john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK




    Heaven in Ordinary

    Greenbelt Regional Angels Day, All Hallows Church, Leeds, 10/3/2007




    Here in the centre of Leeds, on Wednesday 12th May 2004, something very ordinary happened.

    Student Stephen Abbot got up at 8:30 and made himself tea and toast. With one week to go on his undergraduate course he made his way to the library for half past nine, a lot earlier than his usual time, and collected a waist-high pile of books to read back home. Between 10:30 and six whilst allegedly 'revising', Stephen managed to nab (himself) five new albums of music from the internet, sculpt the greatest beans on toast bonanza (he had) ever seen, catch up with the storylines on Neighbours AND learn all about seventeenth century Japanese architecture with emphasis placed on the Nihombashi district of Tokyo.

    I'm able to share this valuable information with you today because Stephen recorded it in a journal as part of a project called A Day in the Life of Leeds, where members of the public contributed their pictures and writings from 12th May 2004 to a website and public exhibition at the Royal Armouries. [1]

    A Day in the Life of Leeds owes something to Mass-Observation, a project which began with a letter published in the New Statesman 70 years ago, on 30 January 1937. In a more recent NS, Joe Moran describes it thus:

    The letter was jointly written by three diversely talented young men: Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist). It invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, which they called an "anthropology at home ... a science of ourselves". Their list of suggested topics for investigation read like a surrealist poem on the hidden strangeness of mundane life: "Behaviour of people at war memorials ... Shouts and gestures of motorists ... Anthropology of football pools ... Beards, armpits, eyebrows ... Female taboos about eating".

    The letter announced the founding of Mass-Observation, an organisation that aimed to investigate daily life in modern Britain in the same way as anthropologists were studying remote, tribal societies. It soon acquired an enthusiastic army of lowly paid or unpaid researchers. They interviewed people in the street, wrote down conversations overheard in pubs, factories and public toilets, and observed people carrying out ordinary activities such as smoking, drinking and dancing. Baffled journalists dismissed these quotidian researchers as "busybodies", "snoopers" and "psycho-anthropologic nosy-parkers". The NS's critic joked that the typical mass-observer must have "elephant ears, a loping walk and a permanent sore eye from looking through keyholes".

    But there was a point to all this nosiness. Mass-Observation wanted to plot "weather-maps of public feeling", to make ordinary citizens' lives and thoughts better known to the people who governed them. It was less than a decade since every adult over 21 had won the vote, and there were few systematic attempts by either politicians or the press to find out the views of electors. Ordinary people were rarely seen or heard on film or radio: the newsreels did not bother with vox pops, and Lord Reith's BBC was staunchly upper-middle-class and dinner-suited. Mass-Observation was annoyed by the lazy assumptions about "the man in the street" which were made by this media/political elite, who they criticised as being "a tiny group, with different habits of mind, ways of life, from those millions they are catering for".


    In the post-war boom years the Mass-Observation project was overtaken by the growth industry of market research, which was also interested in recording the views of ordinary people, but at far less depth and for explicitly commercial purposes. Today the opinions of ordinary people are co-opted by the entertainment industry as votes on reality TV shows and as contributions to political 'focus groups'.

    Mass-Observation challenged the notion that history consists solely of the lives of great men. In its relatively brief heyday Mass-Observation opened the minds of the masses to their own potential, and to the value of their previously hidden, neglected or deprecated ordinary everyday lives. And it continues today in projects like A Day in the Life of Leeds which tend to be well-received and much talked about in the communities they affirm, because they affirm them and engage with the usually hidden depths and complexities of their ordinary life. [2]

    I don't really know what heaven is - but I suspect it is a place where ordinary human beings are accepted as they are, and where what they do, however routine, is valued and affirmed.

    I think we need to value the ordinary and the everyday. After all, who we are and what we do most of the time, is 'ordinary'. Ordinariness enfolds us and defines us. The ordinary is the arena in which we practice our faith, live out our lives, most of the time.

    There is a tendency in society, in media, and in Christian circles, to be abstracted by the extraordinary things in life (the exotic, the erotic and the sublime) and there is a sense in which the ordinary is regarded as a bad thing, something to neglect, escape from or deny. The French writer Georges Perec critiques this:

    Trains begin to exist only when they are derailed, the more passengers are dead, the more trains exist; planes have access to existence only when they are hijacked; the only meaningful destiny for cars is crashing into a sycamore: fifty-two weekends per year, fifty-two totals; so many dead and all the better for the news if the figures keep increasing! [...] In our haste to measure the historic, the meaningful, the revealing, we leave aside the essential. What really happens, what we live, all the rest, where is it? [3]

    I share Perec's instinct that if we devalue the ordinary we devalue ourselves. I would say that if we value the ordinary - if we can learn to see God in the ordinary - then we may be strengthened, empowered, enabled to become reconnected to the source of our true selves. And to others. For if we are serious about mission - mission to ordinary people in ordinary places, then we need to connect with them meaningfully in the midst of the mundane.

