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 October 2020

I am sure that many of my readership suffer the everyday pain and discomfort of Smart Phone ownership.  Shiny and reassuring these devices might be but spending any time with them is akin to having my twelve-year-old nephew Gideon to stay for the weekend.  Things start out well enough, but after a few minutes, just like the prodigious youth, it starts reminding you of its existence, tirelessly pinging the owner with snippets of information which, quite frankly one could do without.  If the electronic wonder is not letting you know you have received an email from a Financial Services Company informing you that you could ‘go paperless’, it’s congratulating you for taking a brisk walk or castigating you for looking at it too often.  In fact, compared to my Smart Phone, the boy Gideon is quite easy to keep quiet.  At least one can offer the lad a conker and a length of string, an absorbing blockbuster DVD or Tunnock’s Tea Cake, whereas the Smart Phone is immune to such transparently material stimulation.

I do not need to tell the Smart Phone owners out there that its talent to irritate really comes into its own as soon as one wants to type a message on the thing.  I have to admit that until the rise of the Plague That Dare Not Speak Its Name, I refused to actually lay a hand on my own Smart Phone, leaving the various tasks involved in its feed, care and operation in the more than capable hands of My Manservant.  However, we soon realised that hurling a finger-print covered glass brick at each other at regular intervals was opening up a ready vector for infection.  The mental image of millions of grinning coronas gazing up from the screen every time My Man passed the thing to me could not be erased once it had got stuck in the bean.  So, I took charge of the device and determined to learn how to use it.

It’s not as if your faithful correspondent is a technological Neanderthal.  I am actually quite fond of Mr Jobs’ beeping beige boxes, as long as they do not get above themselves.  However, I have yet to fully adapt to the skating rink for the fingers that is the on-screen keyboard.  A keyboard is there to be bashed, and one without the masochistic desire for punishment of at least an Olivetti Valentina, if not an IBM Selectric is not worth the candle. My writing instrument of choice for many years has been an Apple MacIntosh SE, for its twin virtues of an indestructible keyboard and complete inability to permit surreptitious contact with the Internet while I am mid-flow.  The other virtue it has in common with a typewriter is that whatever the operator types stays good and typed, without any nanny-state auto-correct gew-gaw deciding it knows better than the phenomenal creative force sitting in the throne of power in front of it. 

The greatest objection I have to auto-correct is simply its lack of imagination.  Faced with a frequently-used phrase such as ‘Toodle-Pip’ it responds with ‘Today-Piper’.  ‘Biff on the bean’ becomes ‘buff on the beanie’, ‘a good egg’ becomes ‘a government eggplant’ while ‘enforced sojourn in the clink’ becomes ‘enforced sojourn in the clinic’.  It’s as if the thing has no notion of the way perfectly ordinary English is bandied about by carbon-based life-forms.

The Scots speaker fares no better, I’ll tell you.  Faced with the task of taking dictation from the Ploughman Poet Rabbie Burns, auto-correct would have you type this string of gobbledygook:

One, my lunch is like a red, red rose
That’s never spring in Juneberries
One, my lunch is like the melon
That’s sweetheart played in tuned

As fair article though, my bonnet lasso
So deeply in lunch am I
And I will lunch there stick, my dear
Till are the seat gang drive

Till are the seat gang drive, my dear
And that rock mentioned will they sung
One, I will lunch there stick, my dear
When the sandwiches one life shall ruin

And fares there weekly, my only lunch
And fares there weekly awhile!
And I will come again, my lunch
Thought it were tense thousand miles

At which point the Bard of Ayreshire would be completely within his rights to turf one out of the bothy with a flea in the luggie and a wellie up the jacksie.

Fortunately, even in these days of enforced Zoom, one is still able to bash away at the MacIntosh to keep up with developments at the Workshop.  This week John Hurley took us back to Ireland to meet his own personal Sinbad who lived life pickled but was rescued sober from a rock.  Pat Francis made every effort to be with us to tell us about Felicette, the forgotten female heroine of the French Space Programme, in a charming piece with a disquieting ending.  Caroline Am Bergris ventured into the strange multi-verse of alternative realities, peeling back the layers of her own sojourn into madness.   It was Nick Barth’s turn to think about dunes this week as he remembered La Dune du Pilat (or ‘The Dune of the mound’ to translate a little over-literally), the tallest sand dune in Europe, Brexit notwithstanding.  Finally, Martin Choules sent us nervously towards Samhain with his description of All Hallows Eve, or so says Sam Hain.

I assume that by next Tuesday we will have all invested the necessary futile morning carefully moving all the delicate clockwork mechanisms forward eleven hours (for one should never move a clock backwards), find the date is off, correct the date, find the chimes are off, correct the chimes, re-balance the little piles of torn business cards under the feet of said mechanisms such that the pendulum is back on-beat, put the key in one’s waistcoat pocket, find the key in one’s waistcoat pocket an hour later, forget which clock that key was for, remember which clock that key was for, place key under clock only to find another key already there, eventually put all the keys under the correct clocks, and all in order to realise by Tuesday that there is still the kitchen clock to do and this is why ones’ afternoon tea has been arriving an hour early since Sunday.  The Smart Phone, on the other hand adjusts itself twice a year.  What a boon to mankind! 

