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, 5th November 2019

Every time that the hardworking and unimpeachably impartial councillors in Ealing Town Hall are trying to decide how to best stoke up hate for a four-hundred year old terrorist, they will inevitably propose a massive bonfire in Walpole Park.  And every time we will have to remind them that there are caverns beneath with ceilings that can barely hold when an earthworm decides to go for a wiggle, and which are protecting millions of highly-flammable pages, not to mention our Winter fuel stores of tinder-dry tinder.  And so once again it must fall on Poetry to be the killjoy who makes life that little bit duller even out of school.

What with our thoroughly-expected general election in full swing, there are of course parallels a-plenty to be shared among the chattering class-warriors about of how they wish old Guido would succeed-oh, as if the Papist Plotters were still living in the present tense.  These humourless True Believers (including many of the Archives present interns, despite their lack of an ability to vote) are proselytising doing away with democracy ‘just this once’ because they already have all the answers and if only we would shut up and do what they say then we’d be in the land of Milk and Honey faster than a cow being chased by a bee.  Nonsense, say their opponents (some of whom are also present down here), the Sunny Uplands lie in the completely opposite direction, while yet others fret over the King Over The Water, or is it King Billy Goat Gruff ?

But that’s quite enough politics this election, and the Workshop was blessedly free of attempts to set the world to write.  The speaker’s chair was first occupied by Roger Beckett, declaring he lacked the gift for giving presents yet still bestowed us with a freely-given free verse, followed by a point of order from Daphne Gloag oohing and ahing the at the spaces between the fireworks.  The Father of the House Peter Francis then described a scribe having to leave room for the later racy marginals, and Caroline Am Bergris asking an urgent question about the epic question she might have been asked in her youth by the gods.  John Hurley then proved to be a very crossbencher while poetically ranting over the recent Season of the Dead, while Madame Chairman Pat Francis read out a report on her son’s soft toy both present and absent.  The eternally independent member Owen Gallagher was looking down on human hypocrisy with a crane-driver’s eye, and Martin Choules informed the select committee on the need to disagree like gentlemen, leaving Michael Harris stood to defend his seat while giving a non-pology for loving in his own way.

Of course, election fever has gripped the Pitshanger Poets before, like the year when Harold Wilson dropped-in in November 1974, weary from the campaign that followed the equally wearying nine months of a hung parliament.  What he needed was an evening away from the white heat of door-knocking and baby-kissing and to be a simple husband accompanying Mary Wilson the budding poetess.  In truth, Harold was never the literary sort (unlike his opponent Ted Heath who even went to the trouble of writing his own), but he could find one end of a sonnet from an eye-rhyme.

However, he was in for a shock that night as a puckish Philip Larkin read a favourite of his by the late Robert Frost – The Death of the Hired Man.  Who should we encounter therein, but a certain Harold Wilson, simple farm boy with ideals and learning above his station who was always slogging and arguing with old man Silas as they tried to build up the hayricks.  But was the latter, suggested our Phil, an allegory for Socialism itself and this “Harold Wilson’s” uneasy working relationship with it ?  The PM took this in, sucked on his pipe, and mused that that must make Farmer Warren the arch capitalist who would deny old Silas the chance to make a living and drag young Harold out of school to deny him the chance of betterment.  No, Harold thought that Harold was better off keeping out of the hayfields and concentrating on his future in the cities, where the future came so slowly – after all, a week was a long time in piling ricks.

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Workshop, 29th October 2019

It is appropriate that just before Halloween, the gremlins got into the Archive and mixed up the order of the index cards, leading to Yeats and Wordsworth unexpectedly leading the pack while poor Allan Ahlberg was taught a harsh lesson in alphabetical privilege.  Indeed, it has instantly given our latest unpaid interns a new cause to champion, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with them mostly being Polish with names featuring a not-disappointing number of zeds.

Anyway, on with this week’s workshop, where I’m glad to say the participants were in a strictly phoneme-neutral order.  Daphne Gloag was first among equals as she saw a universe in the canvases of a minimalist painter while Owen Gallagher observed an insult from beyond the cold grave.  Michael Harris has been speaking God’s truth about love, in all its forms, while a perfectly cheery Pat Francis has been thinking about where she’d like to be buried, and husband Peter has been watching the sun catching the underside of Autumn leaves.  It is fire that has been heating John Hurley’s passion of late, as he wishes Prometheus had been less gung-ho and had considered the pollution, before Martin Choules has been watching the skeletons in a seasonal tale as long as it is tall, and finally Doig Simmonds has been asking the eternal question: war, what is it good for ?

