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

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009
    The Long route

    In anticipation of a forthcoming day with Richard Long at Tate Britain, here's a photo of my own inspired by that most singular of land artists. Taken on a St Cuthbert's Way walk. Reverse-angle shot with two human beings in, here. I wish I could find a copy of that picture of a group of us throwing sticks in the air in Sefton Park (my Andy Goldsworthy tribute).

    Pic from my St Cuthbert's Way Flickr photoset
    Monday, July 27, 2009
    Corridor8: entering the M62 intratext

    Reading the very large (and very interesting) first edition of Corridor8 I notice that I have entered Iain Sinclair’s ‘intratext’: the canon of circular references in his works. In the second of two articles in which Sinclair describes his 2008 journeys along the M62 (East-West by car interrogating Will Alsop's SuperCity, the return journey with wife Anna trying out his free bus pass), I get a mention for my two-month hike back home following the motorway's acoustic footprint.

    In a linked work (Listening for the Corncrake - a Manchester walk prompted by the launch of Corridor8), Sinclair complains that 'It is an inflexible conceit that there is only one city in my life. A city, mythologized to the point of dissolution, that stretches eastward from Charing Cross Road to the Lea Valley - while absorbing, when the wind is in the right quarter, downriver reaches of the Thames, Isle of Dogs to Southend. A zone labelled for easy access: London.'

    Good to see Sinclair venture north to debunk Alsop's naive suggestion that in the M62 SuperCity fans of Leeds seeing their team drop out of the FA Cup would then naturally offer their support to neighbouring Man United or City ("about as natural, I thought, as incest. And much less popular') and to offer treatments such as this on a notorious piece of Pennine upland:
    We pulled off-highway at Saddleworth Moor, to take in, from this rugged tump, the hazy spread of Manchester. Once again dark history oppressed us. You are never free of that back story, the abused and buried children. The ones who have never been recovered. And the malignant excursionists with their leaking newspaper faces: bottles of cheap wine, tartan rug and spade. The satanic version of Coronation Street.

    Step outside your car and everything changes. Wind bites. A road sign for Saddleworth has the Oldham part of it peeled like a second-degree burn, a failed graft. Limestone giving way to Millstone Grit. A rough track leading to the Pennine Way. A microclimate of low cloud, clammy air you hesitate to breathe. Rubbish pits and tyre dumps in which unwanted things cook and seethe. Mesh fence protecting pylons barnacled with humming disks, eavesdropping equipment. Cars that stop here are suspect, furtive; out of place until the rubber rots from the wheels and they sink into the peat.

    Coming the other way, east, as part of his television essay, Will Alsop pulled in for a comfort break. "What Saddleworth Moor needs," he said. "is more access roads and a fancy service station." He climbs out of his high chariot, yawns, stretches. "Let's make a beautiful rural service area at this point. With fantastic food and unbelievable shops." A 24-hour destination magnet appealing to the nightbirds of the SuperCity. Who would be? Entertainers, reps. Haunted solitaries. The feral underclass populating crime encyclopedias. Gloved wheelmen in white company vans cruising a connected network of red light districts.
    As you see, Sinclair has quite a different take than Alsop on the possibilities of an M62 SuperCity. Both are fantasies. Sinclair's is far more more rooted in real peat, though. In the (bodies buried in) concrete beneath the road.

    Thanks Liam (comments, July 21) for the knowledge on Sinclair's Manchester ventures.
    Iain Sinclair Audio Tours of Manchester: mp3 files from Urbis website
    Sunday, July 26, 2009
    Deadly sins of capital

