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, 19th January 2021

Despite the date above, the more calendar-aware of our readers will spot that this entry did not appear until several days later, which is only fitting when it comes to the appalling timekeeping of poetry.  Indeed, I could talk for hours about the missed appointments, deadlines, and busses of tardy wordsmiths, but to be perfectly honest I haven’t got round to finishing writing that essay.

And so, let us instead take advantage of my being fashionably late to encompass the activities happening across the Pond on Wednesday the 20th – yes, in that upstart nation’s startling capitol of the capital, a young 22-year old poetess, Amanda Gorman, read out her ode to hope into the ears of millions.  Who says there is no longer an audience for poetry ?  How many blockselling best-buster authors could hope to attract such numbers to a signing at Waterstones ?  Well, obviously these days no-one, and even if they did their fans wouldn’t be able to hear them through the mask, but even before the current End Of The World (Part 1), who wouldn’t sell their soul to the Devil at a crossroads to have him retune their pen and to learn the forbidden rhyme for ‘orange’.  Surely everyone tuned in for the power of a good meter and judicious use of metaphor, I can think of no other possible reason.  And then she graciously shared her podium with some government official who was started a new job, but I imagine he must have been pretty miffed to have to follow that !

Presumably it was in anticipation of the big recital the following day that kept the numbers low at this week’s Workshop, but three brave spirits were not to be offput – Pat Francis took to the virtual podium with a memory of a memory, in the form of a photo she no longer owns, showing her grandparents in the act of being remembered.  Martin Choules damped down the resultant standing ovation to read his own thoughts concerning the two types of people in the world – those who lump and those who parse, but didn’t say if he would put them both into the same category or different ones.  Following a crowd-pleasing rendition of Jerusalem, the keynote fell to Nick Barth as he told us how he Has A Dream while waiting for the lights to change – well, I’d certainly buy a used car from him.

Last week in these very pages that well-known poet-about-viveur Aubrey ffinch-Whistler challenged me to unearth some of the verses penned by the Queen of the Machine, Ada Lovelace.  I initially thought he was pulling my rather shapely leg, since her life was dedicated to not to the dramatic, but the mathematic.  But had she not inherited any of old George Byron’s genes ?  Had she not a poets soul, howe’ermuch smeared in grease and integers ?  Were her notebooks chocked-full of code for computers that did not yet exist not the poetry of the permutations, the ballads of the binaries, the sonnets of the software ?  Perhaps, but one suspects that only three other people in the world could actually understand their elegance – I honestly hope they feel moved by them.

But I was not about to admit defeat to Aubrey (or rather to his man, who would relay my humiliation with due decorum).  No, I was sure that I had once seen a reference in the Archive to her attending some Pitshanger evenings, if I only knew where to look.  So I summoned Parsonage to knock me up a quick spreadsheet comparing her known locations with suspected dates that might turn out to be Tuesdays, cross-referenced with the phases of the tide and the winners at Epsom with an R in their month, and hey-pocus there it was flashing on the screen (because the monitor is on the blink again): Octember 1847 !

After that, it only took a further three hours to track down the report from a Workshop overseen by Maria Percival.  Richie Southey kicked things off, and a young Chrissie Rossetti brought some Mediterranean flare, but when it came to Ada’s turn, she just froze up and dithered, apparently overflowing with stacked-up anxiety.  Lizzy Barrett would later write to Bob that “one could see the wheels spinning madly behind the eyes, but her springs were too taunt, her remainders couldn’t carry and her cranks were shafted.”  Alf Tennyson was briefer in his appraisal, noting simply that her flustered cheeks were ‘red in cog-tooth and claw-gear”.

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Workshop, 12th January 2021

One of the things that is most fascinating about the Pitshanger Poets is when a new poet arrives at a Tuesday evening workshop.  One likes to know a little about their background, where they live, how they get their living, which biscuit they take with their tea before throwing them in at the deep end and asking them to read out an example of their oeuvre.  This is not mere good manners and consideration on the part of the assembled wordsmiths, although it may well calm the nerves of the newbie.  It also permits the group to perform a bit of measuring up.  What sort of a poet are they?  Is poetry a passion or an innate behaviour?  Are they readers as well as writers?  Most vital of all, are they arts or science?

