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

    Saturday, June 27, 2009
    The title catches the eye. The subtitle engages the brain. If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him. Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry. Justin Lewis-Anthony (who online is the 3 Minute Theologian and offline convenes Affirming Catholicism) regrets that 'In the Roman Catholic church the source of all authority is the pope; in Protestant churches the source of all authority is the Bible; in the Church of England the source of all authority is the previous vicar.' His reasons for us wanting to kill George Herbert are to do with the way Herbert evokes this situation (as Lewis-Anthony put it in the Guardian recently):
    For many reasons (to do with legitimacy after reformations, continuity after revolutions, and fearfulness in the face of industrialisation), George Herbert plays the role of ur-Vicar, the echt-Rector. He is the unwitting foundation stone of what I call "Herbertism". Under Herbertism, parsons are not just representatives of the Church of England, they are the Church of England in any given place (think what the common attitude of "say one for me, vicar!" betrays about the relationship of parson to institution). The parsons' workplace is the parish church, in which they are readily found at all hours of the day or night. They officiate at the rites of passage of a community, or a family or an individual: they will bless the opening of a cricket pavilion as readily as a marriage or a birth. The religion and god which they represent are both benign, and they, remembering the gentlemanly roots of their profession, will never behave in an impolite or upsetting manner. They are well-educated, highly-educated even, although they should never show it, because much education about God is the product of "ivory-towers" and therefore not appreciated in wider society. The only acceptable characteristic of their learning is a tendency to be unworldly, even eccentric. They are ubiquitous, present for every activity in a community, whether "church" or "civic", so they can affirm and encourage, marking especially worthy contributions to neighbourhood life by individuals or groups. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, put it, the parson under Herbertism is "the anodyne divine who puts unction in your function".
    This has costs, for the lives and health of the church's parsons, and also for the ability of the church to fulfil its mission. Too often Herbertism gets in the way of Christianity. The solution must begin with ridding the false memory of Herbert, who he wasn't and what he didn't do. Much of our reverence for "George Herbert" is the worshipping of a fantasy pastor, an impossible and inaccurate role model, a cause of guilt and anxiety. Like the Zen Master, if we meet George Herbert on the road, we must kill him.
    So down with Herbertism! We're not sure where we're going but it's not back to a mythical Bemerton. I have a copy of the book on the table (thanks Mike). Should be an interesting ride.
    Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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    Tuesday, June 23, 2009
    An act of transference by St John the Baptist
    Iain Sinclair in very good form in the current LRB, reviewing Thames: Sacred River by Peter Ackroyd. Always fascinating, the interaction between these two very different psychogeographers of London - Sinclair, banned fom council venues and the victim of lawsuits for criticising the plans for the London Olympics in his recent Hackney book, writing, 'It is inevitable that Ackroyd, with his belief in eternal recurrence, in London as an organic entity forever renewing itself from the darkest sources, looks kindly on the official script for the 2012 Olympics. Myths and symbols – torch-bearing processions, naked gladiators, flatpack stadia echoing Roman amphitheatres – are back in vogue. The aim is to avoid niggling local difficulties, the specifics of place, in order to forge a computer-generated fiction of national revival (by way of supersize shopping malls, media centres, committee-designed public parks in place of scabby edgeland wilderness)'

