Wetlands, cheap hotels and dentists

At the beginning of this week I was in a holiday cottage in Highley near Bridgnorth. The weather was kind, only raining overnight and early in the morning. When we needed to go out, the sun shone and it was warm. But autumn was already in the air, as this photo of ripening blackberries attests to.

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On Sunday we all: my partner and I, my sons, my daughter, her partner and her two Cockerpoos, caught the steam train of the Severn Valley railway and went into Bridgnorth for the day. It was a weekend for poetry books: my son Richard found me another poetry book in an Oxfam shop, A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (Palmers Press, 1994). There is a foreword by Eric Finney who uses lines from the sequence to illustrate his point about his personal joy in the poems, which he kept in the pocket of his battledress during his national service:

By blowing realms of woodland
With sunstruck vanes afield
And cloud-led shadows sailing
About the windy weald.

This as well as anything describes our train journey into Bridgnorth. Our return journey was first class, because that’s the compartment we sat ourselves down in and we couldn’t be bothered to move. It cost us an upgrade, and we really got nothing for it, but it was an experience. When we got home Angus took the dogs and Bill home, Mike went home and Richard, Amie and I stayed on an extra night. We played very silly card games, drank beer and ate vegan burgers, which were surprisingly good. On Monday we packed up the cars and headed to Kings Lynn via Peterborough (to drop off Richard’s bags). We stopped in a Travelodge on Monday night, which always reminds me of that Selima Hill poem that, unfortunately, I can’t find a reference to. Disparagingly, she calls it Travel Odge because that, after all, is how it’s spelt.  On Tuesday we went on to Cromer to meet up with family, who we don’t see often enough because, well, have you ever tried to drive into Norfolk from Greater Manchester? We had a lovely day and promised not to leave it so long next time. And we meant it. At the time. On the way home from Cromer I had an email from Mabel Watson telling me she has accepted one of my poems for publication in Domestic Cherry 7 and inviting me to read it at the Big Poetry Weekend in October in Swindon: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-big-poetry-weekend-tickets-58628979857  Of course I said yes: I’m going to the event anyway, so reading my poem will be an added extra.

On Wednesday I was doing the books at Amie’s restaurant, The Black Ladd. I use the accountant’s Sage software to keep the books and it’s just been upgraded to an online programme in the Cloud, to facilitate Making Tax Digital—so that the taxman can keep tabs on your business willy nilly. It took me all day Wednesday to do a tenth of the work I normally do in a day, so I had to go in again on Saturday to finish off. I know I’ll get quicker at it as I get used to the changes in the software, but really, it seems complicated. Actually, I think it will be quicker and easier to use when I get into a way of working. It’s the ‘finding out how to…’ that takes the time.

On Friday I was at the dentist at 8.00 a.m. for a filling. I broke a molar around Christmas; broke it quite spectacularly, there wasn’t much of it left. But it wasn’t painful and it was safe to leave it for a while, Dr Naeem assured me; so I made an appointment for August. Now, I don’t like dentists as a species, but my dentist is the most gentle man. He is genuinely lovely and caring. So I fetched up in Uppermill before breakfast for the repair. And there’s my first mistake. He put the novocaine into my gum, asked me to wait for it to take effect. I got up off the chair with very wobbly legs, trying to stay upright. ‘You didn’t have breakfast, did you?’ he asked. ‘Sit in the waiting room and the nurse will bring you a drink to get your blood sugars up.’ She did; she brought me a Coke. Who knew a dentist would serve you Coke? But it did the trick and my legs started to behave again. The filling took about forty minutes altogether; forty minutes with four hands, a ton of ironmongery and an upright Hoover in my mouth while I tried very hard not to gag. But the job is done, and it feels fine. Because it was such a big filling, I quite expected to be dosing myself with Cocodamol when the Novocaine wore off; but no, no pain at all. As I said, Dr Naeem is such a gentle and caring man.

I’ve been reading my thesis with an eye to what might provoke a question or two for the Viva, which is now less than three weeks away. I’ve spotted a couple of places where I would formulate questions if I were doing the examining; but I’m not, so of course questions may come from there or from any other aspect of the work. I’m remembering what I used to tell my staff when they presented for interviews: that the interview belongs to the interviewee. ‘It’s your interview, so if there’s anything you particularly want to say make sure you fit it into answers to the questions you’re asked.’ I just want to say ‘give me a pass, give me a PhD’, but it’s hard to see how that can fit into any question without being too obvious. So I’ll read my thesis and make sure I know it inside out and backwards and just hope for the best. After all, it can’t be as bad as a mammoth filling at the dentist, can it? Can it?

Later today I’m heading south again to drive along the Whittlesey Wash Road, the B1040 from Thorney to Whittlesey. It’s a road I used to travel a lot as a child, from our home in Thorney to visit relatives in and around Whittlesey. I’m writing a poem about it for the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology, Well, Dam… The proposed publication date is November-ish and the deadline for submissions is August 31st. The anthology is a collection of poems addressing the way human activity has used and abused the planet’s water supply. I’ve drafted my poem from a memory of sixty years, so I want to drive the road again to make sure it feels authentic. We’re stopping for lunch at the Dog in a Doublet pub, about halfway along the drive. My dad was born in an upstairs room at the Dog in a Doublet, more than 100 years ago. He weighed a prodigious 14lbs at birth! I know! And I know it to be true, because my mum was sceptical until she met the midwife who delivered him and who confirmed the birth weight as a fact. It comes into the early draft of my poem. I think it might stay.

So, I’ll love you and leave you. This is another poem I wrote about the fens, about the North Sea calling in the debt from the loan of the land to agriculture. In 1953 East Anglia suffered extensive flooding. My dad was called out in the night to go to Kings Lynn on volunteer flood relief work. I always thought my Mum would have liked to have gone really: she wasn’t suited to a domestic role, but that’s what life dealt her, and you can only play the hand you’re dealt; so she stayed home while he did all the exciting stuff, as was expected at that time. This poem is about imagining her, and other women from the neighbourhood, taking the place of the men on that flood relief sortie. It is, of course, a complete fairy tale.

Bedtime Story

Once upon a midnight, 1953,
a loud knocking at the door.
A little girl, call her Mary, can hear
our protagonist, the mother, talking;
another voice Mary doesn’t recognize,
a piquancy of danger in their words,
Mary’s father saying well of course
you’re not going

but just this once, the mother refuses
to honour and obey, she goes anyway,
leaves little Mary, leaves husband, house
joins other women from the village.
The mother drives 30 miles
through the black Fenland night.

In the distant past, an evil genius —
call him Cornelius — borrowed Kings Lynn
from the sea, and on this midnight, 1953,
the town is inundated by the North Sea
surging along the mouth of the Wash
calling in Cornelius’s debt.

The mother works all night, a Fenland
Grace Darling, rowing, rescuing,
carrying to safety folk whose belongings
are rubber ducks bobbing in a bath.

There’s no happily ever after though:
this story ends with a predatory shark,
patient under the flood waters.
And what big teeth he has!

Rachel Davies
2015

The Map and the Clock

Our journey was one of shared enthusiasms in poetry’s loved landscape… (Carol Ann Duffy)

Yesterday, my daughter found this for me in the Oxfam Bookshop in Shrewsbury:

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The Map and the Clock (London: Faber & Faber, 2016) is a fat anthology of British and Irish poetry from 600 A.D. to the present day, concluding with a poem by Zafar Kunial, who started his PhD with MMU the same day as me. It was compiled and edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, an initiative of Duffy’s tenure of the Poet Laureateship. It is a poetry festival and feast, and it cost me just £6.99!