I believe we can divide the world into two types of people.  The first type of people are those who divide the world into two types of people, and the second type are those who do not.  Of course, it was not always thus. We have been carefully trained by a media obsessed into sorting persons by hat size, colour of teeth, skill with a football or ability to eat a bacon sandwich into pigeon-holing every individual.  It is surely one of the greatest maladies of our age.  We believe we can discern after perhaps only a few sentences whether we are conversing with a Maths Wiz, a Physics Brain, an Eng Lang. Maven, a Music Aficionado or a History Buff.  Yet surely we can turn our hands or pens to anything we choose?  I was reminded of this only recently, skimming my well-thumbed copy of Don Juan.  I found myself cross-referencing some of the more ‘sciencey’ bits from Byron’s epic, only to be reminded that Lord George was a pal, at least a holiday pal of the great Humphry Davy, surely the cove Irving Berlin was thinking of when he penned the popular show tune Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).   Davy reminds me of our own in-house computer programmer, Parsonage.  The sure way to persuade Parsonage to solve a poser is to tell him that it has never been done before and the smartest boffins on the planet believe it to be impossible.  Fermat’s Last Poser, the Poincaré Poser, Gödell’s Incompleteness Poser, that poser about a salesman having to cross seven bridges in Konigsberg to see all his customers, Strauss’s Four Last Posers, all are grist to his considerable mill.  I’m sure given time Parsonage could solve the greatest poser of our times, the ‘why haven’t we got a working Track and Trace’ Poser, but there is every chance that no one in charge would listen. 

Listening was found in some considerable quantities in this week’s Pitshanger Poets Workshop.  Pat Francis defeated all technical gremlins to join us on Zoom and we are so glad she did.  Her autobiographical poem took us from the past to the present and from the East of London to the West.  John Hurley did what he does best and brought a life story compressed into a mere five stanzas, this one concerning a businessman’s failure.  Caroline Am Bergris leaned a little closer to her laptop’s camera next, to tell us about a dangerous crush in a startlingly confessional poem.  Martin Choules read next, in a confection of a piece which captured some of the joy and pain of the year 2020.  Finally, Nick Barth checked his mic and camera to read a somewhat ribald poem he wrote to celebrate his sister’s birthday.  We hoped she enjoyed hearing it, however unlikely that seemed.

However, I digress.  Given a challenge, and the assurance that this was a problem that no human had solved, Humphry Davy would swiftly sharpen up the old HB and erect the drawing board.  Prevent miners from being blown to pieces?  May I suggest this natty lamp?  Stop copper-bottomed steamships from dissolving into the briny?  Have I told you about my sacrificial anode?  Painless dentistry?  Can I offer you a generous puff of this laughing gas?  Well, I have to admit that Davy was, in fact, a complete flunk on the painless dentistry theme.  Despite gulping pints of nitrous oxide over a series of increasingly bizarre experiments and having once observed in his diary that it had the effect of numbing the pain of a troublesome wisdom tooth, he still failed to advise any dentistry surgeons of this potential anaesthetic.  It was more than fifty years before one Gardner Quincy took it up for this purpose.  Even so, this was the Enlightenment, when every man (and who knows, perhaps even one or two of the women) could be an everyman.  Why, even Humphry Davy, the jobbing scientist wrote poetry, just as Byron, the jobbing poet wrote about Science.  But, I hear you stridently demand, were they any good?  Well, even a science numpty like myself strongly suspects that Byron has failed to understand Newton and his law of gravity and managed to confuse it with centripetal force.   As for Davy’s poetry, it could be said to be a little workmanlike.  He does sound like he’s offering a science lesson in some pieces, but in this match it must be science one, arts nil. 

You can be sure that there will be further rounds in the arts versus science classic poetry competition. I have to say that early signs are that Percy Bysshe Shelley was a dab hand with the science stuff.  I wonder if Miss Challiss, esteemed archivist and colleague can locate any of the fabled poetry of Ada Lovelace?  Things are hotting up, this will turn out to be more exciting than the Snooker.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 5th January 2021

It is true that New Years’ Eve chez moi saw only myself, My Man and my loyal Housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop pop a cork or two while seeing in Mr Hollands’ Hootenanny in a tradition which must go back to the Music Halls of the time of Dickens.  With 2021 already underway I am confident that amongst its many tragedies, civilisation is already exhibiting the odd triumph.  It has of course been only a couple of months since we learned – finally – that an egotistical boor with a strangely twisted political perspective is on his way off our screens, likely to alight on some terrible Rupert Murdoch-sponsored platform where he will continue to spout his strange beliefs.  It’s odd to think that this strangely-berugged person was ever seen as just another relatively harmless television personality, with his own show and collection of catch-phrases, before he set out to monopolise our screens.  It is to be hoped that he will continue his descent into obscurity.  Let’s hope that we have heard the last of Andrew Neil.

