Monthly Archives: June 2019

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