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

    Sunday, August 31, 2008
    A1: Music on the Great North Road #2

    This is from the opening chapter of The 17, Bill Drummond's hefty tome, just published, which describes his two-year project to jettison all that has gone before in recorded music and invent something entirely new - to be captured in the moment and then deleted. Notice that this wildly ambitious (and thoroughly ambiguous) work began in a modest hotel on the A1. That road... and music... there's something about it.
    Saturday, August 30, 2008
    You can't assume anything
    'Well they didn't give people what they wanted because they were never consulted.
    When you are dealing with people's lives, you can't assume anything, you must get things right.'
    So says a Kensington resident in Chris Allen's Housing Market Renewal and Social Class. The book is a rare piece of academic research in that it reveals the mechanisms by which urban elites are using Housing Market Renewal (HMR) to make profits at the expense of working class people. These mechanisms are usually kept well-hidden:

    The assumption that housing is an investment, and that a person's position on the property ladder secures and defends their social position. This assumption - which justifies the need to 'play' the housing market in various ways - is not held by working class people who view housing as practical dwelling spaces where they live out their lives-with-others, and who in any case are too close to economic insecurity and necessity to entertain any ideas about 'playing markets';

    The assertion that certain types of housing (generally terraced housing on the edge of redeveloped city centres, traditionally working class homes) have become 'outdated' and 'unsuitable for modern living'. This assertion - which opens the way for widescale demolition and the displacement of the resident community - is justified by statistics which deal in terms like 'low demand' and 'high void rate' but which deny the evidence of the local residents whose 'lived view' is that being there (eg in this study, in Kensington) is not a problem.

    The languages of denunciation which are used against critics of HMR, be they local people who are accused by HMR managers of spreading 'misinformation' about their intentions (breathtaking, that, when often the opposite is demonstrably true) or of being 'mischief makers' for asking difficult questions in public meetings, or be they academics such as Allen whose well-researched and carefully expressed critique is neutralized by colleagues working for HMR bodies who denounce it as 'too polemical' or 'intemperate', whilst sidestepping any engagement with the actual issues raised.

    This latter point is the subject of a paper Chris sent me this week, in draft form, which he has titled Silencing Dissent: Languages of denunciation for the neutralization of and criminalisation of 'trouble makers' in Liverpool 08. He's been on the receiving end of plenty of this and there will doubtless be more once he publishes the paper, which he will under the shadow of legal threats that were made against him over the book.

    When you are dealing with people's lives, you can't assume anything, you must get things right. When you are witnessing developers keen to exploit the 'rent gap' in areas bordering central-city prime sites, clearing out their present occupants with their 'unfashionable' terrace houses and 'unsightly' washing-lines to make space for 'exciting contemporary' apartments (all words used, these, in the current Kensington scenario) - then you can't assume anything, you must get things right.

    Liverpool MP Jane Kennedy has described housing market renewal as 'municipal vandalism' and 'social cleansing'. Jimmy McGovern has called the devastation of Kensington 'cultural vandalism' [both quotes here]. Despite slurs of him being 'too polemical' or 'intemperate' Chris Allen is also doing his bit to ensure that no easy assumptions are made.
    I forget what they call it - it's a planning group like for the area. At our first meeting, me being me, I asked, because C7 [housing association] are there, Kensington Regen are there and we actually had some people from Liverpool City Council there, so I asked 'All the boarded properties, that you've managed to acquire on this side at the moment, what is going to happen to them should we win the public enquiry?' And they went 'Uh, well, you're not going to win so we've got no plans.'
    (Chair, residents association)
    Friday, August 29, 2008
    A1: The Road Musical
    Flicking through the channels it was a delight to discover A1: The Road Musical on Channel 4 tonight.

    The Director/Composer Benjamin Till lives on the A1 himself and - with the help of Dave Brown, a trucker from Yorkshire, makes the journey from London to Edinburgh stopping off a few times to meet other A1 people and hear about their lives.

    "I see the people who live alongside the A1 as my neighbours," says Till, "and I wanted to celebrate the extraordinary stories in every ordinary life. It's always struck me that whether in times of great happiness or great sadness, people express themselves through song, so a musical felt like a fitting way to capture these peoples' stories."

