john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Towards an Urban Theology of Land

    A paper for Liverpool Diocese UPA Clergy seminar
    15 February 2005

    GO BACK TO 1. Introduction

    2. Getting to know my place

    Iıve just shared one of the walks with you; Iıd next like to introduce you briefly to some of the influences on the methodology behind them, and then to go on to discuss the possibility of utilising this body of material to begin to tease out what it might mean to develop an urban theology of land.

    Common Ground and local distinctiveness [1]

    For some years I have been fascinated by the work of Common Ground, who work in the arts and the physical environment, focussing on the positive investment people can make in their own localities, championing popular democratic involvement, and inspiring celebration as a starting point for action to improve the quality of our everyday places. The activities of Common Ground have a mostly rural focus, but my instinct has always been that much of their work and approach overlaps usefully with our urban situations. Particularly around their concept of local distinctiveness - that which is special or unique to a particular place.

    The concept of local distinctiveness ... is characterised by elusiveness, it is instantly recognizable yet difficult to describe; It is simple yet may have profound meaning to us. It demands a poetic quest and points up the shortcomings in all those attempts to understand the things around us by compartmentalising them, fragmenting, quantifying, reducing.

    Local distinctiveness is essentially about places and our relationship with them. It is as much about the commonplace as about the rare, about the everyday as much as the endangered, and about the ordinary as much as the spectacular. In other cultures it might be about people's deep relationship with the land. Here discontinuities have left us with vestiges of appreciation but few ways of expressing the power which places can have over us. But many of us have strong allegiances to places, complex and compound appreciation of them, and we recognize that nature, identity and place have strong bonds.

    We sometimes forget that ours is a cultural landscape. It is our great creation: underpinned by nature, it is a physical thing and an invisible web. It is held together by stonewalls and subsidies, ragas and Northumbrian pipes, Wensleydale sheep and halal butchers, whiskies of Islay and Fenland skies, bungalows and synagogues, pubs and the Padstow Obby' Oss, round barrows and rapping, high streets and Ham stone, laver bread and Devon lanes, door details and dialect.

    - to which, of course, I would add the Broadway shopping precinct and the no. 14 bus route for starters. And you will have in mind images of your own parishıs cultural landscape.

    Places are process and story as well as artefact, layer upon layer of our continuing history and nature's history intertwined.

    ... everyplace is its own living museum, dynamic and filled with sensibilities to its own small richnesses. These are places we know when we are in them. Meaning is entrapped in the experience of change, symbolisms and significance cling to seemingly ordinary buildings, trees, artefacts... Places are different from each other.

    I find great richness in this approach - and the endless possibilities it offers for investigation of an area. Itıs an invitation, I think, to look at your place more closely, to look at your place more deliberately. Which is what I set out to do on these parish walks. The parish walks are deliberate attempts to be jolted into observation.

    Common Groundıs genesis is in rural lore and activity but, as I said earlier, their work does translate usefully into urban situations.

    Local distinctiveness is not necessarily about beauty, but it must be about truth.

    This connects with biblical imperatives towards truth-seeking; and in this project I have found some unexpected fellow-travellers who take up their notepads, pocket cameras and walk around urban spaces recording their observations in search of their truths, whose various approaches to this task inform mine.

    Iain Sinclair [2]

    A celebrated contemporary writer. His subject is London - to his novels and his travelogues he brings a lifetime of intense observation, often about the less beautiful side of the city and its inhabitants. In the mid-nineties he published Lights Out For the Territory, where he walked the 'territoryı he had made his own, the streets and rivers of inner London, exploring their hidden associations and connections. He followed that up in Millennium year with a more challenging, less immediately attractive - but actually, incredibly fascinating - project: London Orbital, in which he set out to walk the vast stretch of urban settlement outside London, by tracing on foot, counter-clockwise, the land immediately around the M25 motorway.

    To give you a sense of his style, his descriptions of the minutiae of neglected English life he observes, here is an extract from a morning spent on the industrial outskirts of Watford. Among the sheds of scrap metal and recycling merchants Sinclair discovers a fine place to eat:

    Our breakfast, in the Mad Max kingdom of these war lords of waste, is a treat. A caravan, an awning, white plastic tables. Strip-lighting on the strobe. A large lady with big gold rings in her ears. And a face as featureless as a satellite dish. Eggs in their dozens, ready to break into the pan. Pink and yellow notices with handwritten specialities of the house: TOASTED SANDWICH VARIOUS FILLING FROM £1.50. In France this vehicle would have appeared in half a dozen movies. In California it would (as a replica) have its own gag-a-minute TV series.

    We swill our mugs of near-coffee, lick our plates and congratulate ourselves on being somewhere we'll never find again; a morning epiphany among stacked containers, long sheds. The best of England: close to a canal path, close to allotments, close to a football stadium, faces deep into a (£2.50) 'big breakfast' in a culture that only does breakfasts.