I have found myself addicted to Newsnight in these troubled times.  Often the events themselves can take a back seat while I simply enjoy the mild gaucheness of Nick Watt, the pointed stare of Deborah Cohen or the sophistication of Mark Urban.  Kirsty Wark should be Prime Minister in my humble opinion, while Lewis Goodall would go down a storm at the tennis club.  Among her many other talents, I admire Katie Razzle’s heroic attempts to make the jump suit fashionable again.  As for Emily Maitless, well, I hardly see her.  My Man often finds reason to get me off to bed early when she is introducing the show.  More than once he has stormed in with the Dyson just as she appears on screen, forcing me to retire before I have heard a word or seen which impeccable outfit she has chosen to wear.  Then, when I am safely abed I can hear that the vacuuming has stopped and the television is still on. It’s all very mysterious.

Which got me thinking about recent events, and the awful awfulness of 2020, and what we, as poets should write about it. How contemporary should a poem be?  Should the poet feel they need to act as a chronicler of current the times?  Clearly, the Light Brigade, and indeed the Heavy Brigade would be a good deal less well known today if Tennyson had not decided that was the moment to write a gritty piece of war reportage.  This is the central challenge with poetry.  It’s not enough for a chap to wake up in the morning with a bit of a thing about toads and a feeling that he ought to write a few verses about said amphibian.  Poetry demands that the piece be about something else completely, only it should arrive in a toady skin.  All of this is well understood, of course, but how far can one stretch it?  Can a poet attach a metaphor to something more modern like a speed boat, a microwave oven or a Teasmade?  Push it too far and a poem resembles nothing so much as the prize-winning final round in a cryptic gameshow.  Contributions to PP Workshops past have had all sorts of cold water poured over them because of this problem with the very ‘thingness’ of an object.  What is your macintosh doing on the desk?  How can some windows crash without making a sound?  Who was Nokia and what did she mean to you?  Attempts to avoid all involvement with the modern is futile, of course.  All residences begin to resemble semi-detached suburban houses, country cottages or Victorian terraces.  A church may not have a synthesiser, a corner shop may not have a cash machine, a fishing boat may not feature a Bluetooth speaker, unless these are the subjects of the poem.   Is poetry cursed to be set against a generic backdrop, permanently frozen in some imagined past, like DC Thompson’s generic urban Scotland of Dennis the Menace?

My reverie continued, how should a poem sound?  I have always felt the Romantics aimed for the deliberately antiquated, what with their poetic inversions and sprinklings of thees and thous, but any reading on the subject reveals that that they believed they were writing in the contemporary equivalent of Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange.  However, the Romantics generously gave us a whole host of tropes to look out for in other people’s poetry.  We are a kind workshop, we are a gentle workshop, but from time there is this thing we call ‘low-hanging fruit.’  This immediately put me in mind of Alan Chambers, who, as you will have heard so sadly passed away just after Christmas.  If there was a poet who did not believe in low hanging fruit, it was Alan.  He was adept at getting to the heart of a poem, a tricky thing to do in a weekly Workshop in which one has had mere moments to get the cut of its jib.  Alan often took a moment or two before speaking about a poem but often said the thing I for one wished I had said.

Of low hanging fruit, easy targets for pot-shots, there were none in this week’s Workshop.  Nick Barth got us started with something of an epic he is writing for a 50th Birthday in times of lock down.  The venerable John Hurley gave us a short glimpse into another time and a love he lost a long time ago, together with the joy of blackberries.  Caroline Am Bergris brought a happy break from the concerns and trials of today by delving into the art of the lamb sandwich.  Finally, Martin read a poem he wrote for Alan Chambers’ 90th Birthday, a perfect portrait of the captain of this ship.  Alan’s poetry always depended upon a timeless vernacular, very much meaning-led, while always being, indefatigably, verse.  We can but try to approach his delicacy and wit. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 29th December 2020

I wish I had some witty reminiscence about Sir John and the New Year to tell you, an anecdote about Byron first-footing-in-mouth or Rabbie Burns inventing Auld Lang Syne just so he could hold hands with Mary Wollstonecraft, but it seems that the old year had not quite finished with us.  The Pitshanger Poets, as a loose gathering of arty types, has little use for structure or paperwork, but its very existence, at least in its current form, owes a hell of alot to our unofficial chairman and founding member, Alan Chambers.  So it is with great sadness and greater grief that I must break the news that you have all already guessed.  Just after Christmas, Alan passed away.

