Monthly Archives: December 2019

Goodbye to all that.

 ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ (Charles Dickens).

2019’s nearly over, time for the annual reflection and resolution.  I look back on the year with ambivalence. It was a time of celebration, the year I achieved my PhD; it was also a year of stupidity, when the country finally drank hemlock, voted for the cruellest and most oppressive Government in modern UK history for the single issue of Brexit; voted for a Government to repair the damage done by the Government they voted in ‘because we need a change’; voted for amputation to repair a grazed knee. I think you can guess how I feel about this. So I’ll just leave it there.

Let’s consider the good bits of 2019 instead, dwell on personal stuff because national stuff is too depressing. I’ll start with the PhD because that’s the biggest thing that happened to me this year. The first four months of 2019 were fraught with completing a thesis I came to see as a Midwich Cuckoo. I cared for it, but I couldn’t love it. I desperately needed it to leave home, but it kept demanding more and more of me. Editing, re-editing, adding, taking away, reorganising, checking, checking, checking. MHRA guidelines gave me nightmares: such pedantic taskmasters! But at the end of April my support team agreed it was complete and ready to submit. I had three hard-bound copies made and submitted according to University guidelines. I waited to hear from the University about the Viva. Eventually I heard that it would be early in September so I relaxed for the summer. Nothing I could do about it now. I’d sent my Cuckoo out into the world. I stilled the angst with a Big Spring Clean. The house got the sprucing up it had been missing for four years. I cleaned up and cleared out. It was a manifestation of grief.

In September I attended the Viva at All Saints Campus. Dr Ursula Hurley was the external examiner, Prof Michael Symmons Roberts the internal examiner, Dr Nicolai Duffy chaired the meeting. I was a bag of nerves, but they were all lovely. An hour of discussing the work of the last five years: it was surprisingly uplifting. I had to go in search of a coffee while they made their decision. I spent the time re-reading my thesis! Michael had called my poetry ‘a strong collection’ and I tried to read it with his eyes. Eventually Nicolai came to find me in the Business School and we walked back to the examination room together. As I sat down, Dr Hurley said ‘Congratulations’ and I knew I’d done it. I had some minor revisions before the award, but they called me Dr Davies. I went home happy and drank Champagne. The minor revisions were a hard task; not because they were particularly difficult to do, but because it was hard to re-motivate myself after five months away from it. But I knew without the revisions there’d be no PhD; so I grasped the nettle and resubmitted within the allotted eight weeks. I heard in November that the revisions were approved by the examiners and the award was certified. Dr Davies BEd (Hons), BA (Hons), MSc, MA (Dist), PhD. People ask what now? I still have no idea, but I know it won’t involve a university: I’ve scratched that particular itch, climbed the mountain, planted my flag. Perhaps I’ll write a book.

Speaking of which, the second biggest thing to happen is that a selection of the poems from the thesis were accepted for publication in 2020 by 4word Publishing. Poets were invited to submit a selection of six poems initially. My six were shortlisted and I was asked for a pamphlet sized collection of between 29 and 32 poems. I sent 31, including my favourite ‘Alternative Mothers’. I called the collection ‘Everyday I Ask Myself’, in honour of Rhona the Ratgirl. My collection was chosen as one of four they will publish next year. It will be launched in December 2020. My very own little book!

What of other things in my life in 2020? Poetry for instance? Oh my, where do I start? My poetry twin, Hilary Robinson and I attended several poetry events during the year. The first was the Verve festival in Birmingham in February:  We heard Vahni Capildeo, Carrie Etter, Jane Yeh, and a host of excellent poets read. We attended workshops led by Vahni Capildeo and Liz Berry. Liz’s workshop was about the magic of poetry, spells and incantations. Liz gave us all a curly seashell and mine’s still in my handbag; curled up inside is a slip of paper with my own secret spell on. I’ll carry it always. I also attended a workshop run by Bernadine Evaristo, dedicated to poetic prose; not the prose poem, but a verse novel. Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other shared this year’s Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I’ve read the latter, the former is on my to-do list. I saw Atwood at the Lowry Theatre in October talking about her work. Two weeks from her eightieth birthday, she was an inspiration: feisty, intelligent, amazing. Two Booker prize winners in one year, and I attended events involving both of them. How lucky am I?

