Monthly Archives: October 2018


Yesterday I learned a new word. It’s a word that sits well on the tongue, tastes good. I learned the word from my son, Richard, who is an historian. I said I’d been in Manchester on Friday and saw a bloke sweeping up leaves outside a pub, a Sisyphean task in the high winds we were having in the wake of Storm Callum. ‘Boondoggling’, he said. He explained it, but I couldn’t remember the word five minutes later because it was unfamiliar. I kept thinking ‘cornswaggling’, another tasty word. I’d never heard of boondoggling. He texted the word to me and I googled it when I got home. It was first used by the boy scouts in the 1930s, apparently, to name plaited leather strips that were awarded as uniform decoration: a special kind of scout badge. Later it was coined to describe projects that were set up to employ the jobless during the Great Depression in America, jobs like making these Boy Scout boondoggles. It gained more general usage to describe any job that was deemed unnecessary, but kept the unemployed poor off the streets, e.g. greeting people off trains at the railway station; or sweeping up leaves in high winds. To boondoggle is to ‘spend money or time on unnecessary, wasteful, or fraudulent projects…While cost overruns are a common factor in declaring a project a boondoggle, that does not necessarily mean the project has no benefit. Overruns are common, even with successful projects…’
I’ve been thinking about my PhD. It has costs, both monetary and personal; quite high costs that will never be recouped in any related employment. It has over-run in the sense that I have undertaken part-time study in this last year to allow me more time to complete. It could be ‘fraudulent’: I have certainly suffered imposter syndrome most of the time I’ve been doing it. But it may yet be a ‘successful project’. Is my PhD a boondoggle then? I hope so, I like it even more now!

I haven’t been boondoggling this week though: the PhD is on the back burner until I’ve met with my team on Wednesday, the 24th. I’ve taken the opportunity to tidy my study now that the first redraft is complete and sent. It needed doing. Books piled on the desk, piled on the floor beside the desk; print-outs needing shredding—I filled a black bag and have some more to do today; and small stuff my feline P.A., Rosie Parker, persistently knocks onto the floor needed picking up and putting back where it belongs. I’ve seen a FaceBook meme that says ‘If the earth really were flat, cats would have knocked everything off it by now.’ That’s Rosie Parker, a flat earth adherent. We call her Eartha Kitty at times like that—you have to be a certain age to get the reference, perhaps. So, my study is recognizable as a workspace again, all ready for the next round of redrafting and editing. I’m running out of bookshelf space. I have my poetry books all alphabetically stored: signed copies on the top two shelves, unsigned ones, still alphabetically arranged, on the shelves below. I now have poetry books piled on the shelves in front of this system, waiting for room to be ‘systemised’. When I finish the PhD I can do something with my academic books—store them in the loft, sell them off, give them away; have a bonfire—to free up my other bookcase, and the poetry books can overspill into two bookcases. I’m drowning in poetry.

The week has involved preparation for our book launch on November 7th, 6.30 p.m. at the Portico Library in Manchester. I have tried several times to reproduce the book cover into my blog, but WordPress isn’t having any of it. However, Hilary has set up an event on FaceBook so if you’re a Facebooker you can click this link to see the flyer for yourselves:
We also have a Saddleworth mini-launch on November 13th. It’s a Tuesday evening, and Amie has arranged to close the Black Ladd for the evening for our use. The restaurant will be closed after last orders at 5.00 p.m. on that day and we will host a reading from 7.00 onwards. The bar will be open and there will be snacks; so if you live in the area, or know anyone who does, or feel like a Saddleworth visit, spread the word. We want to fill the bar area with poetry lovers, and there are lots in the surrounding area. I’ll design a flyer for the event—in Word—that I will be able to copy into next week’s blog.

After Saturday’s Poets&Players event at the Whitworth I took the opportunity this week of a lull in the PhD work to update my evaluation spreadsheet. I spent a day and a half bringing it up to date and copying comments into my files. We have loads of wonderful and positive feedback which is great, but doesn’t show the way to development; so we ask as well for ways in which our events could be improved. Comments about sound reproduction, the mix of poets, sight-lines etc. are helpful in improving the experience. One respondent had asked for a tram-link to connect Piccadilly Station to the Whitworth so s/he could come more often. I hope it was tongue in cheek—we’re influential, but not that influential! I sent my evaluation analyses off to Janet Rogerson, our Chairperson, who is already preparing the Arts Council bid for next year’s funding.