    So we hear them sing: Dave Brown at Smithfield Market with a ensemble of London commuters and pedestrians, Janet Wood in Grantham recalling the stranger who in the aftermath of her accident had held her hand through the broken window of her upside down car and disappeared when the emergency services arrived, the Rossington Male Voice Choir and former-miner Derek Burton at Haworth Colliery in Nottinghamshire, angry about pit-closures and the end of locally-sourced British coal, the grandmother of 16-year-old hit and run victim choirboy Danny Lawrence singing his favourite hymn How Great Thou Art, and Michael Ross protesting Berwick not being a Scottish town.

    Highlights for me included a choir of bikers singing a contemporary rebel song at Squires Cafe near Sherburn in Elmet in North Yorkshire, and the York University Chamber Orchestra performing in the industrial wasteland under the massive concrete motorway ramps where the A1 meets the M62 at Ferrybridge power station.

    It's a little strange but oddly wonderful, A1: The Road Musical. You can watch it here.
    Thursday, August 28, 2008
    The revolution will start at 10am prompt
    Some good festival comedy over the past week. At Greenbelt I was one of the blessed few able to get into the inappropriately small Sovereign Lounge for a stand-up show hosted excellently by Tony Vino (a companion of mine on the Leeds leg of my M62 walk), and featuring the accomplished Jo Enright ("If she was broccoli, I'd turn vegetarian" - Barry Cryer) and Claire Trevino performing as Geri from Bury, who is a sheer delight (see video).

    Days before I'd been in Edinburgh where I dodged torrential rain to catch the duo Girl and Dean whose new show is very light on the many knitted props they were formerly kitted-out with, but which still plays to their strengths which are to do with subverting middle-class mores by placing them in exceptional situations, such as this highlight*, where the ladies of Pangbourne WI gather for The final planning meeting for the Revolution to Overthrow the British Government Next Tuesday [mp3].

    * MP3 spliced from a Sowerby and Luff podcast
    Wednesday, August 27, 2008
    The sheet of toilet roll folded down quarter-sized
    Weary, climbing the grandstand stairs on an afternoon late in Greenbelt, legs tired with endless walking through heavy festival fields, head sore through having been battered by wind, assaulted by rain, scorched by sudden sunbursts each hour of the long weekend. Exhausted and talked-out, looking for a space of quiet in a sea of people. But every corner of every stairwell in this plushly-carpeted cathedral to National Hunt racing had been colonised by groups of youngsters seated next to electric sockets as they recharged their mobiles, gaggles of girls giggling to a background hiss of phone-speaker pop.

    Dismayed that the event organisers have outlawed the free-ranging skateboarders of previous Cheltenham years and corralled them into a dull programmed area, I wanted to be onside with these young people doing their own thing - let them be, let them live - but feeling my age I also wanted some space and silence for a while and these chattering grandstand ringtone virtuosos were in my miserable way.

    In a spirit which even in my moroseness I took to be playfully generous, one girl emerged from a cluster at a turn of the stairs, to offer me something from her hand. Sensate enough to recognise this as a daft but friendly-enough gesture I took her gift. "It's a souvenir of the occasion," she told me as her little friends looked on, hiding their smiles behind their hands. They were high on Greenbelt, high on each other, high on pure life. The girl's gift to me was, in fact, a single sheet of toilet roll folded down quarter-sized. I accepted it with mock-excessive but genuine enough thanks, made them laugh, then put it in my pocket and moved on, my mood just slightly melted.

    I wanted the space partly to prepare myself for the next session on the festival programme that afternoon, which was the only 'essential' all weekend for me. But denied any space for silence anywhere on site, soon I was joining many other forty-to-sixty-somethings creaking and clicking and groaning to the floor of Centaur for the weekend's pivotal event, a musical tribute to Larry Norman, the pioneer of Jesus Rock who had been for me and so many of my peers the catalyst for our emerging faith way back in the 1970s, and who died last February.