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 13th October 2020

We at the Pitshanger Poets always keen to point out that ours is a catholic group.  Which is not to say that our workshops involve people in cassocks waving censers, missals, Latin Mass, Gregorian Chants or any of the beautiful and fascinating ways which adults have found to remind children of their own mortality and in so doing scare the living daylights out of them every Sunday morning while they are separated from their parents at school.  No, in this case we use the word to describe the all-encompassing nature of our group.  Come one. Come all, though in these dark days some knowledge of the internet, modern computer operating systems and Zoom are regrettably required to attend a workshop.  Surely Satan and all his little devils look back with triumph on the day that they managed to persuade mankind to become entirely dependent on Information Technology.  We live in a future not even Philip K Dick or JG Ballard could have warned us about.  Although, thinking about that last sentence, I take it back.  Both of those writers were pretty much on the money re: our current dystopian nightmare.

I digress, as is my wont, and surely one of the few reasons anyone has for reading this rambling tirade.  What I mean is that we have seen all sorts at the PP.  Poets who enjoy rhyme and structure, those who prefer free verse and less rigid forms, poets who relish the chance to tell a story, those who like to make a point, building a work around a metaphor.  I have another categorisation in mind; for there are poets who definitely have one foot in the lyrical or musical roots of poetry in which the piece is written to be heard, while there are others who come at their writing from the way in which the poem exists on the page, who write to be read.  However, I believe we have only had one regular at our Workshops who did actually arrive, guitar in hand, ready to serenade the group with song, and he was the late Gerry Goddin.

Gerry Goddin was a friend of Caroline Am Bergris, both being veterans of a noted comedy writing group.  He made his presence felt in a most welcome fashion at a series of Workshops a few years ago.  Gerry would play us one of his songs and the group would make constructive comments on his lyrics.  Gerry had gentle, whimsical style and we all looked forward to his visits.  I was understandably impressed to learn that Gerry had been a fully-paid up BBC writer with contributions to The News Huddlines and Week Ending to his credit.  Radio comedy has always been a comfort and a solace to me, ever since, as a boy at school I acquired a discreet pocket radio and mono earpiece, with which to drown out anything too earnest, serious or superstitious emanating from the master or mistress in the classroom.

Sadly, Gerry died in August.  It was an honour to be invited to attend his funeral at Golders Green Crematorium this week.  It was clear from the delightful stories related by Gerry’s friends that he was both a hugely colourful character and a bit of an enigma, with a past he did not feel needed to be discussed.  I came away with the distinct impression that Gerry was a self-made man, someone who was very comfortable in his skin, who was highly thought of by his friends, but who never let these things go to his head.  Rest in peace, Gerry.

On a brighter note, despite the very late transmission of the Zoom invitation this week (Nick Barth tells me he really is very sorry) we still managed a cosy Workshop.  John Hurley lead out with a bit of a rant against the current post-apocalyptic dystopia and the cabin fever it has created.  Martin Choules has been taking some inspiration from Inktober, using the word ‘Dune’ (not the book) from the list to discuss Dune (not the forthcoming blockbuster film), the shifting thing made of sand (not the snack ending in -wich comprised of a filling and two bits of bread).  Finally, Nick Barth entered his own Inktober contribution, this one discussing a rodent (or was it a politician?) who appears to be a politician (or was it a rat?).

Nick tells me the Zoom invitation will be sent out in good time this week, and so, if you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 6th October 2020

Trust the Romans to be both efficient and ad hoc, naming their eight month October and then bolting two more on at the start of the year to make a nonsense of the whole thing.  But perhaps the permanently out-of-synch Autumn months were given quick and temporary designations until future caesars renamed them in their honour ?  After all, Julius had already bagsied Quiltilis and Augustus had re-monikered Sextilis, so surely the end of the year was up for grabs – ‘September Severus’ perhaps, or Otho-ber ?

All of which is a very through-the-woods way of saying that Autumn is very much here.  Walpole Park  has yet to really feel the chill, but it’s a rare soul who ventures out without a coat, and a rare squirrel who lets the last of the conkers go to waste.  Many leaves are still clinging on, but looking less than healthy, and it won’t be long before the park’s redwood, cypress and monkey puzzle can finally stand out from the crowd.

Beneath their footings in the Pitshanger Archives, things are too quiet.  This should be the season of mellow fruitfulness, awash with faces that launch a thousand slim volumes, hobnobbing over tea and hobnobs with Radio 4 producers while schmoozing publishers before the transfer window closes.  But like the rest of us, the poets have been locked down in their garrets and furloughed by their literary journals, and their output has plummeted like a coastal shelf.  A century ago, it fell to the poets to speak out and make sense of the madness that had overtaken the world, but this time they seem as befuddled as the rest of us (and reciting dense and multi-syllabic text through an N95 mask doesn’t help).

But at least the attendees at this week’s virtual workshop are still flying the flag, starting with Caroline Am Bergris’ morning ritual as she navigates the aches and pains of existence, and followed by Roger Beckett receiving a reckless visitor who showed little regard for PPE.  Rithika Nadipalli meanwhile has been paying alot more attention lately to doors, and finding her neighbourhood to full of them, leading onto John Hurley’s memory of a country squire with a warm gun and a cold wife.  Word-of-the-day Nick Barth was up next, musing over the airwaves as his wireless absently broadcast to the galaxy, and finally Martin Choules confessed that he has no rhythm, but entirely blames the musicians.

