Monthly Archives: March 2020

What microbes can teach us about power:

This week I have been in a dessert. Or that’s how it felt.

There was a cartoon on FaceBook showing the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. One of them was carrying several toilet rolls under his arms: he’s been panic buying, like a large portion of the UK population. And I saw what we’ve become as humanity: there is no humanity, it’s each person for him/herself. H G Wells would love this: how a microscopic organism can lay waste to power. I’m not religious, but when God gave to Adam dominion over the animals and plants, wasn’t that about care as well as power? Didn’t God entrust paradise to humankind to look after it? Well, he got that wrong. In times of crisis, like say a pandemic involving a virus that none is immune to, shouldn’t we be protecting each other, down to the least vulnerable? Apparently not: we should look after ourselves, and sod the rest. So supermarket shelves are stripped of toilet paper, pasta, rice. Bread mixes? None. Milk? Oh-oh. Baked beans? All gone. How is toilet paper or pasta going to protect us from a virus that none is immune to? Breaking News: it isn’t! Well, we can look to our elected leaders for guidance in times of crisis, surely. We look in vain:

Wash your hands, keep calm and carry on. Old folk: don’t go on any cruises. Young folk: get yourselves to school and work, your economy needs you. Oh, and prepare yourselves that lots of your loved ones are going to die.

This isn’t leadership; this is ineptitude. A leader of people would have put the people first: truth, but with reassurance, is all. Our leaders worship the god Mamon: so economic wealth must come before people. Ordinary mortals are mere sacrifices to this powerful and uncaring god. More Breaking News: the god Mamon won’t save you in times of crisis either. I lay awake on Thursday night, reflecting on all this. I felt ill and desperate. My elected leaders did this to me, not the Covid 19. I already knew that was bad: I watch and read the news.  I needed to know the Government had my back, would take decisive action to protect me and mine, as has happened in China, Italy, Germany, Spain: most countries that put their people before their wealth. But not here: go about your Business—the uppercase initial is intended—and prepare to die.

By 3.00 a.m. it was clear I wouldn’t be sleeping tonight. I decided to read, hide my thoughts behind someone else’s words. I found a ‘Vera’ novel on my Kindle: Vera has often pulled me through hard times and it was to Vera I turned in the small hours of Friday: anything to fill my head with words so I didn’t have to think my own thoughts.

To make matters worse, I got up on Friday to another urinary tract infection. I spent a stressful twenty minutes pressing that ‘call back’ button on my iPhone before I eventually got through to my doctors’ surgery: a recorded message warning me about the surgery’s policy re. Coronavirus. I would be asked to respond to questions from the receptionist about my ‘Coronavirus history’ and about the reason for my current call. This seemed preferable to the Government response: at least my GPs were caring for their vulnerable patients in a responsible way.

Receptionist: Do you have a fever, sore throat or chesty cough?
Me: No, I have a urine infection.
Receptionist: I must ask you just to answer these questions. Have you recently been to a country outside the UK that is a Coronavirus concern.
Me: No.
Receptionist: Have you been in contact with anyone who has Coronavirus. [You can probably see the weak point in this question, as I did.]
Me: Not as far as I’m aware.
Receptionist: Yes, there is that. What is your problem today?

And then we got down to discussing why I was contacting my doctors’ surgery this morning. I was allotted a time-slot for a telephone consultation with a GP. I have a history of UTI, so he sent a prescription for antibiotics to my nominated pharmacy and my problem was resolved without putting anyone else’s, or indeed my own, life at unnecessary risk: responsible action to protect the weakest in our society. Government, take note.

I spent the rest of the day hunkering down under a blanket, feeling sorry for myself. Thankfully, the antibiotics kicked in quickly and by bedtime I was feeling much better; and I slept better on Friday night. The thinking time I had on Thursday had allowed me to produce a loose plan of action. If I’m on my own in this, I’ll take action to protect me and those close to me as much as I can. I have decided to withdraw from unnecessary contact with society, adhere to a strict hygiene regime, face this crisis down. I’m not one for panic-buying, but I’ve been batch-cooking for weeks, before panic-buying was even a thing, and I have enough food in the freezer to make do for a while.