The truth is, that back in the mid-90s poetry in Ealing was in a bad shape when Alan and a few friends decided to start meeting up to share couplets and tangents of a pleasant Tuesday evening.  Unlike most other poetry circles, this one would meet up every week, and Alan was certainly not daunted by the challenge of so much poetry.  Many of those early attendees have since moved on, though Daphne, Peter and Christine have all received their commemorative quills for twenty years of service, and Martin isn’t far behind.

And as for the man himself, there was so much more to him than just boats, the sea, and a sailor’s eye on humanity.  He has a long history with the Questors Theatre, as actor, director, and most importantly chairman of the Grapevine bar.  Many years ago he was given a lifetime’s membership in recognition, and that’s precisely what he gave them – a lifetime.

And after all that, it may seem rather pointless to comment on the latest Workshop, but in many ways continuing what he began is the very best way that we can honour his memory.  So, let us wipe away the tear and put on a brave smile as I tell you how Caroline Am Bergris spent an endless split-second to foresee her imminent accident and John Hurley has given vent to his Brexit frustration with a clear if cynical eye.  Nick Barth has called on particle physics to help him write a love poem, while Rithika Nadipalli has been toasting couplets on a camp fire and Martin Choules has been seeking inspiration in a drop of water and its microscopic passengers.

But at this time of year, our thoughts turn back to Alan and his famous Christmas cards with their trio of riddles, never too tricky but always tricky enough to make one feel pleased with solving them.  I’d love to share one with you now, but I can only ever retain the setup with a blank where the answer should be – I guess my memory is riddled with holes.  And if you think that was bad, well, you’d be right.  And if you have been, thanks for being.

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Workshop, 22nd December 2020

Three days before Christmas is generally as late as the Pitshanger Poets will leave it to hold a meeting before it is officially Too Close.  After all, who want to be thinking of iambs and jambments while trying to send the over-excited little monsters off to bed ?  It’s bad enough having to read The Night Before Christmas to them yet again, and yet again get those bloody names of those bloody reindeer thoroughly twisted on the tongue, without outpouring one’s soul in a sonnet while giving indepth critique every syllable in turn of a haiku.  And the 23rd is usually something of a dress rehearsal, and if one is lucky a final evening of cheap wine and trashy telly before things get really serious.

It may surprise you, loyal readers, to hear how a born-again spinster and committed tweed-wearer like myself has any experience with the upcoming generation, but let me assure you that I am no only-child but the middle of seven sisters and everyone’s third-favourite aunt.  I have known my full quota of tantrums, sulks, and blazing rows over the years as my decision to skip the whole motherhood thing has looked wiser and wiser, but I must admit I have also been touched by moments of shameful mawkishment and wide-eyed credulity that have verily shined my soul.  Honestly, they little dolts will believe absolutely anything you tell them, or at least humour me so convincingly that their low cunning and cynical manipulation is a tonic to behold.

But not this year, alas.  Here in the lurgy-infested slimepit ringed by the M25, even the influenza has started to fear for its life.  We are the walking petri-dishes of rampant mutation in the toxic soup of urban existence, to be handled only with extreme caution – so all Christmassing has been cancelled except via suitably-quarantined electrons keeping the correct two-metre distance from each other down the wires.  And it was thus that the latest Workshop took place this evening, as five patients formed a support group for their collective diagnoses of the poetry bug.  First to show symptoms was Martin Choules, singing a spoken-word carol to seasonal robins of all types, followed by John Hurley seeking a second opinion about his recurring recollections of his childhood Crimbos, dapper uncle and drunk brother in tow.  Rithika Nadipalli, clearly feeling giddy, broke off from a fit of the giggles to offer remedy for her overworked heroine to finally get some Yuletide peace, leading to Caroline Am Bergris reminding us of the real meaning of the season as she spoke honestly and starkly about suicide by plant-pot.  But it was Nick Barth who broke the fever as he self-meditated on a hardworking yet appreciated fairy light and gently drifted off to sleep.

It was an afternoon of unexpected joy when I received a visit from poet-about-golfcourse Aubrey ffinch-Whistler last week.  Not to say that I do not take pleasure in his occasional presence, but the man does like to talk and there is only so much nodding one can do before one feels like a dog on a spring.  But oddly, after a year of more isolation than a chronically-shy hermit, I found myself most absorbed in his meandering tales of his great-uncle this and his old-school-chum that I didn’t even mind him polishing-off my entire supply of fortified digestives.  Indeed, I rather fancy that for all his subsequent complaining, Sammy Coleridge would not have enjoyed traipsing through endless caverns measureless to man and would soon sink in tumult to a lifeless ocean had he not be saved by the oblivious bonhomie of that person from Porlock.