Poetry of course has gone through fallow periods before, from the great rhyme drought when the publishers of the only rhyming dictionary couldn’t find the galleys, to the ‘hu’ craze when poets sought to write even shorter haikus by leaving out the middle line.  But perhaps the strangest was the autumnal week during Sir John’s time when everyone came into his parlour looking rather sheepish.  Going round the circle, it transpired that Johnny Keats had that very day scrapped his latest ode to a mallard, and Bill Blake had sworn he had written something, but it maybe only in his dream.  Things weren’t looking up when Georgie Byron confessed that his muse had recently given up her nocturnal peregrinations, and even Percy Shelley muttered that he must have left his copies in his other breeches.  And so the spotlight came back round to Sir John, who had no option but to dismiss the meeting at precisely two minutes past eight, and suggest that they all repair to the Red Lion.  But alas, the poets had all managed to accidentaly leave their coin-purses at home…

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Workshop, 29th September 2020

I see from last week’s entry that our erstwhile poet-about-town Aubrey ffinch-Whistler has been going about town again, this time visiting the Tinkerbelle of Twickenham, Strawberry Hill – a house that is neither on a hill, nor nestled in a strawberry patch.  So like him to visit a slightly-wonky wedding cake and focus on the icing, completely ignore the sponge underneath doing the hard work of keeping the entire cake standing – yes what about the original “Chopped Straw Hall” which were nipped and botoxed out of all recognition ?  Does its spirit live on in a hidden s-shaped wall anchor or an unexpected pantry ?  Does the ghost of the original occupant roam the passages at night tutting loudly at the gaudy decor ?  Does a faint but distinctive whiff of slightly damp and mouldy straw pervade the velvety drapes ?

Of course, Horace Walpole would be delighted with our unintentionally Gothic setup down here in the bowels of the Archive, with more gloom than a black-clad teenager and more cellars than a salt-pot convention.  Indeed, we’re the natural choice for any intern who wishes to trade their beige cubicle for a workspace with a less anonymous ambience – we can offer a choice between the willies, the goolies and the heeby jeebies.  And he would be skulking beneath his very namesake park, which would have harmed his ego none at all, even if it is not named after him in particular.  But I think our coup de theatre is our fascinating white-noise soundtrack of creaks, drips, squeaks, scurries, and groans, all accompanied by the ever-whispering wind in a symphony that would salivate any fan of Radio 4 drama.

But alas, when joining this week’s Workshop Zoom-event, I must keep my microphone mute and my camera dark, so best to observe the attendant poets in their natural state of random factoids and bizarre tangents with the occasional poem thrown in, and so my superbly atmospheric office must remain unshared.  But not so Nick Barth and his poem about teapots, covering their use in graphics, in philosophy, and in preventing the machines from taking over. Martin Choules meanwhile has been dithering over wearing a coat, finding the lengthening Autumn a bit indecisive, with its temperature too long for Dick and too short for Richard.  And John Hurley recalled an old recluse lurking in his childhood about whom his parents might know something, but they’ll never tell…

While ‘Horror’ Walpole’s own poetry circle may have been a flop, the Pitshanger cohort was frequently invited to decamp to Twickenham to fill the vacancy.  It was never a popular request, but it was taken up about once a year through the 1770s just as the work on the thoroughly-modern antiquities were climaxing.  On what would prove to be the final occasion, there was a melancholy tone in the pointy-arched library, as hymn-smith Bill Cowper lamented that Mr Walpole’s imagined monastery was ‘all cloister and no chapel’ while Sammy Johnson kept insisting that there was no such word as ‘gothick’, since it wasn’t in his dictionary.  The artfully-gloomthed ambiente was rather wasted on the thoroughly-sensible Miss Ann Murry, researching her upcoming textbook for the education of young ladies and with no time for pervasive moods or creaking floorboards, but was rather too much for young Billy Blake, who couldn’t see a shadow without conjuring up a phantasmagore.

No amount of staff instructed to don white sheets and wander the grounds in view of the library windows could lift the evening, nor the rattling chains outside the door from time to time.  Things came to a (decapitated) head during Dr Johnson’s recitation of his all-time classic Papillary to Paradoxical, when Nan Murry suddenly announced she would have to depart there and then if she were to catch the last stage back to Ealing, and keen-to-impress Bill Blake offered to walk her to the inn.  And so swiftly did Mr Cowper decide that this was his chance to escape that he was out of the room and tripping over a set of chains before the defeated Bard of the Cheshire Cheese could even close his Dictionary.

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Workshop, 22nd September

Now that the Covid-19 lockdown is ‘over’ (always in inverted commas) we appear to be ‘encouraged’ to leave our homes and ‘mingle’ more freely with the rest of humanity, at least as long as we are ‘willing’ to part with a little dosh along the way.  I wonder if it is possible to run out of inverted commas, and if so whether Dame Dido Harding will be put in charge of obtaining more of them.  This last weekend was Open House, an annual occasion I have always been passionate about.  I felt honour-bound to jump in the old two-seater and find some old pile to see. 