Two highlights this week: yesterday Richard and two friends came to visit and we went out for lunch with Amie, Angus and the Cockerpoos. We walked into Uppermill along the canal: thankfully it had stopped raining by the afternoon. The stepping stones were a no-no though. They’ve been standing proud of the river all through this gorgeous summer we’ve had but yesterday, after Storm Callum, the river was a torrent and the stones were under water. We had a lovely meal in Muse then walked to Grandpa Green’s in Diggle for coffee. We arrived just as they were closing so we went to Amie’s for coffee instead. It’s always good to spend time with family; and yesterday I learned my new word.

The second highlight? Tesco are selling large tubes of orange Smarties for £1.00 a tube. Orange ones are my favourites, I can pick them out of a mixed pack with my eyes closed. So I treated myself to two packs—ashamed to say I’ve eaten them both, although I did give Bill a small handful. I’ll have to stockpile some for Christmas if they’re still there next shopping day. Well, I could be addicted to much worse substances.

A poem. It’s not a ‘mother’ poem: I do write other kinds! I sent two poems to the Stanza ‘Traditions’ competition. This is one I wrote some years ago and it involves cricket between England and Australia. That’s quite a tradition. We were in Sydney Cricket Ground when Glenn McGrath bowled his last ball for Australia. The atmosphere was electric, the noise unbelievable. And, icing on his cake, he took a wicket. I know, cos I was there!

(McGrath’s Last Ball for Australia: SCG 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 (or later 😉

The Picture of Decrepitude

October happened this week: my brain is still in August and it was a shock when my sister sent me her usual ‘pinch punch’ FaceBook message for the first day of the month. October! We alter the clocks in three weeks time and we’ll be officially in winter. If I had a superpower, it would be to slow down time in the summer: summer should be at least three quarters of the year, in my opinion, and the other quarter, spring.

Having submitted my thesis to the scrutiny of my study support team last week I’ve relaxed on the PhD work this week. I’ve had a week of poetry instead. The proofs of our joint pamphlet, Some Mothers Do… arrived in my inbox at the weekend. On Tuesday I got round to reading them and sending my feedback to Rebecca Bilkau, the editor at Beautiful Dragons Press. An interesting issue arose. In one poem, ‘San Martino di Griante’, I’d used a quote from David Constantine’s poem ‘Bad Dream’: the line ‘a sheer fall right, a sheer wall left’ reminded me of a walk I took in Italy to the church built precariously on the mountainside above Lake Como. That walk to the church is the subject of my own poem. In my poem, I’d italicised the line to suggest I had ‘borrowed it’; but Rebecca had italicised the whole poem to give it a conversational feel: the speaker of the poem directly addresses the reader throughout. Of course this effectively buried my italicisation of the line I had borrowed from Constantine. I pointed this out to Rebecca to enable a proper acknowledgement in the book. The worst crime a poet can commit in her art is to plagiarise another poet’s work; there have been one or two high-profile cases recently and I didn’t want to be ostracised as a plagiarist in my first publication. As Carol Ann Duffy says, all poets dip their pens into the same ‘fluent glittery stream’ of poetry: there are only so many words to use, after all; if you do take a significant line and use it, that’s not a problem as long as you thank the original source. Without coming across that line in ‘Bad Dream’ I probably wouldn’t have remembered my walk up the mountain and written my poem. Funny story: I read the poem, ‘San Martino di Griante’, at a reading in Manchester once. A fellow poet came up to me afterwards and said ‘I loved that line a sheer fall right, a sheer wall left.’ Wonderful. Of all my own lines of poetry she heard that night, she loved the one line by David Constantine! Good poetry will out every time!

Hilary and I have been inviting everyone we know to our pamphlet launch in November. Hopefully, we will show the Portico Library the respect it deserves by the number of guests we receive on the night. If you can come it would be wonderful to see you there: Wednesday November 7th, 6.30 Portico Library 57 Mosley Street Manchester.

