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

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    Friday, April 30, 2010
    The good man Morton and the scoundrel Cole
    For technical reasons to do with Blogger not supporting my kind of website any more, my blog is migrating to my Typepad pages. Read the first one here: The good man Morton and the scoundrel Cole, a review of two very good books indeed.
    Tuesday, March 23, 2010
    John Davies Talking Walking
    My conversation with Andrew Stuck on his excellent Talking Walking website.
    Saturday, January 16, 2010
    On throwing up in the gutter and other great moments with Jim
    The text of my tribute to Jim Hart, which I improvised around during my contribution to today's event at St Michael in the City, where around thirty or forty assorted folks from different parts of Jim's rich life gathered to remember him in word, image, prayer (including a Mourners' Kaddish) and song. The final act of a lovely short service arranged and led so sensitively by Mike Williams - The Dream of Glyndwr - moved me deeply, applying the words of the Welsh ur-hero to Jim's life and destiny, the whole thing was excellent.....

    My friendship with Jim has developed over the past 15 years - since Jesus in the city (expand)... more recently taken the form of visits to his house and day trips out, usually in my car, to exotic locations within a day’s drive of here: Lancaster, Wakefield, Shrewsbury, Carlisle and Shap, the canals of Wigan and the cemeteries of North Manchester.

    A typical day’s outing with Jim:

    Turn up at his house - prompt, knowing that he’d be waiting for you, eager to get out and get going.

    Exchange the firm handshake and almost immediately receive in both hands a bundle of papers pertaining to the day’s adventure - a map, customised by Jim with various notes written in the margins; an article culled from the London Review of Books or the Economist; one of Jim’s own pieces of writing, close-typed and printed out, illustrated by items from his massive photographic collection.

    Set out - Jim remembering precisely where we left off our conversations last time we met, which may have been a couple of months ago, picking up, probing, and of course commenting plainly about whatever the subject matter of the moment was.

    Pick up Dave in Old Swan where joviality and gentle joshing set in, me in the driving seat, Dave in the back but Jim very much in control: us two happy to let ourselves be guided by him.

    Out of town on a route which soon deviates from the main roads. This phenomenon owes much, I’m sure, to Jim’s vast cycling and motorcycling experience, but equally much to his great capacity for poring over maps and being able to remember the smallest details of a road, a landscape, to be able to map the land in his mind whilst on the move, remarkably well.

    It made for a more demanding drive for me - in his enthusiasm for the journey and his restless conversation Jim never seemed to notice how I got tired, weaving around farm roads for seven long hours - Dave did, I think. Jim hardly blinked either, on the day when a migrane had set in for me part way through the day and as I stopped the car at Millstead for Jim to get out I opened my door and threw up in the gutter. I looked up sheepishly and apologetically only to see Jim brandishing more of the usual familiar paperwork to leave for me to read and talk to him about next time.

    But of course it also made for a fascinating day. Jim’s encyclopaedic knowledge of places - usually expressed in terms of the people’s history, the stories of the working people, their integrity and their oppression written in the stones of a place. Jim’s humour, Jim’s ability to get a conversation going with a whole range of people met along the way: people serving us bacon butties in roadside cafes, publicans and others propping up bars we lunched in, walkers, traffic wardens, shop staff, volunteers in civic buildings we ventured into, whose knowledge of their place would be severely tested up against Jim’s.

    Some things I value so much about Jim:

    His endless enthusiasm for learning. Not learning passed on to him by the academy, but learning on his own terms: learning from the books he chose to read - and what stimulating books they are, lining his living room and kitchen walls; learning from people, who he valued so much and listened to so hard that it was always testing, conversing with him, as he reminded you of precisely what you’d said on the subject last time you spoke: but so supportively. An autodidact - whose journey I relate to (expand).

    His deep sense of justice - injustice - seeing things from the perspective of the poor, and making all sorts of connections. That enormous book of Sebastian Selgado photographs which Jim had propped up in his kitchen and which he studied, a photo a day, of workers struggling up makeshift ladders carrying stones by hand in vast Asian quarries, he’d bring to mind as we stood by a canal and Jim painted a picture of the Irish workers whose struggle to build that waterway was equally demanding, equally oppressive.