    I knew that this would be an emotional hour for me because when I heard of his death I realised how much Larry meant to me, a musician who in his prime performed and wrote as well as Jagger and Richards and Leon Russell, a visionary wordsmith in the company of Dylan, a complex populist as forceful as Lennon. Larry's songs fed me in my youth: half-provocation and half-proclamation and one hundred percent rock, they educated me into a faith formed in Larry's image, one which must speak from and to the streets, one most alive at the edge, critical of institutions, ardently peripheral. Now I feel tired even thinking about the enthusiasm of those days, but that buoyant faith is one I wish I had again having as an adult been well and truly institutionalised, corralled into a dull programmed area.

    So the Larry tribute event proved to be emotional as various artists of quality and integrity sang the man's songs and witnessed to his uniqueness and complexity. The songs reconnected me to the youth I once was, and all that meant. And so tears came as I heard them and sang along: sad at the loss of Larry, moved by the intensity of what the occasion meant to me. When the tears began I reached into my pocket for something to wipe them from my eyes. The only thing I found there to help me with this was a single sheet of toilet roll folded down quarter-sized, which that girl had given me on the stairs.

    ABOVE RIGHT: still from Larry Norman - Song for a Small Circle of Friends on YouTube, which was played at the Greenbelt tribute event
    ABOVE LEFT: Larry performing Watch What You're Doing, live with Frank Black
    Tuesday, August 26, 2008
    Back from Greenbelt

    Iwan Russell-Jones engages us fellow panellists during last Sunday evening's ninety-minute conversation (which I chaired), Faith in Football? The Beautiful Game Interrogated*. I'm just back from an enjoyable Greenbelt, showered, shaved and number-one-haircutted too, and tomorrow I'll be posting on some of the adventures of the past week (which also included a night at the Edinburgh Festival). Meanwhile, though, yesterday morning's talk, Walking with the Psychogeographers, is also available to order or download here. Text of the talk here.

    [*NB a glitch in Greenbelt's website confuses the football panel with last year's communion service but the mp3 download is the correct one]
    Photo from Greenbelt Festival Official Pictures' photostream
    Monday, August 18, 2008
    Liverpool on the Box
    I'm taking a blog break for a week or so; your prompt to dip, instead, into the delights of BBC Four's Liverpool on the Box season. Tonight's Passport to Liverpool (repeated Thursday and out on DVD) sets the standard: featuring the voices of a great cross-section of the city's people telling it like it was and is, and astonishing footage of class act John Curry the Mersey River Pilot guiding a massive ACL container ship into confined Gladstone Lock, it was excellent. Pity that at the same time Radio 4 gave Winifred Robinson half-an-hour to reset some tired old scouse stereotypes in the minds of her metropolitan listeners - such deficient coverage of the European Capital of Culture (amongst other things) makes it hard for people round here to take Radio 4 seriously these days.
    Soggy steps down familiar dead roads
    Who says TV is glamorous? Spent a morning getting soaked to the socks whilst retracing some steps from my M62 walk on Ainley Top with Michael Smith. We did a couple of 'dead roads' (including this one) for his forthcoming documentary Drive Time (first blogged about here) until the camera got waterlogged and packed in. It got brighter this afternoon and we managed some more work after the camera dried out; my trousers did too, at some point on the train journey home.

    Pic: A dead road, near Ainley Top, from my Walking the M62 website
    Sunday, August 17, 2008
    Jesus is rude
    Jesus is rude: my contribution for today, here.
    Saturday, August 16, 2008
    Walking with the psychogeographers

    Back on the road with this Greenbelt talk next week. It'll be good to catch up with some of the Greenbelters who helped me on my way last autumn. And to expose myself to the possibility of a bit of critical feedback en-route.

