Tuesday, 13 August 2019


I caught my breath when I saw the email subject, 'Chris'.  I knew before I read it that Chris Pilling had died.  

Poet, translator, teacher, dramatist, encourager.  He is irreplaceable.

I was invited to join the Cumbrian Poets workshop in 2003, after my poem,'The Museum', had appeared in Other Poetry.  The meetings were convened by Chris and held at his house, where there was always a warm welcome from him and his wife, Sylvia.

I was rather in awe of the group which consisted mainly (but not entirely) of what I considered proper book-published poets: Chris himself, Peter Rafferty, Tricia Pogson, Meg Peacocke, Jeremy Over.  At the first meeting having my poem forensically analysed by the group was akin to taking my clothes off in public.  But I got used to it after a while!  Some evenings, particularly when there were only a few of us there, felt like poetry masterclasses.

Chris was patient and kind and a stickler for punctuation.  Sometimes when I am writing I still hear in my head his oft-repeated - 'I think you should have a hyphen there ...'  Chris didn't mind what I wrote about but he wanted the words to make sense.  He taught me clarity.  He himself was a virtuoso in rhyme and a most skilful translator.

But for me it was his encouragement I valued most.  My first poetry reading was at Keswick Library where he had organised a National Poetry Day event as an opportunity for the Workshop poets to share their work.  We did a few other readings together - at the Square Orange wine bar during an interval in the Keswick Film Festival and at the little Bowness on Solway literary festival.  

My first collection, The Art of Gardening, was published in 2010.  It was only later that I learned that Chris had recommended my work.  I had a launch at Keswick and I shared the reading with him.  We put out 30 chairs, thinking that might be a bit optimistic - in the end about 80 people turned up.  20 for me and 60 for Chris I suspect.

Chris had quite a following for his readings which were characterised by wit, variety, visual aids, rhyme (of course) and - we all waited for it - something naughty.

A few years ago David Morley gave a reading at Grasmere under the auspicese of the Wordsworth Trust.  He pointed at Chris who was in the audience: 'That man', he said, 'that man has done more to encourage me than anyone else.  And to encourage other poets'.  And Chris generously bought our books and pamphlets, read them carefully and commented on them.

But Parkinson's disease stalked his later life.  When he had to move into a care home he continued to host the Cumbrian Poets workshop from one of the lounges.  I think the home felt it had a bit of kudos to have a poet in residence.

One of Chris's publications was a translation of some of Maurice Careme's poems called Defying Fate (Arc 2009).  He also brought together a large selection of his own work in Coming Ready or Not (Bookcase 2009).  The two titles now resonate with poignancy.

Thank you Chris, for your poetry and for being one of life's great encouragers.  

Toni Morrison
I was sorry to hear of the death of Toni Morrison earlier in August.  She was one of America's all time great novelists.  It took me three attempts to read Beloved but when I finally finished it I realised I had been in the presence of a genius.  It was a book I taught on an American fiction course, alongside Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.  I have re-read it several times and never fail to see more in it each time.  It is often regarded as Toni Morrison's greatest work.  

I went on to read some of her other novels, including one of my favourites, the often under-rated Jazz.  A young woman is murdered but this is not a who-dunnit but more of a how- and why-dunnit.  It is faultlessly constructed.  Each chapter is in the improvised voice of a separate character soloing the events leading  to the murder, giving multiple perspectives.  Morrison gives a little segue at the end of each chapter which leads on to the next.

Her thought-provoking, interrogative novels brought home to me the horrors of the history of slavery and the legacy it left right down to the present day.  In one of my Alphabet Poems (D) I borrowed something from her writing.  A runaway slave asks an indigenous American how to find North - the year is on the cusp of the turn from winter into spring.  Follow the tree blossoms as they open is the reply.  See my post of 6 February 2019 - A tent-flap, a door, a tongue.

I am saddened that such a wonderful novelist is no more.  She too is irreplaceable.

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