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.

5 Comments

Filed under Welcome

Workshop, 26th April 2016

Poets tend to be a self-promoting bunch.  Even in past times where the public’s thirst for verse was unquenchable, it was vital to be heard above the throng of doggerel, and in these modern prosaic times it is embarrassingly too easy to be unheard and unmissed.  These days we seem to have very little social or literary mobility where a working-class wordsmith can break into the inner circle of Radio 4, where a self-taught provincial versifier can complete with the Oxbridge literature graduates.  Despite the proliferation of small-press magazines that used to find shelf-space in the Poetry Library and these days have been replaced with their online cousins, there are only half-a-dozen or so magazines whose inclusion on a CV will open any doors.  That means there are half-a-dozen editors who control who gets noticed by the publishing houses and who gets reviewed in the newspapers.

And yet, it has never been easier to start a YouTube channel and start declaiming.  And it has never been easier to be ignored. It is no longer enough to be a first-rate writer, now one must be a glorious orator as well.  Would we ever have heard of Craig Charles or John Cooper Clarke had they not been able to demonstrate the appropriate Northern voice they wrote in, or Benjamin Zephaniah had not toned down the Brummie and cranked up the Caribbean side to his accent when reciting ?

But then, poetry was always a performance art.  From the days of Homer to the rappers of today, it has always been crying out to be spoken, entreated, ranted, whispered, and above all shared.  And where better to practice than at a workshop like ours ?  We opened this week with a fine rendition by Doig Simmonds, recounting his recent moonlighting as a recording angel in heaven, and Christine Shirley had no need to shout for her paean to Mother Earth to be heard.  Peter Francis gave brought his Scots ballad of an unsleeping child to life without the need of a dodgy accent, while Martin Choules has been revisiting the choices of his youth with the voice of experience.  Meanwhile, rumour has it that Alan Chambers is so steeped in a lifetime of prosody that he even uses couplets when he talks in his sleep – certainly his pre-workshop afternoon nap provided plenty to crow about.  Owen Gallagher, on the other hand, has given voice to the invisible but not silent hand of the market, and John Hurley has been expressing his doubts that the voice of the people will reach the ears of the politicians.

It is noteworthy that some of the most reclusive and coy poets such as Emily Dickinson, Gerald Hopkins and Wilfred Owen, all had to die and leave their works in the hands of their pushier relatives before they received any recognition.  Meanwhile, the little-published but suitably boisterous Robert Frost popped over to Britain, dropped off a sheaf of verses at a London publisher, and a week later was the bard of Beaconsfield.  It does make one wonder if we are in danger of only ever hearing the poetic utterings of the loud and obnoxious, or the delicate observations of the self-obsessed.

But of course there is nothing new here: perhaps the greatest innovation of the Romantics was to stop telling tales of ancient times in rhyming couplets and start telling thoughts and feelings from the first person.  There is never any doubt that it is Wordsworth himself that wandered lonely as a cloud, nor that it was Shelley who met the traveller from the antique land, even though his presence is entirely superfluous.  And even the old puritan Billy Blake got in on the act, insisting that he is the recipient of both sword and chariot.  But poetry seems to have survived the last two hundred years of naval-gazing in pretty good shape, so the answer seems clear: by all means write for the love of it, but if you want to be read by strangers, we must play up and play the game.

Leave a comment

Filed under Workshops

Workshop, 19th April 2016

A popular sport of playwrites (that’s right, playwrites) is the imagined meeting: an Irish novelist almost meets a Russian demagogue in neutral Zürich, a professor actually meets an actress in his New York hotel room, and so on.  Sometimes, however, the opportunity for the meeting is real, but the road is not taken.  Take the example found in the Archives concerning T S Eliot: he came to a workshop in 1920 with a piece written that day after luncheon, and soon to be incorporated into The Wasteland.  It describing his meeting with the currant-pocketed Mr Eugenides at the Cannon Street station hotel.  It was well received, and Ezra Pound suggested that “the Ritz is the wrong sort of place for a Smyrna merchant to spend the weekend – try sending him to the Metropol instead.”  And so the evening moved on to a submission by Willie Yeats and life went on.

