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, 25th August 2015

As part of the bulwark tirelessly shoring up this remarkable edifice that is the English language, I habitually keep a close eye on the Written Word. I was therefore if not exactly surprised, then at least bemused to read that newspaper readership is on the decline. This ought to be good news, as it would at least mean that fewer innocent minds are exposed to the Daily Mail on a regular basis, but since the popularity of the Journal of the Middle-England House Price Obsessive is boosted by its presence as an on-line neurosis centre, even that hope turns out to be somewhat futile. It goes without saying that I am a fan of the entire on-line milieu and can read HTML like a native, but I still do take a printed paper, the Rodong Sinmum, or North Korean Worker’s News, which I much enjoy for its humorous Television Reviews, though I must admit that most days I simply inspect it to ensure that my Man is continuing to iron it correctly.

Tonight’s Workshop was supplied with a variety of poems on a variety of paper types, some ironed some decidedly wrinkled. Olwyn Grimshaw, who always uses a light gauge sheet of admirable flatness has promised not to nag mankind about toilet seats. John Hurley, with a slightly heavier weight is chiefly concerned with the ugliness of the beautiful game. Owen Gallagher, neat, flat and slightly shiny, told a story about a man from Donegal via the Spanish Armada. Peter Francis, folded and recycled gave us a piece examining cockle-pickers. Alan Chambers, small, square and smooth, brought us an example of his poetry for children, this one about how to be an artist. Daphne Gloag, in an attractive buff and cut economically to size, imagined a relationship as rooms branching off into the air. Louise Nicholas brought us some Australian paper for this the first Workshop of this year’s annual pilgrimage to PP with a beautiful poem about shades of motherhood. Nick Barth, thinner than we’d like and creased at the corner, brought an unfinished work he is writing in tribute to one of his best pals. Finally Martin Choules, on recycled Council paper has been thinking about the Magna Carta for the Ealing Arts Autumn Poetry Comp, which we should all have a go at really.

It was as I was reading Sunday’s Rodong Sinmum and inwardly chuckling over Songun Juche’s delightful description of North Korea’s latest victimisation Game Show ‘Jigulyeog’ that a strange pang of familiarity gripped me, which surely requires a longer explanation. Now, you have all heard of the BBC iPlayer. This neat invention means that we no longer have to watch any television programmes on the BBC as the entire output is available on-line for us not to watch any time we want. Those of you old enough to have fought in the great Betamax-VHS war of 1983 will remember the video recorder, a fiendishly clever device which could be set to record a television program while we were out doing something more worthwhile so that when we got home we could forget which tape it was on and would never be obliged to waste time watching it.

Now, some people, especially those who had bought video recorders, professed to liking television, so at great expense the British Government imported Clive James and put him in charge of saying funny things about the medium in newspapers so the chattering classes could at least pretend to have watched some of it.

As a result, poor Clive had very little time to devote to his true calling, which was surely poetry, when he came to these shores. We do have evidence of his early prowess in the declamatory arts when both he and Germaine Greer entered as an Australian ‘invasion’ of the now almost forgotten Pitshanger Poets Haiku competition of 1970. Greer’s seminal Haiku of that year became an inspiration to a generation:

What is the number
of feminists it takes to
change a light bulb? ONE!

James also contributed a remarkable work, redolent of the times, which surely lives on in the folk memory:

Even in times of
peace, Murray Walker sounds like
his pants are on fire.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 18th August 2015

This blog can remain silent no longer. Machiavellian backbiting is afoot in the body politic: there is a strain of spineless, weak-kneed, gutless, mealy-mouthed arse-coverers who lack the stomach to make a clean breast of it and take up arms, shoulder their responsibility, lay our hands on the table and stick their heads above the parapet and place their necks on the line. It is a debate that questions just what our movement stands for, amid visions of the 1980s, exile to the wilderness and embarrassing engraved stones: should modern poets aspire to be buried in Westminster Abbey ?