The line heading this blog, which seemed to speak to me of my friendship with Hilary Robinson, is in Carol Ann Duffy’s introduction to the anthology. The landscape of our friendship is indeed a shared enthusiasm for poetry. We met for coffee on Tuesday this week. I hadn’t seen her for six weeks—she’s been in France with her daughter and grandchildren. So it was lovely to see her again. She made me a soft-toy rabbit—French name ‘Lunar Lapin’—for my birthday, with glitter Docs just like mine; and some gingerbread sloths in honour of my favourite alternative mother. I took my Whittlesey Wash poem to share with her; my confidence in it was not great, but she loved it as a first draft, so I’ll stick with it, work on it some more. I’m planning to go south to drive the B1040 again before the deadline date at the end of August, so I can check the truth of my poem, which I’ve written from a memory of more than six decades. When I told my partner Bill that I wanted to go, and asked if he wanted to come with me, his reaction was who in or around Whittlesey is likely to read the poem? That is so not the point: the poem should be true for the poet first of all, or what’s the point? He has agreed to come with me. He enjoyed the poem as well, so I think I might be onto something.

While Hilary and I were drinking coffee in the sunshine of Uppermill, we talked of our next Line Break, the poetry week we take about May every year to read, write and bathe in poetry. Kim Moore’s St. Ives workshop next year is later than usual, end of April into beginning of May: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/residential-poetry-courses/december-2018-poetry-carousel/Fiona Sampson is sharing the workshops with Kim; and Pascale Petit is the week’s guest reader. Bring it on! So we’re thinking of extending the week by taking our Line Break on the way home, perhaps in North Devon, or the Wye Valley, hiring a holiday cottage to stay the extra week. At least we’ve started thinking about planning it.

Two other events appeared on our ‘poetry landscape’ this week too. Firstly, Hilary booked tickets for a brilliant MMU event, Elbow front man Guy Garvey in conversation with our new Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/story/10717/Despite these being the hot literary ticket of the century, Hilary successfully managed to get us both tickets to the event. Secondly, the second Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Ragged Rocks and Running Rascals (Beautiful Dragons Press, 2019), has been announced: it involves our poet friend, Barbara Hickson, who graduated from MMU with an MA (Distinction) in Creative Writing this summer. She shares authorship with Gabriel Griffin and Bev Morris. It’s so nice that Barbara will be our Dragon Sister; and even nicer that she’s invited Hilary and me to read at her launch event in October. We’ll be reading from our own Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Some Mothers Do… I’ll post details when I know venue and timing etc; but it will be in Lancaster and it would be good to see you there to support Barbara and her Spawn Sisters.

I carried on with the post-PhD clear-out this week. I completed the guest bedroom, which looks lovely and inviting now; and I made a start on the landing area. This is a huge task, because it involves book shelves lining the walls: lots of dusty tomes to take off the shelves to clean and decide if they stay or go; although of course they’ll stay, because who can bear to throw out books? The area is also home to Bill’s collection of model cars, three display cases full of Burago classic car models, built up over most of his lifetime. The anxiety on his face is profound when he reminds me how delicate they are, that they have small headlamps and fenders that could break off in the cleaning. I know this, and I’ll take care, even though I don’t entirely ‘get it’; but he doesn’t entirely ‘get’ my obsession with poetry either, and he is supportive none-the-less. I’ll be careful, Bill, I promise.

On Friday we came away to the Midlands for son Richard’s Big Birthday Bash. We’re staying in a cottage near Bridgnorth. I’m writing this from my bed in the cottage, just as the sun’s coming up outside. It’s lovely, right next to the beautiful River Severn. Richard was already here when Bill and I arrived at 4.00 p.m. on Friday; Amie, her partner Angus and their two Cockerpoos arrived about an hour later; and Michael arrived about 8.00 p.m. having driven up from Wiltshire after work. Yesterday we all went into Shrewsbury for the day, took the dogs to the park. There was a flower show in town, but dogs weren’t welcome so we didn’t go. But lots of people did, and we passed several people carrying flowers and plants back to their cars. When we got home we drank champagne in honour of Richard’s birthday: Krug and Bollinger, both lovely. I love champagne, I’d drink it all the time if I could afford it, so it’s just as well I can’t! Later today, I think we’re taking the Severn Valley Steam Train into Bridgnorth: the station is just a short walk from the cottage, and we’ve often heard the whistle calling its departure. It runs every half hour or so, so we can go at our leisure. The last train back is just before 6.00 p.m. Perfect!

So there you have it; another week gone. It’s less than four weeks to the Viva now, and the final decision on the PhD. I’m trying to remain optimistic. My champagne flute, as ever, is half full.

And so, a poem: this is an alternative mother poem about my Aunt Mary. She was my dad’s oldest sister, and a surrogate for the grandmother I never knew. Aunt Mary had lots of wonderful sayings that I used to tell the children I taught: “My old Aunt Mary used to say…” I don’t think they believed me most of the time, but it was all true. My favourites were “…I love hard work, I could watch it all day”; and “…you can call me anything you like, but don’t call me late for my dinner.” That last one came in very handy for playground fallings out! Aunt Mary was blind but I swear she could see more than most people. My sister and I had hula hoops for Christmas one year and we had an on-going competition to see who could do more hula hoops. One Saturday morning when I was in the house alone with Aunt Mary I did 143 and she was my only witness. She said she felt the hula hoop whistling past her ears; but they wouldn’t allow the record because, they said, I might have been blowing in her ear. As if you could fool Aunt Mary like that. I forgot to mention she was a world champion hiccupper too. She performed the most outrageously loud hiccups you ever heard: UUURRRRDUH! YAAAKKITY! You’d hear them three fields away. My sister and I would be silently peeing ourselves laughing behind her chair while she hiccupped her way through the morning; but not silently enough, obviously! “I know you young buggers are laughing at me,” she’d say.

Alternative Mother #12

Mary R

You say there’s none so blind
as them as don’t want to see.

You buy me a scarlet coat
so I’ll stand out from the crowd,

knit me rainbow socks on four needles,
make me feel their colours.

You show me how even
silent laughing can be loud
if you listen hard enough.

Your bosom
is a plumptious pillow for a story;
you tell me there is no tumbler in this life
that isn’t at least half full.

Be true to yourself, you say.
Live in peace with others
but always be your own lover.

 Fingertips are as useful as eyes,
you reckon, knuckles as feeling as fingertips
for finding your way out of dark spaces.

Rachel Davies
2018

 

Floods and droughts

When I finished the MA in Creative Writing in 2010, I went through a period of drought in my poetry life. I couldn’t write anything. It was as if my brain had been purged of the need for poetry. Friends I’ve spoken to experienced the same thing when they completed poetry-based study. Well, it’s happened again post PhD. I’m finding it difficult to think about poetry, much less write it, or make any submissions to journals or competitions. I know it’ll come back, but it feels like an unpleasant barren period.

Having said that, I have engaged with poetry on some level this week. On Tuesday it was our Stalybridge Stanza. We had an anonymous poetry workshop this month. Four poets submitted poems to me, I sent them out in a single document, standard font without names. We met on Tuesday evening to read, discuss and offer feedback on the poems. There were five members at the meeting, including a new member who wants to join us. This seems like a critically small meeting, but we’ve had less; and I also had four apologies, so we’re moving off the red list of the critically endangered. I think we’ll survive.

The poems were all good; very different in style and subject. Our new member, Viv, also brought a couple of poems that we made time for in our discussions. It was a good evening, interesting and lively discussion. I sent a poem I’d redrafted in Coniston when Hilary and I went through our old notebooks looking for forgotten gems. It’s called ‘Burying the Past’, and I quite like it. I might offer it to a journal at some stage. I’ll give it a few weeks to mature before I decide. It made me think that this might be a route into poetry again: to trawl my old notebooks and journals and find writing to redraft. It might be just the springboard I’m needing.