    Treated by (new) family to a first visit to St Peter's Lynchmere I lingered at this relief carving of seven monks' heads, typifying the Seven deadly sins. The locals nicked it from a church in the south of France a century ago. Disturbed by this display (feeling guilty of at least two or three of these sins and quite attracted to some of the others) I was then comforted by our host Alan's observation that the seven deadly sins is not a biblical concept - 'they're the sins of capital', the sins which the owners of the means of production put onto their wage-slaves to apply the pressure to get more out of them. Thus absolved from any personal deficiencies of character I happily went on to investigate the war memorial, bell-ropes, stained glass of that 900-year-old receptacle of history.
    Tuesday, July 21, 2009
    On the pavement: a world of adventure
    A truly inspired blog from Mister Roy last weekend: one I cherish. It's a meditation on the 1961 book I-Spy on the Pavement. Complete with a generous set of page scans this is a reminder of a bygone world, in which I used to live as a keen I-Spyer myself back in the day. A world where small children are invited to walk the streets with an I-Spy book and a pencil in hand, looking for items to tick off - in the hope of finding everything in the book, gaining maximum observation points and thus receiving an award from Big Chief I-Spy. This reminder of how I passed my time back then makes me ponder how much this might explain my current obsessions.

    'EXPLORING', it says on one page. 'You'll find the pavement is packed with hundreds of things worth hunting for. An illuminated street map .... people working .... objects in iron, stone, concrete, wood, aluminium .....'. On other pages the roaming children are invited to 'watch a knife-grinder at work', 'have a chat with your flower-girl', and to look around building sites for notices on hoardings. The world of I-Spy is a festival of innocence. Roy's commentary on this is insightful:
    The idea of children being encouraged to wander around towns on their own, looking at things, seems quaint these days (and it is poignant that this should be so.) To my modern eyes, accustomed to seeing children as vulnerable beings needing round-the-clock supervision and enclosure, the I-Spy ‘redskins’ in the illustrations seem to move through a world of adult menace; it is as if the various tradespeople and mendicants they encounter are just playing roles of normality, like characters in a Hitchcock film. But the kids are in a world of adventure, junior psychogeographers seeing wonders in the detail of the city.
    Reading this makes me want to do two things. Firstly, to buy a copy of I-Spy on the Pavement (they're very collectable: twenty quid second hand online) and secondly to find an artist who might work with me on creating an I-Spy in Norris Green or I-Spy in Croxteth Park. I'll be out there using it with the kids. Seriously... for the children... let's reclaim the pavement! Let's reclaim the age of innocence!

    Pics from Mister Roy's Picasa Web Album
    Monday, July 20, 2009
    Earthy stories with heavy meanings
    The parables were not earthly stories with heavenly meanings but earthy stories with heavy meanings, weighted down by an awareness of the workings of exploitation in the world of their hearers. The focus of the parables was not on a vision of the glory of the reign of God, but on the gory details of how oppression served the interests of a ruling class. Instead of reiterating the promise of God’s intervention in human affairs, they explored how human beings could respond to break the spiral of violence and cycle of poverty created by exploitation and oppression. The parable was a form of social analysis every bit as much as it was a form of theological reflection.
    I was told that William R. Herzog's, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed was one of those life-changing books. Radically perception-altering. And so it is proving. Herzog connects the person of Jesus with Paulo Freire in suggesting that the former's parables formed part of a very clear pedagogy of the oppressed. This is challenging when you've only ever previously thought of the parables as 'earthly stories with heavenly meanings'.
    They have been viewed in this way because Jesus was thought to be a teacher of spiritual truth and divine wisdom. However, this view of Jesus stands in some tension with the account of his final trial and execution. If Jesus was a teacher of heavenly truths dispensed through literary gems called parables, it is difficult to understand how he could have been executed as a political subversive and crucified between two social bandits. It appears that Jerusalem elites collaborating with their Roman overlords executed Jesus because he was a threat to their economic and political interests. Unless they perceived him to be a threat, they would not have publicly degraded and humiliated him before executing him in as ignominious a way as possible.
    Herzog makes it possible to bring together the teacher who spoke in parables and the subversive who threatened the ruling powers of his day - by 'seeing the parables of Jesus as a form of subversive speech; and by interpreting his public role as a pedagogue (educator) of the oppressed and thus political threat'. Powerful stuff.
    Sunday, July 19, 2009
    Jesus: touch the flesh
    Jesus: touch the flesh: my offering for today.
    Thursday, July 16, 2009
    Gwenallt calls down judgement on the city of Liverpool
    The moneyed Goliath rose up in Liverpool
    To shame and despoil the country people,
    Gathering rivers together to drown
    The community at Tryweryn:
    Come, David, with your river stones,
    And God behind your sling,
    To save the hymns of Capel Celyn,
    And the ballads of Bob Tai'r Felin
    From being murdered by the water in the devil's dam.

