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, December 4th 2018

Judging by the long queues of fractious traffic leading towards the Broadway in Ealing, my fellow residents of the Queen of the Suburbs have been caught out by the inevitability of the calendar and have decided to treat December as a mad dash for the finishing line.  As you may be aware, many of Ealing’s denizens work in the film industry and habitually don the characteristic insulated puffer-vest of the movie set during colder weather.  I have never witnessed such rowdy scenes as of the last few weekends, with hundreds of such people sweeping up and down the Broadway, blocking the thoroughfares and causing distress to ordinary, law-abiding citizenry.  Such was the rowdiness of these ‘gilets gris’ that the council had to call in the Constabulary to enforce order.  It does seem hugely unlikely that such unsociable behaviour should be associated with something as innocuous as a gilet.  Only in Ealing, eh?

Whatever the chaos outside, the institution which is the PP Workshop continues to go from strength to strength.  Pat Francis deployed some Celtic philosophy in a short poem about inspiration.  Peter Francis seems to be getting his inspiration on the way to buy hardware, judging by this week’s observational poem.  John Hurley has been troubled by the ghosts of his own Christmases.  Anne Furneaux rounded off a tryptic of poems telling the story of a weekend on the south coast.  Christine Shirley brought us a poem and a drawing in one with a peon to snow.  Alan Chambers took us back to the sea, bringing us glimpses of fish and nets.  Finally, Nick Barth rounded off the evening with a white-out on a mountain that nevertheless required selfies.

My own approach is to amble into Christmas.  By June I have already decided upon the predominant colour scheme for my decorations.  By July the Christmas Card list is all but done, together with the appropriate order to send my messages out.  By August I have finalised the executive decision-making on gifts, leaving my Man to actually select and acquire the items.  By September I have chosen the music to be played on Christmas Day and in what order.  This leaves October and November for the menu, the final decisions on napkins and cracker novelties.  And what of December, I hear you ask?  I leave December for the most important decision of all, being the poem I will read to my guests after we take our places at the dining table, just prior to the commencement of eating and drinking.

Last year I delighted my guests with William McGonnegal’s ‘The Christmas Goose’.  Faithful readers will recall that the PP archives exposed the fact that McGonnegal was a fictional character conjured up as an outlet by that master of dark wit, Thomas Hardy.  I chose not to drop this bombshell on my guests until the end of my enervating performance, in order to enhance their enjoyment of this truly tedious, tiresome work.  So, what shall I read to my pals this year?  I suspect that Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Christmas Truce’ might be just the inspiration my guests need for a jolly evening of amusing conversation.  What do you think?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 27th November 2018

Poets these days are too full of care, indeed it seems they have no time to stand at stare.  And the poetry they produce is all so serious, as if their verses could actually change the world.  Silly romantic fools, the best a poet can hope for is to knock out a memorable couplet that can be endlessly misquoted until it becomes a cliche – after all, a groan is still a reaction.  Whatever happened to light verse ?, the easy-listening to free-verse’s jazz.  It’s easy to look down upon the Spike Milligans and Pam Ayreses as somehow lesser, but ask your average denizen of the Clapham omnibus to quote a post-war poem, and…well, actually they probably would just insist they had no change on them and avoid eye-contact, but nevertheless the irregardless.

Naturally, a couple of stacks in the Archive’s new Theosophy Marzials Wing are given over to verse so light that the interns nickname the section laughing gas.  Presumably this is not a reference pulling teeth or the oft-noted hilarity of reciting Ruddy Kipling’s If on helium.  Perhaps they instead are commenting on how its contents are no longer employed by the medical profession, replaced by the altogether more serious syringe.

This week’s Workshop was also imbued with a little more gravitas that usual, starting with Pat Francis’ looking up at the stars and remembering her brother, and husband Peter Francis telling of a lonely spinster, victim of one war, passing on her skills to the be-widowed of the next.  John Hurley meanwhile has been up with the lark to observe the Autumn colours and listen to the heartbeat of the motorway, while Owen Gallagher has been tuning his ear to the Scots dialect on his boyhood paper round.  For Anne Furneaux, the muse struck at a previous week’s Workshop, though inspiration proved illusive, while Daphne Gloag has been thinking of the poor victims of a sculptors zeal to show stampeding, cheerful horses.  Alan Chambers has been celebrating lovers of a more abstract nature in his piece, full of vanquished thighs across the wires, leading to a mindful Martin Choules musing on the poor poetry orphans who are only remembered as a line or two.

