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.
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.
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!