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, 23rd August 2016

Well, that’s it then.  The flame has been quenched, the rings have been dismantled, the races run and shots put.  Goodbye for another four years, except for the Winter games in  two years time, except since it’s in the Winter, it’s more like 18 months.  Anyway, now that the distraction has finally left town, maybe we can finally get some work out of our unpaid interns, although that’s looking unlikely now that the new football season has started…

Of course, poetry and sport are not complete strangers.  Many a wordsmith has attempted to pen a witty chant for the terraces, while others have sought gentler pursuits to extol such as cricket and fishing.  And many a sporting hero has been a lover of poesy: here in the Archive we have reports from the early 30s of Fred Perry popping down from his home in Pitshanger Lane to flirt with Virginia Woolf, and thirty years later we read how racing driver Graham Hill love to drop by in the close season to chat about rowing and rondos with Kingsley Amis.  Meanwhile the young John Betjeman may have disparaged the clerks of Slough who meet in various bogus-Tudor bars to talk of sport and makes of cars, he himself was not above fawning over the light verses of fellow attendee C B Fry.  Mr Fry, of course, was a famous all-rounder, as happy at the crease as he was at right back defending the goal, and likewise he was just at home with a villanelle as with an heroic ballad.

Limbering up at this week’s workshop were the first team, led out by Christine Shirley remembering her parents accompanying her to the station, followed by scrum-half James Priestman’s take on an ancient Biblical story as told by one of its players, and Daphne Gloag’s brought her jolly hockey sticks while walking backward through a wood.  Silly mid-off Martin Choules has been pitying the poor penmanship of pressurised pupils come exam time, while veteran backstop Doig Simmonds recalled the death of an airman in a grassy meadow.  Owen Gallagher told us how he was a trainee jouster in his youth, apprenticed to Camelot, while team-maker John Hurley recounted the cycling seasons of the year and mascot Anne Furneaux has been complaining about complaining about the weather.

When it comes to sportsmen waxing lyrical, though, there is one clear heavyweight: Muhammad Ali.  Always ready with a rhyming quip and boastful bagatelle, what better ambassador could there be for taking verses to the masses ?  Has trash talk ever sounded so elegant ?  In 1974, the Archives reveal, during his preparations for the Rumble in the Jungle, he came to London to appear on Parkinson, and found time to swing by Ealing. Also present was Philip Larkin, preparing what would prove to be his final collection, High Windows.  It seems that his editor had managed to dissuade him from including This Be The Verse on grounds of taste, but one evening with The Greatest and he was Mr Bespectacled Respectable no more.  Who the hell were Faber & Faber anyway ? Think they could tell him what to publish ?  Time to start stinging like a bee…

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Workshop, 16th August 2016

In the week when millions of anxious eighteen-year olds find out their A-Level results, a week before their younger siblings undergo the same agony over GCSEs, it is worth remembering the great damage these well-meaning teachers are doing to the youth of today, and the unintended instrument of torture: poetry appreciation.  Never was there devised a more effective way to repel young minds from the beauty of verse than to force-feed them a diet that alternates between the bland, the sickly sweet and the bitter.  Whereas left to their own devises, nudged along by Radio 4, Sylvia Plath and the more articulate popsters, they may have come to savour a good juicy sonnet or a pithy haiku, but any such enjoyment evaporates the moment they have to explain why they like it.

Anyway, all present at this week’s workshop were well passed school-age, and glad of it.  Assembly commenced with the welcome return by old-girl Nayna Kumari, who unpredictably discussed the merits of expectation in a poet’s style, followed up by headmistress Daphne Gloag present a sizable chunk of her ongoing sequence on time, with instructions to concentrate on the flow from one section to the next.  Next up was John Hurley (and exchange pupil who never went home) with a poem of utter gobbledygook, and all the better for it, while Owen Gallagher has been smoking behind the bikesheds again with his impish Downing street daydream.  Martin Choules, meantime, having a permanent note to get out of PE, spent his free period reading the paper, but found little therein of interest, and Christine Shirley managed to read out latest coursework just in time before pencils down !  Poignantly, it was on the stolen Nigerian schoolgirls whose ongoing troubles put our own memories of baggy trousers and lumpy gravy into perspective.