The debate of how much weight a poem should bear is a long one no more settled in Sir John’s day as now.  Will Wordsworth was all about the serious, while young Johnny Keats was more given to whimsy, and Leigh Hunt was a light as a cloud.  The strangest one to fathom, though, was Bill Blake – were his visions to be taken seriously, or mere Xanadu-like raptures of reverie ?  Each week the other Workshop attendees were at a loss as to how to listen to his latest lyric – as highbrow hyperbole or polemical parody ?  Their usual response was a sage nod and chin stroke and mutters of it being “powerful” and “delightful” and various other adjectives without committing to any nouns.

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Workshop, 20th November 2018

There are few things more annoying to a precise and organised archivist than an unshelved volume, a gap in the teeth of otherwise identical tomes, a row of likewise leather and regulation tooling, with only the Roman numeral to distinguish one from its neighbours, but with one of them missing !  It is of course unavoidable if regrettable that these books will from time to time have be taken down from their native land to be read, but should never be travelled more then a dozen paces beyond to one of the reading desks, whence the tutting librarian can harvest them back home once the barely tolerated public are ushered out of the bibliarium a full ten minutes before the official closing time.  (And Lord alone knows how lending librarians are able to cope).

But, the wily reader may be voicing, how does this affect the organiser of poetry’s slim volumes, whose receptacles are less bricks and more slates to be slid passed one another.  Surely a missing volume would be unnoticed, so narrow is its spine ?  Indeed, these booklets cannot even stand themselves up without leaning upon their neighbours (and there’s a metaphor for poetry that has inexplicably gone begging).  But the experienced book-keeper knows the precise volume of each volume, and can spot a short measure down to the millimetre.  And woe betide the desecrating reader who has purloined so much as a pamphlet to use as a makeshift fan or to even up a wobbly reading desk…

This week’s Workshop also took place in a library, this one full of scripts as befits a theatre like the Questors, and under their dramatic gaze Alan Chambers opened proceedings with a redraft of expressions of a expressionist painting, handing over to Daphne Gloag also fine tuning a previous work concerning a petrified lion frozen in a frieze.  Revisions were also being revived as Anne Furneaux looked upon the Mediterranean three times and with a painter’s eye and a storyteller’s ear, and Christine Shirley has been revisiting her imagined grandparents as she went walking back over her walking back, and Owen Gallagher has been tinkering with his working man’s prayer that is no closer to receiving an answer.  There then followed brand new words from Doig Simmonds about seeing ghosts in the mist from the salty sea-spray, and John  Hurley has been hitting a wall when trying to deal with committees, while it is the futility of the stars that has been keeping Peter Francis in their cruel gaze.  Pat Francis has been facing up to the tanks of old age and Michael Harris has felt the longing at the passing of a playwright, while Martin Choules has been having a quite word with America, one old empire to the new kid in town.

Sir John kept a modest library in Pitzhanger Manor from which his guests were wont to borrow books for a week or fifty when penning a particularly obscure ode to some ancient Greek tragic  muse who appears in one line of an obscure one-act farce of Euripides, or to check the spelling of ‘tiger’ in his Doctor Johnson (and then to reject the finding anyway as too modern and Frenchified).  Sir John kept a tally of who had taken what, which makles for interesting reading: “Geo Byron, still has not returned my ‘Trickster of Seville’ – says he intends to write a short Verse or two about its central Character, Don John.  He thinks it should only take him half an hour, if he ever gets round to it.”  In another entry we find “Had to rebuke Wm Wordsworth for once again my first Folio of the Bard for pressing Daffodils in.”  But most telling is the note about Oddfellow’s British Birds and the Hedges they Frequent:   “Pcy Shelley came in wanting my Oddfellow, determined to write an Ode to a Skylark – had Jn Keats in complaining that he needs to look up the Chapter on Nightingales.  Also Wm Blake, who says he has caught the Bug and wants a crack at the Seagull, tho he may be referring to his recent belt of Ague and seeking revenge on the one who delivered it to him.  Alas they must all wait until I receive it sent back from Overseas and young master Poe who though only a small boy has an unusual Obsession with the Corvids.”

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Workshop, 13th November 2018

The Great War was a watershed moment for poetry, when the censorship governing the polemic of prose was waived away for the protest of poesy.  Perhaps the great and good thought that it was safe enough since nobody pays any attention to the self-obsessed diarising of dandies and waifs.  Surely these verses would have such a short shelf-life that they shall not grow old.  It was also a time for protest speech to grow up, to leave the sniping satire and mirthless moralising of old, and to embrace the gallows-humour of the absurd made all-too-real.