Yesterday I did write a new poem. It’s concerns Whittlesey Wash Road, the B1040  running through the Washes, which are a series of dykes through the landscape, built as flood defences, to divert water from the River Nene in periods of potential flooding. Originally, this area of England was under the sea, until it was drained in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I found out the Ea—the original ending of Whittlesea—means island. This was Whittle’s Ea, or Whittle’s island in the surrounding sea-water. Thorney, Ely and Peterborough were also islands at that time, all towns and villages built up around historic cathedrals or abbeys. Imagine those buildings standing proud above the sea. No wonder Henry VIII sent his first wife Catherine of Aragon to this barely-accessible region to incarcerate her until her death. So I wrote my poem about Whittlesey Wash road, the B1040 that we used to drive along from our home near Thorney to visit relatives in and around Whittlesey. I’m not sure the poem I wrote is the one I should have written. It was intended for the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology, whose working title is Well, dam. The idea is to celebrate—or expose—all the ways humankind has used—or abused—the earth’s watery resources. My poem should be about the drainage of the fens, the series of dykes and cuts that reclaimed the land from the sea, and how the sea sometimes calls the land back into itself. Instead I wrote a personal poem about riding that road in childhood, and how the pollarded willows lining the roads seemed to shake angry fists at me as I rode past. I think I retrieved it sufficiently for it to survive the cut for the anthology, but I’ll leave it to marinade in its own poetic gravy for a while, see what I think mid-August. The deadline is August 31st, so I still have time.

I’ve started to prepare for my Viva in September. I’ve been doing some research into my examiners. My Director of Studies told me to be savvy: one of his students hadn’t done their homework and underestimated the external examiner’s personal expertise in the area of the PhD under examination. Ooops! I don’t want to make that mistake; not that I’m likely to! If only I had the self-confidence to think my version was the definitive version! But it’ll be good to know who she is, where she’s coming from professionally. I’ve also started to re-read my thesis. May seems a long time ago and I feel out of touch with it already. I need to know it inside out to be able to discuss it like an expert. I have less than five weeks to the Viva, on September 6th, so I’m trying to use this time for revision. I’ve been reading my older blog posts too; which is revealing, because they speak of me reading books I’d forgotten I’d read, books I didn’t necessarily use in the written thesis and so aren’t listed in the bibliography. Thank goodness for Kindle. Those books are still there to be revisited; or on my immaculately ordered bookshelves in my spring-cleaned study.

Speaking of my study, the Velux window above my desk let the water in this week. We’ve seen particularly heavy rain lashing onto that face of the house throughout the week, and the window’s faulty seals let the water in. This isn’t the first time it’s happened either. It’s so annoying to see papers and books on the desk damaged by rain that should be staying on the outside of the house. I’ve made a decision. The window will be replaced in the next month or so. I’ve had enough. I can’t take the soul-destroying damage rain water causes when it invades the home; and yes, I know this is a minor inconvenience compared with the damage to the dam at Whaley Bridge and all the possible devastation that could cause; but it’s a recurring inconvenience I can do something about with the installation of a new window. Thank heaven I did the big spring clean in the study earlier in July. At least the desk was relatively clear. When I was doing my PhD it was permanently full of books and papers, in an organised chaos only I understood. The last time water came in through the Velux, a lot of work was damaged. But I can do something about the risk. A new window it is then.

On Monday I went to Peterborough with my daughter Amie to meet up with son Richard and friends. We went out for dinner, had a lovely day. Next week we’re all going to Kidderminster where Richard has booked a holiday cottage to celebrate his Big Birthday. I know, Kidderminster is a rare holiday venue, but it’s central for all of us to meet up. Richard is coming from Peterborough, Amie and I from Saddleworth, Michael from Wiltshire. I’ve called it our Wilt weekend in my diary, because originally Richard wanted to book a boat for the weekend, and it reminded me of that storyline from Tom Sharpe’s novels. But he couldn’t find a canal barge big enough to accommodate us all, so a cottage it is.  It’ll be lovely to be with all the children together. It doesn’t happen often enough when they grow out into their own lives.

So that’s my week: post-PhD limbo. Poetry trying to make a come-back. And family. A former member of my staff retired this week. I told her to enjoy her retirement; it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I stand by that. It brought me poetry and there are worse things to do with your leisure time. I won’t post the poem I wrote for Beautiful Dragons, because that’s for Rebecca Bilkau, the editor. But I’ll post another poem about an East Anglian legend, Boudicca, the Celtic queen who resisted Roman power when the Roman Governor stole her powerbase and the Roman forces raped her daughters. Her uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, but she caused a lot of havoc in the process. She’s been a heroine of mine for a long time. My staff used to call me Boudicca when I took on a fight as head-teacher; a nickname I didn’t object to. Everyone should fight like Boudicca for things they believe in. Here’s the poem I wrote, one in my ‘alternative mother’ series. It’s in the pamphlet I share with Hilary Robinson and Tonia Bevins, Some Mothers Do… (Beautiful Dragons Press; 2018). Boudicca certainly did!

Alternative Mother #2

Boudicca

In your footsteps, pearl-wort, loosestrife
and purple orchis grow. You are Andraste the Invincible,
moon goddess, tall as an ash tree, your hair
a fire-fall that consumes empires.

Let me trace the hot threat of war-paint
colouring your cheeks as menace, widening
your wolf wife’s eyes. Make the cold twists
of gold at your throat simmer.

Moon-mother, you are fearsome. Your eyes are
vengeful swords you sheathe from me; in fury
you roll up meadows into proclamations, stanch rivers,
rip up cities to skim on the sea’s surface.

You were there when I cried out to you.
Scabbard your anger in his back, warrior mother,
make revenge a magma flow,
become a new stratum in earth’s skin,

broadcast your battlecry as clarion then
make your wake a feast of nightshade, arum lily.
You can be no man’s trophy.

Rachel Davies
2018

On record…

It’s 5.15 a.m. on a summer morning in Saddleworth. This week has seen one of the hottest July days on record, 38.1°C officially recorded at Cambridge, only just below the all-time record . News reporters speak of the record being ‘achieved’, as if it is something to aspire to, something to celebrate, the climate equivalent of Adam Peaty swimming 100m. in less than 57 seconds. This morning there isn’t a breath of wind and the rain is coming down vertically, beating through the leaves of the sycamore outside my window. The sky is spilling the water evaporated by the week’s heat. But temperature records aren’t achievements, they aren’t reasons for celebration. They are signs of humankind’s failure to protect the planet, signs of the way profit comes before care, so we rape Earth’s natural resources until she struggles to breathe. This morning she’s crying. Climate records are Earth’s cries for help. We ignore them at our peril.

I’ve been in a post-holiday blue period—you know that thing where you are constantly thinking ‘this time last week…’. I decided to get stuck into some more post-PhD spring cleaning. I made a start on the guest bedroom. I washed bed linen and curtains and pegged them out: this was the upside of the hot weather. They dried beautifully. I sorted out cupboards, made more donations to charity shops. Our house is on three levels. On the ground floor is a laundry and the garage; on the top floor our bedroom and study. The first floor is the living space: lounge, kitchen, dining room, bathroom; and the guest bedroom, which, due to its position and it’s irregular use, is a perfect dumping ground! This week I changed all that. The cupboard full of Christmas wrapping paper and old Christmas cards—cleared out. The wardrobe with all my head-teacher gear that I wouldn’t wear again if you paid me—cleared out. The cupboards above the bed with ‘spare’ bed linen that I’ll never use again—cleared out. I’ve filled black bags with stuff for charity shops or the town tip. There’s something exhilarating about having a good clear out, like you’re clearing out an unsatisfactory past life, something about yourself you don’t recognise any more, you’re making (another) new beginning. I think, to be honest, Bill gets exasperated with me when I’m on a roll: I can be a bit evangelical about it and he likes a quiet life. But if a job’s worth doing…and there were clothes in there that haven’t been worn in more than a decade. They belonged to a different woman. They had to go. He’s fine with that: it’s the bit where I make him make decisions about his own stuff that raises his hackles. But if you haven’t worn/used something in ten years, you probably don’t need it. He probably wouldn’t notice if I chucked stuff without asking him, to be honest; but that would just feel wrong. Wouldn’t it?

