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, 20th July 2021

More than once we have used this blog to touch on the outward-bound nature of the Pitshanger Poets and their predilection for the odd charabanc, jaunt and festival or large public act of resistance.  Especially in the summer, there’s nothing that a ‘blocked’ poet, struggling to pursue their next sequence during the unending cheer of sunny days and long balmy evenings likes more than to get out to a festival and forget themselves by yelling at a sparse crowd through a megaphone.  However, poetry festivals, even before this period of awful awfulness we are currently experiencing were becoming thin on the ground.  It will not be a surprise to learn that many a rock, blues, jazz and even literary festivals were originally devoted to prosody.

You might be one of the few intelligentsias who are already aware of the original Glastonbury Festivals, established by the charming Rutland Broughton, composer and great friend of the striking miners of 1926.  Pitshanger alumni led by poet Edward Carpenter would gather at Paddington Station before wending their way down to the West Country and the eponymous Assembly Rooms for a tramp about on the boards and a bit of modern operaticals in an event which must have inspired the Pitshanger’s pals, the soon-to-be-thespian-botherers, The Questors.  Long before the transient city which is today’s festival was a muddy patch in the ground, Glastonbury was home to something a little more substantial than a spoken word tent, and a good thing too, for the inter-war poets were known to dislike tents with a passion.

A few poetry fans (and there a few, I can tell you) will remember the Whitsun Readings, a festival created by a cadre of Philip Larkin zealots in the early nineteen-sixties.  By the early seventies it had been colonised by people in voluminous turnups and ridiculous waistcoats to become the National Jazz and Blues Festival.  This went on to swallow up the very earnest Men Shun the Hell That To Heaven Leeds spoken word festival.  By the 1980s, the Reading and Leeds Festivals would be joint rock fixtures in the calendars of the double-denimed across the nation.

However, it has to be admitted that the nineteen sixties were a Golden Age for the free poetry festival.  The rhetorically-named Hey! On Why? Festival was a regular home-from-home for the PP Tuesday Workshop following its establishment in 1962 and the pop-up stand was a familiar sight.  The Isle of Wight Rock Festival was first established as the cryptically-named Sonnet 106 ‘peace and love’ poetry gathering in 1966 (from The Bard; ‘I see descriptions of the fairest wights/And beauty making beautiful old rhyme’).  Meanwhile, in the United States a group of free-thinkers in upstate New York had the original notion of running a poetry event to be called The Road Less Travelled before the concept evolved into a rock festival. Hundreds of thousands of people were drawn to it, making the route to Woodstock the road most travelled on one particular weekend in 1969.

Meanwhile, Sligo in Eire stretched credulity to near breaking point when the town established the WB Yeates-tinged  I’ll Go Now To The Lake Innes Free Festival in 1969, but fortunately the name was so very cryptic that very few poetry fans found their way there.  Bringing things up to date, I see that the once innovatory Erith Has Nothing To Show More Fair is simply the Erith Pier Festival these days.  Given the plethora of cryptic punnery evident in this week’s Pitshanger Poet’s Blog I am sure my readers can be forgiven for hoping that I will be leaving for the Give It A Restival before too long.

An aspect of our lives that never needs a rest is the Pitshanger Poets Tuesday Workshop.  Martin Choules (a poet who rhymes) is one for variety in all things poetic and this week he did not disappoint, bringing a somewhat surreal piece concerning a girl he knows who paints curlews.  John Hurley (who also rhymes frequently) is a man of many passions.  One of these is the horses, as they say in racing circles.  John has a keen eye for detail, and never more so than with Racing World, highlighting the neuroticism of the various players, whether that be punter, owner, trainer, or indeed, horse.  Rithika Nadipalli (who also rhymes) brought us a miniature this week, a watercolour in words based on the sight of a flower she saw on a walk.  What sort of flower?  We ae not quite sure, but she thinks it was a tulip, and that’s good enough for us.  Roger Beckett (occasionally rhymes) is a turbulent poet who occasionally indulges in a bit of iconoclasticism.  This week he asked why humans seem so determined not to learn from history.  Finally, Nick Barth (almost never rhymes) also took a look at history, on this occasion the history of his own moustache.  Presumably he’s proud of it, but I’m not sure why. 

A great evening was had by all, if you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 13th July 2021

Cycling back from a jaunt to Hyde Park recently, I took a wrong turn in Hammersmith and found myself being swept along the four lane monster that is the Great West Road, attempting to rein-in Gertie from shying at every thundering charabanc and articulated panel van.  Worst was to come at the Hogarth roundabout, a pocket gyratory with a roller-coaster through the middle.  I escaped by the first exit beside the church and brewery, and when I had regained my breath and shifted my pulse back into first gear I took a moment to look around the core of the old village of Chiswick, once a literal cheese farm close to (but not vibratingly-close to) the Bath Road turnpike along the old High Road through the fields.  On the northern edge of the village lived the eccentric artist William Hogarth, a Tuesday night regular, in his modest red-brick cottage that still stands, these days marooned on the far side of the gaping gyre that cruelly now bears his name.