But in a parallel universe, history repeats as farce: what if old T.S. had taken a wrong turn on his way back from the gents and stumbled into the inaugural meeting of the British Communist Party taking place in the same hotel (for even revolutionaries enjoy a fine pot of tea, although obviously not Earl Grey).  Always something of a small-t Tory, what would he have made of these bowler-hatted bolsheviks ?  Outrage at their intension to do away with capital letters on grounds of privilege ?  Fascination as they debated whether playground rhymes and skipping chants were the real poems of the people ?  Perhaps even admiration at their determination to seize the means of production by setting up workplace rhyme-exchanges and metaphor libraries.

There were no reds lurking under the tables at this week’s workshop.  Alan Chambers sparked the revolution with his likening of language with a foreshore, and Doig Simmonds brought his meditation of battle of love to the Finland Station.  Martin Choules rallied the workers to try harder for the brighter tomorrow, while John Hurley found that there was no comfort left in the dreams of the past.  Full-bearded Peter Francis inspected the message that his son was receiving in school, while Owen Gallagher stood in solidarity with the memory of the crofters, and Daphne Gloag found that the road to utopia is a wandering way through the woods.

So do we see an echo of this redder ‘Thomas Stearnsovitch Eliotski’ in our own true-blue version ?  Is the wasteland of capitalism-induced angst heaped upon J. Alfred Prufrock a clue ?  Is Old Possum an Uncle Joe to the Jellicle Cat Co-operative ?  Is Shimbleshanks an allegory for the nationalisation of the railways ?  And the observant reader will notice that he never wrote “October is the cruellest month”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Workshops

Workshop, 12th April 2016

Poetry is often the hobby of the polymath.  Erasmus Darwin was a pioneering doctor who loved to wax scientific in his spare moments, and Enoch Powell often had much nicer things to say than his infamous Rivers of Blood (definitely not his best work).  Of course, both swung by Ealing on a Tuesday evening or two, but those are stories for other days.  But another enlightened soul who spent his adolescence dreaming of a minstrel’s life only to have his head turned by the mysteries of natural philosophy was Humphrey ‘Lamps’ Davy.

He is of course best known for inventing the miners’ safety lamp in 1815, which drastically cut the number of deaths from exploding firedamp, and enabled thousands of miners to stay alive long enough be able to contract pulmonary pneumoconiosis, while allowing considerably deeper seems to be exploited and finally getting some proper curvature into their spines.

It is really no surprise that the Archives reveal ‘Humpty’ Davy to be a regular at Pitshanger Manor.  After all, he was a thorough Romantic – a child prodigy, a political radical (who would later become a dull, comfortable conservative), and a flamboyant dandy known as the Parrot of Penzance.  But it wasn’t his moon-eyed moping verses that made him such a hit at Sir John’s gatherings, nor his discovery of potassium and his attempts to persuade the Royal Navy to use it as the first chemical weapon, but rather his discovery and subsequent application of nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas.

There was much good humour and mirth at this week’s workshop, though suitably tempered with sober reflections, such as the rambler’s peon for the lost greenbelt from Owen Gallagher which got things underway.  Peter Francis then told us all about his wreath-weaving aunt and the symbolic choice of blooms, while new member Ariadne Kazantzis wove her own tale of pirates, jewel thieves and chronic lateness.  The upcoming referendum has been on Ali Chaudhry’s mind, and he came down firmly on the side of the poets, while Martin Choules has been finding the early Spring in the suburbs to be a season of half-measures.  Nick Barth brought us a touching account of good-neighbourliness, which amounts to never having to turn down the music, while the recent Grand National had clearly inspired John Hurley to get inside the head of the racing world.  Finally, Daphne Gloag has been musing on days of blue and nights of black.