    Sinclairıs approach seems to agree with Common Ground who encourage us to appreciate the edges, those places where different habitats meet,

    ... in town some streets are dominated by small Indian shops and others by big chain stores, the area of greatest fascination may well be where they overlap.

    And this and Sinclairıs prose also echoes Roger Deakin who has written,

    At the "margins², the connections between people and place are most evident and easily discernible. [3]

    Seeing the margins not as risky or unattractive places, but rather as the best places to go to find truth, I think resonates with Jesusı approach to the places he chose to walk in, and encourages me on my walks and subsequent reflections to seek out hidden, rejected and unexpected routes.

    Patrick Keiller [4]

    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:

    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,ı Robinson read in the paper. 'The only company in the world that makes latex sheeting suitable for fetishwear is based in Derbyshire...ı

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

    What I learn from Keiller is the value of researching the placeıs economic circumstances which can reveal all manner of things ... and to permit idiosyncrasies, 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 love the quote of Oscar Wilde which Keiller uses:

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

    ... which I suggest, sits well with incarnational theology.

    Psychogeographers and provocative walkers

    In 1984, Bill Drummond [5], then manager of Echo and the Bunnymen, organised a day of Bunnymen-related activities in Liverpool including a hike around the city centre following a route which Drummond had determined by tracing the outline of a rabbit - Echo, the bandıs symbol - onto a map of the city centre, the manhole cover at the bottom of Mathew Street serving as Echoıs navel.

    Drummond is a walker whose often idiosyncratic on-foot activities search after truth. He remembers this walk as being one of the dayıs "apparently meaningless, if entertaining, events. Of course, to me they werenıt meaningless; each event dripped heavily with ritualistic symbolism.²

    This served as my introduction to a field of activity I later understood as being part of the practice of psychogeography. Walking purposefully-prescribed routes connecting aspects of the walkersı memory or experience, or the placeıs history, for instance, to the ground being trod. Being determined to make connections, find meanings along the way, and being entirely open to the consequences of anything that may happen en-route.

    Psychogeography has a serious, sometimes academic, spiritual and for some practitioners, occult side, but it does not preclude seeking truth or having fun. To me it sits alongside the recent revival of interest in labyrinths, not least in Christian circles, which also utilise a prescribed journey as a means to spiritual discovery. And it can be seen to relate to more populist pursuits such as guided city tours for tourists and local enthusiasts.

    Connected to that in my mind is the work of Liverpool-based artist Jean Grant [6], whose Pool Project is an exploration of Liverpool's tidal pool, one of the city's lost routes. She writes:

    The pool is the reason for the cityıs being, the emotional, geographic, and historic heart of Liverpool. The tidal poolıs course still delineates the cityıs structure, its movement patterns and spatial qualities. It is however concealed from both the view and the consciousness of those who travel its route.

    Jean launched The Pool Project with a walk which traced the underground waterway, stimulating debate and triggering further activities to recover a part of the city which has been hidden for many years. The immediate appeal for me is that this is a Liverpool project; underlying that is the encouragement to look at the historical connections in the city between natural features and human land use, and how the shape and quality of the land still impacts on todayıs urban experience.

    And finally, a word about Wrights & Sites [7], an artists alliance based in Exeter, who have produced what they call the Exeter Mis-Guide [8], published in 2003, which rightly describes itself as "like no other guides you have ever used before.²

    Rather than telling you where to go and what to see, a Mis-Guide gives you the ways to see your town or city that no one else has found yet. A Mis-Guide is both a forged passport to your 'other' city and a new way of travelling a very familiar one. An essential part of the toolkit of any 21st Century urban survivor.

    A Mis-Guide takes the form of a guide book. It suggests a series of walks and points of observation and contemplation within a particular town or city. It is no ordinary guide book. It is guided by the practice of mytho-geography, which places the fictional, fanciful, fragile and personal on equal terms with 'factual', municipal history. Author and walker become partners in ascribing significance to place.

    The Mis-Guide in particular, suggests methodologies for approaching parish walks. Their suggested methods include allowing a dog to take you for a walk; drifting (following your feelings or a repeated system - first left, second right, first right etc); following a compass course; allowing a child to take you for a walk; going to extremes (from the lowest place to the highest place, the ugliest place to the most beautiful place, the saddest place to the happiest place, etc); beating the bounds. All potentially wonderful ways to imaginatively approach the task of mapping an urban parish, of obsrving urban land and its uses.

    READ ON TO 3. Observations and questions raised
    GO BACK TO 1. Introduction

    [1] Clifford, S, King, A (eds): Local Distinctiveness - Place, Particularity and Identity
    [2] Sinclair, I: London Orbital
    [3] Deakin, R, A Local Habitation and a Name in Clifford, S, King, A (eds): Local Distinctiveness - Place, Particularity and Identity
    [4] Keiller, P: Robinson in Space
    [5] Drummond, B: 45
    [6] Grant, J, Site-Site website
    [7] Wrights and Sites website
    [8] Mis-Guide website