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, Tuesday 23rd June 2015

I have to begin this week with an apology.  From time to time I like to think of the many loyal Pitshanger devotees out there in the Blogosphere, as Charles Babbage used to insist on calling it.  I envisage these fanatics hanging on to my every word, people for whom each glimpse behind the velvet curtain at the fascinating world of the jobbing poet is the shining highlight of their week.  Usually such ego-fluffing thoughts are isolated to those rare occasions when I am in my cups or struck down by some feverish malady and have only the feeblest grasp on reality.  However, even when reason is restored to her seat I reassure myself that someone must be reading this, for otherwise what in the name of all that is wholesome and one of your five a day would be the point in writing it?

The truth and nub of the butter is that, adjustments for British Summer Time aside, this week’s column is late, et je suis desole.  By rights you should be reading this on a Wednesday, but it is now, my man assures me, what hardworking British families call Thursday and you are not yet chuckling inwardly or facing the world anew, scales having fallen from your eye.  The reason for this lapse in our normal Service Level Agreement is simple; I noted in my copy of the Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper I read for the barbeque recipes and metal ore prices, that another habitué of the Pitshanger Poets has caused a paving stone to be engraved and laid in Westminster Abbey.  I realised I had to hot-foot it to the hallowed nave and Poet’s Corner before corresponding with my adoring public.

Given the Pitshanger Poets’ illustrious history, it would not be unreasonable to expect one of tonight’s workshop to figure in the Abbey’s South Transept.  John Hurley, for his lyrical poetry, tonight giving varied perspectives on a sleepless night.  Or Daphne Gloag, for once again exploring the possibilities of a Universe headed towards a ‘big crunch’.  Owen Gallagher’s star is in the ascendant, having just published a new collection, and tonight gave us a poem missing Roy Rogers in Glasgow.  Nick Barth could perhaps be seen leering from a niche for his impressions of Duchamp’s Rotary Demisphere.  Alan Chambers should qualify for approbation for tonight’s mysterious impression of the North Pole alone.  Marilyn Keenan deserves to be recognised for her remarkable word-picture of a fish on a slab.  Finally, the consistently excellent Martin Choules’ portrait of an abbey should earn a slab, well, in an abbey.

Some frightful modern commentators have suggested that misogyny, closet racism and serial womanising would appear to be qualifications for a paving stone in Poet’s Corner, given the appointment of the Hull Librarian to that honour, but I say no, no, no, for this one-dimensional portrait is to ignore the joy he brought to so many with his heretofore overlooked traveling children’s entertainment show, Larkin About.

Alas and alack, having thoroughly enjoyed an superb evening in the company of the current crop of Pitshanger Poets, I am afraid none of them would qualify for a slab in the famed Corner, for one simple reason, and that is because none of them are dead.  I for one have never heard of a dead poet producing any enjoyable work, with the possible exception of Emily Dickinson.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 16th June 2015

Being an accomplished poet and wordsmith can be a lonely business. Even in the welcoming bosom of my club in town the chaps scratch their heads and crease their brows when I attempt to explain the subtleties of an evening workshop at the Pitshanger Poets. I am a proud member of the British East-Asian Opium Eater and Retired Schoolmaster’s Club, by the way, which was formed in the midst of the last war when a German bomb destroyed the dividing wall between two formerly separate establishments on St James’ Square. Undeterred, the plucky Retired Schoolmasters mucked in with the honoured and largely somnambulant descendants of the veterans of the Opium Wars, and a ramshackle bridge was constructed linking the two respective smoking rooms on the First Floor. The two cadres got on famously, though rather fewer Retired Schoolmasters were up and about early enough in the morning to take breakfast thereafter.

This evening’s Workshop was replete with wordshmithery and accomplishment. Olwyn Grimshaw appears to have been inspired by her subconscious self. Marilyn Keenan has been doing some pruning and has left the blossoms of spring all over the ground. Helena Catherall told us about love, and whether it isn’t all a bit of a jest. Owen Gallagher brought back a poem about a working man reaching the end of the road. We were pleased to meet Fowzi Karim, who normally publishes his poetry in Arabic. Fowzi read us a poem about a bar in Baghdad, a bar which no longer exists, from one of his collections. Christine Shirley then pulled us into the depths of the battles her father has been fighting with two notorious enemies. John Hurley told us he was being selfish, but he’s only looking for love. Martin Choules has been picking through the Magna Carta with his usual eye for detail and has found some surprising clauses in this foundation of democracy. Finally, Nick Barth bumped into a drunk in a supermarket who seemed very together for all that, for all that.

