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, 21st March 2023

First of all, I wish to make clear that I have no idea what Aubrey is wittering on about when he says that the entry for the 28th of February is missing.  It’s right there, three entries below this one.  Mystery solved.  So instead, let me tell you all about my resent adventures in making jam.  Now, the most important ingredient is obviously the old teabags…

Oh, alright, so maybe it was a teensy bit late in arriving, but the entry was faithfully recorded in my absence by Parsonage’s new automatic pen device adapted from the printout of a polygraph machine.  Alas, once uploaded to the Ferranti Pegasus, I fear it may have fallen into a parallel universe of some kind, possibly one where John Cooper Clark became poet laureate and John Betjeman cheerleaded the cause of Brutalism (and perhaps where ‘cheerleaded’ is a perfectly acceptable past participle).  After a week or so of our time (though surely only seconds for the journal in question, or possibly millions of years), it re-emerged and published itself on the blog like a schoolboy sneaking into class late and pretending he was there since the bell.  Believe me, upon my return I was as horrified as our loyal readers must have been, and ordered a full investigation, but naturally this was dropped as soon as it turned up with the full confidence that nothing whatsoever had gone wrong and will never go wrong again and to make sure let’s just expunge all reference to it in the Pitshanger Annals and quickly change the subject.

But since Aubrey has brought up the subject of our joint literary doomscroll, I see that he has recently vented his frustrations over Twitter and being trapped atop a No.65 bus on Richmond Bridge.  As a matter of fact, I already knew of his adventures, on account of waiting patiently at his palatial apartments for our appointment to partake in afternoon tea when word came in to his man.  My first thought was ‘if a No.65 is on Richmond Bridge, things have certainly gone awry, as its route shouldn’t set a single tyre upon its tarmac, preferring to hop across the Thames via the far more upmarket Kew Bridge’.  However, I am very pleased to say that his gentleman’s gentleman was the perfect gent and filled-in his master’s place on the Chippendale with plummy aplomb, and we soon got to setting the world to rights over the Lady Gray and finest Bannock cakes.  Though to be fair, it fell to me to keep the conversation chuntering along, as he has never been the most loquacious of butlers, informing his employer that there is a telephone call to be answered with merely a meaningful nod, or that that delightful archivist has dropped-in to retrieve an overdue slim volume with a simple raised eyebrow.

While there, I did invite him to our upcoming National Poetry Day extravaganza that I have spent the last three months planning, complete with frockcoat-dressed jugglers and be-toga’d acrobats representing the verbal dexterity of the bards, while children can become literal wordsmiths by visiting the stanza forge and hammering out a sonnet to order.  I am joking of course, the day passed without bearly a Limerick yet again.  The poet laureate did submit a jolly worthy and pleasantly-forgettable piece to the newspapers, who all obediently published it on page 17, and felt collectively smug for a few minutes at how cultured they were, before getting back which footballers had been snapped playing away, while the occasional jobbing garret-hack scribbles a back-of the-beermat ditty as last-minute homework for the letters page of a local rag, just in time to be ignored by the Great Unversed Public for whom any realisation of what day it is will only cause shivers of remembrance at fourth-form English lessons having to learn I Remember, I Remember by heart. 

Thankfully, there was no such recitation-by-rote at this week’s Workshop, which went so smoothly it’s beginning to look suspiciously like a deep fake.  Martin Choules, or else an HD avatar of him, was first down the rabbit-hole with his critique of AI’s artistic ability now and in the worryingly-near future, followed by a Russian bot purporting to be James Day assessing the shortcomings of social media while simultaneously sowing doubt and dissent.  Roger Beckett then stripped the algorithm back to basic and read out his code concerning his father’s embrace of minimalism until he was no more than a ghost in the machine, and John Hurley has likewise been turning his firewall on Brexit in an attempt to analyse if it’s a bug or a feature.  We then went trekking through uncanny valley with Rithika Nadipalli and her Indian tailor 2.0 – retooled and reskinned, but still running the same sweet engine underneath, before finally taking the red bill with Anna Matyjiw (it turns out it was a Smartie), as she remembers her childhood parties of a simpler time when a kids played out in the street and only read the headlines from the pass-the-parcel wrappings…but that all sounds too much like fake news…

Anyway, I know what you’re all thinking – “Felicity”, you’re thinking, “Did the world-famous, premier poetry archive really let such a nationally important day pass by unremarked, as quiet as a wee sleekit cowrin timorous beastie ?”  Well, firstly, I’d rather you addressed me as Ms Challiss and kept things professional, and secondly, of course not !  These days we may not have the budget for a multipart reading of Alfred ‘windbag’ Tennyson or Thomas ‘phonebook’ Eliot with full orchestra and interpretive dance, nor the cast of dozens of interns rushing round with trays full of vol-au-vons and pineapples on sticks (and yes, I did just spell vol-au-vons that way).  Instead, it was a much quieter affair, as I sighed Wordsworth’s ode to daffodils under my breath on a bench in Walpole Park,then muttered a couple of stanzas from The Raven while feeding the ducks some uncooked peas (much better for them than bread).Of course, Aubrey would have bellowed out the lines with gusto, careless of any side-eye from either human or duck, and indeed I found out later that he has recently spent an afternoon declaiming atop a No.65 to such an extent that the distracted driver had missed their turn and ended up stuck upon Richmond Bridge…

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Workshop, 14th March 2023

I have to admit that there is something of an atmosphere here at the Pitshanger Poets HQ.  The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that there was no PP Blog on the 28th of February.  Some of you may have put that down to the ephemeral, frayed-edge nature of February.  After all, it only has twenty-eight days, every four years it has twenty-nine, if on the odd occasion it only had twenty-seven days, would that be such a bad thing?  It would mean March arriving a day early, surely that would be welcome.  However, there would still have been a Tuesday, a Tuesday Night and a PP Workshop.  Instead, the blog jumps straight from the 2st of February to the 7th of March.  Clearly something is amiss.  Did we simply not have a Workshop on the 28th?  It seems a little unlikely given the regularity of the PP Workshops, held since the time of the English Civil War.

I intend to resolve that mystery.  Be assured, we held a Workshop on the 28th.  For those of you who are new to the Pitshanger Poets Workshop Blog, let me pull aside the silk kimono to reveal a little of the knobbly knees beneath.  Long experience has taught us that the Workshop Blog is a task too demanding for one correspondent alone.  Just as Eliot needed Pound, Burton needed Taylor, David needed Goliath, Nixon needed Frost, Crawford needed Davis and Ronnie needed Ronnie, so the PP Blog is a partnership between your current correspondent Aubrey Ffinch-Whistler and the esteemed archivist, Ms Felicity Challis.  We tend to divvi up the scribing duties poker-style, with she taking a couple followed by he taking a couple.  It’s in an informal arrangement and since we are both busy people with many demands on our time we are only too happy to be flexible.  On that fateful day in Feb, Ms Challis had already fulfilled her quota of two blogs and was looking forward to the fortnight break from the oppressive demands.  She had booked herself a place at a WB Yeats retreat back in the old country, a relaxing long weekend of massage and message in a nice hotel in County Galway.  Meanwhile, I had been asked to travel to Brussels to assist in judging an English as a Second Language Poetry Competition for ex-spooks, something I have done every year since I cannot remember when.  I go for the delicious Moules Marinieres, chips, sweet ketchup and faultless cryptography tips.

