Talking Dirty: The Hammam in Fez

Hot and cold running buckets and your ego scrubbed away; the women’s hammam in mediaeval Fez is a different kind of spa experience.

I’m standing with three other women, two French, one English-speaking Italian; all strangers, all naked, and trying not to stare.  Fatima, who has just relieved us of our clothes and personal items, grasps my hand and pulls rather than leads me into an echoing tiled hall whose high vaulted ceiling is lost in shadows.  I have just entered the women’s hammam, the public baths in the mediaeval walled Medina of Fez, and something tells me it’s not going to be relaxing.

In the main hall, another 30 or 40 naked and glistening women are going through their beauty routines.  Some of them bathe alone, others take turns dashing water from sagging plastic buckets at each other.  One squeal registers hot water, two squeals cold.  The hammam space is large but contains no showers or shelves, towels or mirrors, nowhere to sit except the floor.  When the big buckets of water are empty, bathers refill them at the hot or cold taps either side of an adjoining room.  Many, though not all, of the buckets have handles.

As I study the green tiled walls with intense interest, a big dark-haired woman with breasts like boulders reaches up from her cross-legged position and pulls me down to join her on the slimy floor, arranging me face up, everything up.  It’s time for my hammam experience.

Rashida is chief tayeba, or bather, and biggest fish in the steamy shallows of the hammam.  I’ve seen my new Euro-companions prodded and pummeled, soaped and squeezed and splashed like toddlers.  As I join in their shrieks of laughter, I’m busy running escape scenarios but one look at Rashida and I know I’m not going anywhere.  You don’t argue with Rashida and not only because you can’t speak Arabic. With my head resting in her lap, I’m forced to gaze trustingly up into her stern face as she soaps me from head to foot.  It’s difficult to be assertive.

Pulling me up to face her, my legs uncomfortably entwined around hers, she pours watered-down shampoo from an outsize pink plastic bottle over my head.   I try to rehearse the French for “do please take care, I am wearing soft contact lenses,” but shut my eyes tight instead.   At that moment, I feel something raking my scalp in long, heavy strokes, as though I’m being groomed by a she-bear.  Unscrewing my eyes I can see a blue hedgehog, a plastic toothed brush for scraping burnt-on grease off saucepans.  Nothing to worry about after all, this must be the head massage.

Rashida kneads my flesh in short but energetic bursts, gratified whenever I let out a whimper of pain.  I’m twisted round and flipped over, can hardly tell where I end and Rashida begins.  Is that my foot tucked between her breasts?  It certainly is.  A frail island of someone’s new-mown pubic hair floats past inches from my nose, but like Alice in Wonderland, this now seems quite normal to me.

Waiting my turn for each procedure, I chat to the other bathers, stretching my schoolgirl French to the limit.  One old dark-skinned woman flashes me a gold-toothed grin, and offers me five million francs if I will marry her son.  I also make polite conversation with two young Frenchwomen, who assure me they are finding this experience ‘géniale’, and we exchange the usual small talk about the weather and where we are staying, raising the banal to the bizarre under the circumstances.

I’m called away from this cocktail party scene.  Rashida is ready for me again, and this is her grand finale.  She ‘massages’ my back as though she has a personal grudge against me; it’s like King Kong playing scales on an inflatable piano.  When she’s finished with me, she motions me to sit up, then with a firm push on my back, shunts me across the slippery floor.  I travel surprisingly quickly towards the rest of my group.

Back outside in the changing area, these once intrepid, assertive women travellers wait passively for towels and the return of our clothes.  I dry myself on what is surely a floor mat, hoping that the faded rust-coloured marks on it are part of its original pattern, and climb gratefully into my cotton and linen protective armour.

Clothed, I feel better already, more in control of my destiny.  When our hostess, Fatima, wedges herself next to me on the bench and asks insistently for my address (her son just happens to be planning a visit to the small town where I live in Southern Spain), I tell her about my big, jealous husband and our slavering dog before making a swift exit and hurrying back to my hotel.  I need to relax, and I really need a shower.