    In his essay Approaches to What?, written in 1973, Georges Perec uses the term L'Infra-ordinaire (the Infra-ordinary) to describe the practice of attending to the particularities of everyday life which are neither exotic nor banal, the idea that we should observe what happens when nothing happens, as this is the texture of life as it is experienced. Perec describes exercises which can be used to attune ourselves to the infra-ordinary. He urges "describe what remains: what we generally don't notice, which doesn't call attention to itself, which is of no importance, what happens when nothing happens, what passes when nothing passes except time, people, cars, and clouds." [4]


    The dictionary tells us that the antonym (opposite) of 'spiritual' is 'mundane'. But the gospels disagree. The gospels bear out the spiritual relevance of unremarkable things, telling the story of a saviour who grew up in a workman's house in a nondescript town, who started his ministry at a wedding party (when he took the very routine decision of doing what his mother told him to), whose closest followers were jobbing fishermen, and whose descriptions of the Kingdom were unfailingly drawn from everyday life.

    Somerset Maugham once wrote,

    For men and women are not only themselves. They are the region in which they were born, the city apartment in which they learned to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives tale they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poems they read, and the God they believed in. [5]


    As far as Jesus is concerned we can learn all we need to know about the Kingdom of God through engaging with his stories about the behaviour of guests at a wedding banquet and the stewards of a wealthy man's fortune, through contemplating the way that seeds grow secretly underground and the effect of using unshrunk cloth to repair an old coat. As far as Jesus is concerned the characteristics of the Kingdom are easily found by reflecting on the difference between a rich man and a beggar or by wise and foolish maidens. The tale of an ordinary working man searching for his one lost sheep, an ordinary working woman looking for her one lost coin - Jesus offers us these most mundane stories to show us what, as far as he is concerned, the Kingdom is all about.

    I don't really know what heaven is - but I suspect it is to be found among the ordinary activities of daily life.

    Christians get allured by the extraordinary: in mission, ministry, and witness the pull seems to be away from the ordinary towards the new, the exciting and the innovative. But maybe the real challenge of our times is to learn to affirm the ordinary things very deeply, doing our church and our theology and our praying whilst deeply engaged with these basic building blocks of life. This is a call for us to deal with the mundane things in our lives, but it is not a calling to dullness - it's about discovering new possibilities of being creative, with the ordinary things of life.

    Just before Greenbelt last year I broadcast a week's worth of Thoughts for the Day on our local radio station BBC Radio Merseyside. I called them 'Common Prayers' - borrowing a phrase from the Australian cartoonist and philosopher of the everyday Michael Leunig (who I will return to later), and each day I invited listeners to join me in meditating on the profound significance of a mundane object in our lives. These were: wheelie bins, shopping trolleys, traffic lights, bus stops and ... mobile phone masts:

    We give thanks for mobile phone masts
    Standing tall above our streets

    Silent gatherers of our digital conversations; connecting us to satellites in outer space and friends in neighbouring houses; witnesses of our desire to communicate with others; beamers of text messages around the world.

    We celebrate the holy mystery of radio waves - thousands of them criss-crossing through the air unseen, permitting us to catch and ride their frequencies as surfers ride incoming waves;
    We celebrate the skills of those who have turned such mysteries to our practical use;
    We stand beneath these tall grey masts, and we celebrate the wonder of new technology.

    A blessing on those who call to ask us how we are;
    A blessing on those who call to tell us where they are;
    A blessing on those who call to invite us, kindly, to join them.

    We give thanks for mobile phone masts
    Standing tall above our streets.

    Give us patience with those who play with their phones more than they talk to us;
    Help us cope with those who use their phones so publicly they include us in their conversations;
    Keep us calm if the person driving close behind us is dangerously on the phone.
    Give us grace to know when to turn our phones on - to talk; and off - to rest;
    Save us from radiation, repetitive strain injury, earache and excessive phone bills;
    Keep us connected to the earth beneath our feet as much as the world between our ears.