Thankfully, most of the rational world is of the same frame of mind. Several poetry events I was looking forward to have been cancelled or postponed. The launch of Jean Sprackland’s latest collection, These Silent Mansions, rescheduled for April 2nd after its initial postponement, was cancelled; Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre on 23rd March, was cancelled. I had a lovely email from Peter Sansom asking if I felt he should cancel the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery on Saturday: you’re a doctor now, he said, you’ll know what to do. I know that was a joke, but as my doctorate is of philosophy, I agreed that cancellation was the ‘philosophical’ thing to do. Bless him, he notified all those who had signed up for the event, and to compensate he placed writing activities on his website so that folk don’t miss out completely. Humanity and care: Government take note. The Poets&Players committee had a long e-conversation about cancellation of our up-coming events. In the end we decided that cancellation was the responsible course of action. Our March and April events are cancelled; later events will be decided as the Coronavirus crisis develops. Lastly, this week Hilary and I joined a writing feedback group in Mytholmroyd, on the invitation of a fellow graduate from MMU’s writing school. Our first meeting with the group was scheduled for Sunday, this evening. I sent off my poem for the workshop in the middle of the week. But in the light of my new resolution to avoid social gatherings, I pulled out of the group. So did most of the other members. We’ll probably end up offering on-line or email feedback instead. Sporting events up and down the country have been put on hold. And lo, our Government is now taking its lead from its people and will announce plans in the coming days to restrict social gatherings. A classic case of leading by following.

In one short week, my life as a poet has been decimated. I’m in self-imposed isolation; or almost. Amie and I went out to walk the dogs yesterday. We called into a café for coffee, but we sat al fresco, in a corner of the outdoor space away from other customers. So not total isolation; but responsible isolation, keeping myself and those I love as safe as I can. In times of crisis, that’s the most we can do.

As the Persian adage has it, this too shall pass and we’ll come through. I’ll probably not be blogging for a while: not because I think it will affect the vulnerable or pass on the virus: I’m not that daft; but because, with all my poetry life on hold, I’ll have nothing interesting to blog about. I cooked something, I washed up, I watched the telly, doesn’t really pass as huge interest to anyone but the doer, does it? When my life resumes normality, when I have something to say, I’ll say it. I’ll be back then. I hope to see you all on the other side.

I’ll leave you with this poem that I wrote some time ago. It was inspired by Wallace Steven’s famous poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’ It was fun to write. Perhaps we should all write some ‘Thirteen ways…’ poems to get us through the current crisis. It’s a great way to concentrate the mind.

Adieu, à bientôt, and look after yourselves.


13 Ways of Looking at the Moon
after Wallace Stevens

Among a million zillion stars
the man in the moon
is another breathing being.

I am pensive
like the moon reflecting in
a pool of standing water.

The moon is a mint imperial
sucked by the eternal tongue.

A man and a woman
and the moon: don’t believe it

Which is more trustworthy,
the sliver of truth that is the new moon or
the moon in all the fulfilment of its promise?

The moon
is one giant leap
from Arizona.

O you ladies at the Court of King Caractacus,
raise your eyes to the infinite heavens and behold
your image in the waning moon.

All inescapable rhythm and cyclical
loss is the fault of a pull on the string
anchoring the moon to the ocean’s toe

When the moon casts her shadow over the sun,
leaders will be born, achieve greatness, be deposed,

In the light of the full moon,
an orphan wolf silently
laments his mother.

the moon is an illegal drug
in the sky with Lucy
and diamonds

The moon is moving
the stars are moving
the Earth is still

It was night all day
and the moon held sway
over heaven and earth,
an inconstant constant.


