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

    Saturday, February 28, 2009
    I vote Luton, I vote life
    From the flyover Luton looks grotty and magnificent. Luton is a tiny metropolis in a low-rent sort of way. It's multicultural without being cultural. It has a bustling Bangladeshi high street lit up with neon where you can get a curry or a haircut on Christmas Day. Luton even has a gay village, for God's sake.

    I think a lot of people in this part of the Home Counties don't really like Luton. They look down on it because it's a bit scruffier than the more well-heeled little poodle towns that you get round here. Luton's more like a mongrel. It's sort of everything I like about urban Britain really, you know, it's messy, it's grotty, and it's complicated. But it's alive, you know, and it's vital, and it's moving, it's developing. Luton: it's like a little piece of the North for those of us who are homesick.
    Milton Keynes is the rationale of motorway planning applied to town planning. It's a motorway in the form of a town. It's the triumph of pure flow. It never once got snarled up. We never even had to slow down. The traffic flow was pure.

    Milton Keynes is like walking between hospital wards. The problem with Milton Keynes, and with this whole functionalist project, is that it's actually misjudged human nature. There's a part in us that wants mess, that wants drama, crisis even. I prefer Luton. Luton, like life, is messy. But at least Luton feels like life. Rather than Milton Keynes, which feels like a 'solution' for it. I vote Luton, I vote life.
    Michael Smith's very English road movie matures along the A5. Great insights and plenty of fun here, from the second of his BBC Four Drivetime programmes, Long Days on Watling Street.

    Screen shots from BBC iPlayer
    Friday, February 27, 2009
    Lent meditation #1: Mikel Arteta
    'It is very hard to take for me but these things happen sometimes and it's difficult to understand, but maybe God challenges us to see if we are strong enough to deal with these things. So I'm positive and I'm going to work 24/7 to get back as quick as I can.'

    - Everton's maimed midfield magus Mikel Arteta, on his six-month lay-off.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009
    Love them all
    Thanks to Steve for responding to my post about John Fenton with this gem from the man himself. Its wit and wisdom being eminently transferable, I reckon, to other 'roles', I hope it'll help shape me through Lent.

    Click the image or here for enlarged view
    Wednesday, February 25, 2009
    For what is done, not to be done again
    Because I do not hope to turn again
    Let these words answer
    For what is done, not to be done again
    May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
    Having this morning signed the foreheads of the many schoolchildren of Croxteth Park, and, later, a gathering of parishioners, I then scattered what remained of today's ashes along the grass verges of Good Shepherd Close. It seemed like something worth doing at the time.

    Verse from T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday
    Monday, February 23, 2009
    Joe Moran's blog
    I was starting to wonder what Joe Moran had been up to lately. A writer notable for his sympathetic explorations of the mundane and everyday, who has featured prominently on these pages in the past, and with whom I enjoyed some good cups of tea and conversations in city centre cafes either side of my M62 walk, Joe's New Statesman contributions seemed to have slowed right down and I was starting to get worried he'd lost his quotidian vision and gone over to Bella or Nuts.

    Well, it seems that after finishing his latest book On Roads: A Hidden History (due out in June) he's not only back in the NS but also now breaking out online. No surprise that (after due consideration, I'm sure) Joe has chosen to name his blog Joe Moran's blog.

    On my first skim through this already rich archive, I noted with glee that in one entry Joe sampled one of my Common Prayers and called me his 'favourite lefty vicar'. Filtered through his observations on topics as diverse as the work of Tom Phillips, the slow death of the phone box, tax returns, i-Spy books and traffic cones. Enjoyed Joe's silly limericks, and appreciated his occasional Mundane quotes for the day, including this, from Alain de Botton: ‘Rather than always being a chance to escape reality, perhaps holidays should offer us a chance to make ourselves more at home in the world we actually live in, even down to its half-terrifying, half-sublime motorway systems.’

    Joe Moran's blog - favourited already.
    Sunday, February 22, 2009
    From the heart and aimed straight back there
    rich man came into our town and wandered around, wandered around
    rich man came to change our minds and change our plans,
    take our things, take our nights, tonights we fight.

    rich man bought our wandering world, our wonderful world, our wondering world

    get your guns let's shoot him down, let's ax his plans,
    but we missed the mark, there goes the ark, here comes the dark.
    rich man spoke, thunder clap, like a waterfall as those waters fall on those know-it-alls and their mighty causes.

    rich man bought our wandering world, our wonderful world, our wondering world

    rich man came to pay the price, he paid it all,
    he paid the now, he paid the was, he paid it in full,
    he paid it for fools who wandered and drooled and full of lice
    he's twice as nice

    rich man bought our wandering world, our wonderful world, our wondering world
    I am in the process of being slowly rehumanised, rescued, saved, through the music of The Rev Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique, aka The Welcome Wagon. The couple, day-to-day, are at the heart of things at Resurrection Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn. Sufjan Stevens admires them for being 'unabashedly Midwestern, ordinary and uncool, the whitest of white people', and warmly describes their songs as being 'really just a pastor and his wife tentatively singing in the quiet privacy of their own home'.

