, beautifully observed. A love story linking a Billericay boy with a Barry girl which even some metropolitan liberal media people like. Though the New Statesman's Rachel Cooke couldn't resist a dig at Gavin and Stacey's "sentimentality", that shibboleth of the chattering classes, at least she had the wit to conclude, "These are characters whose destinies you care about. You want them to be happy and never to stop being so very kind and loving." And she's right.
Sunday, March 23, 2008On being held
Exactly eight years ago this weekend Anna read these words at the opening of a jazz-worship event we'd created to mark The Annunciation. Janet Morley's words resonated with the idea of the child being held by the mother, in the mother, the mother being held by God, in God. This year it's Easter and Anna has a deeper understanding of all this. Herself a mother now to a treasured child who will not live long in this world, she writes movingly, of being held by baby Lydia, here.
Saturday, March 22, 2008The Holy Hard Shoulder Third Way is relaunching imminently. I've had an on-off subscription with the magazine over the years, valuing its mission to engage intelligently and intelligibly with the wider society but feeling like it speaks from a culture I don't quite identify with (ie, metropolitan media culture, the reason I also don't need 'national' newspapers very often, thanks very much).
Despite my sniffiness, various editors have kindly found space for some of my writing in its pages, including academic work on football violence in the 1980s, reviews of REM and - surreally - Elastica in the 90s, and last month an article which owes quite a lot to the introduction to my book, which they wittily entitled The Holy Hard Shoulder.
As the all-new Third Way should be out next week I hope I'm ok now posting a link to a scan of the article, here: [pdf, 10.7MB]. As a taster for those who might perhaps also buy the book, and the mag, as well.
Friday, March 21, 2008Rock of Doubt #5: The Jesus who is still in trouble
The Jesus who comes down from his home in heaven, has a bad time on earth but then goes safely back to heaven, does not mean a thing to [this generation]. They just don't believe he did it. Perhaps only the Jesus who is still in trouble, who hangs like an unanswered question on the cross, speaks to them in a language which they understand. ...- Sydney Carter, Rock of Doubt
Thursday, March 20, 2008Rock of Doubt #4: The strength to be a liar
Your non-believing co-workers in the fields of philanthropy and politics do not despise you: but they do not envy you. Your Christianity, they feel, is something that you cannot help: like a club foot, or a lisp. It inhibits you: it may even give you a certain old-world charm. It is convenient for them, in that it inhibits you from the more bare-faced forms of rudeness and duplicity. They can make you blush, blackmail you by your Christianity. They may find you lovable, but laughable. Secretly, you rage against all this. You smile joyfully (for a Christian should be joyful), you are gentle and forgiving: but a raven gnaws your liver, and by night your doubts and detestations have a Roman holiday. You wake up feeling tetchy in the morning. You see your clerical collar hanging on a hook. 'How the hell did I get into this?' you ask. 'How the hell can I get out?' ... Perhaps you should be patient, show humility, wait for guidance; perhaps you need a holiday. Perhaps you should see a psychiatrist. Anyway, do nothing rash: you may square the circle yet. It may seem impossible: but with God nothing is impossible. Or is it? Can God give a man the strength to be a liar?- Sydney Carter, Rock of Doubt
Wednesday, March 19, 2008Rock of Doubt #3: The further you go from Him, the nearer you get
The further you go from Him, the nearer you get to Him.- Sydney Carter, Rock of Doubt.
"Where is the one who is wise?- my talk for Holy Week Tuesday, in West Derby last night.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008Rock of Doubt #2- The Sacred Pipe
"We have been told that Jesus the Christ was crucified, but that he shall come again at the Last Judgment, the end of the world or cycle. This I understand and know that it is true, but the white man should know that for the red people too, it was the Will of Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit, that an animal turn itself into a two-legged person in order to bring the most Holy Pipe to His People; and we too were taught that this White Buffalo Calf Woman, who brought our sacred pipe, will appear again at the end of this 'world', a coming which we Indians know is now not very far off…"Black Elk of the Ogala Sioux recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown, The Sacred Pipe - and quoted in Sydney Carter, Rock of Doubt.
Monday, March 17, 2008Rock of Doubt #1: Trust the truth and keep on digging 'Trust the truth and keep on digging' - was what Sydney Carter felt that his sponsors, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, were telling him (in their own way) when he had to admit that the book he'd set out to write for them had exploded into pieces, as 'questions I had dreaded now came flying through the air.' Carter - writer of some of the most popular (and most radical) Christian songs of the twentieth century - had intended to make 'a cool, objective survey of current experiments in Christian worship.' Soon he found himself 'dig[ging] into the roots of my dubious belief and steel[ing] myself to declare (if the truth should demand it) that I was an atheist.'