The Pitshanger Poets gas parties were, well, a gas, and a maniacally good time was had by all.  Indeed, certain subsequent works such as Byron’s She Walks in Beauty, like the Night and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner make far more sense if viewed as the works of stoners, as does practically the entire output of William Blake.  Eventually Market Jew Street journeyman had to put such sophomore days behind him and get on with scaling the greasy pole, complete with an advantageous marriage and a public spat with George Stephenson.  But for years afterwards there was still a fond memory of the flashy Cornishman who had given them all the vapours.

Leave a comment

Filed under Workshops

Workshop 30th March 2016

I was idly toying with the breakfast boiled egg the other morning, wondering what I was going to make of the day when the dramatic news flooded in.  Ealing’s weather has been somewhat capricious of late, doing its best to convince one that it is Spring while one is behind glass staring out at the sunshine dappling the newly-sprung daffs in the garden and then turning the tables and erupting in downpours as soon as one presents a galosh to the avenue.  Such meteorological brow-beating had me on the verge of transferring my mortal remains to the Study where my fifteen-act Verse Play on the collapse of British Table Manners continues to experience a troubled gestation, when my man loped in proffering the telephone.

‘It’s Pitshanger Manor, Sir,’ he effused. ‘They request your presence on site.’

Now, this was a turn up for the tweed slacks.  Those of you with a keen eye for scaffolding and hoardings will have noted a certain inaccessibility to The Manor of late.  This is due to the wheelbarrows of lottery cash that have been rolling into the redevelopment programme.  Having spruced up Walpole Park, the keen eye of the Town Planner has turned to the house itself, with the result that it is to be returned to something more like the edifice that the great architect Sir John Soane left behind when he upped antiquities and moved to Holborn.  This includes the removal of the former Public Library, sitting as comfortably next to the Manor as a teacher would sit next to an Ofsted Inspector in a mix-up at the school Christmas Party.  Already, walls are coming down and ill-advised chunks of masonry are being removed.  The chaps running the show have rejected all my kind offers to pop in and have a nose about from time to time, with the result that I have not been within a chisel-throw of the place since we carted the Archive and the Ferranti Pegasus off to its temporary home in the Town Hall basement in January.

However, they had called for me.  I needed no further enticement.  Without pausing to consider the remains of my egg I scampered out to the old two-seater to get her started with all speed.  A scant forty-five minutes later I was on the road.

Upon arrival at the Manor a brief meeting with the on-site team of Historians and Antiquarians revealed the cause of the excitement.  Upon taking down a wall a hidden cupboard or cache had been revealed.  Inside the cache was an ancient metal box.  Inside the box?  Slim volumes of poetry!

At this juncture I must interrupt the course of my narrative to turn to the proceedings of this weeks Workshop, which was a very enjoyable meeting.  Owen Gallagher has been imagining the prayers of someone who is not sure what they want to be.  Alan Chambers brought back an early poem describing the start of a long journey in the minds of geese.  Daphne Gloag has been looking at the paintings of John Hoyland and without mentioning colour.  Martin Choules has been at work, although his mind, it appears was with the geese.  Nick Barth railed against those who believe the Counter-Culture is dead.  Doig Simmonds has been clearing out some old pictures and musing on the shadows they leave.  Finally John Hurley has been remembering the Captain’s wife, who was a worrier.

The Historians had surmised that the box was owned by the Perceval sisters, Pitshanger Manor residents and daughters of this country’s only assassinated Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval.  These ladies retained links with the British Government throughout their long lives.  As mentioned, inside were a number of slim volumes, but one stood out.  The red-bound book, barely a pamphlet, carries the Royal Seal of Queen Victoria and the poems are written entirely in German.  My understanding of that tongue is not perfect and I only had the chance to study one work, but my first impressions are that the young lady authoress was extolling the virtues of frequent exercise, especially at night, paying tribute to her newly-wedded husband and thanking him for his recent gift of a large Bratwurst(?) At this stage I had to admit defeat.  It was beyond me.  The poems in the Perceval Cache are to be translated by a professional linguist, at which point we may find out why it was that they needed to be hidden so carefully in the first place.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Workshops

