Monthly Archives: August 2019

Wetlands, cheap hotels and dentists

At the beginning of this week I was in a holiday cottage in Highley near Bridgnorth. The weather was kind, only raining overnight and early in the morning. When we needed to go out, the sun shone and it was warm. But autumn was already in the air, as this photo of ripening blackberries attests to.

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On Sunday we all: my partner and I, my sons, my daughter, her partner and her two Cockerpoos, caught the steam train of the Severn Valley railway and went into Bridgnorth for the day. It was a weekend for poetry books: my son Richard found me another poetry book in an Oxfam shop, A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (Palmers Press, 1994). There is a foreword by Eric Finney who uses lines from the sequence to illustrate his point about his personal joy in the poems, which he kept in the pocket of his battledress during his national service:

By blowing realms of woodland
With sunstruck vanes afield
And cloud-led shadows sailing
About the windy weald.

This as well as anything describes our train journey into Bridgnorth. Our return journey was first class, because that’s the compartment we sat ourselves down in and we couldn’t be bothered to move. It cost us an upgrade, and we really got nothing for it, but it was an experience. When we got home Angus took the dogs and Bill home, Mike went home and Richard, Amie and I stayed on an extra night. We played very silly card games, drank beer and ate vegan burgers, which were surprisingly good. On Monday we packed up the cars and headed to Kings Lynn via Peterborough (to drop off Richard’s bags). We stopped in a Travelodge on Monday night, which always reminds me of that Selima Hill poem that, unfortunately, I can’t find a reference to. Disparagingly, she calls it Travel Odge because that, after all, is how it’s spelt.  On Tuesday we went on to Cromer to meet up with family, who we don’t see often enough because, well, have you ever tried to drive into Norfolk from Greater Manchester? We had a lovely day and promised not to leave it so long next time. And we meant it. At the time. On the way home from Cromer I had an email from Mabel Watson telling me she has accepted one of my poems for publication in Domestic Cherry 7 and inviting me to read it at the Big Poetry Weekend in October in Swindon: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-big-poetry-weekend-tickets-58628979857  Of course I said yes: I’m going to the event anyway, so reading my poem will be an added extra.

On Wednesday I was doing the books at Amie’s restaurant, The Black Ladd. I use the accountant’s Sage software to keep the books and it’s just been upgraded to an online programme in the Cloud, to facilitate Making Tax Digital—so that the taxman can keep tabs on your business willy nilly. It took me all day Wednesday to do a tenth of the work I normally do in a day, so I had to go in again on Saturday to finish off. I know I’ll get quicker at it as I get used to the changes in the software, but really, it seems complicated. Actually, I think it will be quicker and easier to use when I get into a way of working. It’s the ‘finding out how to…’ that takes the time.

On Friday I was at the dentist at 8.00 a.m. for a filling. I broke a molar around Christmas; broke it quite spectacularly, there wasn’t much of it left. But it wasn’t painful and it was safe to leave it for a while, Dr Naeem assured me; so I made an appointment for August. Now, I don’t like dentists as a species, but my dentist is the most gentle man. He is genuinely lovely and caring. So I fetched up in Uppermill before breakfast for the repair. And there’s my first mistake. He put the novocaine into my gum, asked me to wait for it to take effect. I got up off the chair with very wobbly legs, trying to stay upright. ‘You didn’t have breakfast, did you?’ he asked. ‘Sit in the waiting room and the nurse will bring you a drink to get your blood sugars up.’ She did; she brought me a Coke. Who knew a dentist would serve you Coke? But it did the trick and my legs started to behave again. The filling took about forty minutes altogether; forty minutes with four hands, a ton of ironmongery and an upright Hoover in my mouth while I tried very hard not to gag. But the job is done, and it feels fine. Because it was such a big filling, I quite expected to be dosing myself with Cocodamol when the Novocaine wore off; but no, no pain at all. As I said, Dr Naeem is such a gentle and caring man.

I’ve been reading my thesis with an eye to what might provoke a question or two for the Viva, which is now less than three weeks away. I’ve spotted a couple of places where I would formulate questions if I were doing the examining; but I’m not, so of course questions may come from there or from any other aspect of the work. I’m remembering what I used to tell my staff when they presented for interviews: that the interview belongs to the interviewee. ‘It’s your interview, so if there’s anything you particularly want to say make sure you fit it into answers to the questions you’re asked.’ I just want to say ‘give me a pass, give me a PhD’, but it’s hard to see how that can fit into any question without being too obvious. So I’ll read my thesis and make sure I know it inside out and backwards and just hope for the best. After all, it can’t be as bad as a mammoth filling at the dentist, can it? Can it?

