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.

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.

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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                           

 

Poetry fills the void left by a submitted thesis

There’s a strange sort of limbo after you’ve submitted your thesis. I know the message will soon come that my Viva date needs setting, but it seems a long way away; and then I realise it’s nearly four weeks since I handed my work into MMU and I see how that ten-twelve week period between submission and assessment is disappearing fast. Just yesterday I picked up an e-receipt from MMU for the submitted work, and notification that it had been processed through Turnitin, the programme that checks for plagiarism. My beautiful thesis is living its own life out there in the big world, while I lose myself in the mundane world of the spring clean. And in poetry.

Spring cleaning is just the therapy I needed after four years of brain-work. This week I’ve finished cleaning the kitchen — nearly choked myself spraying the oven with Mr. Muscle oven cleaner — and started on the bedroom. On Wednesday we took a carload of crockery, glasses, cooking pots and utensils to the charity shop in Uppermill. And I mean a carload: the boot and back seat were full. Yesterday I pruned my wardrobe and filled black bags with clothes I don’t wear any more. That will all go to the charity shop this week. Charity shops are recycling of the best kind. I’ve made lots of brilliant buys at charity shops; my favourite purchase was from a charity shop in Ilkley, a brand new — still with the original labels attached — Seasalt waterproof coat. It would have cost £140 from Seasalt, I bought it for just under £40. So I take stuff to charity shops whenever I can. I’ll be reloading my car on Tuesday, the next time I need to go into Uppermill.

Thankfully, the hole left in my life by the submission of the thesis has made a space that poetry can help to fill. This week I’ve been doing some planning of workshops and readings that Hilary and I have coming up over the next couple of weeks. Here are some of the events, it would be good to see you there.

On Tuesday June 11thHilary Robinson, Linda Goulden and I are reading at Writers in the Bath —at the Bath Hotel in Sheffield, 7.30 p.m. Here’s a link to the Writers in the Bath Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/2690454774302429/This event includes an open-mic session, so why not come along and give it a go. On Saturday June 22ndHilary and I are running a poetry workshop for Didsbury Arts Festival…

https://www.didsburyartsfestival.org/what-s-on/76-my-family-and-other-curiosities

…and on Monday June 24thwe will be reading from our joint pamphlet, Some Mothers Do…, along with other poems, also at Didsbury:

https://www.didsburyartsfestival.org/what-s-on/5-rachel-davies-hilary-robinson-poetry-reading?date=2019-06-24-19-30

This event includes an open-mic session as well. We’re also running a workshop for Langley Writers at the Demesne Community Centre, Middleton on Thursday 20thJune, 2.15-4.15 p.m.

So the next couple of weeks are going to be busy and full of poetry, the best kind of weeks. There’s been a fair amount of poetry this week too. On Tuesday Hilary and I met up with Natalie Burdett at the Molino Lounge in Oldham to share and workshop some poems. On Tuesday morning I spent a couple of hours typing up some poems from our recent Line Break in Coniston so that I’d have something new to take. I took along four poems, we all did, and it was a good night: food, coffee and poetry. And friends. All my favourite things in one evening event!

Yesterday I gave time to submissions: it needs one day a week to be methodical about it. I submitted about a dozen poems to various journals/anthologies. I haven’t been very efficient at submitting while I was doing the PhD: time is a big issue, and most of my time was taken up with completing the PhD work. I still have this weird guilt when I find myself doing other stuff, as if I should be dedicating every second to PhD. That’s how it was. So now it’s good to have time to pay my poems the respect I think they deserve and try them out for publication. But why, I wonder, can’t submissions be standardised? Each small press has its own submission guidelines, and they all vary slightly. If the process was the same for all submissions it would be so much simpler for the writer. For instance, some want all poems in a single Word document, some want separate documents for each poem; some want Times New Roman specifically, others are happy with any plain font size 12; some specify three, or five poems max, some don’t specify. One even went on word count. Some require a short author biog, some not. It would be so much easier if all submissions followed the same guidelines, but you risk annoying the editors if you ignore the guidelines, as I know from doing admin for the Poets&Players competition every year. Finally, I heard this week that one of my poems, ‘Alternative Mother #6: Pope Joan’ was accepted for publication in the online journal, Riggwelter, for their October edition, so that’s a good start for the submissions I sent out from Coniston. Let’s hope this continues.

