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, 27th April 2021

I am sure I speak for us all when I say, whither Bank Holidays?  I say this as one who actively enjoys the moveable feast of Easter and harks back with some nostalgia to the mobile shindig of Whitsun.  It will come as no surprise to you to learn that my Easter Sundays are typically spent re-creating a school of poetry in boiled-egg form for an edible diorama.  This year I had a go at The Movement, expertly wielding the Sharpies to caricature Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D J Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn and Robert Conquest with a bonus egg for J D Scott, before my Man soft-boiled them all to the peak of perfection.  Following that marathon egg-fest, the irony was not lost on me that a movement was not something I was likely to experience for the next few days.

I am well aware that my fellow-citizen, the hard-working man (or woman), flat-capped, hobnail-booted and rolled sleeves, enjoys a Bank Holiday.  It’s a time when the hard-working woman (or man) can sojourn to the seaside for a well-earned roll-mop herring and ice-cream or simply prop up the bar at their sawdust-floored local for a pie, pint and punch-up.  We think of Bank Holidays as a Victorian social innovation, a right, given to the hard-working man (or woman) by the satanic owners of the dark satanic mills. However, what the hard-working woman (or man) may not realise is that just like my Man’s soft-boiled eggs, Bank Holidays are a relic of Britain’s Imperial Past, of this country’s mastery of Soft Power.  For while regular feast days, race days and market days have been a feature of the yearly round for centuries, we do not find them being enshrined in law until the latter part of the Nineteenth Century.  And what, I hear you ask, was the reason for this sudden codification of the occasional four-day week?  It was the Scramble for Africa.

The Scramble for Africa marks the point in this country’s history when we realised that it was time to get serious about nation-enslaving, resource-grabbing Imperialism.  Time was when it was enough to post a few benighted sailors off in a clutch of leaky ships armed with some muskets and a couple of cannons and ask them not to return until they had secured some Spanish doubloons (although no one was quite sure what a doubloon was), a new vegetable, a sparklingly innovative way to give the working man (or woman) cancer, and a patch of land which could be shaded in pink.  However, by the 1870’s, it was clear, even to the Eton-Educated wonders who inhabited the Foreign Office that the old ways were not working.  Slavery, one of the lynchpins of the British Empire had been thoroughly discredited, if not actually eliminated.  Moreover, a few upstart non-British countries had decided that having an empire might be a good idea and were busy recruiting their own moustachioed psychopaths and building their own gunboats.  Large swathes of the map were being shaded in colours other than pink, and it seemed that sheer thuggery and cruelty were no longer the magical keys to territorial acquisition they once had been.  There were whisperings in the oak-panelled lavatories and pristine ceramic boardrooms of the FO of a new way to create and maintain influence over Johnnie-Foreigner, Charlie-Chieftain, Samuel-Sultan and Colin-Colonist, something called ‘soft power’.  Suddenly, building an empire was all about the brochure.

So it was that Civil Servants sidled up to poets such as Kipling, composers such as Elgar and artists such as Leighton and Alma-Tadema, wondering if they would not mind knocking up a few pieces which might make the British feel good about being British and everyone else start wondering what was so great about these chilly, rain-soaked islands.  For the first time British Imperialists started analysing other Imperialist models.  Spain, it was noted had been Top Nation for a while before Britain had leaped athletically on to the apex of the podium, in fact pretty much all of America (including even the confected name of the continent, it was noted) had been a Spanish or a Portuguese possession at one time or another.  The Spanish were not noted for their propagandist poetry, stirring tunes or harking-back-to Roman titillating painting, so what, they mused had made the Spanish so successful?  It seems that one Civil Servant in the FO had been to Latin America recently, on a bid to sell railways to Argentina, and had noted that the Hispanic peoples did seem to have an awful lot of holidays.  In fact, if you wanted to you could take the Monday after pretty much any Sunday off from work, such were the sheer number of Saint’s Days peppering the Papists’ calendars.  Surely, he pointed out, everyone likes a long weekend.  Let’s select a few Anglican Feast Days, staple on an obligatory Monday and add that to the whole British Empire marketing package.  There must be so many countries where no working woman (or man) has had a day off in years.  A soft power brochure was designed, cunningly disguised as the souvenir programme for one of Queen Victoria’s many jubilees, and the British Empire’s generous public holiday schedule was printed in a neat table on the back.  By the time the Empires of Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands had realised the FO’s subtle ruse, the Scramble for Africa was over.  More of the continent was shaded pink than any other colour and it was just about time for the First World War.

This week’s Workshop is poised between the public holiday overload of Easter and the looked-forward to early May holiday, which replaced the Whitsun, another itinerant moveable feast in 1972, and welcome.  A Monday to a Pitshanger Poet is rarely entirely a holiday, there is always the consideration of what one is going to take to the group the following evening to remove some of the lustre.  This week Nick Barth led out with the experience of being thrust deep into a machine and being made to listen to its music.  John Hurley has been thinking about odd tales from his past, together with a heap of praise for the NHS in general as he recounts a night in A and E in Ealing General.  Roger Beckett is a true poetry inventor; this week he brought a piece he must have created some years ago featuring a one-sided conversation between Saddam Hussain’s publisher and the dictator himself which had more than a bit of Bob Newhart about it.  Martin Choules completed the evening in fine style with an entreaty to the young to get out of the house and do a bit more wandering from an older character whose wandering days are over.

I would argue that it is the curse of a poet to never be able to take a holiday.  To have a mind like a poets’ is to be at risk of inspiration striking at any moment and needing to rush from the room for pen and paper to scribble down the mots juste which have just popped unbidden into the old bean.  I would not deprive the working man (or woman) of a single day, however much they seem to clutter the calendar up at this time of year.  I recall riding in a Volkswagen Beetle Taxi in Mexico City one afternoon, on my way to the airport, as a matter of fact.  The driver engaged me in conversation, reminding me that this was the very day the Mexicans mark their independence from Spain. 