The Workshop this week celebrated the 100 years since the Armistice by enjoying the peacetime freedom that allows us to remember in our owns ways at our own times.  Peter Francis was first over the top with an epic of vinegar vignettes of the many little tragedies, every bit as bitter as was called for.  But Pat Francis broke ranks to listen to the birdsong of three types of in-between fowls, the third of which was us.  Daphne Gloag has been keeping morale up by speaking a song of nature’s exhuberance (featuring birds again), while Anne Furneaux has been patrolling the cliffs of the Channel listening out for any gossip coming in with the tide.  An overnight epiphany of peace has fallen over Michael Harris, as a silent night gives rise to his own heartsongs – and likewise coming out of his shell was Martin Choules, surveying the amassed carcasses of shedding spiders to rival any battlefield.  Finally, the all-clear was sounded by an abstract Alan Chambers, looking deep into a painting and finding the free-forming Jazz Age to come.

Siegfried Sassoon had been a regular of a Tuesday night before hostilities, and was one of the fewer to return in the aftermath.  He would often forgo reading one of his own to instead introduce the group to a little known Wilfred Owen who he felt deserved a wider audience, and who tragically would never be able to attend himself.  But infact the name was not unknown to those Ealing residents who had the good fortune to be too old, or too lame, or too female to be called up.  It transpired that Lieutenant Owen had actually popped in the Spring of 1918 while waiting to be sent back to the Front, and whose first-hand reportage was all the more poignant for attempting to keep to a rank and file of regular rhyme and rhythm, only to find the whole thing falling apart as soon as it comes face to face with grim realities.  And then he was gone, becoming one of his own doomed youths.

But Ziggy Sassoon kept coming for years, even though most of the later pieces he brought could never live up to his war poems, fully aware that the monster had in the end brought him such life.  For him, the vibrant noise of the guns was drowned out as soon as everybody sang.

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Workshop, 6th November 2018

The completion of the restoration of Pitshanger Manor is almost upon us.  As with all building projects, the closing stages have dragged themselves out.  It’s not for me to impugn any contractors’ diligence or sense of urgency but it does seem to have taken the fellows working here an enormously long time to address the final details.  As you know, I am in the fortunate position to be able to walk the hallowed halls of the manor to keep an eye on progress, (as long as I scrupulously avoid bumping into the Project Manager again) and occasionally engage the skilled artisans in friendly conversation.  I asked them, in a deliberately non-hectoring tone, why things were taking quite so long.  They told me that many of the materials required for a restoration of this kind were hard to come by, which sounds only reasonable.  They told me work was held up while they located supplies of Georgian striped paint, Cyrillic pencils, left handed screwdrivers, glass hammers and bubbles for the spirit levels.  Indeed, on my last visit to the Manor the Foreman suggested that it might save them some time if I nipped out to collect an item from the local hardware store, and of course I readily agreed.  He gave me a piece of paper and told me to show it to the chap in brown overalls at the counter.  And so I did; the man at the shop looked at my piece of paper and immediately scuttled off, disappearing for quite a while.  When he eventually returned, I asked him whether he had located my item and he retorted that I had already received it and I should now leave with alacrity, although he did not use those words exactly.  Quite flummoxed, I asked to look at the piece of paper.  On it was written a long weight.  I returned empty handed to the clearly disappointed foreman who told me that the best way to get a long weight was to order it by carrier pigeon from Timbuctoo and would I like to oblige?  I took this as my cue to exit stage left and see if my man could make sense of the episode but when I told him what had happened, he suffered an uncontrollable snorting fit of some kind and had to be excused.  I will never understand working people.

Something I will always understand is a Pitshanger Poets Workshop.  It is perennially a charming of melange of verse and verbiage, and a Tuesday evening is incomplete without it.  John Hurley got things started in traditional John Hurley style, with a darkly amusing take on Halloween.  Owen Gallagher must have been aware of my plight with the contractors of the Manor bringing a poem calling for solidarity among working people.  Christine Shirley took us to a simpler time with her traditional prayer for good luck.  Alan Chambers writes about grace and the perfection of love.  Daphne Gloag seemed to pick up on the traditional vibe with her song-like poem exploring time.  Michael Harris has been self-examining his own self-examinations and noting his own lack of enthusiasm for underlying details.  Niall Cassidy used his poem to admit to having visited a poetry reading, quite at his own risk, and there were knowing nods at the tropes he revealed.  Martin Choules used an opportunity to write a war poem to point out how much better things are than they used to be, despite what we think we think.  Pat Francis also brought us a war poem, a poignant piece concerning the war dead who never make it to the casualty lists.  Peter Francis read us something we could only describe as an ant-love poem, a counter-weight to Alan’s we mused.  Finally, Nick Barth brought us a mildly-revised piece concerning the covenant between a mainframe computer and its programmers.