Back to the poetry. In April Hilary and I went to Saddleworth Literature Festival, about which, enough said! St Ives, and Kim Moore’s residential at Treloyhan Manor was excellent in comparison. We had a lovely week, reading and writing poetry, eating scones, drinking cider. We visited the Rattlers Cider farm while we were in Cornwall, a good day out. I know, the link says ‘2018’, but it has details of the carousel in December 2020. In May we went to Coniston on our annual Line Break. Usually three friends, this year Polly couldn’t make it so it was just the two of us. We hired a cottage in the centre of the village. We took old poetry journals and trawled through to find forgotten gems, reworked some old first drafts. We took boat rides on the lake; the weather was lovely and we enjoyed several al fresco beers. We prepared a new submissions spreadsheet and sent out some work while we were there. It was May, soon after I’d submitted the thesis and it was like a new beginning. In October we went to the Big Poetry Weekend in Swindon: Carrie Etter again, and Fiona Benson whose wonderful collection Vertigo and Ghost was awarded the T S Eliot prize in 2019. Swindon rocks; we’ll definitely be back next year. Here’s a link to the website, still advertising 2019’s festival, but keep your eye out for info about 2020:  In December we went to Cumbria to another Kim Moore event, the Poetry Carousel. Four tutors, four workshops, evening readings. This year’s tutors were David Tait, Clare Shaw and Malika Booker. One for next year?

We read at several events, promoting our shared collection Some Mothers Do…(Beautiful Dragons Press 2018). I read at Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in January and was star struck to see the lovely Jackie Kay in the front row of the audience. Jackie bought a copy of our book, which she asked us to sign. How cool is that? We read in Sowerby Bridge at Puzzle Poets, where one poor member of the audience dislocated a shoulder applauding my set. I’ve put that into my author biography: it’s not a claim many people can make! We read in Huddersfield, Sheffield, Didsbury; we read at the launch of the second Dragon Spawn collection, featuring our poetry friend Barbara Hickson.

We attended readings by some of our favourite poets: highlights included Simon Armitage in Leeds in April; and then again in Manchester in conversation with Guy Garvey in October; Kate Fox at the Portico Library in Manchester in March; Liz Berry in York, also in March. We attended the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series at the Royal Exchange (the next season is available now: and the wonderful series of People’s Poetry Lectures at the Principal in Manchester: Michael Symmons Roberts on W H Auden; Andrew MacMillan on Thom Gunn; Sean Borodale on Sylvia Plath; Jean Sprackland on Elizabeth Bishop; Moira Egan on Marianne Moore, all wonderful and engaging. Jean was the mentor for the creative section of my PhD, and we met before the Sean Borodale lecture to raise a glass of Prosecco to my achievement. Carol Ann Duffy came over to congratulate me: it’s the little things… And as if all this wasn’t enough, we’ve attended workshops at Manchester Art Gallery run by the irrepressible Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business; and at the Whitworth Art Gallery run by Poets & Players. P&P continues to organise high quality reading and music events, the next one is on January 25th featuring Jo Shapcott and Kim Moore, with music by Chris Davies; and our competition is currently open for entries until January 21st. What are you waiting for?

Early in the year I worked in collaboration with the composer Ben Gaunt on a piece entitled ‘Tawny Owl Lullaby’; in March we met in a studio in Leeds to record it. I heard recently that Ben is planning to release the recording as an EP; about which more details when I have them.

So all was good on the poetry front in 2019. What of ‘life’; what can I say? It’s been a brilliant year. I’ve visited the Leornardo drawings in Manchester and Birmingham Art Galleries; I would have visited them while I was in Leeds, except the gallery was closed that day. I’ve had lovely away breaks with the family, in Lincolnshire, Kidderminster, Somerset. I took a post-PhD holiday on Corfu and visited Albania on my birthday. I’ve been to London to see Sir Ian McKellen’s gob-smackingly brilliant King Lear; and again to see his eightieth birthday tour. What an icon; what an octogenarian; what an inspiration. In other theatres I’ve seen Macbeth (it was alright), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (it was brilliant), The Motown Story (also brilliant). I’ve had one or two health issues: the autoimmune condition, polymyalgia rheumatic, that I thought I’d defeated, had other ideas; it came back with a vengeance and I was back on steroids on New Year’s Eve 2018. I’m still on them and there’s a chance I’ll be on a low dose for life. A scan revealed that my autoimmune system has also attacked my thyroid gland: in the poetry of my GP, it’s ‘shrivelled’. I hate the idea of a prune of a thyroid hanging around in my neck; but I keep taking the tablets. You can’t keep a good woman down. Microbes have tried to get the better of me in the year, bigged up by the faulty autoimmune system, but I’ve fought them all off eventually and here I am, surviving; and surviving with vitality and determination. On the whole it’s been a good year. I’m a terminal optimist: all my years are brilliant.

So what of next year? I’m not setting any resolutions. I’m going to drift like a piece of seaweed on the tide and just see where I wash up. I’ve had pressure for five years. It’s time to release the valve, put the pressure behind me and just enjoy life. It will involve poetry and family. And cake. And wine, obviously.