‘Where are you from?’ he enquired,

‘Britain’ I replied

‘And when is your Independence Day?’

I had to have a think about this; ‘It was around the 15th of September, 410 AD, when the Emperor Honorus rejected the Romano-Britains’ appeal that the army be returned from its futile war with the German Tribes and as a result the last Roman Magistrates were expelled from our islands.’ I said.

‘Do you have fireworks?’

‘Of course,’ I maintained.

Which diverting experience got me thinking – our Imperial past may have enslaved many people, caused untold misery and wiped cultures from the planet but at least the now-independent nations have been able to add a well-earned public holiday to their calendars.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 20th April 2021

Something Aubrey and I share in common is that we both live in palatial apartments, though since mine are in a subterranean archive they have far fewer windows and far more interesting mushrooms.  And we also both live alone (if one discounts Aubrey’s man and I discount my Percy the pot-plant, a barely-alive devil’s ivy which allegedly can be grown without light, a claim I have alas tested most rigorously).  In my case, it is an enforced bachelorette-ishness, having lost my staff to the lockdown, and I fully intent to revive the communal bustle as soon as regulations and nerves allow.  But what on earth does Aubrey do with all of his spare rooms ?  They can’t just be there for him to fill up with his dioramas, surely ?  I saw his Valley of Death the last time I was there, where the brave 500 ride up the back staircase to their unwitting doom, here represented by assorted tin soldiers, plastic soldiers, plastic farm animals, and even the odd dinosaur, facing down the Russian guns played by model cannons, model battering rams, plastic rams from the farm set, Word War 2 tanks, and World War 3 nuclear howitzers.  He assures me that these are mere placeholders, and that Balaclava will be less full of time-travellers (and sheep) as soon as his man has finished hand-sculpting the figures from lumps of coal.

But at least he’s making an attempt to fill up the place, unlike my endlessly dark, echoey caverns.  Perhaps I should follow the practise of the really serious vinyl record collectors and take every slim volume off the shelf into piles on the floor, and re-file them according to a new indexing system, doing away with alphabetical for genre or spine colour or typefont, only to repeat the exercise tomorrow based on the poet’s hair length or shoe size or scrabble points in their name.  But this is only a temporary clutter, the floor does not stay full…unless…can I bring myself to bring the disorder but deny the new order, leaving the state of poetry in perpetual anarchy ?  Surely I would drive myself mad, desperately needing to re-shelve the books into some semblance of sequence, any sequence, so long as it could be catalogued !  Especially considering I feel uncomfortable even removing a book to read as it will leave a unfilled gap in the row, and likewise hate to own two copies of the same publication for that is either a surplus or a second collection that lacks every other volume.  Have I never wanted to take my arm and sweep the whole lot to the whims of gravity ?  Of course, every now and then, five or six times a day, but I just know the sound they make will be such a pathetic pflap and so unlike the satisfying doompf of a properly serious tome, that I have thus far always resisted.  Still, maybe it is time to investigate the mediaeval practice of chaining the books to the shelf, presumably because some of those monks could be pretty wild guys.

So all-in-all it was a relief to close up the stacks and concentrate on this week’s Workshop.  First up was Roger Beckett celebrating a favourite author in a suitably fantastical manner, and it sounds like the kind of funeral I’d long to attend, followed by John Hurley recalling a first love that seemed to matter so much at the time, right up until it didn’t.  Nick Barth then described his waking-up routine in minute detail and kept us riveted when he couldn’t find his left slipper, rounded out by Martin Choules contemplating the really big questions like ‘why are my hands so hand-shaped’ ?

Back in Sir John’s day, Pitzhanger Manor was barely occupied, especially seeing as his wife Margaret never warmed to the place and preferred to remain back in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  The Workshops would take place in the main salon, and sometimes a guest would stay over to Wednesday morning if they had overdone the wine or the sonnets, but otherwise he lived there alone (save for Mrs Conduitt and the cat).  The draughty upstairs rooms were often left unheated and Sir John would hunker down in his back parlour whenever he brought back some architectural plans from his office for a week of ‘working from second-home’.  But his expanse of cluttered and dust-sheeted rooms did make an excellent battlefield for a game of drunken hide and seek, resulting in such triumphs as the time Johnny Keats managed to crawl up the Blue Bedroom chimney and while he waited to be found even managed to dash off an ode to a magpie’s nest, or the instance when Bob Southey hid so successfully that he wasn’t discovered for weeks, though he himself always insisted that he was sat in the same wing-backed chair in the salon all along and was simply ignored by the others.

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Workshop, 13th April 2021

Believe it or not, I haven’t always wanted to be a librarian.  Well, alright, I have mostly always wanted to, but a small rebel voice in my mind has long had a desire to travel.  While my sensibly-shod feet have spent so many years safely tucked under my supervisor’s desk, they do tend to fidget whenever I hear someone talking about their trip to Paris, or their Greek yoghurt, or even when I receive an email from a Nigerian prince.  As much as I try to give the Cyrillic alphabet a hard stare with its sloppy definition between upper and lower case, causing a lack of ascenders and descanters to break up the coastline of words, a part of me longs to be doing my tutting on the streets of Moscow or Sofia.  I can chuckle at Kipling’s lack of a compass when he describes the Mandalay dawn (in the East) as coming ‘crost the bay’ (which is to the West), but at least he actually went to India.  Whereas I just sit here at my never-seen-the-Highlands tweeds and note that Mandalay is actually in Burma, and Burma is actually in Myanmar, but it is a tainted comfort.