As you will have guessed, my man is not the most loquacious of fellows, which is both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand it’s nice to spend time with people who do not butt in all the time, on the other sometimes he can be inscrutable to the point of irritation.  He never did explain to me what he found so amusing about my last trip Pitshanger Manor and the Hardware Counter, instead the following day I found a copy of ‘A Fool’s Errand’, Dermot Healy’s last slim volume, mysteriously left on my bedside table.  Wheels within wheels, eh?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 30th October 2018

Halloween is a time for dark evenings and ghost stories around the hearth.  But we can attest here in the Archive that ghost poems just do not work – a regular meter plays havoc with any attempt to create some tension, while rhymes are no friend of the surprise revelation.  But the group has seen many an All Saints’ Eve in its time, and the ghosts of halloweens past continue to haunt the memory.

For, alas, there have been several attempts over the years to encourage a little masquerade spirit, but ‘dress as your favourite poet’ parties have always been a let-down:  Bald, beard, codpiece ?  Sigh, yet another Shakespeare.  Bald, glasses, library book ?  Put him with the other Larkins.  And for the ladies, crinoline, shawl and centre-parting could be either Dickenson or a Bronte with no way to tell them apart.  And the ‘come as your favourite character from a poem’ nights were no better: two giant shins with nothing on top ?  That’ll be Ozymandias again.  But what’s this character ?  It looks like a very good rendition of a sad, virginal bank teller ?  Is it perhaps J Alfred Prufrock ?  Oh, I see, you’re not actually wearing a costume.

At least this week’s workshop had no such dress-code, and even the apple tree in John Hurley’s opener was doing an Autumnal striptease, while Alan Chamber’s beggar is spending the Fall by dreaming of Spring (whether he wants to or not).  Christine Shirley has been taking a walk back in time to take tea with the ghosts of the past, while Daphne Gloag has been finding a modern rom-com in an ancient Greek myth.  For Anne Furneaux, breakfast is something to be lingered over, while Michael Harris thinks that the cosy relationship between church and state has been lingering on for too long.  Martin Choules has been busy keeping the natural in the super-natural, and Pat Francis has been keeping an eye on the twinkling granite – but can she believe what she sees ?  Peter Francis has been freely translating a well-known French song into his well-honed free verse, while a seasonal Doig Simmonds has been gently preparing for the grave without wanting to make a fuss.

Halloween was no threat to a carefree atheist like Bysshy Shelley, who would happily spend the haunted night in St Mary’s graveyard just to make a point.  Which would have been fine if he’d toddled off after the workshop wound down, and especially if Georgie Byron could then sneak up behind him with a sheet over his head, but it just wasn’t on when he would insist that the entire workshop take place amid the headstones.  In a foretaste of the famous Lake Geneva ghost-writing competition, he wanted all present to pen a story of gothic chills and subliminal sublime, with father of the house Willy Blake to judge the best.  In short, they all had to try and put the willies up Willy.

Georgie ‘Brian’ Byron went first with his creepy tale of a reanimated corpse of a once-fair Liverpool lass who now only stalks in Bootle and strikes at night.  Sammy Coleridge rattled off his latest fever-dream set at the battle of Waterloo, where a ‘booby man’ terrorised the camp washer-women in his lust for ‘pleasure domes’.  But the bays were taken by the ingénue Molly Wollstonecraft who, knowing the judge to be a keen animal lover, described a dark forbidding mansion where a young hero discovers such unspeakable horrors as a bird in a cage, a hungry dog at its master’s gate, and a wanton boy killing a fly.  It was indeed a terrible, twisted tale, witnessing such cynical cheating in one so young.

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The Dreamer – Alan Chambers

Who is the old woman
curled warmly into sleep?
Her dreams are the shadows
that gather in the street.
She wants no awakening
to this cold, dim day,
she is only the guide
through another way:

Where the paths are thorny,
where the rivers run deep,
where the sea is forever
and mountains steep,
where a castle towers high
on its smooth black rock,
where a key rusts slowly
in a broken lock.

Only a brave dreamer
can venture this land,
with a badge of truth
in a clear left hand.
A sinister dragon
waits below the crag
and the sea’s armed might
with its blind tides’ drag,

Beware of the song
that the dragon sings,
beware of the pedlar
and the Fisher King.
A courageous dreamer
may climb the rock,
to turn the key
and loose the lock,
then enter the castle
that has no end,
to meet himself,
to call him friend.

ALAN CHAMBERS

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