Healing Places 2 - Frontier places

John@johndavies.org By John@johndavies.org, 22nd Nov 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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Healing Places Part 2 - a reflection on frontier places - places of facing newness and change, of feeling vulnerable or uncertain.

Opening reflection

Reflect on your own personal frontier places - these are the places where you have had to face the challenges of newness and change, where you may have felt vulnerable or uncertain:

- the place you left for that new job, and the place that new job took you to;
- a house move;
- a move around a marriage, or a divorce;
- the places a new child in your life took you to;
- a church or cathedral or concert hall or bus station where some event happened which changed your life forever...

Frontier places

Frontier places are likely to be complex, throwing out difficult questions:

When the Stranger says: 'What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?'
What will you answer? 'We all dwell together
To make money from each other'? or 'This is a community'?

I would like to begin exploring frontier places by talking a little about my particular place, Liverpool, which being a port, is a classic frontier place, and whose history reveals much about what frontier might mean.

Some aspects of Liverpool's complicated history can be summarised in the history of an area known locally as Liverpool 8, known internationally as Toxteth. This area, a mile or so from the pool at the heart of the ancient port, began life as a royal Deer Park. As the port prospered during the 18th and 19th centuries and it became one of the world's most influential trading centres Toxteth became a merchant idyll - grand Georgian and Edwardian terraces were built to accommodate the many wealthy businessmen in greater comfort than the townhouses they had previously occupied. The central and dockland areas of the town, of course, were being colonised at this time by refugees - thousands of Irish escaping the famine

Great parks were built - Sefton Park and Princes Park still flourishing today, were the model for New York's Central Park. As the city's economy shifted towards manufacturing in the mid-20th century, the port in decline and the city more vulnerable to market forces, Toxteth's reputation as a thriving cultural quarter grew. In the 1960s and 70s it was an inner-city melting-pot, harnessing all the energies of a multiracial, multicultural area. It suffered worst from the increasing unemployment in the city, and tensions within the area and between police and locals eventually exploded with the riots. One of Toxteth's greatest servants, long-serving local councillor Margaret Simey, Chairman of Merseyside Police Authority during the riots later wrote,

The riots of the summer nights of 1981 in Liverpool were our French Revolution. The cracking of breaking glass, the roar of the flames, the beating of the bin lids, dramatised for us the collapse of our way of life. The burning of the Raquets Club symbolised the end of an epoch of merchant autocracy of which it was the product. The power of the explosion of feeling reduced not only the physical environment of our daily lives to rubble. Startled and shocked, we realised that the very structure of our society was crumbling about our ears. That which had seemed so permanently enduring was suddenly revealed to us to be no more than a worm-eaten ýfacade, its authority open to question, its adequacy to meet our needs challenged, its very existence threatened.

In other words, the city of Liverpool was at another frontier. From being a place celebrated as the Gateway to Empire it was now being held up as a terrible symbol of the Empire's collapse, a place reviled as the victim of its own previous excesses. It was said that the city's demise was the injustices of the slave trade coming back to haunt it.

From this place, the edge of disaster, it has taken twenty years for the city to begin to move in a more positive direction. When I moved back into Liverpool after two years in Cambridge I was living at the top of Penny Lane, just a mile from Toxteth. This most ordinary suburban road became a frontier place in 1967 when two local songwriters recorded their everyday observations about the area in a record which became one of the best-selling of all time. It hardly changed the look of the place at all; Penny Lane today is pretty much the same as it was when Lennon penned those lines, except the old bus terminus building is now Sgt Peppers Wine Bar, and the road signs are made out of vandal-proof material to stop Beatles fans stealing them or graffitiing them. But in cultural and psychological terms Penny Lane has been transformed. Forever associated with that simple song, which is a celebration of everyday English life, the place itself is a symbol of those things and is visited daily by coachloads of people for whom that song is special, and the values it contains, important.

The Christian poet and broadcaster, exiled Liverpudlian Stewart Henderson, spoke about Liverpool this way at a conference in Liverpool Cathedral, on the edge of Toxteth, a few years ago:

How holy sits this city
Blessed with people
We, the offspring of funeral famine
And market forces slavery
We, the grandchildren of now-closed chapels
And sandstone suburbs
Here in this city of resignation and - over the water - aspiration.