    The time which he had for others: being willing to mentor people like me, taking great delight in sharing his world with other people and seeing their eyes light up with new insights and their energy for engaging with that subject sparked by what he’d said and done.

    And his writing: at times deeply insightful, at times painfully provocative, very personal, hard to take. But unique and at times of great quality. Jim and I talked for a while about attempting to get reprinted some books which he regarded as classics of urban ministry - books by his formative heroes. I failed in my attempts to persuade him to make some of his stuff more openly available, probably online, but it was perhaps only his reluctance to get involved with the internet which stopped him, for he was otherwise always keen to disseminate his work and get people’s responses. Maybe we can work to remember Jim somehow in this way. If not then I know that those of us who have journeyed with him will always remember him in the places we’ve been together, chasing after the man whose restless enthusiasm and impatience kept him moving right till the end.
    Others who contributed on the day - please feel free to add in your writing in the comments box or email me (see sidebar for email address)
    Sunday, January 10, 2010
    On running away from God
    My latest offering, a spin on the Jonah and so-called 'prodigal son' stories (the first part of their journeys not the conclusions: On running away from God.
    Thursday, December 17, 2009
    'Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways' by Phil Smith
    Good to know that Phil Smith's Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways is just emerging from the printers:
    My name is not on the book, though I wrote it. It takes the form of a documentary-fictional collection of the internal documents, diary fragments, letters, emails, narratives, notebooks and handbooks of a loose coalition of artists, performers, 'alternative' walkers and pedestrian geographers. All illustrated in full colour by Tony Weaver, who designed the Wrights & Sites' Mis-Guide books.

    It is an attempt to celebrate the practices of artists, activists, performers and walkers who have shaped a new walking culture since the collapse of the 1990s Psychogeographical Associations.

    The fragmentary and slippery format recognises the disparate, loosely interwoven and rapidly evolving uses of walking today: as performance, as exploration, as urban resistance, as activism, as an ambulatory practice of geography, as meditation, as post-tourism, as dissident mapping, as subversion of and rejoicing in the everyday. 'Mythogeography' celebrates that interweaving, its contradictions and complementarities, and is an attempt at a handbook for those who want to be part of it.
    And there's a website too, 'which pushes it all a little bit further', Phil says. I'd say quite a lot further. It's packed with goodies, provocations and resources: check out the booklist for a lifetime's worth of ambulatory elucidation. I feature in the site as a contributor of photographs (on the page devoted to Manchester, Mythogeography and Mobile Machinoeki) and in a list of Mythogeographic Characters ('Concepts not costumes, these ‘characters’ are dissolute identities': Pilgrim, Crab, the Nomad, the Doctor, “Guy Debord”, Toby the Marxist Tramp, the Small Vicar, Comus, Pontiflunk, Cecile Oak).

    Phil is a performer who spends some of his time carrying out ‘subversions’ of the ‘standard’ guided tour. ‘Deploy[ing] the ideas of mythogeography, placing the fictional, mistaken and personal on equal terms with factual, heritage and municipal histories’, he takes his walking companions on alternative journeys in tourist sites in South West England. So National Trust houses and Exeter's tourist hives become 'place[s] of performance, space[s] of multiple layers, including ambience and psychogeographical effects, geological, archaeological and historiographical data, myths, rumours and lies, unrealised architectures and collectively expressed desires, autobiographical associations, incongruities and accidental hybrids.'

    Finding the 'hidden Real' in places is one of Phil's intentions. The Mythogeographer suggests that having fun - walking sideways - is one of the best ways of achieving this.
    Friday, November 20, 2009
    Jim Hart - Rest in Passion
    My good friend and mentor Jim Hart died today. Determined for some time now to end his own life, as his Parkinsons worsened, his body finally gave in to the self-inflicted punishments he'd been dealing it. He died as he lived: bloody-mindedly, determinedly. Passionately. Inadvisedly. I doubt he will rest in peace, the old provocateur. He will rest in passion and rise again in ragged glory still inpatient with authority, still railing at injustice, still walking the walk of the restless autodidact whose whole life was an endless journey of discovery, watered through a raging thirst for knowledge, forever on the move.