Later today I’m heading south again to drive along the Whittlesey Wash Road, the B1040 from Thorney to Whittlesey. It’s a road I used to travel a lot as a child, from our home in Thorney to visit relatives in and around Whittlesey. I’m writing a poem about it for the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology, Well, Dam… The proposed publication date is November-ish and the deadline for submissions is August 31st. The anthology is a collection of poems addressing the way human activity has used and abused the planet’s water supply. I’ve drafted my poem from a memory of sixty years, so I want to drive the road again to make sure it feels authentic. We’re stopping for lunch at the Dog in a Doublet pub, about halfway along the drive. My dad was born in an upstairs room at the Dog in a Doublet, more than 100 years ago. He weighed a prodigious 14lbs at birth! I know! And I know it to be true, because my mum was sceptical until she met the midwife who delivered him and who confirmed the birth weight as a fact. It comes into the early draft of my poem. I think it might stay.

So, I’ll love you and leave you. This is another poem I wrote about the fens, about the North Sea calling in the debt from the loan of the land to agriculture. In 1953 East Anglia suffered extensive flooding. My dad was called out in the night to go to Kings Lynn on volunteer flood relief work. I always thought my Mum would have liked to have gone really: she wasn’t suited to a domestic role, but that’s what life dealt her, and you can only play the hand you’re dealt; so she stayed home while he did all the exciting stuff, as was expected at that time. This poem is about imagining her, and other women from the neighbourhood, taking the place of the men on that flood relief sortie. It is, of course, a complete fairy tale.

Bedtime Story

Once upon a midnight, 1953,
a loud knocking at the door.
A little girl, call her Mary, can hear
our protagonist, the mother, talking;
another voice Mary doesn’t recognize,
a piquancy of danger in their words,
Mary’s father saying well of course
you’re not going

but just this once, the mother refuses
to honour and obey, she goes anyway,
leaves little Mary, leaves husband, house
joins other women from the village.
The mother drives 30 miles
through the black Fenland night.

In the distant past, an evil genius —
call him Cornelius — borrowed Kings Lynn
from the sea, and on this midnight, 1953,
the town is inundated by the North Sea
surging along the mouth of the Wash
calling in Cornelius’s debt.

The mother works all night, a Fenland
Grace Darling, rowing, rescuing,
carrying to safety folk whose belongings
are rubber ducks bobbing in a bath.

There’s no happily ever after though:
this story ends with a predatory shark,
patient under the flood waters.
And what big teeth he has!

Rachel Davies
2015

The Map and the Clock

Our journey was one of shared enthusiasms in poetry’s loved landscape… (Carol Ann Duffy)

Yesterday, my daughter found this for me in the Oxfam Bookshop in Shrewsbury:

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The Map and the Clock (London: Faber & Faber, 2016) is a fat anthology of British and Irish poetry from 600 A.D. to the present day, concluding with a poem by Zafar Kunial, who started his PhD with MMU the same day as me. It was compiled and edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, an initiative of Duffy’s tenure of the Poet Laureateship. It is a poetry festival and feast, and it cost me just £6.99!

The line heading this blog, which seemed to speak to me of my friendship with Hilary Robinson, is in Carol Ann Duffy’s introduction to the anthology. The landscape of our friendship is indeed a shared enthusiasm for poetry. We met for coffee on Tuesday this week. I hadn’t seen her for six weeks—she’s been in France with her daughter and grandchildren. So it was lovely to see her again. She made me a soft-toy rabbit—French name ‘Lunar Lapin’—for my birthday, with glitter Docs just like mine; and some gingerbread sloths in honour of my favourite alternative mother. I took my Whittlesey Wash poem to share with her; my confidence in it was not great, but she loved it as a first draft, so I’ll stick with it, work on it some more. I’m planning to go south to drive the B1040 again before the deadline date at the end of August, so I can check the truth of my poem, which I’ve written from a memory of more than six decades. When I told my partner Bill that I wanted to go, and asked if he wanted to come with me, his reaction was who in or around Whittlesey is likely to read the poem? That is so not the point: the poem should be true for the poet first of all, or what’s the point? He has agreed to come with me. He enjoyed the poem as well, so I think I might be onto something.