    We give thanks for mobile phone masts
    Standing tall above our streets.
    [6]


    Now the groundwork for these Common Prayers has come from the long time which I have spent doing what I call urban exploration, which mainly consists of walking the streets of the place where I live - a massive 1930s housing estate on the edge of Liverpool - and deliberately recording in quite some detail what I see on these journeys. Sometimes I'll walk alone, at other times I'll walk with someone else so I get the benefit of their particular perspective on the ordinary things which we encountering as we go.

    I use various methods to determine the routes I'll take to ensure I don't just go the obvious ways, or stick to the attractive places, but encounter all sorts of things I'd otherwise never see - the back way into the leisure park via a hole in the cemetery fence, the shallow old river which connects a gentle country park to a smelly water treatment centre, crossing beneath a six-lane highway en-route. The bookies and the Sure Start centre, back-alley drinking clubs behind Boots the Chemists. Journalling these walks online I get comments back from others who know these places and can correct my indiscretions or add to the growing rich picture of life in our area; ordinary life, mundane life, brought to life in this process of discovery and exchange.

    I'm inspired in this by many others, journalists, poets and various kinds of artists who, though often secular are wonderful celebrants of heaven in ordinary.

    Keeping my references northern, I'm a big fan of Martin Parr who was enthused about photography as a teenager by his grandfather in Yorkshire, a keen amateur photographer who lent Parr his first camera. Parr's subject-matter is determinedly ordinary. His early monochrome shots of life in Hebden Bridge, Jubilee street parties in Leeds in downpours of rain, his constant turning to dowdy seaside resorts and rural summer fetes (again usually held in inclement weather) have helped him build up a tremendous collection of everyday English life, in all its eccentric complexity.

    His projects have included The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, Think of England, Bad Weather and Bored Couples, mainly consisting of couples in cafes and restaurants staring into space. He's also published his own personal collection of Boring Postcards featuring 1970s shopping precincts and motorway service stations, a classic which raises the thoroughly unremarkable to an art form.

    Parr has been criticised for using his camera to cruelly mock ordinary people in their boring pursuits but he insists he does it from love. In an interview he once said that the most important thing about photography is the fusion between the photographer and the subject:

    "That gives the potential for a really poignant image, that's when the magic happens, when you fuse them together. If you photograph things you're passionate about, that makes it a lot easier." [7]

    So Parr is a photographer with a passion for the ordinary, who lovingly captures the dullest scenes and somehow offers hints of heaven in them.

    Not unlike the Manchester painter L.S. Lowry, who despite being derided by the metropolitan arts world has become undoubtedly one of Britain's best-loved artists, his subject matter the impossibly mundane streets of the industrial North.

    In his early years Lowry lived in the leafy Manchester suburb of Victoria Park. Then lack of money obliged his family to move to Station Road, Pendlebury, where factory chimneys were a more familiar sight then trees. Lowry would recall "At first I detested it, and then, after years I got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it". The subjects for his paintings were on his doorsteps. In later life he recalled this as a sort of vision. "One day I missed a train from Pendlebury - (a place) I had ignored for seven years - and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out... I watched this scene - which I'd looked at many times without seeing - with rapture..." [8]

    Lowry and Martin Parr learned their trade in Manchester, while Simon Armitage, for some people our Poet Laureate in waiting, hails from Huddersfield. He too, with Northern grit, makes the mundane seem profound:

    And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
    he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
    And always tucked his daughter up at night
    And slippered her the one time that she lied.
    And every week he tipped up half his wage.
    And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
    And praised his wife for every meal she made.
    And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.

    And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
    And every Sunday taxied her to church.
    And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
    And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.

    Here's how they rated him when they looked back:
    sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.
    [9]

    ... and perhaps that conclusion might lead us to consider how illiterate we are at discussing ordinary lives, because we don't try it often enough. I don't really know what heaven is - but I suspect it is somewhere where we have a comprehensive language to speak of unremarkable things.

    I don't really know what heaven is - but I suspect it is a place where comedians are welcomed as celebrants of that language.

    We are blessed in this region by the presence of Peter Kay, who hails from Bolton, where the Mass-Observation project spent three fruitful years in the 1930s and whose own questions about everyday life help us appreciate it all the more at the same time as we split our sides laughing at them:

    Why does your gynaecologist leave the room when you get undressed?

    Why is there a light in the fridge and not in the freezer?

    Why can't women put on mascara with their mouth closed?

    Is it possible to brush your teeth without wiggling your arse?