Is it merely a coincidence that Robert Frost, who taught English inbetween bouts of farming, is one of the most syllabused of poets ?  What child hasn’t had to hang around in snowy woods waiting for the poet to get on with his miles to go ?  Or been either baked and frozen in a that that was never at a comfortable temperature while having to annotate the metaphors in Fire & Ice ?  And how is it that despite trudging the road less travelled by, it still always led to one about the sawmill that the teacher hoped would perk up us up because of the gore, whereas our analytical skills were at least sufficient to tell us that there was very little gore therein to be had.  And what on earth was that title all about ? It’s a quote from Macbeth ?  You mean we had to read that as well ?

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Workshop, 9th August 2016

The world appears to be obsessed with Apses.   I first became aware of the phenomenon on a tour of Romanesque churches, and I remember thinking how nice it was that the Youth of Today had suddenly developed an interest in ecclesiastical architecture. However, my Man assures me that according to his niece in High Barnet ‘Apps’ are something to do with mobile phones, games and sending messages to friends via ‘social networking’.  Really.  I am the last man on earth you would find sitting in front of a keyboard desperately sifting through the day’s mundanities in order to turn out the kind of nuggets he thinks a jaded audience will find endearing.  I just do not have the time, what with all the hours I put into running the Cake Stall at the Farmer’s Market in aid of confused kittens and giving little old ladies lifts down to M&S so they can just nip in for a few bits for afternoon tea with the vicar, only for us to forget where we parked the two-seater and having to get the bus home, with me struggling with the shopping, of course. Besides, who would want to read such banal anecdotes?

Banal anecdotes were noticeable by their absence in this week’s workshop.  John Hurley is a believer in chemistry, and the power of the moon.  Martin Choules has been calling on the muses, even if we needed a little help from Ariadne Kazantsis to perfect the pronunciation.  Nick Barth has been observing a man who has but one single thought, and jumped for joy.  Alan Chambers gave us an impression of a painting by his late friend Michael Snow, which was much more than the sum of its parts.  Daphne Gloag brought another piece from her Time sequence, this one exploring the possibility of slowing time down.  Finally, Owen Gallagher wondered at the strength of democracy over simply marking a cross at random on a piece of paper.

To be candid with my readership I am not as green as my corduroys and I have oft observed the lesser-spotted teenager in the wild, on the top decks of busses and occupying the better benches in the park, hunched over their devices, sending pictures of their new shoes to the person sitting next to them and ‘liking’ scraps of received wisdom that would shame a housewife, if such a person existed in this day and age.  What these kids need is something to get them out of their recumbent poses and moving about a bit, and so to my big idea.  Britain is sprinkled with both blue and green plaques celebrating the many great poets who have hung their hats in a variety of abodes from draughty attics on the one hand, to town houses with uninterrupted views of the etc. on the other.  How about an app that encourages the smartphone owner to gather plaques by visiting the locations?  The concept would be something like the Poet Monitor, like the Milk Monitor of old, or ‘PoeMon’ for short.  The idea is to get people mobile, so the app could be called ‘PoeMon Go’ I surmise.  Points would be earned for gathering these virtual poets into capsules on the device, or ‘PoeBalls’, the natty tag line being something like; ‘you gotta catch ‘em all’.  I see a craze in the making, with fans of the prosody arts wandering the streets, Mobile Devices at the ready to snag a favourite bard.