Mind you, I shouldn’t complain too loudly as someone who enjoys being taken for motorised jaunts in Aubrey’s two-seater, and neither should Bill Hogarth, who would often complain what a palaver it was to catch the stage from Chiswick to London with his latest canvas.  Surely he would have relished a speedy and above all smooth canter from right outside his very door, flying over the rooftops of Hammersmith and rattling through the market gardens of Brompton all the way to Knightsbridge, that famous name in want of a town.  Instead he must crawl through the traffic of Chiswick, Hammersmith and Kensington, mixing with the market drays, hay wains and herses, while deafened by the roar of thousands of people going about their day.  Indeed, it’s a wonder how the whole ordeal didn’t make it into one of his cycles of satire – The Rake’s Lack of Progress, perhaps.

Plenty of progress at this week’s workshop, and none of it bypassing the issues.  Rithika Nadipalli was first to pull on her driving gloves with a fine reworking of her cautionary tale of a Romantic Age literary troll, in the form of William Blake, being taken at his word by the Devil, while John Hurley donned his finest driving cap tell us how he’d once caught the bus to heaven only to be thrown off just shy of the Pearly Gates because he didn’t have ticket.  Martin Choules then pulled up his DeLorean golf buggy to spin a yarn about a round he’d played long in the past, and finally Nick Barth, taking public transport now he is without his Citroens, has been observing a gentleman of the road become a gentleman of the train.

Hogarth, like Sir John later, used his house in the West as a retreat from constant drone of London living.  He also had a pad in Leicester Fields, right in the heart of the off-to-the-edge of the heaving Theatre District.  He would often complain of being woken at night by the chattering of the chattering classes as they rowdily headed down to the Strand to catch the night-stages to their little suburban homes out in the sticks of Kensington and Notting Hill.  But it was just as bad in Chiswick, where the brewery was a hive of comings and goings, and it was little consolation that they were moving barrels of good English beer instead of that nasty foreign gin, since gin butts were much smaller and didn’t rattle as much.  (Good thing he never knew that he was also living directly beneath the flightpath to Heathrow.)

All this lack of sleep might explain his constant grumpiness, an essential trait for any successful satirist, which is really nothing more than well-dressed name-calling and face-pulling.  Had he instead chosen to make Ealing his second-home-from-home, perhaps even Pitzhanger Manor itself, then maybe he would instead have enjoyed a long and ignored career painting happy cows and cheery milkmaids.  Though had he been the lord of the Manor, he would have had to continue the tradition of the Tuesday nights, and seen such ripe targets as his attendees – after all, and few artists are as up their own trochees as poets…

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Workshop, 6th July 2021

I must admit that I do love a round of golf.  Putting through the mousehole in the windmill, bouncing off the cushion where the fairway takes a left-hander, up the anthill and into the hole to the approval of the fibreglass dinosaur looking on.  Yes, crazy golf has much to recommend it, from just needing the one club and no fiddly tees to the ability to complete a round within three quarters of an hour and then retire to the nineteenth hole in the form of the adjacent ice cream van.  Why do we only have these marvels at the seaside, as if they are as cheesy as an amusement arcade on a pleasure pier ?  Most of all, why does Aubrey golf club not install one in the car park so that I can amuse myself while he’s out working up a record high score ?  I can imagine it now, putting through the discarded drainpipe round by the back door, slaloming between the double-parked Range Rovers and plopping into the large pothole at the back.   But as it is, at least I can enjoy spotting some butterflies in the rough while I wait for his-nibs to find his ball.

This week’s Workshop was similarly under par…wait, that’s a good thing, right…?  Well, anyway, John Hurley was first to tee-off with a visit to his local A&E and a night in, while Martin Choules took out his putter to chip in a verse about the lack of a grazing herd to tend the fairways of the Isle of Wight.  He then let Nick Barth play through with a tale of skywatching and paranoid strangers, before Martin played the final hole with some quiet praise for those who kept the world out of a war.

Searching the Archive, I see that Sir John was himself taken with the golf bug, and attempted to convert his back garden into a custom links.  However, he also knew he would have to hide his intentions from Eliza, who had banned golf due to the propensity of the balls to so faithfully find the windows, and so the next time Henry Repton dropped in on a Tuesday evening he took his to one side.  Realising his grounds would only allow for two or three full-size holes, the solution they settled on was to instead concentrate on the final greens – these were cunningly disguised as a privet maze, full right angles and blind alleys ending in a molehill.  It proved a hit with the poets who would arrive early one Summer evenings to take in a round before the verses started, though Bill Wordsworth would often complain that the point of golf was to reacquaint oneself with wild nature, not to get lost in a labyrinth trying to find the fourteenth.  And anyway, real golfers only ever play up the side of a mountain.  The inevitable broken panes were convincingly put down to some inebriated birds, and indeed Sir John went so far as to have taxidermied one of bagged partridges to repeatedly play the careless flyer.

