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 September 2016

Brexit continues to take its toll here in the Archives, as several of our unpaid interns hail from beyond the Rhine.  They come to learn English in its purest form, as hewn and polished in a thousand ballads, sonnets and limericks, and are following in the footsteps of such great Britons as George Handel, Joseph Conrad and Canaletto.  Who knows what children they may bear to be our future Izzy Brunels, Christina Rossettis and George Michaels ?  Except there is now an air of uncertainty in the vaults, a despondent gloom hanging over the microfiches, and a thickening malaise about the Theophilus Marzials Wing.  Rumours have been intercepted that Canada is the new Shoreditch, while letters are daily received that we are doing Brits out of working eighty hours a week for no money in the vain hope of breaking into the cliquey world of poetry.

No bad blood was boiling at this week’s workshop: Martin Choules read an effusive welcome to the new planet in the Local Bubble, while Olwyn Grimshaw was been back to the old country that is the West Midlands and returned speaking like a native.  Doig Simmonds has been inspired by a Slovakian friend and by the most-travelled immigrant of all – the Grim Reaper, though it seems he is looking far from grim these days, and Martin Choules brought us full circle with a second poem that celebrated those great entrepreneurs in foreign parts – the pirates.

So, a small but intimate workshop this week, not unlike the time in 1766 when Thomas Gurnell was host to just three: Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke.  And on what did three Irishmen in London talk about all evening ?  Well, there was the recent concert given by Johann Christian Bach for one, and on Benjamin Franklin’s latest musings on the nature electricity from his Craven Street breakfast table for another, and then there were the latest fashions in Huguenot silk handkerchiefs.  Oh, and about the disgraceful number of immigrants filling the streets of the capital these days.  Some things never change.

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Workshop, 13th September 2016

I have to begin the Blog with the merest smidgen of the most sincere apology.  You may have lamented (and you may have not, in which case I applaud your sense of perspective), the lack of a PP blog last week.  There was a workshop, and oh, what a workshop it was!  It was certainly one of the best workshops, if not the best workshop we have ever hosted, with all manner of exciting and diverting poetic moments.  A workshop to sing songs about, a workshop which will be talked about by those who were there and even some who weren’t until their memories fail them and they know not even themselves.  It’s a shame you were not there (if you were not), and even more of a shame that there was no blog.  A tragedy for poetry in fact, given what occurred.

However, and unfortunately, my notes, hand-transcribed on vellum as is my wont, were lost in the Ealing Bomb Scare last week when a partially-exploded WWII bomb was discovered in a part of Ealing which then had to be partially evacuated by the largely impartial Emergency Services.  Because the bomb was partially exploded, its shockwave apparently hovering in mid-air like a soap-bubble, there was the concern that it might fully explode should it be burst by, for example, a schoolboy with a drawing-pin, and take out half the suburb.  In the ensuing chaos I think I last saw the vellum pages floating off on the dark waters of the canal but that could have been a partially inflated goat.

This week’s Workshop was not exactly dull, but compared to last week’s… well I should not harp on for fear of being set upon by jealous crowds of poetry fanatics carrying pitchforks and flaming torches, but you had to be there.   Michael Harris got us off to a great start with a poem written on observing two boys comparing notes on whose farming father had the most fields.  Alan Chambers reminisced about the dying moments of an ocean cruise and that there is never enough time.  Time was also on the mind of Daphne Gloag who recognises that the book can be read but never re-written.  Nick Barth was remembering a lost friend, reminding himself she will always be there.  Christine Shirley has been walking out one midsummer morning.  Owen Gallagher, like Michael was thinking about the Spanish Armada, from an Irish point of view.  Finally, Ann Furneux has been remembering the Brains Trust on the dear old Beeb, and Cyril ‘it all depends’ Joad.

Anyone reading this blog regularly (who are you?  Have you seen a doctor recently?) would be forgiven for thinking that we at Pitshanger Poets are obsessed.  It may appear to the unwary that a PP Workshop is a focused undertaking, only to be tackled by the sure of metre and the serious of purpose.  Apart from, as related, last week’s workshop, I have to impress upon you now that nothing, unless it is the scoring system on Radio 4’s ‘Just a Minute’ is further from the truth.

