I heard this week of a man who is due to retire from Sainsbury at the age of 95. Reg Buttress first retired from his job at the Cwmbran supermarket when he was 65. That retirement lasted for six weeks, by which time he was so bored, he asked for his job back. He retires again next month. The thing is, when I googled this story, I learned that Reg isn’t the only one. In March this year, for instance, Kathleen Privett retired from her hairdressing job aged 93. These are commendable stories that show how keeping busy is good for your health. But if retiring at 90+ becomes a trend the government might feel justified in adjusting its state-pension-age policy significantly upwards: retirement at 68 might well look like a luxury of idleness.
I was a primary school headteacher in my past life. I retired fourteen years ago and the lovely teachers’ pension I earn every month is compensation for accepting a lower salary than I could have earned in a comparable management stratum in the private sector. Teaching was hard, rewarding work, I loved it. I loved being a headteacher. I’ve also done some nursing in my life, packed purchases in Freeman’s Mail Order, been first aider in a carrot canning factory, worked as a check-out girl in a cash and carry, picked broad beans on a Fenland farm. Without a doubt, retirement is the best job I’ve ever had. Boredom, as Reg experienced, has never been an issue for me. Since I retired I’ve completed a BA (Hons) Literature with the OU; done an MA in Creative Writing and am now working towards PhD from MMU. I have written poetry, read poetry, been on countless poetry retreats, published some poetry, won some poetry competitions. I have travelled to Australia on two occasions where I watched the one-day international cricket series, drove the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne to Adelaide, took a train trip to the Blue mountains and twice went to the Sydney Opera House for performances of Carmen and Sweeney Todd respectively. I’ve visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Cape Town. On top of this, I have done the books at Amie’s Black Ladd restaurant every week for more than ten years. I couldn’t have done any of these things if I’d still been working. Reg, boredom is only an issue if you let it be. And I’ve known too many people who have died within months of retiring, their bodies unable to cope with the change of pace. Thankfully, my health hasn’t let me down–not too badly at least. For me, retirement is a privileged age when I get to do the things I dreamed of doing while I was paying my taxes and NI to fund it. I’ve never been busier.
This week has been all about poetry, most of it PhD related. On Monday it was the writing workshop at Leaf. Despite Metrolink’s best efforts to thwart the plan, Hilary and I were there. A points failure at Newton Heath resulted in delays on the way in, and that is where the tram ended its homeward journey. We made the trip home via Ashton-u-Lyne instead, where Bill met us, bless him. On Sunday I spent the morning revisiting some of my portfolio of poems. I have a poem about motherhood that I’ve never been entirely happy with: it is a big block of text, is a bit cheesy and not a little gender stereotyped. I had written on it at a previous revisit, Would this make a sestina? In case you don’t know–and excuse me if you do–a sestina is a poetry form of six six-line stanzas and a three line last stanza. Each of the six stanzas uses the same six end words in a varying order and the six end words appear, two in each line of the tercet at the end. So I decided to give it a go. I chose my six end words from the original poem and composed a sestina. It wasn’t the sestina I meant to write, but it was a sestina non-the-less. The end words sort of dictated what it became about. It’s still about mothers and daughters so will possibly be included in the portfolio; it still needs lots of work before it earns its place though. I took it along to Leaf on Monday evening and received some really useful feedback. At the moment the repetitions driven by the end words are a bit like sledge hammers; I need to make them much more subtle. But it is there to be worked on.
On Tuesday I spent the most wonderful day analysing Pascale Petit’s The Huntress for the critical element of the PhD. What a collection that is, addressing the mental illness of the speaker’s mother, linked to domestic and sexual abuse and all woven as a collection with Petit’s visits for research to the Amazon Rain Forest. I love it. The mother is a frightening and threatening woman, depicted variously as poisonous snakes, Aztec gods of death and destruction, a Tibetan singing bowl. Alongside my analysis, I was doing internet searches to clarify all the references to Amazonian myths, gods/goddesses, flora and fauna: I learned so much. After a morning’s work I’d analysed only about eight of the poems in the collection and have the start of a framework for the next chapter of the thesis. I was so engrossed I even forgot to stop for lunch, which hasn’t been known often. I have preordered her new collection, Mama Amazonica, due out in the autumn. It deals with similar issues in a similar way, so I’m interested to see how she makes it new. It is published by Bloodaxe and is Poetry Book Society autumn choice.