On Tuesday I watched the result of the election of the Tory leader and new Prime Minister. I have no time for Tories. I’ve voted Labour all my life, hoping some element of humanity will creep into politics and improve the lives of ordinary people, people who struggle to survive. Tories personify profit before people; their policy of austerity has hit hardest the poorest people in the country while the rich and powerful have contributed nothing. People are dying in the streets, literally, but that’s OK because the Rees-Moggs and the Sussexes have had their million pound mansions refurbished at the public expense. But Boris Johnson? Really? In his speech at the podium outside 10 Downing Street—appropriately dubbed ‘Clowning Street’ by one newspaper—following his audience with the Queen, he talked of uniting Britain under his leadership. Two points to remember:

1) He was one of the Tory tribe who broke Britain in the first place. The EU referendum was a bit of a public school wheeze, a way of keeping the Tory party alive in the face of pressure from UKIP. In the spirit of the Eton debating society, someone had to support the ‘Leave’ side of the debate and Johnson did it, although his political history shows he had no passion about Europe one way or another; and his face on the morning of the result showed clearly what vision he didn’t have for his spurious and narrow win.

2) What leadership? He has proved himself time and again to be unreliable, untruthful, lazy, vicious, self-serving, racist, misogynist, bumbling—anything for a laugh. This is your new leader, your new prime minister. I won’t say my prime minister: he is not prime minister in my name. I just hope it proves to be the shortest premiership on record: that would be one record well worth celebrating.

Last week I talked about the S. J. Parris Elizabethan detective novels I’ve been reading. I was quite scathing about her style of writing. I stand by my impression of her books as being a frothy while a bit heavy on historical detail: well researched but the research grafted on, feeling extra to the story. This week I finished the second one I started on my holiday. So what did I do next? I ordered some more to my Kindle. I know, I’m fickle. But she leaves you just knowing there is more to the story, an extension still to come. Bruno’s lover escapes the law and he is distraught; but you sense they’ll meet again somewhere in another book and I found myself wanting to know where, and how it goes when it happens. Yup; I guess I did get lost in the world of her books after all. I’ll not read the follow-ups yet, as I’ve started reading Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s WW1 memoir. I’ve only just begun, about three chapters in, so I won’t comment yet, but the 2015 film, with Alicia Vikander as Vera, was brilliant and made me want to read the book. I’ll keep you posted. Bruno and Sophia can wait.

Poetry has had a very small part of me this week. I’ve collected poems for my Stanza anonymous workshop. We meet at the Stalybridge Station buffet bar on the last Tuesday of the month, 7.30 to 9.30 p.m. This month we’re having a critical feedback session when members send me new poems which I send back in an anonymous document to read and think about before the meeting so that we’re ready for constructive and honest feedback. I’ll be sending the anonymous document out later today. I’ve also booked myself onto a Mark Pajak workshop in Nantwich in October, with an open-mic session in the evening. If you fancy it, details are here: https://allevents.in/nantwich/writers-day/200017689818736?ref=event-more

I found out about two more People’s Poetry lectures in the autumn too; these are the brainchild of Carol Ann Duffy, just one of the grass-roots initiatives she instigated as Poet Laureate, and they’re organised by the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University; although the vision is for them to appeal to an non-academic audience. Last year there were lectures by Gillian Clarke (Dylan Thomas), Michael Symmons Roberts (W.H. Auden) and Andrew McMillan (Thom Gunn). They are wonderful: accessible, insightful, entertaining. This autumn’s lectures are by Sean Borodale (Sylvia Plath), Jean Sprackland (Elizabeth Bishop) and Moira Egan (Marianne Moore). Details are here: http://www.manchesterwritingschool.co.uk/eventsPerhaps I’ll see you there?

There you have it: another busy week in the long wait for the PhD viva on September 6th. I’m trying to stay calm, but I’ve never enjoyed interviews. I keep telling myself I’m too old to care now, my life doesn’t depend on the outcome. But when you’ve worked hard for something, it means a lot. Breathe Rachel, breeeeeathe!

A poem: I wrote this one in Coniston when Hilary and I were going through all our old notebooks to find hidden gems. I’m not claiming this as a hidden gem, I’m claiming it as a forgotten possibility that I found in my old notebook search. I can’t remember the stimulus for it, what inspired me to write it. But I quite enjoyed coming across it, dusting it off, giving a new lease…

 

The films I like are realist

 I want to see Cromwell’s warty face,
God tucked into his breastplate,
I want to see sweat breaking out
on the brow of a foppish king.
I want to see a model army
ranked for battle, horses steaming,
smell their heat, taste the blood, feel
the death or glory.

I don’t want to see Margaret Lockwood
designer dressed, cupid’s bow
and beauty spot, 1940s hair,
an unlikely highwaywoman
breast heaving breathily
for the leading man with the thin moustache
and the crooked smile
because girls must learn
all a woman needs
is the notice of a handsome man.

Sack that!
I want that leading man to run off
with the inn landlady, Margaret
to feel the pain,
get over it, grow strong
find her own way to make the world.
I want it real, reel by reel,
I want to believe in it, right
up to the rolling credits.

Rachel Davies
2019

alBanya, birthdays and cricket

When I was coming to the end of the work for my thesis, the poet Jean Sprackland, who was the support for the creative aspect of my PhD team, asked me what ambitions I had when the PhD was complete. My answer was simple. ‘I intend to read shite for the rest of my life,’ I said, laughing. I’ve made it no secret that I found the PhD difficult. I have two bachelor degrees and two post-graduate degrees, but the PhD was a whole new level of hard; as it should be, of course it should. But I stuck at it and submitted a thesis that I was proud of because, even in the darkest days, I never gave up. It remains to be seen if it is of PhD standard when I attend for my viva in September. But when it was finished I vowed never to pick up another academic, scholarly or intelligent book that required me to engage my brain. For as long as I live I was going to read rubbish. This week I fulfilled that new ambition. I’ve been reading two detective stories by the author, S. J. Parris. Heresy and Sacrilege are set in the Elizabethan era of religious turmoil, and clearly S. J. has done his research because they display minute detail in the history of the era. Sometimes it feels as if he’s beating you about the head with the detail, forgetting that what he’s actually supposed to be doing is telling you a story. The books are full of intricate descriptions of rooms in post-Reformation churches, ex-monasteries/abbeys, Oxford libraries. His imagination comes to bear on the prisons, inns, overhanging street buildings; but his descriptions never fit in with his storytelling. They are grafted on in a different voice, as if he’s cut-and-pasted large swathes of his research notes into his story, forgetting that they should embellish the story, not serve as add-ons, not be ‘pimples on elephants’ bums’. Talking of his stories, I find them predictable. There are no surprises for the reader: you just know his hero, Bruno, is going to get out of whatever unlikely difficulties he gets himself into, so there is no tension in what should be his edge-of-the-seat stuff. Having said all this, they are quite good stories, I’m just not enjoying his style of writing; and the Kindle versions have several typo errors that shouldn’t have got past an alert editor. But I will finish the second one. However, I’ve learned that I can’t do shite quite as easily as I thought. I need a challenge, I need something to think about while I’m reading. I need to lose myself in a book.

[I just found out that S.J. Parris is in fact a woman writer, it is a pseudonym of the author Stephanie Merritt. I apologise to her for making gender assumptions based on her writing; however, my impression of her work hasn’t changed as a result of this discovery. My son, on the other hand, loves her work :-)]

Last night I watched ‘Testament of Youth’, the film interpretation of Vera Brittain’s memoir of the First World War. Immediately I wanted to read the book. I’ve downloaded it to my Kindle, it’s the next book on my reading list. I just know this is a book I’ll get lost in.

Most of my reading this week has been on a sunbed in Roda on the island of Corfu. We’re back home now, but we had a lovely holiday, just the total unwind I was needing after five years of academic work. It was my birthday on Tuesday this week. We took a boat trip to Albania—Greeks pronounce it alBanya—to celebrate my birthday.

