Docklands: A Ghost Story

Damian Walford Davies
Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 28, 2019
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‘When much new poetry looks no further than the poet’s navel, this kind of imaginative leap is a tonic.’ – The Telegraph

Victorian Cardiff –the world’s busiest port, booming on the back of the coal mined in the Welsh valleys – is vividly imagined through the eyes of the speaker of Damian Walford Davies’ new poetry collection, Docklands: A Ghost Story.

It is 1890, and three dark terraces down the docks are to be levelled to make way for a new square. The commission is given to the chief partner in a successful Cardiff architectural firm –a man supremely sure of himself. Yielding to docklands’ temptations, he becomes ever more estranged from a wife tormented by the death of their child. As the square rises from the ruins of the terraces, the louche architect encounters ‘the girl’.

Seen through the architect’s eyes, the well-to-do streets of an expanding Cardiff and the shady spaces of the docks become the stage for a haunting play of presences that threaten to unravel his uneasy bourgeois world. Among his designs – churches, neo-gothic villas and gargoyles – is a mermaid-figure fountain that becomes a totem of dark desire. The architect’s broken wife, Eleanor, is a central and unsettling presence. Among the architect’s acquaintances – conjured as characters in their own right – is the Irish cabbie, O’Driscoll, who regularly ferries him to dark assignations and who confirms rumours of a ghostly girl; the ‘ladybirds’ or street walkers with whom the architect consorts; and Cardiff’s trade magnates. Also making an appearance in the architect’s social circle are the Dahls –the parents of the famous Cardiff-born children’s author.

A disquieting fin-de-siècle ghost story in verse, Docklands explores grey worlds at the edges of the eye, conjuring late-Victorian Cardiff’s hustling, booming, sullied docks –and the horrors they conceal. A study of the violences perpetrated against wives and daughters, and of patterns of grief and longing, this disturbing sequence summons lost children and dark desires.




Review by Chris Andrews, Buzz Magazine

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Never have I read such eloquent descriptions of Cardiff’s streets as I did in Docklands: A Ghost Story. For example, I’ve walked Womanby Street hundreds of times, but I have never noticed the “gartered ladybirds” described here. And therein lies the beauty of this book. Initially conceived as an exercise in getting to know his new surroundings upon moving to the city from Aberystwyth, Damian Walford Davies’s intriguing examination of those worlds “at the edges of the eye” is set in Victorian Cardiff and told entirely in verse. While this may not be to everybody’s reading taste, it offers a well-researched insight into our city’s past, as well as a thoroughly engaging tale of abuse, and grief that will send a shiver down your spine.

Review by Anna Lewis, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, April 25, 2019

In Docklands: A Ghost Story, Damian Walford Davies follows up his two previous collections from Seren – Witch and Judas – with another book-length narrative in verse, this time a ghost story flitting between the luxury and poverty of Victorian Cardiff. Witch, set in the seventeenth century, imagined a Suffolk village torn apart by the hysteria of witch trials; Judas let the Biblical traitor adrift among the squaddies and barflies of present-day Jerusalem, an outcast twice-lost.  Docklands appears based upon similarly painstaking research, although the story is fiction.  Its protagonist is a prominent but unnamed architect, commissioned to design an elegant square on a patch of dockland slums.  In an effort to distance himself from his wife, who is gripped by grief following the death of their infant child, the architect consoles himself in the seedy pleasures of the docks, until he notices a girl appear:


through the whiskey’s umber,
fractured by the lead-glass

tumbler’s cuts: ten, or younger…


Grey, bruised, and silent at first, the girl becomes an obsession, drawing ever-nearer to the architect as she follows him through the streets.

As with Witch and Judas, there is a supernatural or spiritual element to the story, but this otherworldly intrusion is not quite as convincing as the material detail of time and place.  Walford Davies pins open the precarious world of the docks, where the architect wanders the terraces he must demolish and encounters a world scarcely firmer than the sea it abuts:


… crazy

Angeline and Adelaide, held up only
by the rigging of the washing lines.