But disaster struck.  Due to some form of communication breakdown, neither Ms Challis or myself were at the workshop.  We understand that the workshop went ahead without either of us present to chair the session and that, incredibly, nobody died, nobody cried, and everyone present got to read their poems.  Reportedly, a fine time was had by all.  However, there are no accurate accounts of the proceedings in existence, and therefore no proof that a functional poetry workshop was actually held.   It’s all very irregular and there will be a full enquiry – certainly the poets present at that meeting have been told to expect follow-up interviews and requests for evidence which they should not refuse.  Ms Challis and I are feeling wounded, though this sentiment will surely subside given time.

This week’s poetry workshop was a constructive and worthwhile session, all the more constructive and worthwhile for having a certain Aubrey Ffinch-Whistler at the helm.  On the subject of pulling back the kimono, I have felt for a while that we could give a little bit more background in these blogs.  For those of you who are not familiar with the inner workings of a Pitshanger Poets Workshop, I shall attempt to paint a word picture of a typically edifying meeting.  We gather in the Library at Questors, a comfortable room where the various plays that have been performed over the years are locked away so that they can do no more damage.  We like to start at eight PM, but poets being poets we never begin on the dot. 

When the time is right, the chair will choose a poet to get the ball into play.  On this occasion it was Michael Harris.  Michael’s poetry often follows a ‘less is more’ principle, although shorter poems can often be more intriguing than their longer siblings.  As you might be aware, we like our writers to bring copies of their work to hand out, as the way words are arranged on a page can be just as important as the sound those words make.  In Michael’s case sometimes those copies can be very small, an endearing characteristic of his work.

This week Michael gave us a haunting piece about a hollow man, a figure missing his core and possessing a deep longing for where he came from.  Michael’s inspiration was the sculptor Bruno Catalono, but we felt the poem was effective without needing that background information.

John Hurley was asked to go next.  John often accuses himself of polemic, but he always writes from the heart.  Ass this week’s poem goes to show he clearly cares deeply for the state of the environment and the sometimes confused approach we have to solving our own problems.

Amir Dawash is a published poet with an enviable body of work.  He comes from Syria and carries the weight of that country’s history in his work.  This week’s piece talked about the way to a destination for a nation of refugees.

Doig Simmonds has been writing poetry for the best part of six decades.  We know this because he tends to date his copies and the year a poem was written sometimes provides some welcome perspective on the man behind the words.  This week’s very recent poem offered us a quiet meditation on a day collapsing into night.

Nick Barth seems to be fascinated with the ways in which the imagination and the fantastical can enter the events of everyday life.  In this week’s poem he described stripping down old machines for parts to add to an art project.  The art project is a picture of a man, a man about to be enhanced with the cybernetic parts from the stripped machines.  What next?  Will the creature come to life?

Finally, going around the table in the Library, we came to James Priestman.  James is one of life’s auto-didacts, and it’s clear that one of the things he is most didactic by is the Bible, and specifically the Old Testament.  James uses his poetry to gain another perspective on what might be an obscure or even a well-known story in the Bible.  This week he brought back a poem concerning Jonah and the Big Fish (or Whale, if you prefer).  In James’ retelling Jonah has exaggerated the entire fish story, and would have got away with it if it hadn’t have been for the intervention of a harbour girl in the port of Joppa where he has set anchor. 

As the meeting ended, it was time to collect ‘the rent’, that being the £3 contribution from each attendee to the cost of renting the Library at Questors’.  Of course we welcome newcomers to Pitshanger Poets and for those of you considering coming along, your first visit to the PP is free. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Pitshanger Poets is that the group can happily navigate such a wide variety of work, from the serious to the whimsical, from rhyming, structured forms to free verse and prose-poetry.  The poets who come along are called upon to hear and read a poem, give it a second reading and within a few moments come up with something to say about it, in the earnest hope that what they have to say is helpful to the poet and their aims.  Some people come along every week, some less frequently.  Some poets write something new every week, some will bring back a poem several times in the course of its development.  Whatever the case, the Workshop is there to help.

Of course, we can only guarantee that this occurs when either Ms Challis or myself are present to chair the meeting.  When we are absent, as on the 28th of February, well, anything could happen.  It might have been anarchy.  But then thinking about it, perhaps anarchy is what poetry is all about.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 7th March 2023

Do you tweet?  Of course you do.  I like to think of my readership as the kind of reconstructed, open-minded folk who enjoy social media as a space for healthy debate and the ability to air ones’ views without fear of castigation.  Twitter is by far the finest forum created /1

for one to discover the hopes, fears, pleasures and pains of ones’ fellow human being.  I for one greatly enjoy the cut and thrust of discussion on Twitter.  I have yet to discover a fellow tweeter who arrives on the medium with a fixed view on any given subject, for while we /2

may have an opinion, it is an opinion we are willing to alter in the face of evidence, or a more convincing thread of rhetoric.  In short, we all arrive willing to change our minds.  I have never been involved in a debate that descends into name-calling, insults or vicious /3

comparisons.  Despite the brevity of the medium, with each message restricted to a concentrated 240 characters, it is rare that a tweet is taken out of context by another user of the platform, indeed, Twitter is alive with humour, being an excellent place to carry off some /4

well-intentioned sarcasm, subtle irony or playfulness with a vanishingly small chance that one’s intentions might be misconstrued, called out or otherwise fall foul of the inability of your perfectly intelligent fellow-Twitters to take and enjoy a joke. /5

Indeed, one only has to examine the views and behaviour of the current Twitter CEO, Elon Musk to recognise the selfless commitment to free speech that he represents.  Not for Elon the continuation of the reactionary, hate-filled social bubble which brought the likes of Donald /6

Trump to power.  Under his leadership, surely Twitter is set to realise the dreams of the pioneers of the internet, as a place where information can be shared freely, the truth will shine out and lies have nowhere to hide. /7

It’s no good, I cannot keep this up.  As some of you may have realised, the last few passages were written by your faithful correspondent using Twitter and an iPhone 13 in off-verdigris, and then copied and pasted into the faithful Apple Macintosh SE by My Man.  I was attempting to write the blog entirely remotely, using the medium of Twitter, but the enforced self-censorship now required by Mr Musk made the task tiresome if not entirely impossible.  I happened to be trapped on the top deck of the number 65 bus, returning from a very pleasant dinner and a few sherbets with some old pals of mine at the A Ivy (if it’s not The Ivy, it can only be A Ivy) in Richmond.  The traffic had become particularly coagulated on the Richmond Bridge and I was feeling guilty about not having turned in a blog in a good while.  I think it’s the last time I am going to attempt that trick, I should have used email.