Enough. Here’s a poem. This is one I wrote following our morning visit to Leighton Moss bird reserve. When we arrived and showed our RSPB membership cards to get in, the woman in the shop advised us to look out for the aerial ballet of the marsh harriers, listen for the chiff chaff of the chiff chaff, the song of Cetti’s warbler. We sat on a bench and looked to the sky and listened for the warbling of rare birds. Nothing. But we did see lots of blackbirds, geese, black-capped gulls, and I had this thought that if birds were humans they’d have to put their name down on a waiting list for a pitch at Leighton Moss, whereas the birds just turn up and move in, no waiting list, no profit involved. So I had this idea for a poem. There was a notice by the bench that told us a bit more about the aerial ballet of the marsh harriers, how the male feeds the female in mid-air while she is tasked with incubating the eggs. This sounds like a real act of devotion to the mother of his chicks; but the notice said the male might well be feeding more than one female, a raptor love-cheat. We moved from the bench to one of the hides and watched water birds on the lake, including some very proud-looking greylag geese. When we got back to Coniston I drafted this poem over a pint of Old Peculiar in the spring sunshine.

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a greylag goose flying low over the water

The Greylag Geese move up the waiting list for a home at Leighton Moss

We did everything they asked—arrived
early, tired but determined before
the best plots were taken. They asked
what can you bring to conservation?
Eggs, lots of them. We come from a long heritage
of layers. We promised whatever it takes:
gaudy socks, fluffball chicks,
a low flying display over the water, like Lancasters
searching for dams. Are you affable, they asked.
As affable as the next goose, if we’re not dissed.

They gave us a pitch on this pontoon
in the Lake by the hide. It was fine
until the ASBO neighbours moved in:
cormorants brooding like old monks,
bitterns firing their canon at dawn.
And don’t get me started on the grebes.
The grebes can keep it up all night, dancing,
partying, shagging, building nests.

I thought at least the marsh harriers
showed some class with their aerial ballet —
but word on the lake is he’s got a bit on the side.

I’ve requested a nest swap to Burnham Marshes.

 

Rachel Davies
May 2019

The Release From House Arrest

This week I learned what it is to have submitted your PhD thesis and be free to do other stuff. Mostly it feels good, like being released from house arrest, even though my brain is suffering from some sort of post-PhD mush: I can’t string a sentence together at the moment—for instance, I told a friend I’d had a side saddle with my pasta for tea! It’s nice, though, not to have to turn a blind eye to mundane stuff because you have to draft/redraft/edit the same section you drafted/redrafted/edited last month and the month before that. So I’ve been doing some of that mundane stuff this week. And poetry; I’ve been doing poetry.

I’ve started on the big spring-clean I promised myself when the thesis was handed in. I’ve made a start on clearing out kitchen cupboards. Bill and I came together late in life, so we joined two well-established lives—and all the flotsam of those lives. This week I decided if it hasn’t been used for a couple of years we probably don’t need it, so I’ve decimated the kitchen equipment. I threw out a couple of chipped pasta dishes, but mostly I put aside dishes, plates, glasses, weird gadgets and quirky tools to take to a local charity shop. I have so much to take they’ll probably have to build an annexe; or donate the excess to another charity shop? My dining table is covered, but I think I’ve reached the end; just have to get it all there somehow now. For days the house smelled of ground cloves because I chucked out-of-date herbs and spices: I emptied jars into the bin so I could recycle the bottles and the scent permeated the house. I’m nearly done, just a couple of cupboards left to organise, I’ll be attacking them later today.