Sir John’s salons were always informal, and there was never a set order of readers, not by name, age, height, or even (much to Gerogie ‘Lord’ Byron’s chagrin) social rank.  Sometimes the ‘conch’ of the day (usually the bottle of port) would orbit the room in a clockwise manner, though in late October it was not unknown for their playful host to insist on brandy, thereby forcing the company to be daringly widdershins.  This would always upset William Blake, who liked to sit himself on Sir John’s right hand to ensure that he would get to go last, and dreaded the times when the lord of the manor would turn to him with a jovial “Tell me Bill, how does Matthew 20:16 go again ?” to which he would be forced to mumble “So the first shall be last and the last first.”

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Workshop, 15th October 2019

As many of my loyal readership are aware, the Pitshanger Poets is not my only social outlet.  There’s the Driver’s Club for the Two-Seater, a form of Vintage Car aggregator for the more obscure marques.  One of the fellows who comes along to the irregular meetings claims to own a car by a pre-war manufacturer so exclusive that none were actually made, a paradox which none of the many club meets we have organised has resolved.

Then there is the Golf Club.  This used to be a regular pastime.  I have been a member for simply decades and for a long time I could not imagine a week without getting together with the fellows at the club – a game, a snifter at the bar, the annual May Ball and the Christmas Party, I really felt like I belonged, and they made it clear they valued my maturity and experience with organisations of this kind.  I got myself a parking space, a regular wing-back armchair in the lounge, a discount on the membership, but then a few years ago I realised I was not as enamoured with the place as I thought.  I decided that much as I enjoyed playing with the other chaps that the rules and regs were a little oppressive.  I quite fancied the idea of playing at other clubs.  There was an American chap making a lot of noise about his Club and that I should go there a few times a week.  I still loved the old place, loved the freedom of just being able to drop in whenever I liked, but you know, even with the discount the dues seemed steep.

This week’s Workshop was anything like the bar at the Golf Club, but I could not say the same for the session in the Grapevine Bar afterwards.  Anne Furneaux enjoys a glass of posh white in the Grapevine Bar, and has been remembering the toys of her childhood.  Today she touched on a not altogether untroubled character from the toy box, the Golliwog, with delicacy.  Doig Simmonds is supreme at the long drive over the water and explored the stone which is removed from the block to reveal the sculpture beneath.  John Hurley’s poetry is famous for clearing the fairway from the tee.  This week he told us about George, a legendary character from Ireland.  Michael Harris played the well-known double-poem ruse, on the subjects of Nearly and Neverland and Nowhere, a very concentrated piece of advice on the desirability of getting a life.  Roger Becket is superlative with the delicate putt, none so delicate as this metaphor of creating to build ones own musical instrument.  Pat Francis tells a fine story which counts for a lot in the bar.  This weeks was about sand, on the beach and in the fire buckets during the Blitz.  Husband Peter also tells a good story in the bar when given a chance.  He’s been thinking about where all that gas comes from to keep out living rooms as warm as the tropics.  Nick Barth’s handicap is lower than you would expect from looking at his clubs, but he is still able to spin a tale out of a clock made for a Soviet Submarine.  Owen Gallagher will tell anyone what a weird lark this is being a poet.  Daphne will engage anyone sporting a pair of tartan trousers with a Socratic argument on the value of black holes.  Finally, Martin offered a somewhat sceptical discussion on the value of some of the weirder elements at the bottom of the Periodic Table, no matter what potential value these metals might offer to the manufacture of golf equipment.

So, I determined to leave the Club.  I wrote the familiar ‘Dear Don’ letter to the chairman, who told me that it was a great shame.  We agreed a departure date so that I could get a few rounds in with the old gang and figure out which clubs was going to play with next.  There was obviously my old mate Leo – I had promised him a few games in advance, and I could not go back on my word.  In March, the President of the Club, Don, generously gave me a few more months’ membership, just to get me to the end of the October.  No one likes to play too far into the Autumn, and last week Leo told it would be fine, we could still play just as well after I left the club, which cheered everyone up.