I have also heard that travel broadens the mind, and this past year I fear my mind has become somewhat narrow.  I eat the same breakfast and I drink the same cocoa and some days I swear I cannot recall a single thing I did between the two.  I admit it, I’m in a deep funk, my writer’s block has settled in behind its desk and my agoraphobia has broken out its pipe and slippers.  Time, I said to myself, to force myself out of this underground liar and to call on that epitome of clueless calm, Aubrey ffinch-Whistler.

Alas the bard of Ealing Broadway was out, but his man did offer me a cup of Lady Grey and a willing ear.  I suppose of those years of ‘yus m’lord’-ing has made him a good listener, able to keep a sympathetic expression while his mind is off hiking in the Alps.  I did worry that I was interrupting his work, but he assured me that Aubrey never noticed if the placemats were off by a few millimetres or the spice jars were not in alphabetical order.  Anyway, he advised me to plan a tour of poetical landmarks for execution as soon as the shackles come off, and I came straight home to make a start.  It will have to include the lake isle of Innisfree, of course, and rose-red Petra, by way of friendly-bombed Slough and the land where the bong-tree grows.

But I took a break from my itinerary-itemising to attend this week’s Workshop, and I’m sorry to say they were a real bunch of homebodies.  Well, alright, these days everybody is a homebody, and at least they were getting lost in their own worlds.  John Hurley has been up with the lark to watch the Sun clock-on for another day, while Roger Beckett has been comparing his working life with his dad’s and found some surprising parallels.  Meanwhile Nick Barth has been weighing up a new populist he found lying around the green benches, and Martin Choules has been harrumphing about the recent rise in princely sentiment that interrupted his Friday-night viewing.

The Romantics, of course, were forever popping over to the continent, from Wordsworth long weekend to Paris in the New Spring of Liberty, to Byron and the Shelley’s Geneva in the Cold Summer of Existential Volcanic Ash, and even Mrs Conduitt liked to nip down to Brighthelmstone for the therapeutic sea waters and royal gossip.  But one who had no interest of up-sticking or seeing any elephants was Billy Blake.  A London lad, he had once tried a sojourn to Sussex but had not liked the taste of the water, and thought that coming out to Ealing was pushing it – after all, how could any god-fearing protestant trust an activity described as wanderlust.  And it was even whispered on Tuesday nights, mainly it must be said by Tommy Hood, that when old Blakie finally died he had refused to go to Heaven because it was just too far.

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Workshop, 6th April 2021

Once again, this blog has taken a full seven days to emerge from my somewhat arcane and over-complex production process.  I put the responsibility for the delay firmly at the door of my lockdown projects, one of which I touched on last week.  I hardly have time for radio or television.  On Friday my man shimmered in and murmured something about ‘blanket coverage on all channels’ and I can only assume our broadcasters are performing a public service by encouraging the infirm and vulnerable to stay warm as winter appears to be extending into April – I could not venture to guess what other meaning ‘blanket coverage’ could have. 

As I am sure has been mentioned by greater poets than I, April is the cruellest month, especially now that things are looking a bit more cheerful with the promise of a little freedom in the streets and avenues of Ealing.  It must be admitted that Ealing Broadway has been fairly bustling through the last three months of lockdown despite the edict that retail should be solely essential.  As a European first, Englishman second and Brit a vaguely-relevant third I am continually fascinated by the contrasting rules and regulations the nations have applied to the lockdowns.  The relative stringency of the rules imposed on leisure and retail says a great deal about the nations of the United Kingdom.  I believe Wales has been the most strict about retail; in Dylan Thomas’ Llareggub Mrs Organ-Morgan would have been required to put much of her pleasant, useful general merchandise behind locked doors, while leaving pipe tobacco and perhaps even bottles of rum and whisky out and available for sale to the debauched Mr Waldo, much against her better judgement.  In Scotland, while haggis and whisky remain on the list of essential items, Burns Night became a spread solely for the few within the household bubble, shrinking the once fair chieftain of the pudding race no more than a wee timorous beastie. Meanwhile Scots have been able to practice their national sport, tennis, since March the 12th.  In Northern Ireland, while lockdown will continue until after St Patrick’s Day to minimise the risk of non-socially-distanced gatherings, anti-socially-distanced gatherings appear to have been permitted by the Northern Ireland Assembly for the last month or so.  The Troubles are apparently enjoying somewhat of a come-back, which must come as a welcome boost to retailers of Molotov Cocktails.  While I am not of the superstitious sort, I am concerned that the peace of the people of Bellaghy, County Derry may be disturbed by a noise startlingly like a tumble-dryer at full chat emanating from Seamus Heaney’s family plot at the church-yard there.

As for England, of course I am well aware of Thomas Stearns’ wry re-working of the original Chaucer line concerning April.  You may recall that I discussed his sojourn to Margate to complete The Wasteland in these pages only a few months ago.  While we are given to understand that Eliot was suffering from a nervous breakdown, to my mind it is more likely that he was suffering from the mental hardships of the Spanish Flu outbreak, or perhaps ‘long flu’, rather than the more remote horrors of the First World War.  My readership may be familiar with some of these rigours, such that the idea of taking to a shelter on a storm-lashed promenade in mid-November to write one of the greatest pieces of modern literature does not seem the slightest bit like the strange behaviour it might have done before all this awful awfulness took hold.  There is a very good chance that you consider the idea of being outside and being able to see people as something of a holiday, no matter how filthy and dismal the weather.  On the other hand, in 1921 the idea of being inside and having people near enough to land a sneeze over one would be highly distressing and something to be avoided at all costs.

