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, 12th October 2021

As anyone will tell you, I am no computer programmer.  Actually, by ‘anyone’ I am specifically referring to Parsonage, my personal right-hand nerd.  I am a hobbyist and have rarely built anything more complex than the odd life-saving flood control system for a struggling developing nation.  Indeed, I have fooled with Fortran, cobbled with COBOL, bandied the Boolean with BASIC, sought sense with C, pratted plurally with C Plus Plus, juggled with Java, skulked about with Java Script and procrastinated with Prolog.  I am even known to squirrel away with SQL although ANSI makes me antsy.  These days you are most likely to find me pithing about with Python (Monty) although my models make me morose.

Which geekery has me freely admitting that I have so far largely failed to get to grips with the programming language Ada, named for Ealing’s own Ada Lovelace.  Ada the programming language was largely developed for military applications and is a humourless, gritted-teeth construct rarely used outside the world of weapons control systems possessing terrifying count-down clocks with brightly-illuminated digits and a regular, strident ‘beep’ sound portending the imminent end of the world.  Of course, any of my readership who have found themselves in the position of having to halt the automated launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile targeted at Leningrad during a particularly dark day in the midst of the Cold War will know what I mean by ‘get to grips with’.  We have all been there, haven’t we?  Reprogramming a super-computer in the basement of a secret base with only the vaguest clue of the syntax, type structure and vocabulary one is working with. I cannot help feeling that the fictional spy, Bond, James Bond would have struggled with Ada’s highly structured object-orientation and that faced with a similar code-or-die situation would have failed to instantiate the safe escape procedure in time, and as a result, the nuclear petard would have been set free to begin Armageddon.

This week’s workshop was a pleasant amble and any petards launched were purely metaphorical.  Martin brought two poems, his first mulling over the impossibility of celebrating Halloween in Spring, even though October is Spring south of the Equator.  John Hurley is remembering and celebrating lost crafts, the Seannachies practice a craft perhaps more lost than most, earning their living from wandering from village to village telling stories and relating news.  Michael Harris brought us mysteries, in fact luminous mysteries which were mysteriously not part of the Catholic creed when he was growing up and then mysteriously entered it later.  How mysterious.  Nick Barth has been thinking about the things and the people we discard along the way.  Finally Martin was permitted to read another short poem, this one about the chill of autumn.

Ada the mathematician was, as any fule kno the only legitimate daughter of the utterly disreputable and ultimately transient Lord Byron.  Her Mother, wishing Ada to grow up as an independent woman wary of poets, romantics and other rakes and scoundrels made sure that her daughter was schooled in hard mathematics rather than pointy needlework or soft flower arranging.  Ada in her turn established her reputation as Lady Lovelace, friend and colleague of the cantankerous Charles Babbage and a computer pioneer in her own right.  I am sure that you don’t need to be reminded that the 12th of October is officially Ada Lovelace day.  It is celebrated across the borough in a variety of community computer-based activities.  In years gone by Ealing’s lampposts would be strung with lengths of coloured computer tape and schoolchildren would be given stacks of punch-cards and a bradawl and sent off to develop their own algorithms.  These days my guess is that kids will get their start in coding with some gew-gaw of a routine along these lines:

10 PRINT “Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life”;

20 GOTO 10

Which, as Ada herself would be able to surmise will then print that phrase indefinitely, or at least until the escape key is stabbed.  However, this should not be confused with a computer actually writing poetry.  Even the Ferranti Pegasus struggles to turn out anything truly readable; it’s obsessed with trochees and its line endings are poor.  Yet perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the age of Artificial Intelligence, when computers can truly manipulate words with the adroitness and delicacy of the finest romantic writers.

Now, we know that while Babbage and Lovelace managed to create a machine close to something we would recognise as a computer, their efforts were ultimately stymied by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen.  The British Empire arrived at an inflection point in the 1840’s when it could have initiated an Information Revolution to follow the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions it was already occupied with.  The investment required of the state would have been eye-watering, but with it, Babbage and Lovelace, given sufficient time, engineers, gearwheels, steam engines and stocks of coal and water could have created an information engine with the ability to manipulate words with the adroitness and delicacy of the finest romantic writers.  In fact, I suspect, one specific romantic writer.  Could Ada Lovelace’s vaunting ambition have succeeded in creating a morally perfect, powerful machine which could out-write her utterly disreputable and ultimately transient father?  Was that the idea all along?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Parish Priests by Michael Harris

At the weekly meeting
of the Parish Priests
of the diocese of Ealing

the Fathers discussed
the rhythm method –
the minus, the plus.

Only one or two knew
the full in’s and out’s
of the delicate issue.

