Monthly Archives: September 2019

Putting Word to paper…

I’ve had to give myself another good talking to this week in order to find the motivation to start work on the revisions. I’ve been doing some reading and note-taking, but the thought of starting to first draft the revisions was daunting. I was beginning to obsess about it, knowing I had to do it, knowing the celebrations would be short lived if I didn’t get the job done; but unable to actually introduce Word to paper. I had an email from Antony, my Director of Studies that put it all in perspective, pointing out that it is only four paragraphs to add to the thesis. He included details of a book about the controversies surrounding Freud’s ‘legacy’, which was available electronically from MMU library, so I accessed that midweek and read the relevant chapters. The job must have been going through my head while I slept, because I woke up a couple of times this week thinking about it, chewing over useful phrases, which I jotted down when I was near a notebook. Yesterday I made a start, and I’ve written two of the four paragraphs—which could actually cover three of the tasks, I think. So that’s at least half way through; I can do this. The motivation’s back, I’ll be at my desk again later today crafting the next two (one?). Hopefully I’ll have it to send to my DoS by midweek for feedback. Then, of course, I’ll need to edit the list of contents, because all the pages will have shunted along with the redrafts! I’ll be happy to see the final-final back of it, and submit it to the University. I don’t need hard copy of this redraft, apparently, just electronic submission; but I’ll get a bound copy for my own use, to adorn my bookshelves and to act as a strong deterrent if I’m ever tempted to do anything as rash as this again!

Poetry has had its place in the week. On Monday I heard back from Rebecca Bilkau, editor of Well, Dam!: the latest Beautiful Dragons project. She likes my ‘Pollarded Willows on Whittlesey Wash Road’ but confirmed that it’s two lines too long to fit the publishing spec of 38 lines max, including line breaks. I suspected that might be the case, so I ‘pollarded’ it by a couple of lines, made sure I liked it as it was, saved it as Mk4, and sent it back to her on Wednesday as promised. We’re planning a launch in Buxton in November, which takes longer to organise than you might think, involving so many poets. I’m easy for several of the dates mentioned, so I’ll look forward to that. There will be other launches around the country, some of which I might also get to; I’ll post details on here when I have them.

On Tuesday it was our Poetry Society Stanza in Stalybridge Buffet Bar. We met to read and discuss the Forward Prize nominees this month, prior to the awards in October. I bought a copy of The Forward Book of Poetry 2020, which has a selection of ‘best collections’ poems along with the shortlisted ‘best poems’ and the commended poems, so we had a lot to keep us going. Unfortunately we were on the red list again this month, there only being three members there; but I received three apologies as well, so we don’t need resuscitation just yet. The poetry was wonderful and discussion of the poems was interesting. We’d already read and discussed two of the collections in previous meetings, before they were shortlisted for Forward recognition: Fiona Benson’s wonderful Vertigo and Ghost and Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance. Other poems I enjoyed were Isabel Galleymore’s ‘The Starfish’—‘fizzy skinned, pentamerously legged’: fantastic language. It describes a starfish devouring a mussel; but it’s also, I feel, a metaphor for human relationships. It’s from her shortlisted ‘Best First Collection’, Significant Other.I also read a Rebecca Goss poem ‘Rachel’ for obvious reasons: ‘I spent the day being Rachel…’ it starts, and goes on to outline a day in which she adopts a persona: ‘I decided that as Rachel, I wasn’t interested in birds after all’. I thought, what a wonderful way to spend a day, being someone else; and what a good workshop activity, to write as someone else, adopting their mannerisms and ways of using language. I might give it a go. When the revisions are done.

The set of Macbeth, showing the couldron, at the start of the play.

On Wednesday evening Bill and I went to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester for a performance of Macbeth. The eponymous antihero was played by a woman in a same-sex marriage. This is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The witches doubled as servants in the Macbeth household, bringing an element of threat and menace in the way they often stared down Lady Macbeth. As the weird sisters, they were slightly manic and extremely sado-sexual. The feast scene, with the ghost of Banquo, was the highlight of the performance for me. It was a masked ball with guests fancy-dressed as animals etc, except for Queen Macbeth, who wore an ill-fitting, strappy gown that made her look rather anorexic, I felt. But it was red, signifying blood, a constant trope throughout the play: red was everywhere. Banquo came dressed as a lion, removed his lion’s head to reveal himself to Macbeth, who totally flipped; no-one else could see Banquo, bloodied from his assassination earlier in the day. Somehow, and I really don’t know how they managed to stage it except it might have been magic, Banquo’s costume contained someone else, and the party continued. Then Banquo raised his ghostly, ghastly blood-spattered self from the centre of the table, sending cakes, jellies, macaroons scattering in all directions. It was wonderfully well done, theatre at its best. There was a school group in the audience and they were rapt: this was a modern, contemporary interpretation of a great play. But if I’m brutally honest, I really don’t see how having a lesbian Macbeth added anything to the play. It didn’t make any great feminist statement, it didn’t celebrate LBGTQ issues in any way; it was an added layer without exploring its layers. It was a good night out, though. Macbeth’s always an interesting date!