Here in England, lockdown rules of retail and social interaction appear to have been defined by a follower of John Betjeman.  As the weather has improved, so has the likelihood of sighting the occasional, slightly illicit picnic in Ealing’s thronging parks.  While never admitting to the same, Miss Challiss and I are not above the occasional open-air, localized spin and I can confirm that the glove-box of the two-seater has the capacity for a small number of pork pies and scotch eggs to rattle around in there alongside the spare distributor cap and magneto.  Speaking of picnic provisions, Marks and Spencer have fortunately retained the right to keep their clothing departments open in England, meaning that while the golf- or tennis-club house may be closed, one can always dress well for the court or the green.  It is well known that Betjeman was keen cyclist.  Bicycle maintenance is clearly a priority of the authorities, including the right to purchase a shiny new bike saddle.

Tuesday nights here in Ealing will see a socially-distanced virtualised Pitshanger Poets workshop in the immediate future, although optimism is growing.  John Hurley led off with a classic piece from the Hurley pen; a pointed memoir from his days on the road as a young engineer, it’s both touching and very funny.  Martin Choules gave us a poem about populists, or more specifically about the view of the status quo of populists.  Finally, Nick Barth dug an old one from the archive, this poem took as its theme the dislocation that can occur to the business traveller.  One wonders whether Nick will ever suffer such dislocation again.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 30th March 2021

Those people who know me well understand that I am not one of those coves who goes on and on about their childhood.  I know many people who are keen to dredge up details of their schooldays on any given opportunity or look back fondly on the last century as if it was a golden age of heroic deeds and derring-do, unpolluted by today’s slavish reliance on information technology and the ease with which it has facilitated communication around the globe.  It is true that I had a largely solitary upbringing, eschewing strong bonds of friendship with the children I sat next to in places like Santiago de Chile, Beijing, Damascus, Tripoli, Berlin, Volgograd, Pyonyang, Thimhu and Wrexham.  However, when one is assisting ones’ parents maintain their cover on various difficult and highly secret assignments in some of the world’s most significant political hotspots, such things are very much par for the course.  Sometimes I would not see them for long periods, only to be whisked off in some risky escape operation when it appeared that our cover might be blown and to find myself a few weeks later having to adapt to another strange and dangerous situation.  You will understand if I do not go into any more detail here; I am sure that the remarkable adventures of a family committed to holding up the freedoms and customs of western democracy against extraordinary odds is not the sort of thing that would interest anyone very much.  While the details have been committed to a memoir of sorts, I put the fact that I have been approached on more than one occasion by notable producers practically begging me for the rights to turn it into a series of big-budget movies down to mere coincidence.  I know that my readership is finding this all rather mundane and boring and you very likely would like to know how this relates to poetry.

What I did find fascinating as a child, and a thing I have continued into adulthood, is the construction of models and miniatures.  While I did tinker with toy soldiers and the odd train set, these were not the worlds and situations which, by and large, fascinated me.  I was, and still am transfixed by the idea of recreating the worlds within some of our most well-known works of poetry and other literature.  Of course, model railway skills come in handy when depicting the summer afternoon in 1914 when the Oxford to Worcester Express took an unscheduled stop at Adlestrop or almost anything by Betjeman, while military modelling is essential when tackling a poignant Wilfred Owen diorama or The Charge of the Light Brigade.  For me, these challenges are merely to do with good research and are in essence soluble.  It is when one becomes fixated on re-creating a more redolent characteristic piece that things really become interesting.  For example, there is a great deal to model in a poem like ‘The Naming of Parts’, but how does one go about depicting something one has not got?  How large should one make a coastal shelf?  How many, how many figures are required on Westminster Bridge?  What’s the best way to brightly illuminate a tyger in a forest without causing a dangerous fire?  Has not the church clock standing at ten-to-three been ‘done’?  What are the best paint effects to use to indicate that a road is less taken?  What’s the best scale to use when depicting Ozymandias?

I have of course addressed all of these challenges and more in a lifetime of poetry modelling.  Some are realistic dioramas; others are more amusing caricatures.  The best are gathering dust at the family seat in a room wryly known by the staff as The Hall of Bright Carvings.  For my most recent project I have returned to one of the diversions of my youth, Lego.  Whatever my circumstances were, however perilous my situation, I would always be able to lay my hands on the old raspberry-ripple ice-cream tub which contained my mini-figures of Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, Eliot, Rabbie Burns, Poe, Auden, Isherwood, MacNiece and many more.  With enough bricks for a few gravestones or a proscenium arch, a street scene or a bridge over the Thames I could keep myself happy for hours. 

As usual, this week’s workshop kept us more than happy for a couple of hours.  Martin Choules got things off to a fine start with a look inside a child’s mind as she explores alien worlds.  As usual John Hurley’s poem astutely captures his mental state but also indicates that he is feeling the weight of guilt and mortality a little more than usual.  Roger Becket made a welcome return with a short portrait of his father in an age when having a job was far more important than having a career.  Finally, Nick Barth has been thinking about populist leaders and the people who actually bring them to power.

