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

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009
    Imagination and the city
    Clearing my desktop today I replay the excellent Thinking Allowed from last August, in which Doreen Massey, Will Self and Richard Sennett and a very bright audience interact on the topic of Imagination and the city. With these folks involved it's no surprise to see the conversation take some stimulating turns, including this provocative little exchange.
    Doreen Massey: The last surveys I've seen on knife crime don't actually say that it's worse in inner cities. We do have from the 70s onwards this imagination that it's the inner cities which are the worst places, and if you go to small towns in England there is knife crime, there is violence, there is anomie.

    Will Self: Yes. I think that one of the most interesting, as it were, double bluffs in the urban context about safety and the individual is 'stranger danger' and the way in which the grand narrative - which we all believe and buy at some subconscious level - is that if you leave your child alone for ten minutes in the urban context he or she will be abducted by a paedophile ring. The reality is, if you leave your child alone for five or ten minutes in the urban context and he or she steps out from between parked cars she'll be hit by someone in an SUV and killed. That's the reality of the situation, so in order to cover up our obsession with maintaining private car ownership we've invented vicious gangs of paedophiles...
    Monday, March 30, 2009
    Walking with Simon of Cyrene
    This might keep the trawlers-after-Passiontide-sermons happy: Walking with Simon of Cyrene, a talk which I'm giving tomorrow.
    Sunday, March 29, 2009
    Perlman wisdom

    The other bargain I procured at the top end of town the other day: seventy-five pence for a copy of this lovingly-produced little gem. Illustrated by Clifford Harper it's full of Perlman wisdom:
    The practical everyday activity of wage-workers reproduces wage labor and capital. Through their daily activities, 'modern' men, like tribesmen and slaves, reproduce the inhabitants, the social relations and the ideas of their society; they reproduce the social form of daily life. Like the tribe and the slave system, the capitalist system is neither the natural nor the final form of human society; like the earlier social forms, capitalism is a specific response to material and historical conditions .
    Full text of The Reproduction of Everyday Life at libcom.org
    Friday, March 27, 2009
    Contrition in concrete beneath the M56

    At the base of a concrete strut supporting the M56 across the River Weaver, five words painted large: CAROL I AM SO SORRY. We are on the Neil Sedaka trail through chemical estuary Cheshire. On the adjoining concrete leg, the words: CAROL I LOVE YOU. The author must have been confident that the lover he had wronged would visit that place and read those words of appeal.

    What sort of Carol would ever venture out through the industrial sheds by Frodsham Bridge (garden centre, transport cafe, switchgear units), beneath the railway viaduct, past the sailing club and through the nasty brambles by Flood Brook, to reach this desolate point, a tatty island between the river and the Weaver Navigation, all slurry and tyre tracks? Probably a Carol like us - Jim, Dave and me - drawn by the romance of being near water beneath a massive chemical plant, directed by the electric cables singing in the wind, running in all directions through giant pylons to converge at the massive substation beneath Weston Point. A Carol, perhaps, who might make this journey by night, when the vast chemical works, illuminated, must seem a Wonder of the World.

    We did four short walks today: the circuit between Sutton Causeway and the electricity substation beneath the rail and motorway arches described above; a crossing of the M56 by Weaver Lane from Ship Street to tour the toxic wastelands around The Lum (sealed soil sample pipes painted bright red, signs warning of 'soft soil': code for 'tread this land at your peril for it will scald your skin', magnificent views up to the dominant chemical works); after an excellent lunch in The Bear's Paw a wander up and down Frodsham's Main Street (wonderful Elizabethan and Georgian houses being elbowed out by rubbish cheap contemporary architecture, a lovely tin tabernacle); and finally the short walk from the car park to the War Memorial on Frodsham Hill, from where we gained some fantastic views across Cheshire, out to Wales, over Merseyside, Winter Hill, Lancashire and lands beyond. Could have sat there for hours, identifying landmarks (Runcorn Bridge, Cammel Lairds, Huyton tower blocks) but with black clouds closing in from Clwyd and Dave's legs starting to go dead from the toes upwards, we gave up and came home. Good walking, Frodsham.