The same performance space at the end of the play.

On Friday I met up with Hilary and Polly to discuss next year’s Line Break week. We met for lunch in Bundobust in Manchester Piccadilly. We had a lovely lunch, but didn’t get far with planning, because Polly isn’t sure she’ll be able to join us again this year. Family commitments around Manchester and in the North East are keeping her particularly busy currently and she doesn’t know if the situation will be any less pressing before we go. We agreed to hold off planning until the end of January, when she might have a better idea. I hope she can make it: we had a good week last year, but it wasn’t the same without her. Hilary and I went back to the Exchange Square tram-stop via T K Maxx, and spent money we didn’t plan to spend. I bought Pierre Cardin leggings for £3.99! Whichever way you look at it, that’s got to be a bargain!

I’ll be writing next week from Swindon. Hilary and I are off to the Big Poetry Weekend, the Swindon festival, on Thursday. So I’ll have lots to tell you next week; and with any luck I’ll have sent my revisions to Antony for feedback by then, and not have them to worry about while I’m away. I’ve had a poem accepted for Domestic Cherry 7, a journal edited by the festival organisers, and I’ve been asked to read it at the launch in Swindon on Sunday evening. ‘Spooning’ is the poem, and it describes mother’s method of crowd control when dad wasn’t there to maintain order at mealtimes. Here’s the poem, with thanks to Mabel Watson and the crazy team at Domestic Cherry and the Big Poetry Weekend. I can’t wait, bring it on!



What I remember of the spoon is
how it was her crowd control at mealtimes
how she held it upright in her hand,
its handle to the table-top, how it tapped
a rhythm like a slow drum

how when we laughed we knew the spoon
would greet us with a firm handshake,
a spoon shaped bruise would raise itself
on the back of our hands, how we tried
not to laugh but it was a contagion

how you tried to drown your laughter
in a cup of tea but one snort spread tealeaves
across your face like freckles and we laughed,
laughed so much we knew. Here it comes now…

Rachel Davies




Burning and raving…

When I first retired, about fifteen years ago, the ‘escalating cost’ of caring for an aging population was often a news item, as it continues to be today. That ‘aging population’ was—is—often depicted in the main-stream media sitting in the kind of upright armchairs deployed in care homes, its arthritic fingers tapping out some unheard rhythm on a wooden chair arm, a cup of weak, milky tea and rich tea biscuits on a plate close by. If we saw its feet, they were almost certainly encased in plaid slippers with Velcro fasteners or with pompoms on the instep. I was horrified to hear one professional carer of this ‘elderly population’ declaim that ‘the old dears like a rich tea biscuit with their cuppa.’ I wanted to shake her, wake her up to the reality of these ‘old dears’, men and women who had done extraordinary things in their lives. Her ‘old dears’ were the generation who had survived the second world war; some of them had actively contributed to the war effort, as front-line soldiers, RAF and Navy personnel, ARP wardens, nurses, firefighters home guard, land army, munitions workers etc. etc.; but also as special agents, parachuted into enemy territory to aid and support troops and resistance groups, to work with occupied populations. They had, in short, done extraordinary things; and their depiction as decrepit hardly-people disturbed and angered me; perhaps more so because I was hurtling towards the age of the pompom slipper myself. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,/ ‘old age should burn and rave at close of day’,  wrote Dylan Thomas in his famous and most beautiful villanelle. Where in the main-stream media is ‘old age’ burning and raving? Where, the recognition that the ‘elderly population’ is capable of extraordinary things? I will not go gentle, and I have been reminded several times in the last couple of weeks of the extraordinary thing I have done in achieving PhD at 72 years of age, for no other reason than it was my personal mountain, out there to be climbed. Well, I reached the summit, I planted my flag. Congratulations from friends and family have continued to arrive this week: this tee shirt from my son Michael, for instance:

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celebratory tee shirt…and badges

An accompanying note that said he tells everyone he meets about what I’ve achieved. The badges are from my lovely friend Hilary: ‘wear them with pride,’ her note said. Another friend, Joan, gave me three individual bottles of wine with instructions to share with no-one: they are all mine, to celebrate my achievement; on the other hand, her son joked that I’m a ‘posey showoff’ for having so many letters after my name.

My point is that, although I am proud of my achievement, of course I am, I’m not the only one of an ‘elderly population’ that has done an extraordinary thing. There are others out there who do extraordinary things every day, and I would love to hear from/about them. I’m thinking that this is where my blog will go next: in the celebration of we extraordinary oldies who refuse to ‘go gentle into that good night,’ who continue to ‘rave at close of day’. If you are one of these, or you know someone who is, I’d love to hear from you/them. Let’s celebrate raving age, not silence it with milky tea and rich tea biscuits.

I went to London yesterday to see another extraordinary oldie: Sir Ian McKellen turned 80 in May this year. ‘On Stage’ is his birthday celebration tour.