The truth is that I do tweet occasionally.  I heard that a number of poets, such as the estimable Ian Macmillan are worth following on Twitter and I wondered if the medium might prove another outlet for the Pitshanger Poets.  As a rule I do not engage in the descent into questionable comparisons which got that nice Mr Lineker into such trouble.  I am a little unhappy that the whole BBC stand-off thing did not last a little longer.  I did find myself wondering in an idle moment whether the dearth of football on the television and radio might leave a little room for poetry, but the entire affair was wrapped up before got to find out.  A bit of a shame really.   No, I decided a while ago that I would maintain a rhetorical style when tweeting.  As a result, most of my tweets consist of questions, some of a rhetorical nature but all of them friendly.  Fundamentally, I want to know whether a correspondent genuinely meant to say what they appeared to have said.  I find this style garners a deal of support, for which I am grateful.

This week’s workshop was a compact, bijou affair with no sign of a culture war.  We asked Martin to get us started, he gave us a selection of fictional women killed by their male authors, though surely not all with relish.  Rithika Nadipalli read next with another of her incredibly detailed poems, this one a monologue by Diya Dhari, an embroiderer who introduced us to Indian apparel but who is surely ready for her bed.  In comparison to Rithika, Anna Matyjiw is an impressionistic poet.  This week she brought an evocation of snow, which had become a landmark on this particular day.  The Pitshanger Poets have a well-established tradition that it is acceptable for men to cry, and James Day has taken this up with enthusiasm.  In this poem he appeals to his own tears and wondering why they are coming.  This week the esteemed Simon Aaronshon made a most welcome return to the Pitshanger Poets after a ten-year absence.  He gave us a poem written after walking his dog on Hampstead Heath about a man singing Queen songs to the trees, an action that can only be redeemed by the fact that he was wearing earbuds, an increasingly frequent experience.  Nick Barth tells us he wants to write more sonnets this year.  This week he gave us a walk through a sonnet, with the welcome note that at least you know when you have got to the end of it.  Finally, this week Sophie brought us an uncanny visitation of the god Pan, a supra-natural figure who appeared to exist at different scales at the same time.

Now Aubrey, I hear you ask, would you ever tweet your poetry?  I can see the attractions, especially as poetry requires the kind of thought that a blast of vitriol does not.  However, poetry can be a weapon as well as a meditation.  Perhaps now is the time to prepare a collection of verse aphorisms which can be fired off at the drop of a hat.  I shall draw up a list of handy verse tweets for everyday use.  For example, how about a couplet to show one’s displeasure at the stuttering current progress of Brexit, then one to call for Brexit to be reversed, rounded off with a hearty cry of what have the Romans ever done for us.  I would need one to point out that the current government is sadly misunderstood, followed by one pointing out that the current government is utterly useless.  We will need one to express our sympathy with the people of Ukraine, then we will need one to remind everyone that Labour took us to war in Iraq and therefore are just as deplorable as Mr Putin.  Then we need a few to tackle the subject of small boats; one in favour of small boats, one against small boats and one asking where one can obtain a small boat puncture repair kit.   Finally, I plan to compose a collection of language-maven tweets for all eventualities, from tweeters who do not understand the distinction between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, to those who do not know their ‘there’ from their ‘their’ and their ‘they’re’ and those who do not know an apostrophe from a fruit fly on the screen.

With these poetic snippets in my arsenal, I can accelerate my Twitter sessions to the point where I can devote less than ten minutes a day on the thing and get on with something more worthwhile and useful instead. Hurrah!

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 28th February 2023

I had a visit from Colonel Smythington-Sproggett from the golf club last week, asking if I fancied entering the Ladies Eighteen this month.  I believe the chaps are content to allow the fairer sex the fairways in February because it is still too nippy for plus-fours.  I patiently explained over a cup of Earl Grey that I wasn’t actually a member, and had only been seen at large upon the greens due to being a guest of Aubrey’s, but he brushed that off as a mere technicality.  Curious, I probed a little further, asking who I might be competing against.  “Well, that’s just the thing” he muttered as he rested his Willow Pattern porcelain “it seems that all of the usual gals are rather double-booked, what with their late-season skiing and early-season Tuscan cottaging.  I rather think this blasted protracted cold snap has sent them all packing to their suitcases for a little Lenten sunshine.  But we simply must maintain our thirteen-year tradition of allowing the ladies admittance to the old green heaven – after all, we are rightly proud of being the forty-third golf club in West London to allow the females to enter our clubhouse as more than just waitresses.”

And that is how I somehow promised to play a round of golf with another woman of some description before the shortest month was out.  We ended up a foursome, with the Colonel’s wife (whose name I alas could not quite catch between her large teeth and strong accent – you know, one of those ones that is so posh it thinks it rude to open its mouth wider that a needle’s eye), Gillian Twytchett (grandaughter of Giles, aged about 13), and Mrs Flittersnoop (who had ‘borrowed’ a couple of clubs from her master which we shared between us), on this very brisk and bracing afternoon to tee-off with all the enthusiasm of a goldfish with a penny-farthing.  By the second green we were already muttering how ridiculously long the holes were compared to a decent pitch-&-putt, and how the lack of windmills, hump-backs, and loop-de-loops were doubtlessly linked to the Ealing & Ancient’s declining attendance.  But then it occurred to me that the third tee was safely out of sight of the clubhouse and the male gazers therein making sure we were doing our duty, and that we could sneak off to the Red Lion for a glass of sherry and ploughmans and saunter back to the eighteenth in a couple of hours.

Alas, the other three being both a) English and b) middle-class, it was felt that such truantism was simply not the done thing, and so on we plodded.  Mrs Smythington-Sproggett took me aside and (I think) explained that sometimes one must bear up and play on, though she did concede that balls flying headlong into the rough could be immediately replayed “to keep things moving”, even if it did take a heavy toll on our collection of Aubrey’s antique Penfold Goldfinger golfballs – Mrs Flittersnoop assured me that if we collected every stray ball we saw we could always re-make up the numbers, even if some of them were decidedly oddly-coloured and lop-sided from an encounter with a mower (or possibly irate badger).  As things progressed and our experience grew, we were able to complete some of the shorter holes in single-figures (if we don’t count the kick-ins and ‘just practicings’ and ‘mind if I putt that again, it seemed to have missed’ shenanigans.  Gillian proved especially adept when she put her bloody phone down to take a swing, though she did have a habit of losing her direction and driving her ball back the way we had come – until at last, after a vigorous walk only partly ruined, we were met at the eighteenth green by the Colonel to congratulate us, check our scores, check them again, take his spectacles off and wipe them to check for  a third time, shake his head in disbelief and with a shrug award me trophy to yours truly for my final-hole score of a hole in one-hundred-and-one.