    (a) I haven't returned the offer letter yet for the MPhil, but I will do as soon as I get the ok from the diocese;
    (b) I'm talking on Monday morning at 10.00, not Sunday as billed on the website...
    Friday, August 15, 2008
    Gone bananas again
    Deerlamboltnana, East VillageBack on the SuperLambBanana trail again today, with Jess keen to see as many as possible during her weekend visit. Only ten days to go before these 120-plus creatures disappear but then there's something even more spectacular promised to the city. Most of today's photos are in Jess's mobile phone, but here's one of mine for the collection.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008
    All in the game
    At last, the footy panel for Greenbelt is complete.
    Lacking a Gavin Peacock perhaps,
    but nevertheless looking very good
    Tuesday, August 12, 2008
    Dangerously close to The Light
    Phew! After the arrival of two greatly-anticipated packages, from Beta-lactam Ring Records of Portland, Oregon and Dark Holler - Hand/Eye of Glenville, Pennsylvania, it seems that the theme of my holiday listening will be Lost Gospel.

    Present at Greenbelt in my iPod only will be this line-up:
    Eyeless In Gaza, with their gorgeous 3xCD pack Summer Salt/Subway Sun, its contents described by the record company as an 'astrally projected experimental fondue pot of swirling beauty and skewed rhythm that makes you feel like you’ve crawled back to the womb';

    The Trees Community, a Christian, contemplative community and music group based at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, whose 'traveling life in the 1970’s was shared publicly, across America and Canada, through original music as well as through other forms of service to others', and whose reissue of 1975's The Christ Tree is an astonishing mix of 'Incredible String Band and Moody Blues, Indian Raga and Balinese Monkey Chant, traditional American sacred folk music and Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Charles Ives, Bela Bartak and Claude Debussy' - and David's Psalms, both of alienation and of praise;
    And two works by TiMOTHy, Revelator, an artist whose night visions and haunting movements invite you to join him fluttering dangerously close to The Light:
    Lost Gospel Music Volume I: Beneath the Bleeding Moon, recorded live with vocals and ent-banjo, an instrument of TiMOTHy's own design, at Unreal House, direct to tape, in September 2004. Adopting the lyrics of 17th century English Catholic divine Richard Crashaw, 'here are moon-songs to God and the green wood, and secret songs to night angels - drawing influences from east (Ostad Elahi, Abdelah Ghania) and west (Buell Kazee, Derroll Adams)...'

    Crow Tongue - Ghost Eye Seeker in which TiMOTHy and A.E. Hoskin's first full length 'finds them summoning distant howls from the fog of night. Fingerpicked strings and Eastern instruments recall Crow Tongue’s musical heritage (the acid-folk of Stone Breath), but here they are layered with primitive homemade instruments, circuit-bent electronics, and mantric drones.'
    Breathe in to receive a thrilling stream of cosmic consciousness, because Julian Cope digs TiMOTHy too:
    In the late ‘60s, Tokyo’s J.A. Caesar advertised his apocalyptic music as being: “Voodoo rock that invokes blood and the memory of blood.” So it is with TiMOTHy. This Revelator music may claim to be Christian, but what a bloody and pagan Christianity it is. For the Revelator embraces both the blood and the darkness in the void, continually invoking the Sun, the Moon, the Twilight, the Darkness … hell, kiddies, its veritably Armenian in its worship of the Christ; it’s like some throwback to the sort of arcane early Christianity that still had to rub shoulders with the worshippers of bollockless Attis & his old lady Cybele, and with the shrill-voiced effeminate priests of Frey dragging their God/Idol through the muddy fields of Jutland. TiMOTHy’s practising an Ur-Christianity from back when it was still just one-of-many cults competing for bums-on-seats, so it had to accept the pagans upon the heath and their desire to worship this new Peace God the old way.... It’s Noah sacrificing the lamb on the Tukh Manukh stone altar on the Mithraic hill of Etchmiadzin at the foot of Mt Ararat. A bloody covenant, children. A vandal handshake through the hole of the Odin Stone up at Stenness, on Orkney Mainland; a handshake and the inevitable cutting of flesh/spilling of blood. Directly interfacing with the Divine Godhead....
    Or I may just go and listen to Beth Rowley.
    Monday, August 11, 2008
    Bring on the poltergeist

    Whilst reading Chris Allen's Housing Market Renewal and Social Class today the words came back to me of this gem of a poem which I enjoyed in my youth. Even though a couple of the cultural reference-points are a bit dated now, still the opening verse describes so critically well what Allen calls 'the dominant view of the market for houses, as a space of positions and position-taking', a middle-class view which is assumed to be the only one, despite many others in society having radically different attitudes towards housing.