Thus the ruse worked for a couple of years, until the inevitable happened as always happens with hedges – people start to cut through, and what was once a chink too tight for a fox ends up a gaping hole large enough to drive a herd of sheep through.  Soon everyone was taking these short cuts to the central sundial that marked the eighteenth hole, niftily dodging the bunkers (artfully-placed rockeries) and the rough (patches of bracken).  But the jig was finally up one windy July afternoon when Eliza’a new bonnet blew off into the maze, and after many a wrong turn she finally located it, and indeed located Messrs Byron, Keats and Blake all practicing putting their balls into it.  Master Repton was swiftly ordered back to pull up every last twig and replace it with a bowling green, on the theory that those balls were too heavy to be moved more than a few feet at a time – a theory that was to be quickly proved wrong when Southey accused Shelley of misusing a semi-colon.  Nobody could quite explain what happened next, but none of the new salon sash windows survived the evening.

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Workshop, 29th June 2021

We poets are not summer creatures.  I can genuinely say that as one of the greatest poets to frequent the bar at the Golf Club, that there are few things I would rather be doing than sitting at my desk with the blank page in front of me spotted from the sweat of my brow as I await the muse.  The problem is that those few things tend to happen during the summer months and are wont to drag one away, even if it is only as far as the television to take in a match, game, race, meet, contest, event, clash, battle, regatta, tourney, test, rubber or huff.  The problem with being a resident of these islands is that whichever of the four nations you pay allegiance to, you are required to watch every sport going, because in a given year your nation can only succeed at one discipline at a time.  Speaking as an avid tennis fan, this is one of the many reasons why Formula One is so deplorable.  While Lewis Hamilton was winning all his races it meant that our tennis players and indeed footballers could not get a turn.  Unfortunately for Andy Murray it looks as if he did not get the preview tapes for the rest of the Formula One races this season, as it looks like Lewis is going to get a drubbing from the Dutchman Jos Verstappen.  Happily, this means that the England Football Team might have a shot at winning the Euros, although of course this also means that the Italian Footballers are in with a shout as Ferrari are not doing so well in the racing.

I hope my loyal readers are beginning to get my point.  The finely-balanced warp, weft and even wooft of who is on the up, down, in and out, who has played the game of their lives and who has been beaten hollow, is interesting enough to dash my audience with St Cecilia and keep me from the writing desk.  And I don’t even like sport.  Imagine the competition from things one does enjoy, such as strolling through the park, selecting a bottle of chilled rose for a picnic or sitting outside a pub enjoying a pint of fine brown foaming meths.  One could argue, I suppose, that a poet should be able to multi-task, that a writer of sufficient mental agility should be able to note down a few lines between gulps of ale or corners of Wensleydale, and they would be correct.  Writing poetry while observing an exciting sporting event is much more of a struggle, a point proved by the Pitshanger Poetry Workshop Archive.  I asked m’colleague Miss Challiss and m’maths brain Parsonage to come up with the stats for me.  The Ferranti Pegasus tells us that relatively few poems have been written about football, notable exceptions coming from AE Houseman (‘Twice a Week the Winter Thorough’) and Carol Ann Duffy (‘The Christmas Truce’), but both these pieces are reminiscences, written long after the event.  It is thought unlikely that AE or indeed Carol Ann were at football matches when they penned these pieces.

Indeed, Houseman’s poem mentions playing cricket as well, leading me to believe that he may have dreamt the whole thing up as a distraction during an interminable Test Match.  I can vouch for the notion that cricket is practically the only sport compatible with the art of prosody, due to the yawing gaps between the occasional moments of on-field interest.  There’s easily enough time to jot down a few lines while the bowler gets a bit of a polish in, though I have noticed that the fans object if one tries to unfold the laptop and re-work one’s current novella mid-over.  Parsonage confirms that there are a peculiarly high number of poems in the archive about cricket, including the highly peculiar ‘Vitai Lampada’ by Henry Newbolt, which inspired, or perhaps was inspired by the infamous line about the Battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eaton.

Happily, such valour and outright bravery is not required to attend a virtualised workshop at the Pitshanger Poets.  John Hurley appears to have been reading a bit of Roland Barthes as he declares this week that Supermarkets have supplanted Cathedrals as the home of creed, solace and salvation.  By the end of the poem it’s clear that John is obtaining succour from neither of these locations, and he tells us it would be nice if the reader would just drop round for a drink.  Roger Beckett stepped away from such current concerns to write a sonnet about his friends Carol and Graham, whose tandem bicycle is very much a metaphor for the strength of their relationship.  Finally, Nick Barth has dug an old one out from his hard drive, this one spinning a yarn about the layout of Walpole Park being based upon the constellations in the night sky, much like the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, all the better to guide one home.  Pull the other one Nick, it has bells on it.