In the game, some poets would be harder to capture than others.  As a lure, Betjeman would need only a glimpse of a well-turned ankle or tennis racquet to have him captured, while WB Yeats, should be dangled some really good embroidery work, something that had not been carelessly stepped on.  I image GM Hopkins would be captured with a nice shiny spring, coil or leaf, while you would need some kind of virtual Laudanum for ST Coleridge.  All I need is a games company to write it, market it, fund it and turn it into an internet phenomenon.  Have you heard of Nintendo?  I believe they might be on the lookout for bright ideas.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 2nd August 2016

If you were to press me on it in the Lounge Bar of the Red Lion (and mine’s a whisky and soda while you’re at the bar), I would have to admit I’m not one for interior decoration.  I am fortunate in that the flat in Ealing is kept in tip-top order by my Man who is oft to be seen with paintbrush in hand attending to the odd impaction or contusion.  Full-scale redecoration projects are carried out by a chap in a flat cap and overalls called Jarvis who manages to transport everything he needs in the boot of his 1965 Bentley T1 saloon.  His arrival is invariably my cue to exit stage left hauling a golf bag out to the two-seater, whereupon I will head for the hills of Scotland.  Not that I actually play golf, you understand.  Before I complete my rambling journey to the first tee my Man will typically have contacted me to let me know that all major undertakings have been undertaken and I can return to the bosom of my drawing room with no risk of catching a splodge of eggshell white with a hint of avocado on the fine old worsted.  Merely thinking about decorative materials brings me out in a cold sweat and I fear the Do It Yourself Superstore like The Blue Oyster Cult fail to fear The Reaper.  The odour of strong solvents plus the surrounding milieu of sanding, smoothing and rolling fills me with a nameless dread.  It appears I possess a morbid fear of fresh paint.

Fortunately, not one of the group wrote about paint this week.  Olwyn Grimshaw cleared her work area with a story of the animal kingdom regaining control.  Martin Choules freed the surfaces of any loose or flaking material with a lament on the summer – traditionally the poets’ least favourite season.  Nick Barth put down some dust sheets with memories of a Great Western locomotive that marked an end to austerity.  John Hurley popped the lids and stirred with his recollection of teenage mentors.  Ariadne Kazantsis laid down an effective undercoat with her tale of Ant saving the world with moon beams.  Gerry Godino got on with the woodwork with a song about a very cinematic love affair.  Finally, Anne Furneaux created an impressively smooth, drip-free surface with an invented word of her mother’s.

Which painterly shenanigans brings me to the heart of my tale, for while I abhor the dust, grime and continual cursing of the restoration of Pitshanger Manor (Architectural Historians are particularly foul-mouthed lot, esp. after the de rigeur tot of lunchtime Amontillado), I would not be apart from the continual process of discovery.  And what daily-newspaper-featured revelations were to be had this week.  The team has long been aware that among the many treasures to be preserved are the internal decorative motifs and whatnots painted by Sir John himself.   The experts were justifiably astounded when the paint samples came back from the lab; it appears Sir John employed realgar, a red shade more commonly used for representative art than decoration and choc-full of somewhat poisonous if not deeply unpleasant arsenic.  When I gained this intelligence it set my mind racing.  Could it be that the characteristic sickliness of the typical Romantic Poet has an altogether more mundane explanation?  Perhaps Sir John was unwittingly subjecting this country’s finest wordsmiths to regular poisoning in the dining room, the chamber hosting Pitshanger Poets’ Weekly Workshop!  Now, how to get the bottom of this?  Is Ealing Council willing to fund the exhumation and subsequent toxicology tests on some of Britain’s most famous poets?   Such action will necessarily need to be carried out at dead of night and with extensive security laid on to ensure that hordes of shambling, curious Goths sporting impractical platform boots and long, leather great-coats do not arrive on the scene only to fall, unprotected, into the open graves.  Careful and costly planning will be needed to avert a disaster of Bram-Stoker-esque proportions, therefore the Council should establish an emergency committee immediately, if not sooner.

I would say we should dig up Shelley first, but unfortunately it’s a little too late for that.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 26th July 2016

Summer hits the Pitshanger Archive with all its attendant sweating, fanning, blistering and assorted timewasting.  One would think that being underground would help regulate temperatures, but you never heard such complaining about our need to keep our coal-fires burning year round to dry out the rooms while disposing of our surplus records.  Meanwhile, over in the swanky new Theophilus Marzials Wing, they are complaining that the marble floors are too cold for the tender barefooted unpaid interns.

