Welcome to the Pitshanger Poets

Welcome to the Pitshanger Poets Workshop Blog.

We hold a weekly workshop at the Questor’s Theatre in Ealing to read and discuss our work; you are welcome to join us. This blog will keep you updated with news from the workshop, poetry events and examples from our membership, old and new.

We meet every Tuesday night from 8pm in The Library, Questor’s Theatre, Mattock Lane, Ealing, London. Bring a poem, bring copies and be ready to discuss it in a friendly, enthusiastic group.

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Workshop 15th April 2014

Goodness, but isn’t Ealing beginning to bust out all over? As I bundled up to Questors in the faithful two-seater I had a vision in mind of a complete and utterly Capabilitie’d Walpole Park, as I have for the last six months. In my mind’s eye it was all majestic vistas and verdant perspectives, replete with classical compositions of botanical excellence. Alas it is not so. The parkland still resembles an early try-out for The Somme. The lakes are as dry as a review by Clive James, the lawns as rough as a rehearsal for the Joe Cocker Proms. It reminded me that my own postage-stamp of a garden, buried deep in the heart of the Queen of the Suburbs is sore in need of love today. So much so that my Man impressed upon me the need to journey to that emporium of reformation, B and Q with a significant list. What he wrote reminded me of the visit of WB Yeats to The Pitshanger Poets as related by the Archivists in 1887.

This evening’s poems were anything but rough. John Hurley brought us an evocative piece about someone he might have met once. Owen Gallagher wrote about the very strange experience of having water stolen from his outside tap. Clare Glynn Chitan, who is new to the group, brought us an evocation of Limerick Junction. Daphne Gloag wrote a further exercise based on Sumerian pieces from the British Museum. Caroline am Bergris wrote about the man she will become. Nick Barth also wrote about the British Museum, Egyptians this time. Finally Alan Chambers brought us an enigmatic classic about the weather.

According the the Archivists, W B Yeats visited the Group several times in the late nineteenth century. On one occasion apparently, he forgot to bring copies of the poem he had written. In desperation his wife passed him a copy of an Estate Agent’s notice for a property the couple were considering buying back in Ireland. With a little improvisation and the right delivery, ‘The Isle of Innisfree’ was born. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 8th April 2014

Daffodils, daffodils, wandering like golden hosts floating over vales and hills.  Or at least there were, last month.  March was glorious with yellow trumpets, thanks to a very mild, if very wet winter.  Alas, Easter is not for another week, and we will be lucky to have any tossing heads left to shelter chocolate-egg-laying rabbits.

Willaim Wordsworth himself was no stranger to the Pitshanger Poets, and would often visit in the spring to witness Sir John’s own golden host in the Manor grounds.  Another regular was Sir Joseph Banks, director of Kew Gardens and amateur poet who loved to come on a Tuesday night to meet with the Romantics.  They did however have a rather different view of Nature from Sir Joseph, revelling in its primal wildness, raw in leaf and branch, while the King’s head gardener had made a career out of taming Nature into orderly lawns and bowers.

A few clouds wandered into this week’s meeting, led by Owen Gallagher’s own take on a Donegal digger who found the perfect implement for working the soil, and Daphne Gloag giving voice to a surprised stag meeting a kneeling hunter under a golden sky.  Martin Choules followed, noting the gradual passing of the dative case, and the different reactions of black and white to sheep to Wensleydale rain were charted by Anne Furneaux.  Finally, John Hurley recounted the consoling song of the blackbird.

Inevitably, William and Sir Joseph came to blows over the narcissi, with the former waxing lyrical on the sublime beauty of the jolly jonquils, while the latter feeling duty-bound to point out that they were putting on their show for the benefit of bees, not poets.  Soon afterwards, Sir Joseph stopped attending the Poets altogether, complaining that certain other members were too fond of lying on their couches while off dancing with the daffodils.