    Forgot to take my camera on today's walk so I'm deeply grateful to those who got there before me.
    Frodsham viaduct: rawmusic's Flickr photostream
    A view from Frodsham Hill: Torl Porl's Flickr photostream
    Thursday, March 26, 2009
    Dead issues and star singles
    Seemed to be a lot of sozzled pedestrians lurching along the pavements of Berry Street this afternoon, stoned guys interrogating people for twenty pence at bus stops by the bombed out church, bug-eyed and bickering Big Issue Sellers on Bold Street. Great to see that there's life in all its fullness at the top end of town, a world away from the sterile, security-patrolled retail marts of Liverpool One. And in News From Nowhere, just one pound bought me a very good pamphlet, Last Orders for the Local? Working class Space v. the market place.

    The anonymous author traces the decline in authentic, 'lived' history alongside the corresponding rise of heritaged pubs, post-industrial tourist sites and media extravaganzas such as the recent Miners Strike anniversary documentaries. Written in 2001 the pamphlet's critique of such things still holds.
    “How long does the battle last?” I asked. “It starts at 12.30 and ends at 3.30, but there’s an interval for lunch at 1.30,” replied the woman with the Coal Not Dole badge. We all laughed nervously.’ (Guardian, 21/6/01.)

    A pathetic parody of th[e] repressed desire [to finally live history and no longer merely consume it] was recently played out on the 15th anniversary of perhaps the bloodiest picket line conflict of the Miners Strike; the Battle of Orgreave was re-enacted near to the original site. Filmed for Channel 4 TV by a Hollywood director, and with ex-pickets and cops from the original battle as extras (but ‘real’ actors playing the ‘heroes’ of the event such as Arthur Scargill – typically bourgeois history as the history of leaders), the event was painstakingly reconstructed from media footage of the time. As always, once the event is safely far enough in the past, the media that acted in its own class interests by lying and distorting the truth in the real time of the class struggle, feels confident enough to now reveal a somewhat more truthful version of events; now that it no longer has any consequences. This is a sure sign of the ruling class’s confidence that these are dead issues, definitively resolved in their favour. They want us to believe that class struggle is a thing of the past. Again, the colonisation process at work; get the defeated to dramatise their defeat as entertainment for the victors. Despite a bit of temporary flattering attention and extra pocket money for the locals, who really gains from this farce? No one but the ruling class and their media. The claims that the event was therapeutic (or “healing”) for some are predictable – but what does it help them come to terms with? Only the acceptance of their defeat and all its consequences since.
    All this on the day that a coterie of ex-players and local star musicians launched a single to mark the twentieth anniversary, next month, of Hillsborough. On the North West news tonight one of the participants was keen to assert that this project is 'not political'. Well, if it isn't then what is the point of it, really? Therapy? An acceptance of defeat?
    Tuesday, March 24, 2009
    The satisfaction in staying put
    With the world as it now presents itself, there is something perverse, and probably dysfunctional, about a person who stays in the same house for 40 years. What about the expanding family syndrome, the school-lottery migration, the property portfolio neurosis? Have you no imagination? Don't you feel that incremental slide, familiar to anyone dull enough to have slept under one roof for more than six months, into life-change anxiety? We know the symptoms so well. Sirens, drills, helicopters sweeping low with blades set for maximum acoustic impact: crack up. Crisis.
    Iain Sinclair's 40 years in the same Albion Drive house feature in The Independent today. It tells the same story as the massive book I got through a few weeks back, a story of all manner of comings and goings, changing neighbours, occasional lodgers and those who stayed for years, unnoticed. In 1968 'taking possession of a Hackney house was an uneasy karma', what with all the burglaries and threatened compulsory purchase orders; so the house was cheap. Since then, of course, it's gentrified beyond recognition (parts of it have, anyway) and Albion Drive homes have become expensively desirable to those who care about such things. But, in a tangental echo of the voices which Chris Allen showcases in his book about working class attitudes to property Sinclair expresses the satisfaction in staying put:
    A few years ago, children decamped, we found somewhere very appealing on the south coast. Our house went on the market and we received several offers within the week. That was when we understood, without discussing it, how impossible escape was. You can't leave the thing that you are, the house that has become your biography.
    Thanks Martin for the link
    Sunday, March 22, 2009
    Tyranny of the ad hoc

    What's this - me reading an article about 'emerging church'? Not quite; but interesting to draw some parallels from John Barker's essay in the latest, always invaluable, Variant [#34, download pdf].