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Albania–alBanya–from our hotel on Corfu

I love a boat trip in the Med, and it took about an hour to get from Corfu harbour to Sarande in alBanya. Sarande is growing as a tourist destination, lots of hotels built along its coastline; including a Holiday Inn. It’s like Greece, but with significant differences. The language is different for one thing, not Cyrillic, Latin or Germanic, it has its own language, its own writing system unique to Albania. We visited the archaeological site at Butrint, which was fascinating, revealing settlement dating back to 800 B.C., later development having a strong Roman influence. There are links to the Trojan wars, with the legend that Butrint is the town where Priam’s son chose to rebuild Troy after its destruction by the beseiging Greek forces. Built on a drained flood plane, it is often underwater, and the amphitheatre stage was raised as decking, the original stage being underneath and still under water. Unfortunately a woman standing next to me fell through a rotting timber on the decking; only one leg went through and I don’t think she was badly hurt, but I expect her leg will be well bruised by now. I felt very vulnerable on that decking after that, and I was glad when we moved on. alBanya is an embryonic tourist destination, outside the EU and its health and safety regulation. Similarly there were lots of steps to negotiate, and handrails were at best inadequate; it’s hardly an accessible site.

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The ancient coastal town of Butrint, Albania

We had a buffet lunch in an alBanyan tavern and visited a castle on the highest point of that part of the island in the afternoon. I bought two fridge magnets from a gift shop, neither of which sticks well to the fridge. They are unbalanced and need to prop on other magnets to stay upright and in place. But it was an interesting day and made for a different birthday celebration. We got back to our hotel at about 21.15, showered and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. Bill ordered a bottle of champagne in honour of my birthday: it cost as much as a one-night stay in a five star hotel! I always love my birthday, and this was a particularly memorable one.

On Sunday we sat in the hotel bar and watched England win the cricket world cup. Wow! What a match that was. I guess cricket matches don’t come closer than that. I’ve never seen a match conclude with a super-over finish, the cricket equivalent of a penalty shoot- out and England emerged as victors. When it had looked as if England were going to lose the match, needing 26 runs from the last two overs, the Sky Sports camera followed Bairstow’s restlessness at the wicket and I thought of Hector at the walls of Troy, how he would have looked like Bairstow, determined in the face of impending defeat. Unfortunatley for Hector, it all ended better for Bairstow: match drawn and a super-over in which he helped England to victory. I drafted a poem about Hector and Bairstow, but I won’t bore you with it: it’s certainly not ready for an adoring public yet. I love cricket, particularly the one-day form of the game and twice we’ve been to Australia to follow the one-day series. So I’ll leave you instead with a poem I wrote at a one-day match in Australia in 2007. This poem was shortlisted in the Ilkley competition a few years back. It describes the very last international ball bowled by the astounding Australian fast bowler, Glenn McGrath at his home ground, Sydney Cricket Ground. It was wonderful to be there to witness it.

Stumps
McGrath’s Last Ball for Australia
Sydney Cricket Ground 02.02.07

In these dying moments of the match
as you bend to a setsquare buffing the ball,
does your brain replay your international career:

the thousand or so leg befores,
catches behind, in the slips, in the deep,
all those middle pegs somersaulting to Gilchrist,
the dogged run chases wagging the tail?

Or do sixty thousand feet tracing your paces
on grandstand floors, hands drumming your beat
on chair-backs, voices rising in a tsunami of sound,
flush all thought before it?

A deafening noise, a roar of Thor
covers the ground, darkens the sky, places
a thunderbolt in your hand, lightning in your stride so,
as if in glorious slo-mo, you run up, plant your feet,
deliver the ball—it is, after all, just a ball.
It bounces short of a length.

Nixon thinks he’ll steal your thunder,
lofts it high over extra cover
where it seems to hover.
English voices join the noise

but on the boundary, buoyed by the tide,
Hodge stretches, hand open
and Nixon c Hodge b McGrath.

 

Rachel Davies
2007

Thunder, Lightning and Edna O’Brien

I’m on the beautiful island of Corfu, getting some post-submission, pre-viva downtime. I’m drinking too much, eating too much, reading just the right amount. I’m reading nothing academic at all.

When I got here I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s amazing dystopian novel about men, women, roles, reproduction. I read it years ago and decided on a re-read after the recent television series. I must say, the television was quite faithful to the plot, even if the characters didn’t always translate from page to screen. The television, however, has pre-empted how the story might continue with the pregnancy, unattended birth and attempt at escape. These things are hinted at only as possibilities in the book’s epilogue, an imagined archaeological conference in the twenty-second century. I can’t wait for the much-publicised sequel, The Testaments,in September.  What is most frightening is how foreboding the tale is; I read of a black woman in America, charged with manslaughter after her unborn baby died, when she was shot in the stomach: the shooter wasn’t charged. The mother of the unborn baby should have taken more care with her pregnancy and not got into a fight, putting the baby in danger. The charge has since been dropped, but this is modern America sinisterly reflecting Gilead. I’ve delayed watching the third series; I’m going to the Lowry Theatre in Manchester in September to see her ‘In Conversation’. Perhaps I’ll watch Series 3 on Netflix, but only after I’ve read Atwood’s sequel.

On the Sunday evening I came away, I watched an interview on BBC television, Alan Yentob interviewing the Irish novelist, Edna O’Brien: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0006pjjO’Brien is nearly 90 now, and it was a fascinating interview with a feisty, feminist writer. I had heard of O’Brien, of course I had; but it occurred to me I’d never read her, not one of her many books. I downloaded her Country Girls Trilogy onto my Kindle to bring away to read. I finished reading it yesterday. O’Brien is writing from a time only a few years before my own teenage, and I can so relate to it.  I came from a rural community too, not Irish, not Catholic, but sharing some of the tight-laced traditions and restraints she describes. It is a sad book. It is a funny book. It is a book grown from the sexual revolution of the sixties. When Country Girls, the first book of the trilogy, was first published—O’Brien claims it took her all of three weeks to write—it was banned in Ireland and publicly burned by the priest of the parish where O’Brien lived as a child and a young woman. Its crime? It dared to claim a space for female desire within the Catholic-dominated patriarchy that was (is?) Ireland. From the interview it was clear that it is based in autobiography, although like the best books, it contains elements of O’Brien’s imaginative story-telling too. She said the two principal characters, Caithleen and Baba, are two aspects of her own self. The first two books in the trilogy are painfully Oedipal, written from the point of view of Caithleen, a young woman seeking connection with a father-figure who is not, like her own father, an habitual drunk. Almost inevitably, she falls into an abusive marriage with a controlling older man. It can’t end well, and it doesn’t. The third book is written from the point of view of Baba, a feisty woman who knows what she wants from life, and knows how to get it. The two characters are so different, and O’Brien draws them both, fully and perfectly. Their narrative styles are so descriptive of their characters. It is beautifully written. The epilogue is the saddest thing I’ve read in years, possibly because I can see some of myself in both characters. I feel as if O’Brien is writing the story of my own navigation in the adult world of marriage, childbirth, relationships, aspiration. I can’t wait to read others of her books now. So thank you, Alan Yentob for bringing her writing to my attention.

On Friday evening we went into Corfu town by boat from Kassiopi. We had a lovely evening sitting in the town square amid the Venetian-style buildings watching the world go by. There was a procession of men, women, children in Greek national costume, which was colourful and interesting. We didn’t find out what they were processing about, and I’ve since googled and found nothing. But it was good to be there when it was happening, a little serendipity. On Tuesday it’s my birthday. I won’t say how old I am, but I will say a girl can’t have too many birthdays. On Tuesday we’re going on another boat trip, to Albania, which we can see clearly, heat haze permitting, from our hotel. I’m looking forward to that, something completely different. I’ll tell all next week.