Yes, Philip Larkin is to be remembered with a stone slab within the mother church whose daughters he often visited but never really believed in. Still, he’ll be in good company – Shelley, Marlow and Hardy are nearby in stone if not in spirit. Well, okay, Marlow is technically in glass, which does sound better: more of a glowing tribute, less of a doormat.

Of course, it’s not as if the late lamented gentleman had any say in the matter, but rather it no more than a testament to the lobbying powers of his fans. One suspects that even Wendy Cope’s supporters, when her time comes, will make a play for the big time, although in her case perhaps she would be more at home in a different wing, beside Thomas Telford and Robert Stephenson.

This week’s potential future internees were all very much alive and kicking: first up was James Priestman, musing on the demons and better angels of a tennis pro, swiftly followed by Owen Gallagher’s memories of a family holiday at Loch Ness that almost got him onto Blue Peter. John Hurley was quite washed away by the power of the ocean, while Daphne Gloag was enjoying a mixed bean soup with an extra dash of universe. Martin Choules was showing sympathy for a thought-criminal, and Olwyn Grimshaw was determined to be well-dressed as she weathered her monster hangover. Finally, the sun in splendour, and other aspects, was gleaming in Alan Chambers’ eye.

The Pitshanger archives recall one evening in 1982 when the thoroughly anti-establishment Dylan Thomas was being officially remembered thirty years after has boozy death. Ted Hughes, (himself to be snagged in 2011), was vehemently against it – he thought that although Dylan was somewhat religious, he was thoroughly low church and not one for incense and hallelujahs. Conversely, Seamus Heaney thought it beautifully showed the Bard of Swansea having the final laugh at anyone who took him that seriously. Oddly enough, Philip Larkin himself was also present, but remained silent, and on his deathbed three years later he insisted that his diaries be destroyed unread, so it looks like we’ll never know how he would regard this latest honour. Maybe, just to be sure, they should use the slab to bury a pair of bicycle clips and an Irish sixpence.

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Workshop, 11th August 2015

August is always a quiet time in the Archives. We do not get as many members of the public wander in off the street with a question about the demise of the rondeau in verse or of the historical use of the verb to wend. It affords us an opportunity to catch up on our filing and dust the cobwebs of their old fly carcasses. Similarly, the weekly Pitshanger workshops are generally more select, laid-back affairs, where the smaller attendance allows for a longer discussion, and there is time to traverse a tangent or two.

The reason for the drop in numbers is, of course, that poets need regular holidays to stimulate their senses and shake off the smoke. ‘Twas ever thus, from the extended sojourns of Byron and Shelley to the heritage tours of Betjeman and Larkin, (one by train the other by bicycle). Of course, in Ealing’s less-suburban past, it was itself an out-of-town destination whereby a metropolitan wordsmith could reconvene with the muse. Indeed, Sir John Soane bought Pitzhanger Manor precisely to be a weekend cottage in which to throw parties and pretend to be a country squire.

This week’s bijou gathering was no less lively for its compactness. Daphne Gloag led proceedings with a philosophical discussion with a bee that resulted in a stinging rebuke, while John Hurley faced a one-sided conversation with a door-to-door missionary that interrupted his lunchtime salad. Martin Choules was pondering the fates of ancient tribes, both human and mollusc, while James Priestman saw parallels between a saviour and a victim of abuse, and the importance of the willing ear of a quiet gardener. Memories of a mother through the eyes of a former child were on Christine Shirley’s mind’s eye, while Owen Gallagher has mused on the importance of shoes or the lack of them in an Ireland not so long ago.

William Blake would relish any opportunity to desert the squalor of Pandemonium for Ealing Green, but his arrival wasn’t always warmly greeted by the regulars. The Archives tell of his tendency to boast of his other travels, and to subject the workshop to a magic lantern show of his holiday illustrations: “This”, he would drone, “is an image of the tiger in the king’s menagerie. Alas, it preferred to remain hidden in the deep shadow of a bush, but you can just see the tip of its nose reflecting the sun. Oh, and this one is of the robin redbreast in a cage that throws all Heaven in a rage. Now moving on, these next few dozen are all of the various English pleasant pastures where certain feet may once have walked.”

