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, 11th October 2016

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, National Poetry Day is over for another year!  In many ways Poetry Day is the bane of an otherwise mellow, mild and delightful time of year.  Autumn is traditionally the season for poets to don a woolly jumper, venture out to the park, take a few lungfuls of bracing air, gaze at the fluttering leaves in all their myriad colours, find a nice bench with a view of the deepening sky, sharpen a pencil, flip open a notebook and prepare to write something truly depressing about Winter.  National Poetry Day ruins the sombre atmos like an ice-cream van cruising for business in a cemetery.  I would be delighted to see it annulled and struck from the calendar, or at least moved nearer to the Eurovision Song Contest in May, where it might at least nestle next to something appropriate to its intellectual level.  It would be better in May.  Everyone knows you cannot churn out a good piece when the sun is shining and there’s a picnic to be organised.

Now, I realise I am coming across all Scrooge-like in the communal good cheer one is told to affect in the face of a National Day for the Support/Celebration/Cherishment/Utter Defeat of Something Dear to The Heart, but writing poetry is not like baking cakes.  Poetry will never be exploited as a witty, heartwarming reality TV contest starring a talented but slightly past-it comedy double act as hosts, judged by a glamorous lady poet, permanently ready with the mot juste and a dishy, rakish poet with a touch of the Mr Rochesters about him whose sole purpose seems to be to maintain the female audience of a certain age.  I cannot imagine anything more dreadful, and I for one would not countenance being involved in such a disgusting farrago – if farrago is the correct term, which I for one doubt.  Not unless I was to be paid a quite obscene amount of money.  Wait a moment, does anyone have a phone number for Peter Bazalgette?

Nevertheless, this week’s Workshop was a delicious, heartwarming affair.  Peter Francis was first out of the oven with a multi-faceted recollection of his brother.  Alan Chambers’ Birth Song delighted us and ought to do well in the public vote. New member Jagdish brought a freshly-decorated autumnal concoction to the group, redolent of Autumn.  Angela Arratoon brought out an old recipe with a conversation with a school master, recalled on a train.  Louise Nicholas gave us a fresh, slightly salty concoction based on observing office workers at play.  Daphne Gloag has been gathering magic apples to bring us a poem about Now.  Nick Barth has been baking us something of a Neapolitan flavour, with only four colours.  John Hurley has been working on a bit of satire following a brush with an American recipe book.  Finally Pat Francis rounded things off with a tender morsel on the subject of Gallipoli.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, Poetry is not a thing for the rank amateur.  Now, it is true that we at Pitshanger Poets welcome all to our ranks.  We do everything we can within the confines of our weekly, two week workshops to foster and encourage the budding, as well as the sprouting and downright drooping poet to Higher Things.  But for us, every day is Poetry Day.  The problem with National Poetry day is that bad poets will go and gather in large public spaces for ‘open mic’ sessions.  It’s as if one were out one day for a nice stroll and suddenly came upon the Jarrow Marchers, Chartists and Wat Tyler and his mob of peasants in a park and with a shock realised that they had somehow acquired a Public Address system and an addiction to rhyming couplets.  Quite apart from anything else, the presence of amplification equipment just makes the whole thing just a little too easy, does it not?  Time was, a loud voice was de rigeur for the touring poet.  It’s said that Robert Browning could be heard from one end of The Serpentine  to the other.  AG Swinburne could cause dogs to bark simply by clearing his throat, while Christina Rossetti’s public audiences were advised to position portable soft furnishings within easy reach of any nervous females following the mass faintings experienced at a notorious reading Goblin Market.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 4th October 2016

What a night !  Verses leapt and sonnets soared as poem after beautiful poem was silkily sonorrated into the willing ears of a crowd thirsty for verses.  The sighs of contentment that were to be heard between couplets were as mellifluous as the gasps of astonishment.  Truly, the words were on fire last Monday night in the Studio, as seven actors brought every element of their craft to the faultless lines of our poets in residence.  All in all, it made for a grand night out.

But then, we should not be surprised at the literary ability of the common man, nor the quick wits of the average housewife.  Humans use language every day, and use it in extraordinarily inventive ways.  Even an inconsequential chat about football during a cigarette break or overheard commuter communing with their mobile phone will be replete with metaphors, similes, puns and new coinages to such an extent that we cease to be aware of how clever we all are.  And why wouldn’t it be so, for humans are a talky species, indeed most of the time we simply won’t shut up !  So, as National Poetry Day approaches, the only surprising thing is that we only celebrate the fact for one day.