Living my best life

Another storm is lashing outside my window. The neighbour’s security lights came on in the force of it and I can see the rain being driven horizontally, up from the south-west. This worries me, because this week we’ve had the Velux window in the study replaced. The old window, on that face of the house taking the brunt of this weather, took to leaking all over my desk. Paperwork ruined, buckets to catch the flow, rain streaks down the walls: these are not conducive to productive work. My ‘desk’ calendar-pad took to hiding under the desk and could only be coaxed out when I was in there to make sure it was safe and dry. I had to completely clear that end of the study to give room for Dave the Roofer, to work. Dave left on Friday, so I spent yesterday morning restoring my workspace. Well, this morning’s lashing rain will be the test: having replaced the desk calendar-pad to the desktop, will it still be dry? I’m hoping so, or it might mean more extensive work to the roof. So my fingers are crossed that the leak is resolved, despite this foul weather buffeting that side of the roof this morning.

On Tuesday this week, due to circumstances beyond my control, I had to miss an event I’d been really looking forward to. My friend, and fellow East Manchester Stanza poet, Fokkina McDonnell, launched her second collection of poetry at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Cambridge Street, Manchester. Nothing serious, nothing dangerous is published by Indigo Dreams Publishing. Here’s a photograph of Fokkina, beside the painting ‘Departure’, by the late Graham Kingsley Brown, which became the book’s cover. The photograph was taken by the granddaughter of the artist.

Fokkina_McDonnell_Poetry_Launch_3March2020_with_GKB_Painting (002)
Copyright Sophie J Brown, 2020.

You can read a selection of the poems from the collection here: , along with purchasing details if you’d like a copy: and why wouldn’t you?—Fokkina is an accomplished poet. I’ll be getting my signed copy of Nothing serious…when we meet at the Buffet Bar for the March Stanza.

On Wednesday morning I met up with my poetry twin, Hilary Robinson, for coffee, to continue planning for our annual Line Break. This year we’re tagging it onto the end of Kendal Poetry festival:  We’ve bought weekend passes to the festival, so we’re planning to attend lots of writing workshops; a good deal of the week following the festival will be spent working on poems from the workshops. We’re at the stage of looking for suitable accommodation within driving distance of Kendal: the north-east coast or the northern lakes. Hilary is the best person I know for offering feedback on poems: she read and sent constructive criticism on my PhD thesis at a crucial time, just prior to the final submission. And this week she was commissioned by me again. We both submitted poems to an upcoming anthology, Bloody Amazing, addressing menstruation and the menopause. Profits from sales of the anthology will go towards period poverty charities, so I was happy and excited to be involved in the project. Hilary was accepted for publication unconditionally; one of my poems was provisionally accepted, pending revision. The editors, Rebecca Bilkau and Gill Lambert, felt my poem was trying hard to be a prose poem, so I asked Hilary if she’d take a look when I’d reworked it. I’m no expert on the prose poem, but it has its own controversies: when does a poem become a microfiction? And does it matter anyway? I re-read Carrie Etter’s essay on the prose poem in The Craft (ed. Rishi Dastidar; Nine Arches Press 2019) and thought about internal sounds: alliteration, assonance etc. and the importance of an impactful last line. So on Thursday morning, while Dave the Roofer was labouring away in my study, I took my MacBook to the conservatory. Thursday was a beautiful spring day and it was lovely working in there, in warm sunshine for a change. I spent a couple of happy hours reworking my poem as a prose poem around the metaphor of a moonwalk. I wrote two versions, one in first person, one in third person and sent them both off to Hilary for feedback. She preferred the first-person version, more immediate, more ‘I was there as witness’. Her feedback was helpful; early on Friday morning I resubmitted the first-person version to Rebecca and Gill. I was delighted to receive a positive reply later in the morning: my prose poem, ‘Moon Landing: the last’ has made the cut and will be in the anthology—Yay!—later in the year. I’ll keep you posted of launch dates etc.