 

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Albania in the mist, from our hotel in Roda

On Wednesday night we had a spectacular thunder storm; one of those storms in the Med that you just have to watch. There was fork and sheet lightning illuminating  up the night sky, huge winds, biblical rain, booming thunder, intermittent power outages. It lasted about forty-five minutes and is the best entertainment we’ve had since we got here; although of course, it is also significant of climate change and worrying on that count. But it was a complete force of nature. We learned at breakfast that six people died in the storm, but that was either in the south of the island or on the mainland: not speaking Greek, we couldn’t quite make out. We saw on the television cars floating along flooded roads, the devastation caused by extreme weather. But it was spectacular to watch. The sequel last night was, as often happens with sequels, a bit of a let down. Still sheet and fork lightning, still heavy rain, but the wind was less ferocious and the power didn’t fail. One huge clap of thunder was impressive though; we were at a Greek night in the hotel and the Greek dancers were performing. At that huge boom of thunder, the audience jumped as one orgamism; but the dancers carried on dancing as if they hadn’t heard a thing, consummate professionals all. I’ve often watched spectacular thunderstorms in this region; but the most frightening natural event was on Zakinthos, just a bit further south in the Ionian sea, about five years ago. There was an earthquake measuring 5.2 on the scale. Furniture moved, coffee spilled from cups, the swimming pool had waves. But it was the noise that I remember most; I was so impressed by the noise I wrote a poem about it. Here is that poem, my tribute to the force of nature that is the Ionian region of Greece.

 

Koukounaria Quake

mobile phone footage of lanterns swinging,
floors like tablecloths being shaken of crumbs,
windows spitting out their glass,
cars like Dinky toys tossed by a petulant child,
fissures in roads that swallow juggernauts whole:
this is my television-fed knowledge of earthquake.

But a mobile phone can’t record the noise,
as if the earth were turning in her sleep,
dropping her bedtime read to the floor, breaking
wind. She grinds her teeth and the hotel shifts
and the wardrobe slides across the bedroom
and ripples ride on coffee mugs and coffee
slops onto tables and tables walk the floor
and the swimming pool gets the surf up
and tourists, not used to this, make to leave
the safety of a structure built to withstand it.

Eleni checks on her pregnant daughter, the earth
settles to sleep again and all three carry on
as if something extraordinary didn’t just happen.

Rachel Davies
2014

Putting poetry on the map

I have absolutely nothing to write about this week. I spent five years pursuing a PhD, determined it wouldn’t affect my poetry life. I submitted the work in May, including a collection of 100 poems, small proof that it actually enhanced my life in poetry. But this week I have nothing poetic to write about: unless you count that I’ve updated my desk calendar with a whole lot of upcoming writing/submitting deadlines, some of which I might even meet. Why this dearth? Because my week has been taken up with planning a holiday. I’m planning to take a notebook, my MacBook; I’m planning to fulfil some of those deadlines from some bummy sunbed in Corfu. Watch this space.

But for this week, nothing to report. Nada. So I’m going to tell you about a poetry project, Places of Poetry, which is aiming to fill the map of the England and Wales with poems.  https://www.placesofpoetry.org.uk

It’s the brainchild of poet Paul Farley and academic Andrew McRae and it’s based in the Universities of Exeter and Lancaster. You can find out all about the project on the Poetry Society website:

https://poetrysociety.org.uk/projects/the-places-of-poetry/

There are a variety of poetry residencies with activities and events planned throughout the country. A poet friend, Jo Bell, has a residency at the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenavon later in the summer. She placed this Write Out Loud blog post on her FaceBook page, about the Places of Poetry project. I thought I’d share it:

https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=92259&fbclid=IwAR2RE8Y14LC2w6QFXAjDRNyUxZzl2vcnf4CqPTuhBjvS-b1SSMW_Yd0j5Oc

The project is open to any poet, amateur or professional, who wishes to pin a poem to the map. It’s a great project. I was one of the eager early poem-pinners when I first heard of the project from my Poetry Society newsletter earlier this year. I posted an ‘alternative mother’ poem about the fens, where I grew up. I re-visited the map before I started to write this and it’s filling up with regional poems of all kinds, a fantastic resource. I found one from the new poet Laureate, Simon Armitage; I found a couple from fellow Stanza reps; I found poems from Rod Whitworth and Linda Goulden, members of my own stanza. I found poems from several poetry friends. I visited Wales and Anglesey and found poems in Welsh, poems in Welsh with English translation. Take a look for yourself. Visit your favourite haunts in a poetry binge. It really is a celebration. There are still huge swathes of the map available, so you might even want to pin a poem to the map yourself.

So, it’s a short blog spot this week. Enjoy exploring the map. Right now, I’m off to fling some things in a suitcase. I’ll see you on the other side. Here’s the poem I pinned to the map in Cambridgeshire:

 

Alternative Mother #5
The Fens

 If landscape has mountains, forests,
a river forcing its course to the sea
she is no landscape.

If her horizon is fourteen miles away
your eyes will see for fourteen miles
across her sea-drained bed.

If goddesses reach down to touch her soil
there is nothing between their fingers
and her fecundity.

Her sky though, look at her sky,
high and wide as heaven!
She celebrates all the literature of skies,
their cumulonimbus poetry,
their war and peace.

Rachel Davies
2018

Didsbury, deafness and a date

I’ve got a date! September 6th, my viva date. So, at last the uncertainty is over. Now I can enjoy the summer without that particular Sword of Damocles. We usually go away early September, so I’ve had to change the habits of a retirement lifetime—as an ex-teacher, I like holidays with no children—and think holidays imminently. On Tuesday we booked a ten-night stay on Corfu. I intend to eat meze, drink Mythos and the local wines and read stuff that doesn’t require my brain. This will be the first holiday for the longest time that I haven’t taken my academic work away with me. Bliss. It was only after I’d booked the holiday I realised how impetuous that was: I hadn’t made provision for my lovely cats, who are house-cats. I have a friend who comes to feed them, change the litter, spend social time with them—no really! Thankfully she could do that at short notice. Airport parking booked, insurance bought; yes, set to go.

This has been a good week for poetry. On Monday Hilary and I went to Didsbury to read for the Arts Festival. I called at the charity shop to buy the tunic I’d seen on the Saturday before, but the shop was closed. We could see the woman at the back of the shop cashing up the tills, but we couldn’t attract her attention. The tunic was still there, on a hanger close to the window. I couldn’t buy it! Our reading venue was the Expo Lounge, so we ate before we read. The DAF committee had organised microphones and speakers and we were good to go at 7.30. We had an appreciative audience, and some diners turned their chairs around to join in. We only had one open-mic reader, but he was good. His work was rhymed in an unforced way, entertaining. We both read sets on either side of the break and open-mic. We sold some books, and had lovely feedback from the audience, and from the hard-working staff, who continued to work around us. It was a lovely, rewarding evening.

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Hilary (left) and me, duetting her poem ‘A Tree In The Wood’
Didsbury, June 2019

Tuesday it was the Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. This month we read the work of Raymond Antrobus, mostly his Forward nominated collection, The Perseverence (Penned in the Margins; 2018). Antrobus has a presence on YouTube, so I took my iPad, so he came to our Stanza as well. We listened first to him talking about his poetry, his deafness, his refusal to be excluded by his hearing loss. We read and discussed his poetry, and the issue of being a crafter of language in a silent world. I was particularly fascinated by Antrobus’s poem ‘Deaf School by Ted Hughes’, in which he has completely redacted the Hughes poem, leaving only the title. Of course, I had to know what in the Hughes poem was so antagonistic; so I found it on the internet: http://www.raymondantrobus.com/essays/2018/9/7/deaf-school-by-ted-hughesThis link shows the redactions, allowing the original poem to be read; in The Perseverance all Hughes’ words, apart from the title, are completely blocked out in black. This is poetry in a real sense; a redressing. Other poems in the collection are tender recollections of his early relationship with his father, and reflections on deafness and attitudes to it. There are poems about the personal challenge of deafness and how he was determined, against all the negative attitude of his schooling, to overcome this and use language as his medium; which he does very well. To a far lesser degree, I can relate to this. When I was nine, I fell of a scooter—one of those you put one foot on and push yourself along with the other foot. I was being pushed along by a friend who let go the handlebars and I fell and hit my head on the road. I was knocked out. I was bleeding from my right ear. I went to hospital where x-rays revealed a fractured skull. I spent five days in hospital, having head-injury monitoring. It wasn’t until seven years later that I was diagnosed with only 40% hearing in that ear. The three little bones in the inner ear had been knocked out of sync in the impact with the road. I had gone through five years of grammar school with no-one noticing that my hearing was impaired. So Tuesday’s session on the work of Raymond Antrobus was interesting, fascinating, thoroughly enjoyable. Antrobus is coming to read for us at Poets&Players in the autumn: details to follow when dates etc. are finalised.