As for my hobby, my latest project is a little more ambitious, and I have to admit that it’s not actually based on a poem.  In ‘Bloomsday’ I am planning to recreate, in Lego, the significant episodes in James Joyce’s iconic modern novel, Ulysses.  Joyce famously boasted that his book contained all the information needed to reconstruct Dublin on June the 16th 1904, but unfortunately, as anyone who has managed to get to the end of the thing will be aware, this did not extend to schematics for Lego or any other construction method.  Never mind.  We have a plan, in fact we have eighteen, one for each of the weighty tome’s parts.  My man has helped me construct a lowerable base board in the Dining Room and we have designed the minifigs for Leopold, Molly, Stephen Dedalus and many of the other characters while several scenes are complete.  It will not surprise you to learn that this is the latest of my lockdown projects, although this is turning out to be somewhat of a mammoth task.  One is now used to retiring to bed with the imprints of Lego studs still visible in ones’ fingertips and stockinged feet are banned in the apartment following a number of unfortunate accidents.  Lego is more painful to the unprotected foot than red-hot coals.  Now, you would have thought that a series of Lego models based on locations featuring in a near-impenetrable novel replete with adult themes, experimental shifts of style and structure, packed with obscure allusions and cryptic literary jokes would be just what the Danes would be after for their next big Christmas offering, but so far, I have been unable to get any sign of a response from their office in Billund.  Which is why I have decided to come clean here in the PP Blog and reveal this concept to the world.  Perhaps the company is not interested, but I declare that the Lego James Joyce Ulysses model will be completed on Bloomsday, June the 16th, however which June the 16th is going to be difficult to say.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 23rd March 2021

What do films, music albums and novels have in common with each other but not with paintings, theatre or poems ?  The answer is that the former issue trailers to tease their upcoming wares and tempt us in, be it with posters, singles or free first chapters.  Of course, it wouldn’t make much sense to stand up on a makeshift stage in the corner of a trendy coffee house and recite “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day…?  Find out next week.”  But one man who did try was William “Carlos” Williams, who promised us that so much depended on the red wheelbarrow, only to never deliver the payoff.  And at only eight lines long, and very short lines at that, it wasn’t as if he’d run out of space.

No, the Archives make clear when he was considered nothing but a tease when he dropped in on a Tuesday evening in 1923.  It was true to say he left the room in silence, but only because everyone was waiting for him to go onto the second verse.  John Masefield was first to break cover, with a terribly embarrassed, terribly English cough and a gently “so…um…is that it ?”  Stearnsie Eliot was less impressed, having recently completed his mammoth Wasteland, remarking cattily “Sorry, Carlos, did you say something”, while Edith Sitwell was heard muttering to Bob Graves “I don’t understand the bit about the white chickens.”  William Williams picked up on this eagerly, asking if she had understood the significance of the wheelbarrow.  “Oh…um…well” she bashfully replied, “I understood that it’s red.”

All of which only serves to remind me how much I miss having a garden.  Of course, being located beneath Walpole Park, I have a very generous rooftop terrace, but I can hardly call it my own.  To be honest, I was never much of green thumb as a child, leaving all of that to my parents, and asking me to help with the weeding would likely result in me carefully documenting every species in the veg patch on a clipboard, complete with diagrams and measurements, to enable me to write up a report documenting which individuals were to be uprooted in which order and with which implement.  In the end my parents gave up badgering me to ‘just grab and pull’ and gave me a wild patch of my own behind the rockery.  There I would catalogue everything, marvelling at the seedlings and buds as their own promises of treats to come, charting how seeds turned into nettles, how caterpillars turned into cabbage whites, and how snails turned into many more snails.

I was saying as much to Aubrey’s man the other day and asked if the great poet of the wingbacked chair ever plucked his own buttonholes.  I was not surprised to hear that his only purpose for a garden was somewhere to have a crafty smoke away from his wife, and since he neither smokes nor marries, he would have found such a thing rather redundant.  When he feels the call of the wild he takes to the golf course, which I must admit is certainly full of grass – indeed I assume a great desire to commune with nature is why he spends so much of the game in the rough.  Other than that, he has numerous houseplants dotted about which his man keeps watered, running the full suburban gamut from overgrown spider-plant to over-holed Swiss-cheese plant via an unkillable aspidistra with a fine herd of aphids.  I asked his man why he didn’t spray them away, but he said whenever Aubrey passed it he would chuckle to himself and mutter “keep the aspidistra flying”, so he left them alone.

The Workshop this week was a very silly affair as all participants had something of the absurd about them, starting with Nick Barth’s marvelling at the strange appearance of an unholy boombox pumping out all the best tunes, and John Hurley following up with a wistful wander down the lanes of what might have been between two strangers passing in the life.  Rithika Nadipalli has been brushing up on her William Blake and his Proverbs of Hell, and has been left both preached at and puzzled, while Martin Choules brought a pair of household oddities, concerning pewter plates and endless stairs, but may have failed in the latter to be properly nonsensical.

Talking of Bill Blake, there was another poet who did experiment with poetic trailers, as he would carve many of his poems into woodcuts to run off in-effect posters to promote his next collection.  Whenever he would present at a Workshop, he would hand round his latest flier, each one meticulously hand-coloured by his wife Kitty, and proceed to charge each recipient tuppence, refundable only upon purchase of the forthcoming slim volume.  He would then get to his feet and proudly recite such homilies as “the thistles of comfort are wiser than the lilies of labour” and “the garden path of excess leads to the potting shed of exhaustion”.  Strangely, when his Marriage of Heaven & Hell finally came out it didn’t prove popular at Pitshanger, with Bill Wordsworth lamenting that it couldn’t live upto the teasing of the tracts, and George Byron complaining that they had already given away the ending.

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Workshop, 16th March 2021

This column, as any regular will be wearily familiar, is a two-handed affair, swinging its pendulum between rambling raconteering and precision indexing – and its diarists meet about as often as our entries, which is to say twice a month.  But the fact that Aubrey and I are socially bubbling together has meant that we are actually platonically intercoursing on a tighter schedule of late, as he and I take turns to host the other for tea and muffins.  Indeed, he has even on occasion taken me for a spin in his two-seater, with the top down so that we could be officially ‘outside’ and able to sit side-by-side without the need for leaning out of the doors to maintain a two-metre separation.  I suppose the torrential rain we suffered as a result only served to wash away any lurking virions.