If a cricket match is an ideal place for some scribbling, there is surely one sporting arena which leaves even more headspace for a stint of creative writing, and that is Formula One.  It will not surprise you to learn that I am an enormous fan of motor-racing’s premier formula, primarily because of the slap-up, five-star, champagne and caviar junkets one can get oneself attached to if one hangs tightly enough onto the coat tails of Uncle Archie.  I have not yet attempted to write anything while actually watching a race, as I find it interferes with my regular sleeping patterns, but taking a quick glance a ‘Formula One Poetry’ on the interweb I can see that one would not have to be a great poet to breeze past the dismal standard found there.  This must be an opportunity for a lucrative slim volume, with the right sponsorship deal.  Now, which team shall I call first?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 22nd June 2021

Summer is a strange time for poets, a time when the population are generally happy and in no mood for a slice of well-metered moping over a wronged love or self-righteous whinging over how the world does not understand the poet.  No, sitting in the garden with a white wine and a light doze is not the time to give headspace to pious martyrs and professional gloomsters, and alas the fall-out even drags down those sunny wordsmiths who prefer to gawp in awe shucks at nature all day or jab our ribs with witty nonsense.

So, when the spirits are as high as the mercury, the best thing a poet can do is go on holiday.  Betjeman to Cornwall, Yeats to Innisfree, Byron and the Shelleys to Lake Geneva.  With knotted hanky headgear and sand between the toes, the poet is free to dream without caring what it means and does it scan.  Hands are prevented from scribbling in notebooks by being sticky with suncream or holding up 99s, eyes are saved from bedazzlement by straw hats and flip-down sunglasses.  A pleasant excursion to, say, Tintern Abbey or Dover Beach, is in no danger of turning metaphysical thanks to the heritage display boards and hint of batter and vinegar on the breeze.  And slowly, amid the postcards and cream teas, a few seeds drift and settle down, but they won’t bear fruit until the evenings are drawing-in and the jumpers are going back on.

In any other year, I would be bare-elbows-deep by now in arranging a minibus of interns to Southend for the day, or a thoroughly clean weekend at Brighton for myself and a dog-eared copy of Jilly Cooper.  But now, with restrictions still in place and the sun being alternatively coy and matesy, it seems silly to risk adventuring any further afield than Walpole Park.  If the day promises to be overcast but dry I might risk allowing Gertie a canter down the cycle lanes of Ealing to give her Sturmey Archer 3-speed a workout, or even take up an invitation to Aubrey ffinch-Whistler’s golf course and enjoy a pleasant walk while he builds his sandcastles in the bunkers.  Even donning the regulation Tam o’Shanter and plus-fours helps, making for a holiday wardrobe one wouldn’t be seen dead in otherwise.

And how have this week’s Pitshangerers been enjoying their post-solstice sunshine ?  John Hurley reposed in a very noisy dream until roused by the quiet bustle of daily life, and Rithika Nadipalli pointedly pointed-out that for many the schools are still in session as she opined that mathematics is not a matter of opinion, and Nick Barth took a squint through a god’s eye on progress from the cairn atop of a suitably stunning upland peak, before Martin Choules fell into a reverie of ocean currents and latitudes and settled-in for a long evening of golden-hour twilight.

Sir John was keen to keep Pitzhanger Manor open through the Summer, it being his second home and all, and he even managed to persuade his wife Eliza to join him on occasion.  The attendance on Tuesdays was somewhat erratic, with locals popping-in midway through their evening walks and poets up from London leaving at sunset to catch the last stage home before the turnpike became too dark to risk traversing the wilds of Shepherd’s Bush.  And the poems they read were often disappointing, recycling old works of intense unseasonal misery, or half-hearted dash-offs from an afternoon spent napping on a veranda.  Others didn’t read their own at all, but drew on the classics – this of course is something the workshops have always permitted, but it can become hard to find encouraging things to say on the fourth occurrence that evening of being compared to a Summer’s day.

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Workshop, 15th June 2021

How times have changed.   Only a short time ago I was a man at peace with himself, engaged in a routine which saw me divide my time equally between the worlds of golf, literature, travelling and international espionage.  As with so many, the recent spate of awful awfulness (and a distinct desire to avoid the company of Uncle Archie) has put the kybosh on routine amusements, with the result that life has grown a little intense recently.  I have observed that my lockdown activities are occupying an increasingly large proportion of my day.  My man and I are now required to compete with other residents of the Mansion Block where we live on a number of fronts; learning to play musical instruments, baking sourdough bread, accomplishing ourselves in the fine arts and ostentatiously setting out in unattractive sportswear to give the appearance of taking strenuous exercise.  As a result, we have rather less time left over for my actual, professed lockdown project, Blooms Day in Lego. 

You may recall me mentioning the continuing construction of this empire in building blocks, being a recreation of Leopold Bloom’s day in Dublin, as described so audaciously by James Joyce in his book, Ulysses.  I noticed another Blooms Day deadline whistle past on June the 16th and my project seems as far away from completion as ever.  It’s not so much that Lego does not lend itself to constructing a facsimile of Dublin in 1904, it’s that it does it too well.  One finds oneself fretting over horses and traps, bed-heads, pub interiors, pints of Guinness, stair cases and window frames when all one wants to do is solve the problem of how to model Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness in the final chapter.  Yes this challenge may yes be insurmountable yes but it may well be worthwhile I say yes.