All of the above was much in evidence at this week’s workshop, where few were the silences and many were the voices.  Alan Chambers led us out, reworking his recent poem about foxes by, among other things, increasing their number.  Will it be four foxes next week ?  Peter Francis was next up, walking the tightrope of how much to reveal to the reader beforehand, and John Hurley left us wondering if his woman in the fishmongers was being picky or choosy.  Pat Francis went looking for silence in stars but couldn’t hear it over the throbbing of her heart, while Nayna Kumari has been stepping out alone, and inadvertently stepping on a few toes – but then who do those toes think they are to judge her so ?  Michael Harris, meanwhile, has been off to the races but those around him are losing faith, while Martin Choules has been using the wrong title and the wrong rhythm, and Louise Nichols tells us how sharp her mother was with both a sewing machine and penetrating question.  The French Revolution has not fulfilled its promise for the subject of Owen Gallagher’s quiet tragedy, while Ariadne Kazantsis is still experimenting with how an alian and a superhero might best save the world.

Of course, public poetry readings are nothing new to the Pitshanger Poets.  The Archives reveal one memorable event in 1755 when, after much cajoling by sometime-attendee Thomas Coram, the group agreed to give a reading of their works to raise funds for the Foundling Hospital – after all, where would literature be without its waifs, strays, and assorted orphans ?

Alas, the resulting event was not an unqualified success, not helped by the then-current vogue of publishing anonymously, which saw many readers reciting from behind a heavy curtain.  Thomas Gray tried to win the audience back with a rendition of his famous Elergy, but unfortuntely his doomy moping was not much of a feelgood crowd-pleaser.  And surely it was a mistake to top the bill with Samual Johnson, reading an extended extract from his latest offering,  A Dictionary of the English Language, starting from A and continuing for page after page of abacus, abasement, abbess, abeyance, abide, abode, abolish and abomination (though strangely not aardvark).  As George Handel was heard to wearily comment to William Hogarth “wake me up when he gets to zootomy”.

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Workshop,27th September 2016

One of the great boons of the much-heralded forthcoming restoration of Pitshanger Manor is the much-heralded and just-completed demolition of Pitshanger Manor.  Of course I am messing with your mind to quote my teenage nephew, I do not mean the entire Manor, just the modern Public Library extension.  This structure was cruelly and with malice aforethought grafted on to the Manor in 1902 and had all the charm and majesty of a public urinal.  Remarkably it was the Tuesday evening home of The Pitshanger Poets Workshop for most of the 20th Century. Many may feel that I am stretching a point when I say that this depressing edifice was wholly responsible for the demise of the flower of British Poetry.  However I insist in pressing my case since so many talented individuals found the prospect of action in Wars One, Spanish Civil and Two preferable to a Workshop among the gloomy portals and fierce draughts of the Library chambers.  Certainly Ealing Council’s swift prohibition on the consumption of alcohol on the premises discouraged the attendance of our more well-lubricated poets, some of whom were eventually persuaded to yell their works through the windows from outside the building, pint freshly delivered from the Red Lion in hand.  Does this make Dylan Thomas a Pitshanger?  It’s a technicality.

Somewhat of a technicality was the fact that this week’s workshop was the most popular for some years (and where were you?), the room was packed.  We do appear to be attracting a number of husband and wife poetry tag-teams which is welcome and shows poetry at last shaking off its Bohemian Bloomsbury image at last.  Louise Nicholas returned on her annual sojourn from the land of Oz to the land of Uk with a poem about a dog with a conscience.  Owen Gallagher has the Clyde running through him, though his clothes are mercifully dry.  Angela Arratoon made a most welcome return to the group with a cat poem that was anything but a cat poem.  John Hurley has been thinking about finding love in his latter years, maintaining a wry smile, or is that simile?  Michael Harris has been mis-hearing his mother from the big city in a wonderful binary poem.  Alan Chambers has been watching foxes.  Pat Francis has been thinking about love and Dame Julian of Norwich.  Peter Francis picked the theme of poetry and ran with it.  Nick Barth has been trying to escape from or with his own inertia.  Anne Furneaux brought back a revised piece in her modern art series.  Daphne Gloag has been wondering whether the birds go on for ever.  Finally, Martin Choules brought three short poems which may be read at our Poetry night on Monday the 3rd at this very theatre.  There, I told you it was a popular evening.