Father John withdrew
early, prematurely,
without giving his view –

it’s known that rhythm
is no stranger, even
second nature, to him.

The debate frustrated
Father Owen, the poet –
he though it a waste

of their precious time
to be talking rhythm
instead of talking rhyme.

Father Peter nodded
in agreement – he
thought it all a cod.

Father Doig, seasoned,
made a case for feeling
to counteract reason.

One way or another,
Father Niall, the curate,
wasn’t too bothered.

Father Alan sighed
and raised the brow
over his left eye.

Daphne, Pat and Anne,
the Sisters in attendance,
lent a balanced hand.

Father Nick in the chair
handled proceedings
with his usual flair

and, if you’re inclined,
you’ll find Father Martin’s
reflections online.

© Michael Harris – March 2018

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Workshop, 5th October 2021

In our modern, climate-dyslexic age it is tempting to think of seasons as being a little bit last decade. Spring, who needs it?  It’s an early go at summer most years.  Summer itself has become a sultry Spring and is quite happy to rain like April used to rain, while October hangs on to Summer weather long after the nights have started drawing in, leaving Winter to do its thing, except when it doesn’t and mid-December feels like June.  Which meanderings are by way of saying that it is still a pleasant trip down the mount towards Mattock Lane and the gradually filling rooms and foyers of the Questor’s Theatre on a Tuesday evening, even in October, and I Commend It To The House.  Dusk is starting to feel quite autumnal, a reminder, if one were needed, that Autumn is officially poetry’s second-favourite season.

I cannot quite put my finger on which poet was responsible for putting Autumn where it is on the Seasonal Hit Parade.  John Clare returned to autumn on more than one occasion, though he does seem to be overly-obsessed with leaves.  Shakespeare produced a reasonable Sonnet (73, ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’), although he also finds himself falling back on leaves and crafting a groanful pun with them in the final couplet.  All these leaves and not a Wellington Boot yet invented!  I came across a neat little Robert Louis Stevenson three-verser which demonstrates that the word ‘fall’ was common currency for Autumn in these islands not so long ago.  I then found myself ruminating, perhaps fruit is what got wordsmiths autumnally engaged?  Significantly, both Gillian Clarke and the nominatively-repetitious William Carlos Williams have eulogised on the sheer pleasure of tucking away a cold plum.  But perhaps not.  Ultimately, my money is on John Keats.

No one seems to know quite when Keats first came to a PP Workshop.  The Archive appears to indicate that he was mistaken for an urchin street sweeper on his first visit as a youth.  By the time of his second visit, he was a medical student at Guy’s and when the other poets heard that there was a surgeon in the house they naturally assumed he was there to offer them a nice shave and a trim.  It took a third visit with his new friend and uber-fan Richard Woodhouse for Keats to get a seat in the Breakfast Room and a turn at reading an Ode, and it’s clear that as a rising star he was at last welcome.  If he sought recognition, the Pitshanger Poets made hard work of it, as the poet-moderators of those earlier Workshops were not terribly diligent with their note-taking.  Reading through the leather-bound ledgers we have ‘Ode to a Nightgown’, ‘Ode to a Psycho’, ‘Ode on what a Grecian Earns’, ‘Ode on a Melodrama’ and on what must have been Keats’s penultimate visit; ‘On First Having a Nose Into Chapman’s Homer.’

Happily note-taking is much improved with the ubiquity of information technology.  My 1984 Apple Macintosh 512SE requires only a 13-amp mains outlet, a floppy disk with some free space, plentiful ventilation and no more than thirteen minutes to boot up.  It rarely makes any more noise than a common-or-garden threshing machine and hardly interrupts the conversation at all.  This week Michael Harris was able to make himself heard in order to kick things off with a pean to the PP, ‘The Parish Priests’ which he has graciously agreed to let us add to the blog here.  John Hurley is writing a series on crafts of old and we were delighted to hear his ‘Blacksmith’ again, with some revisions, it’s a fascinating tale.  Martin Choules then raised his voice to introduce ‘The Year in Song’, perhaps a recognition that popular music is no longer as interested in him as he used to be in it.  Finally, Nick Barth raised his voice to read the politically tinged ‘World King’.  With no more than the occasional nod in the direction of our lauded Prime Minister it’s clear that Nick has no more than the usual fury and resentment towards the current political landscape, which was very heart-warming.

But you will surely be pulling me up short, for where is Keats’s greatest hit, Autumn?  Refreshingly free of crisp fallen leaves, Keats revels in fruit, nuts, end-of-season flowers, lambs and grain, personifying Autumn in the guise of a no-doubt well-fed nymph, encouraging her to think of herself as greater than Spring with her brash songs.  It is a masterpiece and I feel confident that anyone wishing to emulate the Romantics is quick to latch onto Autumn as Top Season, excepting Winter of course, which has much more that is forbidding, disconsolate and morbid about it for the poet to really have a go at.

