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 29th September 2015

Once again this evening’s workshop reminded me of the power of the spoken word. However much or little time we spend in front of the blank forbidding screen, shunting words around like naughty trucks on the island of Sodor, we cannot forget that poetry is, as Nicholas Parsons would have it, a spoken medium. There comes a point in every poem’s life when it needs to be spoken aloud, either in the calm, welcoming and reverential surroundings of the Library at Questor’s Theatre or in the hustle and bustle of the concourse of a major London Railway Terminus, which was how I chose to debut all my latest work to My Public right up until Network Rail issued the exclusion order. I still remember the rapturous reception for my 3-act verse play British Railway Ham Sandwich which I delivered to an animated crowd of commuters at 8:30 one wet Wednesday morning. That it was necessary to be taken to Paddington Green in a black moriah ‘for my own protection’ is an opinion I will never be able to share with the detirmined officer of the British Transport Police, but I am certain that he sincerely believed he was doing his duty.

Happily, Ealing’s Finest were not needed at tonight’s workshop being, by and large, a law-abiding affair. Nick Barth got things going with an enigmatic recollection of a Scouse central heating engineer. Alan Chambers has been sitting in a walled garden, wondering what happened to the hush of old. James Priestman reinterpreted the story of Hosea for an audience that believes in love. Peter Francis returned to the subject of his father in a piece full of Pre-Raphaelite imagery. Louise Nicholas brought us a beautifully-crafted response to Browning’s My Last Duchess. Gillian Spragg has been having problems with her printer (no, really). Finally Christine Shirley brought back her poem wishing a sea traveller well.

The life of a poet throws up many dilemmas, but perhaps the most significant poser is whether to hop up on to the soap-box and give voice to one’s own oeuvre or to employ the well-rested tones of one of this country’s army of professional thespians. This quandary is excellently demonstrated on a weekly basis by BBC Radio 4’s own vehicle Poetry Please, often prefixed chez moi with a firm No and a mad rush for the Off Switch which risks furniture and objets d’art alike.

A fact that often surprises the unwary pedestrian is that Poetry Please began life in 1962 when a disconsolate Al Alvarez bumped into a solitary Kenneth Williams at the Pitshanger Poets Workshop one Tuesday evening. Alvarez had been attempting to interest the BBC in a radio programme to launch his to-be-seminal book The New Poets, but the BBC Head of Spoken Word, Poetry and Camp Fire Sing-Alongs had inisted on a big-name attraction before lighting the green signal lamp. Williams enthusiastically agreed to get on board with the project on condition that he could do all the voices himself in appropriate regional accents and/or characterful stylings. Recordings of the darkly hilarious broadcast are notoriously difficult to get hold of, amateur tapings having been sought out and systematically destroyed over a period of years by the poets themselves. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 22nd September 2015

I have never known a poet to react well to the idea of poetry as homework. While the occasional Pitshanger Poet will haul on the hair shirt, cast off their worldly entrapments and climb the holy mountain to spend a day or two in the humbling, spartan surroundings of a British Country House Hotel with or without spa facilities and noted restaurant, in order simply to kneel at the feet of a poetry guru and enjoy one or more mildly insulting poetry exercises such as writing on a theme or being inspired by a famous painting, few return smiling and whistling show tunes as a result of the experience.

However, one must remember that poets are very like cats, in that they are contrary by nature. If you ask one not to sleep on your cashmere cardigan, that is precisely the place they will choose (the cat, that is) while if you ask them not to jump up on to the dining table and bat the food from your plate, that is exactly what they will insist on doing at every opportunity. I have it on on good authority that this the reason Walter De La Mare had such trouble reserving a table in the West End for so many years.

It is therefore fascinating to be in the chair at a Workshop when one or more themes fortuitously break out, as if we had requested for poems on a theme, we would have got anything but. Marilyn Keenan gave us a compelling piece on the subject of loss, against the backdrop of the sea. Olwyn Grimshaw went her own way and described the person she sees in the mirror, insisting it is not her. Daphne Gloag took up the theme of Time, specifically speaking in the persona of Now. Gillian Spragg remembers being the only person in a crowd waiting at a bus stop to see dawn appear one winter morning. Martin Choules picked up on a topical theme – that of singing or not singing the National Anthem, by creating his own brutally honest one for the United Kingdom. Nick Barth then coincidentally barged in on two themes, with mention both of time and bus stops in his poem. Christine Shirley picked up on Marylin Keenan’s theme of the sea and loss in her piece. Owen Gallagher went his own way, insisting that he saw the Loch Ness Monster when he was a child and his father was midway through a craze for cryptozoology. Finally James Priestman brought back a poem imagining a biblical couple struggling through a snowy winter.