How lonely sits this city
Bruised with people
In England, but not of it
Feeling ourselves punished and shamed
Talking to the world through soap operas,
Drag queen comics and peroxide footballers

City in deep mourning
Looking back, sore with nostalgia
For our first communion
When we were dressed pure
And knew nothing but that moment of absolution and acceptance
The body of Christ
The blood of Christ
And the ham tea afterwards

How anxious sits this city
Stubbed with people
Smoking our evenings through pub quiz nights
Swaggering home in the dark
Having had a few
Remembering our childhood
And those glossy coloured plastic windmill thingys on a stick
You could buy at West Kirby

Sentimental city
Not right with itself

How holy sits this city
Blessed with people
Nowhere near paradise
But not far from it
On probation, on drugs, Honor Blackman

That¹s us - a joke for every occasion
A quip at unsuitable times
Unruly - but helpful
Like: broadcasting the Laughing Policeman in a mortuary to cheer everyone up

City of philosophers
Lacking any formal training
Surrealists without a paintbrush
Knowing there are too many gaps in the world
As we pray before the bleak altar:
ŒChrist flayed raw to pay our toll
Have you ointment for our soul?¹

And though, even now,
As happy powder changes hands
Not far from here
Yet still

How holy sits this city
Blessed with people.

This expresses a few reasons among many why Liverpool has been chosen to be European Capital of Culture in 2008 - which brings it to another frontier, a place of reinvention, building on the many and varied cultural expressions of its people over the years.

This is barely scratching the surface, of course. The city's history is far more complex and its present reality by no means all good. We shall come back to look more closely at how frontier places can be healed, later on this week.

I've used Liverpool to offer some examples of what frontier places may be like. It's the place I know best and it does at times seem fairly unique. But in reality I don't think it's necessarily exceptional. I think that many places are frontier places. Becaµuse wherever people are in a place, that place becomes significant. And when significant events happen to people in particular places, life-changing, absolute, events, then these places might be described as 'frontiers' - places at the edge of possibility or new-ness

Because human experience is rich and varied, then the characteristics of particular places are rich and varied too. How can we begin to usnderstand the interplay between ourselves and the places we inhabit?

I've been very drawn to an organisation called 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 recognisable 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 recognise 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 Penny Lane and Princes Park for starters. And you will have in mind images of your own place¹s cultural landscape, that which makes it distinctive.

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

I find great richness in this approach - and the endless possibilities it offers for investigation of an area. It¹s an invitation, I think, to look at your place more closely, to look at your place more deliberately. It¹s usual to walk around a place disengaged, with your mind on other things, eyes and feet working on a purely functional level to get from A to B. If you are open to the idea of local distinctiveness then you are more likely to have your eyes open to what is around you. And - here is how I connect this to the idea of frontier places - Common Ground make clear that

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

You may look on the edges and in the unlikely places to find the reality of what is going on in your place. Common Ground encourage us to appreciate the edges, those places where different habitats meet, because these frontiers can tell us a lot. As they say,

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 Roger Deakin has written,

At the 'margins', the connections between people and place are most evident and easily discernible.

Think of some of the great icons of our times: out of town supermarkets, airports, McDonalds entertainment parks, industrial-park gymns, high-security luxury apartment developments set in otherwise unpromising parts of town. These might be described as places 'at the margins'. Yet if we think about them they begin to tell us a lot about the people we are, the society we are in. They're worth considering carefully and prayerfully.

Seeing the margins not as risky or unattractive places, but rather äas the best places to go to find truth, I think resonates with Jesus¹ approach to the places he chose to walk in, because he seemed almost deliberately to seek out hidden, rejected and unexpected routes.

Specifically, he chose a place called Galilee of the Gentiles to begin his ministry. Occupied territory, from the year 734 BC when Israel's enemies, Assyria, who Jeremiah called "the foe from the north", conquered most of Israel and divided the land into three regions. An area which had been called Zebulun and Naphtali was split into three and renamed as 'the way of the sea', 'the land beyond Jordan' and 'Galilee of the Gentiles'.