    I haven't worked any of this into my 400-word piece on psychogeography for the Greenbelt Festival programme, but I will definitely be digging for more of the same when interviewing him there, August Bank Holiday weekend.
    A strange and rather Ackroydian incident occurred as I walked past the railings of St John the Baptist Catholic church. I began to imagine that the young woman in the expensive leather jacket, just ahead of me, was limping slightly, favouring her right leg; a manicured hand brushing against the spot on the upper thigh where my nagging pain was located. As I gained on her, the limp became more pronounced and at the same time my own discomfort eased. By the time I crossed into Templecombe Road, she was hobbled, resting at the curb, while I skipped like a lamb. An act of transference that left me obscurely guilty. And which seemed to conjure, as a direct consequence, a cat’s cradle of blue and white incident tape. There is an agreement in Hackney: the police come out early, mobhanded, squad cars, vans, a works’ outing, and the postcode gangs (or negative youth affiliations) wait for twilight, a treaty arranged to avoid unnecessary aggravation. Those screaming sirens act as courtesy calls, giving dealers plenty of warning to remove themselves before they become tedious paperwork. Much policework these days is training in guerrilla documentation, an alternative film school. When the rumpus is over, it’s a war of competitive imagery: digital logging by the men in the flak jackets and soft-edged mobile-phone sweeps by climate camp protesters.
    Thanks Christine for the link
    Monday, June 22, 2009
    Everyday eclipses
    In the Millennium year when the solar eclipse was due, Roger McGough realised that his travel schedule in a farwaway part of the world would preculde him from seeing the much anticipated heavenly event. So, reflecting on all the eclipses he had seen, and continues to, he wrote this poem.

    The hamburger flipped across the face of the bun
    The frisbee winning the race against its own shadow
    The cricket ball dropping for six in front of the church clock
    On a golden plate, a host of communion wafers
    The brown contact lens sliding across the blue iris
    The palming of small change
    Everyday eclipses

    Out of the frying pan, the tossed pancake orbits the Chinese lampshade
    The water bucket echoing into the well, well, well
    The lifebelt spinning past the open porthole
    The black, snookering the cue ball against the green baize
    The winning putt on the eighteenth
    The tiddlywink twinking toward the tiddly cup
    Everyday eclipses

    Neck and neck in the hot air balloon race
    Holding up her sign, the lollipop lady blots out the belisha beacons
    The foaming tankard thumped on to the beer mat
    The plug into the plughole
    Two thin slices; first salami, then mortadella
    In the fruit bowl, the orange rolls in front of the peach.
    Everyday eclipses another day

    Goodbye bald patch, hello yarmulke
    A sombrero tossed into the bullring
    Leading the parade, the big bass drum.
    We hear cymbals but cannot see them
    One eclipse eclipses another eclipse
    To the cold, white face, the oxygen mask.
    But too late

    One death eclipses another death
    The baby's head, the mother's breast
    The open O of the mouth seeking the warm O of the nipple
    One birth eclipses another birth
    Everyday eclipses.

    Genius. Here at The Hayes this evening, Roger McGough held a theatre-full of clergy rapt with the attention of laughter and tears, just as he had at the previous Liverpool Diocese conference in 2004. It's the first night of the four-day gathering. With Roger's excellent contribution it feels - in a good way - like we've peaked already.
    Sunday, June 21, 2009
    The Black Dome at Blackwell
    Incongruous? Black Dome, the David Nash sculpture erupting through the tidy lawn of Blackwell, The Arts and Craft House which sits bright and pretty above Lake Windermere (and which we visited yesterday). The house is a beautiful creation: generously-proportioned rooms lit brightly by the Lakeland sun, window seats offering some of the loveliest views in Britain, gorgeous snugs set around generous fireplaces, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott's creation is a conspicuously-designed place of refreshing light. Nash's work, by contrast, is dark and rugged. In character with his other creations (of which, regular readers of this blog know that I'm a fan) Nash has hewn this piece from over seventy columns of oak, carved them and then burnt them to produce the deep dark charcoal surface.

    Black Dome could be the title of an album by Sunn O))), and looks megalithic. Rugged. Primal: by contrast to the gleaming White Drawing Room from which visitors inside the house can view it. But maybe it's not so incongruous, the Black Dome at Blackwell. Both house and hewn oak sculpture depend on a very carefully-considered interplay between natural materials and the elements. The house's wood-lined rooms are designed to be filled with the light of Lakeland skies, to reflect the sun on the vast lake below. The primal force of fire is embraced to fill with warmth and intensity those gorgeous fireplace snugs. Nash's work uses the same sort of materials and the same natural elements of light - but inverts their relationship. Black Dome looks every bit at home on Blackwell's lawn as would a stalking cat or a nocturnal mole. But it oozes darkness; it's a jagged presence which tells us that even in this manufactured idyll not everything can possibly be clean, clear and bright.