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Workshop 1st April 2014

On a fine day like today I like nothing better than a stroll into the heart of town to while away an hour or so in one of the new independent Cafes Ealing has to offer. The one I stopped in had a particularly pleasing ambiance well-suited to the production of inspiring verse. Amongst the out-of-work film folk gossiping about George Lucas and the whole-fruit flapjacks the patron had been kind enough to slide the day’s newspapers on to sticks for the enjoyment of her customers. My eye was inevitably drawn to the many April Fools’ Day spoofs the faint-headed editors of today’s Fourth Estate insist on commissioning these days, and I was reminded of an April Fool’s Day Joke Gone Badly Wrong.

Thomas Hardy was an occasional contributor to the Pitshanger Poets workshops in the late nineteenth century and it is not commonly known, but he had a puckish sense of humour. Tom arrived at the Tuesday Workshop in 1879 claiming to have discovered a new authentic Scottish voice. His clearly terrible doggerel poem was greeted with much enjoyment by the group and more works were demanded. Hardy confessed in letters that he found himself caught up in the exercise of inventing the oeuvre of this comic character. Hardy created biographical details, made trips to Scotland to collect old photographs to attribute to his invention and wrote a fake biography under an assumed name. Within a few years, William McGonagall was born.

There was very little of a spoofoid nature in tonight’s workshop, though we had ample time to keep things light. Martin Choules reminded us that blonds or blondes are highly unlikely to die out, they are having so much fun. David Howatter has been staring out of the window and had written something new as a result. Daphne Gloag has been to the British Museum and has seen the sacrifice of more than a few lions in relief. John Hurley wrote about St. Patrick and what he would have made of a four-leafed clover. Nick Barth wrote about the sad decline of a sandbag. Helen Baker brought us a poem about social cafe culture.

In April 1880 Thomas Hardy’s black sense of humour got the better of him. He brought a poem entitled ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ to the group, claiming it for his fictional character McGonagall. Regrettably, memories of the rail tragedy were too fresh in the minds of the workshop and a stunned silence greeted what was arguably Hardy’s most hilarious poem. Hardy was forthwith unwelcome at Pitshanger Manor and, realising he had committed a hideous gaffe, he swore never to tell a joke again. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 25th March 2014

Ealing is not a particularly hedonistic or revolutionary part of London. I personally feel her greatest hour was when her fair parks and streets were used for the production of Monty Python’s VT sections. My favourite is ‘Bicycle Repair Man’ which features some blue remembered views of leafy Lammas and Walpole Park. The ‘sixties atmos just exudes from the backgrounds, almost as if anything was permitted in the greensward seen just over Michael Palin’s shoulder.

What a shock it must have been for the suburban Ealing to witness the arrival of Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden. Auden had sought a creative escape for his friend Isherwood from his studies in medicine at King’s College in the nineteen-twenties. The pair arrived at the Pitshanger Poets who met every week in the now-council-owned Manor. However poetry was not the only thing on their minds. The rumours concerning Auden and Isherwood’s unconventional lifestyle grew to the extent that details of the young men and their visits to the Tin Hut in Miss Webb’s garden, then housing The Questors’ Amateur Dramatics society filtered into the normally unruffled Pitshanger Workshop Secretary’s notes. Clearly Auden and Isherwood were Not As Other Men.

No such damning character references blight this secretary’s notes of proceedings. Caroline Am Bergris brought a double-poem (always guaranteed to receive extra cachet) concerning natural niceness and the niceness you have to work at. John Hurley has been back to Ireland and came with a clear-eyed evocation of the seaport town of his birth. Daphne Gloag is working on a poetry sequence, tonight bringing us the third of a set of interlocking monologues. Helen Baker wrote an incendiary piece about the internal contradictions in parental love. Nick Barth wrote about fabric and chose to introduce Frida Kahlo for who-knows-what reason. Peter Francis wrote about Home being a place you can take with you. Owen Gallagher’s subject Paddy Mulligan is donating his organs, even that organ. Finally David Howatter wrote about casting shadows from light and the light of his daughter.