Mask-wearing is becoming ever-more common in our Sceptred Isle, but as the owner of an ancient motor-conveyance with the merest regard for The Clean Air Act, and not even a nodding acquaintance with the Low Emission Zone, I have never felt that wearing a mask was an imposition.  In fact, with the two-seater’s pronounced mechanical deterioration masked and goggled is the only way to travel.  I was reminded of the Pitshanger Poets’ long rivalry with the poets of Twickenham and decided to set out for Strawberry Hill House, a white iced birthday cake of a residence with a remarkable history.

Strawberry Hill House was conceived and constructed by Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford and son of Robert Walpole.  As the youngest son of the first Prime Minister, Horace never expected to inherit from the family fortune, but nevertheless followed Sir Robert into Parliament in 1754.  As things turned out, he did come to inherit his Father’s Earldom from a second cousin by way of one of many Gothic accidents to befall people close to Horace, this one involving a cake of soap left carelessly on the top step of a flight of stairs. 

I have heard it said that Strawberry Hill House was constructed as a result of the young Horace’s ennoblement, but this does not fit the chronology, as he was an old man by the time of his eventual earldom.  In truth, Horace constructed the house as the result of one of a series of bets with his mother, Catherine.  Horace had always been aware that his doting mother was fond of a flutter and regularly used to raise small sums from inconsequential wagers, many of them from the invention of words or phrases.  Horace laid a bet with his mother that he could popularise the phrase, and indeed concept, of the Gothic Revival.  The son won and the mother parted with a sum large enough to create a novel and impressive house from what had been two workmen’s cottages on the outskirts of Twickenham.

In another bet with his Mother, Horace wagered he could write a book in which the chief plot device was a terror caused by huge pieces of armour falling from out of a clear blue sky upon a castle in Italy.  The ludicrous Castle of Otranto was published and read widely to loud guffaws.  Horace was able to afford to build the final phase of his creation, including the beautiful Beauclerk Tower.

It might interest you to know that for a period in the mid to late eighteenth-Century, poetry salons were held in the Little Parlour of Strawberry Hill House.  As a young man Horace had been much enamoured with the poet Thomas Gray (he of the notorious ‘Allergy in a Churchyard’), and they departed on a Grand Tour together, however Gray’s frequent sneezing fits became too much for Horace and they parted mid-tour near Reggio, Italy.  Thomas Gray went to develop a rash in Venice and Horace returned home via France, breathing clearly and hive-free.

Walpole’s Poetry Salons were initially well-regarded but descended into mild farce as Horace’s Gothic obsessions gradually became the better of him.  The Little Parlour was a singular room in a house of odd spaces.  While Horace lounged on a divan, visiting writers complained that meetings were frequently plunged into darkness as inexplicable gusts blew out the candles, followed by interruptions as human shapes fluttered past open doorways, clanging bells or voices on the landings muttering half-heard insults to the poets.  Added to that the hock was rarely of a good vintage and the nibbles were sometimes stale.  The poets tired of Walpole’s Gothic stylings and the long traipse out to Twickenham.  The flighty Horace turned to other amusements and filled the little Parlour with a number of Hans Holbein sketches he just happened to have in his collection.  A later generation of acolytes gathered to hear him read from Classical Literature instead.

I returned to Ealing with the conviction that it takes real grit and determination to host a weekly Poetry Workshop, esp. when people are not able to gather together in draughty rooms with hard furniture, poor décor and frequent noisy interruptions from theatre types.  Ah, but those were the days.   Not that I am knocking Zoom and our current iteration of the workshop (but where were you?).  This week we heard from John Hurley who brought us a childhood memory of seeing the village blacksmith laid out at his (the blacksmith’s) wake.  Tiny things become important in the face of memories like these.  Another childhood memory, Martin Choules recalled the car-envy he suffered at the hands of his father’s rep-mobile.  Or was that driving-license envy?  Finally, Nick Barth had another attempt at evoking the light of St Ives in a poem which treasured the power of poor weather to stick around in the old bean.

And with that drama, another week whirls by in the windmills of our minds.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 8th and 15th of September

Those of you with a keen nose for literary style, word selection, rhythm, use of syntax, sentence length and the many other tools of the Eng. Lit trade will have realised long ago that the precious task of writing this essential poetry blog has been consigned to more than one human being.  The founders of the Pitshanger Poets long ago recognised that the weighty responsibilities of chairing the weekly workshops, managing the archives, ordering the biscuits, making sure there are enough chairs, ensuring no-one is sleeping rough in the Questor’s Library before each meeting, crafting a weekly almost-but-not-quite amusing and illuminating blog and fulfilling the many, many sacred duties of the workshop could not fall on the shoulders of one man or woman, however erudite, charming, elegantly dressed and witty that person might be.  Besides, as the conversation in the Golf Club Bar went, I don’t know, how many years ago was it? Surely, the shadowy interviewer said, you have other activities to occupy your time, Mr Ffinch-Whistler?  A job, a business, hobbies, international travel, socialising, entertaining?  We could not prevail upon you to devote yourself to the Pitshanger Poets full time could we?  I must have looked a little blank at this point.  My companion started talking about heritage, legacy, low-hanging fruit, the importance of being a team player, running it up the flagpole, throwing mud at the wall to see how much of it would stick, the corridors of power, the doors of perception and drinking the cool aid before I shot him a look and ordered two more whisky-and-sodas.  I was not interested in being interviewed for a mere job, the Pitshanger Poets is a calling, and I answered.