On Tuesday I had to go for an ultrasound scan of my thyroid gland. Doc thinks I have an underactive thyroid, probably aggravated by the steroids I have to take for Polymyalgia Rheumatica, this nasty autoimmune disease. I don’t have any hypothyroid symptoms; at least the symptoms are probably similar to PMR and the effects of Prednisolone use, so I’d hardly notice. I’ve a mental picture of my underactive thyroid reclining on a sofa with a bucket of popcorn and a beer, bingeing on Netflix box-sets: that’s what I do when I’m being underactive! And that must be what the scan showed because I got a letter on Thursday asking me to make ‘a non-urgent’ appointment to see the doctor re the results of my recent scan. So that probably means another pill to swallow.

On Tuesday evening it was the East Manchester and Tameside Stanza at Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. This month we wrote to prompts that members brought along to the meeting. There were two apologies due to illness, and one from a member who’s cycling the Dordoigne; so four of us met this time: we’re a Stanza on the endangered list but we keep on struggling to survive. It was a good session, despite our reduced numbers. We all contributed a prompt; we redacted passages of prose to find poems hidden inside; we edited long published poems to find our own shorter poem; we wrote from one-line starters; we wrote from the prompt to join a concrete object with an abstract: ‘the boot of disgust’, ‘the cloak of shame’ etc. There was nothing heavy about it, and we all found some new poems. Linda Goulden brought her newly published pamphlet, Speaking Parts,which is gorgeous and will be released this week. Hilary and I will be reading with Linda at ‘Writers in the Bath’ in Sheffield on June 11th; there’s an open-mic as well, so come along if you live nearby. Here is info from their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/2690454774302429/

Wednesday, more kitchen cupboards; and I went to the Black Ladd to edit the menus for my daughter, Amie. Thursday, more cupboards and Tesco shopping; Friday more cupboards and into Manchester for lunch; and out with my friend Joan in the evening. It’s Joan’s birthday next week so we had a celebratory meal in the Istanbul Grill in Prestwich. Saturday more cupboards and European Champions League final. Ordinary stuff, stuff I’m doing because I want to, not because there are deadlines. Boring stuff, happy stuff, fun stuff. I could get used to this post-PhD ordinary life!

So, a poem. Friday was the birthday of a woman I knew when I was a child, a friend of my mother’s. I guess there are times we all think we’re born into the wrong family and I used to wish Meg was my mum. She lived in a little cottage in the woods, no mod cons: her toilet was a little hut up the garden path, she decorated it with photos of exotic places she’d have liked to visit. She had no mains water, just spring water on tap; no washing machine  or television; she raised four children in that little cottage, and she welcomed her children’s friends like members of her own family. She was a lovely, fun-loving woman with a dark secret: she wasn’t as happy as she let us all believe. I wrote this ‘alternative mother’ poem inspired by Meg; it was first published in the anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying(ed Isabelle Kenyon, 2018), an anthology to raise funds for the mental health charity ‘Mind’. The anthology is available to buy on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Please-Hear-What-Not-Saying/dp/1984006649

The poem is a modern sonnet, a turn at line 9. It’s written in syllabics: ten syllables to a line, until that’s disrupted in the last line, the place where Meg’s life is disrupted.
Sixty years on, I still remember Meg every year on her birthday.

 

Alternative Mother #16
Meg

Teach me to build a den down by the beck,
how to pond-dip water snails, sticklebacks;
teach me to pick kindling sticks to build
a campfire, how to mount a stone surround
to keep  me safe;  teach me how to light it,
let  it  burn to  embers  before baking sour-
dough bread on willow sticks; teach me how
to live without the essentials: running water,
flushing toilet. You. Teach me how to forgive
a lover who doesn’t deserve me, how
to raise a family alone. But don’t teach me

how some days feel so dark you won’t ever
see daylight again; and please don’t teach me
how a bridge over the M1 is the only way out.