So, I think I’ve rabbited on enough. It just remains to wish you all a creative, healthy and happy 2020. May all your dreams come true. I’ll leave you with a very small poem, a haiku in fact. I found it among my old notebooks in Coniston. It refers to the ward sister in Casualty—what’s now called A&E—when I was a student nurse, more than half a century ago. Sister Swift struck fear into the bravest breast; you didn’t want to upset Sister Swift.


Sister Swift

calls me honey in
a way that lets me know she
prefers marmalade.

Rachel Davies

‘…the strong life of the inert’

My header this week is a line from Jean Sprackland’s poem ‘Crystallography’, in Green Noise (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018). I love this phrase from Jean’s poem, how inanimate objects have a life whose sole purpose is to confound: about which, more later.

I’ve had a lovely week visiting friends and family this week, so work of most kinds has been on the back burner. On Sunday we had our first snow of the winter—thankfully not too much—when I went to Peterborough with my daughter, Amie to visit my son, Richard. We went out for our Christmas meal together, with another friend. We don’t spend money on gifts anymore, things no-one really wants or needs; instead, we spend time together. Time: it’s the best Christmas present ever. On Monday I met a former colleague and friend for tea in the Newbank Nursery in Dobcross. We had the biggest chocolate muffins on the planet. They were enormous, with chunks of chocolate and stuffed full with double cream. On Wednesday I travelled south again to visit my sister in Stamford, Lincs. We swapped presents and had lunch together, then I drove on to Bourne, Lincs to stay overnight with my lovely friends, Jo and Bernard: we worked together in a primary school in Peterborough more years ago than I care to remember. It’s a lot of travelling, but I love this time of year, a time when we commit to visiting friends we don’t see nearly enough throughout the year.

On the domestic front, we’ve been waiting to have our chimney pot replaced since we had the chimney swept back in September. The roofer recommended by the chimney sweep was so busy we had to wait a couple of months for him to fit us in. He was due to come on Tuesday but didn’t make it. We tried to contact him but he didn’t get back to us; not a word. I was angry, Bill was more understanding: he’s a busy man, we’re in a queue etc. I was all up for telling Mr Roofer to stick his chimney pot up his ‘to do’ list and find someone else for the job. What are the chances of that in Christmas week? Anyway, yesterday Bill went out to do some boring B&Q shopping etc and I thought I’d make myself a mocha and watch some escapist rubbish on Netflix. I just settled to my task when a loud noise up the chimney spooked the cats and spooked me. The cats shot upstairs and hid under the futon. That seemed extreme action for a septuagenarian so I listened for a while and it became apparent that someone was on the roof. I went outside to investigate. Three men were removing the chimney pot and replacing it with a jackdaw-proof pot. It’s a long time since a man made my heart skip a beat; yesterday three men managed it remotely from the roof while I was indoors! We didn’t know they were coming, but they had the job done within an hour. We can light the fire now and be warm through the winter. The job’s done; I hope it’s a goodun. The jackdaws were massing like a scene from a Hitchcock movie to check out the new chimney pot. For now they’re confounded. Spring nesting will reveal all.

On the PhD front—sort of—I tried to buy A4 photo frames this week. I wanted two: one for my beautiful PhD certificate and its twin for the graduation photo when it’s taken next July. I found a lovely one in Paperchase; the problem was: only one. The sales assistant checked out the stockroom and no, this was the only one. So I left it. I looked in M&S, W H Smith, Next: no A4 frames at all. I eventually found a pair in Tesco when I did the weekly shop. Why is it so difficult to find an A4 frame—and even more difficult to find a pair?

Poetry: I’m well into processing entries for the Poets & Players Competition 2020. The closing date is 21st January and our judge this year is Sinead Morrisey. You’ll find details here: so get your creative muscle toned and send me some work to do. You have four weeks left. Four days after the deadline, on 25th January, we have Jo Shapcott and Kim Moore reading for us at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road, Manchester. So come along to that: it’s FREE and it’s wonderful. You can find details of up-coming events at our website, via the link above.

Back to ‘the strong life of the inert’: I woke up at 4.45 this morning, pretty normal for me, and got ready to write my blog. My MacBook had updates to install, so I clicked ‘install now’ thinking it would be a process of a few minutes. Ha! It took an hour to update and another three quarters to install. Nearly two hours is a long time to be twiddling thumbs.