I am given to understand that in the fast-paced, zeitgeisty world of the World Wide WonderWeb there is a concept termed the ‘Fascist Point’. This is the place in any ‘below the line’ Internet discussion where one commenter comments on another commenter with the accusation that the first commenter (are you following me?) is a fascist. It is said that the more controversial or incendiary the subject matter of the article above the line (gay marriage, patriotism, Jamie Oliver), the sooner the Fascist Point is reached below it. At Pitshanger Poets we have an alternative to this we like to call the ‘Marcel Duchamp Point’ and it is the reason that basing a poetry workshop on a theme or painting is such a dangerous idea, for nothing leaves its stamp on a man so much as being in an enclosed space with a group of poets ‘kicking off’ on the subject of whether something can be considered art just because it is labelled such. You might think it ironic that doyens of such a loose and potentially abstract art form as poetry would get so excitable about urinals in art galleries, but fortunately I am an expert in the International Hand Signal for ‘take it to the bar, you two’ and the room typically returns to an emphatic calm within a few moments. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 15th September 2015

Those of you who with baited mice await the weekly publication of this blog will recall that we have already touched on the transformation that has been occurring at Walpole Park, Sir John Soane’s own private Idaho. This week as I was tootling along Mattock Lane on my way to The Questor’s Theatre in the old two-seater I could not help but detect an autumnal bite behind the heady cocktail of oil, exhaust and unburnt petrol the old trap produces. I felt the revived park was long overdue a recce and, realising I had plenty of time in hand, I hove to and nipped in for a stroll.

I like to think that Ealing Council have done their best to return an authentic early 19th Century milieu to the various vistas and fixtures in the park. I also like to think that our Council Tax is outstanding value for money, that the Council has our best interests at heart and that the sun will shine tomorrow. Some people call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, as evidenced by the number of them who threatened to run me down on their havering bicycles. I took evasive action and strolled in an easterly tacking fashion up to the house, whereupon swivelling on the heel, screwing up the eyes and whistling a solitary air one can almost imagine the view Sir John would have enjoyed through the ballroom windows as he hosted another Pitshanger Poets Audition session.

People often ask me how one joins the Pitshanger Poets and the answer is delightfully simple to relate; write a poem, print out some copies and turn up.   Doing just that at tonight’s Workshop, Louise Nichols brought us a short-list of her favourite things. She and Owen Gallagher do appear to be conducting their own pre-workshop workshop, and Louise arrived with two versions of the same poem. There is such a thing as being too diligent. Following Louise, Martin Choules brought us two tightly-written stanzas about bees and the morality of stealing their honey. Peter Francis brought us a hugely entertaining, if sombre poem about the death of his father. Christine Shirley has been writing poems on postcards which is not strictly in the rules but we are open to more or less anything and enjoyed her reading of ‘Horizons’. James Priestman brought us a poem that was not shaped like a poem concerning a conversation between Neil Armstrong and a Wise Man about stars – it’s the kind of thing which generates a great deal of excitement at a PP Workshop. Owen Gallagher brought back a piece imagining his own glorious funeral. Gillian Spragg gave us a powerful piece inspired by a boy found on a beach. Finally, Nick Barth took us through the construction of a library.

Despite what the alarmists at the Times Literary Supplement would have us believe we live in civilised times, and the renowned institution that is the Pitshanger Poets reflects that. We are a million miles from the dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost cut and thrust of the epoch of the Romantic Poets. Some of these ruffians would steal the simile from your back and be off with your best metaphors before you could say knife, pausing only to thumb their noses at you before dashing off to plagiarise your work in a popular volume and dropping dead of consumption.

Such was the rapscallion reputation of the typical romantic poet that Sir John Soane was forced to introduce an audition procedure in order to filter out the rougher elements. As a result the candidate poet was asked to read from their own work (marks were awarded for tremulousness), write a stanza or two (marks were deducted for legibility) and relate a tragic episode from their own life (marks were awarded for possessing an physical deformity, accidentally marrying a sibling or dying at an early age). William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were a shoo in under this procedure. Keats was honoured to receive membership of Pitshanger Poets following his own death, while Samuel Taylor Coleridge only officially became a member of the PP once he had passed on the business address of his laudanum merchant.

As I say, it is so much simpler to join the Pitshanger Poets these days – we do hope to see you next Tuesday. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 8th September 2015

Once again I launch into my Blog with a bit of an apology. By now you would normally be ruminating on another thought-provoking piece, preparing some mildly scatological response and wondering why one of the more middle-class tabloids have not snapped me up for a regular column on the woeful state of Eng Lit Ed in the good old UK of GB and NI. Instead you are likely staring at the side of a cornflakes box and wondering who invented all the vitamins or why there are E numbers but no F numbers. The fact is that the 128k of RAM in the PP Apple Macintosh has remained untroubled by this author as he has been busy with local events.

The fact is that poetry has become a hot topic in Ealing over the last few weeks. We have been hastily thinking up rhymes for the Freedom, Rights and Democracy-themed Ealing Autumn Festival Poetry Comp, and its byline ‘What does Magna Carta mean to you? Did she die in vain?’ We have also been invited to the Wednesday night Open Mike (a phrase which held a completely different meaning in the days of public dissection) slot at the Star and Anchor pub on the Uxbridge Road, the planning of which event occupied all my time yesterday. I always find the selection of work from my own canon somewhat arduous.  Should I take my 168-stanza epic ballad describing a battle with the Guildford one-way system on a wet Saturday afternoon? My ‘Lives of the Apostles’ Limerick collection? I had hoped to ready my verse-play adaptation of ‘The Battle of The Bulge’ but I am the first to admit it could do with a fettle. Finally, my Haiku sequence based on the Dulux Colour Chart; ‘Paint. Drying’ always goes down well. In the end I took them all and read until the rain of beer bottles became too much to bear.