    I've spent most of today drafting a Research Essay in which I reflect back on forty years of urban walking, realising that since childhood I have enjoyed walking in the city, whether exploring the streets with others whilst at play, or in 1971 taking a memorable quarter-mile walk in the company of teachers and classmates, which symbolised our move out from our ‘old’ school building into our ‘new’ one. This walk has stayed in my mind as at the age of nine it awoke in me an awareness of how a simple journey on foot can reveal the power and complexity of people’s relationships with particular places, a phenomenon which I have continued to explore ever since.

    I was thinking of Jim as I wrote, wondering how he was, thinking I must get to see him soon to record a conversation about his approach to urban exploration. Jim hosted a walk during the 1995 Jesus in the City conference - a guided walk of Toxteth, taking us through the faded Georgian terraces and back alleyways and shoddy social housing of L8, talking about their social and economic history in terms which made connections which fizzed with insight and provocation. It was an afternoon which matured me theologically, awoke me to ways of viewing the city which I'd never thought of before, strengthened my resolve to engage with this particular city and its people.

    After that walk I kept in touch with Jim, grew a friendship with a man who was often difficult to deal with, out of order on many things, but ultimately a man whose passions for God and justice I shared. Always energising, a visit to Jim's. Always challenging: coming away laden with papers which he'd written on all manner of subjects which he demanded be immediately read and responded to thoroughly. Always exhausing, a walk with Jim - he would soak up a place at speed and spin out endless insights while I (and often his good friend Dave), many years his younger, would struggle to keep physical and mental pace.

    In a pub near a cemetery in North Manchester on our visit to Irish Republican graves last year the woman serving us lunch asked me, 'What would your dad like to eat?' Now my actual dad is alive and we get on well, but it was nice to be associated with Jim in this way, albeit mistakenly. Jim mentored me, tormented me. And his example - a working class lad with a desire to know more, fully explore and write about life as he saw it - was a direct influence on me and my own ongoing mental fight.

    Suffolk-born Jim was soon out exploring the whole of Britain, as his unpublished gem Boy on Bicycle describes. Liverpool has been his home for much of his adult life, where he has been variously a self-elected youth worker (operating from his flat on an outer housing estate, taking groups of youngsters on long bicycle journeys in conditions which would seem nightmarish to today's risk assessment addicts), a researcher and advisor to churches on the social settings in which they served, an educator among the poor, an agitator of bishops and diocesan secretaries, a thinker, a depressive, an inadvisedly heavy drinker, a tireless reader, writer and sharer of knowledge. A frustration. A disciple of Christ. A friend to many, some who have fallen out with him and fallen away but retain a fondness for the man.

    I have blogged about Jim and his influence on me many times. It's a modest body of words and a small contribution to a legacy which I hope will grow as others too go to print with their reflections on the hard but faithful man's good influence.

    Pic: from my blog of June 24, 2006, the day he took me on his 'Alternative M6' journey, Jim picnicing on the farm road which runs between carriageways above Shap
    Monday, November 09, 2009
    Remembrance: Coming Home
    As a rookie curate I preached some rather mealy-mouthed pacifistic sermons on Remembrance Sunday. Since then I've been learning to live with complexity and to listen harder to the stories of people's lives. Hence my first blog offering for a while (moving house etc has kept me away from the keyboard), Remembrance: Coming Home
    Thursday, October 15, 2009
    On the Tapscott trail with Iain Sinclair

    The crocodile, says Iain Sinclair, seems to be a ubiquitous presence in grafitti protesting against the devouring of communities by sharp-tooted predatory redevelopers. He has seen it often painted on the blue-panelled wooden walls encircling the Olympic site in Hackney. Yesterday I walked him around Liverpool 8's Welsh Streets, a vast area of working-class terraces reduced from a living, active community to a tinned-up wilderness by one signature sweep of John Prescott's hand.

    The rock-faced stone steeple of the Welsh Presbyterian Church still shines in the Princes Road afternoon sun but its roof is down, its stained glass windows out. We two Welshmen-of-sorts (Sinclair Cardiff-born, me Cardiff-educated) noted that the place still carries its voice: its security fences are a billboard for nonconformist opinion, dissidents of temperance objecting to the developers' voracity, dissenters with a hold on local truths protesting the developers' deceptions: NO MORE DEMOLITION - NO MORE BULL.