    Dewi, ask God in your prayers
    To save your people from the Philistines;
    The two Llywelyns and Glyndwr lead
    Your armies to Cwm Tryweryn:
    And you, great Michael of Bodiwan,
    If you were in Bala now,
    The empty graveyard of Capel Celyn,
    Homes and crops and songs and harps would not
    Be buried under the uncircumcised giant's dam.
    Researching the poetry of D. Gwenallt Jones (in translation from the Welsh), for a study session I'm leading next week, I rediscovered this chilling set of lines. Concerning the story of Cwm Tryweryn in which (as a previous blog explained) between 1955 and 1965 Liverpool Corporation's construction of a dam and a reservoir drowned the village of Capel Celyn with its houses, chapel, school and post office. In total, of the 67 people in the district 48 lost their homes. In their notes to the poem in Sensuous Glory, The Poetic Vision of D. Gwenallt Jones the editors Donald Allchin and D. Densil Morgan say that,
    The final HMI inspection of Ysgol Celyn (Celyn School) in 1958 described Cwm Tryweryn as 'a thoroughly Welsh speaking area with proud traditions of musical and literary culture'. In November 1956 the people of Tryweryn marched through the streets of Liverpool carrying a huge banner with the slogan 'Your homes are safe, save ours - do not drown our homes'. Some of the onlookers hurled abuse and spat at them. All but one of the Welsh MPs opposed the bill in Parliament. Even so it was passed. Cwm Tryweryn disappeared beneath the reservoir. Anger at the fate of this small community was a major factor in the growth of Welsh nationalism and the electoral successes of Plaid Cymru in the 1960s and 70s
    Gwenallt's poem is chilling because by the treatment of his genius pen the Cwm Tryweryn episode reaches biblical proportions... and it is the city of Liverpool he calls down judgement on.

    The other notes accompanying the poem are:
    the ballads of Bob Tai'r Felin Robert Roberts (1870- 1951), better known as 'Bob Tai'r Felin', was a very popular folk singer who farmed at Cwm Tirmynach near Bala.
    Dewi Dewi Sant (St David), the patron saint of Wales.
    The Two Llywelyns and Glyndwr Llywelyn the Great (1 173- I 240), prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (died 1282), prince of Wales, and Owain Glyndwr, leader of the 1400 rebellion.
    Michael of Bodiwan Michael D. Jones (1822-98) was the fiery principal of a theological college at Bodiwan, Bala, training ministers for the Annibynwyr (Welsh Independents or Congregationalists). His political views were both radical and Welsh nationalist and he played a leading part in the movement to establish a colony of Welsh speakers in Patagonia.

    Pic: A page from the Welsh Nation, August 1957 from Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales
    Monday, July 13, 2009
    The Pharisee sermon
    The Pharisee sermon by Amos Nidiffer
    HE ALSO TOLD THIS PARABLE to some who trusted that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
    Two people went to church to pray, one an intellectual, the other a politician. The intellectual, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, capitalists, conservatives or even like this politician. I garden, eat organic and shop fair trade."
    The politician, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven but beat his chest saying, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
    I tell you, this man went home justified rather than the intellectual; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
    Some back issues of Geez arrived, including #10 which contains 30 Sermons You'd Never Hear in Church. My favourite, so far, is one by Reverend Billy (of the Church of Life After Shopping) which is thoughtful, informed, impassioned and beautifully crafted. Also too long to reproduce here. It's on 'The new fundamentalism': 'Please let's have a nice day, as quiet as a fine restaurant. This fundamentalism of the electronic age indoors, and outdoors the bulldozers and guns, colonial wars and world-wide attacks on the earth - this hybrid enforcement of the Net and the cops - has left us helplessly shopping'. Amos Nidiffer's contribution, in full above, is a fine example of what's in store for those who read Geez - I guess you'd call them Geezers: that's Geezers with a 'j'.
    Sunday, July 12, 2009
    Books to recommend to Greenbelters
    I got asked for a short list of books I'd recommend to Greenbelters. Some may possibly appear in the shop or the Festival Guide this year. Here's what I came up with...

