The Archives are fuller than usual of late with a recent delivery of boxes, crates and assorted tea chests full of papers unearthed during the restoration work at Pitzhanger Manor. Much of it dates from “Sir” John’s time, and fascinating it is: one sheet instructs Mrs Conduitt to arrange for the iron boot-scraper to be cleaned and sharpened by a suitable local tradesman, while another appears to chart the complex and ever-changing liaisons of his Mattock Lane neighbours, and a third is a draft of an angry letter fired off the director of the Uxbridge Road Turnpike Trust for the delays his stagecoach had once again suffered on account of the ever-present workmen and navigators digging up the highway for their endless ‘drainage works’.
Fascinating though these snippets may be to the amateur local historian, one does wonder if they are ever dashed off with an eye to posterity – after all, why else have they survived intact these past two hundred years ? Did Mr “Sir” Soane decide that rather than keep a diary as would any self-respecting gentleman of letters and intrigue, but rather leave his thoughts and gossipings to Providence via the note tacked on the pantry door ? Or even the front door in the case of the slip addressed to the milkman requesting an extra pail that morning on account of ‘expecting cats’.
No laundry lists at this week’s workshop, but plenty of dazzling white pages. James Priestman has been meditating on the Tower of Babel and the Camp of Dachau, and John Hurley paints a vivid picture of a woman clinging to a fire hearth to shut out the sounds of a dark and threatening sea. Nayna Kumari imagines God (whoever that is) being very choosy about his (or her) next messiah, while new member Aisha Hassan has been imagining a nasty pile-up in a poem that was no car crash. Daphne Gloag has been pondering the age old conundrum of where does all the time go, while poverty and well-meaning social reform have been keeping Pat Francis’ labouring hard, and Peter Francis has been getting metaphysical with his Seventeenth Century orbs and goats. Martin Choules has been perturbed by a cuckoo being raised by a flywheel, while Alan Chambers’ has been looking for the autumn colours and ignoring the rotting mulch.
But getting back to the Pitzhanger Papers, why have they been dumped upon the Archive in the first place ? Well, it seems that many of these posteritous pages relate to accounts of the weekly workshop, and a good many meetings that we suspected can finally be confirmed. Were these records removed because they were too scandalous, or perhaps too boring ? Reading through, the answer would rather appear to be that the host was too absent-minded to file his paperwork with any kind of system, a legacy whose aftermath we still have to battle daily at the Archives. Many minutes are scribbled on the back of flyers for Mr Short’s improvable corsets or in the margins of broadsides aiming to Pithily Puncture the Presumptions of Mr Pitt.
However, one particularly revealing memorandum recounts a workshop in a much finer grain of detail than is usual, attempting to capture the spirit of genius verbatim:
J. Soane, esq: Mr Byron, would you read your latest for us ?
Lord Byron: That’s Lord Byron.
J. Soane, esq: I do apologise, your Grace. Would you care to read ?
Lord Byron: It’s not as if I’m one of your minor nobility jumped-up Johnnies.
J. Sloane, esq: Pray forgive me, my lord. Please, we are agog with anticipation.
Lord Byron: Right, pass these around. My quill ran out, so a couple of you will have to share. Honestly, it even says ‘Lord Byron’ at the foot of the handout. Right, everyone got a copy ?
(His lordship clears his throat)
Lord Byron: “The cat / Sat on / The mat.”
(There follows two minutes of silence)
P. Shelley, esq: I like it, but I wonder if ‘cat’ is the best animal. Perhaps something more…canine ?
J, Keats, esq: It might be a bit snappier if you left off the last line.
W. Wordsworth, esq: Have you considered turning it into a sonnet ?
W. Blake esq: I’d just like to point out that cats don’t actually sit, they kneel.
Miss A. Seward: Well, I think it’s perfect as it is and wouldn’t change a thing. Except the title. And the full stop.
Fascinating stuff, although of course our workshops are nothing like that nowadays.