The Chocolate Song



About this poem:

The Chocolate Song comes from two exercises in rhyme and repetition in Routes Into Poetry, the excellent mini-course from The Poetry School in London.

Based on a poem called  I want to be your shoebox’ by Catherine Bowman. We were asked to write a new children’s rhyme. Or a ‘trail poem’ in which each line begins with the same word and leads to the next related image/idea. The perils suffered by girls from pre-birth to old age – and a child’s idea of what will save them.


Chocolate for girl babies snatched from the womb
Chocolate instead of a busy schoolroom
Chocolate to sweeten the rusty knife’s wound
Chocolate for girl children married too soon
Chocolate when childbirth spells young mother’s doom
Chocolate for young girls whom men abuse
Chocolate applied to a purple-black bruise
Chocolate to cheer up that victim of rape
Chocolate when water is two hours away. Twice a day.
Chocolate for women who have no say
for what their hard-earned coins will pay
Chocolate for cholera, typhus and AIDS
Chocolate to cherish abandoned old age

Chocolate for you and chocolate for me
Chocolate for girls who will never live free
Chocolate for children whose choice is of chains
Chocolate for horror, and chocolate for pain!

April 2017

The Rose Queen

Fading roses have a beauty of their own

Rose, from the Mortalitas series by Fred Shively, 2011.

This poem started out as an exercise in assonance, from the excellent ‘Routes into Poetry’ course, produced by the Poetry School in London. It’s taken a rather tragic turn.


In spring, beauty, resting on its maiden
voyage from the muddy root, pools
in ruby baubles on your thin bare arms,
and rain anoints you royalty.

Warm breeze whispers in your silken skirts;
the sun god scatters diamond dewdrops there.
Jewel-bright spiders diligently spin
you silver veils of gossamer.

As summer unfolds, your velvet robes unfurl
with rare perfume. You flaunt your ruby ruffles,
as courtiers bend reverent heads towards your heart,
their homage is its own reward.

Rich and reckless, you outstare the sun,
Though one by one, your maids of honour lose
their heads. One evening as you take the air
You shed a petal.

Then another.

Autumn’s armies strip you bare,
and take your crown. Raddled, wrecked,
you bow your head and fade to rest.
Till spring revives you to rain again.

Arpy Shively, April 2017

Daybook 25 March 2017


Years ago my sister, my 15-year old nephew and his girlfriend had come over to visit us in our Andalucian mountain town. One day, we took them riding. The stable owner took one look at my sister and I, and prodded her oldest horses awake. We set off and soon fell far behind the proper riders in the line.

I remember that halfway round the trail, I was marooned in the middle of a grassy knoll, with my sister at shouting distance on the other side. I couldn’t make my horse move towards her (it was busy cropping grass), and she couldn’t make her horse move towards me. We could only shout and signal to each other across the field: “You OK?” We’ve often laughed about that day.

Lately I’ve been remembering our ride. My triplet brother and sister still live near London and I still live in Spain. But Mum, who bound us together in grumbling servitude, recently died. I haven’t been to London for months. Can’t really, unless work takes me there. I want to be there for my sister, I miss my brother. Yet with all of us needing either financial, emotional or physical repair right now, we can’t get together. Can’t get her over here for a much-needed break. Can’t bring or send her little luxuries to cheer her. We can only shout across to each other in hurried FaceTime calls or WhatsApps. “You OK”?

Sunday 26 March

Forgot to set the alarm last night.  Tottered out of bed at 7.45 am, deducting brownie points for lateness, then realised the clocks had sprung forward this morning. Mother’s Day in the UK. Mum, I send you virtually white lilies. And a big tub of purple hyacinths for the dining-room table. And a Mother’s Day card with soppy soft focus roses on the cover and a rhyming tribute inside. “To the best Mum in the world…” You craved these scraps of affection, so we tossed them at you, grudgingly like we did everything you clamoured for.