    Why is it called Alcoholics Anonymous when the first thing you do is stand up and say, 'My name is Bob, and I am an alcoholic'?

    Why does mineral water that 'has trickled through mountains for centuries' have a 'use by' date? [10]

    Not everyone gets The Royle Family, whose cramped family home was the context for whole series of seemingly banal conversations but whose episodes commonly revolved around a family occasion such as the marriage of the family's daughter Denise, the birth of her first child, and the child's christening.

    If you watch it closely then you begin to appreciate the genius of Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash in using the faltering language of an unremarkable household to express some profound truths about human interaction and - yes I'll use the word, and if you saw The Queen of Sheba episode last year you'll understand why - the meaning of love. And they're very funny too.

    I don't really know what heaven is - but I suspect it is a place of humour.

    The old Celts of course believed that heaven was very close indeed to earth, and that meant for them that there was no distance at all between let's say the spirit of God and the shit in the soil.

    You probably know some of their old prayers, they've become interestingly popular again in recent times, perhaps speaking of our generation's unexpressed need to relocate heaven in the ordinary. Prayers they'd say on getting up in the morning, prayers they'd say while making the bed, prayers they'd say while milking the cows or out at sea, prayers like this one which seems to embrace every ordinary thing to make it blessed:

    Bless to me, O God,
    Each thing mine eye sees;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each sound mine ear hears;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each odour that goes to my nostrils;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each taste that goes to my lips;
    Each note that goes to my song;
    Each ray that guides my way;
    Each thing that I pursue;
    Each lure that tempts my will;
    The zeal that seeks my living soul,
    The three that seek my heart,
    The zeal that seeks my living soul,
    The three that seek my heart.
    [11]

    More modern interpretations of the Celtic spirit include the work of Simon Bailey, an Anglican parish priest in Dinnington, a South Yorkshire pit village, where he was committed to exploring a contemporary spirituality faithful to the local earth, and whose small but powerful collection, Stations - Places for Pilgrims to Pray, resources those who wish to explore the experience of pilgrimage around the home, or around a church building, or around different sites in the village or town. [12]

    I don't really know what heaven is - but I suspect it might be a place on earth.

    I shall close with a prayer from Michael Leunig, who I mentioned earlier, whose cartoons appear in Australian daily paper The Age and often feature poem-prayers about things like hair, handles, sad dogs, sinking boats, and the onset of winter. He has a slight surrealist bent - which brings him into the company of many others who seem to be able to express hints of heaven in ordinary. And to illustrate that, this is a new poem taken recently from his website:

    Doom and Gloom
    On the bus, the smell of doom hung heavily in the air. At the office, the smell of doom! In the coffee shop, everywhere he went, the unmistakable smell of doom.
    Even at home, at the dinner table, the all-pervasive inescapable smell of doom. And in his bedroom too, the appalling, repulsive smell of doom and gloom.
    Then he noticed it was stuck to the bottom of his shoe. He had trodden in it!
    [13]

    I don't really know what heaven is - but I suspect you might have to look sideways, from just where you are, to see it.


    [ Session ended with an exercise using Martin Parr postcards - which are all expressions of the ordinary - participants sharing in pairs whether they cound describe the 'heaven' in them ] [14]







    Notes
    [1] A Day in the Life of Leeds, BBC archive
    [2] Sources for material on Mass-Observation: Joe Moran, The Science of Ourselves, New Statesman 29 January 2007, Mass-Observation Archive, and Nick Hubble, Mass Observation and Everyday Life, Introduction pp.1-16
    [3] George Perec quoted in Anna Botta, The Ali Baba project (1968-1972): Monumental History and the Silent Resistance of the Ordinary
    [4] Perec discussion from The Extraordinary Ordinary, Rosemary Shirley's introductory essay in the catalogue to The Caravan Gallery's retrospective exhibition at Portsmouth Aspex Gallery, December 2006 - February 2007
    [5] Somerset Maughan, from The Razor's Edge
    [6] BBC Radio Merseyside Thought for the Day 9/8/2006 - series transcripts here
    [7] Martin Parr interviewed by BBC Blast
    [8] Lowry's Life, from The Lowry website
    [9] Simon Armitage, Poem, quoted at www.blueflowerarts.com
    [10] Peter Kay quotes at www.kitt.net
    [11] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations from the Gaelic, Floris 2004
    [12] Simon Bailey, Stations - Places for Pilgrims to Pray, Cairns Publications
    [13] Michael Leunig, www.leunig.com.au
    [14] Martin Parr Postcards, Phaidon Press 2003