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Sir Ian McKellen, on a poster outside the theatre and on the cover of the
performance brochure

He has taken it to all countries of the UK, performed in umpteen towns, cities, theatres and venues from the Orkney Islands to Jersey. McKellen shows us how to ‘rave at close of day’. Last year I saw him give the most powerful portrayal of King Lear I have seen in my life. His ‘Lear’ will be my yardstick for measuring performances of the role in the future. Yesterday he was ‘On Stage’, talking about his stellar acting career. It was a one-man show: just McKellen reminiscing, reliving some of his landmark roles, telling us about his personal journey through life and career. It was wonderful. There were parts I was unsure of: he read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, declaimed it as an actor performing his lines. I didn’t like it, too ‘actorly’, too dramatic, the performance detracted from the words in my opinion. Also, my favourite speech from Macbeth, the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, he performed as boredom, ennui, which I agree is a valid performance decision, but I didn’t like it: the slow delivery detracted from the wonderful poetry: again, just my opinion. But the show as a whole was wonderful; and McKellen was extraordinary in his octogenarian energy and humour, in his ability to hold an audience and entertain the crowd for almost three hours. At the end of the performance he came into the theatre foyer with a collection bucket to raise more funds for the theatre-and-arts-related charities the show supports. What a man, what a human being.

This wasn’t my only theatre visit this week, either. On Tuesday evening, Bill and I went to Home in Manchester for a performance of Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road, her memoir of the time she was searching for her birth parents, searching for her own sense of her true identity. Jackie was adopted at birth, raised by her adoptive parents, communist party members in Glasgow. Of course, their political affiliation is irrelevant in this context; but my favourite part of the book, which I read about four years ago, is the part where she eventually meets her birth father, Jonathan, in his native Nigeria, and he is a born-again Christian. His first action on meeting her is to ask her, this communist-raised woman, to pray with him to atone for the sin of being born out of wedlock: he views her as a sin to be forgiven. Trust me, it is written with humour; and the play opened with this scene. Stefan Adegbola, playing Jonathan, really emphasised the humour of the scene, playing Jonathan as an evangelical faith-healer character while Sasha Frost—Jackie Kay—stood by wide-eyed and disbelieving. I loved the book, which showcases the humour of Jackie Kay’s writing wonderfully well; the play is very loyal to the book and it includes some poems from The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe Books, 1991), her multi-voiced poetry collection addressing her experience of adoption. Unfortunately the play’s run at Home finished yesterday, but if you find it being performed somewhere else, I urge you to see it: you won’t be disappointed.

Other events this week: I spent a morning in the MMU library on Wednesday checking out some of my earlier reading to support the ‘minor revisions’ to the thesis. I forgot to take my reading glasses so I had to work with the varifocals, which are not ideal for reading books: too much head movement needed to focus the print. And I don’t like working in the library anyway, too many distractions: I’m a reader who needs to empty the space around me when I’m working, lose myself in the job in hand. But it was necessary and I persevered. I got the reading done that I needed to do, and feel a step closer to completing the revisions and putting the thesis behind me once and for all.

I also ordered the Forward prize anthology this week: The Forward Book of Poetry 2020 (London: Bookmark, 2019). We’re discussing the poetry shortlisted for this year’s prize at our next Stanza meeting, on Tuesday coming. I picked up my copy of the anthology from Waterstones on Friday and read it on the train to London yesterday. There are some stonking good poems in there, the best of contemporary poetry. We have already read a couple of the collections at Stanza: Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost (Cape Poetry) and Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverence (Penned in the Margins). So I know we are in for a treat on Tuesday at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge Station. Can’t wait.

So that’s it really, my week, full as ever. Rosie went back to the vet for a post-op check on Tuesday: she’s doing well, they want to see her again next week when her meds are all complete. Oh deep joy, I have to take her and Jimbo on the same day, he for his annual health check and vaccinations. How much am I looking forward to getting two cats into pet carriers on the same morning. Wish me luck: I might need hawking gloves to lift Jimbo, he’s not as light or malleable as Rosie. I promised the vet I’d do my best, and none of us can do more, nor should do less, than that.

A poem to finish, as usual: this is the first sonnet in my sonnet crown, a sequence of seven sonnets. It’s focused on an old woman, a member of the ‘aging population’ of milky tea drinkers. It was inspired by a photograph by Bruce Gilden in the Manchester Art Gallery’s ‘Strange and Familiar’ exhibition, 2016-7. The grotesque photo of this old woman was juxtaposed with photographs of mini-skirted girls from the sixties, enjoying the sexual and social freedoms of the era: a time when this old woman would herself have been young, mini-skirted and sexually attractive. Everyone has a history, after all. We ignore this to our detriment as a society. My sonnet crown recognises and celebrates this.

from Mirror Images

I’m looking in the mirror
at a lardy old woman; but here
in the photo, Hyde Park ’68, I was thin
as an elf, confident, full of myself:
Quant make-up, leather jacket,
geometric hair, first generation mini-skirt,
burned bra.
See the photo of me then
and my mirror self now: blood-flushed
face a street map of veins,
wattle chin, whiskers like thorns, tits
slapping my knees.
I get that life’s a burlesque but
                    you landed the role of grotesque.

