Workshop, 7th March 2017

It appears the Ferranti Pegasus is not happy in her temporary home.  The venerable cold-war-era valve-based computer was originally installed in the undercroft of Pitshanger Manor as part of a hugely hush-hush project by Ealing Council, and as you may recall the Pegasus has been forced to relocate to the basement of the Town Hall while restoration work to the Manor continues.  The idea hatched by the Town Hall’s Data Science Boffinery was to mathematically model the effects of a Soviet invasion on the Borough, paying specific attention to the impact a column of tanks would have on bus scheduling in the Haven Green/Ealing Broadway area.  It was the kind of project which could justify significant funding in those restive times.  It even extended to the test installation of tank traps on Ealing Common to simulate the measures which would be required to maintain the vital 207 bus link into Shepherds Bush, should the Soviet Sixth Guards Tank Corps decide to make a lunge for the Town Hall via Kew Bridge and the North Circular.  Not actually having any tanks the boffins simulated the effect of armoured personnel carriers and tracked missile platforms sweeping across the Common carrying all before them using the Council’s fleet of ride-on lawnmowers.  It’s comforting to know that the fortifications were totally effective against the lawnmowers and, forcibly repelled, they had to fall back to the South Western corner of the Common just opposite The Grange pub, which they effectively occupied until closing time.

Fortunately, one of the Boffins, Parsonage, is also a doyen of the art of Prosery and when the punch card machine was not otherwise occupied he set about reprogramming the Pegasus for poetry.  The resulting compositional algorithm, based on a statistical analysis of word frequency, syntax, rhythm and phonetics is still able to churn on a passable sonnet but cannot be trusted with half-rhyme, tricky enjambment or a hanging trochee.  Thereafter, the Pegasus’ microphone was a fixture at Pitshanger Poets workshops throughout the Sixties and Seventies, absorbing and processing every word, resulting in a lengthy daisy-wheel printout of relevant statistics which would be filed carefully in the archive.

Unfortunately, it appears that some of the Pegasus’ Cold-War subroutines became enmeshed into her Poetry Analysis programming.  Decades of sifting data in order to detect communist threats took their toll on the Pegasus’ ability to appreciate the spoken word in a balanced fashion.  Given the wide range of views expressed by Poets in the typical Pitshanger Workshop it is welcome that the somewhat febrile witch-hunting computer was equipped with nothing more powerful than a daisy wheel printer.  This did not stop her acting against poets she considered threats, however, aided by a supply of Ealing Council-headed paper.  For example, it is suspected that the virulent snow storm of Parking Tickets issued to Louis MacNiece on each of his visits to the Workshop (despite him not actually owning a car) were the work of the Pegasus, while Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas both found their journeys into the heart of Ealing compromised by ‘flash’ road works, the latter writer famously never succeeding in reaching a workshop.

This weeks’ Workshop would have got the Pegasus’ relays clacking were she still listening in.  Pat Francis brought a short, perfectly formed piece on the sound of the world.  Christine Shirley has been feeling glum, but her States of Feeling piece was full of light as well as shade.  John Hurley’s style has evolved in the last few months and his free-verse observation of a sick friend greeting a precious morning was touching and powerful.  Newbie John Cheung gave us a tight, poignant, social poem describing of an encounter with a homeless man in Hammersmith.  Olwyn Grimshaw has been counting the cells in the human body, keen to show that life is just as much about why as how.  Another newbie, Jamie Warren also brought us a distinctly social piece about a man in the Borough he found dying.  Nick Barth has been travelling again and found himself distracted by the phrase ‘for personal use’ on a Customs Notice.  Alan Chambers has been bringing poems he has written to cure Writer’s block, this weeks’ piece stressed the lack of easy cures to this crippling condition.  Peter Francis has been musing on Group Dynamics; more than one attendee felt he was writing about the PP Workshop itself.  Finally, Martin Choules has been railing against the futility of an entertaining dream.

Bringing the story of the Ferranti Pegasus up to date, Parsonage tells me its McCarthyist behaviour forced him to rebalance her moral compass circuits with a couple of blows from a nine-pound hammer, and that the council work continues.  Parsonage even jury-rigged the Pegasus for the internet using an Ethernet card scavenged from a long-dead Amstrad PC.  This re-commissioning formed the basis for the Ealing Borough Council Listening Project in which the Pegasus was pressed into service monitoring every possible threat to fluid traffic flow in the West London area from the forces of evil, wherever they might originate.

Thinking back, I’m not sure it can be the experience of being installed in the Town Hall basement that the Pegasus finds so objectionable.  It’s true that every few days there is a flare-up of activity and Parsonage is forced to replace a valve or free a stuck relay but her troublesome behaviour appears to have started sometime around January the 20th.  Her breakdowns are often accompanied by cryptic messages on the continuous paper rattling out of her printer, for example the other day I saw:

+++YOU KNOW WHAT URANIUM IS, RIGHT+++

+++IT’S THIS THING CALLED NUCLEAR WEAPONS+++

+++AND OTHER THINGS+++

+++LIKE LOTS OF THINGS ARE DONE WITH URANIUM.  INCLUDING SOME BAD THINGS+++

+++BUT NOBODY TALKS ABOUT THAT+++

Which was followed by a loud bang and a cloud of smoke from the computer’s logic boards.  What could this mean?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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