    Just as Phil, today attempted to invoke 'the missing' of A La Ronde – the Lisbon working class whose tragic history underwrote the creation of that distinctively designed West Country home, so perhaps we might permit Black Dome to evoke what lies beneath the beauty of Blackwell. The house was built as a country retreat for Edward Holt: monied brewery-owner of Manchester. Now don't get me wrong, I like a pint of Holts myself now and again, but the Black Dome provokes me to consider who are 'the missing' of Blackwell whose presence should be recalled. They must be the drunks and alcohol-dependents of a grimy northern industrial city whose paltry but frequent bar-payments added up to a fortune for Holt and his family.

    Thursday, June 18, 2009
    A Fish out of water?
    On becoming very excited in anticipation that next Sunday I shall have in my congregation Fish out of Marillion, a godparent at a baptism, I sent a text to many people. Responses as follows:

    "Great! Are u going to get him to sing something?!" (Linda)
    "The contrast in height will be remarkable John! I take it the child will be called Kayleigh?" (Adrian)
    "Saw them in St Albans. They were the support act for Budgie!" (Jim)
    "I'll send u my old lps 2 sign" (Dave E)
    "He'll be a fish out of water" (Dave R)
    "Quite a coup!" (Andy)
    "Who are they? I'm so out of touch" (Simon)

    Saturday, June 13, 2009
    Up on the bridge

    Our friend Ray steers Mersey Ferries for a living. So when it coincided that we were passengers on a Manchester Ship Canal Cruise and he was at the helm, we got an invite up to the bridge for a good long stretch between Latchford and Irlam (where the Mersey merges with the navigation route). Always a good day out, these cruises: the industrial north-west with herons. Recommended.

    Pics from Manchester Ship Canal Cruise, June 2009 Flickr photoset
    Friday, June 12, 2009
    The Healing House
    As ever, Billy Bragg showcases some fine support acts on his current tour of Wales' ex-mining areas, 25 years on from the Miners Strike. In Wrexham tonight the poet Patrick Jones (who, it would appear, has attracted some controversy for his progressive views) treated us to a rendition (accompanied by BB on guitar) of this mystic, moving, tribute to the NHS sixty years on from its foundation.

    "the public interest is taken care of by the private interest of wanting to make money"
    John Redwood 1994

    "we have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders"
    Aneurin Bevan, 1945

    bring your children to the nursery
    with their disease and sickness,
    this is the place where I hope to cure all illness
    at the point of need, this is an emergency

    come now, our tomorrow
    rest yourself
    as i halt fear and heal bone marrow,
    and, from an early death
    i promise emancipation,
    with my doctors, nurses
    and vaccinations

    let in the mothers
    the pool is ready for another,
    carer of the next generation,
    sleep, prepare for this new birth,
    I offer you protection,
    as you grow the roots of our new earth

    welcome, people from other nations,
    with troubled faces from distant places,
    i have room for you, my new patients,
    i have no borders to caring,
    pain has no dialect, this language is for sharing
    let love be found in translation

    sit, eat from my pantry,
    become healthy
    as you, you are my ultimate test,
    bring me your tortured tongues
    so you may speak again
    from far off battlefields show your scarred flesh
    so i can stem the blood and heal your pain.