 Rachel Davies

Reading, revising, spooning. And pets.

…and there was me, thinking I’d have to find a different tag-line for my blog, now I have achieved the PhD. But I find myself still in the thick of it with the ‘minor revisions’, so the ‘PhD, Poetry and Life’ tag-line stays for a couple of months at least. This week has been all about coming down from the viva-high and approaching the revisions. And poetry, of course.

Saturday and Sunday I was totally out of it, I could hardly stay awake. I think I used up so much nervous energy and adrenalin over the viva, I just wanted to sleep it off. Monday I was working at the Black Ladd as usual, so it was Tuesday before I could take a look at the ‘minor revisions’ and see what they entailed. After a visit to the hairdresser on Tuesday morning, and calling at the pharmacy for a prescription to be told my medication is rationed—again—due to the bloody B word (grrrr!) I came home to work. But the best laid plans of mice and women…I had a phone call from my daughter, Amie, asking if I could doggy-sit her sister-in-law’s Cavoodle (Cavalier King Charles/poodle cross), as sister-in-law had a funeral to go to. Of course I said yes. My plan was to take Lulu up to the study with me and work while she had doggy snoozes on the futon. Lulu had different ideas. She is not a dog to be ignored, spent the morning making sure we noticed her. A proper drama queen, she wouldn’t rest, was on our knees, licking faces, jumping from one to the other of us. Snacks? No thank you, just attention. I took her out for a walk, it did nothing to calm her down. We had to put her into the conservatory so we could have lunch, a kind of respite break for us. After lunch we took her to Diggle for a walk along the canal to Grandpa Greene’s: a doggy sausage for Lulu and a coffee for us. She did slow down a bit when we got home and even dozed for a while; but by then work was a no-no for the day. She is a lovely dog, friendly—a bit too friendly—and cute but so demanding of attention. By the time she calmed down after the walk, I was exhausted. I left work alone until Wednesday.

But Wednesday wasn’t the best day for work either. My lovely cat, Rosie Parker had to go to the vet for dental work. She has an auto-immune disease that attacks her teeth beneath the gum-line, so she had to have six extractions, poor thing. We got her to the vet for 8.15 a.m. Worrying about your cat isn’t the best climate for work. I did read the viva report to check out the revisions; I read the comments on the thesis from the external examiner. I emailed Antony, my Director of Studies, to discuss the best way to approach the revisions. Then I put them and the thesis aside to prepare for a poetry reading in the evening, sorting and practising my fifteen minute set.

Wednesday evening was the Lancaster launch of the second Dragon Spawn pamphlet from Beautiful Dragons Press, and Barbara Hickson, one of the three latest spawn of the dragon, had asked Hilary and me, as first-born spawn, to read from our own pamphlet at the launch. I prepared a set that included some more recent poems as well as a set from Some Mothers Do... (DragonSpawn Press 2018) I timed them in the reading: it’s bad manners, and unprofessional, to over-run your time allocation. After lunch we went to the vet to collect Rosie. She came home with medication. I’m reluctant to go poking around her sore mouth with a pipette, so I’ve been finding new and inventive ways to administer it: but she’s canny, and so far I guess she’s taken about 10% of her dose. Dairylea cheese? Nah! Double cream? Nah! Dripped onto wholemeal bread, which she usually loves? Nah. Yesterday, single cream seemed to do the trick, but even so I’m not completely sure it isn’t Jimbo who’s been lapping her spiked cream. Really, you can only do your best.

So, after she was home, and safely installed in her favourite hidey- hole under the futon in the study, I went with Hilary and her husband, David, to Lancaster for the launch. Bill stayed home to Rosie-sit. After a meal in a Turkish restaurant, Medusa, we went to the Royal King’s Arms for the launch. It was a lovely evening. Neither the two other poets in the collection, Gabriel Griffin and Bev Morris, nor Rebecca Bilkau, editor at Beautiful Dragons, could be there, so the poet Sarah Hymas chaired the evening. Barbara read from Rugged Rocks Ragged Rascals (DragonSpawn Press, 2019). Her poems are gentle but with an underlying depth of tenderness. Several of the poems deal with place: her regular visits to the Hebrides, or the hills and coastline of Lancashire and Cumbria, ‘where your name is written on the shore,/ each letter shaped by the wind…’ She read them beautifully. I would have liked to meet and hear the missing dragon sisters, but that’s a treat for the future. We both bought copies of the book, which she signed: ‘For Rachel—congratulations to us both! With love, Barbara.’ Hilary read next, a mixed set of pamphlet and newer poems, and my set was in the second half. Barbara’s nephew and his son provided music for the evening, guitar duets. It was an appropriately happy and celebratory event.