Poet after ambitious poet attends our Workshops hoping for a keen appraisal of the work at hand, and our concern is that while they will get a fair hearing they may leave the meeting disappointed.  The issue is not the critical faculties of the group nor the depth and breadth of their poetry reading but the fact that at 8 o’clock on a rainy Tuesday evening it is very hard to get away from First World Problems.

Analysis of the PP Archive demonstrates that if the Workshop Chairman is not careful (and if only Nicholas Parsons would reply to my invitations to step in as guest chair, a poet might get the benefit of the doubt for once), well-argued opinion can soon descend into vapid discussions of a purely domestic nature.  So, if you find yourself in a poetry workshop in the suburb of a British city, whatever you do, do not mention ‘washing feet in soda water’ for fear of a discussion on paediatrics and the state of one’s plates.  Neither should one go near a fox, even a Thought Fox, for fear of sparking one up on the horrors of waking up to a street full of scattered rubbish.  The ‘Toad Work’ should be avoided, because of the certainty of a long reminiscence on the last time the cat caught one in the night and how terribly the poor amphibian screamed.  Plums in the ice box are right out (should fruit be kept in the fridge?), as are Irish Sixpences (they are collectible now, or are they?).  So, when the Workshop morphed into a long and heated debate about the utility of wearing gloves in fields (and whether or not much is missed) given the prevalence of agricultural chemicals these days, it’s a wonder Frances Cornford found it within herself to ever come back.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 30th August 2016

What would summer be without carbon dioxide ?  Its build-up in the upper atmosphere gives overcast Britain that extra bit of warmth not seen since the Mediaeval Warm Period: when William of Normandy, despite holidaying late in the season, was able to give the Sussex Coast a try one year and never looked back, while up in Scotland Macbeth of Glamis found the evenings so mild that he was able to join a trio of local women at an outdoor barbeque

And then there’s the carbon dioxide in our beverages.  For all the current vogue for cloudy lemonade, it sells a fraction of its filtered and fizzed-up cousin.  For all the real ale snobs who won’t touch a pint that hasn’t been fermented for five years in artisanal barrels made out of pigs’ bladders, they must watch how soda-streamed lagers are busy fuelling every Saturday night booze-up in every town in every country that doesn’t ban the whole lot, bubbles and all.  (Incidentally, real ale snobs are more than welcome at the Grapevine Bar, which always has a choice of house and guest ales, and even the odd lager.)

Dissolving CO2 in H2O was first developed by the chemist Joseph Priestley in the 1770s, and the Archives reveal how he brought along some of his “water impregnated with fixed air” to the Pitshanger Poets to try.  In fact, airtight containers being more aspirational than existential back then, he had to make the stuff up on the spot, dropping some oil of vitriol onto chalk and bubbling the resultant gas through the water.  The results were mixed, with John Wesley considering it an excellent alternative to the “demon drink”, but Oliver Goldsmith complaining that the whole thing seemed a lot of hullabaloo over something he could achieve for himself in the bath.

There was plenty of effervescence at the workshop this week, as Martin Choules broke the seal and unscrewed the lid to a satisfying hiss with his ponderings on the ability of cats to work together to take over the world, followed by a careful outpouring (at precisely 45˚ to prevent an unruly head) from Alan Chambers wondering if he has enough time.  Nayna Kumari has been taking the first sip of reassurance from her partner, while Doig Simmonds added a cherry and umbrella as he talked with an astronaut.  Bubbly Christine Shirley has been celebrating the spirit of nature, mixing a strange cocktail in the process, which John Hurley’s shook with ice while recounting how his uncle was well acquainted with both the fizzy beer and frothing sea.  Daphne Gloag was on sparkling form at an exhibition of an artist who paints nothing, and new member Michael Harris was far from flat with two poems about possibilities, conversations, and a nice cup of tea.

