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

    Friday, July 04, 2003
    The back story
    A phrase Iain Sinclair is fond of using helps meet the challenge set at the end of yesterday's blog. He uses 'the back story' to open up conversation about the other side of things, what's below the surface, the (often seamier) underside of a tale. And the back story is usually more interesting than the spin presented in the mainstream.

    So he describes the award-winning housing development Victoria Park with its 'Japanese minimalism ..., US hygiene fetishism, ersatz Regency drapes, Trusthouse Forte oil paintings' and recalls that this place was once the Holloway Sanatorium where 'socially awkward relatives of the well connected were boarded out: inconvenient pregnancies, mild eccentricities, boozers, society dope fiends...' Our appreciation of the place is so much richer for having this awkward truth revealed, though the developers may disagree:
      However meticulous the makeover, the back story always leaks, seeps through as an ineradicable miasma. Pain, displacement. The agony of knowing enough to know that something is wrong, a moment's remission will be followed by a renewed attack. Consciousness misplaced in long corridors. Buildings slip and shift and refuse to settle on a single identity.
    This is liberating writing. In perceiving the physical world in this kind of way, connections are made, new ideas readily form, creativity and free-thinking emerge as viable. In short, the back story opens up new ways of seeing.

    Jim Hart and I got onto this today, chatting away in his Wavertree tower block flat. Soon leaving church politics behind, our conversation drifted around the city of Liverpool, spread beyond us nine floors down. Will the Capital of Culture activities be merely a city centre show, or will the organisers permit the outer districts to tell their back stories, will the local history groups, maverick politicians, dodgy comedians, goths and levellers get their platform? Poring eagerly over Jim's treasured copy of England: the Photographic Atlas we got into tales of lost towns and small backwaters whose characters mean so much more to us than the country's more celebrated places, and Jim revealed he's working on a journey alongside (but not on) the M6 to explore the back stories of such places. Based on his notion that the M6 (representing the mainstream) reveals little to the traveller, while the peripheral places reveal a great deal. A foundation for some innovative social theology.

    This is so like Sinclair it takes my breath away. The back story, the peripheral history, the outsider's tale. Here is where truth shines. While pockets of smart scaffolding on the horizon herald the city centre's reconstruction, on a pigeon-wired balcony of an outer estate tower block marked for demolition, something profound happens, the back story shows the way, or as Jim would have it, the Word engages with the world.