    to you, the wiser, the elderly, the old,
    do not be afraid, do not huddle in the cold,
    my door is open,
    come in, come in,
    it is warm, trust us,
    and i shall lance the boils of poverty's injustice,
    and drain the infection,
    as in my house these rooms
    offer cure by prevention,

    and so to the sick, to the dying, those crippled with
    stay, in my garden,
    lay, beneath the trees
    i shall provide peace and serenity
    to strengthen the health of vulnerablity
    no matter what age, sex, class, race or country,

    my windows pour penicillin
    my library, the words of the masters,
    Simpson, Pasteur and Fleming
    not market forces or ignorant capitalists

    so be careful how you treat your house, our home
    never neglect or leave alone
    keep clean, add extensions
    but never damage the bricks or remove my foundations

    from the wasteland of squalor, disease and
    I am the safe place
    the healing home
    injecting cells with reconstruction,
    the everlasting bandage
    to deliver all from illnessed bondage
    I am the suture
    to stitch the wounds of the past
    but i am the scalpel
    to carve the future
    to make this dream last
    to make this dream last.

    "the verb is more important than the noun"
    Aneurin Bevan
    Tuesday, June 09, 2009
    Psychogeography and the hospital lift
    At St Bride's this morning to give the Theology and Modernity discussion group a paper titled Towards a Theology of Urban Walking, featuring some material you'll know if you've heard me at Greenbelt, and quite a lot you won't because it's new [download pdf here].

    Excellent conversation afterwards as we each offered attempts (in the words of Will Self) 'to unpick this conundrum, the manner in which the contemporary world warps the relationship between psyche and place'. Particularly memorable was John's confession that in all his years as a hospital chaplain he'd never regarded the numerous daily journeys up and down in the hospital lift as anything other than functional. Having heard me describe the functional - motorway service stations, shopping centres etc - in terms of their promise, potential, deep meaningfulness, John realised that he'd missed out on a world of profound experiences by keeping quiet in the lift.

    After all, we realised, the journey in a hospital lift is for most people a significant one: for the person visiting their loved one just recently rushed into an emergency ward; for the new member of nursing staff en-route to a challenging assignment; for the doctor knowing they're about to have to face making a difficult, life or death decision, for the vulnerable chaplain pondering what they'll find when they meet the distressed family... Journeys in hospital lifts are crucial, consequential, even transformational. There's so much to be said, in a hospital lift, which could be significant, and so little time in which to say it. The challenge of breaking a silence, winning trust, making meaningful conversation - all in a matter of seconds: one which John wishes he'd taken up. Me: I feel a hospital lift poem maybe coming on.

    Towards a Theology of Urban Walking: pdf
    Monday, June 08, 2009
    Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain
    (Young childrens voices:)
    Almost in the beginning
    Was the murderer
    And I fell faceless
    Into the world...

    (David Tibet's voice:)
    Almost in the beginning
    Was the murder
    And I fell faceless
    Into the world...

    ... thus, in a throb of feedback and a shudder of power chords begins Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain, the latest offering from the absolutely unique worldscape of Current 93. Aleph is an Adam-like character and he is introduced here in sounds and visions so terrifying that you wonder: if this is the beginning, how is it all going to end? 'David Tibet has embraced a blistering rock aesthetic for his apocalyptic visions,' the people at Brainwashed tell us. I haven't much clue what he's on about a lot of the time, Tibet, with his gnostic-Coptic dark gospel obsessions. But he has a fearsome talent: when he recites lines like “my teeth are possessed by demons," they are startlingly convincing coming from his mouth. It moves me, scares me, thrills me, this genius stuff. Current 93 frighten me to life.
    “I live in an increasing awareness that a Love will come suddenly who will finally tear our skies apart,” Tibet wrote in the sleeve notes to Black Ships Ate the Sky. Aleph at Hallucinatory Mountain is the most preposterous warning yet of its imminent arrival; a vital reminder that the end of the world, if we choose, will also be the triumph of love. [from the Plan B review]

    Free Download of Invocation of Almost, the album opener quoted above, from the Durtro Shop
    Sunday, June 07, 2009
    Modern Stupid

    In preparation for an afternoon talk I've been trawling The Michael Leunig Website again. Gems, all of them, including this one.

