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, 17th May 2016

Rap, it has been said, is the new poetry. Or perhaps poetry is the old rap. Both benefit from being delivered aloud, and many a good-looking young man, old and new, has made his fortune with his mouth.  It has also been posited that rap is where rhyming sought refuge after the modernists had exiled it from poetry, something they did almost as an aside on their way to their real target: rhythm.  Well, so say some, anyway, but here at the Pitshanger Archive we take a very eclectic view on what is verse and, indeed, what is a rhyme.  There’s room for all sorts within the muse, even if some see her as a Greek beauty and others as a bag lady.

Take this week’s workshop, for instance: Peter Francis told tale of domestic bliss turning to adulterous brooding in a very different manner from Martin Choules’ lyric for an undecided month, while Doig Simmonds imaginings of the afterlife complete with escalators were quite distinct from Owen Gallagher’s plainly-spoken observations on the death of his grandfather, beautifully contrasting Daphne Gloag’s realisation on what it is that makes the stars shine, counterpointing Christine Shirley with her retreat to the landscape of the king of the ancient ones, allowing new member Sadie Hussain her opportunity to challenge the unsettling gaze of strangers.

In some ways, the precursors to rap were the beat poets, amply exemplified by Jack Kerouac, a man so dedicated to poetry that even his name rhymes.  Was Bill Burroughs envious, saddled as he was with a name more befitting a fertilizer salesman ?  Both dropped in one Tuesday in the mid-Fifties to the hotbed of their Romantic heroes, and to see what the modern Limey knew about catching the beat.  They were met by an unpromising audience of Jack Betjeman, Phil Larkin and Johnny Masefield, the very epitome of squaresville.

And yet, the Archives reveal that by the end of the evening, the trio were quite converted.  Could it be that there was there something more to the tobacco they offered to fill their pipes with ?  It was certainly a hit: “It is as if we have to lose ourselves in the music, in the moment.” the buttered-toastmaster Betjeman is recorded as exclaiming.  “Quite,” agreed librarian and Master of the Catalogue ‘M.C.’ Larkin.  “We must own it, and had better never let it go.”  ‘J-Mase’ (as he insisted on being called that night) then chimed in as he exaled a mouthful of smoke “One only gets one shot, so one should not miss ones chance to blow”.

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Workshop, 10th May 2016

Bonsoir mes amis, guten Abend, buona sera, it is Eurovision time once more: the annul proof that every nation has great talent in music, and that true artists have no need to compete, and indeed don’t.  John Lennon never felt the need to put himself up to the scrutiny of Luxembourg and Finland, nor did Demis Roussos, Jacques Brel, José Feliciano or Luciano Pavarotti.  Do you really think the likes of Serge Gainsbourg would sully himself in the meat market of teenage girls pimping himself to any microstate that would take him for the sake of a career boost ?  Well, alright, yes, he did write Luxembourg’s 1965 winner, sung by eighteen-year-old ingénue France Gall (a girl with a name that could not be any more French), but he did so ironically, surely ?

Of course, the lyrics are a vital part of any great song, if not a great title (La La La, Boom Bang-a-Bang and Ding-a-Dong all having won the contest).  And considering that performing in English seems to be de rigueur these days, this ought to make for an evening of delightful poetry with a little musical background accompaniment.  Strangely, it never seems to work out this way.

The idea of a pan-European celebration of the muse is nothing new, of course, and the Pitshanger Archives are abuzz with one such competition taking place in London in 1814 to celebrate the ending of the Napoleonic Wars.  Poets from all across the continent came to pit their verses, and many contestants dropped in to the pre-showdown workshop to sharpen their oratory skills.  Nobody present could understand a word being declaimed, but everyone agreed that it all sounded jolly important.