Soon after that seminal evening in my mildly glittering personal history I was introduced to the oddly disconcerting Ms Felicity Challiss, for it is she, being the lynch-pin, the very fulcrum, the GKN roller-bearing of the Pitshanger Poetry Archive.  A few moments later Parsonage, the sublimely-skilled Post-Office Engineer who had long ago been kidnapped by Ealing Council in order to live a solitary existence running and maintaining the Ferranti Pegasus mainframe computer pottered by, and we quickly learned that he was not comfortable without a digital mug of tea, steaming soldering iron or hot multi-meter in hand and a distinct smell of fresh ozone about him.  Ms Chalice subsequently earned my ever-lasting fear and respect by defeating me soundly over eighteen holes, six innings and a straight flush, then diagnosing a worn valve guide simply by the smell of the two-seater’s exhaust on the lapel of my tweed jacket.

I invite you to wallow in this washing-up bowl of nostalgia as sleight of hand, a distraction, hoping against hope that my kind readership and indeed the shadowy management hierarchy of the PP will fail to notice the lack of a Blog last week. The fact is, one’s current Zoom-based existence is becoming somewhat of a blur, with one day even more than usual resembling the next.  You understand that I have never greatly differentiated weekends from those days ‘hard-working families’ devote to labour, but I did at least have the Miniature Golf Club, Against-The-Clock Speed Croquet, Mixed Three-Legged Salsa, Blindfolded Life Classes, Silent Choir Practice, Victoria Sponge Marquetry, Oven-Glove Origami and Unarmed Feng Shui to weave a regular rhythm through this veil of sorrows.  Recently in these august pages Ms Chalice has ably described this Workshop’s digital awakenings as we virtualise our meetings.  Will we ever get together in one room again?   To be frank, one might as well ask Her Majesty’s youngest son whether he fancies popping into Woking for a pizza.

The fact is that the Ferranti Pegasus is still an invaluable tool for calculating the cosine of a poem’s feet, finding the integral of a trochee and converting an iambic pentameter to hexadecimal.  Parsonage has used it to calculate the temperature (and colour) of Burnt Norton, the value today of an Irish Sixpence, the minimum and maximum number of daffodils in a crowd and even the size of these feet which did tread upon England’s Green and Pleasant Land.  Using Bayesian theory, it has been used to estimate whether there was honey still for tea and the eventual lateness of the train following its unscheduled stop at Adlestrop.  This remarkable intelligence is both a boon and a curse for the old Pegasus.  On the one hand there are few secrets in the world of prosody and literature that it cannot reveal.  On the other, it is now forbidden to connect the machine to the internet.  A few years ago Parsonage did fabricate the appropriate ethernet hardware and plug the Pegasus into the Pitshanger Manor’s humble router.  However, within seconds the Pegasus had successfully predicted the next Men’s Champion at Wimbledon and laid a bet with Paddy Power, issued an instruction to have all the cones removed from the M6 motorway, and deduced both the Prime Minister’s nuclear codes and the true rationale behind Brexit.  When the Ferranti Pegasus challenged Dominic Cummings to a game of 4D Chess – and won – the authorities came down hard and the dear machine was disconnected.  You can appreciate what such an awesome piece of hardware would achieve with Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, Tic-Toc, Instagram and the rest of our social medias and outlets.  Why, nothing less than truth, happiness, rational thought and mutual trust among all peoples.  Truly, what a horrendous prospect.

Our reborn workshops on Zoom could never be described as a horrendous prospect.  In many ways the ability to share poems by email ahead of the meeting has changed the cadence and rhythm of the sessions.  Some of our number have suffered the odd hardware glitch (sometimes, one suspects the piece of hardware controlling the mouse and keyboard), but in the main the meetings closely resemble the in-person experience.  Over the last two weeks we have heard from Roger Beckett with a poignant if slightly inscrutable poem concerning the disposal of cats.  Rithika Nadipalli took a spiritual tack as she told us about the mountain of The Buddha.  John Hurley, ever inspired and inspiring gave us the story of a last night on Loch Ree, and this week, impressions of a local Man of the Road.  Martin Choules made a fine job of a villanelle concerning those in public office with loose tongues and this week took us to Poundbury to meet that Model Town’s last leftie.  Finally,  Nick Barth was inspired to write about the end of summer (traditionally poetry’s least-favourite season) and the arrival of autumn.  He then went on to uncover a ten-year-old poem about the scent, texture and flavour of a break-up.

