A wend through the Pitshanger Archives can turn up some illuminating gossip. We are currently re-categorising our 18th Century wing, sorting our Swifts from our Southeys and prying out Matthew Prior from Alexander Pope. We also are auditing the many other distinguished visits we were graced by, such as the one in 1786 featuring the hottest power couple in the South Chilterns: William and Charlotte Herschel.
They had sprung to fame five years earlier with their discovery of Georgium Sidas, even if losing the PR war to every schoolboy’s favourite, Uranus. They were still living in the backwaters of Bath at the time, but their newfound fame soon saw them moving to the bright lights of Slough.
Slough, of course, has only one entry in the public’s poetic conscious, and it is most definitely as the butt of the bomb. However, back in the 18th century it was but a quiet market town in the tail-end of Bucks. It is also a mere half-day’s carriage-ride up the turnpike from Ealing, and so the Herschels soon became regulars. “Willi” would boast of how he had the biggest telescope in the Empire in his back garden, and Charlotte loved to pass around her homemade strüdel.
Two centuries later and two planets further out, this week’s workshop was less Hello and more People’s Friend. Peter Francis was first to muse, purring his meditations on kitty-hood, followed by Anne Furneaux’s ruminations on failing memory and cyber-veg. Martin Choules was having no truck with these ‘Pluto is a planet’-ers, but still found plenty to marvel at, while Olwyn Grimshaw brought us her translation from the German of a charming moonlit night, complete with blossoms shimmering, and conjurers and unexpected pigeons were on the mind of Daphne Gloag. Finally, the welcome return of James Priestman brought us an awkward moment that must be faced by many Biblical characters.
Of course, the Greek gods were no exception to extraordinary behaviour, and Pluto got up to his share of “hijinx”, which probably explains why he was banished so far away. The Archives also reveal that not everyone was thrilled and starry-eyed by their Herschels’ presence. Hymn-smith William Cowper complained that they had wrecked God’s perfect creation, while William Blake claimed that since this new-fangled planet could only be seen with a telescope, the whole affair was clearly a conspiracy that had never even occurred.