Conversation is interrupted by ‘the sounding of a two-tone channel buoy’ (‘Recipe’); after the demolition of the slum terraces, the reader’s eyes almost feel the irritation of the resulting dustcloud:


… its tang –

now sweet, now acrid –
conjured last night’s staged

saltpetre smoke that veiled
the cheap illusionist’s hey prestos



The poems, each of which consists of eight couplets, all follow a similar quick, staccato rhythm, hanging on careful rungs of rhyme and half-rhyme. Walford Davies has a sharp turn of phrase, paring each observation down to its essence, an almost surgical technique which gives the poetry both its precision and also its slight callousness of tone. Scenes of horror and hope are described in equally clipped fashion, from the amputation of a leg in a dockside pub:


… From nowhere,

someone set to work:
knifestrokes, sawstrokes, reef knot

to the artery…



to a moment of reconciliation between the architect and his wife:


… As if along
a corridor of long-barred doors,

she tacked towards me,
the lamp behind her

moving in and out of curt



The book is a monologue in the architect’s voice, which is one reason for the unwavering tone and pace. The rigid structure of the poems is another. The narrator remains a man of confidence and certainty: even as he accepts the presence of the ghost, he never loses control of the pattern of his speech or thought.

The twenty-first century reader might infer a psychological aspect to the haunting: having something to do with the loss of the architect’s own child, and with his resentment of his wife’s grief. Perhaps he has transferred to the girl the compassion he is unable to grant his wife, or himself. To the architect, however, the ghost is real: he asks around to discover her identity, that of a child murdered a few years before. But despite this stimulation of his sympathy, and despite the movement towards reconciliation between husband and wife somehow engendered by the ghost girl, there is not truly a sense in the poems that the architect has changed the way he sees or understands the world. We witness a change in his actions towards the end of the book – he buys a gift for his wife, and replaces the bawdy mermaid which first topped the fountain in his square with a monument to the murdered girl – but little shift in his voice or his composure.  This is still a man who knows exactly what to do.

Docklands is, then, a buttoned-up kind of ghost story. However, even if the protagonist’s perspective remains constant, the impact of the book lies in its ability to affect the reader’s view. One of the most vivid images is a scene on St Mary’s Street which holds no particular dramatic function but is perfect in its crystallisation of a moment:


… Woken by the sun,

O’Driscoll shifted in his oilskin
at the cab-stand; his bowler

held the morning’s downpour
in its rim.  I rapped the pane;

he raised his face; the bright ring
sluiced off in a flashing plait.



Cardiff today is filled with images of its history, on the walls of every pub and café, but descriptions such as these bring the past to life in a way which photographs fail to do.  In these poems we taste, smell and hear the city, and we see the shadows behind the grandiose civic architecture of the British Empire. In the tiny details of smoke on a conjurer’s stage, or rainwater falling from a hat, we are immersed in moments quickly forgotten by those who experienced them, but which cumulatively make up the substance of their lives. Docklands is a meticulous study of place, time and atmosphere, which opens the reader’s eyes to a city behind the city, and to lives behind our own.

Review by Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Poetry Book of the Month: Docklands: A Ghost Story

When’s the last time you read a new book of poems set in fin de siècle Wales? Never, I’ll bet. Seren, the inventive press that recently gave us a biography-in-sonnets of Kierkegaard, now offers this tale of genteel horror, haunted by the not unwelcome ghost of MR James.

We’re in Cardiff, 1890. A cynical, self-satisfied architect lands “the docklands brief: to level Angeline,/ Louisa, Adelaide – ragtag terraces// of lean, abutting lives”, and build a new town square. But one spirit won’t be levelled; a dead girl from the slums inveigles her way into his unhappy home.

When much new poetry looks no further than the poet’s navel, this kind of imaginative leap is a tonic. It’s familiarly eerie ground for Davies, a Cardiff University don whose previous collections gave voice to Judas and witchfinders.

The plot (if that’s not too strong a word for this captivating bundle of spectral vignettes and wry half-anecdotes) unfolds through short lyrics. Its pleasures are quiet ones.

Each poem is in irregular, iambic two-line stanzas – unrhyming couples, just like the unfaithful architect and his wife, whose names we never learn.

We see a world of “camber” and “quoins” through his learned eyes, though with some ironic distance. She’s in mourning after a miscarriage. The home he designed has become a tomb, its ornate details suffocating and absurd:

"She meets me// on the landing, still in black –/ gaunt hand resting on the newel post’s// carved artichoke […] I loathe her pallor,// hate the acrid odour/ when I douse the lamp.”

As in many Victorian ghost stories, the supernatural is a cipher for something sadder and closer to home. It is a house soured by loss; slowly, the ghost’s arrival makes it less nightmarish, filling the void left by the child they wanted. Things improve, a little. Lives are rebuilt and remembered. I liked it very much.


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