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

    Monday, July 05, 2004
    Walking after truth
    Challenged today in sitting down to write a paper for next week's gathering at the Urban Theology Unit, on my parish walks, their method but mainly their inspiration.

    The challenge was in beginning to explain my muses - why the likes of Common Ground, Iain Sinclair, Bill Drummond, Jean Grant (Site-Sight), and Wrights & Sites inform my activities the way they do.

    I found a start in a small quote from Common Ground: "Local distinctiveness is not necessarily about beauty, but it must be about truth." Which gives value to the practice of exploring urban edges and unattractive places the way the above folks, and I, in my way, do.

    And I went on to say some more about Patrick Keiller, whose Robinson in Space I blogged about recently; since then I bought the video and the book and was won over by the quirky way they get deep into the social and political of this small island.

    Keiller is an architect turned filmmaker who turns his camera onto hidden parts of England making unusual connections between economics, politics and culture, which, again, reveal much. His 1997 film Robinson in Space is a journey through England, from Reading to Newcastle upon Tyne, which takes in many industrial sites and dockland areas and features a narration which with gentle irony reveals a lot about these places and the culture in which they sit. Here's one extract (read in the film by Paul Schofield, in the precisely measured manner of a postwar documentary narrator):

    The day we arrived in Derby, Rolls-Royce announced half-year profits up 43 per cent to £70 million, though the chairman would not rule out more job losses, and the shares fell 8 per cent.

    'The English are acknowledged world leaders in fetishism and S&M,' Robinson read in the paper. 'The only company in the world that makes latex sheeting suitable for fetishwear is based in Derbyshire...'

    We wanted to visit Robin Hood's Well, near Eastwood, but the wood had been fenced off by the owner.

    What I learn from Keiller is the value of researching the place's economic circumstances which can reveal all manner of things ... and to permit idiosyncracies, to allow humour and failure to inform the act of observation. The important thing is that the walk is always a conscious act of observation: I find myself returning again to that fine quote of Oscar Wilde which is evidently a muse to Keiller:

    It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible...

    That, as I understand it, is fine incarnational theology.