But this week’s workshop was much more under par.  No, wait, that sounds wrong.  But never one to let an extended metaphor go, I shall play on.  Martin Choules was first to tee-off, overhearing two literary gravediggers eschewing comic relief for a spot of audience-surrogating, followed by a long drive from Owen Gallagher as he explained how everyone is in too much of a hurry to be content, but at least it provides them with some exercise.  Roger Beckett found himself in a bunker, perhaps too busy pondering if the great men of history were really that great, before chipping out neatly onto the fairway to join Amir Darwish humming as he bounced off the trees and onto the green, recounting all the things we would miss if we went away (like a round of golf for a start).  First to the hole was Michael Harris, regaling us as he meticulously lined up his shortie how a refugee without love find love, be it heartbreak or empathy, and putted home with a satisfying sound of ball-in-cup.

I’m not sure what to do with this chrome-plated oversized cup, for the year that I must display it.  A silverware cabinet is not something I’ve ever needed before, never being the sporty type at school when the library was always beckoning.  I did have to partake during PE of course, usually netball or lacrosse I seem to remember, but I tended to hand around the back ‘in defence’.  And don’t get me started on the loneliness of the long-distance runner, spending an hour or two with only your own thoughts and no way or writing them down – if only audiobooks had existed back then !  Now, true to stereotype, cycling has always been popular – but more genteel potterer than lycra-clad racer.  So, what to do with my unexpected vexatious victory, my un-hunted trophy ?  Naturally, I do have plenty of shelf space in the stacks between the slim volumes, but I’m rather afraid that I’ll forget where I filed it come next year…


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Workshop, 21st February 2023

Workshop, 21st February 2023

I had an unexpected visit from Mrs Flittersnoop recently when she brought round an off-brand, small-t tupperware containing a generous helping of pasta and meatballs.  It seems she had made too much and despite serving it to Aubrey for three nights straight she still had plenty left over.  While she battled masterfully to hide her distain when I said I’d pop it in the microwave, I took the chance to ask her if she had seen any of my posters stapled to various trees in Walpole Park asking for applications to become a poetry archivist.  Alas, she hadn’t, but promised to spread the word with any strange young foreign visitors that might drop into the palatial apartment in the coming days.  She then asked if the role included the prodigious outpourings of Mrs Pamela Ayres, as she was the one poet she could name, and she had always found her mildly amusing.  I assured her that indeed Ayrsian verse had a whole shelf to itself amongst the hundred-or-so miles of stack-space, and that she was welcome to apply for a reader’s ticket if she ever wished to study the Bardess of Wantage in depth.

I should at this juncture assure my loyal readers that it is not my place to heap scorn on the first lady of light verse, nor sneer up my sleeve at her perennial popularity.  In an age when even the Poet Laureate can barely shift a couple of thousand copies of his latest slim volume, she sells out venues of that many in one night.  When most hoi-pollois struggle to tell their Charles Kingsleys from their Kingsley Amises, or who name their favourite wordsmith as ‘Edgar Allansander Pope’, then who are we to dismiss the one practitioner that everyone has heard of ?  Ever since she was run around between bookshop signings back in the 70s, probably in the Mark II Cortina of a rather dashing young publisher’s rep, she has reminded us all that poetry can be rhyming, understandable, and above all, fun !  But I must admit to preferring her bonhomies in small doses, especially as I find them so hard to read aloud, having never perfected a decent piratical accent to stand-in for anything yokel, for it is assuredly as much a dialectical dialectic as Rabbie Burns or Langston Hughes, even if it’s in a brogue that is as looked-down upon as the wielder herself.

There were an equally fine orchestra of accents at this week’s Workshop, starting with Yorkshire in the ably flattened vowels of Roger Beckett musing on an apparent board meeting of horses quite unaware of how they were being anthropomorphised by the humans looking on.  Rithika Nadipalli then brought vocal matters back to the capital, though she didn’t hang around for long before whisking off on a rhapsodic adventure in blue, compete with sound effects and stuttering, and Sophie Else has managed to spend many years in Canada without picking up a trace of a twang, but maybe that was because (according to her poem) she uses her mouth mainly for kissing.  Meanwhile, Christine Shirley has been listening to the voice on the train warning her to mind the gap, something she is most certainly aware alas, followed by a real Corker from Munster-mouthed John Hurley taking a trip to Tir Na Nog only to find St Peter has the bouncer franchise there as well.  We then came to the dulcet and relaxed West London tones of Nick Barth, ironically telling us how he was speechless inbetween his verbal tangents that increase on an evening with fewer attendees (which is a shame, because they deserve a bigger audience but a bigger audience won’t have time to hear them), before Martin Choules’s confused West Country remembered the blue-hill drawl of an artificial Shropshire lad.

Anyway, Mrs Flittersnoop’s largess has left me with a quandary of my own – I cannot bear to return a container empty when it had come to me full, but what on Earth can I fill it with that would not be an insult to her culinary culmination ?  Although I like to think that I can toad my own holes and spot my own dick, my mange is often lacking its tout and my pommes are in want of their frites.  But then I hit on the idea of making a poetic lunch – with a starter of huîtres de morse et charpentier (walrus & carpenter oysters), a main of tarte aux merles (blackbird pie), and for dessert we have prunes de réfrigérateur (icebox plums).  I must say how impressed I was at Mrs Flittersnoop’s efforts to appear delighted, and she promised me that she would serve it all up to her master that very evening !

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Workshop, 14th February 2023

I usually try to keep my head down in mid-February. This world is unusually cruel to spinsters, bombarding us with films where perfect middle-class young things fall in love in highly predictable ways while simultaneously stoking a fear of strangers and ridiculing those lonely hearts who deign to do anything so crass as to ask somebody out. And don’t get me started on the ‘single occupancy’ surcharge on hotel rooms. No, I’m usually content to let the whole lot of them stew in their oysters and Champaign while nursing all the scratches from the rose-thorns and heading for a shared future of chocolate-caused diabetes.

Alas, my longed-for self-satisfied misery was thrown into disarray last week when Aubrey’s man popped round to give his master’s apologies for being unable to attend afternoon tea – apparently he had reached a crucial juncture in his 1/44th scale recreation of his luve being like a red red rose and was all set to cause a’ the seas to gang dry. Honestly, this has become a habit of his, cancelling our weekly refresher on some pretext or other, such as his golf clubs needing polishing or his two-seater needing its wheels rotating to even out wear (it seems he’s not so keen on making right-hand turns).

However, this time I was finally able to press on his man that it was his duty to stand in his master’s stead and ensure that the disappointed hostess was not left without company in her lonely dungeon with only the paper moths for company. And so with much grace and easy dignity he joined me for a cup of Earl Grey and manor house slice as I prattled on about the many bulbs sprouting in Walpole Park and my efforts to guess which colour each would bloom into, or how many holiday brochures can I purloin from willing travel agents before they suss that I am not going to be booking a lonely-hearts singles’ tour this year either – these being my usual February pastime while I avoided the gadding couples barely looking where they were going so engrossed are they by each other’s eyes. For his part, he graciously shut me up (much to my relief) by revealing some of his back-story in the army and how he sometimes missed crawling through the mud beneath a cargo net before zip-lining to victory. As meet-cutes go, I don’t think we’re exactly star-crossed, but then I was never one for rainbows and bluebirds.

