Wednesday 22 May 2013

The launch of Caroline Davies's 'Convoy'

Convoy is published by Cinnamon Press

Monday, 20 May 2013. Ship: HQS Wellington. Estimated time of launch, nineteen hundred hours. Crew, some twenty or so hardy souls. The Captain, poet Caroline Davies, resplendent in a 1940's dress uniform and hair to match, was on board well before, checking that all was ship-shape. The steward, Simon, having responded with all alacrity to orders - 'Move that table. Bring water for the flowers. And water for the reader...' ushered us into the wardroom for pre-launch drinks. But then, he had to sit down when HQS Wellington rocked slightly due to the wake of a passing pleasure craft - 'I'm no sailor. I get seasick.'

How would the captain cope with such dereliction of duty? 'Oh, never mind,' she said, checking she had all the ships logs, the charts, passenger list. Ready to pipe aboard the honoured guests.
Caroline, with HQS Wellington in the background

Caroline's debut poetry collection is no ordinary first collection. You will not find poems here dealing with the usual... no eulogies or elegies to parents, children or lovers. But instead, a carefully researched series of intensely poignant poems based on fact, inspired by her grandfather's experiences in the Malta Convoys in WW11.

I was privileged to be among the crew for the event, and to 'interview' Caroline to provide a framework for her readings. And in case you weren't lucky enough to be on HQS Wellington that night - here is that interview.

V Tell us where the idea for Convoy came from?

C: Didn’t sit down with the intention of writing about Malta and the war. So the first poem I wrote as part of the sequence although it’s not the first poem in the book. It came out of one of Pascale Petit’s poetry workshops at Tate Modern – just across the river from here. It was November 2010 and we’d been looking at a piece of installation art by Ana Mendiata – a Cuban American artist. Pascale would always facilitate the writing by giving you ideas and by sharing poems and we’d read Animal Dress' by Sharon Olds  and ' The World's Entire Wasp Population' by Selima Hill. Neither poem had anything to do with being at sea or being at war and we settled down to write with the brief of using our senses. 
     I wrote a poem called 'Under Fire'. It is set on board a ship which has been under attack There’s been a tremendous bombardment which has left you unable to hear and in front of you is a wounded seaman and it’s 1941 and you are….Under Fire. That was the first poem of what was to become a long project.

(Caroline read 'Under Fire'.) 

V I know that poem came up from old memories, of your grandfather's experiences during WW11. How much did you know at that early stage, about your grandfather’s war?

C: What I knew at the start was sketchy. I knew he’d been involved in the Malta convoys but I didn’t know which ships he’d been on or what was involved in being on a convoy so I was at first base. I did lots of reading, Ian Cameron’s Red Duster, White Ensign, Richard Woodman’s Malta convoys.  At the same time I was studying the final level 3 CW module with the OU which had several assignments which required you to do some research and then write based on the research. 
      I did know a little more about my mother’s experience. She was aged six at the start of the war and her’s is one of the important voices in the book. 

 (Caroline read 'Sirens')

V We’ve heard your mother’s voice - now in contrast - let’s hear your grandfather’s voice? Tell us a bit about this next poem, 'Unprotected Water'.

C: This came out of a conversation with my uncle about his father’s war and is based on a true story of what happened on one occasion, probably the first time when his ship, The Ajax had just berthed in Grand Harbour, Valetta. One of the things I discovered from the research was how fortunate he was in having John Scott as his captain.
(Caroline read 'Unprotected Water'.) 

Caroline in The Committee Room on board The Wellington. This is where the readings took place, to a select audience.

V How did you approach the research necessary for this project?  And did you restrict yourself to the accounts of those who had served on the ships, or did you find other interesting sources? 

C: As I’ve mentioned I did a lot of research and a fair amount of reading for many of the poems. There are a number of accounts by RAF pilots who were stationed on Malta in 1941 and 1942, among them Laddie Lucas and Tom Neil. So although I’d set out with the aim of simply writing about the convoys and the experience of the seamen,  I ended up with lots of material about what it was like defending the island from the air which demanded to be turned into poems. 
             However, one of the difficulties with these accounts is that they tend to be restrained  about their feelings – lots of ‘stiff upper lip’ stuff which was how they got through. 

V: Writing about war can  turn into a heavy business. Were there any lighter moments you discovered, to add tonal variation to the mix?  

C: Yes. The Ajax spent three months on Malta from September – Boxing Day 1941. The poem 'Christmas 1941' almost comes directly from the footnotes of one of the maritime histories and is based on a comment by the third officer on The Ajax, Graham Sibly. He said, ‘I have never seen an angrier man than our Number One Greaser, he was literally dancing up and down with rage.’ 

(Caroline read 'Christmas 1941')

V: How did you turn these, and other written accounts into poems? 

C: The accounts of those who served on the ships’ is an interesting phrase because there are very few first hand accounts written by seamen. If there is a book written by a captain of one of the merchant ships on these convoys I have yet to find it! What I did manage to find was IWM interviews and there was a Channel 4 documentary about the last big convoy, Operation Pedestal which includes interviews with a number of seamen. What I did do was put together the historical facts. It was up to me to do the work of imagining how they felt. I found myself seizing upon moments when they let their guard drop.  The poem 'Overseas Posting' is based on a single remark made in an interview by a pilot (I don’t know his name) when asked how he coped with other pilots being killed. ‘I just used to pretend’ he said. This next poem is him, pretending. 

(Caroline read 'Overseas Posting').

V tell us something about Malta itself, and how the island suffered during the war? Do you have any further plans to mine this particular seam in your writing? 

C: By the summer of 1942 the island was absolutely on its knees – they were running out of food, fuel, and ammunition and the authorities are counting down the weeks to the point at which they will have no choice but to surrender to the Axis powers. 
       Things that were never rationed in Britain like bread and flour were rationed on Malta – the bread allowance was 10 ½ ounces per day (flour was unobtainable). There was no olive oil or butter and the fat/lard allowance was 3 ½ ounces per week (1/3 of the ration in Britain). Milk was unobtainable and powered milk was given only to children under seven and pregnant women. Cheese (4 oz in Uk) was 1 ¾ once on Malta. Sugar, jam, sweets were not rationed as they were unobtainable. The authorities set up Victory kitchens which provided one hot meal per day and that was it.  

(Caroline finished by reading from a longer poem, ' Operation Vigorous'. It’s June 1942 and this was her  grandfather's voice again, on his third convoy to Malta, setting out from Alexandria.) 
The queue, and signing books. 
The launch was a very special occasion, and it was wonderful to be there.  Walking back along the Embankment, The Thames at dusk looked rather lovely...

'Convoy' can be purchased direct from Cinnamon Press, or ordered from all good bookshops.