But before we get too cosy, I’m fully aware that this is merely a proximity of circumstance – indeed, under normal conditions I cannot imagine ever enjoying such a pointless game as golf, which sinks it’s balls even slower than bar billiards and without the benefit of being surrounded by the Red Lion as one overchalks in boredom.  And don’t even get me started on his attitude to the theatre.  Yes, alright, so I enjoy a regular dose of thespis with a packet of dry roasted, and it feels good to give the twinset and pearls an airing in what I term my Saturday-best, but is that any reason to call me a greasepaint groupie ?  I should also point out that his foolproof scheme for judging a play’s popularity by audience noisiness rather proves him a fool when applied at The Questors, where half the punters are friends with at least one of the cast, and the other half are intimidated by such matiness and are desperate to fit in, often resulting in an over-emoted evening of oohs, ahs and behind-yous regardless of the quality on display, and has on numerous occasions resulted in the scene-changing stage hands receiving a standing ovation.

And worse from Aubrey’s perspective is the practice of directors coming in to buoy-up their cast with promises to support them loyally from the back row only to slope off to the Grapevine as soon as the houselights are struck.  And even though they cannot bear to watch one more performance of the sodding thing, they’re only to happy to wax lyrical to any wax-moustachioed barflies they find tippling a pint of Old Grumblebelly.  But at least I can rely on leaving him in the bar come the two-minute bell, for when he has followed me into the stalls I can be sure of a very long evening of nudges and stage whispers insisting “that set’s going to fall over before the third act”, or pondering “hang on, is that the bloke we just saw or his twin brother”, and even suggesting “I bet you a gin and lime she’s wearing a wig”.

No wigs on the green at this week’s Workshop, but plenty of hair-raising rhetoric.  Rithika Nadipalli gave us a toofer of returnees, having brushed up her dolphins and tightened up her advice for uni freshmen (freshpeople ?), followed by a typical piece of silliness about socks from Martin Choules, who has taken some unexplained absences for evidence of cross-stitched liaisons.  John Hurley has been patriotically pondering Saint Patrick, snakes, and sandals and wherefore the Trinity in a four-leaf clover, while Nick Barth celebrated Barth père’s upcoming birthday with a reworking of Lewis Carroll for the Zooming age.  One hopes the socially-distanced social goes well…

Perhaps I am being unfair to Aubrey, who after all has a great natural bon homie with arty types as long as he doesn’t have to look at their art, and for whom every public bar is a stage.  Forever loosening-up the highly-strung, putting the overwrought at their ease and the insecure back on their feet, always nipping out to see a man about a shaggy dog and spinning more yarn than Rumplestiltskin.  Indeed, he reminds me of the exact opposite of Samuel Coleridge, the latter definitely more of a Taylor than a tale-er.  Indeed, George Byron long suspected that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was largely autobiographical, if one substitutes the Serpentine for the South Seas, a bluebottle for the albatross, and a fly-smudged flyleaf for his sin-blackened soul.  But what he couldn’t credit was the notion that The Xanadu Zonker was ever animated and charismatic enough to stop one-in-three with his monotone mumbling.  Indeed, as even Aubrey would attest, it takes more than a gimlet eye to hypnotise an audience.

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Workshop, 9th March 2021

Workshop, 9th of March 2021

It is my sincere hope that none of my friends or acquaintances would describe me as a vain person.  It is true that I am fond of a well-cut suit and deplore corduroy trousers.  I will always sport a collar and tie unless called upon to operate a lathe or peer into the depths of some whirling machinery.  I hold enormous admiration for test pilots and racing drivers prior to the mid nineteen-sixties as they were clearly prepared to travel at enormous speeds in marginal machinery, dressed in the same sorts of smart clobber that men today would only contemplate donning to attend the funeral of a close relative.  I see nothing amiss in that whatsoever, even though the tightness of their neckwear would have been a distinct handicap at high altitudes or soaring cockpit temperatures.  I will admit to favouring shoes of a high level of polish, and to insisting that laces be replaced every month.  I enjoy a decorative sock, amusing cufflinks and striped ties.  So sue me.

Which modest pride in one’s own appearance makes the current situation almost more than one can bear, for it is impossible to get a decent haircut without falling foul of the law.  My man has been attending to my locks for the last few months.  It would of course be dashed foolish of me to express any kind of opinion on this situation while he still holds the clippers and can be called upon to give his master a quick trim at any moment.  My manservant is the very model of honesty, transparency and probity, but he has emotions like any man, and I cannot risk a purely Freudian slip of the blades leaving me with an asymmetric appearance.  I shall instead reveal to my readership that he learned to cut hair in the Army, being the same place he learned to peel potatoes.  Mrs. Flittersnoop will not permit him to cut chips, he will not allow her to iron my shirts.  We will leave it at that.

It will be no surprise to you when I say that another of the things I am most looking forward to when all this awful awfulness is over is a visit to my favourite hair salon and have a relaxing stint in the shiny over-engineered chair.  There is something about the pampering one receives at Julian and Sandy’s in Pitshanger Village (I have no idea why the establishment is called Julian and Sandy’s, by the way, the two young men who run the thing go by the names of James and Stephen) that brings out the best in a person.   In any case, once one is used to the mode of speech employed by these artistes (no end of fun is had at the expense of my ‘slim volume’ while no matter how many times I insist that my weekends are quite busy enough, James and Stephen are perennially offering me something for it), a degree of hilarity is enjoyed by one and all.  I am certain that in usual times James and Stephen are quite the catch in the heady nightspots of Ealing Broadway, but the pair are enigmatic on the subject.  If one asks after their weekend activities all one hears is a loud cackle.

