All posts by grandavies

About grandavies

In 2003 I took early retirement from my life as a primary school headteacher. After retirement I undertook an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School under the tutelage of Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Jeffrey Wainwright and Michael Symmons Roberts. I am currently working towards a PhD at MMU, researching the mother-daughter relationship in the poetry of Selima Hill, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Jackie Kay. Work toward this PhD is the main focus of my weekly blog; that and how my poetry life determinedly carries on in parallel. I am on the organising committee of the Manchester based group, Poets and Players whose mission is to bring Arts Council funded, high quality poetry and music events to audiences, free of charge, at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. I am also the co-ordinator of the Poetry Society East Manchester and Tameside Stanza that meets on the last Tuesday of every month at the Buffet Bar, Staybridge Station. We have a dedicated FaceBook page: you can link to it here: I am a published poet, my work has appeared in Obsessed With Pipework, The New Writer, Envoi, The North among other poetry magazines. In 2013 I was a winner in the Fermoy Poetry Competition and in 2014 I won the Wells Competition. I was placed third in the 2015 Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition. My work has appeared in several anthologies, most recently in My Dear Watson (Beautiful Dragons Press 2015).

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

A drive down memory lane

On Sunday last I drove to Thorney in Cambridgeshire to find the B1040 road, a road I travelled many times as a child, from my home just outside Thorney to visit relatives in and around Whittlesey. I’m currently working on a poem for the latest Beautiful Dragons anthology Well, Dam…addressing ways human activity has used and abused the planet’s natural water supply. Water is both a life-giver and a destroyer, as was all too apparent recently with the damaged dam at Whaley Bridge. My own poem is about the B1040 and the pollarded willows, planted by the roadside, that used to seem to shake their fists at me as a child. It’s these willows that are central to my poem. There are two stanzas: one describing my childhood memory of riding along the B1040 in my dad’s car; and one describing driving that same road as an adult. I wanted my poem to be authentic, so I decided to drive 150 miles in order to take that road trip. I booked us a table at the Dog in a Doublet, which is about half way along the road, between Thorney and Whittlesey.

We arrived in Thorney at about 1.00 p.m. The A47 to Wisbech and Kings Lynn bypasses the village now. When I was a child it went through the village, past the Rose and Crown pub and past the alms-houses where my favourite teacher, Miss Bacon, used to live. But now you have to come off the A47 at a roundabout to pick up the B1040. It was weird to drive the road I knew so well as a child. I remembered how we used to be taken for ‘nature walks’ along the road-side when I was at primary school in Thorney. And I’d forgotten the two right-angled bends just out of the village. There were no pollarded willows between Thorney and the Dog in a Doublet at all, and I began to worry that my poem was more pipe-dream than memory. But the remembered landscape, ‘stretching forever across flat wetlands’ was real, as these photos show.

IMG_1548          IMG_1546

We stopped for lunch. My father was born in an upstairs room at the Dog in a Doublet. He weighed a prodigious 14lbs at birth. My mother was always sceptical about this birth story: my dad always thought he was one of the tallest men on the planet, despite only being about 5ft 8ins; so she assumed the birth weight tale was part of this misconception about his real size. But then she met the midwife who delivered him, and who confirmed the story. While I’m having lunch, I’m thinking of my poor Grandma upstairs, pushing out a whole stone of baby. My own boys were 9lbs at birth, and that was labour enough for me!

After lunch we drove on from the D in a D towards Whittlesey; and there were the pollarded willows. In the second stanza of my poem, written as an adult from a childhood memory, those willows still stand tall and threatening in their pollarded state. The truth is, they’ve changed. They’re still ranked alongside the water-way that we called Whittlesey Wash, a man-made drainage dyke that runs alongside the road. But they’ve grown dreadlocks of dangling leafy branches so that you’d hardly know they were pollared at all; some are falling at precarious angles, some have fallen completely and lie by the roadside looking forlorn. The seried ranks of threatening willows of my childhood looked sad, aged, in need of a retirement home. Pylons march across the flat fields, which I don’t remember from childhood, but which were almost certainly there then; and new wind turbines are well placed to capture the wind that blows straight from the Urals across the flat landscape of northern Europe. I got to Whittlesey, negotiated a roundabout and drove all the way back along the B1040 to Thorney. I visited my old primary school, The Duke of Bedford and then drove on to my childhood home along English Drove. The three bungalows, which were new when we moved into one of them when I was nine, are still there; but they look old and tired too. Perhaps all the places of your early memories age, grow ‘old and tired’ in step with your own ageing. I’d seen all I needed to see: it was worth the long drive to see how I need to work some more on my second stanza to reflect changes to that childhood landscape. I drove home to Saddleworth.