Rachel Davies
2018

 

Poetry and metapoetry

On Sunday we got down to work at about 11.00, later than we intended, but we had a leisurely breakfast: we were on holiday. We did a writing exercise to kick us off: I wrote a poem about being torn in half through the spine, which was rubbish and I won’t dwell on it. I could feel that post deadline writer’s block; I’d almost hurdled it by the end of the week, but on Sunday my writing muscle was withered. Passing on, we had the rest of the morning to plan the writing workshop, ‘My Family and Other Curiosities’, that we’re running on Saturday June 22nd for Didsbury Arts Festival: https://www.didsburyartsfestival.org/what-s-on/76-my-family-and-other-curiositiesI think there are still places available if you fancy coming along. We spent a couple of hours reading and choosing suitable poems to use as writing prompts, and deciding how we’re going to use them. We have a plan. Our Tesco online shopping order arrived at lunchtime: enough food to feed a family of five for a week. We put it away and carried on working for an hour. We stopped for lunch about 1.30 then went into Coniston to explore the locality. We got as far as the pub, had an al fresco pint. The sun was warm; when it went behind the clouds the air cooled considerably. We walked around the village, came to a café and had a coffee then back to the cottage to cook a vegetarian roast dinner. The meal took us all evening to eat and we talked over wine until late. We’d booked a cottage without a dishwasher, so by the time we washed the dishes it was bedtime.

Monday followed a similar format: breakfast then work. We were at our books by 10.00. We took some old writing notebooks/journals away with us to try to develop some of the forgotten pieces buried in them. On Monday we went back through some of them and revisited old attempts. I found my notebook from my last visit to Australia in 2011. I rewrote some of the poems from then; interesting exercise. I found one about the fruit bats in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens; one about the Queensland cricket ground at Woolloongabba—the ‘Gabba’—in Brisbane. It was good to revisit the poems: almost like revisiting the places. I came across a couple of notes I need to google to find out more information; they might make new poems too. After an hour or so, we did some more planning. Earlier this year we met up with Lydgate Stitchers, an Oldham-based embroidery/textiles group. They are currently sewing a huge mural of the development of Lydgate, an area of Oldham on the edge of Saddleworth. We met to see how we could put words into the mix; we’re planning a poetic response to their artwork. We spent time on Monday planning the project. It has to be said, we didn’t get far; we need another meeting with the stitchers, I think. But I’ve committed to writing some short forms—haiku, cinquaine, nonettes etc—about the on-going mural in the meantime. After lunch we walked to the Lake to see if there was a boat trip. We had time for a coffee before the final Launch—a sort of waterbus—of the day at 3.55 p.m. Everyone else on board (there were only a couple of couples) seemed to be going somewhere, a destination: getting off at Brantwood House, for instance. We just wanted to do the round trip. Our start and destination was the Coniston jetty. We took our notebooks to make notes for poems. I love a boat trip, and the weather was glorious, the Lake still as a millpond. We learned a lot about Donald Campbell’s Bluebird.  Hilary’s turn to cook tea on Monday: she’d taken her Raclette grill and we had grilled vegetables with melted Raclette cheese: delicious; and a very sociable way of eating.

Tuesday, and we went out for the day. I drove us to Little Salkeld near Penrith to see Long Meg and Her Daughters, a bronze age stone circle. We’d both written poems about Long Meg in a Jennifer Copley workshop about six years ago. Hilary had seen the circle years ago, I’d never been there. We wanted to read our poems to Meg. The legend is that Meg had gone to the meadow on May Day morning with her daughters to wash their faces in the dew and forsee their future husbands. A predatory village elder had seen the women dancing and had raped them: it must have been a monolithic task—pardon the pun—because there are about fifty of them! Anyway, he slandered them as witches to save his own reputation; the villagers hounded them and they were literally petrified where they stand to this day. We read our poems to Meg and, as Hilary said, she was speechless.  It has to be said, if I was writing that poem again after my visit it would be a different poem: you can’t beat a bit of first-hand experience, as I always advocated as a primary school teacher. We went from the stone circle to the Little Salkeld Mill, a working flour mill, for lunch. When we got back to Coniston we went for a pint in the sunshine; I wanted to look for a bowl big enough to cook a portion of porridge: the cereal bowls in the cottage were too small. I found one, and a Beatrix Potter ‘Percy Pig’ felt toy. This is the Year of the Pig in Chinese astrology; and I’m a pig.