This was a frontier place where the people nevertheless livedin hope expressed by Isaiah, who said, "There will be no more gloom for those in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali; but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan."

Last session I briefly mentioned other frontier places in scripture - Eden, whose promise was denied its inhabitants because of their disobedience - which contrasts with Ur of the Chaldeans, Abraham's place of obedience from where God directed him towards the promised land. We might bring to mind many others. Egypt, Emmaus; Babylon, Bethlehem; Corinth, Rome. Places where events happened which had particular significance for those involved, and universal significance for the generations which followed.

These are events which brought the people challenges of newness, vulnerability and change ... just as we today face such challenges. And so we may have faith that scripture can give us a language to speak about what is happening in the frontier places of the world today.

Scripture offers us the book of Lamentations to give a voice to the dispossessed - "How lonely sits the city that was full of people!" Lamentations 1.1

The story of Rahab helps us comprehend the situation of those who live in places divided by walls or security fences: scripture offers us these words of hers - "Since I have dealt kindly with you, please swear that you will deal kindly with my people." Joshua 2

And scripture offers us the Exodus story to illustrate the terror of those who have to live as refugees or wanderers - "It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." Exodus 14.12

One things strikes me. That in the places we have thought about tonight, frontier places, edge places, places of change and challenge - in many of them, we will find churches. Places divided by walls, places where the dispossessed seek shelter, places close to border controls. Our Churches are in frontier places and our Churches are themselves frontier places - physical sites in local areas which

... have historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. Where important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Where vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Places of confrontation, attachment, commitment.
(to use Walter Brueggemann's words)

Where the frontiers of society are shifting, the churches feel that shift too - sometimes physically, often symbolically or structurally - and this can be painful, for us, but also tremendously healing. Indeed, it could be the case that at the frontiers, in painful places, the churches in particular can be channels for healing. We may have felt hints of that in our opening reflection on the frontier places in our own lives. We shall explore this possibility some more as we move on through the week.

Closing reflection

Spend five minutes prayerfully reflecting on the 'frontier places' in the world that you know or are aware of ... their characteristics ... the challenges of newness, vulnerability and change which they carry ... and then, when I prompt you, to spend five more minutes considering the frontier places in your own community.

So first, in an attitude of prayer, consider today's world; and the places you know or are aware of where

- walls divide peoples from each other;
- troops face each other across battle-lines;
- people are dispossessed;
- people's lives are made difficult or impossible by the presence of border controls;

Consider also those other places where

- people are on the edge of new discoveries - in medicine, in technology, in energy, in peacekeeping, in positive political change;

And I now invite you to consider the place you know well; your everyday place, your Penny Lane. Look around it. Walk its streets. Take yourself perhaps down roads you wouldn't normally go, to see what is there. Stop before significant places to see what is happening.

- where are the edges, where different peoples meet, where the land use changes?
- are there in your area, walls dividing peoples from each other?
- do you see any people dispossessed?
- or people's lives are made difficult or impossible by the presenøce of external controls;

Consider also those other places in your area where newness, freshness, healing comes. Or might come, with God's help.


Love is born
With a dark and troubled face
When hope is dead
And in the most unlikely place
Love is born:
Love is always born.

God, thank you for seeing the pictures in our hearts and minds, and for hearing ëour prayers. Amen.


T.S.Eliot: Choruses from 'The Rock'
Margaret Simey: Government by Consent: the Principles and Practice of Accountability in Local Government quoted in Hilary Russell: Poverty Close to Home
Stewart Henderson: Holy City
Clifford, S, King, A, Losing your place in Clifford, S, King, A (eds): Local Distinctiveness - Place, Particularity and Identity
Deakin, R, A Local Habitation and a Name in Clifford, S, King, A (eds): Local Distinctiveness - Place, Particularity and Identity
Walter Brueggemann: The Land - Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith
Michael Leunig: The Prayer Tree


Healing, Land, Place, Psychogeography, Urban Theology, Walking

Meet the author

author avatar John@johndavies.org
An Anglican vicar originally from Liverpool, and now living and working in Somerset UK. Offering an open Christian angle on current affairs, arts, media etc.

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