Workshop, 22nd March 2016

Poetry!  It is the clarion-call which draws ten or so humble victims of the muse to gather in the tastefully chilled surroundings of the MDF-panelled Library at Questor’s Theatre every Tuesday night, gripping laser-printed, photocopied or merely monk-transcribed and spectacularly illustrated manuscripts of their latest work, to be mulled, considered, praised or constructively criticised, but never castigated or condemned, by their peers.  It is our daily dread, our creed and our calling.  Now, it goes without saying, but it shall be said anyway because every little helps and this Blog does not write itself, that there is also a fine bar at Questor’s and while a proportion of our number may be seen sampling a pink gin or a half of ‘Addlestrop’s Demurral’ after the Workshop, I would not wish to leave you, dear reader, with the impression, to quote Noel Coward that this is ‘the sole purpose of visit’.  All the same, the certain knowledge that the relaxative qualities of a long cold glass of something are mere yards away can cushion the effect of an overly-ambitious metaphor or the crunching gears of a mistimed change of meter, all broken eggs in the development of a timeless verbal omelette.

Timeless omelettes were cooked aplenty in tonight’s Workshop.  Christine Shirley rolled the first egg with a nightmare at a Service Station.  John Hurley melted a little butter with memories of his uncle.  Doig Simmonds was careful not to over-beat his story of those who did not return from the front.  Alan Chambers was delicate with the seasoning, bringing back an old piece about sharing moonlight.  Daphne Gloag got the filling in the pan with a poem about a painter determined to reproduce nothing.  Peter Francis added the Tabasco sauce with a poem about the Easter Uprising.  Nick Barth shook in some chopped parsley with a bleak collection of abandoned shopping malls.  Finally Owen Gallagher folded the meeting over and tucked it neatly onto a plate with a piece about a cousin who was not kissed until it was way too late.

Questor’s Grapevine Bar, proud winner of the Campaign For Real Conversation’s Amateur Theatrical Anecdote Award five years running (somewhat incredibly, for the same anecdote), has become something of a Mecca (the Bingo Hall, as opposed to the Pilgrimage destination), for the great and the good of Ealing.  Why, only tonight I was chatting to the bass player in one of this country’s most celebrated three-syllable blues-rock bands (not the one you’re thinking of) about Bank Holidays, a subject in which I am something of an expert.  Or so I thought.  My new friend, it turns out had made a lifetime’s study of Bank, Religious and other state-mandated periods of lolling-about and pointed out the complete disaster that would befall this nation should we exit or ‘Brexit’ as the kids these days have it, Europe.  He pointed that our relationship with Europe is the only reason that we enjoy the many days off that we do.  Upon exiting, Britain would be forced to return to the default position of Christmas Day and Whitsun as the sole public holidays with the result that aggrieved peasants would rise up with pitchforks and flaming torches and the Dark Lord, having recovered the Ring of Power would emerge victorious from Mordor.

I was quite shaken, I can tell you, and had to call for a second Babycham.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Miscellaneous

Workshop, 15th March 2016

The Theophilus Marzials wing of the Archive has been rather more lyrical than before, on account of some of our unpaid interns having arranged an ‘away day’ to see Les Miserable in the West End.  Despite being collectively tone-deaf, it hasn’t stopped them from humming, whistling and forgetting the words all week.  Indeed, one cannot catalogue sonnets by which line contains the volta hearing Jean Valjean yet again inextricably put on a bad French accent, or painstakingly replace all ‘y’s with thorns in a new edition of Beowulf without little Cosette sweeping her imaginary broom across the linoleum.

But little do these musical theatricals realise that Victor Hugo’s great butée de porte was not composed among those Parisian streets it so Gallicly depicts, nor down in those famous sewers, but rather in exile on the island of Guernsey.  He also wrote some of his best-loved poetry there, and one wonders if he were a regular at the St Peter Port Poesy and Versification Society.  Perhaps not, as his insistence on continuing to write in French would surely have bristled a few mutton chops and sent the ladies to their fainting couches.