    Friday, March 20, 2009
    Poets on the periphery
    Seems that Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley have been mooching around (as I am also wont to do) under the Barton Viaduct and other such peripheral zones. They're two great poets and because of that they know there's beauty in the most disregarded places.

    "We decided it was up to us as poets to try change people's minds about England's edgelands. We want to celebrate these overlooked places," Michael Symmons Roberts told the BBC. So these poets of the post-industrial North West have set about writing a book of non-fiction called 'Edgelands - Journeys into England's Last Wilderness' describing such wondrous wildernesses as the land between the Barton Bridge and the Ship Canal, 'an area south of Piccadilly Station that's got railway sidings and a huge freight yard with stacked containers from around the world', and 'the stretch just off the A34 south of Manchester, near Handforth, where an unnamed pool attracts weekend fisherman, between a massive leisure centre and a retail park.'

    The Royal Society of Literature has just awarded them a prize for a synopsis and sample chapter of their incipient work. They know it's going to be that good. It's not due out till 2011. Can't wait.

    Barton Viaduct pic from my Walking the M62 collection
    Thanks Mister Roy for sharing this news
    Thursday, March 19, 2009
    Occult Heritage
    What are they thinking, placing a university bookshop on the road directly between Sheffield railway station and the Urban Theology Unit? So directly that if you enter on the lower level (Law, Business) and exit from upstairs (Literature, Art, Mothers Day cards) you can use the shop as a short cut uphill. Inevitably I broke my journey there on Monday and emerged with a book which is helping move my explorations in psychogeography away from literature awhile, to focus on film.

    Besides ripping Billy Elliot to shreds (quite rightly, that crass film certainly deserves it), Paul Dave's Visions of England: Class and Culture in Contemporary Cinema digs deep into the works of Patrick Keiller, Derek Jarman, Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair and has me currently conjuring with the term Occult Heritage.

    This month I will be mostly watching difficult left-field films of English marginalia on my discount DVD player. It will be fun.
    Tuesday, March 17, 2009
    Walking: not for Dead Puppets
    To walk abroad is, not with Eys,
    But Thoughts, the Fields to see and prize;
    Els may the silent Feet,
    Like Logs of Wood,
    Move up and down, and see no Good,
    Nor Joy nor Glory meet.

    Ev’n Carts and Wheels their place do change,
    But cannot see, though very strange
    The Glory that is by;
    Dead Puppets may
    Move in the bright and glorious Day,
    Yet not behold the Sky.

    And are not Men than they more blind,
    Who having Eys yet never find
    The bliss in which they mov;
    Like Statues dead
    They up and down are carried
    Yet never see nor love.

    To walk is by a Thought to go;
    To move in Spirit to and fro;
    To mind the Good we see;
    To taste the Sweet;
    Observing all the things we meet
    How choice and rich they be.

    To note the Beauty of the Day,
    And golden Fields of Corn survey;
    Admire each pretty Flow’rs
    With their sweet smell;
    To prais their Maker, and to tell
    The Marks of His Great Pow’rs.

    To fly abroad like active Bees,
    Among the Hedges and the Trees,
    To cull the Dew that lies
    On ev’ry Blade,
    From ev’ry Blossom; till we lade
    Our Minds, as they their Thighs.

    Observe those rich and glorious things,
    The Rivers, Meadows, Woods, and Springs,
    The fructifying Sun;
    To note from far
    The Rising of each Twinkling Star
    For us his Race to run.

    A little Child these well perceives,
    Who, tumbling among Grass and Leaves,
    May Rich as Kings be thought,
    But there’s a Sight
    Which perfect Manhood may delight,
    To which we shall be brought.