To return to Isherwood and Auden, it became clear to the other Pitshanger Poets that Ealing could no longer contain their enthusiasms. When in 1929 the pair traveled to Germany to be closer to the spiritual home of their pursuits, metaphorical sighs of relief were breathed all round. On a sadder note, Isherwood later said that when Miss Webb had the tin hut on Mattock Lane cleared to make more room for the burgeoning Amateur Dramatists, Auden wept bitterly. He and Isherwood had devoted many hours to their Model Railway using fine pieces from German manufacturers such as Bing and Marklin and would never have the opportunity to build such an impressive layout again. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 18th March 2014

This week we were denied access to The Library, our rather grandly-titled home within the very bowels of the son et lumiere that is Questors Theatre of Ealing. Each year the theatre is descended upon by what would appear to be a troupe of Shirley Temple Tribute Artistes. However, we recognise that these trippy Bright Young Things are the burgeoning Talent of Tomorrow and we welcome them, even if they are utilising our cosy Poetry enclave as a Dressing Room.

The upshot of this long rambling Intro, more typical of other contributors to this Blog, is that we were given keys to ‘The Lodge’ and told to exit stage left up the long and winding external staircase which surmounts the Grapevine Bar. Now I don’t know about you, but I was a fan of Twin Peaks back in the age of VHS and when I hear the word ‘Lodge’ I recall short men talking backwards and Laura Palmer reclining about the place in watery clothes. Not an auspicious start for a fruitful meet.

As it transpires, the Lodge was once a residence, occupied by the hermit-like Administrator of the Theatre and offered, ‘butt of malmsey style’ to the holder of that post. The gloomy atmos and sparse furnishings reminded me of the bare rooms of the notable American poet Emily Dickinson, who many years ago entered the famous Pitshanger Poetry Competition.

In those slightly chilly surroundings we nevertheless managed to enjoy a great evening of poetry. Helen Baker blew her cover in a typically enigmatic work. Nick Barth remembered the big buildings and big gods of his childhood. Alan Chambers recollected in tranquility. Christine Shirley brought us a poem describing an unlikely victim of adversity. David Hovatter brought a hugely enjoyable cowboy soliloquy. Finally Martin Choules commemorated the death of Pirate Radio and Tony Benn.

The Archive relates that Miss Dickinson stuck closely to the strict rules of the Pitshanger Poets and kept her powerful, dense works below the stipulated twenty lines. In return, however she received a terse, typewritten note rejecting each entry on grounds of ‘florid long-windedness and most excessive circumlocution’. Unfortunately she had been the victim of a clerical error and had received the rejection letter intended for Mr. Tennyson, then hawking the garrulous ‘Lady of Shalott’ around the more gullible poetry groups of the time. While we are entirely sure the rejection was immaterial to the staunch Yankee Poetess, the fact remains that Emily spent the next twenty years upstairs in her room perfecting the use of the short line and the hyphen.

If you have been  thank you for reading

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Workshop 11th March 2014

Sir John died in 1837, but he had sold the Manor back in 1810.  To whom he sold it is more of a mystery, but there appear to have been several owners until it was taken over by the Perceval sisters in 1843.  The fate of the poetry group is also unclear – did the temporary owners keep it up, or did it lapse until the energetic Percevals bustled it back to life ?

What is clear is that English poetry in the 1820s was facing the dark and stormy night of doggerel.  The burst of the Romantics had fizzled following the tragic deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron within three years of each other at the start of the decade.  Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake were still around, it is true, but there best work was not.  Meanwhile, the early efforts of the Victorians like Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett had yet to catch fire.

It was a time of great social upheaval, of the Reform Movement and Catholic Emancipation, of the Stockton & Darlington and the Voyage of the Beagle, and yet a decade which poetry failed to capture, or did so in a highly unmemorable fashion.  Indeed, can any of our readership recall a single poem from that time ?  Even harder if we exclude posthumous works by the Romantics.

Alas, the society annals are equally fragmentary through this period, with little to report except the odd tasty snippet.  Were there unrecorded visits by the likes of John Clare and Leigh Hunt ?  Did John Stuart Mill and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow bring their three-name respectability ?  We may never know.  But where the ledgers are silent, the rumour mill is wont to grind…

One such tale not recorded until many years later, and even then of dubious origin, concerns a visit by Washington Irving, popping over to Blighty during his two-decade-long gap-year in Europe.  In attendance that particular week was also Mary Shelley, sometime author and tireless promoter of one Percy Bysshe.  Mary was instantly taken with the Bard of Birmingham, and was a little put out when he did not respond.  “My dear,” he is alleged to have told her, “talking to you is likely to send me to sleep for twenty years.”  Incensed, Mary retorted “I wouldn’t walk out with you if you were the last man alive in the 21st Century !”