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Workshop, 15th December 2020

It would seem that this is the season to write Nativity Poems.  Now, for such a highly tuned poet as your correspondent it is of course the work of a moment to imbue myself with the essential concerns, contrasts and contradictions of every-day existence, even in these strange times, such that I can capture a decent summation of the zeitgeist and churn out a piece on an almost daily basis.  However, request me to write on a theme as such and I am all at sea.  Even a theme such as ‘The Sea’ requires a degree of limbering up and mental stretching before the words start to spill out across the page with the familiar well-oiled lucidity. 

It is for this reason that I have been making use of that age-old poetry prosthetic, Harold Havering’s Poet’s Little Helper Cards, Christmas Edition.  I am sure you all have a set of these, and if you do not, I may pity you, for they are now worth more, pound-for-pound than Lego or Printer Ink on Ebay.  I found my Christmas Edition in a little shop on Charing Cross Road a few years back, and it was touch and go as to whether I would get it as Ted Hughes was in the same shop at the same and had his eye on it.  I slipped the set I am looking at now between a copy of La Morte D’Arthur with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and the Hillman Imp (1963-76) Haynes Manual, managing to spirit it to the somnambulant assistant at the till without Ted noticing. By the way, of those two concealing volumes, I’m not at all sure which is the better read.  As you know, each card contains a word or phrase perfectly coined to get the creative juices flowing.  The idea is simple; if find yourself staring at the blank page for too long, you cut the deck and flip a card, whereupon the contents are sure to jump-start the muse. 

The Christmas Edition contains such gems as camel, snow, tavern, magi, myrrh, star, taxed, lintel, manger, asleep, milky, winter, sore-footed and room.  This is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce of course, each one of Havering’s Little Helper sets containing many hundreds of cards and associated fine ideas and it’s been an open secret among poets for many years that some of the most famous poems are in fact based on this technique.  In fact, my own copy of Poet’s Little Helper Cards, Christmas Edition is inscribed ‘Dear TS, Merry Christmas, your friend EP, 1926’.  Could that TS be Thomas Stearns, and is that EP possibly Ezra Pound?  If you have a strong opinion on this, and it is different to mine, then perhaps you should keep it to yourself.

I know someone who will have a strong opinion and that is Ms Felicity Chaliss.  Now that once again, the fates, Boris Johnson and good old virology have conspired to add another twist to the soap-opera which is the year 2020, I am not sure whether I will be bubbling along with the good Archavist for Christmas.  On the other hand, she has mentioned mince pies and is sure to put on a good spread.  So long as we don’t overdo it and are all in our respective beds by eight o’clock then I’m sure no harm can come of it.

We are all aware that we are in the dog days of 2020 and our close coven of Zoom poets are feeling restless, wondering when we will wind up proceedings.  It does look as if we will meet every Tuesday, this being how the days will shake out, but let’s see.  Last Tuesday John Hurley got us started with a return to his sadistic old school with a sadistic old master.  Caroline Am Bergris brought a most disturbing memory from her recent tranche of fine work and although she called it The Kiss, this is much less Klimt or Rodin than Munch and a scream.  Nick Barth is calling into question the very notion of hope, as in ‘I hope it’s a nice day’, or ‘I hope we don’t all die in a plane crash’ and pointing out how damaging it can be.  Martin Choules brought one of his Christmas Poems, and I’m not sure he doesn’t have a set of the Poet’s Little Helper Cards, Christmas Edition going by this fine work.  Let me see, what if I pick a card now, will it work its magic? What inspiration will it reveal?  Mistletoe!  Must dash, time to get scribbling.  If you have been, thank you for reading, and Merry Christmas!