However, ‘Season of Myths and Fellow Footlessness’ was how the hard-of hearing PP moderator of 1819 transcribed the title of Keats’s last and possibly greatest poem read at the Manor, at which point Keats, being keenly aware of the error, resolved to move to a house near some steps in Rome and die tragically of tuberculosis at only twenty-five, thus making Romantic Poetry simply the Top Poetry for quite a while and creating a nice little earner for his grateful descendants at the same time.  What a star.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 28th September 2021

The Questors Autumn Season is about to open, teasing audiences to dip their vaccinated toes into the public sphere once again.  Not that they insist that their attendees must have been vaccinated, and especially not suggesting that they must have received their jabs in their toes.  Eugh, now I’ve made my own ones curl up in horror.  Anyway, I am sure they will give their tentative public a much warmer welcome than my attempt, though I bet I know which of us will leave the longest-lasting impression…

Of course, theatre has never been too far away from Pitzhanger Manor, though in prior centuries it usually took place upstairs at The Red Lion, with many a thespian keen to practice rolling his R’s and rounding his vowels when ‘resting’ between parts, and where better than at such a famous and influential recital society as ours ?  And king of the projectors was always Dickie Sheridan, a man only too willing to remind any company that all the world’s a stage (whether they wanted to know or not).  Indeed, his presence was not always welcomed when he insisted of reciting a good chunk of Paradise Lost when it was already past ten and Johnny Keats hadn’t had a turn yet, but he was also popular as a surrogate reader when a poet was suffering with a cold, or still hung over, or had quite forgotten his spectacles.

Meanwhile, at this week’s Workshop we had each poet read their own, starting with Michael Harris reporting back from a spot of people-watching on the Tube, and John Hurley remembering the forgotten ploughman who’s furrows may be straight, but whose craft was slow.  Martin Choules was in a more serious mood this week, recalling the funerals of his youth for distant family members which all seemed rather by-the-numbers, and finally coming-in out of the garden for the uncertainty of indoor socialising was Nick Barth

Anyway, I have been asked by The Questors to make an announcement on their behalf.  And when I say ‘The Questors’ asked me, I actually mean a rather mysterious figure in black shades, a black turtleneck, and a well-groomed black beard – but I have no idea who she was.  She just pressed a flier on me and went off to meet her public, but said playbill looked very interesting – an evening dedicated to Poems of Joy on Monday 8th November.  I’ll provide more information as I receive it, but meanwhile I really should note that in my diary, to make sure I attend, and if I do so now then I won’t forget.  Let’s see, that’s Monday 8th November.  Oops, I accidentally knocked the embolden key, but never mind, I’ll just leave it as it is.

I suppose I’ll ask Aubrey to accompany me, since his being in the audience is a guarantee he won’t be on the stage.  Not that I’m saying he’s a bad orator, but he does rather ramble his preamble, wittering on about his two-seater instead of reading us his sonnet on the 1856 Great Treacle Shortage.  And I can never watch him talk for very long before I notice how the two ends of his moustache are never waxed at quite the same angle.  However, having him sit beside me will mean I have to hear him trying to guess the upcoming rhyming word every other line.

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Workshop, 21st September 2021

Anyone who has spent any time around Ealing’s less-kempt gardens, slightly-crumbling walls, traffic islands and railway embankments will be familiar with buddleia, now in its finest burst of droopy brown.  And before I go on, yes I did just spell buddleia with a penultimate I and not a J as the perpetually C-scholar-in-classics Carl Linnaeus would have it, and however much the Jnternatjonal Cljque for Botanjcal Namjngs cares to holler, the Romans had no such thing as a J, not even Julius Caesar.

Anyway, this curious Caribbean bush was named by The Big L in honour of Adam Buddle, an English botanist of forty years prior, and who was a regular at Pitzhanger Manor.  Indeed, when hurrying his coach onwards out of town on a Tuesday afternoon, he would often manage to lose many of his seeds in the rush, windblown along the Uxbridge Road.  Indeed, it is rumoured that Ealing was an early foothold for this most cosmopolitan of immigrants, but to be fair to the Reverend Buddle, such were the quantity of loose seeds about his clothing after spending weeks crawling through jungles that flowers would spring up in his footprints and carpets would sprout in his wake, albeit six months later and usually of dandelions.