This week’s workshop was a bijou affair, few in number but many in ideas.  John Hurley led us out by revealing how it was his garden who let him know that Spring had arrived, although his camelia bush seems to have already finished for the year.  Daphne Gloag has been reworking her piece on quantum entanglement which began as a found poem and, having lost its way a little, has now been re-found.  Alan Chambers has been distracted of late, by everything from trains and roses to binmen and owls, while for Owen Gallagher it is memories of his father’s nit nurse and hair-sculpting skills that have occupied him.  Martin Choules, meanwhile, has been celebrating International Women’s Day by reassessing a real gorgon with a forked tongue.

It is not clear if M. Hugo ever visited London during his enforced séparation from the City of Light, but the Pitshanger Archives do recall the time in the 1864 when a Frenchman with a serious beard and even more serious countenance dropped in, complementing Charles Dickens (also in attendance) on his attention to the plight of the poor even as he corrected him on his Paris geography from A Tale of Two Cities, and he later in the Red Lion buttonholed Joseph Bazalgette about his ongoing work in replacing London’s sewers.  But we mustn’t get carried away – we could easily be reading too much into this, dreaming a dream of times gone by.  Numerous biographies have him at this point toiling away on The Toilers of the Sea, about Guernsey folks with suspiciously French names.  So why take time away from Hauteville House?  Could it have anything to do with the newly opened opera of Notre Dame de Paris in the West End?  Well, it’s only a hunch…

Leave a comment

Filed under Workshops

Workshop, 8th March 2016

Those of you in the thick of the hurlyburly of life, hovering through the fog and filthy air may feel the occasional welling of envy for the life of a jobbing poet.  After all, what do we do but stare at a screen for an unforgiving evening, slotting words into some semblance of meaning, rearranging them until they go ‘tum-ti-tum’ and coming up with a nice last line that lets people know the thing is over?  Once done, we take our prized piece down to The Questor’s theatre to enjoy a weekly cross-examination from the nearly twelve and true Pitshanger Poets in the hushed, civilised surroundings of the Library.

While I would not wish to muddy the bathwater, I have to admit that this cosy picture is only partially la verite.  The truth is that ‘our’ Library is directly beneath one of the Studios in the AmDram Multiplex that is Questors, and it is often far from the silence required for serious contemplation, as whichever group, troupe or ensemble is overhead on any given week generally seems to be intent on rehearsing amusing dance routines from Disney’s Fantasia, specifically the ones featuring Elephants.

Conditions for your favourite poets were somewhat more strained this week as Tuesday was one of those rare occasions when the theatre is opened up to one of the local Childrens’ Dance Groups and the place was full of tiny tots and competitive parents, racing noisily thither and yon throughout the corridors, scattering sequins like confetti and confetti like it was going out of fashion.  As a result, the Library was commandeered for a dressing room and we were forced to take cover in the Questor’s Theatre Office.  This was entirely satisfactory until one of our number started reading from a piece of paper absent-mindedly plucked from the Treasurer’s inbox rather than their own work and the group was lost in a Found Poem of rented wigs and hired hats with sixty-day easy payment terms on receipt of a signed purchase order which quite transformed my own view of the innate lyricism of accountancy.

Luckily, order was restored with the result that we were able to appreciate John Hurley’s evocation of St Patrick.   Then Alan Chambers read a deeply enigmatic poem which had us puzzling right up until we moved on to James Priestman’s re-telling of the Ascension.  Daphne Gloag then revealed her particle-physics inspired love poem which we like enormously.  First time Pitshanger Sandeep Kaur gave us a reading of her piece on the essential glitteriness of some streets.  Nick Barth then chimed in with a piece about children and interruptions.  Finally, Martin Choules has writer’s block and had nothing to say, but said it beautifully.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Workshops