On Monday I continued to grapple with the new Sage software to do my daughter’s books at the Black Ladd. It’s all done in the Cloud now, to enable easy access to HMRC for tax purposes. I can access it on my MacBook, which is good: the former software couldn’t work with Apple operating system. But the downside is, my MacBook doesn’t have a number pad, so the number keys are all in a row along the top of the qwerty keyboard. I decided to order a Bluetooth number pad to work with MacBook. It arrived later in the week, a beautiful, slim gismo that is a perfect accessory for my lovely slim computer. But on Monday I was tired from the drive on Sunday; so by the end of the day my concentration was waning. Trying to reconcile the last bank statement, instead of the necessary 0, I kept getting a figure that was £40 out. I checked and double checked, same result. I decided to pack up and go home; I brought the bank statement home, to work on when my brain wasn’t so frazzled. I found my mistake on Thursday: two amounts with the same four digits, in slightly different configuration, so they looked similar. At last, the desired zero!

The rest of the week I’ve been carrying on with the post-PhD spring clean. I tackled Bill’s display cases of Burago classic car models. I waited until he was out of the house, and I didn’t tell him I was going to do them or he would have hung around to make sure I was treating them with the respect he considers they deserve. Of course I did! I dusted every one of them with a very soft cloth, cleaned their shelves, rearranged them in much the same order. By the time he came home they were done. I also removed, dusted, reorganised all the books on the bookshelves lining the landing. What a horrible job. And, being a sensible grown-up woman, I undertook the job in white jeans. Well, they were white when I started; by the time I finished they looked decidedly grey. The books had an accumulation of four PhD years worth of dust. I got rid of some books about the Royal Family: not my books, I come from Major Fairfax country. They belonged to Bill’s late wife; but I asked before I sent them to the charity shop, along with various how-to books on art techniques: How to do watercolour; How to do life drawing—that kind of thing. If I ever need to do those things in future, I’ll do what I always do and fly by the seat of my pants. I disturbed several very large spiders, which can stay as my guests as long as they don’t party all night and keep me awake. But the find of the day was yet another copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, which is one of my all-time favourite poetry  collections. I have three on my poetry shelves in the study already; and I’ve given away a couple of copies to friends and family members. I also have a signed copy; so maybe I’ll take this one to Stanza on Tuesday and see if any of my members want/need a copy. I think CAD should pay me royalties.

Other events this week: Hilary has booked us for a slot in The Other, a poetry open mic event hosted by Michael D Conley and Eli Regan, both friends from my time at MMU on the MA Creative Writing course. This is a different kind of open mic, in that you swap poems with another poet and read each other’s work to the audience. The event is in Didsbury on Thursday September 5th, the night before my Viva. Hilary said she’s going to get me drunk so I can fetch up at my Viva with a massive hang-over like a real student. It’s a plan; not sure it’s a good one.

Lastly, we have a date and venue for the launch of the second Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Rugged Rocks Ragged Rascals, at the Royal Kings Arms Hotel in Lancaster on September 11th, from 7.00 p.m. Barbara HIckson, one of the three poets in the pamphlet, has asked Hilary and me to read from our own Dragon Spawn pamphlet, Some Mothers Do…, at the launch. I’m holding off sending my introductory biography: I’m hoping this will be the first time I can be introduced as Dr Rachel Davies and I can’t pre-empt that outcome. The event is five days after the Viva, so I should be recovered from my massive student hang-over by then.