    His humble understatements conceal some beautiful truths. This collection - seven years in gestation, and the careful work of friends and family - was produced by Sufjan and is suffused with all his lovely stylistic shades and tones. Gentle; gripping; from the heart and aimed straight back there. The Danielson cover quoted above (Sold! To the Nice Rich Man: mp3 here) shows the astuteness of their selections; Sufjan's thoughtful blog notes how Vito and Monique replace Danielson's 'stomping protest song in 6/8' with 'a groovy, bluesy party vibe': but the 'odd theological ornaments' still 'decorate this musical tree: axes and guns aimed at the Heart of Darkness, thunderclaps and waterfalls instigating the divine purchase'. It's lovely. It's complicated. It sounds naïve and truthful.

    Elsewhere in this collection, "Jesus, help me find my proper place," they sing. The words of Lou Reed. They embrace Morrissey, lost in London but at home in the YWCA ('Half A Person'). And they successfully segue lines from Jesus Christ Superstar into a southern sacred song from Jesse Mercer's 1810 collection of Baptist hymnody: "I am a stranger here below and what I am is hard to know; my heart is cold and dark within, I fear that I'm not born again... Everything's allright, yes, everything's allright." This will do me for Lent.

    Click here to listen to Welcome Wagon's version of Sold! To the Nice Rich Man
    Saturday, February 21, 2009
    Away in the Lakes with the matchbox bishops
    Some generous soul has gifted Fellfield a highly collectable set of Liverpool Diocese Centenary Matchboxes - each uniquely featuring a picture of one of the bishops to that date (1980): Ryle, Chavasse, David, Martin, Blanch and Sheppard. It's been such a mild, bright late-winter week that we felt we should treat them to days out with us wherever we went. Pictures of their expeditions here.

    Pic from my Fellfield (Bishops), Feb 2009 Flickr photoset
    Friday, February 13, 2009
    He cared wisely

    Once you get up close to this picture of Harold MacMillan taking a fag break at a party conference, you notice that the cigarette in his hand is burnt one-third down. And that the long wobble of ash at the end of the cig looks about to drop, any moment. Onto the head of a senior citizen seated directly below. Maybe that's why the other lady has a newspaper protecting her head. Discerning woman. What are the odds it's a copy of The Birmingham Post.

    Pondered all this and very much more at the Philip Jones Griffiths retrospective at the Conservation Centre today. It must be one of the best collections of documentary photography I've seen anywhere. When Griffiths died a year ago John Pilger paid tribute to his friend, the great photo-journalist whose passion for truth-telling he shares, writing, 'I never met a foreigner who cared as wisely for the Vietnamese, or about ordinary people everywhere under the heel of great power, as Philip Jones Griffiths. He was the greatest photographer and one of the finest journalists of my lifetime, and a humanitarian to match.'

    Besides his campaigning work in Vietnam Griffiths had a particular interest in the city and people of Liverpool, and caught some seminal images of a key era for the city - ones you'd expect like the Cavern club shot from behind the band on stage, and Beatles portraits, but also rare shots of Liverpool's first "Happening", 1963. And then many works of real integrity and gritty beauty which prove Pilger's words about how Griffiths so evidently 'cared wisely' for ordinary people.

    This one of Paddy's Market, 1966 gripped me. As Christian Petersen's contemporary pictures show (see blog, January 23) Paddy's Market hasn't changed all that much in 40 years. But you'd hope that, in a rainstorm, the clothes might at least be under cover or off the ground today. David, who was once at school with George Harrison, reflecting on this picture alongside me in the gallery today, pointed out that in 1966 Liverpool was on a high... yet clearly from Griffiths' record, then, as now, sharp inequalities prevailed.

    Electioneering, Halifax, from BBC Liverpool website.
    Paddy's Market, 1966, from Magnum website, where all of Philip Jones Griffiths' Recollections photographs are viewable.
    [That's my last blog for a few days... so opportunity for you, reader, to take in the work of Griffiths instead]
    Tuesday, February 10, 2009
    Drivetime next week
    BBC Four is currently treating insomniacs to repeats of Michael Smith's personal journey from hometown Hartlepool out through the land, in search of modern national identity, Citizen Smith. This must be to prepare the public for a new documentary series, Michael Smith's Drivetime, which starts next week. In which Smith takes a look at roads and what they do to us.

    As I blogged last year, I might be in this programme, though I'm not holding my breath as (you may remember from the blog), it was so wet on the day we filmed (some dead roads outside Huddersfield) that the camera let in water and had to be dried out by the car's heater while we retreated, dripping, to a caff in Lindley. Plus what I said might well have been rubbish. We'll see.