On Thursday, Bill and I went into Manchester together. I wanted to spend the M&S gift card my sister very kindly gave me for my birthday. Sad to say, I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy. I’m not surprised they are struggling for profit at the moment. Frankly, the displays are boring, the merchandise lacks flair. One dress, a light cotton floaty thing which was quite nice but ‘not me’ was displayed on a mannequin; and even ‘she’ looked bored. Her shoulders sagged and it’s no exaggeration to say the dress hung like a limp rag: who could think anyone would be encouraged to buy that from such an unattractive display? Perhaps I should go in and ask for a job? Well I would, but I don’t have time! We also went into Waterstones to spend a gift card I had for Christmas. I was saving it for Mama Amazonica, but I ordered it online from the Poetry Book Society, so I had a lovely half hour browsing the poetry section before settling on Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake and an anthology of three poets, including Kathryn Maris. I also bought a quirky bookmark in the shape of a stuffed pig: my Chinese horoscope sign. We went for a bite at Proper Tea only to find it closed down. Thankfully, I’ve learned since it’s only a temporary closure for refurb; so hopefully I’ll get a fix of their lovely caraway seeded Polish rye bread toast soon.
On Saturday I was at my desk again for 8.00 a.m. analysing some more Pascale Petit. I broke off at 10.00 to meet Hilary for coffee in Albion Farmshop and went back to my books when I got home about 11.30. I worked until 2.00; so now I have about 6000 words of analysis and still only about half way through the collection, with Mama Amazonica still to read. It won’t go into the thesis as it stands, but I’ll be able to use a substantial part of it as cut and paste.
That’s it then; another week done and dusted. I’ve enjoyed it, been busy, learned loads, done some shopping. A good week all round.
I’ll give you a sneaky peak at the sestina this week. I’m not happy with it yet, not by a long chalk, but it’ll give you an idea of the sestina form and you’ll see where I’m going with it. I need to disguise the end words more, and revisit the repetitions that hit you round the head like a baseball bat at the moment; but remember I only wrote it on Sunday morning so it’s still only foetal at best. It’ll grow old gracefully as I work on it. In its favour, it does have some good lines, I think, well worth keeping.
This is not really a poem about grandmothers
it’s more a cautionary tale about mothers.
Mine wasn’t one to hold her babies close.
She never saw herself as a repository of history.
She was no story-teller and lost histories can change
who we think we are. How can we know
ourselves if our story isn’t roused from its troubled sleep?
Some mothers tell bedtime stories to encourage sleep.
I don’t remember ever sitting on my mother’s
knee for a story, so I never got to know
my lost grandmothers. I had to make them up, close
approximations to an ideal: stories are loose change
In the trouser pockets of our history.
Who we are is indelibly imprinted by our histories.
We can’t ever know ourselves if we sleep-
walk through life, half plotted. A story can change
who we are, where we’re from. Mother
kept her stories wrapped in the closed
shroud of memory, never passed them on. I knew
my grandmothers as shadows, women I didn’t know
I missed until I was a grandmother myself. History
should be passed down the generations. Don’t close
the door on it, instead feel its draft. Sleep
in peace knowing I think of you, Grandmother,
more now than I ever did as a child. That changed
when I became a grandmother; now it’s time to change
trajectories. I’ll make sure my children know
every story I never heard from my mother.
I’ll invent our story myself—we all know history
is owned by the woman with the pen. So sleep
knowing your dreams won’t be wasted. Close
to my long night closing
in, I’ll exchange
our lost history for folk tales. I won’t sleep
until my grandchildren’s grandchildren know
their place in history.
What I can’t know I’ll invent. My un-storied mother
put the past to sleep in a crypt that’s still closed.
Not me. I’ll be Mother Almighty. I’ll change
history. They’ll know me best by the tales I weave.