There was plenty of love at this week’s Workshop, starting with Christine Shirley who has been finding strength by remembering her mother, and James Day who has been failing to lure a doe. For Amir Darwish, war is his lover, and his prophesy has no messenger, while John Hurley has revisited his now-dilapidated schoolhouse and remembered how his old master was also a ruin. For Rithika Nadipalli meanwhile, illness and a blue painting sent her on a wild psychedelic adventure, and Martin Choules has been likewise taking inspiration from the movies to hone his romantic expectations. Michael Harris then wept unashamedly over the tears of men before Nick Barth advised actors in Valentines’ dramas how to avoid letting their phones become unintended third wheels.

Anyway, mustn’t let my healthy cynicism be undermined by a pair of piercing eyes, even if they do noticeably glint as he described his admiration for how Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads captured the best and worst aspects of an imperial soldier’s lot. No, common sense shall prevail in the face of his large, gentle hands unconsciously half-miming the action when he’s Naming the Parts from memory. And definitely no gasping as he sheepishly shares a few of his regiment’s risqué Limericks. Indeed, I shall be the epitome of discipline, the matron the modesty, even the nun of renunciation. At least, from now on. Unlike, I’m ashamed to say, my performance last week when I blushed, quivered, and outright swooned in a disgraceful display of girlish gigging that must have made him think he was sharing the cucumber sandwiches with an emotional labile liability. Consequently I haven’t heard from him since and would fear I may never see him alone again, were it not for the fact that Aubrey is due to call upon me this afternoon for tea, and when I reminded him yesterday he muttered how he really must get down to washing his moustache…

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Workshop, 7th February 2023

I’m going to have to start cutting short my stints propping up the bar at the golf club, and of course the necessary rounds of the despicable game beforehand.  The reason?  Strikes!  Please let me elucidate.  Whatever empathy one may feel for the working man (or woman), however one might agree with the right the working woman (or man) has to withdraw their labour, however appalled one might feel at the weak attempts the authorities are making to resolve matters for these fine men (or women), strikes are having an unforgivable effect on my lifestyle.  I am not referring to the interruption in services strikes are causing.  I’m standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the lot of the common man (or woman) and am happy to defer my expectation of travel, letters, education or getting better until something is done and they are happy to resume work as normal.  No, what I am referring to is the simply inexcusable effect it is having on my fellow golfers’ conversation.

If it isn’t Colonel Smythington-Sproggett turning puce at the late arrival of his firearms licence, then it’s Giles Twytchett, heir to the Twytchett billions (his father owns most of the Hanwell ridings and Southall Dale, destined to be the next part of West London to be covered in houses so small one must leave the building in order to change one’s mind), moaning about the fact that he has been prevented from visiting Ealing General for a consultation into whether something can be done on the National Health to treat his bald patch, or perhaps it’s the vicar, the Reverend Bullimore Savage, a very nice man who believes teachers should be strung up as they would not know what hit them if they had to work Sundays.  Here I am, an enthusiastic doyen of the Ealing Arts scene who would simply like to make a dent in a whisky and ginger while recounting the tale of the time John Betjeman was obliged to take the replacement bus service to Chorleywood, as a result of which he was so traumatised that he was unable to write poetry for a month.

However, coming out with an anecdote such as this only sets them off.  Perhaps they are just pulling my leg, but these pals of mine do not seem to believe that wielding the pen is work.  It’s occurred to them that the idea of a writer being unionised like any other woman (or man) of toil, and furthermore withdrawing their labour is deserving of ridicule.  Who would notice the difference?  They guffaw as they splutter into their pints.

Which ribbing only puts one in a mind to prove them wrong.  The fact is that there is a global, multi-trillion dollar industry which depends for its success on the hard graft of poets, and because of the brutal working conditions the average jobbing scribe is likely to find there, has been a brotherhood of unionised brothers (and sisters) since soon after its inception.  I am talking of the movie industry; Hollywood, Pinewood, Cricklewood and of course, Ealing.

The involvement of poets in cinema goes back to the silent era.  In those far-off days the only dialogue presented to the viewer were in the form of cards which would appear at moments of essential plot turns or moments of high drama;

‘You mean…?’

‘Yes, your aunt’s brother-in-law’s chauffer’s best man was your father!’ 

‘Then – we can get married!’

‘I love you, Cynthia!’

Cue extreme vignetting of the image on screen and romantic music on the old Joanna.

The problem these most primordial of film-makers found was that the Victorian-born script writers of the time were a deal too wordy for the restricted real-estate of the silent movie dialogue cards.  Screenplay writers would turn in paragraphs of wordage which the art department would struggle to squeeze on to the screen.  One such film maker was DW Griffith, who became increasingly frustrated at the inability of the writer of Birth of a Nation, Thomas Dixon Jr, to boil his narrative down to the pithy cues required.  Casting about for a writer with the appropriate political views to support a film, which after all was about the birth of the Ku Klux Clan, Griffith arrived at the never less-than-reprehensible Ezra Pound, who agreed to be part of the project as long as his name did not appear on the credits.

Pound soon realised that he had found himself a nice little earner in the dialogue card business and Griffith happily kept him on the payroll, despite the fact that the poet always refused to leave London and move to Hollywood.  The pithy nature of dialogue cards were such that writing could be supported using short-form telegrams, once the screenplay itself had been safely shipped to England, with Griffith sending simple instructions such as, ‘Line 15, Page 42’ to Pound, for him to respond with the timeless;

‘Moses went up the mountain all alone, returning with tablets made of stone.’

The Ezra Pound magic is redolent, even in this couplet, isn’t it?  In any case, once the rumours started spreading that DW had a poet on the staff, every film director with a pair of riding trousers and a folding chair with his name on the back wanted one.  Just as ‘proper’ classical composers began to gain star billing creating symphonic sound tracks for greats such as Gone With the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood, so too, poets on both sides of the Atlantic were being snapped up to sprinkle a little pentametric fairy dust on otherwise plodding dialogue.  Gone With The Wind director George Cukor reputedly called Robert Frost in to fettle the line which would become ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!’ The ASA film censors only allowed the expletive ‘damn’ to make the final cut when they had seen a copy of Frost’s Poetic License.

Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic film-makers could also see which way the wind was blowing.  The General Post Office’s own film unit managed to persuade WH Auden and Benjamin Britten to contribute to its iconic film ‘The Night Mail’, perhaps beginning the love affair that the cinema has had with Auden ever since.  And there is Ealing, of course.  Our poets may not have had many official credits on the extensive output from Ealing Studios, but the Tuesday night workshops provided ample opportunity for a little local recruitment.  Staff writers from the studios up the road could be seen hanging around the gates to Pitshanger Manor on occasion, notepads in hand hoping to tidy up a bit of Passport to Pimlico or The Man in The White Suit.