I’ve had several ‘congratulations’ cards in the post this week, including one from friend Joan, which had a string of letters on the envelope. It actually made me laugh out loud. It was addressed to Dr Rachel Davies, BEd (Hons), BA (Hons), Msc, MA (Dist), PhD. How ridiculous is that—a whole alphabet of letters after my name? I’m going to stop now. No really, I am.

Saturday I bit the bullet and sat down at my desk to make an attack on the revisions. Actually, they’re not as daunting as I thought when I first read them on Wednesday. How often does that happen: you take an initial reading and you just notice the scary stuff, the negative stuff. As a species we don’t tend to pick up on the positives. But we should. I read and took notes, corrected a few typos (despite the nit comb I used before I submitted the thesis back in May). I made a note of books I need to refer to when I get round to editing. I feel as if I pummelled the job into submission. It’s doable. I’m planning a visit to the library at MMU on Wednesday to check out the books I need. I hope they’ll let me in, now I’m not officially enrolled as a student any more. Hopefully my student card will still allow me access.

I spent the rest of the day putting some of the thesis poems together into a pamphlet to submit for publication. I chose twenty of the strongest—in my opinion—in the collection, including ten ‘alternative mothers’. It’s hard to get the tempo of a pamphlet right, to order them to show them off at their best. It took a time to get them sorted, and when I was satisfied I sent them out to the Mslexia/PBS competition, which closes tonight. Ambitious, but hey! We’ll see. I’ll send them to other places in the meantime.

So that’s it. Another full week where the PhD still looms large despite having achieved a pass. I called into the Halifax on Friday to see how I get my title changed on my accounts: ‘Mrs’ into ‘Dr’. It feels the right thing to do, especially as I divorced the Davies two decades ago. It’ll be good to get rid of that tie once and for all. But I have to wait a bit longer, apparently, until I get the official certificate. Ho hum, keep beavering away at the revisions, Rach.

Here’s a poem from the collection. I think it speaks for itself. It’s going to be published in the journal Domestic Cherry 7 in October: I’m going to read it at the journal’s launch during ‘The Big Poetry Weekend’, on Sunday, October 6th in Swindon. Hilary and I are going to the festival anyway, so it’ll be nice to contribute in a very small way.


What I remember of the spoon is
how it was her crowd control at mealtimes
how she held it upright in her hand,
its handle to the table-top, how it tapped
a rhythm like a slow drum

how when we laughed we knew the spoon
would greet us with a firm handshake,
a spoon shaped bruise would raise itself
on the back of our hands, how we tried
not to laugh but it was a contagion

how you tried to drown your laughter
in a cup of tea but one snort spread tealeaves
across your face like freckles and we laughed,
laughed so much we knew. Here it comes now…

Rachel Davies




Dr Davies


Lovely flowers, a gift from my daughter and sons

This week has been all about the viva. ‘Viva voce’ literally translates as ‘living voice’: a viva is an oral examination, an examination of the thesis in ‘the living voice’, i.e. orally. An interview. I didn’t enjoy interviews when I was working, viewed them as a necessary evil; and I wasn’t looking forward to this one. But I had an email from MMU, about the viva, seeking my permission for observers to be present. I declined: being ever so slightly interview-phobic, it’s enough to have people in the room who are required to be there. However, the email also had some useful information about the viva: there was a series of videos about a woman who had been through the viva, always ending with her being presented with her degree at the summer ceremony. I have been trying that visualisation thing this week, seeing myself walking confidently into the viva, seeing myself relaxed and answering the questions with a degree of authority; seeing myself in the bonnet and gown. So not only was the content of the videos useful, I could visualise myself as successful, receiving my degree next summer; just the viva left to negotiate. There was also a link to a set of the ’40 most commonly asked viva questions’ in the email. I clicked the link and printed off the questions. I spent a couple of days working through them. They were very open-ended: ‘What about your thesis do you consider to be its strengths?’; ‘Where is it weakest?; ‘Why did you choose this particular subject for you research?’; ‘Why do you think we should give you a PhD?’: that kind of openness. I enjoyed responding to the questions and they certainly concentrated the mind. If the actual viva had that form of open question, I felt I would be OK.

On Thursday evening, the evening before the viva, I went with Hilary to Didsbury for The Other, a reading event where you swap writing with a partner and read each other’s work to the audience. I was paired with Louise Finnegan, who is a teacher in Manchester. She’d sent me two prose pieces to choose from, extracts from novels she’s writing. I chose to read the piece about a young boy and one of those supermarket rides, a spaceship, his dad has brought home for him. It read like a short story, so it felt complete even though it was an extract. The other piece had a sexual scene in it, delicately written, but as I said at the reading, I don’t do sex in public! I sent Louise a set of seven poems: the Whittlesey Wash poem I wrote recently—I wanted to hear how it sounded in the reading—and a selection of my alternative mothers. Hilary and I travelled to Didsbury on the tram: I love Metrolink. We passed a Lebanese restaurant on the way to the Metropolitan, the venue for the reading; so we had a lovely Lebanese meal before we read. Michael Conley was the MC for the event: another MMU MA graduate. It was a good night, some interesting writing, and my poems were the last to be read, so the audience was left with them ringing in their ears at the end of the night, which was lovely. I received very positive feedback, just what I needed before the viva. And the event was just what I needed too, a diversion: it took my mind off the viva for those few hours.