    While in those pleasant Paths we talk,
    ’Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;
    For we may by degrees
    Wisely proceed
    Pleasures of Lov and Prais to heed,
    From viewing Herbs and Trees.
    Unremittingly praiseful: Walking by Thomas Traherne, who (with the deeply contrasting but equally inspirational Dostoevsky) was the subject of our attention in a Rod Garner lecture at Edge Hill University tonight. Yeah, bliss.
    Sunday, March 15, 2009
    Why white?
    That Runnymede Trust report, Who Cares About the White Working Class? has got me thinking about the title I’ve chosen for my research. It states that it will be based in a White Working-Class Community. Why did I need to include the term ‘white’? Perhaps because our area is predominantly white British - 98 per cent at the last census, though I suspect it may be slightly lower now, maybe 95, 96 per cent.

    But the Runnymede report makes me realise that by including the term ‘white’ I'm separating people on racial lines for no particular (and certainly no good) reason. The statistics also show that our area is predominantly working class, and it is really working class life and culture which I am most interested to explore, a working class, L11, theology I'd most like to try developing, ie, working class of whatever race.

    I think I must have included the term ‘white’ in my research title under the influence of current trends in reporting, for the term ‘White working class’ has become common currency in the media over the past couple of years. In the Runnymede report Wendy Bottero (University of Manchester) writes that
    when commentators argue over the neglected interests of the ‘white working class’, the comparison to other groups is always in terms of their ethnicity, with Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, or Pakistanis in Oldham. The distinctive social position of these groups is presented in terms of their ethnic identity, as cultural or religious difference, rather than by the very marked class inequalities that they also experience. This exaggerates the differences between ethnic groups and masks what they hold in common. By stressing the whiteness of the white working class, the class inequality of other ethnic groups also slips from view. This sidesteps the real issue of class inequality, focusing on how disadvantaged groups compete for scarce resources, rather than exploring how that scarcity is shaped in the first place. If we really want to understand disadvantage, we need to shift our attention from who fights over the scraps from the table, to think instead about how much the table holds, and who really gets to enjoy the feast.
    I'm off to Sheffield in the morning for another stint of supervision and interaction with my MPhil/PhD peers and so I hope that maybe we'll get in a conversation on these things.
    Saturday, March 14, 2009
    Caricatures and algorithms
    A gift for my turning up at St. Winifreds and talking about discovering the heavenly in the ordinary to a group of folks from St John 's Waterloo, was a copy of John Minnion's Pool of Life: The Story of Liverpool in Caricatures. It's going to be a good read, full of excellent illustrations like the Bessie Braddock pictured here, accompanied by brief light and breezy biographies of 150 characters whose lives influenced the city. I'll be taking a page a day for the next... erm, 150 days? Maybe two pages.

    Our algorithmic walk around the roads of Rhos-on-Sea this afternoon (Take the second right, first left, first right, repeat) took in some quiet residential roads where a recurring motif in windows and walls was a circle with a cross-shape radiating out from the centre, and ended perfectly in St Trillo's Chapel, allegedly the smallest chapel in Britain, built on the shore over a spring at a point where Trillo 'saw a Celtic cross of light appear above the waters' (according to my copy of Terry Breverton's endearingly eccentric Book of Welsh Saints). We had a little sing in there this afternoon, hoping Trillo might have liked it.

    Bessie Braddock from John Minnion's Pool of Life web page
    St Trillo's from my Rhos-on-Sea Flickr photostream
    Thursday, March 12, 2009
    They're cutting the beaks off of penguins

    Letterman: Now you have an interesting name yourself. Can you tell us a little of the origin of Captain Beefheart?

    Van Vliet: Captain Beefheart - a beef in my heart against this society.

    Letterman: Mmm-huh.

    Van Vliet: They're cutting the beaks off of penguins down at the marina in LA, you know that, the water.

    Letterman: No I didn't ....

    Van Vliet: They're cutting the beaks off of penguins. Off of, uh not uh (waves hands in impersonation of penguin), off of pelicans. Cutting the beaks off of pelicans. The top beak, y'know... (mimes action of cutting top beaks off of pelicans)

    Letterman: I know, I know, but why are they doing that?