Which ribald proceedings brought two weeks of remote appreciation to a close.  We look forward to another fine workshop next week.  Why not join us?  You are most welcome, please get in touch.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 1st September 2020

Despite the world of the telex, the telegram and the wax cylinder being perfectly adequate for our needs, the Pitshanger Archive has been forced of late to ‘get with it’ by installing a personal computerisation centre in my office.  The thing is both larger and smaller than I imagined – the part that contains all the electrons is a tiny affair barely larger than a decently voluminous diary, whereas the accompanying screen would not look out of place perched above Piccadilly Circus.  Suffice to say, we are not yet best friends, with its habit of beeping and whirring and occasionally sighing, as if nothing could content it more than crunching the raw data of John Betjeman’s trains against his buttered toast.  I swear the thing is watching me, counting the minutes it takes me to parse a haiku or annotate a limerick, reporting back to some shadowy governmental cabal on the state of the nation’s poetry, to be secretly stockpiled incase of future times of trouble.  Of course, one might argue that we are facing just such a time at present, and one might wonder where then are the emergency sonnets and relief villanelles ?

Anyway, paranoia aside, it has been a quiet time down in the Archive, with most of the staff still absent.  Indeed, despite our keen intent to follow the prime minister’s insistence that we leave our cordons sanitaire and return to the various maws, grindstones and cubicles, but curiously all of our former unpaid employees are suddenly uncontactable.  Despite spending months being confined to their homes, when I call them nobody seems to be home.  So these days it is merely I, Robert the cheeseplant, and that confounded device

Still, one advantage of my enforced modernisation is that I was able to join the All-Anglia Amalgamated Archivist & Allied Almanac Association Annual Assembly this year, despite it being relocated from the upstairs room of Methodist Arms to a new venue mysteriously only referred to as ‘the cloud’, and I am still none the wiser as the meeting actually took place in our collected deserted libraries, monastic scriptoriums and underground bunkers, as we all just sat infront of our collective screens and joined a ‘virtual’ meeting.  Indeed, the chairwoman was so surprised to see me in attendance that she gibbered for joy before exclaiming how she had been certain that they had chanced upon the one conclave I could never penetrate, but here I was, as ready to scowl and admonish as ever, she just hoped my online connection would not play up, that would be such an unfortunate occurrence and they must all pray that I had managed to install sufficient bugs into my new computer.  I freely admit to barely understanding one word of hers in three, but naturally took her to task for saying not bothering to wear any tasteful jewellery with her overly casual t-shirt and hair-rollers, or to suitable arrange her bookshelves behind her in a colour co-ordinated manner.

But I am pleased to report that the similarly distanced Workshop this week went much smoother, with lifelong pioneer Doig Simmonds responding to, and making gentle fun with a previous entry which itself had been gently mocking the Americans for their strange ideas about spelling – all we need now is for a third party to start joshing in verse with Doig’s piece and we can officially call it meta.  Martin Choules meanwhile emerged from his latest rabbit hole where he seems to have found a termite mound, and he pulled out his literary holiday slides as he walked us through his discoveries in copious detail.  Next up was a philosophical John Hurley watching the cyclists go by in their everlasting battle with the traffic, and Rithika Nadipalli’s remix of her recent protest song about social strife across the pond.  That left Nick Barth to be struck by a new emotion, whether he wanted to be or no, and even if he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell us how it made him feel.

As for the Septuple-A’s Double-A, I was pleasantly pleased with how easy it was to ignore the more tiresome speakers without the worry of one’s inattention showing in one’s posture in one’s seat.  I mean, does the world really need another paper on the downfall of the Dewey Decimal or yet more proposals for the correct sequential order of the Shavian Alphabet ?  But there were also fascinating insights into the sort of subject matter written about in a South-facing garret versus a dark North-facer, and new evidence offered that Eighteenth Century leather-bound tomes were not of such a uniform height as the National trust would have us believe.  My own presentation (which I naturally insited on delivering even though the other participants all appeared to be simultaneously suffering from a sudden drop in signal) concerned the subtle difference in the length of Emily Dickinson’s hyphens and what the reader was meant to infer from this, which I’m delighted to say left the assembled attendees in silence, though this may have been because they had accidentally muted themselves.

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Workshop, 18th August 2020

There once was a time when the Pitshanger Poets would take the month of August off to venture out of Ealing on various and assorted literary holidays, from puffing up the lakes in the bootsteps of Bill Wordsworth to languidly brooding in the Gulf of La Spezia in homage to Percy Bysshe.  But this year we took the unorthodox approach of shutting down shop back in March and old reopening last month in a dislocated fanfare performed over the intertubes.  Even poets must, it seems, move with the times, even if said times are twenty years behind the rest of the world.

This is an all-round unfortunate situation for we few left tolling in the Archives.  Firstly because there is an ongoing crisis, but that has now become the ‘ground sate’ of daily life and can be taken as read.  But far more concerning is point number 2 – that we have been forced to modernise kicking and screaming into the Twentieth Century.  I am ashamed to say that we now have a fully functioning computer within our bowels, and not even a loan of the Town Hall’s Ferranti Pegasus – indeed, I personally have serious doubts concerning its ability, given how much smaller it is compared to the 1956 classic.  How can it hope to calculate anything when it doesn’t even have a bank of reel-to-reels spinning back and forth hypnotically ?  Even worse, somebody has dared to suggest that we might take the opportunity to digitise our entire Archive !  As if our tens of thousands of volumes could ever fit within such a dinky little box, and even if they did, if it could understand the nuance that separates iambic pentameter and biambic dyomisimeter.