I read one of my earlier blog posts this week, about a long week-end on one of Kim Moore’s poetry carousels three years ago. I was recovering from a back injury I’d sustained on my birthday the month before, so it was touch and go whether I could go on the carousel at all. I wrote this poem at Kim’s workshop. It addressed those incidents from our lives that don’t seem to bear any real importance until years later, when we understand the real relevance of them. When I was teaching, people often asked what you need to become a teacher. They were probably thinking GCSE qualifications, areas of expertise etc. But I always used to say ‘you need to remember what it feels like to be a child’. That’s what was paramount for me. If you couldn’t remember the minor put-downs you endured, or the uplifting highs of praise or achievement, you’d be less as a teacher, in my opinion. This incident from my childhood was probably where that notion came from. Poor Barry. I’ve never forgotten how this must have felt.


Teacher in Training

I did my growing up in that room.
We were ranked by our last exam results,
sat from desk one, row one left for top scorer
to desk six, row five right for bottom of the class.
My space was always desk two or three, row one
left; the last seats right reserved for Barry Button
and Billy Dart. Mr Peel would sit at his desk on a dais,
eyes front, trying but mostly failing to be frightening.
There was the poster of God that hung on the wall;
the birds that follow the plough, the dry leaves,
snail shells, pierced conkers on the nature table.

We never questioned this order of things,
it was what it was and my place was secure
in the social order until that day Barry Button
couldn’t say the word the, the digraph th usurped
by the phoneme v. I felt his humiliation as a worm
eating me from the inside, but Mr Peel kept trying
and failing to get Barry to say the, a public torture
that we held our breaths to watch. Some of us laughed
from amusement or nerves or embarrassment or
if it wasn’t Barry it would be me. I didn’t know then
that this would be my yardstick for how not to teach.

Rachel Davies
August 2016

Wetlands, cheap hotels and dentists

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bedtime Story

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Davies

The Map and the Clock

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Mother #12

Mary R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Davies


Floods and droughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Mother #2


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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Davies

On record…

It’s 5.15 a.m. on a summer morning in Saddleworth. This week has seen one of the hottest July days on record, 38.1°C officially recorded at Cambridge, only just below the all-time record . News reporters speak of the record being ‘achieved’, as if it is something to aspire to, something to celebrate, the climate equivalent of Adam Peaty swimming 100m. in less than 57 seconds. This morning there isn’t a breath of wind and the rain is coming down vertically, beating through the leaves of the sycamore outside my window. The sky is spilling the water evaporated by the week’s heat. But temperature records aren’t achievements, they aren’t reasons for celebration. They are signs of humankind’s failure to protect the planet, signs of the way profit comes before care, so we rape Earth’s natural resources until she struggles to breathe. This morning she’s crying. Climate records are Earth’s cries for help. We ignore them at our peril.

I’ve been in a post-holiday blue period—you know that thing where you are constantly thinking ‘this time last week…’. I decided to get stuck into some more post-PhD spring cleaning. I made a start on the guest bedroom. I washed bed linen and curtains and pegged them out: this was the upside of the hot weather. They dried beautifully. I sorted out cupboards, made more donations to charity shops. Our house is on three levels. On the ground floor is a laundry and the garage; on the top floor our bedroom and study. The first floor is the living space: lounge, kitchen, dining room, bathroom; and the guest bedroom, which, due to its position and it’s irregular use, is a perfect dumping ground! This week I changed all that. The cupboard full of Christmas wrapping paper and old Christmas cards—cleared out. The wardrobe with all my head-teacher gear that I wouldn’t wear again if you paid me—cleared out. The cupboards above the bed with ‘spare’ bed linen that I’ll never use again—cleared out. I’ve filled black bags with stuff for charity shops or the town tip. There’s something exhilarating about having a good clear out, like you’re clearing out an unsatisfactory past life, something about yourself you don’t recognise any more, you’re making (another) new beginning. I think, to be honest, Bill gets exasperated with me when I’m on a roll: I can be a bit evangelical about it and he likes a quiet life. But if a job’s worth doing…and there were clothes in there that haven’t been worn in more than a decade. They belonged to a different woman. They had to go. He’s fine with that: it’s the bit where I make him make decisions about his own stuff that raises his hackles. But if you haven’t worn/used something in ten years, you probably don’t need it. He probably wouldn’t notice if I chucked stuff without asking him, to be honest; but that would just feel wrong. Wouldn’t it?