F…..has put his back out again. So yesterday I took Eds for his morning walk. Up into the pine and eucalyptus wood around the seminary. It’s our favourite walk, almost free of cars or people, I can let him loose to nose-surf along the grassy banks as we wind up towards the church grounds along the wide path striped with sun and shade.

Eds met a new puppy and mounted him enthusiastically several times. The puppy chased him and nipped his ear. So Eds rolled the puppy. And his person and I watched and laughed, in the fresh sunshine. All this joy, and all before breakfast! Dogs can do that for you.

Working on a poem, part of an exercise in assonance. The poems, they take so long, I get discouraged. Some of you post three a week. I know it’s not a competition. But just asking – will I get through to the next round?

Daybook: Saturday 18 March 2017


Ladies who brunch – Photo by Fred Shively, June 2014 Madrid

Daybook: Saturday 18 March 2017

Sat 11 March I am pottering along our sunlit Main Street, a favourite Saturday thing to do. The now-familiar shops and faces, bathed today in golden spring sunshine. This is my home and these are my people, even if they don’t know it.

As I pass the terrace of Café Israel, I catch Carmen’s eye. She’s with her young neighbour or helper, and beckons me over for coffee. Carmen, chain-smoking, small and frail, with her sad clown face. She lived in England for a few years, many years ago. Every time we meet, she brings out these bright scraps of memory, arranges them in the space between us.

“Caymrich…” Ah yes, I say, Cambridge, and we both muse on that for a while. “I prefer to Ockfor.” Oh of course, I say, Cambridge more beautiful than Oxford, no doubt about that. She beams and I beam back. Her companion takes no part, stares out to the street with a wry mouth. She’s doing this for the money; I recognise the look from several of Mum’s helpers.

Yes, after years of moving around, I belong here now. The gardens I pass on my walks with the dog are my gardens; I tend them with my eyes only. Since none of the pretty houses are mine, they are all mine, I choose a different one every day and imagine living there. A poem in here somewhere.

Sun 12 March: I read Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘Seventy Feet Down’. I’m transported to a stormy night at sea…the ‘leather-black waters’, the sea ‘exploding upwards…relapsing to slaver back down’ off landing-stage steps. You can hear it, almost smell it. “Radio rubs its legs, telling me of elsewhere.” Reading the six stanzas is like watching a sequence of quick cuts in a movie.

Working on a poem about a reunion that turned sour…I’ve published it in another post on this site.

Mon 13 March: Choir was a joy tonight as ever. My fellow soprano’s voices soar in the ‘ay vida mia’ of Los Arboles Altos; the ‘muyayayay’ of Bonse Aba. For years, I only wanted to sing oratorio, but some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve sung in the past two years have been African or from Eastern Europe.

For two hours every Monday, I breathe deeply, I sing, I laugh…but I still can’t catch what my delightful colleagues are saying in Spanish. Voices bounce off the hard floor and bare walls. I miss the key words and phrases, the jokes, the ripostes. After years here in Spain, I still feel like I am speaking in cuneiform. And I mind, awfully.

QUESTION: How can you ‘revise, revise’ when your poem’s structure is set on the page already and you want to change but seem stuck in that shape?

In answer, I was writing couplets as part of a poetry exercise this week but they weren’t the best for the poem. So I mooshed all the stanzas together again, and reformed it into two four-line stanzas and a couplet to finish. Much better.

Tuesday 14 March: South African anti-apartheid campaigner and distinguished judge, Dikgang Moseneke, says that journalists should “worship at the altar of truth.” I think poets should too. Not literal truth, “this happened then this happened,” but truth to the feeling, the moment they are trying to share.

Thursday 15 March: Well into Week 2 of getting up early to write for an hour or so. Aiming for two free hours eventually. Routine is the friend of the writer that’s for sure. Though my journal entry is aimless, rambling, and I’m still struggling with the poem. The second stanza is pat. I’m plodding, stating the bleedin’ obvious, getting on my own nerves.