On Friday I went about my normal Friday business: I always call in to the Black Ladd to cash up the tills for Amie’s business on a Friday, so we did this as usual. We, Bill and I, went in to Manchester, had a coffee and a disgustingly sweet cake in Costa. I left Bill at the Art Gallery and walked along Oxford Road to Allsaints Campus and the Righton Building, the venue for the viva. I was directed upstairs to Room 1.12. The viva was at 1.00 p.m. so I had about ten minutes to spare to catch my breath before I was called into the room by Dr Nikolai Duffy, who chaired the meeting. The viva panel was comprised of Prof Michael Symmons Roberts, internal examiner: yes Michael Symmons Roberts the wonderful poet, whom I know quite well from Poets and Players and from doing my annual reviews during the PhD process; and Dr Ursula Hurley from Salford Uni, the external examiner. I had sought her out on the internet during the week and read some of her work, an article, ‘Fail again, fail better’, about process versus product learning in higher education, which I’d found really interesting. I shook hands all round and we were underway. The first question was open: ‘why did you want to do the PhD’. It was just what I needed to settle the nerves. Other questions were more directly related to aspects of the thesis itself, questioning research decisions and findings; questioning my rationale behind choices I’d made or conclusions I’d come to; finally asking me about the creative element, which they felt was a strong set of poems: how did I come to write the poems, the process, my poetics and working methods. The viva took an hour and a half altogether, but the time seemed to fly. I think I answered some questions more lucidly than others, but I was happy that I had defended the thesis to the best of my ability. I went for a coffee while the panel discussed the viva and drew conclusions. I read through the poems while I had my coffee, to take my mind off the wait. Nikolai came to find me in the Business School café when the deliberations were over. We walked back to Room 1.12 together and he was so lovely, chatting away to dispel the nerves. He asked after Hilary, whose poetry he supervised during her MA. I took a deep breath as I walked into the room, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. I took my seat at the table. I noticed a tray of cakes and fruit in the centre of the table that hadn’t been there during the viva. I looked at Dr Hurley. ‘Congratulations’, she said and I knew I’d passed. That one little word knocked the breath out of my lungs, I could have cried but I didn’t have the breath even to cry. Nikolai explained that the decision had been ‘Pass, but with minor revisions to the text.’ This is one of the levels of pass: typos to correct, minor revisions, rewrites of a section, rewrites of the whole thing then resubmission. So I was happy with ‘minor revisions’. Nikolai offered to read out what the revisions were, but my brain was mousse by then so I asked him not to, I’d look when my brain was more accepting. I’d passed, that was the only thought that was going to find space in my head for the next hour! They called me Dr Davies and shook my hand, congratulated me, explained the process for the revisions and it was over. I left the room.

I rang Bill at the Gallery, I rang Amie at the Black Ladd, I rang Hilary; but I knew I wasn’t being particularly coherent. ‘I did it!’ was about all I could manage. I rang Jean Sprackland, supervisor of the creative element, and left a message on her answerphone. I got the bus along Oxford St. to the Art Gallery to find Bill. I’d meant to walk, but I had all three copies of the thesis in my bag, complete with the panel’s evaluation notes, so I took the bus. We, Bill and I, went to Don Giovanni for a late lunch, early evening meal: it was about 4.30 by now. I ordered a bucket full of the coldest, driest white wine in the house. I’d earned it! Jean rang me back while we were in the restaurant and it was good to speak to her; particularly satisfying to be able to tell her they thought the poems were strong. Her support has been fundamental to the creative aspect. We agreed to meet up soon for coffee and cake.

We called in at the Black Ladd on the way home. Amie gave me a great big hug, which was lovely; she also gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers, the bouquet in the photo at the top of this blog post, from her and my two sons. She’d ordered them before the viva, because she said she knew I’d do it. Bless her, she’s a diamond.  She also gave me a bottle of Chablis to celebrate with Bill when we got home. We did celebrate. And we celebrated again on Saturday when we went out for a lovely meal which we accompanied with a bottle of Moët. ‘Doctors always drink Moët,’ I joked, ‘it’s the law.’

Moët celebrations

So that’s it, the culmination of five years of hard work. There were times I didn’t think I’d do it, times I came close to giving up. I remember after the very first induction meeting when I began the PhD, how it felt as if a huge chasm had opened up in front of me and I had no idea how I would negotiate a path to the other side. The PhD was a destination and I had to find the map. Of course, as I started the work I realised it wasn’t a destination at all, it was a journey. It was hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There were times I genuinely questioned whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I remember saying to a poet friend who is also doing the PhD at MMU that I really didn’t know if I’d get a PhD at the end of it, but I was enjoying the work. ‘Don’t worry about it Rachel,’ she’d said, ‘if they don’t give you a PhD they’ll give you an MPhil or something. They won’t let you leave empty-handed.’ That made me smile, seeing MPhil as a substitute, an academic wooden spoon; because somewhere students are beavering away to achieve just that. But MPhil just wouldn’t have cut it for me, it would have felt like failure. PhD or nothing was where I was at. And now I have a PhD. I rewrote my writer’s biographical statement yesterday, in preparation for the Dragon Spawn reading next Wednesday. For the first time, I’ll be introduced as Dr Rachel Davies. What a perfect prize is that!