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Workshop, 4th August 2015

You know there’s nothing sets one up for a night of poetry quite so well as a plate of well-prepared pasta, whether that be a capelini lying in strict formation with a battalion of asparagus spears, a school of fusilli bucati bobbing around in a mushroom sauce, a mafaldine sporting with a colony of disinterested vongole or a plain old conchiglioni puddled with an adequacy of common-or-garden tomato roux. Not that I am claiming any special expertise in these things, simply that I am a regular at the delightful ‘Poet’s Corner’ that is Piccolo Piccolo on Ealing Green, a restaurant that has given sustenance and succour to many a Pitshanger Poet before or after Workshops Many and Various, and one knows what one likes.

One of the many things one knows one likes is a lively poetry Workshop and on Tuesday night we had six veterans of the contemplative arts cooking with gas on all four hobs. John Hurley exposed us to the windmills in his mind through a sleepless night. Alan Chambers brought back his words to a late personal friend and artist, Michael Snow. Peter Francis gave us a by turns romantic and raunchy birthday tribute to his wife. Owen Gallagher has been listening to whispered contraband on the form of Irish words in Donegal.   Martin Choules has been thinking about Purbeck marble, the Jurassic Coast and snails. Finally, Nick Barth told us a touching, deeply personal story that he claims to have just made up.

Quite whether it is advisable to attend a serious Poetry Workshop following an extended period snuffling in the trough and draining the dregs of a 2001 Colpetrone Sagrantino di Montefalcois quite another matter, and in the past a simple football rattle was always on hand to ‘wake the sleeping who take their waking slow’. Signore Perciatelli the proprietor of the Piccolo Piccolo is proud of his collection of framed eight-by-tens which adhere to the walls of the establishment like so much Guanciale. Each one features a moodily-lit poet photographed from their best side, a signature and a dedication, though whether some of the comments would exactly edify the proud proprietario should he find them on-line at Foursquare or Yelp is another question. If you have never had the chance to enjoy the star-studded atmos of this establishment, never fear; the last time I was there I did some discreet perusing and was able to hoover up a few inscriptions on your behalf: –

“If music be the food of love, your stereo system needs a visit from Ealing Council Hygiene Department” scribbled a less than romantic Kingsley Amis. “Please inform your Maitre’ D, When I drop four cubes of ice chimingly in a glass I expect at least three goes of gin!” thundered a less than gruntled and presumably overly-sober Philip Larkin. “O what a glorious sight, warm-reekin’, rich!” applauded a charmed Norman MacCaig. Ted Hughes was clearly daunted by the Spaghetti Carbonara; “A poundage of lard and pork? It weighed as much as three men!” he complained. William Carlos Williams, on a rare trip to London evidently enjoyed the Prugna Tatin; a terse comment sufficed; “Nice plums!”

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Tiger-Hawker by Martin Choules

Zigger-buzzing, flitter-flying,
To and fro and fro and to –
A dragonfly is zagging-by,
His body shiny-new.
Ready for the slaughter,
With his goggles on and paint-job dry –
For three years, underwater,
He has somehow learned to fly.

A fighter jet, a microlight,
With wings of cellophane –
Drunk yet nimble in his flight,
He circles round, and round again.
A regal blur, a day-glow streak,
Who never rests from his deploy –
But when he does, he’s plastic-sleek:
This summer’s latest toy.