Last night Bill and I went to Manchester Cathedral for a piano recital by the amazing Warren Mailley-Smith. The hook for me was two Beethoven piano sonatas, including the wonderful ‘Moonlight’ which was the opener. Mailley-Smith told us that Beethoven wrote the sonata for the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, one of his aristocratic pupils he’d fallen in love with. Apparently she was singularly unimpressed, the Phillistine! Well I can tell you, if he’d written it for me, I’d have been his forever. Ho hum, such is unrequited love. The recital included a second Beethoven sonata, works by Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Rachmaninov; it ended with Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, adapted for the piano by the composer. Just wow! It was such a lovely evening, the gorgeous Yamaha piano positioned on a plinth beneath the organ pipes of the cathedral, which look like giant candle flames when the light catches them:

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The most amazing thing, though, is that Mailley-Smith works from memory: he doesn’t use sheet music at all during his performances. Fancy being able to play all that—holding all that music in your head. The artist’s biog in the programme tells us that ‘he is the first British pianist to perform Chopin’s complete works from memory’. How truly astounding is that? It was a wonderful evening. You’ll find a list of up-coming performances here:   If you love the piano, you must catch some of these.

I love a live classical concert; but oh my, the protocols! I can never understand how folk can keep so still while listening to music. Listening to a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart concerto is a visceral experience for me. I wrote this poem after a visit to the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester to see/hear ‘Mozart by Candlelight’ a few years back. I had to sit on my hands to control them! C’mon, music is physical! Live it!

Listening at the Bridgewater
‘When music strays too far from dance
It atrophies…’ Ezra Pound

A cough, then silence.
A finger on a string, breath over a reed,

lips on a mouthpiece, a hammer on skin.
That’s how it starts, with the body. The air

ripples with it, your tympanic membrane
vibrates with it, your ossicles pick it up,

chase it to your muscles which ache to move
as they do at home when you listen on the stereo.

But here in this seat it’s all cultured politeness,
you mustn’t let on you’re moved by it, keep

your muscles taut, your fingers and toes,
which itch to keep the beat, frozen. Sit on your

hands, knit your feet under the seat in front, close
your eyes, move only on the mind’s dance floor.

Remember how, at home, the music fills you,
blows you away, how you move and sway,

conduct that imaginary orchestra in the hifi,
how your muscles hear it first, before your ears,

how you’re carried somewhere by it, swimming in it,
soaring and surfing on a wave of sound. Then

come back to the Bridgewater as the last strain dies,
open your eyes to polite applause. A cough. Silence.

Rachel Davies


‘A host of golden…’


Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus: happy St. David’s Day. Not that I’m particularly Welsh, despite the surname—that’s just part of my divorce settlement. But I’m always glad to celebrate St. David’s Day because it means the end of February: that’s it for another year. Spring’s just around the corner. Yesterday I drove into Oldham and there was a ‘host of golden daffodils…fluttering and dancing in the breeze’ along the central reservation of the bypass, just in time for March 1st. February didn’t seem so bad this year; it was probably buffeted along by the following winds of Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge.

This week I’ve fitted in more poetry. On Tuesday, early, I sent out the ‘anonymous’ poems to the Stanza group. I had seven submissions in the end, so the group is rallying nicely. Coupled with three apologies for the evening, we’re back to a workable group, off life support. On Tuesday evening we met as usual in the Buffet Bar to read and discuss the poems. Oh my, it was a good and varied set this month, with good discussion and feedback. We had one particularly intense discussion around centre-justified poems: centre justification always produces a shape to a poem; but does the ‘shape’ enhance or detract from the work? Everything you put into a poem should contribute something to the poem, or it’s extraneous, isn’t it?

Anyway, it was a good, energetic meeting. It snowed on Tuesday, just a light dusting for most of the day, but by the time we left the Buffet Bar it was coming down more relentlessly. I had a message from Bill that it was settling in Saddleworth, so not to be too late home. But the drive home wasn’t too bad, the worst of the snow was within a mile of home. I didn’t take my car down our steep and snow-covered Lane, I parked it on the top road overnight.