Anyway, that’s it for this week: a slack week for ‘PhD and poetry’, but a very rich one for ‘Life’. I hope you all have a lovely Christmas week, whatever your cultural and religious beliefs. The Christmas message of ‘Peace on Earth, goodwill to all’ seems to have got lost somewhat in the crazy political temperature of the modern world; but perhaps we can all do a little to reinstate it within our own lives: microcosms can build macrocosms. Merry Christmas, and a peaceful and productive New Year to you all.

picture of Santa Claus from Wiki-images


I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote at a Poets & Players workshop with Steve Ely. Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day. It’s a downhill roll toward spring now, isn’t it? So it seems appropriate to leave you with a poem about the Greek myth of Persephone and the seasons.

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

Sorry, not sorry!

My week started in Cumbria, at Rydal Hall, day three of the Poetry Carousel. After breakfast I went to Kim Moore’s workshop. It addressed the ‘between us’ in poetry: who is talking to whom. It was fascinating and I wrote three fairly workable poems, so a productive day. After lunch Hilary and I wrote our poems onto our MacBooks. I began editing straight away. We went for a walk to the coffee shop without the stroll around the grounds as a precursor. The weather was foul: even wetter and windier than yesterday. After a coffee, we went back to our room and carried on with some work.

At dinner we sat with several poetry friends, including Kim, her husband and baby Ally. I got to talking to Kim about the PhD: she was asking me serious questions about my main argument. I explained in broad terms about ‘the potential toxicity of the mother-daughter relationship’ and she asked if she could read my thesis. I remembered how important it was for me to read other theses when I was struggling with the language for writing- up so I promised to email it to her later in the evening. After dinner we went to a wonderful reading by David Tait and Clare Shaw: different styles, but both engaging writers. Afterwards one of the course participants, Caroline, gave an impromptu ‘concert’ in the foyer, singing to guitar a song she’d written herself in praise of the older woman. It was funny and entertaining. Being full of a head-cold, which was threatening to sink to my chest—I was developing a nasty rasping cough—I took myself to bed afterwards. Unfortunately I forgot to email the thesis to Kim. But it was OK because at 3.00 a.m. I woke up with two things on my mind: I emailed the thesis to Kim and I had an idea for developing one of the poems I’d written in her workshop, writing the conversation in a modern vernacular. I was quite pleased with it when I’d done.

At breakfast I asked Kim if she’d received my email and she said yes, she’d already read the abstract and commented how ‘grown up’ it sounded. ‘It’s in real academic language,’ she said, which made me laugh, because if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know how hard I found it to write in acadamese. I read several books about writing academic papers, struggled for a long time. It was nice that Kim wanted to read it, in prep for writing her own PhD thesis. After breakfast we went to a workshop run by Clare Shaw, our last ride on the carousel. Clare’s workshop addressed ‘love’ in poetry, and she took an interesting route to writing love poetry through landscape as metaphor. We also wrote love poems to an animal, each of us given a random animal by another course member. I was given a zebra to address in my poem. One writer was given an echidna, and had to have it explained to him before he could start. If you don’t know, it’s a kind of ‘weird Australian hedgehog’ with a long nose. He wrote a stonking poem in the end. Clare had a unique method of getting course members to read out their work. We read like a Mexican wave, taking it in turns around the table without stopping for comment and feedback; so it was like being part of writing a very long poem and it took out the angst some poets feel that their work is being scrutinised: we had no time to scrutinise and feedback, just to enjoy.

We had lunch in the coffee shop: plenty of it because the organisation went a bit awry, and because some people had trains to catch and couldn’t stay for lunch. So we had soup, a sandwich, as many chocolate mousses and/or alcoholic jellies as we could eat. Hilary and I went into Grasmere before we drove home, to buy Grasmere Gingerbread and to look in the lovely little bookshop there. It was about 5.00 p.m. by the time we got home to Saddleworth.

On Tuesday morning I was itching to get some poetry done.  I spent the morning in my study writing up carousel poems to the MacBook and revisiting poems I’d already written up. I looked for submission opportunities as well. A lot of publications are closed for submissions until after Christmas, most have windows that aren’t open at the moment. The North is an exception: its submission window is open until New Year’s Day, so I thought ‘why not?’ It’s been a long-held ambition of mine to get a poem into The North. I’ve had a couple of articles published in there, and been shortlisted with poems in the past, but I’ve never made the final cut. I prepared five poems to send off and on Thursday I put them in the post. Fingers crossed.

On Wednesday Hilary, her husband David, Bill and I went for our annual Christmas lunch at Greens, Simon Rimmer’s restaurant in East Didsbury. ‘Greens, terrifying carnivores since 1990:  Oh my, how good is this vegetarian restaurant? We had a lovely lunch, and the best thing is, we got there on the tram without any changes, arrived in Didsbury—Burton Rd stop—within a two-minute walk to the restaurant. I always think of the poetry carousel as the starter to Christmas, but our annual Christmas lunch at Greens feels like Christmas is well and truly up and running.