To return to my earlier theme, while there have been several Pitshanger Poets who have been proud Opium Eaters, I wonder if they felt the sense of dislocation and ennui which stems from the inevitably divided self, as the philosophies of the respective Poetry Workshop and Club could not be more different. On the one hand the British East Asian Opium Eater and Retired Schoolmaster’s Club is governed by a comprehensive and robust set of rules, which stretch to twenty volumes and are housed in the Club Library. These rules cover everything from club satchel colour, minimum mortar-board dimensions and thrashing cane tensile strength in the first ten volumes to acceptable purity levels, approved clay pipe manufacturers and effective fire prevention measures in the second ten tomes. The Constitution of the club is proudly displayed on two adjoining boards in the surprisingly airy double-entrance hall of the club. All members understand the stiff sanctions that result from forgetting one’s gym kit, losing one’s prep or dealing uncut skag on the street at a mark-up of less than 400 percent.

In complete contrast, my Club fellows are bewildered when I tell them that the Pitshanger Poets have but a handful of ‘unwritten’ rules, which are as follows; don’t be late (this is never enforced), always bring copies of your poem (assuming the photocopier at the library is working), no reading ahead (though it’s dashed hard to stop the determined read-aheader), no lengthy preambles (there is a blackboard rubber ready to throw for this one) and your first visit to the Poets is free of charge. We have no rules governing membership, workshop preparation or management structure. As I point out time after occasion, poets do not take well to being organised, unlike retired school masters who like a bit of discipline, and the very effective Opium Eaters Supply Chain team, whose organisation provides so much valuable support to independent farmers in Afghanistan, a purely coincidental side benefit of which has been the maintenance of a remarkably healthy Club balance sheet for some years now. If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop 9th June 2015

Those of you who have observed me promenading the leafy lanes of Ealing may have noted in my demeanour a newly-minted air of bonhomie and relaxation of late.  I am told my skin has a healthy glow, that my bonce betrays a lustre superior to the advertised effects of the best products of the International heavy-industry, petroleum-based haircare industry.  Where once I huddled at the back of a favoured Café with my well-thumbed Francis Ponge (which I read for the cocktail recipes), I now brave Ealing’s heady breezes and sit outside at one of those tiny metal tables, flaunting a Jean Cocteau or Francis Prevert with gay abandon.  The reason for this levity?  I have just returned from the annual tour au Sud in the old two-seater.   Vivid moments from the long drive down, the smells, the wonderful flavours of the local produce, encounters with strange country-folk and their idiosyncratic ways are still rattling around my brain like Kodachrome slides loosed from their boxes.  In quiet moments I can still feel the heat in my skin from languid evening walks along glorious beaches.  Mind you, I was thankful that I remembered to take a blazer as the breezes can be pretty brisk in Bournemouth at this time of year.

Brisk was not the watch word of this evening’s workshop, for we were able to indulge each poem with an appropriate period of appreciation.  Owen Gallagher began with his poem about a door to another world to keep on your key ring.  Peter Francis wrote about Manet’s Venus and who she was, really.  John Hurley has been watching the fish in his local chippie… who has been watching the fish.  Martin Choules captured a moment in time, the beginning of the end of the slave trade.  Nick Barth has been climbing a mountain in a train.  Daphne Gloag has been looking through a crumbling window to a pristine landscape beyond.  Nayna Kumari brought us a few lines about the moment one has to decide to change.  Finally, Helena Catherall visited our workshop for the first time and read us a piece we will need to hear again before too long.

Speaking of our Gallic cousins, I notice from the Pitshanger Poets Archive that the great Serge Gainsburg was in high demand for a visit to a workshop at the manor back in the swinging sixties.  Serge was a frequent visitor to London and several invitations were both proffered and accepted by the discerning French bard.  Detailed preparations were made, including the creation of subtitle cards for the poems he was expected to read and the provision of a powerful ventilation system to clear the inevitable fug of Galloises.  Regrettably despite three invitations, Gainsburg was never seen at the manor.  On the last occasion the Pitshanger Poets were kind enough to stump up for the fare for Serge and Jane Birkin to make the trip out from the wild West End, but mysteriously the couple never arrived.  The mystery was solved when a member of the PP Workshop, walking home passed The Central London Group Grill Bar, a notoriously groovy hangout on Northfield Avenue.  There was Gainsburg in full flight, entertaining the other patrons and creating an impromptu ‘happening’ among the vinyl seats and formica tables.  The poet went in to the grill and upbraided Gainsburg, asking him why he had not managed to get himself along to the Workshop at eight o’clock as promised.  Apparently the bard shrugged, pointed to a plate of egg and chips, exhaled a cloud of smoke and said, ‘Qui est mon heure du dîner’.  In the words of the British Diplomatic Corps down the centuries ‘if the mission is to succeed, feed the Frenchman’.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, Tuesday 2nd June 2015

Here in the New Archives, we have a newspaper section that records every mention of the Pitshanger Poets in the popular press, and to coincide with our upgraded facilities we have had to purchase a second manila folder just to fit them all in. We also keep track of more general poetry-related news, including from this new cutting-edge internet, where the relevant ‘website’ is brought to screen, photographed, developed, printed and filed, all within a week. And it is from one such record that we became aware of an incident in the former colony of Connecticut, where a teacher of an A-Level-equivalent English Lit lesson caused a stir by allowing a rather risqué Allen Ginsberg poem to be read out in class.