Of course, the main thing that both James and Stephen know about me is that I am a poet.  They never tire of telling me that they ‘don’t see many poets in here’ before asking me for an ode, whereupon there is more cackling.  Such happy fellows, I do hope they have been able to keep each other company during lockdown.  In any case, I was mulling this all over in the bean the other day, falling into a reverie I suppose you would call it, conjured by the scent of cologne and the sound of the shears while my Man was attending to a sorrowful sideburn.  I wondered whether many poets have bent their talents towards the hirsute arts.   I decided to set out on a quest, to find a poet who truly idolised hair for what it is.  Surely poets have chosen to express love in terms of hair?  A short while later I had raised Parsonage on the Zoom and was requesting another artificial intelligent word-search from the fount of all knowledge, the ozone-infused Ferranti Pegasus.

But it is perhaps better to reveal the workings of this week’s virtual workshop before revealing the exciting results of the Pegasus’ analysis.  This week saw a slim turnout which was no less eager for all that.  Martin Choules was first to read, inspired by the cherry blossom that is beginning to appear on our suburban streets, Martin took a sly dig at the middle classes and their preferred ornamental trees.  John Hurley told us another story of a character he remembers from his past in The Old Country, in this case a solitary woman who watched the man she loved go off to war and but never saw him return.  Nick Barth enjoys watching the progress of the year, and at this time looks forward to the longer evenings, which even man cannot despoil.

If one visits Google, that most blunt of search engines and enters ‘poems about hair’ one sees all kinds of substandard scribblings from the four corners of the Anglophone World.  I am a big fan of our cousins over the Atlantic but there does seem to be a common conception that simply anyone can write poetry.  The Pegasus is more discerning, as valve-based machinery is wont to be.  It’s much less about the zeroes and ones with the Pegasus, much more about the shades of glowing filaments.  I was glad to see that the Pegasus alighted on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 68 first, as a measure of the quality of Parsonage’s algorithms a protest poem about wigs is a stand-out original.  After a little more clanking and an expellation of ozone, the Pegasus chattered Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci out of the golf-ball printer.  Again, as a hair poem this is comes at us from left field.  Keats does introduce the Belle Dame’s hair, and it all sounds very pleasant, but those Pre-Raphaelite painters dying of consumption in garrets made much more of it than Keats chooses to.  John William Waterhouse’s painted Belle Dame has locks which are practically prehensile, yet Keats mentions them almost only in passing. 

The Pegasus went on to list a few more oddities, including Gwerful Merchain’s astounding 15th Century Ode to Pubic Hair, but even this ultimately disappoints, being more about what lay beneath the shrubbery than the foliage itself.  Finally, the Pegasus consumed several reams of green-striped continuous paper on Alexander Pope’s Rape Of the Lock, in six cantos, if you please.  Now I am not going to attempt a critical appraisal of this epic, save to say that this is very much the kind of poetry which should be taught in schools during lockdown, if only to prevent the potentially infectious from leaving the house for an extended period.  As loyal readers will recall, Pope himself had merely a passing relationship with the Pitshanger Poets, having started his own group in a damp grotto in Twickenham.  While Pope is undoubtedly having some fun with us in The Rape, given the terrifying chemicals women were persuaded to douse their wigs, and therefore their scalps in, his romanticising of hair theft has to be seen as highly irresponsible.  Barbers and wig makers were right up there with hatters and tanners for risk in the workplace.  A lock of hair could carry a fatal dose of arsenic or mercury.

At this point I proffered the motorbike messenger a crisp plastic fiver and thanked him for the many kilograms of poorly printed poetry Parsonage had insisted on sending to me, wondering why he did not think instead to email the eccentric selection.  I was exhausted and called a pause to my search.  Thinking about the state of hairdressing in Alexander Pope’s time did make me wonder.  Perhaps until the invention of decent dyes and shampoos in the nineteenth century, hair was almost a taboo.  Perhaps hair poetry could only really get going once the petrochemical industry had made safe hair care products possible?  I shall detain you no further here with this somewhat futile search, but my next stop will be the hair styles of the Spanish Civil War. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 2nd March 2021

You may well have your own unique reasons to look forward to the end of your own route march out of lockdown.  The media like to refer to our current phase as ‘Lockdown 3.0’ but for me the continued absence of an insistent interval crowd at the Grapevine Bar makes this most definitely Lockdown One for your loyal correspondent.  There is something about several hundred people all yearning for a ‘gin and tonic and a glass of house white, posh please, oh and a bag of nuts’ which stirs something deep in the soul of anyone involved in the dramatic arts.  Certainly, an exceedingly dull first half can only be alleviated by a serious bit of a scrimmage at the bar at the interval, played out by audience members who have come to the realisation that they only have a few minutes to increase the blood-alcohol ratio to a sufficient level to survive the second.  The tension is palpable, the waving of folded notes and debit cards hypnotic, the press of blazer- against knitwear-clad shoulder mildly terrifying.  Often it’s worth the price of admission alone and it’s a poorly-kept secret that this edifying circus of emotion can be experienced for little more than the price of a pint of London Pride, as one’s humble bar stool becomes a front-row seat for fifteen fascinating minutes.  Why, unless one were obliged to go and see the play, for example because one knew somebody who was involved with the production, perhaps by letting oneself carelessly get into conversation with the director or one of the actors one evening after rehearsals, and found oneself foolishly stating how fascinating or innovative it all sounded, there’s really no reason to see a play at all. 