On Tuesday I watched the result of the election of the Tory leader and new Prime Minister. I have no time for Tories. I’ve voted Labour all my life, hoping some element of humanity will creep into politics and improve the lives of ordinary people, people who struggle to survive. Tories personify profit before people; their policy of austerity has hit hardest the poorest people in the country while the rich and powerful have contributed nothing. People are dying in the streets, literally, but that’s OK because the Rees-Moggs and the Sussexes have had their million pound mansions refurbished at the public expense. But Boris Johnson? Really? In his speech at the podium outside 10 Downing Street—appropriately dubbed ‘Clowning Street’ by one newspaper—following his audience with the Queen, he talked of uniting Britain under his leadership. Two points to remember:

1) He was one of the Tory tribe who broke Britain in the first place. The EU referendum was a bit of a public school wheeze, a way of keeping the Tory party alive in the face of pressure from UKIP. In the spirit of the Eton debating society, someone had to support the ‘Leave’ side of the debate and Johnson did it, although his political history shows he had no passion about Europe one way or another; and his face on the morning of the result showed clearly what vision he didn’t have for his spurious and narrow win.

2) What leadership? He has proved himself time and again to be unreliable, untruthful, lazy, vicious, self-serving, racist, misogynist, bumbling—anything for a laugh. This is your new leader, your new prime minister. I won’t say my prime minister: he is not prime minister in my name. I just hope it proves to be the shortest premiership on record: that would be one record well worth celebrating.

Last week I talked about the S. J. Parris Elizabethan detective novels I’ve been reading. I was quite scathing about her style of writing. I stand by my impression of her books as being a frothy while a bit heavy on historical detail: well researched but the research grafted on, feeling extra to the story. This week I finished the second one I started on my holiday. So what did I do next? I ordered some more to my Kindle. I know, I’m fickle. But she leaves you just knowing there is more to the story, an extension still to come. Bruno’s lover escapes the law and he is distraught; but you sense they’ll meet again somewhere in another book and I found myself wanting to know where, and how it goes when it happens. Yup; I guess I did get lost in the world of her books after all. I’ll not read the follow-ups yet, as I’ve started reading Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s WW1 memoir. I’ve only just begun, about three chapters in, so I won’t comment yet, but the 2015 film, with Alicia Vikander as Vera, was brilliant and made me want to read the book. I’ll keep you posted. Bruno and Sophia can wait.

Poetry has had a very small part of me this week. I’ve collected poems for my Stanza anonymous workshop. We meet at the Stalybridge Station buffet bar on the last Tuesday of the month, 7.30 to 9.30 p.m. This month we’re having a critical feedback session when members send me new poems which I send back in an anonymous document to read and think about before the meeting so that we’re ready for constructive and honest feedback. I’ll be sending the anonymous document out later today. I’ve also booked myself onto a Mark Pajak workshop in Nantwich in October, with an open-mic session in the evening. If you fancy it, details are here:

I found out about two more People’s Poetry lectures in the autumn too; these are the brainchild of Carol Ann Duffy, just one of the grass-roots initiatives she instigated as Poet Laureate, and they’re organised by the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University; although the vision is for them to appeal to an non-academic audience. Last year there were lectures by Gillian Clarke (Dylan Thomas), Michael Symmons Roberts (W.H. Auden) and Andrew McMillan (Thom Gunn). They are wonderful: accessible, insightful, entertaining. This autumn’s lectures are by Sean Borodale (Sylvia Plath), Jean Sprackland (Elizabeth Bishop) and Moira Egan (Marianne Moore). Details are here: I’ll see you there?

There you have it: another busy week in the long wait for the PhD viva on September 6th. I’m trying to stay calm, but I’ve never enjoyed interviews. I keep telling myself I’m too old to care now, my life doesn’t depend on the outcome. But when you’ve worked hard for something, it means a lot. Breathe Rachel, breeeeeathe!