    Our walk was informed by Bill Griffiths' epic Liverpool poem Mr Tapscott (see previous blogs here) which weaves the story of the city together with a case of murder and false imprisonment which contributed to the general atmosphere of distrust between police and people in L8, pre-riots 1981. So we took in riot hot-spots (including the Rialto corner, now site of a city council-sponsored pavement etching quoting Psalm 133: 'Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!'); we marvelled at the glory of Princes Park and its surrounding roads with their grand Victorian / Georgian designs; and we enjoyed our walk up Lodge Lane where one person noting our stopping, pointing, asked us if we needed help, and another group seeing us photographing the facade of the Middle Eastern Restaurant, said: 'Take our picture if you like, we're from Lodgy you know'.

    In MT BELLY'S ENGLISH CAFE AND SANDWICH BAR we reflected on how a place of such notoriety could feel, in actuality, so safe and so friendly. In reading Bill's poem I'd been taken by how in history, Lodge Lane was both the site of the 1981 Coral Bookmakers murder, and previously the home of city philanthropist William Roscoe. In reading this part of the city as we walked its streets Iain had come to see it as a place of peace and potential, and was surprised at how few people were out enjoying its delights.

    The brooding unrest of the neighbourhood's downtrodden people bred riots in 1981 and emerges in dissident graffiti and anti-Pathfinder Programme protests in 2009. The regeneration which matters here bears no relation to the glistening empty apartments rising above the swank streets of Liverpool One, but is seen in men making a tenuous start in business (MT BELLY'S host was generous in his helpings of dripping sandwiches and free mugs of tea) and by the recent emergence of groups of people like The Friends of Princes Park, reclaiming territory previously lost to (unfounded) fears of crime in public places.

    Pics from my On the Tapscott trail with Iain Sinclair Flickr photoset
    Tuesday, October 13, 2009
    Save Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield
    This just in. The vice-chancellor needs to know what you think...
    Many students, academics and others associated with the discipline of Biblical Studies around the world have been shocked to hear of the news that the University of Sheffield is considering closing down the undergraduate program in the Biblical Studies Department.

    * The department of Biblical Studies should be saved because it has a worldwide reputation for being one of the finest places to engage in the discipline anywhere in the world as the staff are some of the leaders in the field (such as Dr James Crossley, Professor Hugh Pyper, Professor Cheryl Exum and Professor Keith Whitelam).

    * In the recent Research Assessment Exercise, all members of staff were recognized as producing international quality research and 65% of all work submitted was assessed as 'world-leading' (4*) or 'internationally excellent' (3*). The Department is ranked third in the country on the basis of its 4* and 3* publications.

    * On international ratings alone the department is ranked joint first.

    * It boasts having some of the finest Biblical scholars in the world.

    * The closure of the undergraduate degree program would not only affect the University of Sheffield, but the discipline worldwide.

    * In the National Student Survey the department comes out as one of the best departments in the country. Graduating students always rate the department very highly.

    Academics, students and others associated with biblical studies and other disciplines have been sending in their letters of support. The team campaigning to keep the department open have had letters from every continent. The response so far has been overwhelming.

    Please use
    this website to find out why the Biblical Studies Department should not be shut down and to have your say.
    UPDATE 27 October 2009: The welcome news that due to the strong response to the university's proposal, the department has been saved: see here.
    Monday, October 12, 2009
    First steps with the new family
    Leaving church on the wedding day. Thanks Linda for sharing this and others from the Facebook album. There should be more to follow from us. If you have any to share, do email them to john[at]johndavies.org.
    Friday, September 25, 2009
    Should a man blog on his wedding day?
    Should a man blog on his wedding day?

    Better men than I have done it and escaped opprobrium as geeks or a-romantics. But I might not.

    If a man blogs on his wedding day it must mean that:
    - he's so relaxed about the forthcoming nuptials that he can switch into reflexive mode for half an hour;
    - he's so full of the occasion that he needs the world - or at least his 150 online readers - to know;
    - he's so addicted to the computer that he just can't help himself.