Once I began to ask what it was that Christians had to communicate and whether it was true or not, I was in trouble. That is when the book blew up, and questions that I had dreaded now came flying through the air. What did I really think of Jesus as compared to the Buddha, Socrates or even his own follower, St Francis of Assisi? Did I really believe in him or not? What exactly did 'believe in' really mean? Did I really 'believe in' anything at all? Was my haunted feeling that I had to end up a believer based on nothing but panic?I'm reading Rock of Doubt for Holy Week, and will be quoting from it here. It seems a Quakerly thing to do.
Sunday, March 16, 2008British Industrial Ruins
orderAn extract from an engrossing website in which Tim Edensor takes a different view of British Industrial Ruins than the bureaucrats, city promoters and planners. Neither arenas of deviancy or potential prime investment, Edensor instead sees the decaying sites of our manufacturing past as places which might 'stimulate a critique of certain contemporary social and cultural processes.'
As spaces by the side of the road, ruins can be explored for effects that talk back to the quest to create an impossibly seamless urban fabric, to the uses to which history and heritage are put, to the extensive over-commodification of places and things, to middle-class aesthetics, and to broader tendencies to fix meanings in the service of power.Fascinating stuff. Thanks Phil for the link.
Pics: Tim Edensor from British Industrial Ruins
Saturday, March 15, 2008From the street to the church to the street again
Baby Dee explains herself on her website, used with permission there from the Drag City press release for Safe Inside the Day
Friday, March 14, 2008Migrane reducers
Baby Dee: Safe Inside the Day
"As songs that go forgottenWith that distinctive voice full, strong and deeply passionate, this stirring, replenishing verse opens Baby Dee's latest terrific album. It's equally profound (and camp and madcap and marvellous) throughout. [See him, and if you can you'll be deeply blessed, with David Tibet's Current 93 at the Southbank Centre on 21 April].
Martyn Bates & Max Eastley: Songs of Transformation
Folk songs which for various reasons have been 'transformational' for Bates, sung as only he can, with haunting soundscapes supplied by environmental experimenter Eastley. "Sung spells" - fine folk standards, here reborn.
"This delicate lyric set me in mind of the undercurrents of magic that I felt to be ever-present, thinly-veiled within the Methodism of my youth. Ethel Flanagan, my long gone grandmother, was a staunch Methodist - and she never failed to see all of the gazing souls that floated above the trees at the foot of her garden, looking for her." [Martyn Bates in cd booklet, on The Cherry Tree Carol]Billy Bragg: Mr Love & Justice
Having heard many of these songs live over the past couple of years it was worth the wait to hear their treatment on album. The title is a different take on that old, still valid, BB slogan, a Socialism of the Heart. Mr Love & Justice tells it all afresh - songs about the man's struggle to stay true to his love through the troubling times of a middle-aged relationship reel the listener in with their raw and gentle honesty, so that when he turns his heart outwards to the unloved ones of the world you are cut to the quick and carried along in his keen sense of justice:
"We sing our songs of freedom and we sing our songs of peace
Thursday, March 13, 2008Kingdom Come
The passers-by were too busy with their shopping to notice me. They seemed prosperous and content, confidently strolling around a town that was entirely composed of shops and small department stores. Even the health centre had redesigned itself as a retail space, its window filled with blood-pressure kits and fitness DVDs. The streets were brightly lit, cheerful and cleanly swept, so unlike the inner London I knew. Whatever the name of this town, there were no drifting newspapers and chewing-gum pavements, no citizenry of the cardboard box. This was a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity. In short, the town was an end state of consumerism. I liked it, and felt a certain pride that I had helped to set its values. History and tradition, the slow death by suffocation of an older Britain, played no part in its people's lives. They lived in an eternal retail present, where the deepest moral decisions concerned the purchase of a refrigerator or washing machine. But at least these Thames Valley natives with their airport culture would never start a war.Oh, what a highly developed sense of irony has J.G. Ballard. The compelling opening pages of Kingdom Come (a novel about a possibly not-entirely-guilty gunman opening fire in an M25 Metro-Centre) promise a great deal more. I suspect that if I'd read this whilst on my walk then the walk - and the book which followed - would have turned out quite differently.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008Qianlong everyday
A fantastic postcard from Nick today alerted me to the art of 18th century China, depicting scenes from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. Thoughtfully sent to me after an excellent conversation last week about 'reading the everyday', the image (similar to but not the same as that above) is one you could linger with for ages, investigating the detail, savouring the questions which emerge about who these people are and what they are doing and saying.