Yes but, I hear you ask, did any poets actually go on strike?  Could WH Auden or John Betjeman be seen gathered around the braziers outside Ealing Studios when BBC staff walked out in 1978?  Did Alice Walker down her pen when the American Screenwriters’ Guild struck in 1988?  Did Sharon Olds carry a placard during the long screenwriter’s dispute in 2007?  Was a single line of poetry not written in support of an industrial dispute.  Speaking as a poet, I have to say that this is a very. Difficult question to answer.  On the one hand poets are famous procrastinators and if a march, demo or picket line might prevent a poet from locking the study door, sitting in front of the keyboard and knuckling down to some actual writing, then it is highly likely that this is what will happen.  If on the other hand the poet felt sufficiently moved by the dispute to jot down a few lines in support of his sisters (or brothers), well then, that is just the way the wind has blown them.

Speaking of the wind, it blew a near-ideal number of skilled poets into the Pitshanger Poets Workshop this Tuesday.  James Day tidied his breeze-blown hair before telling us about the man walking around in the neighbourhood dressed only in a white bathrobe, to much local consternation.  What was he doing?  Was this any way to behave?  Roger Beckett was gusted in to tell us that his father always wore a suit, which is something which Roger now wonders at.  Did he need to wear a suit?  Didn’t everybody wear suits?  Wasn’t he just being respectable?  We then heard from Anna Matyjiw who braved the elements to read us a visceral piece concerning an abusive relationship and the person trapped in it.

When not out in the wind, Sophie Else has been experimenting with the style of her poetry.  This week she compressed a life story into a few lines as she described the end of a relationship in a railway station by the sea.  Doig Simmonds tells us he spends a significant proportion of his time thinking about the darker side of his own personality.  In this week’s poem he finds himself wondering whether he is deserving of death for a crime imagined but uncommitted.  Martin Choules often arrives at our Workshops properly dressed for stormy weather.  This week he brought us a poem about a ship which sings, a pirate ship who announces her arrival in song.  Nick Barth arrived as he always does, by bicycle, we hope he got home safely.  In this week’s poem he wrote about people who fantasise that they will eat lobster when they cannot afford baked beans.  Finally, Michael Harris has been revising the poem he wrote about men he knows with an extraordinary capacity for emotion, as they confess to crying every day. 

I have to admit that my attempts to convince my pals at the golf club that poetry is a professional business deserving respect, and that we would all be worse off without it is probably going nowhere.  However, I am convinced that screenwriting depends upon a little poetry magic, and the other day I heard an anecdote that clinched it.  If you have seen a Star Wars film, you have seen the ‘Star Wars Crawl’, George Lucas’ signature introductory text device which tells the audience what has happened so far in the saga.  Inspired by Saturday morning picture shows, Lucas had a clear vision for the look of the crawl but struggled to structure the text to achieve the impact he wanted in a concise, easy to digest fashion.  In some versions of the story, Lucas turned to the experienced film director Brian DePalma to help him write the first crawl for Star Wars: A New Hope.  In another version of the story, DePalma in turn consults Steven Berkoff, with whom he was working on a film concept which would eventually become Scarface.  Berkoff, himself an accomplished writer exercised his poetry skills and came up with the classic crawl format; three stanzas of three lines each, which has introduced every Star Wars film since.

I like to think that without poetry those first few moments of the first Star Wars film would have been a little less engaging, a little less thrilling.  In the movies as in so many walks of life, poetry serves to reel us in.  If you have been, thank you for watching.

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Workshop, 31st January 2023

One doesn’t get very far in this life without realising that a cove one rubs along with quite well is down in the dumps.  In the last few weeks I have realised that a person I count on for cold logic and clear-headed thinking was becoming fractious, irritable and impossible to cheer along with a friendly pat on the shoulder, tea and a hobnob.  In many ways Parsonage is the core of the Pitshanger Poets organisation.  For while I bumble about, my Man organises and Ms Challis, archives, Parsonage makes things work.  For the truth is, whatever Ms Challis archives must be stored electronically, and that function is carried out by that wonder of the early age of computing, the Ferranti Pegasus.

It is therefore immediately obvious when Parsonage is not feeling on top form.  Tasks which he would in the past have carried out without complaint, such as de-fogging the Critical Gamut Interpreters or retiming the Metre Measurement Relays get pushed to the bottom of Parsonage’s to-do list.  I knew when things had reached a head when Parsonage responded to a request to restock the vellum paper cartridge with a snappy response to the effect that I would have to use standard white cartridge paper like everyone else until he had re-treaded and balanced the Hard Disk Packs;

‘Can’t you see the Pegasus is suffering a crisis of confidence?’, he yelled across the computer room beneath Pitshanger Manor. ‘She won’t print until I have raised her self-esteem by at least a couple of notches.  Printing really takes it out of a computer!’

Parsonage will not mind me telling you that this interchange took me aback.  I instantly realised something was wrong.  The Pegasus is as clay to be moulded in the hands of her chief engineer.  There is nothing that Parsonage could demand of her that she will not instantly begin processing, cogitating and eventually producing.  To be confounded by her circuits, rebuffed by her logic gates in this way, the man could not but take it hard.  I could see that this would take more than one Hobnob.

It is perhaps worth taking a few moments to consider what a piece of work the Ferranti Pegasus is.  Most of us have some kind of relationship with a computer, even if we pretend that the computer is a hand-held device for making phone calls on.  Call it what it is, it is a computer.  We are used to computers performing functions as requested, according to commands that we enter, keys that we push, screens that we swipe and pinch.  Some of us have an easy-going, happy-go-lucky relationship with their computer.  It does what we expect it to, puts files where we know we can find them and rarely asks us awkward questions about our writing style, intent or general philosophy of life.

The Pegasus is not like those computers.  She was born in the age immediately after the computer had been first thought of by earnest folks wearing tweed jackets, with pipes permanently gripped between pale, poorly-fed lips, folks who built their computers from iron bed-steads, torch bulbs and baths of mercury.  These innovators had no preconceived ideas as to what a computer should do, how it should behave, or how frank, rude or proscriptive it should be towards its operator.  As far as these men and women were concerned, the whole idea of a computing machine was that it would be correct, and if it had to point that out to its user, either actively or passively, well the benighted user would just have to lump it.  In their vision of the future, computers would not only be entirely right, they would also be insufferably self-confident about the fact that they were right.  Computer operating systems would be imbued with no end of phlegm, mettle, fortitude and poise.  For a computer to produce a result with even the slightest waver, uncertainty, doubt or fear would be a fundamental design flaw.  After all, most of the development of early computers was conducted with the objective of beating the Nazis at World War II.  The results they produced would be going to the likes of Eisenhower, Churchill and possibly even Stalin.  Those men held no truck with wriggle-room.  