Sir John was certainly proud of his straggly butterfly magnet a century later, though he did become frustrated at how his gardens were strangely always beset by caterpillars.  And it was a shame when its prodigy would take up root in the mortar of the chimneystack and not be noticed for several years until he came out one morning after a stormy night to find a large dent in his lawn and an even larger one in his roof. (The culprit, incidentally, just shrugged and started growing where it had landed.)  Meanwhile, Eliza was less than pleased to find one of its sampling drilling its way into her finest straw hat, though she did try to pass it off as the latest fashion with the ladies of her sewing circle, at least until was towering five feet above the top of her head.  But for Bill Wordsworth, it was the perfect exotic to take back to the Lake District, in hope of giving him something to write about each year once the daffodils had gone over.

All of which is to say that here in the Pitshanger Archive over the past eighteen months, having furloughed the unpaid interns, I find that nobody had been attending to the job of uprooting the buddleia from the canteen, the book stacks, and even the walk-in safe.  Honestly, doesn’t it even care that it’s growing underground ?- there are no butterflies down here to attract, though I wonder if it’s related to my recent increase in moths ?  I swear when we return to the Moon and inspect the remains of the Apollo 11 launcher, we’ll find it in the middle of a meadow of purple as its seeds were carried along in the rocket’s slipstream.  I have had to ask Aubrey’s man for advice, as I heard he’d had to deal with an outbreak on his master’s Uncle Archie’s business partner’s wooden leg.  He recommended hacking down to ground level, and then coming back a month later and hacking down again, and so on ad infinitum.  And for goodness’ sake, hack off the flower cones while they’re still purple, and don’t worry two more will soon sprout in its place, more than enough to keep Hercules busy.

Anyway, I did get a respite from my botanical worries at this week’s Workshop, once again regaining the Questors Library in triumph.  It does feel good to finally be able to meet the poets face-to-face without fear of passing on a few airborne droplets of plague – but enough about buddleia seeds.  John Hurley has continued his series remembering the disappeared crafts of another age, this week weaving a stirring lament for the basket-makers, followed by Caroline Am Bergris’ poem that she wrote for a film (or was it a movie filmed for her poem ?) in which she imagines a post-apocalyptic aftermath of draining proportions.  Next up was Michael Harris, admiring the unintended choreography of a nimble Italian waiter, and Martin Choules has been examining counting upto one with some astronomers.  Finally, Nick Barth has been sketching a pronoun in transition, not that that makes their dayjob any easier.

Looking through the Archive, I see we had another buddleia flare-up in 1855 when Alfie Tennyson was insisting that the Isle of Wight was blessedly free from the wheedling weed as it was grey squirrels.  Indeed, so pleased was he of his purple-less Freshwater bower than while reading an early draft of his latest narrative epic Maud, he shoehorned-in a whole section just to gloat:

“Come into the garden, Maud,
Where the blue blight is unknown.
Come into the garden, Maud,
Where its seeds have never flown.
Cos here we’re practic’ly abroad,
Where only garlic is grown.”

However, Bob Browning felt the tangent rather wrecked the mounting doom, and longtime admirer of the plant ‘Buddy’ Leigh Hunt felt the laureated lackey was making a personal slight against him (whereas in truth Tennyson couldn’t even remember his name).  In the end, with much grumbling, Alfred agreed to change the passage to one of nocturnal longing, but still made a point to name every plant except buddleia just to rub it in. But these days, with the buddleia just as rampant South of the Solent, it is alas Leigh Hunt who has the last laugh.

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Workshop, 14th September 2021

I am delighted to be able to report that the intellectual life of Great Britain, London, but most vitally for the future of poetry, Ealing, is gradually returning to normal.  Here in the Queen of the Suburbs we have already experienced the Comedy, Jazz and Blues Festivals (they may not have been precisely in that order, it was all such a blur).  Over there in Hanwell, the Hootie was given a slightly-delayed outing down in The Meadow with two stages fielding rock, blues, funk, folk, jazz, blues-rock, classic-rock, punk-rock, jazz-funk, folk-rock, country-rock, blues-folk, jazz-blues-folk, folk-funk-blues, comedy-folk-blues and a frantically busy musical genre helpdesk.

The Hanwell Hootie is a wonderful event, and without in any way wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth, for poets the festival comes loaded with a significant caveat.  True, it is a mere pleasant stroll down from the very heart of Ealing, but, as has been expressed in this blog before, even with this panoply of music, exotic food, alcoholic food and candy-floss, there is a gap in the presentation armour.  I am speaking of poetry, and in particular, amusing poetry.  As the Welsh Eisteddfod, Viking Moot or even the works of Homer so ably illustrates, there is nothing so entertaining as listening to a bewildered old man with a long beard telling funny stories and doing all the voices.