The final deadline is approaching fast and my feet are colder than the proverbial Siberian herdsman thrown out of the dacha in the middle of winter without his boots and flask of vodka.  Part of me wants to head off into the wild blue yonder and play golf with Norwegians, Canadians, even the Swiss.  Part of me thinks that if I leave now, I will never get a favourable introduction to any other club. Surely, I have already made my choice and must stick to my guns.  I had become convinced that this was not the right club for me.  Obviously, they have done everything to keep me, but somehow this has not helped.  In the words of Groucho, I would not be a member of any club that would have me.

I know this a long and complex story, very anecdotal, and probably has no relevance to poetry or to the life you lead, still it is troubling, and I have no immediate answer.   I know the chaps in the club are desperate for me to make up my mind.  Do you know the answer?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 8th October 2019

I must admit, I have never been one for problem-solving.  I approach tricky problems the way I approach mountains – this particular example may look picturesque from a distance, but if someone else has already climbed it, and there’s a handy funicular, why reach for the rope, pitons, tent and bivouac?  I sometimes find myself gazing at Parsonage, sitting at the Ferranti Pegasus’ well-tempered key-enterer with a mixture of admiration and incomprehension.  There he is now, clacking away, coding an algorithm to grade various poetic onomatopoeia by similarity to the sounds themselves, not only solving a problem which has never been solved before, but also raising the Pegasus’ own intelligence by a degree or two, towards an eventual goal he calls the singularity.

The singularity (always in italics) is a mind-blowing tipping point in artificial intelligence, by which theoretical time the machine becomes so dashed clever that it can work out what problem we want to solve before we have even thought of it, and will then immediately go on to solve that problem – but most importantly, will not endlessly bang on about it, meaning that vital afternoon naps are not disturbed.

It is for this reason that I have not volunteered my peerless intellect up to the nation to help solve this Brexit thing.  As far as I am concerned, Brexit should be corralled with the Irish Problem, the 38th Parallel, Roswell, The Marie Celeste, The Priory of Sion, The Voynich Manuscript, the smile of the Mona Lisa, and the inverse motivational characteristics of the domestic printer (it only works when you don’t need it to and never works when you do) as unsolved and insoluble.  I am not interested in Occam’s Pendulum, Foucault’s Razor, the Gordian Riddle or the Knot of the Sphinx.  One might as well attempt to cross the Rubicon in a Ship of Fools using the Sword of Damocles as a paddle as attempt to pass a Brexit Bill through the eye of a needle, as my old Classics Professor used to say.

This week’s Workshop was an exercise in peace and understanding, with no requirement for anyone to cry, ‘order, order!’  Peter Francis was given the first turn at the dispatch box with a gender-identity poem about his own childhood which could nevertheless be set in the present day.  Pat Francis then took control of the order-paper, offering up a proposal on the impossibility of designing either flowers, or one’s friends.  Nick Barth stood up next, recounting a possible present in which a certain politician just did not exist.  Roger Becket presented a very plausible treatise on the value and structure brought to him by work and honest toil.  We almost believe him!  Daphne retuned to a theme she has brought to this august assembly in the past, also to do with work, but the great pleasure brought to her late friend Beryl by embroidery.  Michael Harris made two very short interjections on the subject of love, the house approved of them both.  Doig Simmonds brought the subject of death to the table, recounting a story of a ghostly flight to the other side.  John Hurley professed himself tired of mere talking shops, perhaps in contempt of the very Place where he was speaking.  Finally, Owen Gallagher spoke up for parents condemned to silence, specifically his father.

Now I’m not saying that poets as a species are incapable of exploring the mysteries of existence, far from it, it’s very much what we are here for.  It’s just that the poetic form has considerably less space for showing one’s working out, and as my Mathematics master always used to make clear, that’s a very good way of losing marks.  Perhaps there’s no reason why the poet cannot step up to the Scientist’s blackboard, covered with the densest mathematical symbols representing her life’s work and rather like the alien Klaatu in the film The Day The Earth Stood Still, fill in a blank space, solving the problem at a stroke.  On the other hand, poets have an approach to truth that Alan Chambers, the inestimably talented poet and sailor of this parish would understand as going towards.  A navigator aboard a sailing vessel would never claim that he is going to a destination, only that he is going towards it.  An approach to addressing great mysteries such as Brexit which reminds me of a line of Donne’s; ‘On a huge hill, / Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will. / Reach her, about must, and about must go’.