You might be under the impression that another insurmountable challenge is running a poetry workshop over Zoom.  In fact, the sharing and distribution of the various works is not so tricky once one has mastered switching from Zoom to Email and back again on the computer, and we encourage the screen-sharing of the poem being read and discussed.  Some of us even share their corrections as suggestions are made, which shows just how agile and relaxed with technology the Pitshanger Poets are, indeed!  Leading us out this week was John Hurley, a man who always seems comfortable with his own passions, recounting an encounter with a young woman very much younger than he is, but fortunately or unfortunately, she was there to meet someone else.  Martin Choules shared his poem next, very much avoiding the misuse of the word ‘staycation’ as he muses on migratory birds sharing abodes as they come and go on their travels.  Finally, Nick Barth found himself wondering if there was anything more of the usual human requirements that he actually needs, and that perhaps a little less of the odd thing would suit him better.  We wish him well with that.

It does seem that the merest mention of my project in Lego has invited a sack full of uninvited correspondence concerning similar literary-inspired lockdown projects.  There has been a torrent of Metro-Land model railway layouts, some in Lego, others in more conventional scales.  Congratulations go to the Wembley Park model railway club for their ‘West Ruislip’, although I don’t altogether approve of what they’ve done to Joan Hunter-Dunn.  Adlestrop of course gets a look-in, although as more than one model railway club has pointed out, the scene can be a bit of an anti-climax for visitors to shows as the whole point is that the train does not actually move.  I particularly liked the Stow-in-the-Wold model railway club for getting the hissing noise just right on the video I saw.  These are of course home-grown subjects and very much on the conventional side.  Further afield, I was particularly taken with the Boston Lego Club’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’ re-creation, especially as it actually sinks into a Lego swamp, my apologies if that is a spoiler, but you should get yourself a copy.  Another highlight are the images the Pražský Modelářský Klub Lego sent me of Kafka Stadt, a recreation of large portions of Prague in Lego containing significant scenes from The Trial, The Metamorphosis, The Castle and rather intriguingly, the Minifig Who Disappeared.  Finally, my best wishes go to a DH Lawrence-obsessed family in Derbyshire who were inspired by my Blooms Day project.  As something of an added attraction for would-be holidaymakers they plan to re-create scenes in Lego from Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover in their impressive, recently-converted Air BnB apartment.  So, if you know of any Lego master-craftspeople in Wirksworth with time for a new project, please let them know that the McLeods would love them to get in touch.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 8th June 2021

It struck me a while ago that the yardstick against which our civilisation is measured tends towards the abstract.  We used to evaluate the ability of great men (and they are nearly always men in these cases) to write poetry, compose music, produce pieces of visual art or spew forth great tracts of prose in order to compare civ A against civ B.  Occasionally the cultural mavens might have permitted the introduction of architecture or engineering to this points-scoring contest, and very occasionally indeed might degrees of sporting prowess be allowed a look-in.  Obviously, the whole point of the exercise was to mask the senseless waste of human life which was typically the key feature in the rise of any group of ennobled warlords in the time before the age of enlightenment, and in the case of the British Empire, the time after it as well.

With its two great wars the Twentieth Century saw the rise of a new proxy for the sophistication of ones’ civilisation, to wit, sport.  The Nazis had cast the mould for a successful Olympics in 1936, so that by the onset of the Cold War every nation understood the mission – the world will evaluate the capability of your country and those of your bloc to keep your citizens healthy, well-fed, enlightened and fulfilled by the ability of a small group of those same citizens to throw, catch, run after, run round, jump over, sail, ride or hit various things.  In the case of the host nation, the opulence of the opening ceremony, stadia and facilities provided is also taken into account.  Of course, in ancient times the Olympic Games encompassed more than just events of skill, strength, speed and home-brewed pharmaceuticals, the Greek Games in many ways resembling a Welsh Eisteddfod with song, drama and declamation included in the running-order.  In Europe we still hold a dedicated annual song contest and considering the recent performance of the United Kingdom that competition is a reasonable measure of national talent.

My beef, if beef is the appropriate aphorism at this point, is this; none of these events measure the competence of the represented nation-states to actually take care of their people.  Recently, this ability has been sorely tested by the current state of awful awfulness and from time to time I wonder whether it’s the sort of thing which comes up in No 10 or Pennsylvania Avenue.  This week we saw the leaders of seven of the wealthiest and most influential countries on Earth meet in a very nice Hotel in Corbis Bay (I have to admit to once spending a long weekend there observing the rainfall patterns in St Ives), however my betting is that they did not hold a Gala Evening at this event with a comedian such as Jimmy Carr or Ricky Gervais handing out awards for Doing The Best Job At Beating This Thing, Having a Really Serious Go at Making People Happy or Making an Effort To Not Bang On About Oneself All The Time.