But worst of all in our current trichotomy is point c) having already had our dessert via enforced holidays-at-home, we now have to eat up our veg at the office through the heat of the Summer, where even being ten feet three inches and a quarter beneath the blazing sward of Walpole Park is no protection from the lethargy-sapping swelter of this subterranean sweatbox.  Honestly, how is one to contemplate Dante’s inferno without an intern on hand, whose quest to better understand the world of poesy can start by being an uncomplaining fan-wallah ?  It is ideal for imparting the importance of meditation and a regular rhythm, and reminds them that our art can be performed with a simple notebook and pen, without any distracting electricity to do the hard work.  Alas, we have become so lazy that we now have a computer to do all of the chores, from messaging in sick to listening to The Archers so we don’t have to, and it can only be a matter of months before they get the ghastly grey boxes to write our poems as well.

However, I’m happy to report that this week’s workshop was a more old-school affair, despite happening only via the vigour of video, which thanks to our reluctant acquisition we were able to join.  First to read was the rectangle containing Caroline Am Bergris who offered up a trio of quickies featuring pomegranates, paintings and knickers – sometimes less really is more, and some things really don’t need elaborating.  Meanwhile, John Hurley’s box lit up as he recounted a peaceful if contemplative night on a trawler pulled up in his childhood harbour, making good use of fourteen long slow lines – indeed, one suspects that his narrator could have continued for a couple more verses if they hadn’t nodded off at that point.  Martin Choules then popped-up to admit to having less-than-honourable thoughts squatting at the back of his mind, yet he is confident of keeping them corked-up and battened-down, if never being able to actually dislodge them – all the same, I think we should keep an eye on him.  Finally, maximising her window was Rithika Nadipalli’s not-a-sonnet about a thrilling excursion within her glossy green pushbike, and sporting a fetching light and not-too-tight jumpsuit – clearly speeding by far too fast to be held back by the rules of the form.  Look, there she goes, galloping into the sunset, already working on her next ballad to free-range freedom.  Indeed, such was the brisk pace of the poetry that Martin treated us to seconds with a brief musing on childhood injuries and lifelong reminders, while Caroline served up a quick cheeseboard as she recalled with relish her roving days as a rampant rambler.

I rather think Parsonage is onto something when he refuses to even switch on any silicone synaptic simulator that was manufactured later than 1970.  When his beloved Ferranti was delivered to the Ealing Municipal Borough Corporation it was just as the Betjemannian suburb was first facing the new threat of Rock N Roll with its ungrammatical conjunction that has never been able to  decide if its sole apostrophe should go before the N or after.  Parsonage, being a young and one presumes spotty lad was very much ‘with it’, and even nicknamed the behemoth Peggy-Sue in honour of likewise-bespectacled Mr Holly.  Indeed, one of the first uses that he put the binary brain to was in predicting next week’s chart placings on the hit parade, followed by a flutter with Dodgy Dave at the corner table of the Red Lion.  Alas, being a young poetry-fan, he added too much weighting to the quality of the lyrics and not enough to the gyration of the hips, causing him to considerably underrate Mr Presley’s output, commenting that Hound Dog would flop due to its simplistic and repetitive structure, or that his latest movie tie-in would never be a hit in the overseas market unless it was retitled Gaolhouse Rock.

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Workshop, 11th August 2020

As a noted doyen of the Ealing Poetry Scene, and given the events of the last few months, it would not serve me well to be at all scathing about cyclists.  However, when something needs to be said, then I am the man to stick my head out of the tank-turret, so to speak, and say it.  Some cyclist are a menace. There, I have said it.  What has brought on this artery-popping tirade?  I hear you ask.  I will tell you.  As you know, I am fond of bundling around town in the venerable two-seater, and until my Man finds the time to turn the machine into ‘a hybrid’, utilising an electric motor he stripped out of a twin-tub that was bound for the tip, petrol remains its poison of choice.  The Cyclists of Ealing are militant in their objection to my vehicle and I feel their ire at every red light and pedestrian crossing.

Since the plague (we-shall-not-speak-its-name) the pressure exerted has only grown.  There has been a steady increase in the number of cyclists milling about in Ealing, and I tell you, they hunt in packs.  Clearly the bicycle shop is winning while the opera house and the casino loses, and some would say there is nothing wrong with that.  I would counter with the hastily-arrived-at impression that many of these new road warriors would struggle to locate their Cycling Proficiency Certificate, however hard they searched down the back of the wardrobe.  Even I have a slightly-less-than crystal recall of my Proficiency Test, I believe there was something about having to dive to the bottom of the swimming pool in my pyjamas to retrieve a brick, but I may be mistaken.

I understand I am treading on thin ice with my shoes on fire in the middle of a thunderstorm with respect to saying anything even slightly critical about the heroic cyclist, esp. as so many noted poets also relied upon the two-wheeled steed as a primary form of transport.  We are all aware of the Betjeman’s enthusiasm for church going, a hobby undertaking entirely on the bike in his younger years.  By the way, it strikes me that Larkin’s poem of the same name could be taking a pop at the Laureate’s obsessions, but if that was his intention, he kept it pretty well concealed.  In fact, I read that Larkin’s prescience vis-à-vis the future role of the Parish Church appears to have even more foresight today.  Today’s bright young things are taking church going to an entirely new level by ‘champing’, a portmanteau of church and camping in which one beds down inside the church at night, with the blessing of the verger and, no doubt, an Irish two-Euro coin left on the plate in the morning.