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Workshop, 8th December 2020

Here in The Queen of the Suburbs we are in the neither-flesh-nor-fowl Tier Two which strictly does not allow for much in the way of social gathering but does permit its nervous denizens to have a cautious chat next to the chiller cabinets in M&S or while waiting for the Cheese Lady in Waitrose.  However, the need to catch up with the latest developments means that little actual shopping takes place.  Often I return home with little more than a livre tub of Berthaut’s Epoisses AOP or a dozen Scotch Eggs, which hardly counts as a substantial meal.   No, in the run-up to Christmas the vast majority of actual shopping in the ffinch-Whistler homestead is online, and the hectic bazaars such as Debenhams, British Home Stores, TopShop and Burton’s will need to do without my custom.  I am sure they will continue to prosper mightily in the masterful hands of that genius of the high street, Philip Green and will not mind me spending a little of my hard-earned with a fresh-faced young hopeful such as Jeff Bezos and his stripling on-line store Amazon.  I was delighted to see that this rain-forest-based web site has become a veritable department store itself and has branched out from books and CDs to all manner of fascinating merchandise.   I do hope Bezos manages to take the fight to the established retailers and can make a success of his exciting startup.

I am sure that my readership will agree that it is essential to have a good working relationship with the tradespeople who come to our doors.  My Man knows all the colourful characters, from Mr Sainsbury to Miss Ocado and of course, Mr Amazon, who he insists is a naked tribesman with a shell tucked into his lower lip. Although I have never reached the front door quickly enough to confirm this for myself, I am sure he is correct.  What a world we live in today! 

I am reminded that a poet who enjoyed a rewarding relationship with his tradespeople was one Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a regular at our Workshops at a time long before shopping became the leisure activity it is today.  Coleridge was suffering writer’s block and had exiled himself to Exmoor for some peace and quiet.  He told the group that he had placed his fresh produce needs solely in the hands of one Alfred, a tradesman in the nearby village of Porlock.  Out in the sticks as he was, Alf appeared to have quite an extensive delivery round of at least ten miles to reach all his customers.  Expecting a fine summer’s day, Coleridge had ordered some fresh comestibles, including milk and a melon and was expecting them to arrive in time for lunch.  When the supplies failed to materialise, the bored Coleridge appears to have ‘dropped’ some recreational pharmaceuticals, only to have his reverie interrupted by an excited Alf (‘with flashing eyes and floating hair’), on his wagon, accompanied by his daughter who provided entertainment for her father on his twice round by playing her dulcimer.  More seriously, he was also expecting Alf to have collected a pair of boots which had been repaired by Kenneth the shoemaker.  Alf reported that the boots were delayed due to the shoemaker’s involvement in constructing attractions for the Parish Church fete, for in St Andrews Cobbler Ken had a stately Pleasure Dome decreed but was having trouble creating the caves of ice.

While Coleridge complained that he had to spend over an hour with Alf and was forced to eat a late lunch, it does appear that the visitation and the story of Cobbler Ken provided him with enough elements to inspire the fantastical poem of the same name which he brought to the workshop the following week.  Just think! Without that strange interruption the English canon might be lacking one of its most iconic works.

Speaking of the English canon, I wonder which of the works heard in this week’s Virtualised Workshop will be seen as iconic by future generations?

Rithika Nadiplalli got us off to a seasonal start with a couple of quatrains one looking at guiding stars the other saw her preparing for the arrival of guests.  Surely Rithika will be having fewer guests this year than last.  John Hurley struck next with a series of pot-shots aimed at those masters of groupthink, the committee.  John’s is a universal rant, the tropes may be easy to spot, but they are wrapped in John’s usual dark, direct humour.  Martin Choules stepped into the Zoom spotlight next with an imagined, romantic first-person regret that has us yearning for a sequel.  Caroline Am Bergris’ took the field next, to locate a lost Christmas.  current crop of poems are visceral reminders of her current and past states of mind, and this week’s is no exception.  Caroline likes to play games with hope, but all too often these are dashed by the last line, and so it is with this one.  Finally, Nick Barth brought back one from his archive, discussing the strange non-holiday which is the shortest day.   In his mind the final entropic state of the universe is just a dinner away, which is worrying indeed.

We are certainly in 2020’s dog days.  Wouldn’t it be nice to think that the Universe takes note of our human methods of delineating time and is busy preparing a nice, shiny 2021 for us all to enjoy?  That sounds like a plan.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 1st December 2020

The pressure’s finally on – how long can I resist the bullying and name-calling and refuse to decorate the Pitshanger Archive with a butchered spruce and unrecycled plastic baubles needlessly sucking-up electricity so that they may twinkle, for my sole entertainment ?  And don’t get me started on the conspicuous consumption that is crackers, where it’s a race to see which of the paper cylinder, the jolly hat, or the marvellously rubbish trinket makes its way into the kitchen bin first.