While Hilary and I were drinking coffee in the sunshine of Uppermill, we talked of our next Line Break, the poetry week we take about May every year to read, write and bathe in poetry. Kim Moore’s St. Ives workshop next year is later than usual, end of April into beginning of May: https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/residential-poetry-courses/december-2018-poetry-carousel/Fiona Sampson is sharing the workshops with Kim; and Pascale Petit is the week’s guest reader. Bring it on! So we’re thinking of extending the week by taking our Line Break on the way home, perhaps in North Devon, or the Wye Valley, hiring a holiday cottage to stay the extra week. At least we’ve started thinking about planning it.

Two other events appeared on our ‘poetry landscape’ this week too. Firstly, Hilary booked tickets for a brilliant MMU event, Elbow front man Guy Garvey in conversation with our new Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/story/10717/Despite these being the hot literary ticket of the century, Hilary successfully managed to get us both tickets to the event. Secondly, the second Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Ragged Rocks and Running Rascals (Beautiful Dragons Press, 2019), has been announced: it involves our poet friend, Barbara Hickson, who graduated from MMU with an MA (Distinction) in Creative Writing this summer. She shares authorship with Gabriel Griffin and Bev Morris. It’s so nice that Barbara will be our Dragon Sister; and even nicer that she’s invited Hilary and me to read at her launch event in October. We’ll be reading from our own Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Some Mothers Do… I’ll post details when I know venue and timing etc; but it will be in Lancaster and it would be good to see you there to support Barbara and her Spawn Sisters.

I carried on with the post-PhD clear-out this week. I completed the guest bedroom, which looks lovely and inviting now; and I made a start on the landing area. This is a huge task, because it involves book shelves lining the walls: lots of dusty tomes to take off the shelves to clean and decide if they stay or go; although of course they’ll stay, because who can bear to throw out books? The area is also home to Bill’s collection of model cars, three display cases full of Burago classic car models, built up over most of his lifetime. The anxiety on his face is profound when he reminds me how delicate they are, that they have small headlamps and fenders that could break off in the cleaning. I know this, and I’ll take care, even though I don’t entirely ‘get it’; but he doesn’t entirely ‘get’ my obsession with poetry either, and he is supportive none-the-less. I’ll be careful, Bill, I promise.

On Friday we came away to the Midlands for son Richard’s Big Birthday Bash. We’re staying in a cottage near Bridgnorth. I’m writing this from my bed in the cottage, just as the sun’s coming up outside. It’s lovely, right next to the beautiful River Severn. Richard was already here when Bill and I arrived at 4.00 p.m. on Friday; Amie, her partner Angus and their two Cockerpoos arrived about an hour later; and Michael arrived about 8.00 p.m. having driven up from Wiltshire after work. Yesterday we all went into Shrewsbury for the day, took the dogs to the park. There was a flower show in town, but dogs weren’t welcome so we didn’t go. But lots of people did, and we passed several people carrying flowers and plants back to their cars. When we got home we drank champagne in honour of Richard’s birthday: Krug and Bollinger, both lovely. I love champagne, I’d drink it all the time if I could afford it, so it’s just as well I can’t! Later today, I think we’re taking the Severn Valley Steam Train into Bridgnorth: the station is just a short walk from the cottage, and we’ve often heard the whistle calling its departure. It runs every half hour or so, so we can go at our leisure. The last train back is just before 6.00 p.m. Perfect!

So there you have it; another week gone. It’s less than four weeks to the Viva now, and the final decision on the PhD. I’m trying to remain optimistic. My champagne flute, as ever, is half full.