It snowed all night on and off, and Wednesday was the worst, snow all day, louring skies, dark, dark, dark. It was everything I hate about February, right there in that one day. I brought myself upstairs to my study and did poetry stuff.  I sent some poems out to the Enfield competition:  The particular hook was Ruth Padel as the judge. She visited our Stanza once, in 2012 when we were invited to be involved in ‘Ruth Padel’s Poetry Workshop’ on Radio 4. She’s such a gracious woman, and it felt good to send off some of my work for her to read. I had a lovely morning escaping from the wild weather outside, sorting through my poems and choosing the ones to send out. I also wrote up a poem from Peter Sansom’s workshop at the Art Gallery. It was surprisingly disappointing to see it in Word. It felt vibrant in my handwritten notebook; when I typed it up into Word it looked a sad thing, no life in it at all. I’ve kept it to work up into something more alive one day; maybe; if I’m at a loss for something to do. I had another poetry day on Friday. I sent some poems out to journals. I don’t know if they’ll be accepted or rejected; but I’ll ‘treat those two imposters just the same’. If they’re successful, I’ll enjoy that; if not, I’ll enjoy trying sending them somewhere else.

I’ve been doing domestic stuff this week too. On Tuesday I decided to start to deep-clean the conservatory. It tends to get too cold in there to use it in the winter months, but I like to sit in there, watching the birds in the garden, enjoying seeing the daffodil spears forcing their way through frozen soil—yes, our daffodils are still only green spears up here on the edge of the moors. Not much ‘fluttering and dancing’ going on in our garden, not yet. It took a couple of days to get it all cleaned: I’m not as fast and furious as I used to be. The hardest job, possibly the hardest job  I’ll have this year, was changing the ‘loose’ covers on the sofa-bed we have in there. I had muscles like October cabbages by the time I was done.

Yesterday I decided to investigate upgrading my phone contract. I went on the Vodafone website and got myself a new iPhone XR in red, with a renewed two-year contract. I ordered it ‘click and collect’, so yesterday afternoon we went into Oldham for the ‘collect’ bit. I spent a few happy hours last night getting it up and running. It’s similar but different from my old phone, so I’m making it up as I go along. I couldn’t pair my watch with it, but I have a couple of resident IT experts in my sons, and I found out I had to unpair it from my old phone before I could pair it with the new one. It’s all sorted now, and the phone and my watch have photos of my Memoji as wallpaper.

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So, another good week. To finish off February, I had dinner with my friend Joan on Friday, the day I’ve lived with my partner Bill for seventeen years. I know, you only get fifteen for murder; but he’s not a bad old bugger, and last night we celebrated with a chilled Chablis, and waved goodbye to February for another year. The days are lengthening from both ends, and later this month we spring the clocks forwards. It’s all good.

Here’s the poem I wrote for Ruth Padel’s Radio 4 ‘Poetry Workshop’.  I’d broken my right arm, the head of the humerus, the day before the programme was recorded; so I found it hard to get involved in the warm-up writing activities on the day. Although, when I broke my right arm as a child, I discovered that if you write with your left hand but write backwards from right to left, you can make perfect mirror writing. I guess it works if you’re left-handed too.  And that’s what I did in those warm-up exercises in Ruth’s workshop. It’s not fast, but it’s surprisingly satisfying. You should try it: you never know when it’s going to come in handy. Anyway, before the event in the Buffet Bar, our Stanza members were asked to write poems inspired by travel, the theme interpreted loosely. I’d just been away to Zakinthos for a fortnight’s sun. We travelled on the silly-o’clock flight with a party of Club 18-30 revellers and this poem was inspired by the corporate ‘uniform’ of the group. As my Old Aunt Mary used to say, we didn’t do it like that in my day!  You can find the original draft of the poem here, along with other members’ poems from the event:  I redrafted it to include in my PhD collection.


I  (heart) Watford Gap

their tee-shirt says I (heart) Zante
and on the back, In Zante without panties.

I think of the trip we took after our results,
being driven at speed in boyfriends’ cars

along the new M1 to Watford Gap services
for frothy coffee, feeding the jukebox,

Lesley Gore singing ‘It’s My Party’
the boys calling us their birds and us

preening our feathers, chirping to be fed
how we used to before we read de Beauvoir

and Greer, before we burned our bras.
I can’t imagine the legend I (heart) Watford Gap

on a sixties tee shirt; but that was how
we severed the school tie, cut the umbilical cord
travelled from school girl to woman.


Rachel Davies