I meet him, though, in hot July,
Some distance from the river bank.
So jealous in his patch of sky,
He watches for a rival’s flank –
But they won’t come, and neither will
The ladies that he’s longing for.
So here he is, patrolling still:
A soldier who’s misplaced his war

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Workshop, 28th July 2015

The builders have been in the Archive again, knocking down the old retaining walls to make way for Phase II of our expansion project: to burrow beneath Walpole Park and erect great caverns measureless to man, wherein shall be stored all human knowledge, as long as it relates to poetry, written in English, since Shakespeare, of no longer than forty lines. Just as Kew Gardens has its Millennium Seed Bank, so shall we have our Billennium nursery to raise sapling cut from the Tree of Knowledge, ready to repopulate the Earth in the event of an apocalyptic catastrophe with snippets of verse, couplets to reseed the barren literary waste lands of the future once our daily communication is reduced to tweets and grunts.

Over at the Questors Theatre, the weekly workshop took place away from such bustle. Gerry Goddin strummed us in with his song about the brief affairs of a poetess while she seeks inspiration from the greats, followed by John Hurley giving a remix to an earlier work to tease out more of the story. Olwyn Grimshaw presented us with her answer to a challenge to make quarks poetical in their strange charm, and a welcome return by Helen Baker gave us a train journey complete with token sheep that was less Portillo and more Mississippi. Martin Choules has been watching dragonflies, which can sometimes turn up in the wrong places, and finally Alan Chambers has been musing on Alexander Nevsky and his famous battle on the ice, though he hasn’t brought any flowers.

Inevitably in a project like ours there are the knockers who refuse to give us the necessary grants or permits. Even Crossrail were sadly unwilling to spare us an afternoon with one of their tunnel-boring machines. So, now that we have taken down the Archives underpinnings, we must eagerly and frustratingly wait for the funds to continue. Meanwhile, in our recently-opened Theophilus Marzials Wing the shelves are already filling up with newly pressed gramophone recordings of recitations by the poets of today, carefully recorded at readings and presentations using our new state-of-the-art portable vinyl-cutting machine. The playback can be a little tiring as one tries to crank the handle at a constant 78 rpm, but it becomes easier if one prefers their poets to speak with a slower, deeper voice.

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Workshop, 21st July 2015

A wend through the Pitshanger Archives can turn up some illuminating gossip.  We are currently re-categorising our 18th Century wing, sorting our Swifts from our Southeys and prying out Matthew Prior from Alexander Pope.  We also are auditing the many other distinguished visits we were graced by, such as the one in 1786 featuring the hottest power couple in the South Chilterns: William and Charlotte Herschel.

They had sprung to fame five years earlier with their discovery of Georgium Sidas, even if losing the PR war to the every schoolboy’s favourite, Uranus.  They were still living in the backwaters of Bath at the time, but their newfound fame soon saw them moving to the bright lights of Slough.

Slough, of course, has only one entry in the public’s poetic conscious, and it is most definitely as the butt of the bomb.  However, back in the 18th century it was but a quiet market town in the tail-end of Bucks.  It is also a mere half-day’s carriage-ride up the turnpike from Ealing, and so the Herschels soon became regulars.  “Willi” would boast of how he had the biggest telescope in the Empire in his back garden, and Charlotte loved to pass around her homemade strüdel.

Two centuries later and two planets further out, this week’s workshop was less Hello and more People’s Friend.  Peter Francis was first to muse, purring his meditations on kitty-hood, followed by Anne Furneaux’s ruminations on failing memory and cyber-veg.  Martin Choules was having no truck with these ‘Pluto is a planet’-ers, but still found plenty to marvel at, while Olwyn Grimshaw brought us her translation from the German of a charming moonlit night, complete with blossoms shimmering, and conjurers and unexpected pigeons were on the mind of Daphne Gloag.  Finally, the welcome return of James Priestman brought us an awkward moment that must be faced by many Biblical characters.

Of course, the Greek gods were no exception to extraordinary behaviour, and Pluto got up to his share of “hijinx”, which probably explains why he was banished so far away.  The Archives also reveal that not everyone was thrilled and starry-eyed by their Herschels’ presence.  Hymn-smith William Cowper complained that they had wrecked God’s perfect creation, while William Blake claimed that since this new-fangled planet could only be seen with a telescope, the whole affair was clearly a conspiracy that had never even occurred.

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