And so, a poem: this is an alternative mother poem about my Aunt Mary. She was my dad’s oldest sister, and a surrogate for the grandmother I never knew. Aunt Mary had lots of wonderful sayings that I used to tell the children I taught: “My old Aunt Mary used to say…” I don’t think they believed me most of the time, but it was all true. My favourites were “…I love hard work, I could watch it all day”; and “…you can call me anything you like, but don’t call me late for my dinner.” That last one came in very handy for playground fallings out! Aunt Mary was blind but I swear she could see more than most people. My sister and I had hula hoops for Christmas one year and we had an on-going competition to see who could do more hula hoops. One Saturday morning when I was in the house alone with Aunt Mary I did 143 and she was my only witness. She said she felt the hula hoop whistling past her ears; but they wouldn’t allow the record because, they said, I might have been blowing in her ear. As if you could fool Aunt Mary like that. I forgot to mention she was a world champion hiccupper too. She performed the most outrageously loud hiccups you ever heard: UUURRRRDUH! YAAAKKITY! You’d hear them three fields away. My sister and I would be silently peeing ourselves laughing behind her chair while she hiccupped her way through the morning; but not silently enough, obviously! “I know you young buggers are laughing at me,” she’d say.

Alternative Mother #12

Mary R

You say there’s none so blind
as them as don’t want to see.

You buy me a scarlet coat
so I’ll stand out from the crowd,

knit me rainbow socks on four needles,
make me feel their colours.

You show me how even
silent laughing can be loud
if you listen hard enough.

Your bosom
is a plumptious pillow for a story;
you tell me there is no tumbler in this life
that isn’t at least half full.

Be true to yourself, you say.
Live in peace with others
but always be your own lover.

 Fingertips are as useful as eyes,
you reckon, knuckles as feeling as fingertips
for finding your way out of dark spaces.

Rachel Davies
2018

 

Floods and droughts

When I finished the MA in Creative Writing in 2010, I went through a period of drought in my poetry life. I couldn’t write anything. It was as if my brain had been purged of the need for poetry. Friends I’ve spoken to experienced the same thing when they completed poetry-based study. Well, it’s happened again post PhD. I’m finding it difficult to think about poetry, much less write it, or make any submissions to journals or competitions. I know it’ll come back, but it feels like an unpleasant barren period.

Having said that, I have engaged with poetry on some level this week. On Tuesday it was our Stalybridge Stanza. We had an anonymous poetry workshop this month. Four poets submitted poems to me, I sent them out in a single document, standard font without names. We met on Tuesday evening to read, discuss and offer feedback on the poems. There were five members at the meeting, including a new member who wants to join us. This seems like a critically small meeting, but we’ve had less; and I also had four apologies, so we’re moving off the red list of the critically endangered. I think we’ll survive.

The poems were all good; very different in style and subject. Our new member, Viv, also brought a couple of poems that we made time for in our discussions. It was a good evening, interesting and lively discussion. I sent a poem I’d redrafted in Coniston when Hilary and I went through our old notebooks looking for forgotten gems. It’s called ‘Burying the Past’, and I quite like it. I might offer it to a journal at some stage. I’ll give it a few weeks to mature before I decide. It made me think that this might be a route into poetry again: to trawl my old notebooks and journals and find writing to redraft. It might be just the springboard I’m needing.

Yesterday I did write a new poem. It’s concerns Whittlesey Wash Road, the B1040  running through the Washes, which are a series of dykes through the landscape, built as flood defences, to divert water from the River Nene in periods of potential flooding. Originally, this area of England was under the sea, until it was drained in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I found out the Ea—the original ending of Whittlesea—means island. This was Whittle’s Ea, or Whittle’s island in the surrounding sea-water. Thorney, Ely and Peterborough were also islands at that time, all towns and villages built up around historic cathedrals or abbeys. Imagine those buildings standing proud above the sea. No wonder Henry VIII sent his first wife Catherine of Aragon to this barely-accessible region to incarcerate her until her death. So I wrote my poem about Whittlesey Wash road, the B1040 that we used to drive along from our home near Thorney to visit relatives in and around Whittlesey. I’m not sure the poem I wrote is the one I should have written. It was intended for the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology, whose working title is Well, dam. The idea is to celebrate—or expose—all the ways humankind has used—or abused—the earth’s watery resources. My poem should be about the drainage of the fens, the series of dykes and cuts that reclaimed the land from the sea, and how the sea sometimes calls the land back into itself. Instead I wrote a personal poem about riding that road in childhood, and how the pollarded willows lining the roads seemed to shake angry fists at me as I rode past. I think I retrieved it sufficiently for it to survive the cut for the anthology, but I’ll leave it to marinade in its own poetic gravy for a while, see what I think mid-August. The deadline is August 31st, so I still have time.