Halfway through my hour, I briefly fall asleep. Realise I forgot to take my thyroxine tablet this morning. No wonder I went down like a tree.

Saturday 18 March: The trouble with creating this great habit of early rising is – you can’t have a lie-in any more. Your brain wakes up like an eager puppy at 6.00 am. So after staring at the ceiling for a while, I get up and go write. I finish my current poem, and do a 10-minute write (thanks Natalie Goldberg!) for a new poem. It’s about connection…

QUESTION: How many poems do you poets out there have on the go at any one time? Just one? Several? How do you work that?

Thanks for reading, I’m enjoying your work too. Have a good week.



Statue of Narcissus, School of Polycleitus.

Photo: With thanks to Egisto Sani, March 2016; Narcissus (Greek Models XVI)


You spring up to greet us, eager, lithe.
Bright eyes, bronzed face, long top lip descending
to a pout. Raven hair, ruffled shirt.
You sit upright, a dancer or a young lord.

And then you start to tell us of the years between.
Cheap myth pours out of that chiselled mouth.
She took my home and kids, bitch done me wrong.
You’re rolling your cigarettes scrawny, tight.

I glimpse that lip lifted, eyes narrowed, waiting to
pounce, in a shabby room stained with dirty sunlight.

March 2017

(Photo: With thanks to Egisto Sani, March 2016)





Daybook – 5th to 12th March 2017


DAYBOOK – 4th to 12th March 2017


When I fell off the hamster wheel of Washington DC work/life imbalance way back in 2003, I vowed that wherever life took me next, there would always be time for coffee. Coffee with a book, a notebook, a girlfriend, a happy husband. Today I managed to find time twice, with two friends I really like. Down-to-earth, rational women who I don’t have to handle, manage, mollify. Is that the test of a good girlfriend, that when you leave you feel better for seeing them, not relieved to be alone again?

I think us Baby Boomers will cultivate girlfriends more eagerly than previous generations. If we’re lucky, we’ll have longer to live than our parents, and more often, unpartnered or childfree lives. We might start writing more about strong female friendships, novels and plays and music, rather than lyrics about yearning for a new man.  Increasingly, I feel more excited about meeting a great girlfriend.

Took Eddie for our favourite weekend woodland walk in the hills around the city’s old castle. March winds, May warmth. The wind roared in the pines and eucalyptus, trees swaying in every direction, lit up copper gold by the setting sun, the whole hillside alive and glowing. Eddie met small dogs and big dogs, and was polite and friendly to all. And I nearly didn’t go.



Started working on a new poem, about a meeting we had with an acquaintance from years ago, now returned from Mexico and living near the city.

I’m working through a nifty and inexpensive course, ‘Routes into Poetry’ by Tamar Yoseloff for The Poetry School, based in London.  I want to stock a basic toolkit for crafting strong, sound poems. This week I’m experimenting with stanza structure. Using couplets to unfold a feeling that grew stronger as he spoke.

Question: Where do I go when I feel a poem is ‘done’? Sometimes by second draft I think I’ve captured the moment. Should I keep working at it, tinkering with it, or are there poems that don’t have to evolve over many drafts?

American poet Wesley McNair, in his excellent ‘Advice for Beginning Poets’, urges us to revise diligently. “Suspect the finished poem. Your evil twin wants your poem to be finished,” he says. So that’s a question.

Another question: Do I have to experience something personally before I can write about it? Did Yeats see a falcon soaring (or a slouching beast) in order to write ‘The Second Coming’? Or Coleridge spend much time in Xanadu hanging out with the man to write ‘Kubla Khan’? So I guess the answer is: no, you can also be inspired by something you read or in our day, see on screen or hear on radio.  The Bröntes touched the heights and depths of human experience from lives far more circumscribed than their imaginations.