But what, I hear you ask, about the Beautiful Game?  Surely, we are about to witness titans triumph in a tournament of turf, a circus of skill and cunning, the intelligent intricacy of running the gauntlet to gain an advantage.  We will see clean play and opportunism, dazzling in the attack, muscular in defence, all played out on the international stage.  Surely this sport, above all others is the true expression of the national character, the beautiful game bringing out the best and worst in every player, permitting us to judge the state of the nation from whence they came.  Our delight at such a contest can only have been sharpened in anticipation due to the postponement of the competition from last year, due the current awful awfulness.  I therefore encourage you, if at all possible to secure one of the remaining tickets and join the many delirious fans who will be attending the fiftieth International Croquet Tournament in Lammas Park, Ealing.

Would that the Olympic Games still included Poetry in its roster of exploits, if so, the Great British Team would surely feature any number of limber, highly-trained bards from the Pitshanger Poets.  This week Martin Choules led the squad out onto the virtual pitch with a poem focussing on squares, man, raising the possibility that his writing style is a good deal more ‘beat’ and ‘groovy’ than one might at first discern.  Rithika Nadipalli stepped up to the oche next, to give us another round of her slightly fantastical imagining of William Blake, reincarnated as a goat as a reward for what she regards as a smidge of heresy in Songs of Innocence and Experience.  Meanwhile, John Hurley was warming up on the touch-line to deliver strength to the mid-field, reading his somewhat downbeat piece about insomnia.  Finally, Nick Barth went on the attack with a scathing poem reflecting on the daily risk to asylum-seekers as they take to the seas in tiny boats to come to these islands.

In fact, the history of poetry competitions at the Olympic Games reflects the history of poetry competitions the world over.  Father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin saw the games as a reflection of his own ideals and proposed the inclusion of medals for literature, music, painting and architecture.  Following from this decision, art would exist as an uncomfortable bedfellow alongside sport in the next half-century of organised games.  Due to poor organisation the arts hardly got a look-in in London in 1908, and while the Pitshanger Poets proposed taking a charabanc, megaphone, picnic hamper and monogrammed banner to the games, many poets baulked at having only a year from the announcement of the competition in 1907 to the event in 1908 to prepare their entries.  As a result, the Poetry Gold Medal was awarded to Robert Frost for the USA, who at a youthful 33 years old could churn out a decent short piece in a matter of months.  Competition poetry is a young person’s game. 

The Pitshanger Poets prepared well for Stockholm in 1912 and gave a good account of themselves, but then the Great War interrupted competition poetry.  On the outbreak of hostilities all scribes were required to turn their hands to the vital task of creating enough War Poetry to fill Eng. Lit syllabuses for many decades to come.  The PP held out more hope for a return to normality in the 1924 Games in Paris, an event which promised much in its encouragement of the arts.  However, a last-minute rule change requiring that all entries were to be written in French discounted many in team GB and virtually handed the Gold to Anatole France, who despite being unable to write and somewhat close to death, had a great body of work and the right surname.  The all-French team of judges were suitably won over and named their champion.  The downcast Pitshanger Poets returned home and regretfully ceased their involvement with team GB just in time to avoid an all-expenses paid trip to the Third Reich.  By the time the dust had settled following the Second World War, the International Olympic Committee had decided to end the Games’ relationship with the arts, on the basis that the Olympics were a solely amateur competition but that artists were paid professionals.  Professionals? Clearly no one in the IOC had ever met an actual, jobbing poet.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 1st June 2021

With May finally remembering to be more May-like just in time for the bank holiday, I naturally feel the urge to bestride Gertie, my trusty Raleigh Superbe Dawn Tourist steed, and pedal off in search of poetry.  My destination shall be Walworth, a surprising island of rough-and-tumble south of the river desperately (and vainly) holding off gentrification.  Two hundred years ago, it was the birthplace of Robert Browning, who like many a Londoner after him has preferred to do his writing abroad, whether running away from the rain, the law, or an overbearing editor.  In his case, he and Elizabeth Barrett took up in Florence because as the Grand Tour had taught every rich and influential young gentleman for the past couple of centuries, British culture was something to be deeply ashamed of when compared to anything Mediterranean.

As I reach Hyde Park Corner, it’s time for a breather besides the Wellington Arch.  I have to be honest and say that as a librarian I have huge admiration for what the Romans have done for us, and let’s not forget the Greeks who built the Great Library of Alexandria – well alright that was the Egyptians but the later pharaohs were really just Greeks in fancy headgear.  Hang on, I’ve ridden down a blind alley, let me turn back to the main argument.  So, the Classical world was one with a great deal of respect for Writing Things Down, much of which has survived on account of them Not Being Too Rainy.  So can I really blame those Eighteenth Century aristos for their long foreign holidays ?  At least they had plenty of ruins to go poking around.