No such shenanigans at this week’s workshop: James Priestman opened the show with an old-fashioned tale of Samson, a young man getting into scrapes and pondering the riddle of existence, followed by Doig Simmonds’ new age ballad of the cry of the forest and the song of the axe.  John Hurley has been off to the races and is now the bookies’ favourite, while Daphne Gloag has been aiming for the stars with her cautionary tale of too much success.  Peter Francis presented a simple folk tale of fruit picking, complete with traditional innuendo, while anticipation in a high street cafe were on Christine Shirley’s mind.  Martin Choules split his three minutes of fame into a three-part performance around a common theme, with a fable thrown in, and Alan Chambers’ finale brought us a brief storm in a tea-break.

At the Pan-Euro Poetry event itself, Prussia and Bavaria predictably voted for each other, Piedmont and Savoy each celebrated their newfound, everlasting independence, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw’s place was controversially taken by Russia following an invasion.  Representing the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland was represented by Leigh Hunt, who was seen as safe and predictable, who was a last minute replacement for Lord Byron who was anything but.  Mr Hunt, according to The Times, gave a very commendable recital, allowing just a hint of suppressed emotion to seep through.  He finished last.  The winners were Sweden-Norway, with their scaremongering predictions of future hostility with the recently (and thoroughly) defeated French.  Apparently thought that events would come to a head in a field in Wallonia, based on their reading of some history book on the shelf.  My my.

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Workshop, 3rd May 2016

Welcome to the Pitshanger Archive in the ward of Walpole, in the parish of Ealing, in the division of Kensington, in the hundred of Ossulstone, in the county of Middlesex.  Or at least, that is how they used to style things, but these days we have to make do with ‘Greater London’, whose name is as inversely bland as it is useful.  Yes, it tells us precisely where it is, but do we always want to know ?  Of course, there are always naysayers who love to point out how silly it is that Southwark, Lewisham, Stratford and Canary Wharf should all be administered by separate counties (and of course separate sheriffs and lord lieutenants), and that Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Glasgow would similarly be split by their careless founding within a couple of miles of the county border, but we at the Archive say pish and phooey to such common sense.  What’s wrong with having dozens of landlocked departments to county A stranded within county B ?  It all goes to keep sign-makers in work, and it provides a thrilling minefield for correctly addressing letters.

Incidentally, the actual ‘Oswald’s Stone’ (or possibly ‘Oswulf’s Stone’) after which Ossulstone Hundred is named was a boundary marker located at Tyburn, near modern-day Marble Arch (though we are loath to use any place name that hasn’t been recorded for at least five centuries – indeed, we have only recently, and reluctantly, agreed to the use of ‘Cambridge’).  Indeed, nobody is sure what the stone was intended to mark, except presumably Oswald (or Oswulf).  It marked the junction of two Roman roads, and yet had no markings on it to make it a milestone.  It was buried by a bemused authorities in 1819, dug back up in 1822 and later lent against the relocated Marble Arch.  An archaeological journal highlighted this historical curiosity in 1869, whereupon the stone promptly vanished.  Rumours that it is lurking in the Archive basement are unfounded, but over the years we have had many admires comment on our lovely flagstone paving.

As you would expect, nobody at this week’s workshop had any doubt as to precisely where they were.  A firmly centred Christine Shirley has been feeling at one with nature, while Olwyn Grimshaw has been all over the place struggling with the requirements of rhymes.  Meanwhile, Alan Chambers is sure he is in Mexico, but everything else around him is a blur, while John Hurley has been firmly with the fleeing refugees, in spirit at least.  Doig Simmonds has been visiting the reverberating corridors and tear-wet walls of depression, very different from the Morecambe of Peter Francis that raised such hilarity, while Ariadne Kazantzis has been sailing the high seas with the pirates of the Golden Cow.  Finally, Martin Choules knew precisely where he was, but wasn’t so sure about the lonely starling he saw.

It may puzzle poetry fans why Alfie Housman, a Bromsgrove boy, should be so determined to associate himself with Shropshire over the border.  The answer is that by a strange quirk of history and pedantry his house and that of three neighbours were built on a tiny Salopian detachment.  But alas, Teddy Thomas was not so careful when recounting how from a train pulled up at Adlestrop station he could hear ‘all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’.  Had he but known that while the tracks through the station were indeed in the County of Gloucester, the station buildings and nearby trees from which the birds sang were infact located in an enclave of Cornwall.