    Henry Morgan and Roy Gregory (eds) The God You Already Know: Developing Your Spiritual and Prayer Life
    A wealth of wisdom and inspiration from the team which established Soul Space at Greenbelt.

    Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography
    Decent primer on the art of urban exploration

    Wrights and Sights, A Mis-Guide to Anywhere
    A guide book with a difference, inspiring new creative ways to see and experience the city

    Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith
    A theology of place - essential reading for those who see the value in remaining rooted and grounded in a mobile age

    David Pinder, Visions of the City
    An account of utopian urbanism in the twentieth century - the dreams and dreamers who have shaped our cities

    Guy-Ernest Debord, Society of the Spectacle
    Classic text promoting a revolution in everyday life

    John Davies, Walking the M62
    A spiritual quest to find heaven in the ordinary on a long-distance walk from Hull to Liverpool

    Joe Moran, On Roads: A Hidden History
    An engrossing journey through the hidden history of our roads and our complex relationship with them.

    Bill Drummond, 17
    Bill's 17 choir performed at Greenbelt in 2007. This is the story of the man's mission to reinvent music.

    Plus, of course, a few books by GB09 contributor Iain Sinclair. One book I didn't put on the list (purely because I've not yet read it) Rod recommended to me this evening - The Black Death; An Intimate History, John Hatcher's deep portrayal of the effect of the creeping plague on the residents of a Suffolk parish, in particular through the experience of the local priest.
    Thursday, July 09, 2009
    Flourishing in the shade
    Jim's worsening Parkinson's and my car's fatal decline put paid to our plans for a walk in Heptonstall today. Unclouded by this, instead we found our feet and our pleasure in a place far closer to home: for at the foot of Jim's road lies Olive Mount Gardens, a pleasurable piece of landscaping in the housing development on Harpers Pond Lane where many ex-residents of the late lamented Olive Mount Heights now live. Not only does the linear park have its own Superlambanana (which the community clubbed together to bid for at the great 2008 auction), but it also hosts this sculpture - of a Waver-tree. Punched out of the metal flanks are the phrase 'SUB UMBRA FLORESCO' and its translation, 'I FLOURISH IN THE SHADE', the motto of the district as displayed on Wavertree Town Hall. The old town of Wavertree is flourishing in the shade of the great city of Liverpool... well, 'flourishing' may be overstating it, but (built with their collaboration) Jim tells me that Olive Mount Gardens is certainly something the local people appreciate and enjoy.

    Wednesday, July 08, 2009
    The future underneath Spaghetti Junction
    I'm halfway through Joe's latest book On Roads: A Hidden History and it is all that I hoped it would be. A very readable, deep, engaging and thoroughly entertaining trawl through the minutiae of our relationship with 'the maddening twists and turns of that awkward, absurd institution, the British road system'. Joe has clearly put a tremendous amount of time into researching this great work, including some time which I can thoroughly identify with and recommend - time spend wandering around the lost lands beneath motorways.
    If you walk under the Gravelly Hill Interchange today, you may struggle to find any pleasure in the intricacy. You may indeed struggle to walk under it at all, since much of it is fenced off with signs warning 'No unauthorised people on site' or unpassable pylons crackling with electricity and notices saving 'Danger of Death: Keep Off'. At Salford Junction - the waterway in the bowels of Spaghetti Junction where three canals meet up in the the industrial revolution's version of a motorway Interchange - there is a footpath, an apparent invitation for humans to perambulate. But the pedestrian bridges climb so high over the canals that you are just a few metres from the M6 overhead, and the juggernauts drumming over the expansion joints sound like violent thunder cracks. You can meander under the junction for hours and see some 'strange human remains - a pair of ripped hi-vi trousers, a Loohire chemical toilet turned on its side, a cuddly toy probably thrown from a car - but no actual human being...