That lovely celebratory feeling was well and truly dashed on Thursday. We went shopping, I posted my sub to The North. We called at Tesco for the weekly food shop. On the way into Tesco I made a donation to the homeless man who sits outside: it was freezing cold and he was well wrapped in sleeping bag and blanket. On my way out of Tesco I gave him a box of mince pies and I thought, ‘from tomorrow, life will get better for you, when we get a compassionate Labour Government committed to ending austere hardship.’ Because how could anyone vote for another Tory Government with so much homelessness and suffering, a direct result of their uncaring conservatism? I’d put my cross in the box and sat up to watch the results come in. The first blow came with the exit polls, predicting a large Conservative majority. What? That must be wrong, mustn’t it? As the night rolled on it became apparent that the exit polls were spot on. Great swathes of ‘Labour heartland’ constituencies had defected to the conservative vote, heeding the Tory mantra of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Oh my, how harsh is this: a Conservative majority of nearly eighty seats, carte blanche to do what they like in—and with—Government. The very people most affected by austerity, areas of deprivation in the north and midlands, had voted Conservative; ex-mining communities, destroyed by Thatcher in the eighties, had voted Conservative. We have another five years of Conservative Government under the least trust-worthy Prime Minister ever, because his campaign team, because Dominic Cummings, recognised the importance of that simple mantra ‘Get Brexit Done’; and with that mantra they’d swept up all the disaffected ‘leave’ voters in historically Labour areas, who saw our failure to secure Brexit as the cause of their misery. Well, now we ‘take back control’ of the UK from Europe; but we hand control to a self-serving Conservative Government, the meanest and most brutal in history, who have been the real cause of their deprivation. I thought I felt bad after the EU referendum in 2016, but Friday morning saw a whole new depth of low. It looks as if I’ll be giving to the homeless for a few years to come yet. I’d better keep my charity pocket well topped up with cash. I’d like to apologise to everyone—the homeless, the sick, the disabled, those forced to apply to foodbanks in order to feed their families, those in inferior housing—who will suffer under this uncaring regime, and tell them it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it. But anger won’t cut it will it? it is what it is. Desperate people voted for what they perceive is a way to make their lives better. I feel that leaving the EU under a Conservative Government will make their lives immeasurably worse. Of course, I could be wrong but I remain to be convinced.

A little light in the darkness: on Thursday my PhD certificate arrived in the post. It proves I can afford a PhD course so austerity and deprivation shouldn’t bother me should it? I’m alright Jack, pull up the ladder, after all, that’s the zeitgeist of the age we live in.

final proof of my PhD

Later today I’m going to Peterborough with Amie to have lunch with Richard and friends. It’ll help heal the desperation I’ve felt since the election. It’ll be a moving on. But I’ll make sure I have cash in my right hand pocket, to give to the many homeless people we’re going to pass walking through the City Centre. What cruel times we live in.

I’ll sign off with a very small poem I wrote in Kim’s workshop. I’ve tried to remember the prompt poem but I can’t: it had to do with names, with interaction between named people in a poem. So I wrote this, about that annoying habit of Starbucks baristas of asking for your name when you order a coffee. Some clever marketing course has decided it’s a way of sounding friendly and welcoming. It isn’t, it’s deeply annoying and patronising. If you want to be friendly, Starbucks, start paying some of the tax you owe in order to make life better for people who will never be able to afford your coffee in the self-serving climate of conservatism the western world is stuck in at the moment. If you voted conservative on Thursday, and my little rant has offended you: sorry, not sorry. Here’s my poem, which sounds remarkably affable after my rant:


Have a nice day

Anglo Saxons believed to hold a name
was to hold power over the named person

so when the barista in Starbucks asks my name
to write on the side of my tall decaf cappuccino

I tell her Millie or Sue; Hetty, Simone, Hildegarde
any name but my own because Starbucks

has power over half the known universe already.