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Workshop, 26th April 2016

Poets tend to be a self-promoting bunch.  Even in past times where the public’s thirst for verse was unquenchable, it was vital to be heard above the throng of doggerel, and in these modern prosaic times it is embarrassingly too easy to be unheard and unmissed.  These days we seem to have very little social or literary mobility where a working-class wordsmith can break into the inner circle of Radio 4, where a self-taught provincial versifier can complete with the Oxbridge literature graduates.  Despite the proliferation of small-press magazines that used to find shelf-space in the Poetry Library and these days have been replaced with their online cousins, there are only half-a-dozen or so magazines whose inclusion on a CV will open any doors.  That means there are half-a-dozen editors who control who gets noticed by the publishing houses and who gets reviewed in the newspapers.

And yet, it has never been easier to start a YouTube channel and start declaiming.  And it has never been easier to be ignored. It is no longer enough to be a first-rate writer, now one must be a glorious orator as well.  Would we ever have heard of Craig Charles or John Cooper Clarke had they not been able to demonstrate the appropriate Northern voice they wrote in, or Benjamin Zephaniah had not toned down the Brummie and cranked up the Caribbean side to his accent when reciting ?

But then, poetry was always a performance art.  From the days of Homer to the rappers of today, it has always been crying out to be spoken, entreated, ranted, whispered, and above all shared.  And where better to practice than at a workshop like ours ?  We opened this week with a fine rendition by Doig Simmonds, recounting his recent moonlighting as a recording angel in heaven, and Christine Shirley had no need to shout for her paean to Mother Earth to be heard.  Peter Francis gave brought his Scots ballad of an unsleeping child to life without the need of a dodgy accent, while Martin Choules has been revisiting the choices of his youth with the voice of experience.  Meanwhile, rumour has it that Alan Chambers is so steeped in a lifetime of prosody that he even uses couplets when he talks in his sleep – certainly his pre-workshop afternoon nap provided plenty to crow about.  Owen Gallagher, on the other hand, has given voice to the invisible but not silent hand of the market, and John Hurley has been expressing his doubts that the voice of the people will reach the ears of the politicians.

It is noteworthy that some of the most reclusive and coy poets such as Emily Dickinson, Gerald Hopkins and Wilfred Owen, all had to die and leave their works in the hands of their pushier relatives before they received any recognition.  Meanwhile, the little-published but suitably boisterous Robert Frost popped over to Britain, dropped off a sheaf of verses at a London publisher, and a week later was the bard of Beaconsfield.  It does make one wonder if we are in danger of only ever hearing the poetic utterings of the loud and obnoxious, or the delicate observations of the self-obsessed.

But of course there is nothing new here: perhaps the greatest innovation of the Romantics was to stop telling tales of ancient times in rhyming couplets and start telling thoughts and feelings from the first person.  There is never any doubt that it is Wordsworth himself that wandered lonely as a cloud, nor that it was Shelley who met the traveller from the antique land, even though his presence is entirely superfluous.  And even the old puritan Billy Blake got in on the act, insisting that he is the recipient of both sword and chariot.  But poetry seems to have survived the last two hundred years of naval-gazing in pretty good shape, so the answer seems clear: by all means write for the love of it, but if you want to be read by strangers, we must play up and play the game.

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Workshop, 19th April 2016

A popular sport of playwrites (that’s right, playwrites) is the imagined meeting: an Irish novelist almost meets a Russian demagogue in neutral Zürich, a professor actually meets an actress in his New York hotel room, and so on.  Sometimes, however, the opportunity for the meeting is real, but the road is not taken.  Take the example found in the Archives concerning T S Eliot: he came to a workshop in 1920 with a piece written that day after luncheon, and soon to be incorporated into The Wasteland.  It describing his meeting with the currant-pocketed Mr Eugenides at the Cannon Street station hotel.  It was well received, and Ezra Pound suggested that “the Ritz is the wrong sort of place for a Smyrna merchant to spend the weekend – try sending him to the Metropol instead.”  And so the evening moved on to a submission by Willie Yeats and life went on.