I’ve started to prepare for my Viva in September. I’ve been doing some research into my examiners. My Director of Studies told me to be savvy: one of his students hadn’t done their homework and underestimated the external examiner’s personal expertise in the area of the PhD under examination. Ooops! I don’t want to make that mistake; not that I’m likely to! If only I had the self-confidence to think my version was the definitive version! But it’ll be good to know who she is, where she’s coming from professionally. I’ve also started to re-read my thesis. May seems a long time ago and I feel out of touch with it already. I need to know it inside out to be able to discuss it like an expert. I have less than five weeks to the Viva, on September 6th, so I’m trying to use this time for revision. I’ve been reading my older blog posts too; which is revealing, because they speak of me reading books I’d forgotten I’d read, books I didn’t necessarily use in the written thesis and so aren’t listed in the bibliography. Thank goodness for Kindle. Those books are still there to be revisited; or on my immaculately ordered bookshelves in my spring-cleaned study.

Speaking of my study, the Velux window above my desk let the water in this week. We’ve seen particularly heavy rain lashing onto that face of the house throughout the week, and the window’s faulty seals let the water in. This isn’t the first time it’s happened either. It’s so annoying to see papers and books on the desk damaged by rain that should be staying on the outside of the house. I’ve made a decision. The window will be replaced in the next month or so. I’ve had enough. I can’t take the soul-destroying damage rain water causes when it invades the home; and yes, I know this is a minor inconvenience compared with the damage to the dam at Whaley Bridge and all the possible devastation that could cause; but it’s a recurring inconvenience I can do something about with the installation of a new window. Thank heaven I did the big spring clean in the study earlier in July. At least the desk was relatively clear. When I was doing my PhD it was permanently full of books and papers, in an organised chaos only I understood. The last time water came in through the Velux, a lot of work was damaged. But I can do something about the risk. A new window it is then.

On Monday I went to Peterborough with my daughter Amie to meet up with son Richard and friends. We went out for dinner, had a lovely day. Next week we’re all going to Kidderminster where Richard has booked a holiday cottage to celebrate his Big Birthday. I know, Kidderminster is a rare holiday venue, but it’s central for all of us to meet up. Richard is coming from Peterborough, Amie and I from Saddleworth, Michael from Wiltshire. I’ve called it our Wilt weekend in my diary, because originally Richard wanted to book a boat for the weekend, and it reminded me of that storyline from Tom Sharpe’s novels. But he couldn’t find a canal barge big enough to accommodate us all, so a cottage it is.  It’ll be lovely to be with all the children together. It doesn’t happen often enough when they grow out into their own lives.

So that’s my week: post-PhD limbo. Poetry trying to make a come-back. And family. A former member of my staff retired this week. I told her to enjoy her retirement; it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I stand by that. It brought me poetry and there are worse things to do with your leisure time. I won’t post the poem I wrote for Beautiful Dragons, because that’s for Rebecca Bilkau, the editor. But I’ll post another poem about an East Anglian legend, Boudicca, the Celtic queen who resisted Roman power when the Roman Governor stole her powerbase and the Roman forces raped her daughters. Her uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, but she caused a lot of havoc in the process. She’s been a heroine of mine for a long time. My staff used to call me Boudicca when I took on a fight as head-teacher; a nickname I didn’t object to. Everyone should fight like Boudicca for things they believe in. Here’s the poem I wrote, one in my ‘alternative mother’ series. It’s in the pamphlet I share with Hilary Robinson and Tonia Bevins, Some Mothers Do… (Beautiful Dragons Press; 2018). Boudicca certainly did!

Alternative Mother #2

Boudicca

In your footsteps, pearl-wort, loosestrife
and purple orchis grow. You are Andraste the Invincible,
moon goddess, tall as an ash tree, your hair
a fire-fall that consumes empires.

Let me trace the hot threat of war-paint
colouring your cheeks as menace, widening
your wolf wife’s eyes. Make the cold twists
of gold at your throat simmer.

Moon-mother, you are fearsome. Your eyes are
vengeful swords you sheathe from me; in fury
you roll up meadows into proclamations, stanch rivers,
rip up cities to skim on the sea’s surface.

You were there when I cried out to you.
Scabbard your anger in his back, warrior mother,
make revenge a magma flow,
become a new stratum in earth’s skin,

broadcast your battlecry as clarion then
make your wake a feast of nightshade, arum lily.
You can be no man’s trophy.

Rachel Davies
2018