But in amongst the whinging, we are making some progress with our Great Microfiche Project.  We have decided to pronounce the middle word as ‘fish’ rather than ‘feesh’, the latter sounding suspiciously Scottish and not giving any possibility of hilarious confusion with diminutive aquaria.  So that’s another job off the to-do list.

Over at the Questors Theatre, they have just concluded their season with a rousing performance by the acting students demonstrating their best Scouse accents in Willie Russell’s Stags & Hens, proving that Brookside was a lot more accurate than we soft Southerners gave it credit for.  They now have a month-and-a-bit to concentrate on summer maintenance to keep the old girl standing for another year.  Surely their army of retired volunteer members will prove every bit as enthusiastic as our work-placement interns in putting their backs into it…

There was nothing end-of-term about this week’s workshop.  Anne Furneaux certainly wasn’t putting it on as she played us a nocturne of hospital beeps and coughs, while Olwyn Grimshaw didn’t hold back in expressing her doubts over the competence of our elected leaders.  John Hurley got stuck in with his memories of being an altar boy, and Martin Choules swung no lead with his song about his lack of singing.  Just to prove the point, Gerry Goddin was next with some singing, but he multitasked splendidly by strumming his guitar as well – no wonder the woman in his song welcomed him into her band.  Peter Francis has been hard at it, and so has his heart, grumbling perhaps but still putting in its shift 24/7 (literally), while we were pleased to finally welcome Mrs Pat Francis among us to throw her hat into the ring and bagged a brace of peacocks in Syon Park, and was followed by a full-hearted volley on human resource managers by Nick Barth as he put his shoulder to the wheel.  Ari Kazantzi has been hard at work crafting her latest super-hero tale, and Alan Chambers was pulling no punches with his poignant farewell to his life on the water.  Finally, we heard from much-practiced Daphne Gloag, who has been analysing a photograph of footprints on a beach and seeing the world in a grain of sand.

Pitzhanger Manor is currently undergoing a costly renovation, but in Sir John’s time the upkeep was more ad-hoc.  At a time when many of the attendees of a Tuesday evening would stay the night, he was keen to get a couple of hours work from them the next morning, possibly weeding or erecting a shelf, before they desperately hailed a passing stagecoach back to town.  Indeed, so unwilling were the poets of the day to earn their keep, that they would often sneak off in the middle of the night rather than face the prospect of helping Mrs Conduitt with the washing up.  So it was that ‘Brian’ Byron responded to Mary Shelley’s many midnight flits in his witty ‘She walks in beauty like the night’.

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Workshop, 19th July 2016

But what, you probably have been asking yourselves, does Brexit mean for the Archives ?  Will the Great Microfiche Project lose its funding ?  Will a new philistine attitude set in which will leave the entire 350 years of poetic records redundant ?  Or perhaps an unravelling of red tape will allay such fears that the EU were about to ban the use of philistine on grounds of racism.

Well, Britain going it alone is nothing new.  Indeed, the difficulty of travelling abroad during the Napoleonic Wars brought the grand tours to an end and very much encouraged a holiday-at-home vibe which led to the Romantics waxing lyrical over the Lake Windermere as opposed to Lake Garda, and Ivanhoe instead of Homer.  Billy ‘Mallord’ Turner may have painted a few Italian landscapes in his time, but of all his masterpieces, who on earth remembers those ?  And Johnny ‘Hay Wain’ Constable was more than content to paint his rainbows over England’s pleasant pastures.

So, glorious isolation is nothing to worry about, right ?  After all, it hardly did Japan any harm.  But it hardly did any favours for Iceland, whose great sagas were composed when it was an integral part of the great Norse union, and which was then invisible for centuries until it re-entered the world stage in the 1980s, surely thanks in part to Ronnie Regan and Micky Gorbachev, although Bobbie Fischer had blazed an unlikely trail a decade before.  And can we really hope that a great artistic flourishing is right now taking place in North Korea ?