A poem: I wrote this one in Coniston when Hilary and I were going through all our old notebooks to find hidden gems. I’m not claiming this as a hidden gem, I’m claiming it as a forgotten possibility that I found in my old notebook search. I can’t remember the stimulus for it, what inspired me to write it. But I quite enjoyed coming across it, dusting it off, giving a new lease…


The films I like are realist

 I want to see Cromwell’s warty face,
God tucked into his breastplate,
I want to see sweat breaking out
on the brow of a foppish king.
I want to see a model army
ranked for battle, horses steaming,
smell their heat, taste the blood, feel
the death or glory.

I don’t want to see Margaret Lockwood
designer dressed, cupid’s bow
and beauty spot, 1940s hair,
an unlikely highwaywoman
breast heaving breathily
for the leading man with the thin moustache
and the crooked smile
because girls must learn
all a woman needs
is the notice of a handsome man.

Sack that!
I want that leading man to run off
with the inn landlady, Margaret
to feel the pain,
get over it, grow strong
find her own way to make the world.
I want it real, reel by reel,
I want to believe in it, right
up to the rolling credits.

Rachel Davies

alBanya, birthdays and cricket

When I was coming to the end of the work for my thesis, the poet Jean Sprackland, who was the support for the creative aspect of my PhD team, asked me what ambitions I had when the PhD was complete. My answer was simple. ‘I intend to read shite for the rest of my life,’ I said, laughing. I’ve made it no secret that I found the PhD difficult. I have two bachelor degrees and two post-graduate degrees, but the PhD was a whole new level of hard; as it should be, of course it should. But I stuck at it and submitted a thesis that I was proud of because, even in the darkest days, I never gave up. It remains to be seen if it is of PhD standard when I attend for my viva in September. But when it was finished I vowed never to pick up another academic, scholarly or intelligent book that required me to engage my brain. For as long as I live I was going to read rubbish. This week I fulfilled that new ambition. I’ve been reading two detective stories by the author, S. J. Parris. Heresy and Sacrilege are set in the Elizabethan era of religious turmoil, and clearly S. J. has done his research because they display minute detail in the history of the era. Sometimes it feels as if he’s beating you about the head with the detail, forgetting that what he’s actually supposed to be doing is telling you a story. The books are full of intricate descriptions of rooms in post-Reformation churches, ex-monasteries/abbeys, Oxford libraries. His imagination comes to bear on the prisons, inns, overhanging street buildings; but his descriptions never fit in with his storytelling. They are grafted on in a different voice, as if he’s cut-and-pasted large swathes of his research notes into his story, forgetting that they should embellish the story, not serve as add-ons, not be ‘pimples on elephants’ bums’. Talking of his stories, I find them predictable. There are no surprises for the reader: you just know his hero, Bruno, is going to get out of whatever unlikely difficulties he gets himself into, so there is no tension in what should be his edge-of-the-seat stuff. Having said all this, they are quite good stories, I’m just not enjoying his style of writing; and the Kindle versions have several typo errors that shouldn’t have got past an alert editor. But I will finish the second one. However, I’ve learned that I can’t do shite quite as easily as I thought. I need a challenge, I need something to think about while I’m reading. I need to lose myself in a book.

[I just found out that S.J. Parris is in fact a woman writer, it is a pseudonym of the author Stephanie Merritt. I apologise to her for making gender assumptions based on her writing; however, my impression of her work hasn’t changed as a result of this discovery. My son, on the other hand, loves her work :-)]

Last night I watched ‘Testament of Youth’, the film interpretation of Vera Brittain’s memoir of the First World War. Immediately I wanted to read the book. I’ve downloaded it to my Kindle, it’s the next book on my reading list. I just know this is a book I’ll get lost in.

Most of my reading this week has been on a sunbed in Roda on the island of Corfu. We’re back home now, but we had a lovely holiday, just the total unwind I was needing after five years of academic work. It was my birthday on Tuesday this week. We took a boat trip to Albania—Greeks pronounce it alBanya—to celebrate my birthday.