Of course, the skill with this kind of entertainment is to pick the right play.  A good play, a genuinely amusing or engaging drama will see the audience crowd into the bar with a general feeling of bon homie and love of one’s fellow man come half time.  It’s much less entertaining to watch a disgorged theatre rolling up to the expectant bar staff chuckling, slapping each other’s backs or whistling show tunes.  At that point it’s best to bury one’s head in a book of dense verse and ride it out, just in case someone pokes one in the buttonhole with the ice tongs and relates what a simply delightful evening one is missing, not least if that person is my colleague-in-archive Miss Challis.  There is a woman with a talent to gravitate towards a stinker, turkey or even an albatross, though she does cast her net wisely and will occasionally pick a winner, even if, as I suspect, it is purely to give the twinset and pearls a night out.  No, a wise bar-lurker will steal up to the auditorium part-way into the first half and press an ear to a door to check for gasps, chuckles or loud guffaws.  If there is the slightest sign of the crowd enjoying themselves, one might as well steal away to the Red Lion and have done with it.  There are few things more distressing than listening to a room full of people enjoying a play one could have easily been watching oneself.  However, thanks to the state of modern theatre this is not a disappointment one has to suffer very often.  When this lockdown is over (in June I am told), there I will be, on a stool to the right of the bar, with my notebook and a Gin and French, holding my breath in anticipation of the interval crush.

This week’s Workshop was anything but a crush, being a very airy Zoom affair, as per for these times.  Rithika Nadipalli is taking a balanced view of the Corona pandemic and wishes for a return to freedom to be bacchanalian, even if she does not feel particularly bacchanalian herself, for in the end we all need some fun to go with our normality.  John Hurley is thinking deeply about people he knew back in the old country and we can almost smell the burning peat and hear the sound of the sea outside the window as he remembers a local widow who lived a solitary existence in a cottage by the shore.  Nick Barth has been thinking about the elegant tilt of the Earth, and about it being one of the few things we humans cannot trash in this slightly rambling poem.  Martin Choules has clearly been watching the red kites as they grown in number and get closer to London, where they used to live in pre-industrial times.  In this hopeful poem he sounds hopeful that they will be here soon.

Well, here’s to June.  I trust you’ll be there at the bar.  What was it the poet said? A Book of Verse, a Gin and French and Thou.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 23rd February 2021

I never thought I’d look forward to a trip to the supermarket as something to be savoured, but such are the strange times we find ourselves in.  Truth be told, I have quite given up the pleasures of pushing a wayward-rolling trolley once a week for the daily stroll with a hand-basket, exchanged the carefully-penned list for the laissez-faire life of relying on one’s memory (and if an item is forgotten, that’s just another excuse to return tomorrow).  Even the impeccably-well behaved line of wannabe-shoppers awaiting permission to enter into the hallowed aisles are a joy of British no-talking-to-your-neighbours, though I was initially concerned that the queue-monitor prefect would notice my daily presence and make a subtle signal to a superior, who in turn would clap a hand upon my shoulder whilst I perused the cheese counter and ask if my journey today were really necessary, and didn’t I know there was a war on, and did I really need to be buying yet another four-pack of toilet rolls ?  But of course this is just a fantasy, my longing to be accosted and experiencing the frisson of non-socially-distanced human contact.

Meanwhile, at least I can enjoy a now-and-then visit from my social bubbletteer Aubrey, dropping-in on his way back from the golf club last week in the surprisingly mild weather, as if even the Spring were in a hurry to get this year under way and prove itself not a repeat of the prior hellscape of a twelve-month.  I always marvel at how he never fails to find a parking spot for his admittedly-dinky two seater, and how he never fails to rustle-up the perfect anecdote involving his uncle Archie and a twelve-iron.  Speaking of the former, I joked how he’d have to eventually succumb to the zeitgeist and convert his convertible into an electric coupé, to learn that he had already been considering a switch to hydrogen propulsion – but in this case with a detachable blimp to enable him to sail over the traffic jams.  Apparently his man has been conducting some experiments with some party balloons and a large fan mounted in the dickey-seat, but I suspect the entire project is just an excuse for Aubrey to wear flying goggles and sport an RAF moustache.

Anyway, enough daydreaming, back to this week’s Workshop and an admittedly quieter affair as only three poets have been slaving away inside instead of enjoying their awakening gardens in this first blush of warmth.  John Hurley has been literally lying awake at night, and managed to make a batch of lemonade while taking the black dog for a walk, while Nick Barth told us of his own nightmare where he found himself clean-shaven and like Samson robbed of all his strength.  Meanwhile Martin Choules has been wondering what happened to all of the colourful cars that have faded into grey.  (Incase you’re wondering, Aubrey’s two seater is a rakish two-tone, though rather like that certain dress of a few years back, which pair of hues seems to differ with the observer.  Personally, I see chocolate and hot pink, though it does depend on how recently his man has applied the turtle wax.)

But speaking of daylight reveries on the QT, poets are forever suffering from them, and some days they are quite unable to pay attention to anything for longer than the time it takes to ponder as a cloud or catch a falling dust mote.  How many great poems remained unfinished as the author drifted off to Neverland or went dancing in Brigadoon ?  Although of course in the instance of Kubla Khan the Archives make clear that it was the lack of daydreaming that cut it short.  At a Tuesday evening in 1816, Sammy Coleridge told the assembled guests of Sir John that he had been on the threshold of a mighty dream before being rudely interrupted by a yokel concerned by his thousand-yard stare.  But George Byron had his doubts, guffawing that that was the worst excuse for not completing homework since Geoff Chaucer had managed to leave the second half of Canterbury Tales down the pub or Eddie Spenser insisting that the conclusion to The Faerie Queen had been eaten by Cerberus.  But he soon shut up when Coleridge casually asked him how Don Juan was coming along.

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