Well, best push on.  Turn down Constitution Hill and freewheel for a bit, giving me time to ponder how much better spoken the English upper classes were in those days in terms of how many languishes they could speak, a definite upside of cultural cringe.  French and Italian, of course, a good smattering of German, and absolute fluency in Latin and Ancient Greek, a necessity should they fall through a time vortex on the road between Rome and Naples.  Take Bob Browning, for instance – in later years he would dash off a translation of Æschylos’ Agamemnon in blank verse.  Ancient Greek ?  Bring it back !  Modern Welsh ?  Wipe it out !  Hmm…why do those smooshed-up A-E things always look so ugly ?  I think it might be how the crossbar of the A never lines up with the middle tine of the E…hang on, missed my turning…Now, where was I…?  Oh yes, onto the Embankment and my main point – this is the very Browning Version that gives its name to the play of that other posh Cockney, Terence ‘Tel-Boy’ Rattigan – who in true local-lad-made-good tradition swiftly decamped to Bermuda.

As I approach Waterloo Bridge, let me tell you about this week’s Workshop.  Opening act Martin Choules sang us a ditty in praise of pop music, dropping a few earworms as he went, followed by Rithika Nadipalli musing on her many problems, but apparently how to construct a decent sonnet isn’t one of them.  Roger Beckett then brought us an interesting experiment whereby he and a friend composed a poem one-line at a time, alternating between participants like a very small round robin covering a very large subject, while John Hurley has enjoyed a day at the seaside to get in some serious people-watching.  And it was a welcome return to Owen Gallagher and Christine Shirley who are both feeling their way out of isolation witha spot of poet-watching of their own.

And speaking of watching poets, we’re almost there.  I always think that The Elephant & Castle sounds like it should belong to something far grander than just a shabby shopping centre, but I suppose that’s that old barrel-boy boasting coming through.  Passed the Italianate Town Hall and fine public library, then left down Browning Street and we soon reach the pocket park where once the York Street Chapel stood, baptismal site of young Robbie and later site of Browning Hall in his honour, all gone now.  But apparently it had Greek columns.  It is unknown where his childhood home was, but somewhere not a million miles from here.  But if I wish to continue my pilgrimage then I’ll need to follow him to Florence and drop in on the Casa Guidi museum, so for now I’ll turn around and retrace my tyre-tracks back to Ealing.  Still, it would be nice to spend a week or two in Italy…maybe next year…I hear that 19th Century English poets highly recommend it…

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Workshop, 25th May 2021

One of the most salubrious aspects of living in Ealing is that one does not have to travel too far from the heart of its bustling downtown to find a coppice gate to lean on while cocking the bean to one side to harken to the darkling thrush, if like Thomas Hardy, that’s your bag.  Perhaps one yearns for dappled things, landscape plotted and pieced, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, or the May fields, all golden show, as Rupert Brooke had it.  Now that May has at last released winter’s dregs, like the remains of one of Mrs Flittersnoop’s darkling builder’s teabags, one can tramp one’s way down to the Brent and stroll up the towpath of one of this country’s finest canals.  Alternatively, one might prefer to traipse between the bluebells in Long Wood, which skirts the Osterley Estate, all with the singular objective of arriving at The Fox in Hanwell in time to tuck into a ploughman’s burger, fisherman’s meat pie or reluctant vegan’s pork belly.  No visit to the Fox is complete without a pint or two of Frayed Knot, Long Face, Big Paws, Ex-Tractor Fan, No-Eyed Deer or another of the many guest ales whose deeply unamusing names were the inevitable result of an extended tasting session on the part of the brewery’s new marketing department.

If ever there was ever a poet’s pub, it is the Fox.  To the North the Fox is adjacent to Hanwell’s maze of narrow back streets where I know several Pitshanger Poets have made their homes, no doubt after becoming jaded with the superficial charms of Ealing’s gaudy neon-lit chain Cafes and rowdy Chinese Laundries.  To the South is the Grand Union Canal, where one can still hail a passing taxi-boat and be in Birmingham in the blink of an eye, or a couple of days, depending upon ones’ level of consciousness.  The Fox permits relaxed contemplation of nature on the very welcome mat of Ealing’s metropolis.  It is no wonder that Erasmus Darwin spoke highly of his stays at the Fox following infrequent visits to the Pitshanger Manor at eight o’clock on a Tuesday evening.  Charles Darwin’s more illustrious grandfather mentions waiting for one of the many Wedgwood narrowboats to slow as it reached the treacherous horse-shoe curve at Stoke-on-Trent, then hopping aboard and concealing himself under a tarpaulin covering the crates of fashionable earthenware.

There Erasmus might find himself sharing the space with one or more other Boat Hoppers, or BoHos as they became known among the canal folk.  If the boat was not too loaded with cargo the navigators would turn a blind eye to these stowaways, especially if they were willing to organise a singalong to kill time on the long journey. Erasmus Darwin collected a number of the folk songs and brought them along to the Tuesday night workshops.  Often they told tragic stories from the lives of the unfortunate BoHos, based on a variety of melodic if melancholic tunes, and he came to name them after the pottery shade which had recently been popularised, calling them ‘Wedgwood Blues’, or simply ‘The Blues’.