Albania–alBanya–from our hotel on Corfu

I love a boat trip in the Med, and it took about an hour to get from Corfu harbour to Sarande in alBanya. Sarande is growing as a tourist destination, lots of hotels built along its coastline; including a Holiday Inn. It’s like Greece, but with significant differences. The language is different for one thing, not Cyrillic, Latin or Germanic, it has its own language, its own writing system unique to Albania. We visited the archaeological site at Butrint, which was fascinating, revealing settlement dating back to 800 B.C., later development having a strong Roman influence. There are links to the Trojan wars, with the legend that Butrint is the town where Priam’s son chose to rebuild Troy after its destruction by the beseiging Greek forces. Built on a drained flood plane, it is often underwater, and the amphitheatre stage was raised as decking, the original stage being underneath and still under water. Unfortunately a woman standing next to me fell through a rotting timber on the decking; only one leg went through and I don’t think she was badly hurt, but I expect her leg will be well bruised by now. I felt very vulnerable on that decking after that, and I was glad when we moved on. alBanya is an embryonic tourist destination, outside the EU and its health and safety regulation. Similarly there were lots of steps to negotiate, and handrails were at best inadequate; it’s hardly an accessible site.

The ancient coastal town of Butrint, Albania

We had a buffet lunch in an alBanyan tavern and visited a castle on the highest point of that part of the island in the afternoon. I bought two fridge magnets from a gift shop, neither of which sticks well to the fridge. They are unbalanced and need to prop on other magnets to stay upright and in place. But it was an interesting day and made for a different birthday celebration. We got back to our hotel at about 21.15, showered and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. Bill ordered a bottle of champagne in honour of my birthday: it cost as much as a one-night stay in a five star hotel! I always love my birthday, and this was a particularly memorable one.

On Sunday we sat in the hotel bar and watched England win the cricket world cup. Wow! What a match that was. I guess cricket matches don’t come closer than that. I’ve never seen a match conclude with a super-over finish, the cricket equivalent of a penalty shoot- out and England emerged as victors. When it had looked as if England were going to lose the match, needing 26 runs from the last two overs, the Sky Sports camera followed Bairstow’s restlessness at the wicket and I thought of Hector at the walls of Troy, how he would have looked like Bairstow, determined in the face of impending defeat. Unfortunatley for Hector, it all ended better for Bairstow: match drawn and a super-over in which he helped England to victory. I drafted a poem about Hector and Bairstow, but I won’t bore you with it: it’s certainly not ready for an adoring public yet. I love cricket, particularly the one-day form of the game and twice we’ve been to Australia to follow the one-day series. So I’ll leave you instead with a poem I wrote at a one-day match in Australia in 2007. This poem was shortlisted in the Ilkley competition a few years back. It describes the very last international ball bowled by the astounding Australian fast bowler, Glenn McGrath at his home ground, Sydney Cricket Ground. It was wonderful to be there to witness it.

McGrath’s Last Ball for Australia
Sydney Cricket Ground 02.02.07

In these dying moments of the match
as you bend to a setsquare buffing the ball,
does your brain replay your international career:

the thousand or so leg befores,
catches behind, in the slips, in the deep,
all those middle pegs somersaulting to Gilchrist,
the dogged run chases wagging the tail?

Or do sixty thousand feet tracing your paces
on grandstand floors, hands drumming your beat
on chair-backs, voices rising in a tsunami of sound,
flush all thought before it?

A deafening noise, a roar of Thor
covers the ground, darkens the sky, places
a thunderbolt in your hand, lightning in your stride so,
as if in glorious slo-mo, you run up, plant your feet,
deliver the ball—it is, after all, just a ball.
It bounces short of a length.

Nixon thinks he’ll steal your thunder,
lofts it high over extra cover
where it seems to hover.
English voices join the noise

but on the boundary, buoyed by the tide,
Hodge stretches, hand open
and Nixon c Hodge b McGrath.


Rachel Davies

Thunder, Lightning and Edna O’Brien

I’m on the beautiful island of Corfu, getting some post-submission, pre-viva downtime. I’m drinking too much, eating too much, reading just the right amount. I’m reading nothing academic at all.

