Monthly Archives: July 2019

alBanya, birthdays and cricket

When I was coming to the end of the work for my thesis, the poet Jean Sprackland, who was the support for the creative aspect of my PhD team, asked me what ambitions I had when the PhD was complete. My answer was simple. ‘I intend to read shite for the rest of my life,’ I said, laughing. I’ve made it no secret that I found the PhD difficult. I have two bachelor degrees and two post-graduate degrees, but the PhD was a whole new level of hard; as it should be, of course it should. But I stuck at it and submitted a thesis that I was proud of because, even in the darkest days, I never gave up. It remains to be seen if it is of PhD standard when I attend for my viva in September. But when it was finished I vowed never to pick up another academic, scholarly or intelligent book that required me to engage my brain. For as long as I live I was going to read rubbish. This week I fulfilled that new ambition. I’ve been reading two detective stories by the author, S. J. Parris. Heresy and Sacrilege are set in the Elizabethan era of religious turmoil, and clearly S. J. has done his research because they display minute detail in the history of the era. Sometimes it feels as if he’s beating you about the head with the detail, forgetting that what he’s actually supposed to be doing is telling you a story. The books are full of intricate descriptions of rooms in post-Reformation churches, ex-monasteries/abbeys, Oxford libraries. His imagination comes to bear on the prisons, inns, overhanging street buildings; but his descriptions never fit in with his storytelling. They are grafted on in a different voice, as if he’s cut-and-pasted large swathes of his research notes into his story, forgetting that they should embellish the story, not serve as add-ons, not be ‘pimples on elephants’ bums’. Talking of his stories, I find them predictable. There are no surprises for the reader: you just know his hero, Bruno, is going to get out of whatever unlikely difficulties he gets himself into, so there is no tension in what should be his edge-of-the-seat stuff. Having said all this, they are quite good stories, I’m just not enjoying his style of writing; and the Kindle versions have several typo errors that shouldn’t have got past an alert editor. But I will finish the second one. However, I’ve learned that I can’t do shite quite as easily as I thought. I need a challenge, I need something to think about while I’m reading. I need to lose myself in a book.

Last night I watched ‘Testament of Youth’, the film interpretation of Vera Brittain’s memoir of the First World War. Immediately I wanted to read the book. I’ve downloaded it to my Kindle, it’s the next book on my reading list. I just know this is a book I’ll get lost in.

Most of my reading this week has been on a sunbed in Roda on the island of Corfu. We’re back home now, but we had a lovely holiday, just the total unwind I was needing after five years of academic work. It was my birthday on Tuesday this week. We took a boat trip to Albania—Greeks pronounce it alBanya—to celebrate my birthday.

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Albania–alBanya–from our hotel on Corfu

I love a boat trip in the Med, and it took about an hour to get from Corfu harbour to Sarande in alBanya. Sarande is growing as a tourist destination, lots of hotels built along its coastline; including a Holiday Inn. It’s like Greece, but with significant differences. The language is different for one thing, not Cyrillic, Latin or Germanic, it has its own language, its own writing system unique to Albania. We visited the archaeological site at Butrint, which was fascinating, revealing settlement dating back to 800 B.C., later development having a strong Roman influence. There are links to the Trojan wars, with the legend that Butrint is the town where Priam’s son chose to rebuild Troy after its destruction by the beseiging Greek forces. Built on a drained flood plane, it is often underwater, and the amphitheatre stage was raised as decking, the original stage being underneath and still under water. Unfortunately a woman standing next to me fell through a rotting timber on the decking; only one leg went through and I don’t think she was badly hurt, but I expect her leg will be well bruised by now. I felt very vulnerable on that decking after that, and I was glad when we moved on. alBanya is an embryonic tourist destination, outside the EU and its health and safety regulation. Similarly there were lots of steps to negotiate, and handrails were at best inadequate; it’s hardly an accessible site.

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The ancient coastal town of Butrint, Albania

We had a buffet lunch in an alBanyan tavern and visited a castle on the highest point of that part of the island in the afternoon. I bought two fridge magnets from a gift shop, neither of which sticks well to the fridge. They are unbalanced and need to prop on other magnets to stay upright and in place. But it was an interesting day and made for a different birthday celebration. We got back to our hotel at about 21.15, showered and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. Bill ordered a bottle of champagne in honour of my birthday: it cost as much as a one-night stay in a five star hotel! I always love my birthday, and this was a particularly memorable one.