Saturday was a poetryful day too. It was the Manchester Literary Festival collaboration with Poets&Players, bringing the poets Deryn Rees-Jones and Sean O’Brien to Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. The day started with a workshop by Sean O’Brien. Sean had us considering the stories we tell in our poems. Using the stimulus of the painting ‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampton, we wrote ‘a novel in thirty lines or less’. This is a link to the painting:
I wrote a potted version of the Persephone myth that might make it to the PhD portfolio with a little editing. After a lovely lunch in the Whitworth restaurant, the readings were in the afternoon. First, music by the Basilisk Duo, saxophonists Freya Chambers and Simeon Evans from RNCM. Freya also played a bass clarinet, which was like the beautiful progeny of a saxophone and a clarinet. After music, Deryn and Sean both read from their various collections of poetry. It was a lovely afternoon in the South Gallery, overlooking the park where squirrels were rummaging for food and chasing each other in territorial claims. The music was upliftingly jazz and the poetry was inspiring—and humorous sometimes. The next Poets&Players event is on November 17th, featuring Liz Berry. I have to miss it as I have a prior commitment at Leighton Moss RSPB Reserve, launching the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch theBirdie: definitely one of those occasions when I wish I could be in two places at once. The proofs of that anthology—commemorating birds on the endangered list—landed in my inbox when I got home so I read through them in bed last night. All good for my poem, ‘Fieldfare’.

Alongside all this wonderful poetry, I’ve been getting to the bottom of the post-Prednisolone health thing. I saw a rheumatologist, Dr. Devakumar, on Wednesday this week. He agrees with his nurse that the issue probably arises from a shoulder injury masked by the continuing use of Prednisolone for PMR/GCA. He had a good examination of the left shoulder, used words like ‘restricted movement’, ‘crepitus’, ‘significant osteo-arthritis’, all of which made me feel like the very picture of decrepitude. He sent me for a shoulder x-ray to assess the damage and is referring me to physiotherapy before considering steroid injections into the joint. In my head, I’m still 36, so the mechanical issues that come with age aren’t really on my radar. There’s an old adage, you’re as old as you feel. Well, that makes me about 93 at the moment then. Hopefully a round of physio will sort out the shoulder and I can get back to being comfortably 71, at least.

So that’s it really; my body creaks, it objects to my doing too much exercise, it lets me down at silly times. I went for my x-ray on Thursday morning and had to ask a complete stranger to help me on with my coat: my arm won’t go behind my back any more. But at least there’s poetry and that is better than any drug on the market. As long as I can ‘do’ poetry, I’ll be OK.

The results for the Poetry Society Stanza Competition were revealed on National Poetry Day—what a poet friend, Cheryl Pearson, called ‘like Christmas, but just for poets.’ I was pleased to see poet-friends Janet Lancaster and Julie Corbett among the commended poets. I’ll post my competiton entry here: it’s called ‘Pickling Walnuts’. My mum used to pickle her own when I was a girl: it gave me a taste for pickled walnuts that has stayed with me all my life.

Pickled Walnuts

You notice the tree as we drive past,
see its branches overhanging the lane
from Mary Loder’s front garden
that first spring in our new house.
You call it Juglans Regia—the English walnut.

Its leaves are fresh green fingers spread
in pleading—cherish me, cherish my fruit
they whisper. An hermaphrodite tree, its drab flowers
have no need to show off. The males dance in the wind
like uncropped lambs’ tails, the females’ rabbit-ear stigmas
stand proud to receive their sperm.

You watch week by week as her flowers swell to fruit,
hang in heavy pairs, ripe green testicles. You make friends
with Mary Loder. Each year she gives you bags of walnuts,
semi-ripe, perfect for pickling. You carry them home
precious as treasure, a smile lighting your face,
your eyes on some lost childhood you never share with me.

We stick darning needles and bodkins
deep into the walnuts’ flesh, testing for shell.
We don’t want any shell, you tell me. Our fingers,
stained like sixty-a-day smokers from oil in the skins,
drop the pricked walnuts into a baby bath filled with brine.
We leave them to soak for days.

You lay them out in the autumn sun to dry, weeks later
bottle them in kilner jars filled with spiced vinegar.
I often creep into the cellar to watch them turning black:
eggs of coal, but raggy, as if they’re shedding their coats
in the heat. Days pass. Weeks become months.

And on Christmas morning, there they are
decanted onto plates of ham for the festive breakfast.
Oh my, the sweetness—I couldn’t describe the taste
without using superlatives. Charles Dickens knew, said
he was very fond of pickled walnuts, gentlemen—
just ask Samuel Pickwick.

And your grandchildren are fond of them too.
Pickled walnuts still come to our Christmas table,
bottled by Opie now though—they’re our first taste
of peace on Earth, goodwill to all.

Rachel Davies
August 2018