When I got here I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s amazing dystopian novel about men, women, roles, reproduction. I read it years ago and decided on a re-read after the recent television series. I must say, the television was quite faithful to the plot, even if the characters didn’t always translate from page to screen. The television, however, has pre-empted how the story might continue with the pregnancy, unattended birth and attempt at escape. These things are hinted at only as possibilities in the book’s epilogue, an imagined archaeological conference in the twenty-second century. I can’t wait for the much-publicised sequel, The Testaments,in September.  What is most frightening is how foreboding the tale is; I read of a black woman in America, charged with manslaughter after her unborn baby died, when she was shot in the stomach: the shooter wasn’t charged. The mother of the unborn baby should have taken more care with her pregnancy and not got into a fight, putting the baby in danger. The charge has since been dropped, but this is modern America sinisterly reflecting Gilead. I’ve delayed watching the third series; I’m going to the Lowry Theatre in Manchester in September to see her ‘In Conversation’. Perhaps I’ll watch Series 3 on Netflix, but only after I’ve read Atwood’s sequel.

On the Sunday evening I came away, I watched an interview on BBC television, Alan Yentob interviewing the Irish novelist, Edna O’Brien:’Brien is nearly 90 now, and it was a fascinating interview with a feisty, feminist writer. I had heard of O’Brien, of course I had; but it occurred to me I’d never read her, not one of her many books. I downloaded her Country Girls Trilogy onto my Kindle to bring away to read. I finished reading it yesterday. O’Brien is writing from a time only a few years before my own teenage, and I can so relate to it.  I came from a rural community too, not Irish, not Catholic, but sharing some of the tight-laced traditions and restraints she describes. It is a sad book. It is a funny book. It is a book grown from the sexual revolution of the sixties. When Country Girls, the first book of the trilogy, was first published—O’Brien claims it took her all of three weeks to write—it was banned in Ireland and publicly burned by the priest of the parish where O’Brien lived as a child and a young woman. Its crime? It dared to claim a space for female desire within the Catholic-dominated patriarchy that was (is?) Ireland. From the interview it was clear that it is based in autobiography, although like the best books, it contains elements of O’Brien’s imaginative story-telling too. She said the two principal characters, Caithleen and Baba, are two aspects of her own self. The first two books in the trilogy are painfully Oedipal, written from the point of view of Caithleen, a young woman seeking connection with a father-figure who is not, like her own father, an habitual drunk. Almost inevitably, she falls into an abusive marriage with a controlling older man. It can’t end well, and it doesn’t. The third book is written from the point of view of Baba, a feisty woman who knows what she wants from life, and knows how to get it. The two characters are so different, and O’Brien draws them both, fully and perfectly. Their narrative styles are so descriptive of their characters. It is beautifully written. The epilogue is the saddest thing I’ve read in years, possibly because I can see some of myself in both characters. I feel as if O’Brien is writing the story of my own navigation in the adult world of marriage, childbirth, relationships, aspiration. I can’t wait to read others of her books now. So thank you, Alan Yentob for bringing her writing to my attention.

On Friday evening we went into Corfu town by boat from Kassiopi. We had a lovely evening sitting in the town square amid the Venetian-style buildings watching the world go by. There was a procession of men, women, children in Greek national costume, which was colourful and interesting. We didn’t find out what they were processing about, and I’ve since googled and found nothing. But it was good to be there when it was happening, a little serendipity. On Tuesday it’s my birthday. I won’t say how old I am, but I will say a girl can’t have too many birthdays. On Tuesday we’re going on another boat trip, to Albania, which we can see clearly, heat haze permitting, from our hotel. I’m looking forward to that, something completely different. I’ll tell all next week.


Albania in the mist, from our hotel in Roda

On Wednesday night we had a spectacular thunder storm; one of those storms in the Med that you just have to watch. There was fork and sheet lightning illuminating  up the night sky, huge winds, biblical rain, booming thunder, intermittent power outages. It lasted about forty-five minutes and is the best entertainment we’ve had since we got here; although of course, it is also significant of climate change and worrying on that count. But it was a complete force of nature. We learned at breakfast that six people died in the storm, but that was either in the south of the island or on the mainland: not speaking Greek, we couldn’t quite make out. We saw on the television cars floating along flooded roads, the devastation caused by extreme weather. But it was spectacular to watch. The sequel last night was, as often happens with sequels, a bit of a let down. Still sheet and fork lightning, still heavy rain, but the wind was less ferocious and the power didn’t fail. One huge clap of thunder was impressive though; we were at a Greek night in the hotel and the Greek dancers were performing. At that huge boom of thunder, the audience jumped as one orgamism; but the dancers carried on dancing as if they hadn’t heard a thing, consummate professionals all. I’ve often watched spectacular thunderstorms in this region; but the most frightening natural event was on Zakinthos, just a bit further south in the Ionian sea, about five years ago. There was an earthquake measuring 5.2 on the scale. Furniture moved, coffee spilled from cups, the swimming pool had waves. But it was the noise that I remember most; I was so impressed by the noise I wrote a poem about it. Here is that poem, my tribute to the force of nature that is the Ionian region of Greece.


