Monthly Archives: 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