But back to the Archives.  We pick up the story twenty years later, in 1795, when the pioneering Johann Schweppe has made his name with his “carbonated water wrought via the improved method” that he had developed in Geneva and brought to London.  Alas his venture was a failing one, and he was on the verge of packing up.  Meeting in the dilapidated Manor badly in need of Sir John’s improvements that were still five years away, and with the well in the basement contaminated yet again, ‘Johnny’ Schweppe arrived with his crate of bubbles at the perfect time.  Erasmus ‘Razzie’ Darwin was an instant convert, and ‘Bob’ Southey found that a trip the Manor’s icehouse improved it further: “Down sank the ice with a gurgling sound !” he exclaimed as he dropped in a bell-shaped chunk, “The bubbles rose and burst around !”  But ‘Sammy’ Coleridge was far from impressed, and found the bubbles made it hard going to swig it down and slake his thirst. “Water, water, every where,” he bemoaned, “nor any drop to drink !”

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Workshop, 23rd August 2016

Well, that’s it then.  The flame has been quenched, the rings have been dismantled, the races run and shots put.  Goodbye for another four years, except for the Winter games in  two years time, except since it’s in the Winter, it’s more like 18 months.  Anyway, now that the distraction has finally left town, maybe we can finally get some work out of our unpaid interns, although that’s looking unlikely now that the new football season has started…

Of course, poetry and sport are not complete strangers.  Many a wordsmith has attempted to pen a witty chant for the terraces, while others have sought gentler pursuits to extol such as cricket and fishing.  And many a sporting hero has been a lover of poesy: here in the Archive we have reports from the early 30s of Fred Perry popping down from his home in Pitshanger Lane to flirt with Virginia Woolf, and thirty years later we read how racing driver Graham Hill loved to drop by in the close season to chat about rowing and rondos with Kingsley Amis.  Meanwhile the young John Betjeman may have disparaged the clerks of Slough who meet in various bogus-Tudor bars to talk of sport and makes of cars, yet he himself was not above fawning over the light verses of fellow attendee C B Fry.  Mr Fry, of course, was a famous all-rounder, as happy at the crease as he was at right back defending the goal, and likewise he was just at home with a villanelle as with an heroic ballad.

Limbering up at this week’s workshop were the first team, led out by Christine Shirley remembering her parents accompanying her to the station, followed by scrum-half James Priestman’s take on an ancient Biblical story as told by one of its players, and Daphne Gloag brought her jolly hockey sticks while walking backward through a wood.  Silly mid-off Martin Choules has been pitying the poor penmanship of pressurised pupils come exam time, while veteran backstop Doig Simmonds recalled the death of an airman in a grassy meadow.  Owen Gallagher told us how he was a trainee jouster in his youth, apprenticed to Camelot, while team-maker John Hurley recounted the cycling seasons of the year and mascot Anne Furneaux has been complaining about complaining about the weather.

When it comes to sportsmen waxing lyrical, though, there is one clear heavyweight: Muhammad Ali.  Always ready with a rhyming quip and boastful bagatelle, what better ambassador could there be for taking verses to the masses ?  Has trash talk ever sounded so elegant ?  In 1974, the Archives reveal, during his preparations for the Rumble in the Jungle, he came to London to appear on Parkinson, and found time to swing by Ealing. Also present was Philip Larkin, preparing what would prove to be his final collection, High Windows.  It seems that his editor had managed to dissuade him from including This Be The Verse on grounds of taste – but one evening with The Greatest and he was Mr Bespectacled Respectable no more.  Who the hell were Faber & Faber anyway ?  Think they could tell him what to publish ?  Time to start stinging like a bee…

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Workshop, 16th August 2016

In the week when millions of anxious eighteen-year olds find out their A-Level results, a week before their younger siblings undergo the same agony over GCSEs, it is worth remembering the great damage these well-meaning teachers are doing to the youth of today, and the unintended instrument of torture: poetry appreciation.  Never was there devised a more effective way to repel young minds from the beauty of verse than to force-feed them a diet that alternates between the bland, the sickly sweet and the bitter.  Whereas left to their own devises, nudged along by Radio 4, Sylvia Plath and the more articulate popsters, they may have come to savour a good juicy sonnet or a pithy haiku, any such enjoyment evaporates the moment they have to explain why they like it.