The Hootie did feature a musical-comedy-folk-rock stage and a succession of artistes came on with guitars, banjos, harmonicas and laptops to sing their songs and respond in a ribald manner to hecklers, real or imagined.  Special mention must go to the talented Ben Norris who encapsulated the genre with his very rude songs.  I particularly enjoyed Jack White (‘Jack White, don’t play my guitar’).  I took the opportunity to congratulate Ben afterwards and purchased his CD which he was good enough to autograph with an insulting dedication.  I will treasure it.

It was while chuckling gently at Ben and his colleagues that it struck me that no one has yet scaled the heights of musical-comedy-folk-ballad quite like Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Now, I am not going to pretend that I am old enough to have known the sprung vicar, nor, of course, do any actual recordings of his performances exist.  Yet, we have another source, the Pitshanger Poets Archive.  Reading a poem of Manley-Hopkins today, one cannot help but be struck by the bucolic awe with which he writes about the world around him.  There is a definite ‘hullo clouds, hullo trees’ about him, to quote Nigel Molesworth’s foil, Basil Fotherington-Thomas, but this in itself would not conjure hilarity.  What the PP Archive is at pains to point out is that when watching GM-H, it was all about the delivery.

Manley-Hopkins was an excellent musician and he never attended a PP Workshop without his ukulele, guitar, bass drum and a cymbal or two.  The Archive reports he had excellent timing, and much of the comedy arose from the needlessly long pauses he would insert between some words and the emphasis he placed on others.  I get the impression that William Shatner had nothing on him.  Knowing this, the options for making a few lines like:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Imagine hearing, ‘over rim’ (ooh-er missus), ‘roundy wells’ (I bet they were), ‘tucked string’ (that would chafe) ‘finds tongue’ (it’s been said about him) with appropriate eye contact, mooning gawps, motifs on the uke and strident emphasis on inappropriate syllables.  Kenneth Williams does not even come close. Manley-Hopkins performances were eagerly anticipated; by all accounts there was not a dry seat in the house.

But speaking of seats in the house, we are delighted to be able to confirm that the Pitshanger poets have returned to their rightful seats in their home at The Questor’s, Mattock Lane.  Our first in-person session took place on Tuesday the 14th, in the Library, with the window open to encourage healthful ventilation.  While we are of course deeply sad to recall those who are not able to return to the wobbly table; Alan, Anne, Gerry and Bernice, we encourage those of you who are able to brave the outside world to draw close (but not too close) and experience an evening of poetry again.

That is indeed what Nick Barth did on Tuesday, introducing his imagined experience of interrupting a range of thespian activities when opening the door of the Library on any random evening.  John Hurley is writing a continuing series about disappearing traditional skills, tonight he remembered the peat cutters.  Finally Martin Choules brought to light an obscure but useful writer’s tool, the interrobang, a cross between and exclamation and a question mark.  Now he shouted, where could I possibly use one of those!?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop Rejoined

I am glad that the estimable Ms Challiss and myself are shoulder-to-shoulder once more as we have some work to do.  As I write it is only 24 hours or so before we turn the key in the door to The Library, switch on the lights, blow the dust off the mantlepiece and (probably) wonder what someone has done with all the furniture.  While the Library has been officially empty for the last 18 months, if past experience is anything to go by, the room will have seen quite a lot of use by the time it is pressed into service for our Poetry Workshops again.  Ms Challis and I are wont to chunter on about the amusing goings-on in the Breakfast Room of Pitshanger Manor, but the Questor’s Theatre is a highly eventful place and there is always some perfectly logical reason why that room needs to be pressed into action.

We have had many reasons to wait while the room was cleared as eight o’clock and the start of the workshop neared. There have been actors rehearsing and directors conversing, promising starlets applying makeup, synchronised dancers having a shake-up, beer buffs sampling private tipples, mechanics practicing the greasing of nipples, pruny cats preened for competition and doomy Satanists calling for perdition, goalkeepers demonstrating their favourite saves, hair-dressers perfecting chorus lines of waves.  We have had ornothologists lecturing about the finer points of falconry and auditioning Juliets calling down from a balcony, acrobats resting between bouts on the trapeze while Zapatas deplore living on their knees.  There have been doom-laden Darwins mourning the passing of the Dodo and whey-faced clowns interminably waiting for Godot.  Twelve angry men call out for justice and a cramped contortionist applying a poultice.  Performers of all stripes have lodged in that room while poets wait it out in the corridoor’s gloom.