    ... Concrete's reputation is now set in stone: everyone knows it is ugly, unkempt and unEnglish. Opponents of new roads and houses talk of the folly of 'concreting over' the countryside, even though hardly any British roads or houses are made mainly of concrete. As the signature material of the 1960s, it serves as the scapegoat for more complex and intractable social failures. The view from underneath a motorway flyover, with its takeaway cartons and syringes on the ground and its spraycan graffiti defacing the stanchions, is a sharp answer to those excitable images of virgin motorways in the late 1950s, opened by bouncy politicians on bright autumn mornings. Perhaps sometime in the future, as the musician and polymath Brian Eno has speculated, 'stained concrete and dirty steel will look rather quaint and friendly and welcoming, like exposed brick does now'. But underneath Spaghetti Junction, this future seems some way off.

    All this is food and drink to me, of course. And if my car hadn't been terminal (desperately garaged but destined to be scrapped) I'd have been off on a motorway-underbelly meander tomorrow. So much more like this in Joe's book. But in an otherwise very thorough survey of the history of the motorway sign (Google 'Jock Kinneir' for the basics) Joe doesn't answer the only question in life which continues to tax me, a cause of sleepless nights and source of endless speculation. My question is this: all motorway signs are functional - ie, they direct the driver off the road at junctions and inform of junctions / service stations ahead. That's pretty much it. Except - there are also always signs which inform motorists when the road is crossing a river. White signs saying RIVER RIBBLE, etc. So... why? Is it just a nice eccentric quirk of the DoT or do these signs serve a practical purpose? Answers (Joe? others?) in the comments box please....
    Monday, July 06, 2009
    The two Michaels and Jesus: amazed at our unbelief
    The two Michaels and Jesus: amazed at our unbelief: yesterday's talk on the age-old topic of the destructiveness of desire.

    Sunday, July 05, 2009
    Taking leave of the daily discipline
    On one level it's a way of conveying information: items of news, links to other websites. On another level it's a scrapbook, a means of collecting interesting quotes, pictures, sound and video files. Or it may be an easy way to keep in touch with a scattered family, distant friends: conveying mundane details which only resonate to people who have a close connection. Blogging is all these things to me. But the daily discipline of adding an entry to my website also serves a deeper spiritual purpose.
    It's some time since I wrote that opening paragraph for an entry titled Blogging as Prayer in Henry and Roy's The God You Already Know, which is just now published. And you, faithful reader, are well aware that my 'daily discipline' has caved in largely due to a major lifestyle change and also more recently a couple of very concentrated weeks of work, some of it away. It looks like I'm taking leave of the daily discipline, but still hope to keep it regular because (as the GP also says) it's good for me.
    Blogs and bloggers of course get criticised for being self-possessed or exhibitionist, and putting yourself 'out there' online does carry the potential for such pitfalls. But me, I've always been a writer, always best expressed myself through the written word, and so the blog seems an ideal vehicle for me to communicate in a way I enjoy and which is in some ways most 'me'. I find it a deeply satisfying way to end each day: playing with words, clicking the keys, communicating with friends and strangers some joys, some insights freshly appreciated. The friends and strangers are important to me, but if they weren't there reading my blog I'd still find the writing fulfilling.
    So, is blogging a way of praying? I recoil a little from such a naked suggestion. But if praying is a way of engaging in a spiritual quest, involving listening and creatively attempting to express what is heard and understood, then blogging can be that. It is, for me, some days.
    The God You Already Know also features a piece from me on Prayer Walking, which I suggest, can consist of stops at a series of predetermined 'stations', such as the bus station and the fire station ... and 'other less literal stations might be to stop outside a school to pray for the pupils, their families and those who teach, a row of shops to pray for those who work there and whose lives involve frequent journeys to and from them, an industrial site, a leisure park, a bridge over a motorway to pray for those on faster journeys.' But there's also some very good quality writing and a wealth of wisdom in the book's 223 pages. Thanks, Henry and Roy, for this excellent collection which serves also as a great legacy of the team who developed spiritual direction at Greenbelt under the banner of Soul Space from 2000-2008.
    Wednesday, July 01, 2009
    Catching up
    Catching up after a few days away studying, with a couple of updates.

    Last Sunday's talk: Jesus is Street

    The previous Sunday's (from Christ Church Norris Green): On Ordination - and connecting with the Body