Anyway, all present at this week’s workshop were well passed school-age, and glad of it.  Assembly commenced with the welcome return by old-girl Nayna Kumari, who unpredictably discussed the merits of expectation in a poet’s style, followed up by headmistress Daphne Gloag presenting a sizable chunk of her ongoing sequence on time, with instructions to concentrate on the flow from one section to the next.  Next up was John Hurley (and exchange pupil who never went home) with a poem of utter gobbledygook, and all the better for it, while Owen Gallagher has been smoking behind the bikesheds again with his impish Downing Street daydreams.  Martin Choules, meantime, having a permanent note to get out of PE, spent his free period reading the paper, but found little therein of interest, and Christine Shirley managed to read out her latest coursework just in time before pencils down !  Poignantly, it was on the stolen Nigerian schoolgirls whose ongoing troubles put our own memories of baggy trousers and lumpy gravy into perspective.

Is it merely a coincidence that Robert Frost, who taught English inbetween bouts of farming, is one of the most syllabused of poets ?  What child hasn’t had to hang around in snowy woods waiting for the poet to get on with his miles to go ?  Or been either baked and frozen in a classroom that was never at a comfortable temperature while having to annotate the metaphors in Fire & Ice ?  And how is it that despite trudging the road less travelled by, it still always led to one about the sawmill that the teacher hoped would perk up us up because of the gore, whereas our analytical skills were at least sufficient to tell us that there was very little gore therein to be had.  And what on earth was that title all about ? It’s a quote from Macbeth ?  You mean we had to read that as well ?

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Workshop, 9th August 2016

The world appears to be obsessed with Apses.   I first became aware of the phenomenon on a tour of Romanesque churches, and I remember thinking how nice it was that the Youth of Today had suddenly developed an interest in ecclesiastical architecture. However, my Man assures me that according to his niece in High Barnet ‘Apps’ are something to do with mobile phones, games and sending messages to friends via ‘social networking’.  Really.  I am the last man on earth you would find sitting in front of a keyboard desperately sifting through the day’s mundanities in order to turn out the kind of nuggets he thinks a jaded audience will find endearing.  I just do not have the time, what with all the hours I put into running the Cake Stall at the Farmer’s Market in aid of confused kittens and giving little old ladies lifts down to M&S so they can just nip in for a few bits for afternoon tea with the vicar, only for us to forget where we parked the two-seater and having to get the bus home, with me struggling with the shopping, of course. Besides, who would want to read such banal anecdotes?

Banal anecdotes were noticeable by their absence in this week’s workshop.  John Hurley is a believer in chemistry, and the power of the moon.  Martin Choules has been calling on the muses, even if we needed a little help from Ariadne Kazantsis to perfect the pronunciation.  Nick Barth has been observing a man who has but one single thought, and jumped for joy.  Alan Chambers gave us an impression of a painting by his late friend Michael Snow, which was much more than the sum of its parts.  Daphne Gloag brought another piece from her Time sequence, this one exploring the possibility of slowing time down.  Finally, Owen Gallagher wondered at the strength of democracy over simply marking a cross at random on a piece of paper.

To be candid with my readership I am not as green as my corduroys and I have oft observed the lesser-spotted teenager in the wild, on the top decks of busses and occupying the better benches in the park, hunched over their devices, sending pictures of their new shoes to the person sitting next to them and ‘liking’ scraps of received wisdom that would shame a housewife, if such a person existed in this day and age.  What these kids need is something to get them out of their recumbent poses and moving about a bit, and so to my big idea.  Britain is sprinkled with both blue and green plaques celebrating the many great poets who have hung their hats in a variety of abodes from draughty attics on the one hand, to town houses with uninterrupted views of the etc. on the other.  How about an app that encourages the smartphone owner to gather plaques by visiting the locations?  The concept would be something like the Poet Monitor, like the Milk Monitor of old, or ‘PoeMon’ for short.  The idea is to get people mobile, so the app could be called ‘PoeMon Go’ I surmise.  Points would be earned for gathering these virtual poets into capsules on the device, or ‘PoeBalls’, the natty tag line being something like; ‘you gotta catch ‘em all’.  I see a craze in the making, with fans of the prosody arts wandering the streets, Mobile Devices at the ready to snag a favourite bard.