Which pandemonium put me in mind of a Workshop past I discovered in the Archive recently.  As you may recall from these pages, the Workshop predates Sir John Soane’s own ‘Restoration’ of Pitshanger Manor in the early nineteenth century.  The Poets were accustomed to meeting in Sir John’s beautiful Eating Room, however Sir John never saw the Manor as a finished project and from time to time all would be step-ladders, dust-sheets and ‘Egg-Shell White with a Hint of Laudanum’ , forcing the poets to find another room.  On this occasion they had decamped to the cozy Breakfast room, which had a only one small circular table and four chairs.  There were ten poets present, including a fatherly William Wordsworth and a young Percy Shelley in London eager to air Queen Mab to his peers.  The Workshop started as announced on the chimes of eight o’clock and Percy was given the floor.  No sooner had he reached the end of the first stanza than the door burst open and a certain Samuel Taylor Coleridge sidled in, dragging a large arm chair.  After the usual bows and greetings the reading was resumed, only to be interrupted again by a coughing John Keats carrying a stool.  Again, after some gratuitous enquiries after his health the reading resumed.   Which brave effort was again impeded by the entry of an apologetic John Clare with Mrs Clare, a crate of chickens and a settle of some nature.  Finally, the camel’s back was broken by a swaying, discombobulated Lord Byron outside the breakfast room, carrying a tankard of ale, rapping loudly on the window with his cane and demanding to be let in.  It is believed that after some negotiation the meeting was reconvened in the private saloon of the Red Lion.  Whether Shelley got to the end of Queen Mab is not recorded.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 20th September 2016

Brexit continues to take its toll here in the Archives, as several of our unpaid interns hail from beyond the Rhine.  They come to learn English in its purest form, as hewn and polished in a thousand ballads, sonnets and limericks, and are following in the footsteps of such great Britons as George Handel, Joseph Conrad and Canaletto.  Who knows what children they may bear to be our future Izzy Brunels, Christina Rossettis and George Michaels ?  Except there is now an air of uncertainty in the vaults, a despondent gloom hanging over the microfiches, and a thickening malaise about the Theophilus Marzials Wing.  Rumours have been intercepted that Canada is the new Shoreditch, while letters are daily received that we are doing Brits out of working eighty hours a week for no money in the vain hope of breaking into the cliquey world of poetry.

No bad blood was boiling at this week’s workshop: Martin Choules read an effusive welcome to the new planet in the Local Bubble, while Olwyn Grimshaw was been back to the old country that is the West Midlands and returned speaking like a native.  Doig Simmonds has been inspired by a Slovakian friend and by the most-travelled immigrant of all – the Grim Reaper, though it seems he is looking far from grim these days, and Martin Choules brought us full circle with a second poem that celebrated those great entrepreneurs in foreign parts – the pirates.

So, a small but intimate workshop this week, not unlike the time in 1766 when Thomas Gurnell was host to just three: Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke.  And on what did three Irishmen in London talk about all evening ?  Well, there was the recent concert given by Johann Christian Bach for one, and on Benjamin Franklin’s latest musings on the nature electricity from his Craven Street breakfast table for another, and then there were the latest fashions in Huguenot silk handkerchiefs.  Oh, and about the disgraceful number of immigrants filling the streets of the capital these days.  Some things never change.

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Workshop, 13th September 2016

I have to begin the Blog with the merest smidgen of the most sincere apology.  You may have lamented (and you may have not, in which case I applaud your sense of perspective), the lack of a PP blog last week.  There was a workshop, and oh, what a workshop it was!  It was certainly one of the best workshops, if not the best workshop we have ever hosted, with all manner of exciting and diverting poetic moments.  A workshop to sing songs about, a workshop which will be talked about by those who were there and even some who weren’t until their memories fail them and they know not even themselves.  It’s a shame you were not there (if you were not), and even more of a shame that there was no blog.  A tragedy for poetry in fact, given what occurred.

However, and unfortunately, my notes, hand-transcribed on vellum as is my wont, were lost in the Ealing Bomb Scare last week when a partially-exploded WWII bomb was discovered in a part of Ealing which then had to be partially evacuated by the largely impartial Emergency Services.  Because the bomb was partially exploded, its shockwave apparently hovering in mid-air like a soap-bubble, there was the concern that it might fully explode should it be burst by, for example, a schoolboy with a drawing-pin, and take out half the suburb.  In the ensuing chaos I think I last saw the vellum pages floating off on the dark waters of the canal but that could have been a partially inflated goat.

