Monthly Archives: October 2018

Of Friesian cows and pilchards

Yesterday we had a cow in our back garden; a lovely, healthy young Friesian cow, chewing on our border plants. Well, you don’t see that everyday. The joys of living in the countryside, eh? Bill asked around the neighbours and we found the cow’s owner and the story ended well. It’s been that kind of week: different, but on the whole, ending well.

I got the results of the shoulder x-ray this week: wear and tear in the joint—no surprise there then—and some signs of ‘shoulder impingement’, which if I understand it correctly, means the rotator cuff tendon is being trapped by the bones, restricting movement and causing pain in shoulders, arms and hands. My GP is sending me for an ultrasound scan this week to determine if there’s damage to the soft tissue of the shoulder before I present for physiotherapy at the end of November. Meanwhile, I keep taking the co-codamol, which helps. I suppose a hundred years ago it would have been diagnosed as ‘rheumatism’ and put down to ageing; that is if I could have afforded to consult a doctor a hundred years ago. Our NHS is wonderful. We should be fighting to protect it.

Our lovely poetry collection, Some Mothers Do…, has gone to print; yes, it’s being printed as I write. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy! The author interview by Hilary and me was posted on the Ink Pantry website this week. It includes a touching tribute to the late Tonia Bevins, our Dragon Spawn triplet, by her friends Angi Holden and Angela Topping, who have been acting on her behalf in the editing process and will be reading her work at the launches. You can read the Ink Pantry piece here: Hilary also sent details of the Black Ladd launch of Some Mothers Do…to the local magazine, Saddleworth Life, and that’s available on their website. You can see it, with details of both launch events, here: The Saddleworth Life article has already brought an invitation for us to be included in the Saddleworth Literature Festival on April 6thand 7thnext year; however we’re travelling to St. Ives on April 7thfor Kim Moore’s wonderful poetry week—with Amanda Dalton—at Treloyan Manor, so we don’t know if we’ll be available to fit in with the organisers plans. Details of Kim’s course are here: A second invitation, to read for a local community group, Love Lydgate, will be easier to negotiate for suitable dates. I love my poet’s life, and it’s getting more exciting by the day!

But this blog is about ‘Poetry, PhD and Life’, so what of the ‘PhD’ bit? Well, I had my team meeting this week, on Wednesday. I dragged my aching body along Oxford Road to All Saints campus to discuss my latest draft of the thesis. It was such a positive meeting, I came away with a spring in my step, skipped my aching body all the way to a Costa close to the tram stop at St. Peter’s Square and treated myself to a bite to eat and a cappuccino. I still have a deal of work to do on the thesis, but feedback was positive and I feel, if not exactly on the home straight, at least as if I’m coming round the final bend. Antony was talking of early submission; I’m not convinced that’s on the cards. However, I do have another annotated version to work on, which, having read it, seems doable: I need to develop the introduction and conclusion, which I knew already; and they’ve suggested I develop a short input I’ve made about Carol Ann Duffy’s poems concerning mother/daughterhood. This won’t be a hardship: our Poet Laureate has been a poetry hero of mine since I discovered her work when I was doing an OU degree at the turn of this century. She was one of the reasons I chose MMU for my MA: imagine having a personal hero as a poetry tutor! I was already way over the 20,000 word count; so I’ve been advised to cut some bulk that strays away from the mother/daughter theme, and really focus the writing.

Yesterday was my first chance to sit down and work on it. I’ve cut huge passages, which I’ve saved in an ‘out-takes’ file: I never bin anything. I may use parts of it to emphasise/illustrate points. I’ve printed a copy so that I can give it the red-pen treatment to show where I need to pinpoint the mother/daughter focus. I’ve organised a plan of action for analysing Carol Ann Duffy’s poems relating to the mother/daughter theme; and I’ve sorted out all the relevant books I need. I spent ten or fifteen minutes searching my shelves for Duffy’s Selected Poems yesterday and couldn’t find it. I thought perhaps I’d been mistaken and hadn’t bought a copy at all. But when I looked at the pile beside my bed last night, there it was in the middle of the pile! It must have been in my hand all the time I was searching! Seriously, I need to take a holiday!

On Wednesday evening we went to Manchester Cathedral: Hilary, me and our partners. We had an early meal in Salvi’s on Exchange Square—their Gorgonzola cheese is the best in the whole wide world!—then took our seats in the Cathedral for a wonderful performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Antic Disposition are touring it around several Cathedrals, details here: If it’s coming to a Cathedral near you, I recommend it. The performances are a commemoration of the centenary of the end of WW1. Henry V is performed as a ‘play within a play’: it’s set in a field hospital behind the Western Front, where the recovering inmates are putting on the play to entertain themselves. There are subtle places in the play where the Western Front insinuates itself into the play. It is a beautiful concept, very well performed. What a lovely evening. If you have chance to see it, don’t miss it. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.

Lastly, I need to tell you that my son Michael rang me for a chat in the week; and on Friday I met my friend Joan for our monthly catch-up over dinner. I’m telling you this only because they both value a mention!

I’m giving you a poem this week that’s included in Some Mothers Do…I wrote it on Kim Moore’s poetry residential in St. Ives in 2014. While I was there, my daughter was undergoing surgery for the removal of the melanoma on her right shin. It was a worrying time, as you can surmise from this poem. The weather was lovely the week of the course, unseasonably warm for the time of year. On the Thursday, a couple of days before Halloween, Kim sent course members out—on the only wet day of the week—to find a poem in the town—‘and don’t come back till you’ve found one’. This is the poem I ‘found’. I’ve always loved it, because I love St. Ives; and because I know the story behind the poem. I’m glad it’s going to find its space in the book.