I suppose I’ll have to think of a different tag line for the blog now; well soon, anyway. I still have the ‘minor revisions’ to tackle: I’ll be checking them out later today. I have four months to complete them, although I hope it won’t take that long. And there is always the degree ceremony and its attendant celebration; and that delightful Tudor bonnet and fur edged gown. Bring it on!

I’m going to leave you with a poem from the thesis collection; this is one Dr Hurley commented that she particularly liked, so this is for her. I wrote it at a Poets&Players workshop, I can’t remember if it was the one run by Ian Duhig or Steve Ely, but the essence of the workshop was a Meredith Frampling painting, ‘A Game of Patience’. This is the poem I wrote from the painting.


The Patience of Persephone

After ‘A Game of Patience’ by Meredith Frampling

 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 but I don’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’ll 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

Alternative Mothers

I’m on the big countdown to the viva. It’s next Friday, only five days away and counting. I’ve been doing my homework this week, literally. I’ve been re-reading the thesis. When I collected it from the printers in May, I was minimally upset that I’d requested it to be single-sided printing. I thought I’d asked for double-sided, so I was surprised when it was fatter than I expected when I collected it. I’m now realising what a serendipity that actually was. I’m reading it through, best-guessing what I’m likely to be asked about in the viva. The blank page is a godsend for making notes at those places where I feel I need to. I always write on the right-hand page of my poetry journals, leaving the left-hand page blank for redrafting etc. Inadvertently, the same applies with the thesis. I’m reading, taking notes and it’s going to spare me a lot of sheets of paper to carry, to get dropped and mixed up on the day. ‘But you’re spoiling your lovely thesis,’ I hear you gasp. Well, I’ve already spotted typos, despite going through it with a nit comb before I submitted, so I’ll have to have an edited copy published for the library anyway, I suspect. And I’ve done the note-taking in pencil, so it can be rubbed out if no edits ordered. Win-win.

On Tuesday I had to go into Uppermill first thing for a haircut. I took my MacBook and when I’d finished at the hairdresser, I went across the road to Abaco for an alfresco coffee and to do some work in the lovely sunshine. First, I emailed Jo Shapcott on behalf of Poets&Players. I had a swift response, and the upshot is, she’ll be reading for us in January 2020. January 25this the date, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 2.30-4.00 p.m. Be there! In the meantime, there’s news on our website of our line-up of Autumn events, beginning with headliner Sasha Dugdale on September 21st, details here:

But the real reason I took my MacBook to the hairdresser’s was to redraft the Whittlesey Wash poem following my drive along the B1040 a couple of Sundays ago. I’m so glad I went, because the second section of my original poem did indeed lack authenticity. I redrafted it on Tuesday in the light of the drive. I included changes to the pollarded willows, which now have thick heads of hair, they’re ‘rastatrees, reggae tributes’. Some are falling over, some have fallen completely, ‘wrecks on the seabed’. There are ‘files of pylons marching’ across the flat wetland, and wind turbines ‘harvesting the wind’. I love the changes I made. I kept it for a day or two, then, a couple of days ahead of deadline, I sent it to Rebecca Bilkau, the editor at Beautiful Dragons Press, for inclusion in the anthology. Of course, inclusion will depend on her decision; but she responded that she liked it; was a bit concerned that it might be a couple of lines too long, but that’s OK, I already know where I can shorten it by a couple of lines, so I’m hopeful.

I’ve had other successes with my poetry this week too. I’ve heard from my partner in Thursday’s reading at The Other in Didsbury. This is an event where you’re paired with another writer and you read each other’s work. I’m swapping work with Louise Finnegan. Louise is thinking of sending me a passage from her ‘novel in progress’ to read at the event, so that’ll be interesting, something different for me, to read a prose passage. I’m thinking of sending Louise some of my alternative mother poems; about which I had some good news yesterday. In June, I submitted four of my favourites to an online poetry magazine, the ‘Masks’ edition of Writers’ Café, edited by Marie Lightman. Yesterday I heard that Marie wants to take all four. ALL FOUR! This is the first time I’ve had a block of poems published in a magazine, so I’m thrilled. The alternative mothers concerned are  #9: Cynthia; #13: Rhona the Ratgirl; #1: Kali; and #17: Alice. I’m really pleased they’ve found homes, particularly Rhona. She’s a stonker! I’ll let you know when the Masks issue is online.