    Van Vliet: I don't know but I'd sure like to find who's doing that because...

    Letterman: Yeah, that's...

    Van Vliet: ...they need a spankin'.

    Letterman: It's cruel, if er, if er, if in fact that's the case, that seems like it might be cruel.

    Van Vliet: Not right.

    Letterman: No.

    Van Vliet: No.
    This and many more wonderful passages - many of them visual / aural - on Captain Beefheart on David Letterman which now fronts my otherwise almost abandoned mySpace page. Pretty much all a simple soul requires on a Thursday evening.

    Myspace.com screenshot: Captain Beefheart on David Letterman
    Wednesday, March 11, 2009
    Circular blogging on the homeward theme
    Synchronicity again. While my audience at Southport College tonight were helping me try to tease out the elusive answer to the question, 'Why did you decide to / need to walk home?' Mister Roy was blogging about that very same thing, with reference both to my walk and to Simon's forthcoming journey home to Leicester. Through the wonders of Google Latitude I know that Roy is in Leicester today, and I wonder if they've been mulling this question over in some Everards pub or other.

    For all our circular blogging on the topic we're no nearer a definitive answer. Which is good. Roy notices that the likes of Homer, Lovecraft, Eliot and Tolkien 'have indicated that the return is the most significant aspect of the journey', so it's not just us. Last night I put it in terms of the pilgrimage, wondering out loud in what ways home might be regarded as a 'holy place', a destination to aspire to and pursue. Which was an improvisation on my blog of last week.

    More circular blogging on this to come, I reckon, especially with Roy and Simon still in their boots.
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009
    Side street synchronicity
    Interested to see that Simon, inspired by our chat last week and by the ideas in Mis-Guides, took himself off on an 'alternative A6' walk yesterday, 'resolving to walk not one yard [of the familiar five-mile journey from home to town centre] along the main road.' He blogs about it at Walking Home:
    The A6 is a well-worn groove into Leicester and it almost feels tainted by the impatience with which many drivers use it. It's a hard road to like. But the side-streets are the roads on which journeys for most people begin or end. They're roads for pottering about in, nipping along to the corner shop, or in which visits to friends are made.
    Which connects very well with my own little project this week. Preparing for a couple of upcoming 'walk talks' I've created a visual presentation to accompany the song which is fast becoming my one essential urban walking track: Saint Etienne's Side Streets. If your computer can cope with the strain you can download my Side Streets - M62 mix [PPS, 15.7MB] and click into YouTube to listen along.

    Watch Saint Etienne's own video of Side Streets here
    Sunday, March 08, 2009
    Lent meditation #2: Woodbine Willie
    Nobody worries about Christ as long as he can be kept shut up in churches. He is quite safe there. But there is always trouble if you try to let him out.
    Eighty years ago, March 8th 1929, the man who Archbishop William Temple called "the finest priest I have ever known" died in the vicarage of St Catherine's Church, Liverpool. He took up his cross: Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, 'Woodbine Willie': today's talk.
    Friday, March 06, 2009
    Caught on camera
    There we are, my two minutes of near-fame. Above Huddersfield, in a rainstorm, talking up the spirituality of motorways, on Michael Smith's Drivetime.

    Screenshots from BBC iPlayer
    Thursday, March 05, 2009
    Polished poet slightly perturbed by Liverpool paranoia
    Having been tipped off that John Pilger's coming to give a Roscoe Lecture in December I found myself on the lecture series website dipping into the recordings of previous presentations to the self-selecting great and good of Liverpool by some famous names and notables. My favourite by far so far: Roger McGough in conversation with Roger Phillips last year:
    RP: It's interesting, the idea that you're regarded as the Poet Laureate for the city. They are looking for a new Poet Laureate. Your name hasn't appeared, and I saw a letter in the paper recently saying, 'Why isn't Roger McGough being considered as a potential Poet Laureate?'

    RMcG: Yes, I'm glad they published my letter.