Of course, the Pitshanger Poets workshops are not intended to feel like school, and our attendees are all consenting adults, so we would like to think that such frankness would excite no more in us than our passion for well-chosen words, but alas our Tuesday soirées have at times been rather partial to prudery. So it was doubly unfortunate that the very week that a Mrs Whitehouse of Warwickshire dropped in for a cup of tea and a chat about her passion for Victorian moralising verse, we also happened to have in attendance both Mr Ginsberg himself and the often salty-mouthed Ted Hughes.

No outrage at this week’s workshop, but plenty of provocation. Alan Chambers brought in a revised ode to the full moon that can sometimes be seen peeking through our modern world, while Peter Francis asked who was the sinister Mr S, but left us without a definite answer. Owen Gallagher showed us the poetry in being an organ donor, while John Hurley told us of a black bull who was decidedly missing a vital part. The weather was on Martin Choules’ mind, and we ended as we began with a chance to see a previous submission by Christine Shirley evolve and improve.

Allen Ginsberg also visited at other, happier times, including one evening in the 1960s when he was explaining the origin of the term ‘beat poetry’. It had, he revealed, originally been coined by Jack Kerouac to mean both ‘beaten down and exhausted’, but also ‘upbeat’ and ‘on the beat’. This led to some confusion by fellow-attendee Harold Pinter, who had hitherto considered himself a ‘beat’ writer on account of his predilection for pauses.

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Workshop, Tuesday 26th May 2015

Naturally with an informal group such as the Pitshanger Poets, there is no official membership or waiting list, nor a secret handshake and initiation ritual. Poets belong simply by attending the workshops, and similarly they are free to leave by finding other things to do with their Tuesday evenings. Sometimes such leavings are unannounced, an intention to return the following week collides with real life and ‘way leads on to way’. At other times, such partings are unavoidable as the poet will soon be a continent away. And often it transpires that a goodbye was merely a hiatus, an ‘old pen’ returns after harvesting fresh material from the wider world.

It hasn’t always been so laid back on Mattock Lane. Back in the days of Sir John Soane, there were many who clamoured to attend such illustrious salons such that Mrs Conduitt had to be posted at the gates with strict instructions to only admit those who gave the correct password, which was inevitably in sonnet form. This inevitably caused problems for opiated Romantics whose memories were often not the sharpest when ‘a drowsy numbness pains the sense’. But Mrs Conduitt was a stickler, and one wrong foot or mis-sprung meter was enough to send a wannabe waif back to his garret unheard.

Tonight’s attendees were old friends all, starting with Nayna Kumari’s short, sharp j’accuse to abuse, and Peter Francis’ villanelle to a problem child in a problem society. Marilyn Keenan then recounted how her land-born father had stared out to sea, and Owen Gallagher gave us a bucket list worthy of Oliver Reed or Lord Byron. Next up was Alan Chambers, whose fingers were on his keyboard but whose mind was elsewhere, and Olwyn Grimshaw, who had translated Horace’s ancient ode to the temptress Pyrrha, and then given a new voice to her defence. Martin Choules had an heraldic tale of a knight undone by his inappropriate charge, while the absence of fishing nets and the smell of leather left John Hurley melancholic on revisiting his childhood home and finding it had since gone upmarket. Finally, the final moments of a dying lion in a frozen frieze had stayed with Daphne Gloag for much longer.

To any former regulars reading this, musing on auld acquaintance, remember that you can always find us ‘between red death and radiant desire’, every Tuesday. And to any who already wish to resume old habits, but are prevented by circumstance, well you will be just as welcome next year as next week. Just ask the young John Masefield, who would drop-in when on leave from HMS Conway, before apologising for his upcoming absence with a sheepish smile and an offhand comment that he “must down to the sea again.”

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Workshop, 19th May 2015

As local readers of this blog may remember, Pitzhanger Manor was for many years also the Ealing Library. This caused some consternation in the Archives, having to share our space with less forms of literature, and sometimes having our first editions leant out to any old rates payer with a library card and string bag. Some of our precious collections of verse came back with most trite and spidery marginalia: from correcting the spelling of Blake’s The Tyiger to answering Browning’s eternal question …or what’s a heaven for ? with the answer “Bingo nights and harp repairs”.