Which is why when a Workshop is ended, I never propose going to the bar, only going towards it, for if one gets there first, one is bound to have to buy the first round.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 1st October 2019

Computers ?  Pah !  Nothing but an abacus crossed with a slide rule.  While the Pitshanger poets might be very pleased with their Ferranti Pegasus that once resided in the vault of Pitzhanger Manor and has since been banished to the vaults of the Town Hall as though it were a family ancestor or a box of Christmas lights, I’m very pleased to say that we have no truck with such jumped-up pocket calculators down here in the Archive beneath the park.  And that’s not because our perpetual damp makes electricity inadvisable.  Our ongoing microfiche project will have researchers squinting long after their latest gizmo with its valve-drive processors and almost-eight-thousand-word rotating memory has been upgraded out of existence by devices with actual keyboards and screens.

But despite my many lectures and training sessions to the interns about the utility of pen & paper and superiority of correction fluid over any delete key, still they complain at having to write out every comprehensive index in triplicate while manually sorting through the hundreds of boxes of punch-cards for the one that catalogues how many commas are used by Shakespeare sonnet.  Why will they not appreciate that art and beauty must take time ?  How is one to appreciate the rarity of having time to stop and stare if one has already sent all one’s emails and updated one’s spreadsheets by nine-thirty and is already looking forward to spending the rest of the morning reading poetry blogs online?

And therein lies the great irony of this modern world – that the days of sending out these weekly briefings by letrasetted news-sheets to be carried by the night mail over the border or rushing out breaking-news ‘tweets’ by pigeon-post are long over.  Now we are finally forced to embrace the 1940s and enter the computer age with these regular diaries being hand-carved in boxwood, handpainted with Indian ink, photographed onto glass plates, packed in straw and trundled by handcart over to a certain gentleman’s gentleman who by strange alchemy makes my words appear on as many as ten screens via pushing a few electrons down a wire.  At least, I assume my words appear, as I’ve never sullied my hands on a keyboard to check.

I’m delighted to report that this week’s workshop was thoroughly old-school, in presentation at least, though Nick Barth did lead off with a dispatch from the culture wars as he railed against the lack of civility that comes from being too connected, while Caroline Am Bergris kept her own deliberate rudeness at her tormentor cold and focused.  Daphne Gloag has been hitting a rhyming dictionary this week as she wandered through her echoing memories and Anne Furneaux has been rummaging through a toybox for hers in the form of a much-loved bear.  Alas, Alan Chambers has been lost in the haze, unsure if he’s seeing a hawk or a flamingo, while Martin Choules has been rewriting a Victorian fairy tale with a slightly puckish grin.

What Sir John would have made of the monster in his basement is unknown, lurking in a cavern beneath his manor house, bolted down to stop it from floating off and crashing through its ceiling (on account of being mostly constructed of vacuum tubes) and on through the floor of the grand salon in the middle of one of Dame Eliza’s Improved Rose-Growers balls.  But it was undeniable that by 1968 these computational devices were starting to catch on.  At one meeting that year, the Archive reveals, Edwin Morgan dropped in to share thoughts on how best to translate Beowulf with a budding young Seamus ‘Jimmy’ Heaney and to compare nightingale and starling populations in urban squares with Eric Maschwitz.  He also hoped to read out a verse from his new collection entitled The Computer’s First Christmas Card, but alas no sooner did he start when the entire page turned blue except for the word ‘error’ and remained thus despite the book being closed and opened again multiple times.