What became of the BoHos and their lifestyle?   There is something romantic in the tales of these people, deciding where to travel day by day, hopping aboard a passing narrowboat, riding among the goods and chattels flowing up and down the canals of England and avoiding the boat-owners and their fierce guard-dogs.  Of course, before too long, Victorian engineers would be criss-crossing the world with the new-fangled railways and this form of itinerant travel, its stories and its music would vanish completely.  Nobody alive today would be able to recognise The Blues, so thank goodness at least some of their words were preserved.

We believe it will not be too long before relaxed contemplation of poetry can be accompanied by a pint of London Pride in the quiet of the Library at Questors.  In the meantime, it’s nice to see some new-old faces dropping into the Zoom calls.  This week Christine Shirley joined the virtual meeting as a listener, and we hope she enjoyed the experience.  First out, Roger Beckett brought us the result of some quiet contemplation at Regents Park, watching the birds and their various pecking orders.  As you’re probably aware by now, John Hurley counts social commentator amongst his many talents.  This week he observed three men digging a hole in his road, the purpose of which has yet to be revealed.  Nick Barth has clearly been thinking about the awful awfulness we are currently experiencing and wonders whether some people might actually prefer social, or even anti-social distancing.  The ever-prolific Martin Choules brought two pieces this week, one a disarming meditation on the water cycle and the vagaries of the weather in May and the other a discussion on the best day of the week to end the world on.  Never mind that, I want to know what day of the week the Big Bang occured.  Surely our ever-talented cosmologists have narrowed this down by now?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 18th May 2021

As an only-child, I would often find myself alone.  This suited me fine.  I was never a chatterbox, always a mute witness.  My Mam insists that I was the last kid on our road to start talking, and then so little of it it was hardly worth my bother.  Nor did I cry much, and when I did it was half-hearted.  Apparently, I would spend hours just staring out at everything around me, like a blank slate or indeed a damp sponge.  I do remember not wanting to share my invisible friend with anyone, so I always asked her to keep quiet.  Sometimes she was a fairy, sometimes my twin sister, but always taller and better-looking.  I called her Kat, which was prophetic – in the end she wandered off to find a more interesting host.

The rest of the time I spent reading, graduating from Mr Men to Tintin, Hop on Pop to Paddington Bear.  I worried my Mam that I’d ruin my eyes from overuse, and ruin my voice from the opposite.  One day she caught me curled up behind the sofa with When We Were Very Young and had an idea – if I enjoyed reading poems, then surely I must enjoy reciting them !  Looking back, I should have patiently explained that the two were in no way equivalent, and for many of the words I had only seen them written down and had no idea how they were said, and I would never be able to read aloud as nicely as Kat – but I suppose had I been able to say all that then she wouldn’t have been worried in the first place.  And so it was that every day I was forced to stumble my way through Buckingham Palace, monotone about being permanently Halfway Down the stairs, and commit treason to deny The King his Breakfast.  What I would have given to have been mother-less James James Morrison Morrison…!

But clearly it worked out in the end, as anyone intern on the receiving end of a ten minute lecture on the importance of distinguishing em-dashes from en-dashes can attest, and neither it did not instil in me a hatred of poetry, which is lucky considering my future career.  But in this online age that has little use for dusty shelves of Dewey Decimal, I do miss the old silent libraries where a curious child could sit and read for hours and be considered angelic for doing so.  Alas, here in the depopulated Archives I have come full circle as I perused yet another article about Emily Dickenson’s forehead, and part of me longs to for Mam to show up and be a very patient audience while I gossip about what the King of France said to Mr Edward Bear…

The attendees at this week’s Workshop certainly weren’t shy about telling us what they thought, in verse, starting with John Hurley missing a loved one but finding her ghost everywhere, rather like Martin Choules when he told us of his own phantom followers to his poetry, hypothetical readers who upon investigation were only out to launder popularity.  (I feel Kat would have liked this one).  Roger Beckett has stoked up a polemic to deliver an address to America on the state of the Union, which if anything didn’t rant on enough, and Nick Barth has been thinking about paper in a paperless world and deciding that unprinted words cannot be burned, before telling us about a windy holiday where he had to leave the beach to the spider monkeys in favour of shelter and a full-English.

Alan Milne was an intermittent regular over the decades to Pitzhanger Manor, glad to throw off the pressure of writing novels, writing plays, editing Punch magazine, and even fatherhood.  He especially enjoyed a good, stodgy, unrhymed piece from Ezzy Pound or Sternesie Eliot, and would comment how much more he enjoyed the latter’s Wasteland to his Practice Cats.  When asked why, he would usually mutter something about wanting to hear the sort of verse that he could never write himself.  Many years later, (as it happens around the time that I was struggling to vocalise my own tribute to him), the compliment was returned by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney giving a lively duet performance of the King begging the Cow for a little bit of butter for his bread.

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