    If a man blogs on his wedding day it's probably because:
    - he can't sleep and has to fill the long hours before the arrival of the best man and the wedding cars;
    - his wife-in-waiting can't sleep and she's been phoning every 20 minutes since 5.30am, so he may as well get up;
    - after hours and days of escorting his beloved shopping for chocolates, bedding, jewels, rings and lingerie the emotionally and financially shattered groom-to-be is asleep, and blogging is what he does in his sleep.

    If a man blogs on his wedding day it's likely that:
    - it's displacement activity for the speech he can't complete;
    - it takes his mind off that embarrassing 'first dance' he'll be subjected to later;
    - he needed to make a last-minute honeymoon booking and on the world wide web one thing leads to another.

    I shan't be blogging on my wedding day. But the night before: that's near enough.

    John and Diana Davies, as of 26 Sept 2009. A marriage made in Toxteth and to be continued in Croxteth
    Thanks to all who've supported and encouraged us on our way towards the 'big day'
    Monday, September 21, 2009
    Stag Night Karting

    My last Saturday of singleness spent on a kart track in Aintree Industrial Estate. Filmed on his phone by Mark Coleman.

    From my Stag Night - Karting - September 2009 Flickr video set
    Tuesday, September 15, 2009
    The Red Horse at Cheltenham
    Billy Childish may have stolen the (art) show at Greenbelt with his engaging conversation with Malcolm Doney - which began with him presenting himself as a determined religious outsider ('I never read the Old Testament ... it's all a bit bloody and ghastly, innit? No, I like the other feller, the later one, he's all friendly...') and developed into a candid and thoughtful explication of his Chatham-style, damaged goods take on spirituality. But in the venue of racing legends where around the site equine champions are celebrated in outdoor statuary, romanesque wall friezes and Hall of Fame history display panels, it was a red horse which most captivated me, and many others, the work of another artist in the very excellent Visionaries exhibition.

    Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Green George catches the eye with its bright and unexpected colours. Green George... why? In an artists statement Hicks-Jenkins says that his work began with the horse:
    ‘Once I'd completed the horse, the incandescent colour of which was an early notion I'd had to make the saint's mount almost a creature of another, more heavenly realm, I knew in a moment that no conventional skin colour for Saint George could withstand close proximity to that flaming Cadmium Red. Suddenly green became my favoured option for George. And once I'd started painting with a green-laden brush, I loved the results. I loved the way red applied to George's lips and hectic cheeks transformed his appearance into a glorious and unexpected adventure. I loved the links green made to ideas of re-generation and rebirth, the allusion to a whippy sapling flooded with the promise of newness, growth and hope. Just what a warrior saint should be. And of course there was the idea of Viriditas (Green Flame), the term coined by Hildegard of Bingen to express the 'greening power of God'.
    All this, of course, at Greenbelt which really pulled out the stops on the visual arts front this year. Loved it.

    Monday, September 14, 2009
    Luminescence at the pit head
    Brian Salkeld recalls the past: in his poem, displayed in laminate on an information board on the old Sutton Manor Collery site, the ex-miner says, 'The years roll back, I hear the sound / Of winding engine steam / I see the pulleys turning / On the headgear in my dream'.

    The spin on the Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa's Dream is that '...the head of a girl with eyes closed, seemingly in a dream-like state ... is the artist’s response to ... conversations with the ex-miners and members of the wider local community who wanted a piece that looked to a brighter future and created a beautiful and contemplative space for future generations, not least their own grandchildren, at the top of the former spoil heap.'

    On a sunny Sunday afternoon it's not contemplative, because beneath Dream children play, dogs sniff and tourists angle their lenses upwards towards the strange head. But it has a beauty - you can tell that when you're speeding along the M62 beneath it, flicking your eyes between the trees looking for a glance. Close up it becomes more apparent, the loveliness of this shining figure, luminescent in Spanish dolomite and titanium dioxide, sitting on the forty years worth of untouched coal which permeates the four miles of seams which run beneath.

    I don't know if Dream carries any more or less meaning as a gathering-point for the young people of St Helens than the night clubs, park gates and garage forecourts of the town which sits below this silent head, or for their hopes and aspirations. But it is a remarkable contribution to the local landscape and it does inspire interest, provoke stillness, register respect.

    Pic from my Dream Flickr photoset