    Poem and image from The Michael Leunig Website
    Friday, June 05, 2009
    A La Ronde: the layers, the erosion, the persistence
    Phil Smith tells me that he's spending Father's Day leading a foray around the gardens of A La Ronde, a property which the tourism websites describe as 'eccentric' and is quoted on the National Trust’s handbook and website as ‘curious looking’ and having ‘a magical strangeness’. However, in the three years that he's been creating performances around the sixteen-sided house, Phil has unearthed histories of the place and its previous occupants which add layers of intrigue way beyond the sanctioned, 'official' 'memories'.

    So Phil's first foray majored on the house's first occupants, the cousins Jane and Mary Parminter, who had it built as a home and a museum to contain their mementoes of their Grand Tour. Phil tells me that some say the property was designed after the Cathedral at Ravenna (which we know the Parminters visited), a place associated with the anti-Jewish laws (and forced conversions) pioneered by its founder and celebrated in the cathedral’s décor. There are 'various hints of [the cousins] expectation of the ‘last trump’ and a story that the Parminters set aside the A La Ronde oak trees for the wood to build the boats to send the Jews back to Palestine' (an action which to some Christians would make imminent the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God). 'I began to see the place as an apocalyptic generator,' says Phil. Wow.

    'Last year’s piece,' writes Phil, 'was about the only male inhabitant in the house’s 200 plus years – Reverend Oswald Reichel – who came to the house under a cloud, found to be travelling as man and wife with his housekeeper (although they were not married). The man was a genius, his writings on canon law are absolutely fascinating, and you begin to sense a series of quite ‘other’ resonances within the church, a possibility of a hybrid realm of religion and sensuality, of a kind of negotiation with the psyche and with the vagaries of a world that does not always play by the rules, he declares himself a Christian Socialist in his fabulous pamphlet on the early mass critiquing its later development away from the participation of the people in favour of the priests – and so the second piece was about finding both his religious ideas and his abject disgrace in the property.'

    This year Phil is exploring how the layers of identity and memory which first the Parminters and then Reichel designed into the gardens were in later years eroded, but some things about the place persisted. He's struck by how the house and gardens have their origins 'in an apocalyptic moment, the earthquake at Lisbon in 1755 , where the patriarch of the Parminter family, John Parminter was simultaneously destroyed and saved – his glass factory was smashed, but he rose from the ruins (phoenix like) (and it must have been like living through ‘The Last Days’ if engravings of the aftermath are to be believed) – to help rebuild the city and remake his fortune by manufacturing a quick-drying cement … the materials of this catastrophe/resurrection are still there in the house – the seaweed and shells swept in on the tsunami, the sand for the concrete, the glass that was destroyed, the feathers of the phoenix…'

    On Fathers Day Phil's attempting to bring all these strands together and 'finally… somehow… I will evoke the missing of the site – the Lisbon working class…' It should be quite an event.

    Tuesday, June 02, 2009
    Will Self on walking to work
    I've taken to long-distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography. So this isn't walking for leisure - that would be merely frivolous - or even for exercise, which would be tedious. No, to underscore the seriousness of my project, I like a walk which takes me to a meeting or an assignment; that way I can drag other people into my eotechnical world view. "How was your journey?" they say. "Not bad," I reply. "Take long?" they enquire. "About 10 hours," I admit. "I walked here." My interlocutor goggles at me; if he took 10 hours to get here - they're undoubtedly thinking - will the meeting have to go on for 20? As Emile Durkheim observed, a society's space-time perceptions are a function of its social rhythm and its territory. So, by walking to the meeting I have disrupted it just as surely as if I'd appeared stark naked with a peacock's tail fanning out from my buttocks while mouthing Symbolist poetry.
    I'm working on my latest essay towards my MPhil/PhD and it's on 'other psychogeographers' (ie, not Iain Sinclair). Loving the fun of engaging with these joyous left fielders. Not least Will Self, quoted above from his book (the original article freely available online too, here).