And for what kind of action? So that Peter can regale with another risqué tale, while Pat takes us on a jaunt to an East End family haunt.  So that John can wonder if back home they burnt his bed and Doig sheds tears for a lost love, long dead.  So that Christine can luxuriate in pastoral dreams and James can shed light on Old Testament memes.  So that Olwyn can illustrate in didactic philosophy and Helen can fascinate with her brand of anti-pomposity.  So that Owen can imagine a Glaswegian utopia and Rithika can construct Billy Blake’s personal dystopia. So that William’s smile twinkles and David’s keen eye wrinkles. So that Michael can send the workshop into lengthy discussion with so few lines, I mean, not even a dozen.  So that Roger can find truth and heart in a well-crafted memory, he clearly has many filed away in his inventory.  So that Niall can gently poke us in the ribs with a sharp recollection, this one about his kids. So that Caroline can, with infinite calmness, drink tea and eat cake with the dearly departed, so that Daphne can join us soon after we started, then delight once again with a deftly crafted metaphor and Martin, like some reincarnated troubadour indulges in rhyme, while Nick holds court and keeps an eye on the time.

So that we can remember Alan and Gerry, Anne and Bernice, the joy and inspiration they brought to our group, if there are any of you I did not mention you know that was not my intention, come along on Tuesday and push me in the soup.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 24th August 2021

No doubt the observant amongst you will have noticed that this column has two authors, your faithful servant and the honourable Ms Felicity Challis.  Perhaps the very observant amongst you will have noticed that we two are in the habit of taking turns at writing duties, for a man (or woman) has to get things done, and it is hard to devote time to creative  thoughts when you have ‘write two pages of nonsense’ on your to-do list from one Tuesday evening to the next.  There is a chance that the exceptionally perceptive amongst you will have noticed that Ms Challis has now completed an exceptional three blogs in a row, in which case you are more aware of the world around you than am I, and hereby hangs a tale. 

Now, Ms Challis and I are friendly (I am not sure I would want to go so far as to claim we are ‘friends’, for fear of another lawsuit) and we are in the habit of inviting each other for a warmed-up cup of something should we bump into each other in the street, however it is clear that I have over-stepped a mark here.  Only this afternoon I passed Ms Challis in Walpole Park to be given the cold hard stare followed by cold-shoulder treatment, with not a flicker perceptible to my usual ‘Toodle-pip there Felicity!’ as I attempted to make eye contact.  The realisation that I might have taken liberties with her blog-writing capacities hit me like a sack of flour falling from a miller’s block and tackle and I therefore hastened home to mull things over.

As a responsible adult (how responsible can be argued – more responsible than a cabinet minister while at the same time much less responsible than someone with a real job, is how I like to see it), I realise it is my responsibility to manage my own time on this planet.  However, many years ago I decided to delegate that responsibility to my manservant, so I called him into my study straight away for a thorough dressing down.  In response he merely mentioned that sir could not have forgotten that sir had been away visiting one of his aunts (which one would be too tedious to go into) who is in possession of a nice house overlooking the harbour at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight.  Of course, I had forgotten.  Like many of you (I get letters) I have become institutionalised by the last eighteen months of awful awfulness, and it appears I had blanked the entire episode.  The golden memories of the last two weeks came back to me, and in that self-satisfied glow, all guilt about the hideous way I had treated Ms Challis fell away. 

We did have a lovely time on the Isle, many thanks for enquiring.  My Aunt’s House is one of those hideously grand, bow-fronted affairs with a lawn running down to a picturesque harbour all a-bobbing with little boats which have mystifyingly cryptic names such as ‘A Bit On the Side’, ‘Don’t Tell The Wife’ and ‘Here’s Where The Child Support Goes’.  It was while lounging in a striped deckchair observing said a-bobbing boats that I realised that I had omitted to bring anything to read, having made the all-too predictable decision that I would devote myself to writing, a mistake poets commonly commit.  Well, duck that for a game of responsibility, as my Uncle Archie might have said, this particular afternoon called for a bit of light reading.  I therefore ambled up to the house and located my flesh and blood in her library, where she was engaged in phrenology with a new batch of shrunken heads.  I mentioned my need for something to while away the hours whereupon she violently flung a paperback book at my bonce and told me to clear off until tea-time. 

It turned out that the book was no randomly-selected missile.  My aunt had just finished reading Tennyson’s Gift by Lynne Truss, she of the Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame, (though no relation to the similarly named cabinet minister, one hopes) and I fell into its pages with enthusiasm, hoping to learn a little more about the Isle of Wight and the people who crossed the Solent to visit the place in years gone by.  Ms Truss has hit upon a brilliant conceit, for Tennyson’s Gift is a fictionalised account of ostensibly real events featuring real people you will have heard of; the poets, artists, photographers, actors and celebrities of the time, using humorous episodes to reveal oft-suspected eccentricities in their characters.  She has succeeded in weaving what we think we know about these people into a tale which might as well be the complete truth.  It’s a wonderful idea requiring some chutzpah from Ms Truss to bring off.  I could not imagine creating anything like it.