Which is not to say that I won’t be seeing any other living person this month outside of my high-resolution monitor.  Indeed, even though all of the unpaid interns who would usually brighten up these caverns with their myriad and amusing European differences are still indefinitely furloughed, and the weekly workshops now occur in the ether of cyberspace, but I can at least expect a visit from the thoroughly bon-vivial poet-about-town Aubrey ffinch-Whistler, dropping off a bottle of Fermented Grouse or single-dipped Glen Knitwear and gobbling down a few homemade mince pies (made with genuine Walpole Park pigeons).  I’m sure, despite his lack of attendance this year, that he hasn’t forgotten that he and his man are indeed sharing a bubble with me and the rats down here in the vaults.  I have even gone so far as to locate the kitchen, no longer needing to rely on a stream of assistants to bring me cups of tea and three course meals.

Now, on with the write-up of the unstoppable proceedings of the Pitshanger Poets, putting the fun into working from the spare bedroom while the kids are screaming and the bingewatch is calling.  First to port in was Pat Francis, musing on the men who go out into the world and the women who must wait at home for their return, one of whom was also given voice by Caroline Am Bergris as she recounted all of the innocent activities no longer available to her.  Next up was John Hurley was in dictatorial mood as he laid down his vision for a better, if restricted, future until he thankfully woke up, and Nick Barth in turn gave voice to the constant hum that never shuts up, but can be blasted into submission.  Meanwhile Rithika Nadipalli is already feeling the spirit of the season, before reminding herself to remember its caring side as well, and rounding up was Martin Choules with yet another ghost story as if October had never ended.

As everyone knows, Christmas was invented by Charles Dickens, so back in Sir John’s time the season passed with nary a notice, save Georgie Byron hitting the claret even harder than usual and Bill Blake tutting even louder.  Indeed, when the 25th landed on a Tuesday the group would meet as usual, and one might quite forget save for Mrs Conduitt passing round a tray of badgers’ noses and pickled dodo.  Though for young Mary Shelley it was a time of frustration as she is constantly asked “and what did Father Christmas bring you ?” to which she would roll her heavy mascara’d eyes and explain that she totally didn’t believe in all that, she wasn’t a child, she was nearly eighteen, and anyway it wasn’t fair, her sister Fanny got a new cloak and all Mary got was like stockings and petticoats, and she had had to be good for like all year, certainly most of this month at least, and she still didn’t get a pony like she’d asked for.

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Workshop, 24th November 2020

Sad news this week with the passing of Anne Furneaux, a poet to her very bones and indeed her very name with that rakish ‘x’.  Always ready with gentle criticism, and indeed gentle reassurance, often commenting that the presented poem was already perfect and didn’t need the author’s proposed fretful tinkering.  If one is of a spiritual persuasion, then there is comfort in the thought of the equally-missed Gerry Goddin ballading Anne into the next life with sunshine and salsa, but if of a more down-to-earth mindset then at least her memory will live on after her.  There’s an orange juice waiting on the Grapevine bar for all of us as soon as they reopen, and a Mini-Cheddar adding bounce to the wafer if that’s your thing.

Thoughts of such endings led me to consider how past luminaries had been remembered by the Pitshanger Poets of old, but I am afraid to report I found the research too depressing to continue.  This is not to say that this sort of exercise is not worthwhile, but that it is best undertaken when everyone is in rude health, indeed at precisely the time when such a project is furthers from the mind.  I suppose that’s the reason why newspapers prepare obituaries in advance.  And yet, it is only after such a loss that our thoughts are most attuned to remembering them, and to fondly recalling all of those little quirks that at any other time would sound like pettiness.  Sometimes a person’s greatness is in the small details, the silly inconsistencies, the harmless asides that are forgotten until moments like this.

Anyway, I don’t mean to bring you all down, and Anne certainly wouldn’t, so let’s move onto this week’s workshop.  We opened with John Hurley taking an early morning stroll through an unrhymed landscape just as the nearby motorway is pulsing to life, followed by a pair of quickies from Martin Choules, musing over the plight of the dreamless sleepers and the seasonal tillage of the resting fields.  For Caroline Am Bergris, her reverse-anthropomorphic human-animal hybrids (theramorphic ?) were viewed very differently by onlookers, leading to Nick Barth’s calling time with the aid of his Russian submariner’s clock that almost saw action.