Fortunately, this week’s Zoom Workshop was untroubled by such suburban concerns.  Martin Choules has been staring into the sky and wondering at those bodies who make a habit of permanently facing towards their parent, tidally locked.  Martin tells us he often picks subjects by opening the encyclopaedia at random on a page, and the rest of us look on with envy and this method of winning inspiration.  Roger Beckett makes a welcome return to the PP with a typically concentrated and spare piece, a recollection of his school friend Raj who possessed authority well in advance of his years.  John Hurley is a degree more isolated than many of the rest of us on the Zoom call, so it’s always good to hear how he is getting along, and of course his poem, this week on the subject of Collateral Damage.  Rithika Nadipalli has been remembering her travels, from back when we could all travel, comparing her life to those of farmers she saw, working hard, in India.  Finally, Nick Barth freely admits that he has not written enough during lockdown, but was called upon to read a piece he wrote about living in a bubble, but not one of the bubbles we hear so much about today, more an echo-chamber.

Back on the subject of Betjeman, I am the last cove one should call on for a bout of historical revisionism, but even I cannot help but look askance at some of Sir John’s bicycle enthusiasms.  While reputedly arrived at by the winning beat combo of MacNeice, Auden and Betjeman not long after their arrival and meeting at Oxford, the lines “I sometimes think that I should like / To be the saddle of a bike” are just asking to be taken up by the poetry division of the #MeToo movement once the realisation of the dark desire of this tasty little bit of personification hits home.  Perhaps nobody has appreciated the squeamish nature of these lines and the Betjeman statue in St Pancras is safe for now.

And what of the succession of Hells’ Grandparents who zip past me as I make the long climb back up Montpelier Road in the old girl?  The more I think about it, the more I realise that these two-wheeled titans were not actually pedalling that hard.  Their steeds differed from the usual crop of mountain bikes, racers and shoppers, in that they sported bulbous battery packs on various parts of their shiny, just-left-the-dealer frames.  These Valkyries tinkling furiously at their bells were riding electric bikes.  Suddenly their over-weening arrogance and disdain for the usual courtesies of the road made perfect sense.  For every electric bike witness a frustrated biker, a person subject to the same baleful looks from the well-trained, paid-up true motorcyclist as they were giving me.  The circle is complete, poetic justice has been achieved, we can shovel on the Schadenfreude and happily drive home.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 4th August 2020

Strange times of late.  The Pitshanger Poets Archive has naturally had to close its storm-drain manhole doors and furlough its unpaid interns, but rest assured that the skeleton staff who remain will soon be able to afford some food.  It almost feels ungrateful to be still parading about Walpole Park in rude health while even the pigeons are looking decidedly peaky, but I for one have long suspected that my daily environment of mould, draughts, dust mites, furballs and common lurgies (so called because once introduced by one of our workers, they quickly become the possession of us all) has built up my immunity marvellously – if one does not count the constant aches, chills, sweats and shakes that are my cross to bear, but at least serve to distract me from my migraines.

Meanwhile the enforcibly-unemployed around the country have had to face up to some harsh realities of modern life, from the revelation that the fashion industry will never make clothes as comfortable as a dressing gown and slippers, to finally admitting that they don’t have a novel in them.  Poets have likewise slowed down their output, finding it harder to chirp away about the minutia of their lives as if they were matters of great moment when their days are filled with endless re-alphabetising their bookcases and experimenting with daytime TV.  All of which has given us some blessed relief here in the Archive to finally classify the Imagist poets by the area of ink used per page.

At this week’s new-fangled virtual workshop (which I was only able to attend with the assistance of Parsonage and his unreturned key to the Town Hall basement), the scene was set by Caroline Am Bergris’ affronting montage of a series of conversations with the police while assisting them with their enquiries, followed by citizen-of-the-world Amir Darwish meditating on everything that has made him the metaphor he is today.  Current events have clearly been on Rithika Nadipalli’s mind as she taps into the grand tradition of protest poetry, a vein also probed by John Hurley as he muses on the last recession in his own quiet yet incisive way, while Nick Barth was in a more reflective mood as he remembered vinyl and our changing means of transcribing it back into sound (though I still say you can’t beat a wax cylinder for true fidelity), and wrapping us up was Martin Choules’ parental advice to teach our children about faith, football and the offsides of life.

It is usually at this juncture in the chronical that we wheel out the anecdote of how Sir John was always coming down with black death or that Mary Shelley was a hobbyist apothecary who’s experimental elixir turned Georgie Byron’s hair blue, but the truth is that the massive tomes recanting the past proceedings of this august and venerable society are simply too heavy to be opened by just one archivist, and so until the interns return to page-turning duties, I am rather at a loss.  And although a lesser librarian might be tempted to invent some tale on the assumption that nobody will ever check-up on our veracity, I can assure you that I expunge all such thoughts with alacrity – why, if we were going to simply make this stuff up, we might as well have been doing so for years !

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