But in a parallel universe, history repeats as farce: what if old T.S. had taken a wrong turn on his way back from the gents and stumbled into the inaugural meeting of the British Communist Party taking place in the same hotel (for even revolutionaries enjoy a fine pot of tea, although obviously not Earl Grey).  Always something of a small-t Tory, what would he have made of these bowler-hatted bolsheviks ?  Outrage at their intension to do away with capital letters on grounds of privilege ?  Fascination as they debated whether playground rhymes and skipping chants were the real poems of the people ?  Perhaps even admiration at their determination to seize the means of production by setting up workplace rhyme-exchanges and metaphor libraries.

There were no reds lurking under the tables at this week’s workshop.  Alan Chambers sparked the revolution with his likening of language with a foreshore, and Doig Simmonds brought his meditation of battle of love to the Finland Station.  Martin Choules rallied the workers to try harder for the brighter tomorrow, while John Hurley found that there was no comfort left in the dreams of the past.  Full-bearded Peter Francis inspected the message that his son was receiving in school, while Owen Gallagher stood in solidarity with the memory of the crofters, and Daphne Gloag found that the road to utopia is a wandering way through the woods.

So do we see an echo of this redder ‘Thomas Stearnsovitch Eliotski’ in our own true-blue version ?  Is the wasteland of capitalism-induced angst heaped upon J. Alfred Prufrock a clue ?  Is Old Possum an Uncle Joe to the Jellicle Cat Co-operative ?  Is Shimbleshanks an allegory for the nationalisation of the railways ?  And the observant reader will notice that he never wrote “October is the cruellest month”.

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Workshop, 12th April 2016

Poetry is often the hobby of the polymath.  Erasmus Darwin was a pioneering doctor who loved to wax scientific in his spare moments, and Enoch Powell often had much nicer things to say than his infamous Rivers of Blood (definitely not his best work).  Of course, both swung by Ealing on a Tuesday evening or two, but those are stories for other days.  But another enlightened soul who spent his adolescence dreaming of a minstrel’s life only to have his head turned by the mysteries of natural philosophy was Humphrey ‘Lamps’ Davy.

He is of course best known for inventing the miners’ safety lamp in 1815, which drastically cut the number of deaths from exploding firedamp, and enabled thousands of miners to stay alive long enough be able to contract pulmonary pneumoconiosis, while allowing considerably deeper seems to be exploited and finally getting some proper curvature into their spines.

It is really no surprise that the Archives reveal ‘Humpty’ Davy to be a regular at Pitshanger Manor.  After all, he was a thorough Romantic – a child prodigy, a political radical (who would later become a dull, comfortable conservative), and a flamboyant dandy known as the Parrot of Penzance.  But it wasn’t his moon-eyed moping verses that made him such a hit at Sir John’s gatherings, nor his discovery of potassium and his attempts to persuade the Royal Navy to use it as the first chemical weapon, but rather his discovery and subsequent application of nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas.

There was much good humour and mirth at this week’s workshop, though suitably tempered with sober reflections, such as the rambler’s peon for the lost greenbelt from Owen Gallagher which got things underway.  Peter Francis then told us all about his wreath-weaving aunt and the symbolic choice of blooms, while new member Ariadne Kazantzis wove her own tale of pirates, jewel thieves and chronic lateness.  The upcoming referendum has been on Ali Chaudhry’s mind, and he came down firmly on the side of the poets, while Martin Choules has been finding the early Spring in the suburbs to be a season of half-measures.  Nick Barth brought us a touching account of good-neighbourliness, which amounts to never having to turn down the music, while the recent Grand National had clearly inspired John Hurley to get inside the head of the racing world.  Finally, Daphne Gloag has been musing on days of blue and nights of black.

