Creative Caversham – Robin Thomas


A long career in engineering didn’t stop Robin Thomas dreaming of the day he could make his mark with a pen instead, as he explains to Elestr Lee

DURING A LONG and successful career as a project director for the engineering giant Foster Wheeler, long-time Caversham resident Robin Thomas took up a slightly surprising new interest – by becoming a poet.

His passion for writing poetry was fired when he decided to enroll part-time at the Polytechnic of North London for a degree in English. ‘Some of my tutors were interested in writing, and that’s where it began,’ recalls Robin. Family and career pressures kept the idea on the back burner. ‘But I kept thinking, it’s what I’d like to do when I retire.’ Subsequently he took an MA in poetry writing from Kingston University and, since retiring, he has kept that promise to himself. So far, four books of his poetry have been published, with a fifth on the way this October.

Creating a poem isn’t a matter of looking out of the window and being instantly inspired. As Robin explains, it is a craft, which he works hard to shape and perfect – ‘A bit like being a sculptor. You get a basic idea, but then you have to keep chipping away, sometimes bashing it with a hammer, until it’s right!’

‘I make myself write some poetry for at least half an hour a day,’ he explains. ‘I like the discipline. Sometimes I sit there and nothing comes, so I then go off and do something else, but if I get an idea, I might sit there and carry on working at it for hours. I try and do this every day, no matter what I’m doing – for example if I’m on a train, I can work, or even if I am away on holiday.’

Anything can provide inspiration: a newspaper item, a picture, some music, or a memory of people such as his parents or wife, Mary. As he has gained experience as a writer, he has grown in confidence in his craft. ‘When I am compiling a book of poetry, I gather the poems up, in agreement with the publisher, so for example there may be a group of poems on similar subjects together, or else there will be an idea which keeps recurring.’

In 2021, Cafferty’s Truck, was published. ‘I found I had enough poems based around my character Cafferty to make a book, and the poems themselves create a story,’ Robin says. The book’s cover was designed by Robin’s wife, artist Mary Phelan. Sadly, it was to be the only book on which they collaborated as Mary died last October.

Robin has kept busy, belonging to two poetry workshops. ‘You take along a poem, and everyone thinks about it and discusses your work. During lockdown you would send your poem to another member to prepare comments in advance, and they would read your poem and talk about it at the Zoom workshop. It was particularly nice to hear it being read by someone else.’ He is also enthusiastic about the Poet’s Café held at Reading’s South Street, which hosts guest poets as well as offering an open mic for anyone keen to share their work.

‘Poetry writing is a bit of a niche interest. People are slightly frightened of it – sometimes with good reason! These days, some poetry can be difficult to understand. It’s not like in the 19th century, when a poet such as Tennyson was extremely popular,’ he says.

As well as writing poetry, Robin has had a ‘flash-fiction novella’ published this year – Margot and the Strange Objects – which, for the uninitiated, is a series of very short short stories (some only a page long) which, read together end up making a bigger story. But it is his latest book of poetry, The Weather on the Moon, which Robin is currently excited about. ‘I feel I am more experienced. As you put in more time, you get better at it,’ he says. Seeing his poetry published has clearly been the result of years of painstaking dedication: ‘I have developed a target of completing three poems a month. This makes me think what I should do with my half hour each day. Once I have completed my three, this gives me time to continue with revising other poems I have previously started.’

Robin has now become a mentor to other poets for Cinnamon Press. ‘I mentored one poet last year, and another this year. You feel a sense of responsibility – you worry there is a danger you could let them down!’

Robin is delighted to meet other poetry enthusiasts. ‘Looking back to 25 years ago, I didn’t know anyone else who liked poetry. But over the years this has changed, and I have met fellow poets and poetry lovers. It certainly isn’t something you do for money. But when you get a book published, you feel very pleased.’

Find out more:

The Weather on the Moon Two Rivers Press, to be published on 21 October.

Margot and the Strange Objects Ad Hoc Press

Cafferty’s Truck Dempsey & Windle

A Distant Hum Cinnamon

Momentary Turmoil Cinnamon

A Fury of Yellow Eyewear

All available through Fourbears Bookshop, Caversham