Tonight’s workshop was quite unblemished with such matters: Daphne Gloag addressed a peon to Time that needed no footnotes, and Marilyn Keenan imagined loneliness in the arms of an uncaring man with, with a few corrections all her own. This was followed by interrupting thoughts from Gillian Spragg which might well elicit a few lightly-pressed graphite ticks of agreement, and Alan Chambers’ quality time spent with a blackbird may well encourage a later reader to provide the score. As ever, Peter Francis had an ear for the mythical atop Mercian hills that would only be diminished by indignant HB question marks, and a pencil pedant would surely have taken Martin Choules to task for his metaphysical musings on consciousness.

The worst incident to befall the group was one Tuesday in late 1910 when Rudyard Kipling was in attendance. He had neglected to bring a poem, but remembered he had recently gifted us a copy of his newly-published Rewards and Fairies. Could he borrow it back a little while to read from ? Naturally, the duty archivist was summoned to source the tome, but alas he neglected to first apply a rubber to the pages, much to Kipling’s horror. The Way Through the Woods was critiqued by a drawing of some male genitalia, Cold Iron had every ‘o’ filled in, A St Helena Lullaby has a declarative “wrong!” after each verse and ends with “if anyone actually enjoys this rot, then you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din!”. Most egregious of all was the anonymous scribbler who noted beside If— that “I have developed a truly marvellous rebuttal of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.”

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Workshop 12th May 2015

It’s never clear how far to draw back the veil of privacy when crafting a blog.  On the one hand, relating intimate details of one’s existence, such as my man’s penchant for throwing darts at a portrait of Ian McMillan he has pinned to the board at the Fox and Ferret or describing the Michael Rosen glove puppet I carry with me everywhere in case I need to halt a stampeding horse may endear one to one’s readership, while on the other may simply raise unpleasant questions on the decline of the beautiful game on his part or accusations of animal cruelty on mine.  Dash it all, veil or no, you might as well hear it from me; next week I am going on holiday.

I am by habit a light traveller and the two-seater will be hardly encumbered by my small suitcase, leather satchel with my notebooks, fresh pencils and a small hip flask of cough mixture with which to while away the evenings on my Grand Tour of the Cotswolds.  However, I am greatly in debt to my man and his faithful Thames Van which will be loaded to the gunwales with all the other tools of a jobbing poet; the full variety of Grecian urns, nightingales, mice, churchyards (in component form), ladies’ portraits, haggises, skylarks, ravens, daffodils, statues, busts, armour and ancient ruins I might desire to include in a poem, elegy or ode as inspiration strikes while we are away.  It certainly helps carrying these items with us instead of having to seek them out as poets used to be obliged to do. We can pull to the side of the road in some quiet spot and I can be up and composing in mere moments with a little help from my man and his quarter-tonne sack trolley.

None of the above items figured in tonight’s Workshop, which I felt was somewhat of a missed opportunity.  Peter Francis described the process of writing, or not writing, by candle-light (disappointingly with no mention of a sconce).  Marilyn Keenan brought depth and grace to her poem about bird song at night (while side-stepping the subject of nightingales altogether).  Christine Shirley revised her polychromatic piece on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (without recourse to heroic ballad form).  Olwyn Grimshaw remembers VE Day and the lack of bananas (but we could hardly call this Ode to a Banana, oh no).  Alan Chambers brought us a highly amusing poem of indeterminate age about a fish and the King of Spain (with no mention of his beard, burnt or otherwise).  Daphne Gloag has written a short piece about taking a few hours somewhere nice and quiet where they will not be disturbed (ornamental sun dials were regrettably absent).  Gillian Spragg remembered her mother’s declining years with amusement and a light touch (but no sestinas).  Martin Choules is thinking about our new leader and how he might need a shave with the razor of satire (trying to keep it sharp, but just getting into a strop).  Finally Nick Barth wonders how long it is before robots demand equal rights (but with no mention of feet or mills, dark or satanic).

Speaking of holidays, I was fascinated to stumble across mentions of Grand Tours past in the Pitshanger Poets Archive recently.  Not to detain you much further, for the pubs must be open by now, It is clear that our poets were in the vanguard of the transformation of Spain into the hugely popular tourist destination it is today.  As far back as the nineteen-thirties a number of our alumni journeyed South of the Pyrenees for a well-deserved break on the peninsula, no doubt making the most of an unspoilt coastline and what must have been almost-deserted historical city centres such as Madrid, Barcelona, Seville or Guernica.  Still, it is clear that life for these pioneers of the package holiday was not all sangria and skittles.  Louis MacNiece seems especially bitter about the Spain he describes in his Autumn Journal, completely omitting to mention that he must have been able to benefit from very favourable rates by booking his stay outside the school holidays.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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