Speaking of wonderful ideas, we were treated to another bijou gathering on Zoom in this week’s Workshop.  John Hurley got our jaunt underway with a visit to a village in the Old Country and the attendees to town hall meetings discouraged by the arrival of street lighting.  Roger Beckett took us back in time to see his Grandfather, a mountain of a man who was felled by peritonitis, or perhaps it was poverty.  Martin Choules also took us the not-so-recent past when the condemned were offered a last meal, but for what reason?  Finally, Nick Barth closed proceedings with a multi-layered dose of nostalgia triggered by a view of a pair of hips.

Returning to Ealing, I was able to think a little more deeply about Tennyson’s Gift and its possible relationship with our own Pitshanger PoetsThe book utilises The Isle of Wight’s Victorian heyday as its backdrop, bringing together the eponymous Alfred Lord and his wife Emily, G F Watt and his newly-wed Ellen Watt (nee Terry), Charles Dodgson and also the pioneering portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron among others.  Making my peace with Ms Challis, I resolved to find out whether Ms Truss’s characterisations had any basis in fact.  It is apparent from the book that Alfred Lord Tennyson was famously unwashed and thin-skinned, unable to take criticism.  Indeed, Mrs Tennyson was known to conceal reviews from her husband, good or bad, for fear that they would tend to be read in the worst light.  Interestingly these aspects do seem to explain some of the oddities surrounding the visits of the garlanded poet to our humble workshops.  We had long been puzzled by archive notes mentioning that strict social distancing should be observed when he was in attendance, with no poets permitted to speak directly to Tennyson himself.  We knew that Emily Tennyson always accompanied her husband to meetings.  Anyone who has visited Pitshanger Manor will be aware that the rooms are hardly palatial, and while the poets were no longer consigned to the bijou Breakfast Room, all the same the larger Drawing Room was definitely off-limits.  To those of us becoming inured to the oppressive conditions of the pandemic, this all sounds horribly familiar.  Did the poets fear infection, and if so, why was Alfred Tennyson singled out as the super-spreader?  In fact, explanations may well be somewhat simpler.  Workshops of the latter half of the nineteenth Century were likely held in the compact Dining Room, with any poet with a sense of smell getting as much distance as they could from the stinking Laureate, who would invariably be reading Maud.  Simultaneously they would all be sitting under the fierce glare of Mrs Tenysson, ready to press her finger tightly to her lips should any of them utter so much as a ‘would the poet consider…?’.  For the poet would not consider any form of comment or criticism, most especially to Maud, not anyhow, most definitely no.

We can therefore commend Tennyson’s Gift to the readers of this column, and as ever offer the PP Archive as a resource to any authors requiring the odd scarcely-believable ribald episode concerning eccentric, filthy or perfectly respectable poets for their own period pieces.

In closing, I am happy to announce that the count-down to normality, of a sort, continues.  The Questor’s Theatre, Mattock Lane, Ealing have given us a date to return to their hallowed rooms.  We will be back in the Library at eight o’clock on the 14th September.  If you are, like Alfred Lord Tennyson, a veteran of the Pitshanger Poets, or a fresh-faced new writer eager for a hearing and a chat, or indeed anything in between, please come along.  As the virus is spread through aerosol action we plan to keep the room well-ventilated, so please wear an extra layer if you are sensitive to cold.

If you have been (for the last year of Zoom meetings especially), thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 17th August 2021

As no poet ever said, August is the coolest month.  Maybe not in temperature, but certainly in terms of things happening.  London is of course full of tourists and a few of them even make it out to the ends of the Central Line.  Now there’s a long cockney tradition of being sniffy about the foreigners (by which they mean anyone from the world beyond the M25), but I always enjoy their slightly puzzled expressions as they wander around Walpole Park confused that it isn’t bigger, or that the entrance to Ealing Studios isn’t much grander, or that the world famous Questors Theatre isn’t an architectural masterpiece, and just why does it have that weird concave-yet-also-convex mirror on its side like something belonging to a secret military laser laboratory ?

The thing is, the Queen of the Suburbs is far more suburb than queen, richer in residents than Regency refinery, a comfortable town that just happens to be under the influence of a World City.  Back in Sir John’s day, there was clear countryside and countless cows between the two, but middle-age spread has merged them into a mutant metropolis, and has kept on porking past Hanwell, swallowing Southall, and snapping at the noisy heals of Heathrow.  The truth is, that there was precious little going on in the parish of Ealing in mediaeval times, and even its parish church was subsequently rebuilt in the 19th Century.  Indeed, practically the whole of Ealing town was built at that time, very much new money and the Milton Keynes of its day.