Rachel Davies
December 2019

Bureaucratic Barriers and Chiggy Pigs

I get that we live in an evidence based society and systems are in place to stop criminals laundering money. I understand that; I do. But lighten up! On Monday this week, I took my hard-won PhD letter of authority from MMU to the Manchester branch of the Halifax to change the title on my account. I know, it’s a frivolous reason to gain a PhD, but what else is a 72 year-old going to do with a PhD except get herself addressed, correctly, as ‘Doctor”? I completed the relevant form, my letter was photocopied and accepted as evidence by the branch manager. My accounts and relevant cards etc. would be changed accordingly. On Tuesday I had a phone call from the Halifax, addressing me as Dr Davies, pointing out that Head Office won’t accept my letter of authority, they need to see the actual certificate: that certificate I don’t have. As far as I knew on Tuesday, the letter WAS my authorisation; I heard later that day that the certificate will be sent to my home. So why, I ask you—and them—is a letter congratulating me on the award of Doctor of Philosophy, on MMU headed paper complete with the university crest, signed by the head of the faculty, not sufficient evidence for a change of title? It’s not as if I was depositing a huge amount of dirty money simultaneously with the change of title request. I just wanted to change ‘Mrs’ into ‘Dr’. Sometimes I think bureaucracy has overreached itself. A couple of decades ago, I moved in with my partner, Bill. I went into the Halifax to change the address on my accounts. I was told I couldn’t change the address without the evidence of the new address on a utility bill with my name on. Seems sensible, doesn’t it? Except I was moving in with Bill and all utility bills were in his name. I pointed this out, and that there would never be a utility bill at this address with my name on. I was told to ask Bill to write and sign a letter to say I was living with him, and bring that letter with said utility bill with HIS name on. Now, I’ve banked with the Halifax for more than thirty years; they didn’t know Bill from Adam, but it was acceptable to take his word over mine for my new address? Can’t rules be a little bit bendy in some specific situations? So now I await the arrival of the certificate, which I’ll take into the Halifax to change the title on my accounts. At least I’ll get to have lunch at Mowgli in the Manchester Exchange again, so upsides…

Last weekend, I was in Somerset visiting my younger son. It was his birthday on Monday so I stayed over an extra night to wish him happy birthday. We went out for lunch on Monday and I drove home on Monday afternoon. This week I’m writing from a hotel room in Cumbria: Rydal Hall between Ambleside and Grasmere. I’m on Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel. The carousel is a novel idea: there are four tutors: Kim Moore herself, joined this year by David Tait, Malika Booker and Clare Shaw. The course participants are put into groups of seven or eight and take turns to progress around the carousel, visiting each tutor in turn and completing four workshops over the course of the weekend. It’s a lovely way to spend a few days with friends. We arrived on Friday afternoon. When Hilary and I arrived, several of the course participants were here already, waiting in the foyer to be allocated their room keys. I know about three quarters of the participants from other Kim Moore courses I’ve attended. When we walked in through the hotel doors, Kim was sitting just inside the door with her baby Ally, her husband Chris and other poetry friends. I took a bow when they all clapped as I walked in, a congratulatory welcome for my PhD. It’s the little things…


Starstruck at my welcome in Rydal Hall

After the welcome meeting we went to our first workshop. Hilary and I were with David Tait. David is originally from Lancaster, but is currently teaching in China. He did an MA Creative Writing from MMU at roughly the same time as Kim and me, so it was lovely to see him again. The workshop addressed ‘The Personable Political’ and gave us permission to write political poetry without being overt about it. It was ‘political’ with an upper or lower case ‘p’: carte blanche to rant if we wanted or to interpret the brief in any personally political way we chose. David always brings interesting and lesser known poetry prompts to his workshops. We spent a lovely two hours reading and writing poetry. Lovely jubbly. I don’t think I’ve anything worthwhile yet, but some of the stuff I wrote in that workshop is worth keeping to develop at my leisure; and although they are interesting political times we’re living through, I didn’t write anything time specific, so I can come back to it when I get home.

On Friday evening, after dinner, we had readings by two of the tutors: Kim and Malika read their poetry. Kim is doing a PhD from MMU at the moment, examining casual sexism in society and her reading was from the collection she’s writing for the creative element of her PhD. She is putting together a collection of poems about all the men she never married and they’re wonderful: funny and poignant and often discomfiting. Malika is working on a sequence adapting bible stories to the culture of her Jamaican heritage. It was a lovely evening, and a privilege to hear two wonderful poets share their work. After the readings Hilary and I gave up on the day: Hilary is recovering from a nasty cold virus; and Friday was my first day with it, so we took our snotty noses and chesty coughs to bed with a good greasing of Vicks Vapour Rub.

