Workshop, 15th January 2019

In one sense, mid-January is the middle of Winter.  Not according to the solstice-equinox approach to season definition, of course, which sees Winter kick off a mere four days before Christmas, and neither by the Westeros-prophesy reckoning, and well, the less said about the Southern Hemisphere the better – but in terms of actual temperature, the start of Advent also marks the start of the big freeze.  Except in globally-warmed London, that is, which most nights so far hasn’t got close to a decent smoky breath, let alone frost.  For, despite being a respectable 51.5˚North (on a par with the Viking-visited Northern tip of Newfoundland and the polar-bear-infested Southern tip of Hudson bay), it is bathed by both the freakishly warm Gulf Stream and the worryingly warm concrete heat-island effect, all of which means that the days of the frost fares on the Thames are as unlikely to return as a return to the rolling glaciers of the ice age.  Australians hoping to see their first ever snowfall will need to venture out of town to the Pennines, or wait around till February for that one-flurry-a-year that London puts on just to keep its hand in.

Which brings us on to the ongoing crisis in poetry.  The problem is…well, a lack of problems.  Bards are creatures of extremes, of great awe in the face of relentless Nature, and nobody wants to read an Ode to a Bit Nippy Dawn, or a sonnet on a season of damp.  Given us a bracing minus 20 to really get a good whinge going, but decrying the implacable gale force one-and-a-half just sounds pathetic.  Here in the Archive, we have even turned off the heating, much to the howling and chattering-of-teeth of the interns.

There were plenty of possibly-superfluous scarves at this week’s workshop, but once everyone had unwound themselves it fell to Doig Simmonds to break the ice with a lament to golden sunlight and silver clouds, handing over to Michael Harris listening out for the space between words and watching the mortar between bricks.  Martin Choules next, relishing most than just that new book smell as he runs his fingers over the page, and Daphne Gloag has been talking with a wood pigeon using the same old words, but thinking about new ones.  Then came new member Shuko Mfaume who recounted meeting a wolf in the pubs and folktales of Ireland, and Owen Gallagher who found unexpected solidarity on a picket line.  Natasha Morgan, meanwhile, has been sharing a dance before the politics begin, and Pat Francis has been spotting a new use of a very old word and off into a reverie with Yeats and Anglo-Saxons, while Peter Francis has been watching the woman who watches the trains.

Back at the tail-end of the Little Ice Age, Pitzhanger Manor saw many a bitter new year.  Sir John could always be relied upon to lay on a three-log fire in his salon, and Mrs Conduitt was a stickler for drawing the curtains the moment dusk set in to keep the cold out in the dark where it belonged.  The attendees, arriving with a cold blast through the front door as St Mary’s struck eight, were by no means at home as the cycle of the seasons swung to its lowest point, and would take a good fifteen minutes to defrost before in any state to wax the lyrical, a time taken up with the smallest of talk: Georgie Byron (a man far more at home on a sunny Greek isle) would grumble how he had read in The Times with incredulity how the Astronomer Royal had said that the Earth was actually closest to the sun in early January, greeted by a snort of agreement by Johnny Keats, who’s natural palette tended to the Autumn, and who would always grousing how his intended Ode to the North Wind was again delayed due to his ink freezing in its well.  Bill Wordsworth was no Southern softie, having been hewn from the Lakeland granite, but even he saw little of cheer before the daffodils sprouted, and often exclaimed to Bisshie Shelley (would have far rather just hibernated for the whole season) how much he envied the latter’s traveller from an antique land.  Indeed, the only one present who seemed alive to the frigid beauty was young Mary Wollstonecraft, who marvelled at the prospect of sailing to the North Pole.  “Best leave that to the esquimaux” would mutter Sammy Coleridge, “they’re used to the cold”.  “But I could become used to it too” she would retort, “it’s simply a matter of acclimatisation.  I could start off in the Alps, perhaps, near Lake Geneva…”

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