This week’s Workshop was not exactly dull, but compared to last week’s… well I should not harp on for fear of being set upon by jealous crowds of poetry fanatics carrying pitchforks and flaming torches, but you had to be there.   Michael Harris got us off to a great start with a poem written on observing two boys comparing notes on whose farming father had the most fields.  Alan Chambers reminisced about the dying moments of an ocean cruise and that there is never enough time.  Time was also on the mind of Daphne Gloag who recognises that the book can be read but never re-written.  Nick Barth was remembering a lost friend, reminding himself she will always be there.  Christine Shirley has been walking out one midsummer morning.  Owen Gallagher, like Michael was thinking about the Spanish Armada, from an Irish point of view.  Finally, Ann Furneux has been remembering the Brains Trust on the dear old Beeb, and Cyril ‘it all depends’ Joad.

Anyone reading this blog regularly (who are you?  Have you seen a doctor recently?) would be forgiven for thinking that we at Pitshanger Poets are obsessed.  It may appear to the unwary that a PP Workshop is a focused undertaking, only to be tackled by the sure of metre and the serious of purpose.  Apart from, as related, last week’s workshop, I have to impress upon you now that nothing, unless it is the scoring system on Radio 4’s ‘Just a Minute’ is further from the truth.

Poet after ambitious poet attends our Workshops hoping for a keen appraisal of the work at hand, and our concern is that while they will get a fair hearing they may leave the meeting disappointed.  The issue is not the critical faculties of the group nor the depth and breadth of their poetry reading but the fact that at 8 o’clock on a rainy Tuesday evening it is very hard to get away from First World Problems.

Analysis of the PP Archive demonstrates that if the Workshop Chairman is not careful (and if only Nicholas Parsons would reply to my invitations to step in as guest chair, a poet might get the benefit of the doubt for once), well-argued opinion can soon descend into vapid discussions of a purely domestic nature.  So, if you find yourself in a poetry workshop in the suburb of a British city, whatever you do, do not mention ‘washing feet in soda water’ for fear of a discussion on paediatrics and the state of one’s plates.  Neither should one go near a fox, even a Thought Fox, for fear of sparking one up on the horrors of waking up to a street full of scattered rubbish.  The ‘Toad Work’ should be avoided, because of the certainty of a long reminiscence on the last time the cat caught one in the night and how terribly the poor amphibian screamed.  Plums in the ice box are right out (should fruit be kept in the fridge?), as are Irish Sixpences (they are collectible now, or are they?).  So, when the Workshop morphed into a long and heated debate about the utility of wearing gloves in fields (and whether or not much is missed) given the prevalence of agricultural chemicals these days, it’s a wonder Frances Cornford found it within herself to ever come back.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 30th August 2016

What would summer be without carbon dioxide ?  Its build-up in the upper atmosphere gives overcast Britain that extra bit of warmth not seen since the Mediaeval Warm Period: when William of Normandy, despite holidaying late in the season, was able to give the Sussex Coast a try one year and never looked back, while up in Scotland Macbeth of Glamis found the evenings so mild that he was able to join a trio of local women at an outdoor barbeque

And then there’s the carbon dioxide in our beverages.  For all the current vogue for cloudy lemonade, it sells a fraction of its filtered and fizzed-up cousin.  For all the real ale snobs who won’t touch a pint that hasn’t been fermented for five years in artisanal barrels made out of pigs’ bladders, they must watch how soda-streamed lagers are busy fuelling every Saturday night booze-up in every town in every country that doesn’t ban the whole lot, bubbles and all.  (Incidentally, real ale snobs are more than welcome at the Grapevine Bar, which always has a choice of house and guest ales, and even the odd lager.)

Dissolving CO2 in H2O was first developed by the chemist Joseph Priestley in the 1770s, and the Archives reveal how he brought along some of his “water impregnated with fixed air” to the Pitshanger Poets to try.  In fact, airtight containers being more aspirational than existential back then, he had to make the stuff up on the spot, dropping some oil of vitriol onto chalk and bubbling the resultant gas through the water.  The results were mixed, with John Wesley considering it an excellent alternative to the “demon drink”, but Oliver Goldsmith complaining that the whole thing seemed a lot of hullabaloo over something he could achieve for himself in the bath.