In the game, some poets would be harder to capture than others.  As a lure, Betjeman would need only a glimpse of a well-turned ankle or tennis racquet to have him captured, while WB Yeats, should be dangled some really good embroidery work, something that had not been carelessly stepped on.  I image GM Hopkins would be captured with a nice shiny spring, coil or leaf, while you would need some kind of virtual Laudanum for ST Coleridge.  All I need is a games company to write it, market it, fund it and turn it into an internet phenomenon.  Have you heard of Nintendo?  I believe they might be on the lookout for bright ideas.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 2nd August 2016

If you were to press me on it in the Lounge Bar of the Red Lion (and mine’s a whisky and soda while you’re at the bar), I would have to admit I’m not one for interior decoration.  I am fortunate in that the flat in Ealing is kept in tip-top order by my Man who is oft to be seen with paintbrush in hand attending to the odd impaction or contusion.  Full-scale redecoration projects are carried out by a chap in a flat cap and overalls called Jarvis who manages to transport everything he needs in the boot of his 1965 Bentley T1 saloon.  His arrival is invariably my cue to exit stage left hauling a golf bag out to the two-seater, whereupon I will head for the hills of Scotland.  Not that I actually play golf, you understand.  Before I complete my rambling journey to the first tee my Man will typically have contacted me to let me know that all major undertakings have been undertaken and I can return to the bosom of my drawing room with no risk of catching a splodge of eggshell white with a hint of avocado on the fine old worsted.  Merely thinking about decorative materials brings me out in a cold sweat and I fear the Do It Yourself Superstore like The Blue Oyster Cult fail to fear The Reaper.  The odour of strong solvents plus the surrounding milieu of sanding, smoothing and rolling fills me with a nameless dread.  It appears I possess a morbid fear of fresh paint.

Fortunately, not one of the group wrote about paint this week.  Olwyn Grimshaw cleared her work area with a story of the animal kingdom regaining control.  Martin Choules freed the surfaces of any loose or flaking material with a lament on the summer – traditionally the poets’ least favourite season.  Nick Barth put down some dust sheets with memories of a Great Western locomotive that marked an end to austerity.  John Hurley popped the lids and stirred with his recollection of teenage mentors.  Ariadne Kazantsis laid down an effective undercoat with her tale of Ant saving the world with moon beams.  Gerry Godino got on with the woodwork with a song about a very cinematic love affair.  Finally, Anne Furneaux created an impressively smooth, drip-free surface with an invented word of her mother’s.

Which painterly shenanigans brings me to the heart of my tale, for while I abhor the dust, grime and continual cursing of the restoration of Pitshanger Manor (Architectural Historians are particularly foul-mouthed lot, esp. after the de rigeur tot of lunchtime Amontillado), I would not be apart from the continual process of discovery.  And what daily-newspaper-featured revelations were to be had this week.  The team has long been aware that among the many treasures to be preserved are the internal decorative motifs and whatnots painted by Sir John himself.   The experts were justifiably astounded when the paint samples came back from the lab; it appears Sir John employed realgar, a red shade more commonly used for representative art than decoration and choc-full of somewhat poisonous if not deeply unpleasant arsenic.  When I gained this intelligence it set my mind racing.  Could it be that the characteristic sickliness of the typical Romantic Poet has an altogether more mundane explanation?  Perhaps Sir John was unwittingly subjecting this country’s finest wordsmiths to regular poisoning in the dining room, the chamber hosting Pitshanger Poets’ Weekly Workshop!  Now, how to get the bottom of this?  Is Ealing Council willing to fund the exhumation and subsequent toxicology tests on some of Britain’s most famous poets?   Such action will necessarily need to be carried out at dead of night and with extensive security laid on to ensure that hordes of shambling, curious Goths sporting impractical platform boots and long, leather great-coats do not arrive on the scene only to fall, unprotected, into the open graves.  Careful and costly planning will be needed to avert a disaster of Bram-Stoker-esque proportions, therefore the Council should establish an emergency committee immediately, if not sooner.

I would say we should dig up Shelley first, but unfortunately it’s a little too late for that.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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