    But regardless of any cameo from yours truly, Drivetime should be worth a look. Smith is like no other documentary maker. Their informal style makes his programmes look amateurish but they're far from it. There's a lot of integrity in their trademark series of encounters and conversations with people Michael has had no previous knowledge of, thus carries no preconceptions about. Not to mention risk-taking. It requires some skill to think on your feet, on location. It's hit and miss, but the Citizen Smith episodes usually seemed to hit... something, some spot of insight, difficult truth, even inspiration. Hopefully Drivetime will do the same.

    BBC iPlayer screenshot from Citizen Smith #2: London
    Monday, February 09, 2009
    Not enough ugly beauty

    That's one of my favourite extracts from the 'alternative 2008' publication Stories from the City. Alternative in that 'The included pieces were selected from an open submission process that was promoted across the city'. I like Michael Sellars' piece because it is one of the few in the book which does actually deliver on the promise of being writing that 'looks hard and deep at Liverpool, the most written about in the UK after London and asks, for better or worse, what makes it special'. The collection is let down by burdening the reader with too many set-piece reminicences by people walking up Lime Street for the first time in years bemoaning the loss of memory palaces, voluntary exiles trying (unsuccessfully) to justify their commitment to a place they barely ever set foot in, and stuff by yet more people whose idea of Liverpool begins and ends at Lark Lane. Still plenty to make it worth a read, though. And I hope they do it again.
    Saturday, February 07, 2009
    Mapping Hackney
    Iain Sinclair is undoubtedly canny enough to have realised that by rooting himself so absolutely in a particular place for so long, and making a name for himself by writing repeatedly about being rooted so absolutely in that place, that one day they'll Heritage him: blue plaque on 28 Albion Drive, E8, 'Iain Sinclair, psychogeographer, schlepped out from here, 1969 onwards' (as good, maybe, as being memorialised in Bunhill Fields alongside his beloved Bunyan, Blake and Defoe). Publishing Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, A Confidential Report almost guarantees him that status, although it may read oddly to the sanctioned custodians of Hackney heritage, with its trademark 'cast of the dispossessed, including writers, photographers, bomb-makers and market traders ... Legends of tunnels, Hollow Earth theories and the notorious Mole Man. And ... his own story: of forty years in one house in Hackney, of marriage, children, strange encounters, deaths...'

    Sinclair tells Geoff Nicholson in The Lost Art of Walking that because he writes so explicitly about where he continues to live and walk, he does fairly regularly bump into people who are wandering around following the trails in his books. That he's chosen to make the dust-cover of his new book double as a specially-commissioned mythic map of Hackney, is an open invitation to further strange expeditioners of those streets. I love the book. I love the map even more. Hackney adrift in a cerulean sea, Victoria Park a small islet to the south. It really does beg to be used.

    Map designed by David Atkinson, Hand Made Maps
    Friday, February 06, 2009
    Songs the (Time-) Lord may have taught us
    A blog silence not due to inclement weather, but to my being away writing an essay. Sorry, I know, I might have told you. A decade or so in gestation (since my mind was first blown by reading Lights Out for the Territory), and three days in completion: my first Iain Sinclair essay. To celebrate finishing it (that, and Sunday's sermon too) I laid down to rest this afternoon, iPod at my ears.

    Somehow, though I dearly wanted to, it just didn't seem right here in William Gladstone's great library, to be listening to Songs the Lord Taught Us. The maven of garage madness Lux Interior has gone to meet his maker and I shall have to wait to mark his passing by replaying his psychobilly masterpiece very loudly some other place very soon.

    I settled instead on the latest offering of spectral electronics from Belbury Poly, From an Ancient Star. Perfect really, my head still full of Sinclair's psychogeographical speculative London ley-line mysticism, to have this complementary aural treat. In their own way Belbury Poly do just what he does: conjure ghosts to life, very English-sounding ghosts, eccentric and obscure, as much Clangers as Crowley, equal parts Delia Derbyshire and Arthur Machen. Like staring at Test Card F so long that the characters start moving, it can't be good for me. And it is.
    Tuesday, February 03, 2009
    Our Lady of Bremhill Road (Ice Maiden)
    A walk in what was left of the snow this morning brought an encounter with this disturbingly busty maiden, a north city Sheela-na-gig. We also discovered: some impressive (excessive?) porticos and fancy porches on Sedgemoor Road, an abandoned violin on Shottesbrook Green, and Fazakerley Hospital gleaming in the sun. All worth the windburn on our iceblown faces in a ninety-minute slide along the pavements of L11.

    Pic from Flickr photoset, Norris Green snow walk, Feb 2009
    Sunday, February 01, 2009
    Simeon moments and Simeon sayings
    Simeon moments and Simeon sayings. My talk, today, here.