Reading my poem to Long Meg

On Wednesday I drove us into Arnside after breakfast. We visited the dress agency there, ‘She Sells’. I bought a tunic. We had coffee and crumpets in the café next door, then drove on to Leighton Moss RSPB bird reserve. We’d read at the launch of a Beautiful Dragons anthology, Watch the Birdie, in November last year. The anthology drew attention to the many birds in the UK that have become endangered species: everyday garden birds like the sparrow and the thrush among them. The proceeds from the sale of the anthology were donated to the RSPB for conservation work. I wanted to hand over the money I had in my purse from copies of the book I’d sold. We walked round the reserve, what we call ‘extreme benching’: we stopped at any benches we passed and wrote notes for poems. Leighton Moss must be a highly desirable residence for birds, and I wondered if they have to put their names down, go on a waiting list like humans for social housing. We spent half an hour in one of the reserve’s hides watching the beautiful mating dance of a pair of crested grebes and the low flight of the greylag geese over the water. It’s a lovely, peaceful and uplifting place.

On Thursday we got down to more table-top work. We intended to do another Napowrimo prompt. We checked out the recording of a poem online, read the Sharon Olds poem, ‘The Connoisseuse of Slugs’; but we couldn’t get inspired to write anything. So we settled on a piece of automatic writing, taking a line from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song to J. Alfred Prufrock’ as our launch phrase. We wrote for five minutes. Still uninspired to come up with a poem, we reverted to another Jennifer Copley activity. After we’d written a poem in one of her workshops, she ordered us to get rid of 50% of the words. We did that with our automatic writing, reducing the word count from about 100 words to about 50. Interesting exercise if you’re ever stuck with an idea, because we ended up with something that began to look like a poem. We had the audacity to do it to the Sharon Olds poem too. Not many people can say they edited (I won’t say bettered) a poem of Sharon Olds! We tried the exercise on some poems in our old notebooks too: trust me, it really is a worthwhile exercise.

We walked to the Lake again after work, Hilary wanted to buy a couple of salt lamps for a friend at the retail park en route. We had a coffee in the sunshine, went back to the cottage for lunch. Here’s where I tell you about our open-mic at Troutbeck. At 3.15 we left the cottage to drive to Ambleside for a look around the shops, drive on to Troutbeck for a pub meal before the open-mic at 9.00 p.m. That was the plan; but the best laid plans…it took us two and a half hours to drive two miles out of Coniston. The roads were gridlocked due to an accident—serious enough to need an air ambulance—somewhere earlier in the day, that road being closed and all traffic diverted onto other roads. We got less than half way to Ambleside before we decided to turn the car round and go home. I did a perfect 23 point turn on the narrow road and we walked up the hill from our cottage to the Sun pub, had a pint in the beer garden. We never did make it to the Troutbeck reading; but then, I don’t suppose many people did if they needed a car to get there. We ate left-overs for supper and had a very different evening from the one we planned.

Friday we dedicated to redesigning our submissions systems. We looked online for an A2 desk calendar pad to write deadlines in; I found one on Amazon, ordered a copy. I know I’ve wasted the first five months; I checked academic year versions, but the only one I found had its price doubled by postage from USA, so I reckon wasting five months was first favourite. We then took time to rethink our spreadsheets. I love a spreadsheet when you first set it up; but it becomes so ungainly when you add to it. You end up with huge amounts you can’t see any more. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a spreadsheet expert: I’m a self-taught user. I decided I’d stick with a form I can see the whole of; so I’m concentrating for now on 24 of my best poems. I submitted a selection to various journals before we stopped work for lunch. I’ll just work on submitting those for now, see how it goes, resubmit them somewhere else when they’re rejected. If they’re accepted, I’ll substitute them for new poems. That’s the plan anyway. On Friday afternoon we made it to Ambleside to look around the shops, I saw lots I would have liked to buy, but I kept my purse strings tight. We came home to packing our suitcases for leaving on Saturday morning; had a chippie tea.