I’d put my poetry away last summer, unfinished knitting. It felt too self-indulgent when so many girls and women are suffering and in danger. But this month I held it up to the light again, imagined the patterns I could make, and it made me happy.

So I ‘ve promised myself a reward for a month of writing practice: a subscription to Mslexia, the excellent UK-based magazine for women who write, which includes access to their online forum.  Not that I have to force myself, but I am so twitchy, so averse to entering that quiet place in my head, that I have to bribe myself into the habit. Do you ever feel like that, resisting what you love?  Hope to hear from you but writing anyway.


Saturday 25 Feb 2017

A year ago today. Fred and I walking back from a mediocre coffee in the city centre. I always think morning coffee will save me, or afternoon tea, or happy hour with a nattery girlfriend. Sometimes it does.

But not that morning. The coffee was just coffee. The café girl didn’t wait long enough for me to open my Spanish mouth and ask for something to eat. So I brandished a BioCentury rice cake under her nose, crunched it noisily and silently dared her to complain. Counted out the exact change for our coffees, and worse: I opened a bag of sugar and spilled most of it on the table, then moved my cup and saucer over to cover it and make it harder to clean. I left the cafe feeling mad, bad and empty of grace.

We started walking home. I twitched my leather jacket into place and shouldered my handbag. My fingers just brushed against the bottom of the zipped breast pocket and I felt something hard, round, hollow. It couldn’t be. I passed my fingertips over it again. I told Fred to stop and sat down hard on the window ledge of H&M. Delving inside the pocket, my fingers closed on my long-lost engagement ring. The ring I’d lost a year ago, the ring I had for 25 years. The ring Fred bought me in Harrogate, delicate Art Deco platinum circle with a baguette diamond flanked by two aquamarines (for courage and energy). A faerie ring for a slender English blonde, I always thought, but what did I care,  his vision was clouded with love and nothing was too good for me, sausage fingers and all.

The ring I dreaded telling him I’d lost, and when I did, he went mad and cursed us out of the bar we’d just been chatting in. Cursed me for a careless jade, as if I had just tossed the ring out with a chewing gum wrapper one day. I sulked for two days and then told him this was the end and I was going back to London. Which got his attention and contrition.

Now, perched outside H&M, I shouted, laughed and cried, light-headed with surprise and relief. In this, our silver wedding year, no other jewel could have been so precious, so heavy with experience and memories. Now it’s back home again, pillowed on silk in its morocco leather box, while I wonder what on earth I did to have it gifted back to me.

America the beautiful

IMG_1658Can a cookbook be righteous? Can right-minded recipes make all things well, and all manner of things?  Am I enjoying my TGIF G&T?

Yes, yes, yes.

I’m deep into the pages of ‘Glorious American Food‘  (Christopher Idone, [1985, Smithmark); a $50 book that I bought for a song in a bargain book store at the beginning of this restless century. Probably the shop in Bethesda, MD, where I solaced myself every Friday after a week of agency agony with some hardback treasure of photography, biography or foodography for myself or Fred.

Idone, an NY-based restaurant and catering consultant all those 30 years ago, worked with photographer Tom Eckerle to produce this beautiful book. It’s dedicated to “the farmers, the fishermen, the ranchers and the vintners who love this land.”

Together with Eckerle, Idone went on a pilgrimage around America, finding out and celebrating real food, soul food, food that comes straight from the air, land and sea and is dressed, cooked and presented in ways that have evolved from the time of the first settlers. Food with story.

Each region of the States is introduced with the story of how its classic dishes developed, from seasonal and available food, and classic dishes come with their own creation story. The writing is never flashy, but as real and true as the ingredients and dishes Idone celebrates.

‘Glorious American Food’ reminds us that classic American food originated from thrift, a sense of place and season, authentic ingredients, pride in good housekeeping and open-handed hospitality. In spite of Trump, police brutality and corporate callousness, I think and hope that this essential goodness can still be found all over the States.

A new edition of the book, as well as the 1985 original, is available on