    I found MacNeice's classic in a book on my shelves which was itself a teen favourite of mine: This Day and Age, Stanley Hewett's paperback anthology of modern poetry, published in 1965 and still very much in use in 1978. Two things struck me on reacquainting myself with this massively influential book: first, it bears the mark MANOR HIGH SCHOOL CROSBY, an establishment which no longer exists so I couldn't take it back even if I wanted to; and secondly the realisation, holding it in my hands, that it's now over thirty years since I shelved that book after my 'O' levels and started work... And still, like the daft-headed youth I then was, like grown-up radicals like MacNeice and Allen whose work thrills me today, I'm keen to continue invoking the poltergeist.
    Sunday, August 10, 2008
    Wooden Shjips Vol.1

    Currently listening to Wooden Shjips Vol.1, for reasons which will become apparent by clicking here to hear Shrinking Moon for You. Turn it up.

    Or as Byron Coley put it, in The Wire, "... tight-wound repeato psych guitar raunch with spoony (maybe even imaginary)
    percussion, surprisingly Rev-like keys, and vocals buried under burning driftwood. It's a nice one."
    Saturday, August 09, 2008
    Resisting attrition by administration

    I was a bit nervous at first, of The Friends of Real Lancashire, when I came across their display at a Festival of the Coast today. Any group keen to maintain borders, fly flags, etc I tend to approach with caution.

    But then I looked at these maps and read what they were saying about them, and it's quite simple; that the regional administrative areas created over the past forty years have eaten away at the cultural identity of a county which in every respect - legally, even postally - still exists.

    Lancashire still stretches from the Duddon to the Mersey, from Hawkshead to Hale, North Walney to Todmorden. It's just that our awareness of the ancient area in which our culture is rooted, has been eroded by all these structural reorganisations. This is happening everywhere, of course (I'm reminded of Nick Papadimitriou's very pertinent Middlesex County Council project). The Friends of Real Lancashire are affiliated to the Association of British Counties, and as that group says in its mission statement,
    The Counties are an important part of the culture, geography and heritage of Great Britain.... Britain needs a fixed popular geography, one divorced from the ever changing names and areas of local government but, instead, one rooted in history, public understanding and commonly held notions of cultural identity.
    We Scousers are notoriously separatist, of course, another reason for my initial suspicion. The accent has been a key weapon in our siege armoury in recent years. But as the academic book The Mersey Sound and that wonderful BBC documentary Morning in the Streets each demonstrate, Liverpool people were accented Lancastrians as recently as 1959, and many of us still are.

    As long as it's not focussed on clogs and pie-eating, or chauvinist exclusionary (and it doesn't appear to be), there's something appealing about campaigning for the geographical integrity of the traditional County of Lancashire. And something usefully political too: inasmuch as urging unity across the towns, cities and parishes of the ancient region serves to counteract the culture of competitiveness which is an integral tool of injurious regeneration. Divide and rule means trouble at t'mill.

    Friday, August 08, 2008
    Tracing the gentle beast around Wapping

    Patricia chose the map square at random: E15. And so the southern tip of the Albert Dock became the location for the nose of the gentle beast, our outline Superlambanana, and the route of our trail - as we traced it on our copy of Andrew Taylor's Liverpool City Centre map - had a watery, dockland look to it.

    Shy of drowning in the wash of one of the many Yellow DuckMarines in the docks today, we refined our route a little to stay on terra firma as we went about our mission to explore this heavily-redeveloped segment of the city. A mission secondary to the main purpose, which was of course to spot as many little Superlambananas as we could, whilst blessing the ground beneath our feet by treading into it the outline of Liverpool's currently best-loved beast.

    Notable moments in a hugely-enjoyable walk:
    Lunch beside the Duke's Dock where children and teenagers tried their luck at scrambling up three Superlambananas whilst parents and friends - and we - looked on. All over the city people are doing this: part of the joyous art of these sculptures is their tactility, the way they invite people onto and alongside them.