To St Ives a Love Poem
Halloween 2014

 Even though November is a black dog sitting at your feet
and your beaches lay crushed under the weight of mist

and your shoreline roars at the passing of summer
and your white horses rise on their hind legs

till your fishing boats get seasick; even though your trees
shed tears like baubles and your shops drip gifts like rain

and your cobbled streets and narrow alleys wind
around me like a clock and your posters announce

Fair Wednesday as if all other days are cheats
and your bistros display fish with eyes wide as heaven

scared as hell, and your railway bridge yells
do what makes you happy and it feels like a tall order;

even though your choughs are impatient for pilchard
your huers won’t see today from the Baulking House

still you open your arms and kiss my cheeks in welcome.

Rachel Davies
October 2014

Render unto Caesar…

PhD requires a huge commitment in terms of time, work, self-denial; holidays are forfeited to PhD work, down-time is a thing of the past; PhD is a cruel taskmaster that will have its pound of flesh—along with surrounding blood, bone and soft tissue. It is relentless. It is hard. So it’s only when you have a few days respite from it that you realise just how demanding it is.

I sent my thesis off to my study support team a couple of weeks ago—I meet with them to discuss it on Wednesday of this week. I have worked on some of the poems in that time, but on the whole I’ve left it alone, I’ve been in recession from PhD. I’ve managed to sort out my study: it’s ready to face the next round of relentless work after Wednesday’s meeting. I’ve shredded a small copse of trees, returned poetry and academic books to some kind of order on the shelves; I have a desk I can see the surface of for the first time in months. I’ve been out for lunch with my partner, Bill, without feeling too guilty about the time I’m not working; I’ve met Hilary for coffee—about which, more later; I’ve taken a couple of days to spend with friends and family; in short, I’ve had a foretaste of what my life will become when the PhD is done and submitted and I get my life back. But, render unto Caesar…after Wednesday the PhD shall have me back with a vengeance.

There is a lot of book launch preparation going on at the moment. The launch of the Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie…will take place at Leighton Moss RSPB bird reserve on Friday November 16th, 7.00 p.m. Come along if you can: there’ll be some good poetry reading. Hilary and I are sharing a cottage for the weekend with a poet friend and fellow Stanza member, Linda Goulden. We all have poems in the anthology. We’re taking the cottage from Thursday to Sunday to give us time for some writing while we’re there. Yes, I’ll be taking PhD work and giving it a couple of hours before breakfast as is my wont on holidays. It won’t be ignored. Then the launch of the first DragonSpawn pamphlet, with poems by Hilary Robinson, the late Tonia Bevins and myself, is happening on November 7th, 6.30 p.m. at the Portico Library in Manchester with a subsidiary launch in Saddleworth at the Black Ladd, Amie’s pub/restaurant, on November 13th, 7.00 p.m. We’ve adapted the flyer for the Portico to produce a flyer for the Black Ladd event: later today I’ll be printing off several copies and distributing them around my local area. We’re having an open mic for other local poets at the Black Ladd event, so if you live in the area and fancy either event, do come along.

On Tuesday I met up with Hilary to discuss a poets’ interview we have been asked to give. Hilary met Deborah Edgeley, editor at Ink Pantry Publishing, when she went to the Nantwich Words and Music Festival in September. Deborah asked if she could do an author interview with Hilary and me concerning our shared pamphlet. We met on Wednesday this week to discuss our response to the questions, some of which invited a joint response, some of which needed individual responses from us. We put together our joint responses over coffee and nibbles, then wrote our individual responses—about our own contributions to the pamphlet—and finished the ‘interview’ by email in the afternoon. The interview will be published on the Ink Pantry website:

I came across an advert for an Antic Disposition’s production of Henry V: It’s touring the country in commemoration of the ending of the first world war, visiting several Cathedrals around the country during the tour. I have booked to see it at Manchester Cathedral on Wednesday of the coming week; we’re going with Hilary and her husband, David. It sounds like an interesting production, about which more next week. Wednesday is my last day of recession from PhD: I’ll be back to work with a vengeance after Thursday, so this is a little pool of respite before taskmaster returns.

Enough. Here’s a poem, very much in first draft. I wrote it at Sean O’Brien’s Poets&Players workshop a couple of week’s ago so it’s still a bit raw. It is ‘a novel in thirty lines or less’, the theme of the workshop. It was inspired by the painting ‘A Game of Patience’ by the artist Meredith Frampton: and by the Demeter and Persephone myth. It needs some more work to earn its place in the PhD portfolio, but here it is in its raw first draft:

The Patience of Persephone

She waits for six months in a year
then waits again for six.
She can’t have what she most desires,
that lost part of herself. Listen!
That’s her rummaging upstairs,
another fruitless search in the loft.

I sense the black king’s impatient
for his alabaster maiden, his ice queen.
From reaping to sowing he thinks he can thaw me
with his red hot pomegranate flesh,
his spiked wine.
He blows on my neck with his sulphurous breath
but I won’t melt.
So he waits all over again, from sowing to reaping.

I know it’s time to decide.
The corn’s threshed, the straw’s stacked.
But I will finish my game.
This card says go—you owe him.
That card says stay—you owe her.
It’s all one to me—it seems like
nothing’s owed to me.
But, sod it,
my patience wears thin!

Rachel Davies
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