On Saturday we finished packing, had a brew, packed the car and left the cottage. We drove home via Low Sizergh Barn where we had breakfast. Hilary bought me a lovely hairy sloth, because I wouldn’t take any money for petrol. My ‘alternative mother’ poem about the three-toed sloth is one of my favourites, so I’ll be taking my Sloth Mummy to readings with me in future. We left the Barn and drove home, the end of a wonderful week of poetry and meta-poetry; and beer, wine and food and general good stuff.

Hilary (R), me (L) and Sloth Mummy (C) (photo courtesy of Ben Robinson).

If If

I’m going to leave you with my Long Meg poem this week. I revisited it, redrafted it last year for the portfolio. Legend has it, you can’t count them: you arrive at a different total each time you try. All I can say is, my poem reflects the legend and Meg liked it. At least, she didn’t say she didn’t like it, so that’ll do me.

Long Meg and her Daughters

On that magical day heralding summer
Meg brought her enchantment of girls
to wash their faces in the dew
as dawn rose behind their virgin skirts.

One hypocritical elder
slanders the euphoria of women
and he’s lauded as saint, sees the dancers
hounded as witches by the villagers.

The snake venom in the standing prick
of that horny zealot paralysed their dance.
Petrified, yet they still seem to move in the ring.
Count them if you can. I dare you.

Rachel Davies

2018

The final hand-over

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I handed this beauty in to MMU for assessment this week. On Tuesday, first thing, I submitted a digital version of the thesis and signed the RDDEC form to say it was all my own work etc. Then I went into Manchester and took the long walk to the bookbinders on Higher Cambridge Street. It was hot and I was tired. I called into MMU on my way back to hand it over. I had an attack of the usual angst I feel when I’ve had to fill in an official form: for some reason official forms always make me feel like a liar. RDDEC had several tick boxes, including that no part of the thesis had previously been published; or if it had, that the published part should be included in a pocket in the thesis. I took this to mean publication in academic journals, so I ticked ‘no’. But as I was travelling into Manchester on the tram I realised that several of the poems had been published, and an article had appeared in The North that was inspired by the thesis, although was not directly part of it. So the old proforma angst pecked my head again: had I lied on the form? Should I dob myself in? I couldn’t edit the form now I’d signed it off. So I spoke to the wonderful Deborah, who deals with all the queries about Post Graduate Research degrees. I’d included all my publication history in an acknowledgements page; would my reply on the form be an issue? She assured me it would be fine and not to worry. Not to worry? I always worry about official forms. I suffer from proformaphobia. After our phone conversation, I met her in the foyer of the Righton Building and handed over two copies of the thesis. It was lovely to meet her in the real world, we’ve met in the virtual world of email so many times over the last four years. She promised to look after my baby and make sure it gets to the official rendezvous with assessors. I’ll hear from my DoS about a date for the viva in about eight to ten weeks.

 I left the MMU campus and walked into Manchester. I needed to go to the Pen Shop for cartridges for my fountain pen. When I got there, the shop was closed with notices in the window about letting queries. I am bereft! This was one of my favourite shops, a real old-style store with the most beautiful pens available. I treated myself to a Mont Blanc fountain pen when I was awarded a distinction in my Creative Writing MA: a treat to myself. I know, most people would have treated themselves to a holiday, or a day in a health spa, or a bottle of champagne. I just love stationery. My son had given me a Mont Blanc ball point for Christmas some years ago, and I promised myself when I started the MA that if I managed a distinction, I would buy myself the fountain pen to go with it. I did, and I did. My partner bought me the mechanical pencil to match, and a leather pouch to put them all in for my birthday, which was about the same time. So I used to love to go into the Pen Shop to buy my cartridges and drool over all the beautiful, and reassuringly expensive, pens they had for sale. And now it’s gone. There’s still one in the Trafford Centre as far as I know, but the one in town is closed. It’s a sad day for pen lovers. The next day I ordered eight packs of cartridges from www.penshop.co.uk  and they arrived the next day. Delivery was free. How’s that for brilliant service? Anyway, I walked from the Pen Shop to Exchange Square where I had lunch al fresco at Wahaca. I sat in the warm sunshine with a glass of wine and a quesadilla, celebrating the official hand-over of my work for assessment.