So, how does a poet say goodbye ?  I’m sure many wordsmith would jump at the chance to write their own epitaph, but like a nickname it is something that can only be bestowed from outside (which explains why Florence Margaret Smith never did work out just why everyone kept calling her ‘Stevie’).  Thus William Blake never set out to be an eccentric amateur genius and on his death bed expressed his hope to be best remembered for his jam-making, while Thomas Hardy secretly wished he’d stuck to architecture and not allowed himself to be distracted by all that scribbling.  But the moving finger writes, road is chosen in the yellow wood, until one day the pedestal boasts nothing more than a pair of legs.  As not-nearly-as-dour-as-he’s-remembered Philip Larkin once put it, life is just a joke – it’s always funniest the first time, but the historians will never get it because they just weren’t there.

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Workshop, 17th November 2020

Whither politics?  I am firmly of the opinion that the great Edwyn Collins was right when he sang that there are too many protest singers and not enough protest songs.  I believe the same can broadly be said of poetry.  I am sure there are many poets out there, chafing against the bonds of the current travails and writing excellent material on a variety of themes.  The problem for the reader of poetry with a smartphone on the top deck of the Clapham Omnibus is that what is recent is rarely curated and what is curated is rarely recent.  There are now as many online poetry magazines as there are stars in the galaxy, so again, the problem is one of curation.  I feel this may be a problem that Miss Challiss and I, as your poetry spirit guides, need to take more seriously.

As for education, The Eng Lit syllabus in this country appears to work on the principle that we should wait until a poem is old enough to be harmless before it can be safely admitted into the classroom.  I found myself flicking through my nephew Gideon’s GCSE poetry just before the last lockdown when he spent an evening chez moi in order to permit his parents to social distance more effectively.  I asked him how he was getting on at school and inevitably the subject of poetry came up.  I think he was hoping for some easy-to-chew study notes from his Dear Old Unc as the mocks are looming on the horizon, but instead he got the furrowed brow and the thousand-yard stare as I tried to understand just what the heck the Surrey Heath Advanced Exam Board, (prop. M Gove), was attempting to teach the poor lad, using their study notes.

For example, Shelley’s Ozymandias is surely a Desert Island Poem for many of us, and while the notes are clear, there is no examination of the king of king’s stone legs, or his missing luggage.  I am quite keen on Blake’s London, but it is not his best work.  William Blake’s passion for chiropody (and indeed the care of the feet of our lord) does not appear in this poem, nor does his hobby of taxidermy, cut short as it was by the tragic forest fire which destroyed his Tyger.  I turned to Browning’s My Last Duchess, hoping for some inspiration.  I found the main point of the poem to be completely fluffed by the study notes.  The crux of My Last Duchess is that there has been a murder and the Duke of Ferrara is the clear suspect; he has motive, means and opportunity.  As always in the case of a whodunnit, Browning is leading us up the garden path; the Duke is far too obvious a culprit.  The poet is telling us that Fra Pandolf, the artist mentioned in the first part of the poem flew into a passionate rage following a disagreement with his subject on the subject of a spot on her cheek and did away with the Duchess behind a mantle.  However, this intrigue is absent from the syllabus and Gideon protested that his teacher told him that he would lose marks if he introduced my learned opinions about murderous painters or that the listener to the Duke of Ferrara’s monologue was in fact the legendary sculpting detective, Claus of Innsbruck, in disguise.

This week’s Workshop required little in the way of detective skills.  Pat Francis lead out, returning to her Great Library of Discovery and the endearing study of the ancient scholar who first measured the girth of the Earth, with nothing more than a stick stuck into the ground.  Next, we heard from Caroline Am Bergris who brought us somewhat reluctant experiences of mental healthcare not so very long ago.  John Hurley returned to the London of the 1950’s with an impressionistic memoir with no need for any deeper justification.  Nick Barth has been thinking about Brexit again, and fish, and whether they are all that stand between the UK and a deal with the EU.  Martin Choules brought us a short ride in a fast machine, this time a rocket, in a poem which owes more to Flash Gordon than Elon Musk. 

Finally, it is my sad duty to inform you of the death of a valued member of this community, Anne Furneaux.  Anne joined the Pitshanger Poets with the simple intention of writing a little poetry and she always made a great contribution to our Workshops over more than fifteen years, even when she was too busy to bring something she had written herself.  Anne was a kind critic and very positive in her outlook, however she could also confound preconceptions and call out a poet she felt might have lost their way.  As a writer, her best work was observational and she had a dry wit which worked best with a live audience.  Well I remember her reading at a Pitshanger Poets Studio performance, not so long ago.  Anne’s poems inevitably got the audience laughing, so much so that a longer than usual pause was required before the next poet could start reading.  Anne, you will be greatly missed.  Our condolences to her husband, William.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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