    Crossing the arid piazza cityside of the Echo Arena and BT Convention Centre to find all doors on the Arena closed against us, and security staff at the convention centre politely but firmly rebuking our curiosity, sending us out the way we came in, quite rapidly.

    Meandering through the fascinatingly mixed-purpose area between Wapping and Park Lane, including a detour into Jamaica Street. Here crumbling old warehouses stack against dead factories reconditioned as nightspots, Mexican restaurants, media labs, whilst sparks still fly inside MOT garages and steel fabricators sheds.

    Visiting Simros Carpets in an old warehouse on Jamaica Street, where on the wall hangs a picture of Elvis, 'signed' with a message from The King noting Priscilla's appreciation of the floor covering he'd bought there for Graceland.

    Glorying in the beautiful Nineteenth century houses on Great George Square, what few are left after wartime bombs and peacetime developments took their toll.

    Feeling unwelcome in the empty Tradewing Square, East Village, plotting to invert the signs posted on every wall so that rather than asserting that Please Respect Residents equals If You Don't Live Here, Keep Out they would instead welcome children, dogs, skateboarders, humans.

    Reaching the very tip of the tail of our Superlambanana on narrow Henry Street, outside John McCall Architects.

    Ruminating on the social tensions involved in apartment balconies - on narrow Shaws Alley and Cornhill where opposing apartments are almost within touching distance and there is no privacy for high-rise residents intent on sitting out in the summer air.

    Finding back routes into the next area to be gentrified - between the Baltic Fleet and the empty but still imposing Joseph Heaps Rice Mill.
    There were plenty of other good moments too, on a day when St John's Gardens were busy with summer school's out fun activities, and when - on our walk down to the docks - we dared to investigate the insides of The Three Graces.

    Unchallenged in the old Mersey Docks and Harbour Board building (with its glorious domed atrium bearing the axiom They that go down to the sea in ships / and do business in great waters / These see the works of the Lord / and His wonders in the deep); watched by security in the Cunard Building as we gasped at the high pillared rooms of the Government Office for the North West; refused entry to the Royal Liver Building but sent around the back by one kind security man with a wink that we might like to see the art exhibition in The Atrium... which of course, we did.

    30 pictures from the walk at Flickr photoset Superlambanana Trail, August 2008
    Thursday, August 07, 2008
    Places of imagined possibilities
    Thanks, Deb, for the prompt about three upcoming programmes in Radio 4's Thinking Allowed series: Imagination and The Countryside, Imagination and The Suburbs and Imagination and The City.

    The programme makers aimed to complement the views of social scientists on the perils and pleasures of life in the countryside, the suburbs and the town, with the literary versions of such places from novelists like Joanna Trollope, Iain Sinclair and Will Self. 'The result was revelatory,' presenter Laurie Taylor said.

    How are different environments imagined and lived? When people select to live in one area or another, the programme makers say, 'choices are made on the basis of imagined possibilities, fears and understandings of particular places, which are themselves constructed in multifarious ways from the media to hearsay.'

    We kind-of know that; but the programmes promise to 'unpack in novel ways the complexity of living in different places'. Good idea. They're on the next three Wednesday afternoons at 4.00. Or you can always listen again.
    Wednesday, August 06, 2008
    A litany for illeterate girls

    Nicola Slee, from The Book of Mary,
    and as published in the latest Coracle,
    which was delivered today.
    Tuesday, August 05, 2008
    Walking with the psychogeographers
    I've just spent a day preparing my talk for Greenbelt 08.

    That done, now there's just a the small matter of pulling together a panel to discuss this for 90 minutes...

    Current state of affairs down Goodison way, I'm struggling to get into this. But there's no walking away.
    Sunday, August 03, 2008
    In a water world

    Drop down off the road by the industrial estate, into the deep wooded gullies beneath Chirk and you're suddenly in a water world. Yesterday I joined our Boys Brigade on a walk of discovery, a highlight of which was our ten-minute passage through the Chirk Tunnel, which explained why (for a walk in bright sunlight) the boys had been told to carry torches. Though for much of the time our way was lit by the narrowboats passing through beside us.