Yesterday, Saturday, day 2 of the carousel, Hilary and I attended the workshop run by Malika Booker. It addressed poetry performance, which she interpreted broadly to include all kinds of reading/performing to an audience. We’d been asked to take two poems to the workshop: one we’re happy to perform, that we’ve performed/read in public several times and one we are less comfortable to perform in public, that might be better considered a ‘page poem’. The workshop was fascinating. We spent time treating the first poem, the one we thought we were comfortable reading to an audience, as a performance script, making notes on words that were important but might get lost in the flow of speech at a reading. Mostly I found that for me, those were words that don’t carry huge meaning: ‘your’, ‘of’, ‘be’ etc. They don’t carry meaning for themselves but they add meaning to the words around them and shouldn’t get lost in the reading. We also considered who we were speaking to in reading the poem: a friend, a colleague, a parent? This affects the voice of the reader: you’ll read in a different voice if you are talking friend-to-friend than if you’re David Attenborough addressing an anonymous television audience. We considered where pauses occur for maximum effect: not just line breaks, but small pauses within the lines. Lastly we considered ‘physical metaphors’: how we can accentuate some lines of the poems with small actions of our hands/heads etc. When we read the poems to a partner after preparing the script, it was a different—and more effective—reading from the one we are used to giving. It’ll be interesting to apply these criteria to the second poem we took along, the one we avoid reading because it’s a challenge to perform. It was an interesting workshop, and made a change from writing. Lots to take away to think about and develop.

After lunch we decided to go out for a walk around the hotel grounds to get some fresh air and blow away a few cobwebs. The weather was wet: persistent rain and low cloud increasingly stealing the horizon. We walked around the garden and arrived at a shed called ‘The Grotto’. The door was unlocked. We went inside. Oh. My. Word. We weren’t expecting that! A large picture window in the furthest wall of the grotto revealed a magnificent waterfall that you wouldn’t have seen but for the grotto. The force in that tumbling water…! We considered diving into the pool for a wild swim, but to be fair, the thought lasted seconds. We sat on the window seat for some time, just watching the huge torrent and being amazed: you could feel the force through the structure of the Grotto. We walked back to the hotel by a different route, passing a lovely little coffee shop where we enjoyed a cappuccino before coming back to our room to do some work.

After dinner last night we had a guest reader. Roy McFarlane, a Jamaican-heritage poet from the midlands came to share his poetry with us. I first heard Roy read in Swindon in October and I knew we were in for a treat. He didn’t disappoint. He has a collection addressing the issue of deaths in custody. Each poem is titled with the name of a person who died in the custody of the police, the prison service, the mental health system. They are powerful and thought provoking: ‘personably political’ to use David Tait’s phrase. He lightened the mood somewhat by reading from a sequence about the city of a hundred languages, Birmingham, in which a Rastaman is in conversation with a writer. These poems are energetic and funny and entertaining. He closed with poems about his mother; moving poems: he was himself visibly moved in the reading of them. But for me, his best work is in his political ‘deaths in custody’ poems and his wonderful Rastaman sequence.

So, I’m having a creative time: poetry and the company of poets: what’s not to like. More of the same today and tomorrow before we go back to our real lives. As Malika Booker is one of the tutors, I’m going to sign off with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, which I submitted it to the Battered Moons poetry competition when Malika was the judge. She awarded it a ‘commendation’ in the competition and it earned me £25.00. The poem is called ‘Chiggypig’, a west country dialect word for the woodlouse. It considers all the things a woodlouse could aspire to be. We always called woodlice ‘piggies’ when I was a child, hence the last line of the poem, so I was grateful to Rosie Garland for giving me this gift of a title.


Chiggy Pig

nippy little armoured shuttle
tiny pellet for pocket pistol
milligram of medication
miniature isopod crustacean
tiny roll-top for tiny letter
curled up little grime diviner
micro-pebble from micro-gravel
miniscule ball-bearing marble
newly discovered little planet
dinky dust devouring gannet
Lilliputian city gent
mini-camper in sturdy tent
innocent mine-sweeping feeler
micro-robotic skirting creeper
armadillo impersonator
tiny fourteen jointed porker


Rachel Davies

Knitted Surrealism

It’s official: on Thursday I had a letter attached to an email from MMU, addressed to Dr Rachel Davies, congratulating me on my achievement. I’ve been awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. A hard copy of the letter is in the post. There, it’s in writing, it’s done; just the award ceremony to look forward to next July. I feel as if I want to show everyone the letter. I’ll definitely frame a copy for my study. Thursday was also the day I collected my personal copy of the completed thesis from the printers, published in black buckram, gold lettering, the MMU logo heading the cover. Thursday was a good day, a day of tying up loose ends.

Tuesday it was Stanza at the Buffet Bar, Stalybridge. I met Linda Boyles from Tameside before the meeting to discuss the group’s needs. She’s doing a research project into the development needs of arts groups in Tameside. I said we need some new members, otherwise we were doing quite well. She’s put me in touch with Jonathan King, who deals with Stalybridge and Mossley groups and will be my contact. Apparently, there are funding streams to be tapped. It would be good to have funds to invite visiting speakers, poets to run workshops etc; but public funds mean treasurers and committees and then it all gets a bit serious. I’ve been invited to ‘network’ with other groups in the area, so we’ll see what comes of that. We might get more members out of it. Anyway, Lin stayed to the group, joined in and had such a good time, she said she’ll come to our next meeting as a member in January. So already the express aim of increasing membership has been fulfilled.