Also this week, I heard there’s to be another Beautiful Dragons anthology: Water, Dam It with poems about springs, wells, dams, all the ways human activity has used and abused the water supply on the planet. I’ve opted to write about the Whittlesey Washes, an area close to where I grew up. The Washes were formed when the fens were drained in the seventeenth century, and are still important defences against flooding in the area. The deadline for submissions for the anthology is August 31st, so I have plenty of time for research.

Amongst all this holiday prep and poetry, I’ve continued with the Big Spring Clean. My study is now organised and sorted. The cats are confused: some of their favourite hidey holes were in the study; they’re having to acclimatise. But it’s done now and I love it. It took longer than I imagined, and I still have to sort out my personal filing cabinet, but that can wait until I have a spare afternoon. Is there even such a thing as a spare afternoon? Anyway, the completion of the study represents the entire upper floor having been spring-cleaned and organised since the submission of the thesis. I’m really enjoying this: who knew housework could be so calming and so cathartic? It’s just the physical project I needed after four/five years of PhD. I took lots more bags of stuff—books, notebooks, stationery etc.—to the charity shop this week; and several bags of shredding, card, defunct electrical waste to the town tip. So satisfying!

 

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My lovely, organised study

On Friday Bill and I went to Didsbury: I was determined to have one last go at buying the tunic I’d seen in the charity shop. It was still there, on its hanger by the window. The shop was open: I bought it. Yes, I love it when plans come to fruition. We had lunch in the Expo Lounge and the waitress recognised ‘the poetry lady’ from the reading on Monday evening. Small things…

Here’s a poem. It tells the story of my falling off the scooter and losing the hearing in my right ear. Ann Cowling, bless her: she’s still eleven in my mind! I wrote this poem in one of Carola Luther’s workshops in St Ives in April. The task was to take an image, in this poem the python, build and rebuild the image throughout the poem. I think I may have posted it soon after I came home; but here it is again. It seems apposite after reading Raymond Antrobus on Tuesday. Enjoy.

Python

 The road snakes away, a python
slithering from the village to Brownlow’s corner.
Red, or rust really, its skin
leaks molten tar on hot days.

The hedgerows are wild, untamed—
also python, their skins shedding regularly
from brown through green, white with May,
the red spots of autumn’s bounty.

Fact: Ann Cowling can run. Her legs
are python too, long and strong.
On that day I was tuned out from sound
she pushed me on the scooter until
her feet ran away with her,
her hands let go the handlebars.

I know the feeling of a scooter’s wobble,
the panic just before the fall. I know
the weird sense of being at my own front door
unsure how I got there. I know the pain of a skull
being crushed by a giant constricting snake.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

Post-PhD, pre-viva angst therapy

Five weeks post-submission counted down. I keep checking my emails for news of the Viva, but nothing yet. It’s the worst kind of waiting game. I’ve been filling it with the big spring clean; and with poetry. There’s been lots of poetry this week.

I’ll start with the poetry, because it’s made the week wonderful. On Monday I drove Hilary and myself to Whitchurch for a poetry reading. Hilary’s grand-daughter, Megan, who is over from her home near Geneva for a few days, came with us, which was above and beyond the duties of a grand-daughter. Megan is planning to do a degree in photography and art when she leaves school in a couple of year’s time, and she brought her camera to Whitchurch to take some photos of the reading.

The main thing I learned on Monday was where Whitchurch actually is. A couple of weeks ago, when I was at the very summit of post-PhD brain fail, I posted on FaceBook that we were reading in Whitby! I knew we weren’t reading in the North East, it was just a naming mistake; we were reading in Cheshire. I learned on Monday that Whitchurch is actually through Cheshire and into Shropshire. Thank goodness for satnav! It took us about two hours to get there, thanks to some very dense traffic on the M56. Whitchurch is a lovely looking town, although we didn’t see much of it. We found the Black Bear, the venue for the reading, and went in for a very nice meal. The reading included an open mic session for members of the host group, so it was a varied evening. We read from Some Mothers…, Ian, the host for the evening, read a couple of Tonia Bevins’ poems from the book; we also read other, more recent poems. We had lovely feedback and sold some books. My voice just about held out despite the resurgence of the summer head-cold that was sinking to my chest. It was a lovely night.

On Thursday we ran a writing workshop for Langley Writers in Rochdale. They were an enthusiastic group of amateur writers, although some had had work published. Our poetry writing workshop was entitled ‘My family and other curiosities’ and we’d found some cracking good prompt poems from wonderful poets: Sharon Olds’ ‘Going Back to 1937’; Michael Laskey’s ‘Permission to Breathe’; Kim Moore’s ‘My People’ were some personal favourites. The writers produced interesting work from the prompts: lots of personal involvement. We posed for a group photo afterwards and they want to invite us back, which is the best kind of feedback. And there were jaffa cakes to round off a good afternoon.

On Saturday afternoon we ran the workshop again in Didsbury, as part of Didsbury Arts Festival. We went to Didsbury on the tram from Derker to save looking for parking when we got there. Unfortunately we got off at the wrong tram stop and had a bit of a schlepp to find the library. We called at a lovely Italian restaurant, next door to the library, for a coffee before going into the library to set up for the workshop. It was the best weather-day of the week and we took our coffee al fresco. We went back to the same Italian restaurant for lunch after we’d set up; we had a kind of Italian meze of four dishes we shared. Ladybarn Primay School steel band was playing outside the library when we finished lunch, and oh my, they were good. The workshop was small but beautifully formed: we had an enthusiastic group who entered into the spirit of the thing very well. They were mostly more experienced writers than the group on Monday and they fed back some lovely work at in the sharing session at the end. One member was fairly new to writing: she showed real potential for becoming a good poet. We went for a brew after, at a café en route to the tram stop we should have used when we arrived. We called at the Expo Lounge to sus out the venue for the reading we have there on Monday evening coming: it transpires it’s one of the ‘Lounge’ chain of restaurants. We passed a couple of lovely but closed charity shops en route to the tramstop—there was a particular tunic in view that I’m interested in—so food and poetry, and charity shops, to do again on Monday.

In between all this poetry, I’ve continued the big spring clean. I’ve been clearing out my study, and more than anywhere else, this has been real post PhD catharsis. I’ve shredded all my old copies of the thesis, just have the finished, bound version and the computer files left now. It has to be said that the computer versions include every saved change I ever made up to approx. mk 3050! So the real catharsis will come when I feel able to delete those from the system; but not yet. Meanwhile I shredded the printed versions. I shredded pages from old notebooks, stored all my old and new notebooks together in one cupboard. I have more notebooks than WHSmith. I made a resolution not to buy any more until I have used all of these. It’s not a resolution I expect to keep. I organised my bookshelves too: all my poetry books are shelved in alphabetical order, author’s surname. I’ve separated my signed and unsigned copies. I have nearly two shelves of signed collections: I’ve met some wonderful poets in my time! I organised my PhD books in the same way. I know I can get rid now, and I will. One day. When I really can feel confident I don’t need them any more. Meanwhile they have their own bookcase, organised alphabetically, sorted, stored. I think I’ve done with study now the PhD is complete; I’ll know for sure I’m done with it when I can remove these books from my shelves. Meanwhile, they stay, presided over by the lovely soft toy Freud, bought at the Freud museum in London at the start of this PhD marathon.