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So Now We Know – Pat Francis

They listened to somebody or other on TV
who said extremists were to blame
they tuned into experts on the radio
who told them it was apathetic non-voters

they read newspapers       went online
it was reckless lefties stirring up trouble
it was because of self-serving capitalists
it was wishy-washy liberals sitting on the fence

They listened to the gossip
it was the bosses the strikers the foreigners
the old the young the rough-sleepers
who were to blame

Unemployed car-workers in the Midlands
knew it was southerners living easy who caused it
In Lancashire they knew Londoners started it
though Yorkshire had a hand in it

the Irish knew
as the Scots knew
it was always
England’s fault

they listened to the candidates
unequivocally  incontrovertibly
it was the stupidity the carelessness
the downright duplicity of the other party

They listened to government ministers who said
It is quite clear       and I cannot stress this too strongly
it is all the fault of the French
the French and the Germans      maybe the Americans

So they asked the philosophers
and the philosophers said
they had thought long and hard about this question
and were minded to believe that quite possibly

there was always

somebody

somewhere

to blame

Pat Francis

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Workshop, 24th September 2019

I have never been keen on heights, and the idea of climbing anything not fitted with substantial bannisters makes me go weak at the knees.  A brisk walk up Castlebar Hill in Ealing is as close to mountaineering as I am willing to perform, and I demand a nice sit down on achieving the summit.  Climbing is of course a hugely popular activity and there are people willing to risk their lives in pursuit of the sport, an aspect of life’s rich tapestry which I was reminded of as I read the notices on the sad passing of Al Alvarez.  Alvarez was a polymath; not only a literary editor, but also a poker player, writer and organiser of competitive poetry bouts in the pubs and clubs of Britain, an amateur in the best sense of that word.  In the 1960’s Alvarez joined the heady world of climbing, rubbing shoulders with Chris Bonington and Ian MacNaught-Davis.  Davis was something of a TV personality at the time, having performed various climbs on the small screen, including the Eiffel Tower for a series on ABC tv in the United States.  He would go on to become an early proponent of computers, presenting programmes on the BBC and helping to establish a pioneering computer time-share company, Comshare (for the non-technical, a room full of computers for hire, nowadays known as ‘the cloud’) in the 1970’s.  Thereby hangs a tale, coming up right after these words from our sponsors, the Pitshanger Poets.

This week’s workshop was anything but a hard climb.  Doig Simmons, a polymath himself, has again been raiding his own archive and came up with a breathtaking tale of a woman in Africa, caring for her mother in one small room.  John Hurley found inspiration in the natural phenomenon of bird spit for an exploration of hedgerow fruits and jam.  Owen Gallagher took us back to the ‘what’s my line’ school of poetry with a wry tale of a career on the buses which lasted just a day.  Peter Francis seemed not to be having a lovely day when a neighbour wished him one and he found himself peeling back the layers of meaning in the encounter.  New Poet Abdullah read us a piece in Arabic about his homeland, and promises to return with a translated version.  Pat Francis has written an examination of the root causes of all the stuff which is going on in the world today, and put it in this week’s poem, so now we know.  Martin Choules appears not to like drummer and balding 1980’s heart-throb Phil Collins, or does he?  Nick Barth is getting ready for Brexit and speculating on what life will be like once it’s all over.  Very brave.  Roger Beckett went back to a workplace theme this week, remembering an early proponent of desktop publishing and the things he used to find to publish.  Daphne Gloag is busy constructing her sequence, possibilities, and we benefit from seeing early drafts of pieces which may well make it into print.  This week, Daphne mused on words and the possibility they would become words.

What of these intrepid mountaineers and their enthusiasms?  Is there a school of heroic mountain poetry, composed in the bivouac or yelled into a recording device from the slope itself?  Perhaps.  What I do know is that without Mr Al Alvarez and his friendship with ‘Mac’ as we used to call MacNaught-Davis we would not have the Ferranti Pegasus.  Both Alvarez and Mac were intrigued by the Pitshanger Poets’ early experiments into poetic-text analytics and would donate our computer scientist, Parsonage, time on Comshare’s Mainframes in the night when things were quiet.  However, Parsonage’s analytics became ever-more processor-hungry and routines to calculate such imponderables as whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, or who ate all the plums that were in the icebox? (answer, William Carlos Williams) led to his programs eating into Comshare’s customer bandwidth.  So it was that Parsonage was disturbed one evening by Mac, Alvarez and Bonington in a large removals van.  It turned out that Comshare had an antiquated Ferranti Pegasus mainframe in its Chelsea Data Centre which it was planning to decommission.  Mac had hit on the idea of giving it to PP.  A few hours later it was installed and running in the basement of Pitshanger Manor.  The young Parsonage was overjoyed and started coding, while the three mountaineers headed for the Pub.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

 

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