We could never describe the Pitshanger Poets weekly workshop as an Open Mike session, thought a nod to public performance is a key component of a good sesh. Peter Francis kicked off with a mysterious piece as erotic as it was religious. Alan Chambers then gave us a poem which gave the distinct impression that we should not to get too comfortable following Sunday lunch. Daphne Gloag mused on the beginning of time and whether it is worth musing on. Owen Gallagher described the experience of being the one little-red-book lugging Maoist in the Clydesdale shipyards. Nick Barth has been to St Ives and wonders whether it is possible to capture the famous light in a small electronic box. Louise Nicholas brought us a beautifully compressed work about the dog and its attraction to the daylight moon. James Priestman prodigal-sonned a return to the PP workshop with a wry exploration of Leviticus. Christine Shirley brought us a bit of a Victorian Epic on the knotty subject of town planning. Finally Martin Choules has been watching for the flood of acorns that an imminent Autumn threatens.

My early experience with Open Mike sessions was based on many evenings enjoying the verbal entertainment of John Hegley and so, filled with curiosity I fired up the Pitshanger Poets Ferranti Pegasus for an automated sift through his oevre, which task took a little more work than usual as the Circumlocution Dump Valve needed re-seating. However, A mere 16 hours later I was astounded when the following pithy report dropped out of the printer:

A master of the four-line form is John Hegley
A People’s Laureate, never known to be negli-
Gent. But as my analysis reveals; who knew?
He never favoured the Clerihew.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 1st September 2015

I have always thought of myself as a strong-willed sort of cove, a Chap Who Knows His Own Mind, an individual unlikely to be swayed by the nudges and psychological mind games of today’s super-connected society. I welcome humanity with a sunny disp. and fail to see why I should be drawn in by the cloud of paranoia and scepticism that surrounds so much of the international business world, a point I made clear to the charming official from the Bank of Nigeria who contacted me last week concerning the locked funds belonging to a deceased relative, a person of whom I was previously completely unaware. As I told him, if an honest fellow from Mumbai takes the trouble to look up my phone number for the sole purpose of alerting me that nefarious characters can see through my windows and steal my passwords, why would I not believe him?

Trust in the honesty of our fellow poets was to the fore in tonight’s workshop. Louise Nicholas brought us a labour of love concerning the hair and hair pins of her mother. Daphne Gloag reworked her ‘spilt milk’ poem of last week, and the group sincerely encouraged her to return to the vivdness of the original, demonstrating the value of the group. Owen Gallagher clearly prefers the honesty of a Public Library that’s not just about to close its doors. Alan Chambers has been to a country dance in Cornwall and observed what is being communicated in the eyes of the farmers and their daughters. Nick Barth has written the poem he admits he should have written last week. John Hurley brought us a piece about his grand daughter that he thinks might be just a little too honest. Christine Shirley read us a new piece conjuring the sea.  Finally, Martin Choules is keen to enter the Ealing Autumn competition with another piece following the theme of the Magna Carta and we wish him the best of luck.

As a Renaissance Man I emphatically do believe in the power of science to divine the truth from the previously inscrutable or at the very least confusing. To explain; I have been reading about nominative determinism, the idea that psychology can induce the human mind to be ‘nudged’ by exterior or merely random influences, in this case, their own names. The Data Scientist Boffins that wrote this piece have performed some dashed clever hard sums and believe that, for example, there is a higher than random incidence of the name ‘Dennis’ occurring among people who choose to become dentists, that more lawyers are called ‘Larry’ than would be expected by mere chance.

Filled with inspiration by this idea I fired up the Pitshanger Manor Ferranti Pegasus MK1 (which five ton behemoth was installed by accident in the basement due to a clerical error in 1955) and loaded the PP Poetry Archive Statics Database into the hopper, the data for which I had my man consign to punched cards as a punishment for losing some rather nice collar-studs a few years ago. The machine cranked into life, the lights dimmed and the Nominative Determinism programme was squirted through the cheerily glowing valves.

At last the computer’s fizzing processes were concluded and the streetlights came back on in West London.  A green indicator shone from the console and the ancient golf-ball printer screeched into life. I was astounded when on the archaic continuous lined paper spilled the following:-

Swinburne did indeed support the strenuous sestina,
With Auden an ode is not unknown,
While George Szirtes gravitates towards the tertza rima,
The seeds of Spenser’s passions were in his sonnets sown.
While Gerald Manley Hopkins’ hopping sprung rhythm is statistically more than happenstance.
A knowing Alexander Pope with the alexandrine led us a merry dance,
Finally, William McGonagall,
As all sensible men agree,
Had he been anything more than a fictional poet invented by Thomas Hardy
In 1893,
Definitely dug doggerel.

I do hate a cocky computer, don’t you? If you have been, thank you for reading.

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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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