This week’s workshop was one we can all vote for: we were got underway by the ghost of Mrs Francis, as it were, via her husband Peter reading another of her works about how much effort is needed to make a garden look natural.  (Surely Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown would approve, though why somebody named Lancelot needed a nickname is more of a mystery).  Alan Chambers has reworked his poem about what happens to and old sailor when he becomes a land-lubber, and John Hurley has been sharing a pint with his memories of his favourite 1956 boozer.  James Priestman has been meditating on the tribulations of Job and gives the Devil his due, while Anne Furneaux’s very young self has been missing her nanny.  After several redrafts, Daphne Gloag has finely polished her poem about spilt milk and burning stairs into a just the right ten lines, while Doig Simmonds has been arguing with an unapologetic Time, and Martin Choules has been wandering through a market in Georgian London hearing everything twice.  Finally, having been Mrs Francis’s stand-in, or rather sit-in (though hopefully we can meet the poetess herself one Tuesday in the not-too-distant), he then brought us full-circle with an observation of just how intricate a job it is to wash ones feet.

The conflict ended just in time for Geordie ‘Lord’ Byron and the Shelleys to sojourn in Switzerland in 1816, leaving one to wonder if failure at Waterloo might have meant no Frankenstein, no Vampyre, no Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and no Don Juan.  But then again, 1816 was the Year Without a Summer, where cold and rain kept them indoors, so perhaps it was less Wellington and more Tambora.  So much for the perpetual sunshine they were promised for being in Europe !

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Workshop, 12th July 2016

What, the true-blooded British versifier may be wondering, will Brexit mean for poetry ? Lots of lamentations to a lost brotherhood ? Oodles of odes to the sudden lack of Grecian-style Chinese-made urns ? Rousing recitations of Henry V and Rule Britannia ? We shall have to wait and see, for poetry rarely steps up in the moment and usually casts its retrospective eyes on yesterday. For every Charge of the Light Brigade, we have a hundred Lays of Ancient Rome.

A select few met for this week’s workshop, the others presumably enjoying a pleasant evening of West London sunshine. Anne Furneaux got us underway with remembrance of her childhood fantasies, complete with listening cups, self-walking furniture and a cameo from Peter Pan. Daphne Gloag has been leafing through a book on Emperor Hadrian, and encountered a familiar figure who still makes his presence felt, while John Hurley has been writing a load of rubbish and is worried about how to recycle it. Finally, Martin Choules has some advice for all teenage scribblers, his past-self included. And inbetween, there were many discussions and tangents about the elephant in the referendum:

Only a fool would deny that recent events were entirely centred around immigration, which is surprising when one considers that the practice has been going on since Homo sapiens first came out of Africa much to the chagrin of their new neighbours the Neanderthals. Britain has been constantly ‘invaded’ by ever more-interesting people since the last ice-sheets receded, and this result will provide this other Eden with a moat against the envy of less happier lands – after all, without the foreigners around, who else can we blame when we lose at football ?

All of which brings up some uncomfortable memories from the Archive. A long-standing member and avid poet was Enoch Powell, who alas is remembered today for his 1968 speech on the subject of immigration – yes, that speech. He read out a draft a few days before, to the applause of Philip Larkin and the gasps of Paul McCartney. All others present remained silent. Mr Powell did go on to explain that his mention of “the River Tiber foaming with much blood” was an allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid, and that he was merely raising legitimate concerns about what may happen, not what should happen, but he did himself no favours by favourably quoting a constituent claiming that “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Surely a politician of all people must understand that impressions are hares and minutiae are tortoises, only the hare doesn’t bother catching forty winks and has taken the tape before the tortoise has done up his laces.

And yet, there was another speech of his nine years earlier, the sort of speech that should be career- and history-defining in the right way: on the floor of the House, he responded to the killing of 11 Mau-Maus at Hola Camp in Kenya, blasting many of those present who would dismiss the victims as ‘sub-human’ and that ‘things are different down there’. In light of the Rivers of Blood that would later torrent, it is a pity he did not heed his own words of how unacceptable it was to claim that “because the victim was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow.”

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