No such problems with histrionics at this week’s meeting.  Daphne Gloag played I-spy with the reader and spotted something she had never seen before.  Owen Gallagher brought back a comparison involving bicycles and insults, and Helen Baker foretold the future of England’s green and pleasant greens.  Caroline Am Bergris used her ration of words very carefully, not like those folk who toss them around like feathered boas, and Alan Chambers took a wrong turn on memory lane and never found the magical tearoom of his youth.  Finally, Martin Choules wondered if we might all be complicit in a great delusion.

Be sure to mention in the comments any 1820s poems you know of which are worth a second look.  Perhaps we can salvage something yet from these wilderness years.

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Workshop 4th March 2014

Readers will no doubt recall that Sir John left the Manor for the bright(er) lights of the metropolis in 1810. After this, there was, sadly, a palpable decline of activity amongst the Pitshanger Poets.  Many felt lost, without guidance, almost disturbed, not helped of course by the general turmoil of the time. (When are “times” not tumultuous, one has to say)!  Let’s just say that productivity was not what it had been. Many of their number were apparently deeply disturbed by the publication of Percy Shelley’s pamphlet ” The Necessity of Atheism”, which had caused his expulsion from the University of Oxford in 1811, but who can say whether this was the true reason for the paucity of poetry emerging from the Manor at this time.  In fact, the unseemly fracas which had accompanied Felix Mendelssohn’s first visit to these shores in 1829 (which has already been recorded here), was perhaps all too characteristic of the fractious mood of the poets during this limbo period.

Nature abhors a vacuum however, and whilst the men were twiddling their quills, the women of Ealing spotted an opportunity.  Maybe they were spurred on by the fact that Jane Austen had self-published “Sense and Sensibility” in 1811, and that a twelve year old girl had recently discovered a fossil of an ichthyosaurus in Lyme Regis, both earth-shattering achievements  way back when they were children.  Anyway, two of their number, whose names have been sadly lost from our annals, decided they would make good use of the largely neglected Manor.  There is some evidence that this was in the early 1830s, since we know that one of them had travelled to Leipzig around that time to hear Clara Schumann play in a concert. Here was a true “Wundermadchen” for sure - a girl who could defy her father and marry a depressive, unstable (if talented) man and then go on to be the major breadwinner.  In 1834, Clara set one of Johann Peter Lyser’s poems to music, and that was that! Our two intrepid ladies determined to persuade her to come to Ealing.  The fact that Herr Lyser also wrote under the pseudonym of Hilarius Paukenschlager, convinced them that Clara was the one!

Sadly though, even then, women were not very good at co-operating for their greater good.  Our two founders had managed to persuade a number of their friends to abandon at least some of their domestic duties, and to meet regularly in the Manor in order to assemble a collection of poems which might tempt Clara to make the journey to Ealing. These gatherings, however, rapidly degenerated into quasi- committee meetings: ahead of their time maybe, but disastrous for this fledging group. After only two meetings and far too much squabbling and petty rivalry, they were forced to disband: apart from anything else, it had become obvious that their language had become almost the slave of committee-speak. Definitely not good for the muse.

Fortunately, there were no such linguistic problems at our workshop this week.  Christine Shirley read first, with a poem inspired by the difficulties many of her close friends are experiencing at the moment.  Helen Baker brought a poem about some of the hardships of the contemporary domestic situation.  Martin Choules proclaimed No News from people who disappear into thin air to leave the narrator feeling bereft.  Daphne Gloag described the arrow of time in a double sonnet, recalling the gingko trees of Hiroshima, defying obliteration. Finally, Peter Francis brought us a poem which is part of a series he is writing on migrants and the displaced.

Those early ladies of Ealing would have been proud maybe, for this week, the fair sex were in the majority.  They would have to wait some time, however, for Clara Schumann to arrive in Ealing.  She was to be too busy until she had had her children (eight in all), and her husband had passed away, leaving her free to resume her busy concert schedule without hindrance.

But that is for another time…

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