The postcard originated at the Royal Academy of Arts' Three Emperors exhibition of 2006, which I missed. Plenty of these riches on that site and even more detail on the Grandeur of the Qing website from which I've culled this image. At a time of year where the weather's rather unconducive to urban lurking and looking, it's great to be able to stay indoors and soak in the detail of these wonderful pictures instead.
Image from Grandeur of the Qing website
Monday, March 10, 2008In Praise of Walking
Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.The opening lines of In Praise of Walking by poet Thomas A. Clark. Each line is a little world to be savoured... just like the experiences on a good slow walk. Thanks to Keith for this - who tells me he's organising the first Holmfirth Arts Festival in June: check it out here.
Sunday, March 09, 2008Up before my breakfast
Up before my breakfast for three minutes on the Sunday programme trying unsuccessfully to encourage Roger Bolton to separate the issue of working-class disenfranchisement from the issue of race. I'd've liked to have mentioned the two white van men who I shared the road with on the journey into town at 6.40am, one a demolition worker and one a roofer, neither driving erratically or aggressively, both out for a hard and probably not very well rewarded day's work. But the BBC's agenda is plainly quite different. Never mind. [Listen again: here]
Friday, March 07, 2008Morning in the Streets :: Hideously middle-class
More on the White theme:
Thanks Dave [comment, below] for pointing me towards the wonderful film Morning in the Streets from which I've spliced this still image. A documentary by Denis Mitchell portraying a morning in Liverpool, 1959, filmed largely, I think, in the streets of Everton around Roscommon Street School. Most of these streets no longer stand, but they still truly exist in the folk memory of people then the age of this girl who now live in areas like ours and with whom I spend my days. It's a delight and a great insight.
Thanks Lynsey Hanley for your review of the White season in today's New Statesman - films which demonstrate that their makers are, she says, 'hideously middle-class'. The series sets out to address the invisibility of the white working class but 'working-class lives in Britain are invisible only insofar as they have almost always been invisible to those who comprise the country's power base', she writes. In a piece of writing far better than my stumbling attempt yesterday Hanley challenges the idea that the preeminent problem for the white working class is race. Actually, it continues to be what it always has been: class. Working-class people of all colours and cultures continue to share in an ongoing struggle:
The innumerable challenges of being working-class in a liberalised economy - never mind the challenges of being working-class full stop - are reduced, in this season, to race and immigration alone, with those (and only those) who are white cast as passive victims of policies they didn't choose.
Pic from Morning in the Streets, BBC 1959
Thursday, March 06, 2008White: is alright white working class. Discussion of the subject is important because there's no doubt that people do feel ignored, derided even, by others in society. Chavs, the white van man for instance - where in our psyche do they come from, these cheap, mean and spiteful labels?
It's just a shame that most of these programmes will frame the discussion around immigration, as that's a distraction from some of the more fundamental causes of the decline in the way this country's opinion-formers portray the mass of its people, the way this country's employers treat them, the way that successive governments since the 80s have stripped the workers of so many union rights. The real problem is the middle-class and their attitudes [discuss].
After some impassioned telephone conversations today I may be appearing on BBC Radio Four's Sunday programme to make a case for affirming white working class culture, values, spirituality. Not advocating them over and against any other group in society, but just to celebrate them in their own right.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008High street, back stage and front stage
And then home to delight in reading a back issue (well, the most recent one from Oct 2007) of the newsletter of The Materialist Psychogeographic Affiliation in which Mark Rainey reports on a group of folk who spent a day investigating Caffe Nero as a Site of Psychogeographic Praxis, a text which 'was originally written as a Wikipedia entry for Caffé Nero. It was soon removed for being "Original Research" and "Deliberate Nonsense".'
The project involved visiting every Caffé Nero in Manchester City Centre. 'A total of 9 were visited. ... The project was simple, but the subject was immense. Participants had no instructions other than each visit to a Caffé Nero would last approximately 10 minutes. This effectively gave participants the freedom to examine the café from whatever angle they wanted.'
Dispiritingly, they found that each Caffé Nero is pretty much the same, a place for people alone, operating their laptops or mobile phones, rarely for teenagers, the elderly and families. They also noted a general sloppiness in common with other chains: 'Tables are not cleaned, toilets are often filthy and debris is scattered about. Care and attention to detail are left behind in the clamour for expansion. Starbucks reached this point long ago.'
The investigators also took a while to get used to not buying anything. 'Simply sitting in the space left an uncomfortable feeling as purchasing coffee is part of the Caffé Nero routine. To alleviate this, participants often grabbed a free cup of water or sat at a table with the detritus left by a previous customer. On occasion, when pressured by staff, a participant would ‘take an espresso for the team’.'
However, one intrepid investigator 'discovered that toilet access, specifically in Caffé Neroes located in older buildings, also provides access to the backrooms of the buildings.' His adventures, and Jan's cloakroom/checkout revelations, convince me that there's plenty of thrills to be found in the corporate high street after all: or behind it.