On Sunday we sat in the hotel bar and watched England win the cricket world cup. Wow! What a match that was. I guess cricket matches don’t come closer than that. I’ve never seen a match conclude with a super-over finish, the cricket equivalent of a penalty shoot- out and England emerged as victors. When it had looked as if England were going to lose the match, needing 26 runs from the last two overs, the Sky Sports camera followed Bairstow’s restlessness at the wicket and I thought of Hector at the walls of Troy, how he would have looked like Bairstow, determined in the face of impending defeat. Unfortunatley for Hector, it all ended better for Bairstow: match drawn and a super-over in which he helped England to victory. I drafted a poem about Hector and Bairstow, but I won’t bore you with it: it’s certainly not ready for an adoring public yet. I love cricket, particularly the one-day form of the game and twice we’ve been to Australia to follow the one-day series. So I’ll leave you instead with a poem I wrote at a one-day match in Australia in 2007. This poem was shortlisted in the Ilkley competition a few years back. It describes the very last international ball bowled by the astounding Australian fast bowler, Glenn McGrath at his home ground, Sydney Cricket Ground. It was wonderful to be there to witness it.

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McGrath’s Last Ball for Australia
Sydney Cricket Ground 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

Thunder, Lightning and Edna O’Brien

I’m on the beautiful island of Corfu, getting some post-submission, pre-viva downtime. I’m drinking too much, eating too much, reading just the right amount. I’m reading nothing academic at all.

When I got here I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s amazing dystopian novel about men, women, roles, reproduction. I read it years ago and decided on a re-read after the recent television series. I must say, the television was quite faithful to the plot, even if the characters didn’t always translate from page to screen. The television, however, has pre-empted how the story might continue with the pregnancy, unattended birth and attempt at escape. These things are hinted at only as possibilities in the book’s epilogue, an imagined archaeological conference in the twenty-second century. I can’t wait for the much-publicised sequel, The Testaments,in September.  What is most frightening is how foreboding the tale is; I read of a black woman in America, charged with manslaughter after her unborn baby died, when she was shot in the stomach: the shooter wasn’t charged. The mother of the unborn baby should have taken more care with her pregnancy and not got into a fight, putting the baby in danger. The charge has since been dropped, but this is modern America sinisterly reflecting Gilead. I’ve delayed watching the third series; I’m going to the Lowry Theatre in Manchester in September to see her ‘In Conversation’. Perhaps I’ll watch Series 3 on Netflix, but only after I’ve read Atwood’s sequel.

On the Sunday evening I came away, I watched an interview on BBC television, Alan Yentob interviewing the Irish novelist, Edna O’Brien: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0006pjjO’Brien is nearly 90 now, and it was a fascinating interview with a feisty, feminist writer. I had heard of O’Brien, of course I had; but it occurred to me I’d never read her, not one of her many books. I downloaded her Country Girls Trilogy onto my Kindle to bring away to read. I finished reading it yesterday. O’Brien is writing from a time only a few years before my own teenage, and I can so relate to it.  I came from a rural community too, not Irish, not Catholic, but sharing some of the tight-laced traditions and restraints she describes. It is a sad book. It is a funny book. It is a book grown from the sexual revolution of the sixties. When Country Girls, the first book of the trilogy, was first published—O’Brien claims it took her all of three weeks to write—it was banned in Ireland and publicly burned by the priest of the parish where O’Brien lived as a child and a young woman. Its crime? It dared to claim a space for female desire within the Catholic-dominated patriarchy that was (is?) Ireland. From the interview it was clear that it is based in autobiography, although like the best books, it contains elements of O’Brien’s imaginative story-telling too. She said the two principal characters, Caithleen and Baba, are two aspects of her own self. The first two books in the trilogy are painfully Oedipal, written from the point of view of Caithleen, a young woman seeking connection with a father-figure who is not, like her own father, an habitual drunk. Almost inevitably, she falls into an abusive marriage with a controlling older man. It can’t end well, and it doesn’t. The third book is written from the point of view of Baba, a feisty woman who knows what she wants from life, and knows how to get it. The two characters are so different, and O’Brien draws them both, fully and perfectly. Their narrative styles are so descriptive of their characters. It is beautifully written. The epilogue is the saddest thing I’ve read in years, possibly because I can see some of myself in both characters. I feel as if O’Brien is writing the story of my own navigation in the adult world of marriage, childbirth, relationships, aspiration. I can’t wait to read others of her books now. So thank you, Alan Yentob for bringing her writing to my attention.

On Friday evening we went into Corfu town by boat from Kassiopi. We had a lovely evening sitting in the town square amid the Venetian-style buildings watching the world go by. There was a procession of men, women, children in Greek national costume, which was colourful and interesting. We didn’t find out what they were processing about, and I’ve since googled and found nothing. But it was good to be there when it was happening, a little serendipity. On Tuesday it’s my birthday. I won’t say how old I am, but I will say a girl can’t have too many birthdays. On Tuesday we’re going on another boat trip, to Albania, which we can see clearly, heat haze permitting, from our hotel. I’m looking forward to that, something completely different. I’ll tell all next week.