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Sigmund Freud doll, from the Freud Museum, London

That’s it then; another week of post-PhD, pre-viva anxiety made bearable by poetry and the physical therapy of the big spring clean. It was my daughter Amie’s birthday this week. She’s impossible to buy for: a few years ago when I asked her if there was anything she wanted for her birthday she answered with the predictable ‘no’. She asked me to write a poem for her instead. So I wrote this poem. I’m pretty sure I’ve posted it in some form here before, but every year I tweak it slightly. It’s a poem inspired by the night I gave birth to her, my first child. It includes a reference to a woman in the post-natal ward, a woman I remember every year on Amie’s birthday. Forgive me for posting it again. I tend to bring it out every year on Amie’s birthday, which was a one of the truly momentous days in my life.

Just Because

…all my life I wanted to meet you and because you were
late by three weeks and the cocktail I drank while I waited,
nervous, for you to arrive slid down my throat like orange
frogspawn while I gagged over the stainless sink and

because when you did come you chose the secret hours
for our bonding and because you came with a name
so I felt as if I’d known you all my life and because
meeting you made me feel I had achieved something,

like the first woman ever to do it so that I was too high
to sleep after and because back in the ward in the
next bed was a woman more aware than me of the way
the sand runs quickly and because I noticed her empty
crib, grieved her empty womb, I just wanted to say…

Rachel Davies

Microbes, comets and a good clear-out

I’ve been spring-cleaning. I realise you probably don’t want to keep hearing all about it, but I saw this week how it is a progressive stage of the PhD. I’m suffering from ‘deadline guilt’! It’s a form of PTSD: Post-PhD Stress Disorder, although I have no proof it’s actually a thing. If it isn’t it should be. I have this residual feeling of guilt if I’m not at my desk by 9.00 a.m. working toward the PhD; then I remember the PhD is submitted and there are no deadlines to meet. So I’m spring-cleaning with a vengeance; spring-cleaning with my usual obsessive, fully committed vigour. I’m not just spring-cleaning the house: I’m spring-cleaning my brain, getting back to some form of normality post-PhD. I’m dusting the PhD cobwebs out of the corners, polishing the mental windows, throwing out the build-up of collected academic paraphernalia, clearing my mind. It’s working.

I visited the charity shop again this week, with bags of clothes and other clutter from the bedroom. Now I’m starting on my study, and that really is a clearing out of a past life. I came across stuff relating to a race relations/community cohesion project I led when I retired from headship in 2003. That’s almost sixteen years ago! It all went through the shredder; with the admin stuff from my very last OU course before I graduated in 2007. More black bags of contributions to the charity shops—and I haven’t even started on my bookshelves, or the cupboard where I keep all my sketching stuff. I’ve got plenty to keep me going while I wait to hear about the Viva.

I have done other stuff this week. My son Richard was fifty on Monday, so Amie and I went to Peterborough to help him celebrate. On Sunday I made him a yummy plum pie: it’s a bit of a joke in the family; but it was a real pie, made with love. We took him a handmade guitar, a book of newspaper headlines about his beloved Peterborough United; Amie took him a Bose speaker system and a vegan birthday cake. We went out for a meal, I drank too much wine. It was a lovely evening. A friend called when we went back to his house for birthday cake: she gave him a garden hammock. He said he loves being fifty because people keep giving him things.

On Tuesday, Hilary and I went to Sheffield to read at the Bath Hotel in the ‘Writers in the Bath’ series. Our poetry friend Linda Goulden was also reading from her new pamphlet, Speaking Parts (Half Moon Books, 2019). Hilary and I read from our joint pamphlet Some Mothers Do…as well as other, newer poems. I read from my thesis, which felt good, no paper flapping around to unsettle me! At the end of the evening the audience were invited to request we each repeat one of the poems we read. The audience requested I re-read ‘On Falling In Love With McNaught’, about which, more later. We sold some books, we bought some books. Cora Greenhill, who organises the ‘Writers in the Bath’ readings took us all out for a Turkish meal in Efes before the reading, so that was a pleasant and relaxing start to the evening. It was a lovely night altogether; although the weather was horrible, really lashing rain which made driving the dark Yorkshire country roads on the way home a bit hazardous.

Early in the week my body started to brew the headiest cold in the universe. Those bloody microbes that saw off H.G. Wells’ Martians have inhabited my body. So I’ve been dragging that around with me for most of the week. When I was a teacher/headteacher I always managed to get through the term-times without being ill and then got poleaxed by germs in the holidays; same format: finished the PhD, knocked over by microbes! But you can’t keep a good woman down so I’ve told it to do one, and carried on regardless. But oh my, those sneezing fits…I think I’m the first woman to catch manful: perhaps it’s mutating?

Enough: here’s a bit more about McNaught. In 2007 I was in Australia with Bill, following the one-day international cricket. As part of the holiday, we drove the great ocean road from Melbourne to Adelaide, stopping off at a couple of hotels en route. On the last night before Adelaide, we stopped at a small town called Robe, at a lovely guest house called ‘Ann’s Place’. Ann was a bit like a parody of Dame Edna, but a wonderful hostess. After the evening meal, her husband suggested we should go out into the garden to see McNaught’s comet, which was visible in the southern skies at the time. I didn’t know too much about McNaught’s comet, and expected to spot a large star or something. Anyway, we went out into the garden, sat on the garden wall looking out over the sea and we saw…nothing. We waited about fifteen minutes and gave up, decided to go back indoors. When we turned to go in, there it was, behind us all the time. Oh, my word, it was beautiful!

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McNaught’s Comet, Southern Australia 2007

The photo doesn’t do it justice. It had a glowing ball at the front and a long, long tail. It looked close enough to reach up and touch. It was like that wonderful depiction of a comet in the Bayeux Tapestry, or a like child’s drawing of a comet. It was perfect, and thoroughly gob-smacking. And when you factor in that it only appears every 40,000 years, how lucky were we to be there to see it? Think about it, the last time it appeared, the very first humans were beginning to inhabit Australia! I felt so privileged to see it. I started my creative writing MA at MMU in September of that year, and I wrote a long rambling poem about McNaught, about the chances of us bumping into each other in that remote place. Simon Arimitage, the new Poet Laureate, was one of my tutors at the time, and I took the poem to one of his workshops. He suggested I was trying to write a love poem, and advised me to think of it as such in the redraft. Well, I had a bit of a down on men after two failed marriages, and love poetry wasn’t a personal speciality, so I wrote a ‘not-a-love-poem’; a tongue in cheek poem about falling in love with McNaught without having to endure the break-up of the relationship. This is that poem. It appeared in Some Mothers Do… Our editor, Rebecca Bilkau, wanted a bit of light relief from all the mother stuff, and it doesn’t get much lighter than this tongue in cheek love affair!

 

On Falling In Love With McNaught

McNaught’s Comet, Southern Australia, 2007

You didn’t take me out or wine and dine me
at Don Gio’s, expect me to laugh at your jokes,
or touch my fingers across the table, or buy me
flowers like ordinary blokes.

We didn’t enjoy a first blistering kiss,
or share a universe-shifting fuck
that makes you wish it could be like this
for ever, knowing you never have that kind of luck.

We didn’t run barefoot on winter beaches
or play hide and seek among autumn trees
or picnic on chicken and soft summer peaches
or laugh at ourselves doing any of these.

We didn’t get married or live as a couple,
and share a life or a name or kids;
so your twice worn socks couldn’t burst my bubble,
or your morning farts or your pants with skids.

You never once, in post-coital passion
whispered a strange woman’s name in my ear
or came home drenched in your girlfriend’s Poison
or shielded your phone so I couldn’t hear.

You didn’t promise roses and bring me thistles
or when I soared try to tie me to land.
McNaught, you were never a man to commit to

but a brilliantly cosmic one night stand.

 

Rachel Davies
2007