Koukounaria Quake

mobile phone footage of lanterns swinging,
floors like tablecloths being shaken of crumbs,
windows spitting out their glass,
cars like Dinky toys tossed by a petulant child,
fissures in roads that swallow juggernauts whole:
this is my television-fed knowledge of earthquake.

But a mobile phone can’t record the noise,
as if the earth were turning in her sleep,
dropping her bedtime read to the floor, breaking
wind. She grinds her teeth and the hotel shifts
and the wardrobe slides across the bedroom
and ripples ride on coffee mugs and coffee
slops onto tables and tables walk the floor
and the swimming pool gets the surf up
and tourists, not used to this, make to leave
the safety of a structure built to withstand it.

Eleni checks on her pregnant daughter, the earth
settles to sleep again and all three carry on
as if something extraordinary didn’t just happen.

Rachel Davies

Putting poetry on the map

I have absolutely nothing to write about this week. I spent five years pursuing a PhD, determined it wouldn’t affect my poetry life. I submitted the work in May, including a collection of 100 poems, small proof that it actually enhanced my life in poetry. But this week I have nothing poetic to write about: unless you count that I’ve updated my desk calendar with a whole lot of upcoming writing/submitting deadlines, some of which I might even meet. Why this dearth? Because my week has been taken up with planning a holiday. I’m planning to take a notebook, my MacBook; I’m planning to fulfil some of those deadlines from some bummy sunbed in Corfu. Watch this space.

But for this week, nothing to report. Nada. So I’m going to tell you about a poetry project, Places of Poetry, which is aiming to fill the map of the England and Wales with poems.

It’s the brainchild of poet Paul Farley and academic Andrew McRae and it’s based in the Universities of Exeter and Lancaster. You can find out all about the project on the Poetry Society website:

There are a variety of poetry residencies with activities and events planned throughout the country. A poet friend, Jo Bell, has a residency at the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenavon later in the summer. She placed this Write Out Loud blog post on her FaceBook page, about the Places of Poetry project. I thought I’d share it:

The project is open to any poet, amateur or professional, who wishes to pin a poem to the map. It’s a great project. I was one of the eager early poem-pinners when I first heard of the project from my Poetry Society newsletter earlier this year. I posted an ‘alternative mother’ poem about the fens, where I grew up. I re-visited the map before I started to write this and it’s filling up with regional poems of all kinds, a fantastic resource. I found one from the new poet Laureate, Simon Armitage; I found a couple from fellow Stanza reps; I found poems from Rod Whitworth and Linda Goulden, members of my own stanza. I found poems from several poetry friends. I visited Wales and Anglesey and found poems in Welsh, poems in Welsh with English translation. Take a look for yourself. Visit your favourite haunts in a poetry binge. It really is a celebration. There are still huge swathes of the map available, so you might even want to pin a poem to the map yourself.

So, it’s a short blog spot this week. Enjoy exploring the map. Right now, I’m off to fling some things in a suitcase. I’ll see you on the other side. Here’s the poem I pinned to the map in Cambridgeshire:


Alternative Mother #5
The Fens

 If landscape has mountains, forests,
a river forcing its course to the sea
she is no landscape.

If her horizon is fourteen miles away
your eyes will see for fourteen miles
across her sea-drained bed.

If goddesses reach down to touch her soil
there is nothing between their fingers
and her fecundity.

Her sky though, look at her sky,
high and wide as heaven!
She celebrates all the literature of skies,
their cumulonimbus poetry,
their war and peace.

Rachel Davies