The Pitshanger Poets gas parties were, well, a gas, and a maniacally good time was had by all.  Indeed, certain subsequent works such as Byron’s She Walks in Beauty, like the Night and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner make far more sense if viewed as the works of stoners, as does practically the entire output of William Blake.  Eventually Market Jew Street journeyman had to put such sophomore days behind him and get on with scaling the greasy pole, complete with an advantageous marriage and a public spat with George Stephenson.  But for years afterwards there was still a fond memory of the flashy Cornishman who had given them all the vapours.

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Workshop 30th March 2016

I was idly toying with the breakfast boiled egg the other morning, wondering what I was going to make of the day when the dramatic news flooded in.  Ealing’s weather has been somewhat capricious of late, doing its best to convince one that it is Spring while one is behind glass staring out at the sunshine dappling the newly-sprung daffs in the garden and then turning the tables and erupting in downpours as soon as one presents a galosh to the avenue.  Such meteorological brow-beating had me on the verge of transferring my mortal remains to the Study where my fifteen-act Verse Play on the collapse of British Table Manners continues to experience a troubled gestation, when my man loped in proffering the telephone.

‘It’s Pitshanger Manor, Sir,’ he effused. ‘They request your presence on site.’

Now, this was a turn up for the tweed slacks.  Those of you with a keen eye for scaffolding and hoardings will have noted a certain inaccessibility to The Manor of late.  This is due to the wheelbarrows of lottery cash that have been rolling into the redevelopment programme.  Having spruced up Walpole Park, the keen eye of the Town Planner has turned to the house itself, with the result that it is to be returned to something more like the edifice that the great architect Sir John Soane left behind when he upped antiquities and moved to Holborn.  This includes the removal of the former Public Library, sitting as comfortably next to the Manor as a teacher would sit next to an Ofsted Inspector in a mix-up at the school Christmas Party.  Already, walls are coming down and ill-advised chunks of masonry are being removed.  The chaps running the show have rejected all my kind offers to pop in and have a nose about from time to time, with the result that I have not been within a chisel-throw of the place since we carted the Archive and the Ferranti Pegasus off to its temporary home in the Town Hall basement in January.

However, they had called for me.  I needed no further enticement.  Without pausing to consider the remains of my egg I scampered out to the old two-seater to get her started with all speed.  A scant forty-five minutes later I was on the road.

Upon arrival at the Manor a brief meeting with the on-site team of Historians and Antiquarians revealed the cause of the excitement.  Upon taking down a wall a hidden cupboard or cache had been revealed.  Inside the cache was an ancient metal box.  Inside the box?  Slim volumes of poetry!

At this juncture I must interrupt the course of my narrative to turn to the proceedings of this weeks Workshop, which was a very enjoyable meeting.  Owen Gallagher has been imagining the prayers of someone who is not sure what they want to be.  Alan Chambers brought back an early poem describing the start of a long journey in the minds of geese.  Daphne Gloag has been looking at the paintings of John Hoyland and without mentioning colour.  Martin Choules has been at work, although his mind, it appears was with the geese.  Nick Barth railed against those who believe the Counter-Culture is dead.  Doig Simmonds has been clearing out some old pictures and musing on the shadows they leave.  Finally John Hurley has been remembering the Captain’s wife, who was a worrier.

The Historians had surmised that the box was owned by the Perceval sisters, Pitshanger Manor residents and daughters of this country’s only assassinated Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval.  These ladies retained links with the British Government throughout their long lives.  As mentioned, inside were a number of slim volumes, but one stood out.  The red-bound book, barely a pamphlet, carries the Royal Seal of Queen Victoria and the poems are written entirely in German.  My understanding of that tongue is not perfect and I only had the chance to study one work, but my first impressions are that the young lady authoress was extolling the virtues of frequent exercise, especially at night, paying tribute to her newly-wedded husband and thanking him for his recent gift of a large Bratwurst(?) At this stage I had to admit defeat.  It was beyond me.  The poems in the Perceval Cache are to be translated by a professional linguist, at which point we may find out why it was that they needed to be hidden so carefully in the first place.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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