    It's funny that, I did see the letter, someone pointed it out to me. There's great letter on the same page which said, 'I see they're changing the bard at Buckingham Palace', which was rather nice. But I noticed that the Guardian and the Telegraph printed lists of suggestions of people who they think might be the next laureate... My name's never mentioned, and it's ok, but you think, well hang on, I have been around a bit. So I always think it's that Liverpool paranoia comes up. 'Why not me? It's because I'm an Evertonian, a Catholic, cause I'm going bald', you know, all these things...
    Wednesday, March 04, 2009
    What is it about walking home?
    Good to meet Simon here today, and over a pub lunch to explore our common ground: two vicars whose idea of a good sabbatical is taking a long-distance hike from somewhere else, back home. Simon's making what he calls a 'pilgrimage from Paris to Oadby, in a roundabout way'. Paris: where he honeymooned many years ago, Oadby: where he now lives. And the roundabout route taking in visits to friends unseen for many years. Sounds good to me.

    We pondered the significance of the direction of our routes. The fact that we only needed a moments thought - if that, it was instinctive - to decide that the journey must end at home. Pilgrimages usually end in so-called holy places. Do we walk in expectation that the journey there will somehow help redeem the everyday environment we're returning to?

    Iain Sinclair, standing on Crosby beach with Chris Petit at the beginning of a promo film for Audi, remarks (mischievously, I reckon), that 'Road journeys, describing England through journey, always conclude with an Antony Gormley. What's interesting is that we're using them as a starting point rather than a conclusion.' Is he getting at me? I've no idea. Whatever, it wasn't so much the Gormleys that drew me to conclude my walk on those sands. It was the memory of playing there as a child, the familiarity of the landscape, the mental power in that arena which had hosted all sorts of life events for me. To me the Gormleys are silent witnesses, kindred spirits, newcomers gradually soaking in something more substantial which exists there. The indefinable, the elusive: sense of home.

    Screenshot from the Audi Channel film Iain Sinclair: My Journey
    Tuesday, March 03, 2009
    Priests and putting people in their place
    In the Runnymede Trust's excellent report, Who Cares About the White Working Class? Beverley Skeggs' research amongst a group of white working-class women demonstrates 'the numerous ways in which they were constantly subject to negative value judgements about their futures and pasts, behaviour, intelligence, taste, bodies and sexuality, to such an extent that it shaped their spatial sense of entitlement, engagement and limit: where they did or did not want to go, how they felt they could or could not 'be''.
    ‘Being looked down on’ was their description of a process to which they were continually subject, a visual assessment by others that repeatedly positioned them as lacking value. For instance, when they entered ‘posh shops’ they were acutely aware of the way they were being read and judged by others: 

    We’d all gone up to Manchester the other Saturday, you know for a day out, the three of us …We were in Kendals during the day, you know where the really posh food is, and we were laughing about all the chocolates and how many we could eat - if we could afford them and this woman she just looked at us. If looks could kill. Like we were only standing there. We weren’t doing anything wrong. We weren’t scruffy or anything. She just looked. It was like it was her place and we didn’t belong there. And you know what? We just all walked away. We should have punched her in the face. We didn’t say anything until about half an hour later. Can you imagine? Well and truly put in our place ... It’s things like that that put you off going. You feel better staying around here. (Wendy, 1986)
    'Respectability became the trope by which class relations came into view', writes Skeggs. And then this:
    Spinoza’s 16th century theory of affect, what he terms ‘the force of existing’ is a useful way to think about how we live with class relations with others in a continuous variation of valuation. Spinoza maintains that when we come across somebody good, if they make us joyful, they increase our capacity/ability to act, whereas if we meet sadness inhibition increases and decreases our capacity to act. Spinoza was concerned to understand how people with power use sadness to affect us to increase their power and decrease the power of others (he studied priests).
    Oh, blimey... best read on...

    Download Who Cares About the White Working Class? [pdf]
    Sunday, March 01, 2009
    Imagine: Lent
    Ah! Dewi! Gwenallt! Old friends and Welsh favourites making a fond return to these pages. Imagine: Lent, my talk today.

    Dewi Sant picture: BBC