To tell the truth, the Ealing Experience is one of underwhelmtion.  The larger Christ Church on the Broadway managed to afford that great starchitect George Gilbert Scott (never trust a Victorian who doesn’t have three names), though it does look suspiciously like he rather telegraphed-in the design.  There’s also Ealing Abbey, of course, though alas not a picturesque ruin worthy of Wordsworth and instead an Edwardian institution that still houses monks to this day – monks who stubbornly refuse to wear habits and tonsures.  Then there are the persistent rumours that we are about to receive a Polish Cathedral, though this is less likely to be a brand new grand gothic extravaganza and more likely achieved by putting up a new signboard outside Our Lady Mother (which as a former Methodist chapel is rather lacking in gilded marble).  And the Ealing Stadium imagined in Brave New World has yet to be built, though now that Brentford have reached the Prem, perhaps theirs could stand-in ?

Nothing underwhelming about this week’s Workshop, despite being attended by only a trinity of bards.  First we heard from Martin Choules, whinging about caterpillars noshing on his greens, or possibly making hay from holey leaves, while Rithika Nadialli has been further developing her Blakean satyr by adding a satirical contempory poetess who would have been most welcome at Sir John’s soirees to tug on old Billy’s beard (and yes, I did just drop a syllable – admit it, you never really needed it).  And a welcome return to Christine Shirley who has finally been able to present her poem on the longed-for February thaw, which I think we can all agree has now definitely come to pass.

A hundred years from now, will Ealing be one of New London’s jewels, an architectural marvel of Egyptian Revival perhaps, or a place to spot a rewilded urban black bear ?  And will Pitzhanger Manor still sport its silly Z while hosting small exhibitions about Ealing’s importance in the development of teleportation ?  Will trains still pull into the Broadway before whisking commuters to Oslo and Frankfurt ?  And will they still recall the famous Pitshanger Poets (spelled correctly) who met every week to hone their talents before the world started paying attention and kept them away with stadium reading tours and Hollywood parties ?  These are the golden days, these weekly meetings, just before fame and fortune gobbles up our Tuesday evenings…

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Workshop, 10th August 2021

As I have mentioned before, I do like to potter with a putter and faff around on a round of crazy golf, and the crazier the better.  And so on a whim I decided to ask the Parsonage to ask the Ferranti Pegasus in the bowels of the Town Hall if there is any previous mention of the junior links in the Archives.  And wouldn’t you know he immediately scored a hole in one !  Pages and pages of notes meticulously taken by my predecessors, including score cards, ground conditions, and windmill wind-speed.  And they all alluded to the same rumour – that the very game of crazy golf had been the invention of Lord ‘Birdie’ Byron.

It is not clear what gave him his inspiration.  Was it a lack of patience with having to tramp around eighteen holes before reaching the nineteenth, particularly with famous club foot ?  Was it frustration with lugging along irons, woods, wedges and assorted woolly hats ?  Or perhaps it was the general lack of fun to be had with endless greens.  Either way, ‘Byron Golf’ was an immediate hit and Sir John even constructed a course in the back garden of Pitzhanger Manor, complete with obstacles made from assorted buckets, kitchen stools, and drainpipes, much to the consternation of Mrs Conduitt who complained at being unable to hang out the washing for fear of being clouted by a wayward attempt to reach the top of the anthill.

No golf this week for our Workshop attendees, but that didn’t stop Rithika Nadipalli teeing off with a revised vision of her fairy flower, this time with a little more flower and a little less fairy.  Martin Choules has been out butterfly-spotting, but it’s the caterpillars that seem to interest him most, and Nick Barth has been out sunning himself, while the Sun himself has been doing some growing up.  We then had a seconds from Rithika as she showed her latest draft in the transformation of William Blake from puckish poet into allegorical ruminant.

Further research through the Archives into gossip, slander, and grudging admiration has turned up a bagful of beauties, from accusations of cheating against the aforementioned Bill Blake, who championed playing blindfolded to emulate his hero Milton but was still suspiciously lucky at finding the holes, to Johnny Keats fuming at a nightingale when his ball landed in the poor thing’s nest and it took him four tries with his club to find which one was his ball.  But it was the lascivious Georgie Byron who really put the swing into Byron Golf, teeing off with parties of young admiring ladies and usually finishing the game with fewer than he started with.  Many were the times the following foursome would complain of finding discarded breeches on the bleachers and buttock-marks in the bunkers, and the greatest horror an Ealing gentleman could face was to hear that his wife had been playing a round with Byron.

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