On Oxford Rd., one participant found his way into an unlocked cellar with full access to the building’s electric panel. On Cross Street the participant discovered a Caffé Nero training centre located two floors above the café. His friend kindly slipped his job application under the training room door. A propane tank was also found in the same staircore. Interestingly, a door leading to the neighbouring Subway was also found. Subway is another chain store who have blanketed Manchester. These two chains were linked, not at the front, but at the back. Back stage and front stage became important themes ...
Tuesday, March 04, 2008End to end stuff
A delight to receive unexpectedly through the post today a book and letter from Bob Warwicker who, it turns out, spent his sabbatical in 2003 on a long-distance walk. Where I opted for lazy lingering and meandering around shopping malls Bob went for endurance, and in not much more time covered three times the distance I did - Land's End to John O'Groats. Bob recorded each day's walk - including a prayer for each occasion - on a website he called his End to End diary, thus pioneering a genre which he's dubbed the 'religious walk blog'.
He found my walk website by accident and he's since been looking at the book and noting the similarities and differences between our respective adventures. Bob says that he owes some inspiration for his journey to the artist Richard Long who 'confirmed in me the idea that there could be more to walking than just walking.' I went East-West and Bob went South-North so I guess my path would have crossed the one he'd taken four years earlier ... somewhere between Manchester and Oldham... Missed that moment, obviously, at the time, but it's good to make the connection today.
Pic: Scarecrow on the road to Camster, Caithness: from End to End diary of Bob Warwicker
Sunday, March 02, 2008Come on Pilgrims
Saturday, March 01, 2008The Man Who Went into the West, and some who followed It seems to me that every significant journey I make intuitively takes me westwards. So the highlight of my recent escape into Snowdonia was reading Byron Rogers' biography of R.S.Thomas, and then following in the steps of The Man Who Went into the West by making my own sortie to the church at Aberdaron, where Wales ends, as Rogers puts it, 'at the headland which is the index finger of the Lleyn Peninsula pointing towards the island of Bardsey, graveyard of the saints.'
Sainthood not having been bestowed on Thomas (he gets given plenty more critical titles than that in this scintillatingly honest book), it was back along the road in Porthmadog churchyard where I found the modest stone beneath which lie his ashes (for now, pending the resolution of family feuds). But at Aberdaron, as waves crashed white against the churchyard wall in a wild high tide, I got a real sense of the environment which helped shape Thomas into the 'austere, unforgiving, taciturn, wintry man' he was known to be, and the astonishing poet-priest whose words bespoke his bitter sense of the absence of God:
Why, then, do I kneel stillHe had these questions, but he carried them through an entire adult life as a minister in the Church of Wales. Contradictions abound in Thomas's life. He sought after his Welshness at a succession of increasingly remote parishes whilst encountering increasingly more loud English holidaymakers in each. Fittingly, if surprisingly, Rogers' insightful work reveals comedy and absurdity as central aspects of Thomas's character - and his marriage of 51 years to the artist Elsi Eldridge. The elderly couple's first act on moving into an ancient cottage 'was to rip out the central heating' - which illustrates a relationship both austere and oddly warm.
Aberdaron church was also poorly heated in Thomas's time. There, 'sometimes wet through in his cassock in winter, he pulled on the outside bell', Rogers writes, and a vicar who succeeded him, Evelyn Davies, says 'Bless him, there was no one else to do it.' I found this a powerful image, and so when I made my way from the top of that churchyard round to the front door last Tuesday I was gripped to see a man there, alone, struggling in the same way to pull on that rope as the wind sang through it and the tiny bell's sound drowned in the sea's roar. He described himself as 'the new vicar ... two weeks' and invited me to join him in Daily Prayer. It was 11.00.
He handed me a copy of Out of the Silence ... Into the Silence which is one of the most wonderfully crafted works of liturgy I've seen, and as we wove the words between us while the wind whistled around the church corners it dawned on me what he'd said before we started: these were his words. Turns out that Aberdaron's new vicar is Jim Cotter, whose work Margaret Hebblethwaite describes as 'writing so radical, prayerful, and authentic that no-one seriously involved in spirituality can afford to be without these modern classics.' He refers to himself as a 'Wordsmith / Godstriver / Cairnbuilder / Webtrembler / Exploring the spiritual / Encouraging seekers / Challenging old understandings'. Jim Cotter seems to share quite some characteristics of his lauded poet predecessor.
It was a delight to find Jim in Aberdaron, holding the silence way out in the windswept West. I'm sure the words will keep coming to him there. He's already wondering how he'll cope when the holidaymakers arrive.