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Me, reading at the Square Chapel, Halifax on Monday this week.
(photo courtesy of Hilary Robinson)

Poetry has been big in my life this week. On Monday evening Hilary and I went to Halifax to read at Square Chapel poets, hosted by the irrepressible Keith Hutson. Strange discovery: people in Halifax don’t eat on a Monday. Or at least that’s how it seemed: every restaurant we passed was closed on Mondays; until we found a lovely little Italian restaurant, Julio’s, down a side road. We had a lovely meal and a glass of Pinot Grigio before our reading. Ian Walker, another MMU creative writing MA graduate, was also reading. It was a lovely evening. I treated the audience to some of my ‘alternative mothers’. Of course, Hilary and I both read from Tonia Bevin’s poems in Some Mothers Do…as well as reading some of our own. It was a small audience, but an appreciative one. We sold a copy of our book.

‘Life’ has been large this week, with the thesis gone. On Wednesday we went to Stamford, Lincolnshire to visit my sister. Stamford is the town they often film period dramas in for the television. It is a Georgian-style stone-built town, you’ve probably seen it in televisual adaptations of Jane Austen novels. Anyway, it was Jane’s birthday last week, so we met for lunch to wish her a belated happy birthday. I was tied up with prepping the thesis for submission around her actual birthday. We had a lovely day and a lovely lunch. On the way home I picked up a nail in my rear driver’s side tyre. I didn’t realise until I wanted to go out the next day and the tyre was pancake flat. I drove it carefully to the nearest garage and had it replaced. The mechanic, Danny, said he could have repaired it, but because I’d been driving on it flat, I had damaged the wall of the tyre and weakened it. That must have been when I was driving home from Stamford because the garage was only a couple of miles from home, and I don’t think driving that short distance would have done the damage. I hadn’t felt the flat tyre in my driving at all. Apparently that’s the way with modern tyres. I remember the first time I drove on a flat tyre, when I was a newly qualified driver a lifetime ago. The steering felt heavy, difficult to control. But it was snowing at the time and I’d blamed the snow. My husband wasn’t pleased when he knew I’d driven home on a flat. But on Wednesday I didn’t feel a thing. So, on Thursday I needed a replacement tyre. I also asked Danny to replace the front tyre that had an advisory notice at MOT, so I had to fork out for two new tyres. Not too bad, actually; less than I’d feared.

On Saturday I collected Hilary at lunchtime and we drove to Coniston for our annual Line Break writing week. We started out six years ago with four poet friends going away together. Then there were five of us. Over the years a couple of friends have moved on. Last year there were three of us. This year Polly couldn’t make it, so it’s just Hilary and me. We feel like a story line in an Agatha Christie: ‘and then there were two’. So I’m writing this from my bed in a cottage in Coniston. It’s a nice cottage, quiet location almost next door to the pub, an Indian restaurant across the road. What’s not to like? Later today we’ll be writing and planning the various writing workshops and readings we have coming up in June. We’ve brought lots of old notebooks to go through looking for poetic gems that have fallen by the wayside. A poet’s life, eh! It’s all go.

So, a poem. This is a poem I wrote in one of Carola Luther’s workshops in St. Ives in April. We were asked to think of a significant event from our lives and write about it, incorporating a repeating image. I took the image of the python to describe the road and the hedgerows snaking away, and Ann Cowling’s long legs. It is also the image of the pain of a fractured skull, a python crushing my head. This actually happened when I was nine years old. My head hit the road, I was knocked unconscious and I spent five days in hospital. What we didn’t know at the time was that it also knocked the three little bones of the inner ear out of sync, so that the hearing was impaired in my right ear. That wasn’t discovered until I was sixteen. No treatment, no use of hearing aids. Only delicate surgery would repair the damage, and as long as I can cope with sharp hearing in the left ear, it’s best left alone. Mostly it’s fine. Sometimes I mishear things, which can be amusing; like the time a friend told me about her ‘everlasting’ bra. That seemed like a good buy, so I asked her where she got it. ‘Ethel Austin,’ she said. ‘I just told you!’

Anyway, here it is, ‘Python’:

 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