 

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Albania in the mist, from our hotel in Roda

On Wednesday night we had a spectacular thunder storm; one of those storms in the Med that you just have to watch. There was fork and sheet lightning illuminating  up the night sky, huge winds, biblical rain, booming thunder, intermittent power outages. It lasted about forty-five minutes and is the best entertainment we’ve had since we got here; although of course, it is also significant of climate change and worrying on that count. But it was a complete force of nature. We learned at breakfast that six people died in the storm, but that was either in the south of the island or on the mainland: not speaking Greek, we couldn’t quite make out. We saw on the television cars floating along flooded roads, the devastation caused by extreme weather. But it was spectacular to watch. The sequel last night was, as often happens with sequels, a bit of a let down. Still sheet and fork lightning, still heavy rain, but the wind was less ferocious and the power didn’t fail. One huge clap of thunder was impressive though; we were at a Greek night in the hotel and the Greek dancers were performing. At that huge boom of thunder, the audience jumped as one orgamism; but the dancers carried on dancing as if they hadn’t heard a thing, consummate professionals all. I’ve often watched spectacular thunderstorms in this region; but the most frightening natural event was on Zakinthos, just a bit further south in the Ionian sea, about five years ago. There was an earthquake measuring 5.2 on the scale. Furniture moved, coffee spilled from cups, the swimming pool had waves. But it was the noise that I remember most; I was so impressed by the noise I wrote a poem about it. Here is that poem, my tribute to the force of nature that is the Ionian region of Greece.

 

Koukounaria Quake

mobile phone footage of lanterns swinging,
floors like tablecloths being shaken of crumbs,
windows spitting out their glass,
cars like Dinky toys tossed by a petulant child,
fissures in roads that swallow juggernauts whole:
this is my television-fed knowledge of earthquake.

But a mobile phone can’t record the noise,
as if the earth were turning in her sleep,
dropping her bedtime read to the floor, breaking
wind. She grinds her teeth and the hotel shifts
and the wardrobe slides across the bedroom
and ripples ride on coffee mugs and coffee
slops onto tables and tables walk the floor
and the swimming pool gets the surf up
and tourists, not used to this, make to leave
the safety of a structure built to withstand it.

Eleni checks on her pregnant daughter, the earth
settles to sleep again and all three carry on
as if something extraordinary didn’t just happen.

Rachel Davies
2014

Putting poetry on the map

I have absolutely nothing to write about this week. I spent five years pursuing a PhD, determined it wouldn’t affect my poetry life. I submitted the work in May, including a collection of 100 poems, small proof that it actually enhanced my life in poetry. But this week I have nothing poetic to write about: unless you count that I’ve updated my desk calendar with a whole lot of upcoming writing/submitting deadlines, some of which I might even meet. Why this dearth? Because my week has been taken up with planning a holiday. I’m planning to take a notebook, my MacBook; I’m planning to fulfil some of those deadlines from some bummy sunbed in Corfu. Watch this space.

But for this week, nothing to report. Nada. So I’m going to tell you about a poetry project, Places of Poetry, which is aiming to fill the map of the England and Wales with poems.  https://www.placesofpoetry.org.uk

It’s the brainchild of poet Paul Farley and academic Andrew McRae and it’s based in the Universities of Exeter and Lancaster. You can find out all about the project on the Poetry Society website:

https://poetrysociety.org.uk/projects/the-places-of-poetry/

There are a variety of poetry residencies with activities and events planned throughout the country. A poet friend, Jo Bell, has a residency at the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenavon later in the summer. She placed this Write Out Loud blog post on her FaceBook page, about the Places of Poetry project. I thought I’d share it:

https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=92259&fbclid=IwAR2RE8Y14LC2w6QFXAjDRNyUxZzl2vcnf4CqPTuhBjvS-b1SSMW_Yd0j5Oc

The project is open to any poet, amateur or professional, who wishes to pin a poem to the map. It’s a great project. I was one of the eager early poem-pinners when I first heard of the project from my Poetry Society newsletter earlier this year. I posted an ‘alternative mother’ poem about the fens, where I grew up. I re-visited the map before I started to write this and it’s filling up with regional poems of all kinds, a fantastic resource. I found one from the new poet Laureate, Simon Armitage; I found a couple from fellow Stanza reps; I found poems from Rod Whitworth and Linda Goulden, members of my own stanza. I found poems from several poetry friends. I visited Wales and Anglesey and found poems in Welsh, poems in Welsh with English translation. Take a look for yourself. Visit your favourite haunts in a poetry binge. It really is a celebration. There are still huge swathes of the map available, so you might even want to pin a poem to the map yourself.

So, it’s a short blog spot this week. Enjoy exploring the map. Right now, I’m off to fling some things in a suitcase. I’ll see you on the other side. Here’s the poem I pinned to the map in Cambridgeshire:

 

Alternative Mother #5
The Fens

 If landscape has mountains, forests,
a river forcing its course to the sea
she is no landscape.

If her horizon is fourteen miles away
your eyes will see for fourteen miles
across her sea-drained bed.

If goddesses reach down to touch her soil
there is nothing between their fingers
and her fecundity.

Her sky though, look at her sky,
high and wide as heaven!
She celebrates all the literature of skies,
their cumulonimbus poetry,
their war and peace.

Rachel Davies
2018