    Another treat was discovering the gates of Chirk Castle. Created in 1719 by John Davies, no less, of Croesfoel Forge, near Bersham, Wrexham (and his brother Robert). Pretty impressive, to say the least, featuring three wolves heads, various eagles, and the coat-of-arms of the Myddelton family topped by the Bloody Red Hand of Chirk, about which I have no stomach to speculate on just now.

    Actually the main reason I have no stomach is because of the sunstroke; I'm suffering through having run around with not enough hair and too much paunch in a serious game of football in the high heat of a Shropshire summer afternoon. Very achy and feeling my age, nevertheless delighted to have been on the winning team, Men 7 Boys 3. See, we've still got it. We had to prove it. That's me lying down now for a very long night of recovery.

    Pics: Llangollen Canal, Chirk Tunnel from edgeworths2000 Flickr photostream;
    Chirk Castle Gates from www.chirk.com
    Friday, August 01, 2008
    Bring on the new John Brodies
    Sorry, but Klimt just doesn't do it for me. Or maybe it's the crowds. (Oh, for the return of those days when you could walk through Liverpool's numerous top-notch museums and galleries undisturbed by crowds. They were formative for me those days, when it was our comfortingly-kept secret that the city of Liverpool hosted the greatest collections anywhere outside of the grabby metropolis, and when it was free entry to all of it for people on the dole like me.)

    Anyway, having free access again now as a Tate Member (yes, a telling sign of the times) I opted to escape the hundreds shunting each other around the quite silly Beethoven Frieze, took a contraflow exit past the welcome desk, and headed instead for the Tate shop. Like many previously decent shops in Liverpool this has taken a dive in quality for 2008, replacing shelves of art and cultural studies books and dvds with displays of gimmicky Howies T-Shirts, chintzy Chagall tea-towels, acquiescent Banksy publications and the like.

    Thankfully they are still stocking a few decent periodicals. And they seem to have done a deal with The Architectural Review for there's a generous stack of their January 2008 issue on sale. This is because The World's Favourite Architectural Magazine devoted the entire issue to Liverpool, which they rightly describe as a 'work in progress'.

    In common with most things written about Liverpool from the remoteness of NW1, some articles do feature the usual annoying inaccuracies or ill-judged comments on the city from those who seem to have never set foot in the place, or who should know better ('In the '80s and early '90s there seemed little reason for the city to continue to exist' - oh really, who told you that, David Dunster?) and the token 'insider' view from someone who even admits themselves that they haven't lived here since puberty ('I longed to be living in some inner-city slum rather than the prosaic banality of suburban comfort' - ah well, I guess you've grown up now, Sean Griffiths).

    But they are minor irritations because there's a lot of good writing (including in Dunster and Griffiths' articles) and some even better illustrations, my favourite being the gatefold pages of Liverpool cartography featuring G.H. Parry's Merseyside map produced for the British Empire Exhibition which the City of Liverpool hosted in 1924. Lovingly, and wittily, illustrated, Parry's map re-orientates the city so that the Mersey runs horizontally beneath it and the newly-built ring road spreads itself above, tree-lined and bearing the caption QUEENS DRIVE (SIX and a HALF MILES) J. A. Brodie designed this - and the Great Outfall Sewer.

    In an honest appraisal of what's happening here beneath the cranes Doug Clelland quotes Joseph Sharples who recently noted that 'Liverpool has the most splendid setting of any English city'. Clelland insists that 'This 'most splendid' context provides ideal conditions for the pusuit of excellence, in terms of leadership, government, and the best in city building.' Clelland judges that we've fallen way short of that, up to now, detailing various losses of nerve in city planning, including the missed opportunity to transform our tired old Boot Estate into 'an Ecotown - before its time'. He calls for the return of 'true grit' in our plans for the future.

    Back fighting my way through crowds in the retail hell of the half-opened Liverpool One mall (and shoehorning my way into the much-diminished new WH Smiths) I do hope his call is heeded by those who can do something about it. Bring on the new John Brodies! (He invented the goal net as well, you know).