On Tuesday evening it was our monthly Stanza meeting at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. There were eight members there this week, which was lovely. Two members brought their son/daughter, who were visiting; we joked it was ‘bring-your-offspring-to-Stanza’ day. We had a writing session; Pat and Rod brought writing prompts; Linda should have brought one, but had to send apologies due to a nasty migraine; so two members improvised with extra activities. We had a good evening; I didn’t write anything I’d brag about but some people did. I hope they go away and make something of their poems, send them out into the world to earn a living. At our next session we’re reading and discussing the short-listed Forward Prize nominations. That’s going to be a good meeting: September 24th, 7.30 at the Buffet Bar; come along if you can.

On Wednesday Amie and I went to Peterborough for a last leisurely visit to my son, Richard, before he returns to his teaching job after the school holiday. I know from my own teaching life that August is the shortest month on the calendar. When you break-up in July, August is a long rest spread out in front of you. And then, pfft, it’s gone and suddenly it’s September and the return to work. So we took a trip to Peterborough to see Richard and a couple of other friends. We had a lovely day: the weather was mostly fine, despite it being mizzly up here in the hills. We went for drinks and a meal and had a thoroughly relaxing day. Of course, Wednesday was the day PM Johnson suspended Parliament, and that was the core of most of our conversation. Johnson can dress up his actions as constitutional as much as he likes; you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Yes, Parliament is always prorogued before a Queen’s Speech; but not for five weeks; and not at the heart of the greatest constitutional crisis to hit this country since the war. We all know this is really a ploy to thwart Parliament’s democratic right to discuss, and hopefully divert, a no-deal crashing-out of Europe. And we all know Dominic Cummings, unelected puppeteer, is the one pulling the Downing Street strings. What is he even doing at the heart of government? I’ll be out on the streets on Monday evening, St Peter’s Square in Manchester, with Hilary, protesting this affront to our democracy. Brexiteers may call our outcry sour grapes, or anti-democratic or whatever other ridiculous slur they like; but if they voted for anything in the referendum, they voted to restore what they perceived as our ‘lost sovereignty’. How is sovereignty restored by suspending democracy? Open your eyes, Leavers. When you give me genuine, sensible reasons for leaving the EU, apart from ‘we won and we want it, deal or no-deal’, I’ll concede; but I haven’t heard one good reason, so I’ll keep objecting. It’s the democratic thing to do. And by your argument, the 2016 referendum was undemocratic, because we voted in a referendum in 1975 to stay in the Union and that should have been the end of it, according to your own objections. One election isn’t definitive; protest is at the heart of democracy; and I’ll be protesting Johnson’s/Cummings’s gross abuse of democracy on Monday evening. St Peter’s Square, at the site of the Peterloo Masacre; how appropriate is that?

In other news this week, Rosie Parker, my lovely cat, hasn’t been speaking to me after her visit to the vet. She’s been hiding under the futon in my study most of the week, keeping out of my way. Not only did I take her to the vet, I keep insisting she takes her meds since she got home. I hope she loves me again soon. But she has to go back to the vet again next week for dental treatment. She has an autoimmune disease that’s attacking her teeth below the gumline, so they are having to come out. I’m thinking she’ll never forgive me after this latest ‘abuse’.

Finally, a word or two about Ben Stokes. We watched the last day of the Ashes Test on Sunday. Wow. Stunning display of batting from Stokes as he saved the Test series with an England win, against all the odds. He did it in the summer, against New Zealand in the one-day World Cup final; and he did it again on Sunday. BBC Sports Personality of 2019? In my view, no-one else need apply!

In celebration of having four alternative mothers accepted for publication, I’m going to leave you with an alternative mother poem that means a lot to me personally. It’s in honour of Hilary’s mum, Jean. I never met her, but I was invited to her funeral, to support Hilary, who read a lovely piece at the funeral about her mum, who sounded like a wonderful woman. I asked Hilary afterwards if I could be her sister, because I would love to have her mum as my mum. Her response? ‘You already are my sister!’ So, despite it’s being #4 in the thesis, this is the first ‘alternative mother’ poem I actually wrote, following the funeral. I’ve included lots of the things Hilary had in her lovely tribute to her mum; some I’ve kept as they were, some I’ve embellished or altered in some slight way. This poem, this ‘alternative mother’, was written for Hilary and for Hilary’s mum: my mother-by-proxy.


Alternative Mother #4


For fun, you push me round the lounge
on the Ewbank till I beg you to stop, teach me
hula hoop, two-ball, how it’s good to laugh.

You soothe my grazes with Germolene,
say a hug helps, say it’s alright to cry.
You know the healing power of a biscuit.

You hand-sew my wedding dress,
stitch into a secret seam a blue satin ribbon,
a lock of your own hair, all the love it takes.

You take my daughter out,keep her
for bedtime stories, forget to bring her home
so I worry she’s followed the rabbit down the hole.

You make me dance, even on those days
when the music died in me. You teach me
the euphoria of champagne.

You bake scones so light they float down
to my daughter’s daughters like hot-air balloons.

Rachel Davies