Not only did these pioneers of Information Technology leave no room in their specifications for grudging-user-friendliness, they had no expectations concerning what duties a computer would and would not perform.  Thus, the Pegasus emerged from the reputable Ferranti company as one of the world’s first business computers.  Primarily Ferranti recognised that one of the chief jobs in any business is to translate the appalling gobbledegook uttered by the typical executive into language which could be understood by the customer on the top deck of the Clapham Omnibus.  The Pegasus would wrest that duty from the office secretarial staff, leaving them the space and time to focus on actually running things and making the company a success, the job they had been doing all along.

From re-writing the boss’s terrible dictation into delightful prose, it was but a short development into full criticism and interpretation.  Language held no fear for these tea-powered bright sparks.  After all, they had just come off a five-year stint building machines to break the Enigma Code and the Lorentz Cipher.  Ferranti developed logic arrays for both prose and poetry,  Once the lucky Pegasus owner had soldered in the glowing valves they would be able to learn what the blazes both James Joyce and TS Eliot had been on about all this time.

The Ferranti Pegasus which eventually fell into the possession of the Pitshanger Poets had been the showroom demonstrator model and was thus fitted with every accessory and enhancement available in the catalogue.  It could both parse a verb and word a pass, reveal the allegory in Spenser’s Faerie Queen and the alligator in Walt Whitman.  When Parsonage joined us as our Chief Engineer, he was already a fan of the machine.  We knew he would expend quantities of sweat, blood and tears maintain her in perfect working order.

One thing that was certainly in perfect order this week was the Pitshanger Poets Workshop.  Owen Gallagher got us started with a new poem about redundancy, the character in the poem deciding upon the fates of others and by doing so making part of himself redundant.  Anna Matyjiw brought us a poem about God, or perhaps a poem by God, and what one man knows about another man.  Amir Darwash claimed his piece was not really a poem, being a set of commandments to his unborn child, chief amongst them, doubt everything, firstly God.  The roving finger then found Martin Choules who read a piece about a girl with a tattoo, another tattoo and perhaps another one, with each tattoo indicating something, a relationship perhaps?  Nick Barth claims to have visited a kingdom in his travels, but he would not tell us which kingdom, although we were happy to speculate.  Sophie Else seems to greatly enjoy bending language just a little out of shape.  In this week’s piece she achieved a nonsense poem which succeeds in not sounding at all like nonsense, using words which are completely plausible.  John Hurley is not one of the group’s great revisionists, but we were sure we had heard this one about a pointless hole being dug in the road before.  Lastly, Michael Harris gave us two sets of orange men, those waiting to repair the London Underground at night, and some in Northern of Ireland, preparing to set out on a different mission entirely. 

However, at the point in my story where I left it, I was uncertain whether the Pitshanger Poets had much of a future.  there was something wrong with the Pegasus and even Parsonage did not know how to soothe that which ailed her.

‘I think it must be ChatGPT’ he mumbled after I had plied him with tea and hobnobs.

‘And what might that be, a pernicious new form of solder weevil?’  I ventured, recalling the dry-solder plague of 2003.

‘No, ChatGPT is an AI.  Artificial Intelligence.  Everyone is raving about it.  It’s out there on the internet.’ I took note of Parsonage’s flashing eyes, his floating hair but otherwise remained ignorant. ‘Here, let me show you.’

Parsonage reached for his laptop and opened his browser to ChatGPT and typed write a poem about daffodils in the style of William Wordsworth.  After a few moments the ChatGPT cursor started blinking and the following spewed out onto the page:

Daffodils, the harbingers of spring,

With yellow petals, they joyfully sing,

Their bright and cheerful colors shining bright,

A welcome sight, a beautiful sight.

In fields they dance and sway in the breeze,

With laughter and joy, their beauty released,

Their bold and happy faces shining bright,

A symbol of hope, a beacon of light.

In solitude they stand, yet never alone,

Their radiance a comforting tone,

Their beauty and grace a source of delight,

A source of inspiration, day or night.

So let us cherish these simple flowers,

And bask in their beauty for hours and hours,

For they remind us of nature’s great might,

And bring us happiness, day and night.

‘You see the problem?’ Parsonage’s face adopted a grim, despairing look.  His lower jaw shook.

‘It’s complete doggerel.’

‘Exactly.  She’s been firing off request after request like that to the ChatGPT for the last few weeks, because human beings are so impressed with what it can write.’

‘But she’s been writing better poetry than that since before she was fitted with a tape drive.’ I was beginning to understand the problem.

‘You understand?  She’s wondering why she bothered to be any good.  The current generation of so-called computer scientists have only just discovered how to train a computer to write doggerel, inferior to the output she’s been capable of do since at least 1961.  She’s wondering why she ever bothered.’

‘You must be distraught, Parsonage.  I have never seen a computer with such a clear case of bruised ego.’

‘I know, Aub.  She’s a wreck.  I cannot get any sense out of her.’

‘There is only one thing to do.  You must kick-start her ego module.  There is another kid on the block, she must be convinced that she is the best AI in exisence.’

‘I suppose I could tap her Autonomy Board with a hammer.’

‘I have a better idea, Parsonage.  Give her an assignment beyond the reach of ChatGPT, in fact beyond the capabilities of any human poet.’

‘Such as?’

I cast about for ideas. ‘How about a heroic ballad justifying the continued freedom of Liz Truss, in fact proposing her return as Prime Minister!’

‘With bathos, Aub?’

‘Lots of bathos old man.  Set her a fiendish rhyme scheme and it’s got to be in sestets.  And it has to be good!’

Parsonage set to work, and it was good.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 24th January 2023

Those of you with memories as long as a week (or who are binging this blog in one sitting) may recall that I promised a report from Aubrey’s thoroughly-Sassenach Burn’s Night, and unlike our host I shall not disappoint.  Upon arriving, the early signs were not good – a wreath of thistles adorned his door and everywhere were blue-and-white LEDs as if North of the Border were still shrouded in December.  But these could not prepare me for the sight of his man dressed in full tartan regalia as he answered the door – and may I say how comfortable he looked in a kilt, and he had even grown out his beard for the occasion – I swear the Highlands have never looked so dapper.  He complimented me on my attempt at a wash-in ginger, to celebrate my own Celtic roots, even if I am decidedly black Irish, and not of the cool Phil Lynott variety.  Honestly, finally getting to see his knees in the flesh was not a disappointment.

But if this was the uniform of the staff, I dreaded how far beyond the top his master would go.  Surely he hadn’t painted his face half-blue ?  Fortunately no, as Aubrey had adopted a late 18th Century suit of frock-coat and breeches, with not a hint of tartan beyond his weskit of shepherd’s drab.  Indeed, I reflected over the cock-a-leekie starter with croutons made from what appeared to be miniature bannock cakes, for all of his Caledonian relatives, he is every bit the man who was born and raised in Ealing and prefers his Scots with ice and soda.  Nevertheless, that didn’t stop him from personally playing the bagpipes (with rather more gusto than melody) to pipe-in a monster haggis pushed on a hostess trolley by an embarrassed-looking Mrs Flittersnoop (fully be-sashed and o’shantered), and then reciting the full Address in an accent more cod that the Solway fleet.