We had a lovely meeting; and there were six of us there, with two apologies. We had a writing session this month. Three members had prepared writing prompts and we wrote to those prompts. My poetry twin, Hilary, had prepared one of the prompts; but she had also sent apologies, she has this nasty chesty virus that’s doing the rounds at the mo. I called at her house on the way to Stalybridge to collect her writing prompt to put to the group. She whispered her way through the instructions, no productive voice at all.

So, the writing prompts, if you want to give them a go:

Pat had brought lots of small samples of Fairisle knitting. She’s been working out the patterns for a jumper she wants to knit. So she’d attached these knitted pieces to paper, three or four in each sample. We had to use the samples to write: it could be about the samples themselves, about something the samples brought to mind, about knitting, the colours, the rhythm of knit one purl one. I had four small squares of patterns in various colours and I imagined them being tabards for tiny medieval knights. It’s a bit surreal, but I think I can work on it. I can’t tell you how nice it is to write something that doesn’t involve mothers and daughters.

Fokkina brought an activity that concentrated on the long poem. She’d recently been for a week at the Garsdale Retreat in the Yorkshire Dales where Andrew McMIllan had used a long poem of Louise Gluck’s to inspire writing. This was the activity that Fokkina brought to Stanza: you cut a short section from a long poem, then cut a second section from the poem a bit further along. The sections each only need to be three or four lines long. Then write the gap between the two sections into a poem of your own making. It’s better not to read the entire original poem, I’m guessing, because you are not trying to reconstruct the published poem, but to use the pieces to inspire a longer poem of your own. It was hard, but worthwhile. We all produced work that was worth a read. I’ll definitely try the activity again on my own. How about a long poem of the romantic era, for instance The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner or The Lady of Shalott? Choose a poem you don’t know well, though, because remember you’re not trying to rewrite the original but to use it to inspire work of your own.

The third activity was Hilary’s, which I presented to the group. Hilary had cut up an old Codeword book, the puzzles completed. We took two puzzles each and wrote down four words from each grid onto pieces of paper. These lists included easyish words like ‘simple’ or ‘apple’. But there were more challenging words like ‘sasquatch’ or ‘bivouac’. The lists were folded up and placed in the bag. Then a pack of picture cards: pick a card, any card. We dipped into the bag for two sets of words to work with, and these formed an eight-line poem inspired by the picture card. Each line must contain one of the words. It was very random, and made for surprising, surreal poems. I’m including my attempt at this activity at the end of the blog: only because I wrote it up the next day to thank Hilary for the activity, to tell her how much we enjoyed it, and to cheer her up in her laryngitis.

On Friday I drove to Somerset to see my younger son, Michael. It’s his birthday on Monday, so Amie, Angus, the Cockerpoos, Richard, Bill and I all came to celebrate his birthday with him. I’ve never visited his home in Somerset, and I have this anxiety thing where I need to be able to visualise my children in their homes. They feel closer that way. If all I can manage is picturing them ‘somewhere out there’ it doesn’t quite feel real. So now I can picture him ‘somewhere real’ when he’s in Somerset and I’m in Saddleworth. It took about six hours to drive here: it’s a four-and-a-quarter hour journey according to Google maps; but that doesn’t allow for the M6-M5 intersection; and we did stop for about forty-five minutes for lunch en route. I think Amie and Richard are going home today, but I might stay for another night so I can spend some of his birthday with him. The December night he was born was thick, thick Fenland fog. I think it’ll be a bit brighter but considerably colder this year.

Anyway, here’s my ‘poem’ from Hilary’s surreal activity. I think it might be nominated for some prestigious poetry prize in 2020, what do you think? Best individual poem at the Forwards? Anyway, this is the photo card I picked at random from the pack:


The two lists of words I picked from the bag contained  ‘oxen, amok, identical, bivouac, adieu, yelps, retch and toupee’. Here’s my eight-line poem using the picture and words as stimuli:


I was formed from the horns of oxen.
The carpenter ran amok with the sander,
each limb identical to its mirror. This velvet chair
is my bivouac. Alopecia is a burden.
I’ve watched the barber retch to shampoo
the toupee that slips from my cranial dome.
And so I cry adieu cruel world, my voice
a prairie dog’s yelps.

Rachel Davies
November 2019