There was plenty of effervescence at the workshop this week, as Martin Choules broke the seal and unscrewed the lid to a satisfying hiss with his ponderings on the ability of cats to work together to take over the world, followed by a careful outpouring (at precisely 45˚ to prevent an unruly head) from Alan Chambers wondering if he has enough time.  Nayna Kumari has been taking the first sip of reassurance from her partner, while Doig Simmonds added a cherry and umbrella as he talked with an astronaut.  Bubbly Christine Shirley has been celebrating the spirit of nature, mixing a strange cocktail in the process, which John Hurley’s shook with ice while recounting how his uncle was well acquainted with both the fizzy beer and frothing sea.  Daphne Gloag was on sparkling form at an exhibition of an artist who paints nothing, and new member Michael Harris was far from flat with two poems about possibilities, conversations, and a nice cup of tea.

But back to the Archives.  We pick up the story twenty years later, in 1795, when the pioneering Johann Schweppe has made his name with his “carbonated water wrought via the improved method” that he had developed in Geneva and brought to London.  Alas his venture was a failing one, and he was on the verge of packing up.  Meeting in the dilapidated Manor badly in need of Sir John’s improvements that were still five years away, and with the well in the basement contaminated yet again, ‘Johnny’ Schweppe arrived with his crate of bubbles at the perfect time.  Erasmus ‘Razzie’ Darwin was an instant convert, and ‘Bob’ Southey found that a trip the Manor’s icehouse improved it further: “Down sank the ice with a gurgling sound !” he exclaimed as he dropped in a bell-shaped chunk, “The bubbles rose and burst around !”  But ‘Sammy’ Coleridge was far from impressed, and found the bubbles made it hard going to swig it down and slake his thirst. “Water, water, every where,” he bemoaned, “nor any drop to drink !”

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Workshop, 23rd August 2016

Well, that’s it then.  The flame has been quenched, the rings have been dismantled, the races run and shots put.  Goodbye for another four years, except for the Winter games in  two years time, except since it’s in the Winter, it’s more like 18 months.  Anyway, now that the distraction has finally left town, maybe we can finally get some work out of our unpaid interns, although that’s looking unlikely now that the new football season has started…

Of course, poetry and sport are not complete strangers.  Many a wordsmith has attempted to pen a witty chant for the terraces, while others have sought gentler pursuits to extol such as cricket and fishing.  And many a sporting hero has been a lover of poesy: here in the Archive we have reports from the early 30s of Fred Perry popping down from his home in Pitshanger Lane to flirt with Virginia Woolf, and thirty years later we read how racing driver Graham Hill loved to drop by in the close season to chat about rowing and rondos with Kingsley Amis.  Meanwhile the young John Betjeman may have disparaged the clerks of Slough who meet in various bogus-Tudor bars to talk of sport and makes of cars, yet he himself was not above fawning over the light verses of fellow attendee C B Fry.  Mr Fry, of course, was a famous all-rounder, as happy at the crease as he was at right back defending the goal, and likewise he was just at home with a villanelle as with an heroic ballad.

Limbering up at this week’s workshop were the first team, led out by Christine Shirley remembering her parents accompanying her to the station, followed by scrum-half James Priestman’s take on an ancient Biblical story as told by one of its players, and Daphne Gloag brought her jolly hockey sticks while walking backward through a wood.  Silly mid-off Martin Choules has been pitying the poor penmanship of pressurised pupils come exam time, while veteran backstop Doig Simmonds recalled the death of an airman in a grassy meadow.  Owen Gallagher told us how he was a trainee jouster in his youth, apprenticed to Camelot, while team-maker John Hurley recounted the cycling seasons of the year and mascot Anne Furneaux has been complaining about complaining about the weather.

When it comes to sportsmen waxing lyrical, though, there is one clear heavyweight: Muhammad Ali.  Always ready with a rhyming quip and boastful bagatelle, what better ambassador could there be for taking verses to the masses ?  Has trash talk ever sounded so elegant ?  In 1974, the Archives reveal, during his preparations for the Rumble in the Jungle, he came to London to appear on Parkinson, and found time to swing by Ealing. Also present was Philip Larkin, preparing what would prove to be his final collection, High Windows.  It seems that his editor had managed to dissuade him from including This Be The Verse on grounds of taste – but one evening with The Greatest and he was Mr Bespectacled Respectable no more.  Who the hell were Faber & Faber anyway ?  Think they could tell him what to publish ?  Time to start stinging like a bee…

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