Even Parsonage, I noticed, had broken out a checked bowtie, as he sat next to me while we waited for the meat-and-two-veg (I always wondered why only neeps with no cabbage ?)  On my other side was Colonel Smythington-Sproggett from the golf club, whose knowledge of regimental liveries is second to none.  Now I have never been one to castigate a bore, recognising that one man’s dreariness is another’s intense field of study, and heaven knows we librarians can be somewhat self-possessed over rival indexing methods and appropriate punishment for late returns, but usually I would struggle to keep much of an end up in any conversation with him.  This time, however, he provided quite the tease as he worked aloud through the various options as Aubrey carved off slices with a claymore: “Clearly neither the ffinch nor the Whistler, though its warp does have a hint of Farquindale mixed with an air of McBuckingham in its woof – in short, I’d wager he has just made it up.”

I’m glad to report that this week’s Workshop was full of groaning trenchers with no wee timorous beasties in sight.  Michael Harris gave us two takes on a lonely business in Soho – honestly, the man sounds seriously partied-out.  Meanwhile John Hurley has been gazing into the dancing flames and seeing a man seeing his past.  We then heard from Dilip Singh, a new attendee whom some of our members met at the Duke of York open mic event last week, who examined love and peripheries in a moving piece that we hope he brings back soon, before Sophie Else said a prayer to her quest for faith, or was she bidding it farewell ?  Two topical poems next, as Nick Barth was determined to let his son celebrate his 21st birthday for once without his calendar twin from the Lowlands hogging all the attention, and Martin Choules has been witnessing the modern fusion when Burns Night coincides with the Chinese New Year, as viewed from four hundred miles away.

There comes a moment in a night like Aubrey’s when one has to just let go and embrace the absurdity, and for me that came with the arrive of the clootie pudding.  It is never a good sign when the dessert course looks identical to the main, even less so when one is able to smell the brandy coming off it from the other end of the table.  And then, to my horror, I realised that Aubrey intended to set lit to it, and everything went into slow motion as the inevitable happened.  Fortunately, the only casualties were his eyebrows and the ends of his moustache, plus a black stain on his ceiling’s rococo plasterwork.  After that, one can only order another Glen Gorbals single malt and belt out Auld Lang Syne while holding onto his man’s hand rather too tightly and offering up thanks to the god of Beltane for his gift of fire – as this year, for once, it truly was a Burns Night !

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Workshop, 17th January 2023

Aubrey has been chuntering through this blog again, I see, riding his lyrical two-seater hell-for-leisure in a breakneck social whirlwind that barely pauses from one couplet to the next.  Meanwhile, we organisers of the chaos of the creative mind must come behind to tidy up, sweeping away needless namedrops and polishing the windows of context to make all clear again.  I shall address his Burns Night fiasco next week, after attending what will surely be an Interesting Time, but for now let me fact-check his claims over the never-made and never-wanted Carry On Disclaiming.  (All things golf can wait till the Spring, there’s no way I’m conducting research when the greens don’t even have the politeness to actually be green.)

So, it’s 1963 and just as the franchise had embraced the technicolour of the seaside postcard, they started to muse the decidedly monochrome humour of the freezing garret and tortured soul.  One suspects the casting came before the scripting with, as Aubrey recently revealed, Tony Hancock playing the Philip Larkin-alike.  And now, after much digging through unsorted tea-chests on the trail of a hunch and an almost-wild goose, I can exclusively reveal that I have successfully located in this august Archive the very script in question – or at least a draft of it, though it has been heavily edited in pencil by at least two different hands, and most exciting of all on the cast list page are annotations in a neat copperplate revealing who will get to flex their muscle and show us their parts.  So, stop sniggering as I thrust you into the action:

We start with our villain, Terence Rattigan (as played by Kenneth William) fuming over the failure of his latest play while his overly-serious rival John Osborne has a huge working-class hit.  It should be pointed out that this script actually uses these names for characters, though obviously they would have been changed just-enough before release.  Also, the pencil-wielder envisioned Charles Hawtrey for the latter role, which would certainly have stretched his usually-niche acting ability.  Anyway, our Johnny is a member of the ‘Rather Peeved Chaps’, which also includes Leslie Philips as the suave Kingsley Amis and Kenneth Connor as a dipso-diehard Dylan Thomas.

But Tel ‘The Rat’ Rattigan is having none of it, and secretly encourages northern earthy upstart Ted Hughes (Sid James) and his prim American wife (Joan Sims) to take them on.  The latter is clearly meant to be Sylvia Plath, though it’s clear the author knew little of her suffering and I’m sure this must have been written before her tragic death – if nothing else the Carry-Onners always knew where they were and weren’t wanted.  So, in their sunny, carefree world we also find the disapproving Establishment trying to shut down proceedings, here represented by Hattie Jacques best acerbic Stevie Smith, and the most unexpected cameo of all by casting a budget-bursting Alistair Sim as John Betjeman !  It may have seemed rather wishful-thinking that such an esteemed artiste would debase himself for the sake of a quickie, but let us not forget that St Trinian’s was a first cousin to Carry On Teacher. And so into this mix comes the Lad Himself as a wildcard, casting a librarian’s eye to glance askance at such silly goings on, while making a move for Sylvia by taking her to a jazz club and asking her to blow his trumpet.

But enough of such sillyness !  This week’s workshop was an altogether straighter-laced affair, beginning when Amir Darwish gave us a slice-of-life of a Syrian dreamer and likewise Anna Matyjiw has been mooning under the stars.  Honestly, what they need is a good hard cockerel to wake them up.  Anyway, on to Doig Simmonds who is all for quitting it for a life in the wilds, and Roger Beckett has been busy tuning a piano, but it’s just a job innit as he slackens off a g-string, while Martin Choules has lost his keys and reduced to peeping through the keyhole.  We then needed a thoughtful moment from the reverberating words of Michael Harris to catch our breath, before John Hurley grumbled about marriage and singledom in what sounded like the perfect premise for a farce, but things turned into more of a musical hall number as Rithika Nadipalli brought us some rhythm & food.  Thank goodness they were all so restrained and didn’t once let a envoi slip out.

But as for the Pinewood Popingjays, alas that is where my copy ends, mid-sentence with a line un-punched and an entendre un-double’d.  I think we can all be glad the production was dropped in favour of less-highbrow and, let’s face it, funnier targets, though there is a definite poignancy on some pages, particularly involving a world-weary Larkin, where the humour becomes a little less ropey and a little more gallows.  It makes one wonder, did any of these usual suspects ever stop camping it up long enough to play it straight ?  I am remembered of an old Parkinson clip where Kenneth Williams and Maggie Smith together shared verses of a Betjeman classic and wished I could have encouraged him to read me another one.  If only his host could have said to him “please Kenneth, carry on declaiming…”

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