Workshop, 9th October 2018

Recent talk of manifestos has reminded us that the Pitshanger Archive’s collection has not been re-catalogued nor freshly indexed for many a-year.  Pulling down the dusty packing crates with the help of three interns to a corner has revealed that they were in a hopeless muddle, simply tossed in with little regard for alphabet, major theme or even spine colour – thus we found Ezzy Pound cheek-by-endpaper to Ginni Woolf, a most unnatural pairing, while poor retiring Emmy Dickinson forced into the boisterous company of Georgie Byron.  In another crate there were more Pounds sharing their berth with the jottings of Thomas Penny and Johnny Cash, while in a third Isaiah Berlin and Nathanial Hawthorne must host yet more Ezra Pound.

Slowly we are tallying a full stock-take of what is turning out to be a rather eclectic collection, ranging from the vellum-bound memoranda of the very Times New Roman John Betjeman, through the spiral-bound notepads of the impeccable-copperplate Muriel Spark, to the beermat and fag-packet collection of blotchy-biro Dylan Thomas.  As for their contents, this was as varied, from Gerry Manly-Hopkins’ rigid lists of unacceptable topics such as “smut, double entendres, or cats”, to Will Wordsworth’s vague musings about “flowers, trees, fluffy clouds, stuff like that”.

At least there were plenty of agendas on display at this week’s workshop (and yes, we are fully aware that agenda is already the plural of agendum, especially after reading the bullet points of John Milton).  Both Nick Barth and his muse, Frida Kahlo, have been in full agreement with the old adage that ‘the medium is the message’, while John Hurley’s poignant blackberrying with his late wife is very much from the school of ‘write what you know’.  Daphne Gloag offered us a revised take on the swifts and the spaces between them when an old poem received fresh polish, attesting to her lifelong dedication to ‘practise makes perfect’, while Peter Francis and his memories of childhood of shaving managed to ‘show not tell’ without getting into a strop.

Anne Furneaux avoided the cliches about older folk and Eastbourne by adhering to the strictures about ‘truth is beauty’, something disagreed by Niall Cassidy who’s boyhood scamp-dom lean more towards ‘warts and all’.  Alan Chambers, meanwhile, clearly subscribes to ‘keep it simple’ in his short tight piece about leery old men, leading onto Owen Gallagher’s latest draft documenting the touching deaths of his grandparents, now with added clarity thanks to his adherence of ‘if at first you don’t succeed’.  For Pat Francis, finding beauty in an overlooked tree is very much part of her ‘less is more’ philosophy, laying the groundwork for Martin Choules stipulating that we must never be stipulated to.

Looking through our newly-rediscovered piles of pamphlets and folders of flyers, there is a notable absence from Sir John’s days.  Hardly surprising, one may think, for those free-wheeling, come-what-may, don’t-tie-me-down,man Romantics.  But on looking more closely, we found an alarming number of screwed up paper balls.  After teasing them open under laboratory conditions and run them through the Archive’s X-ray machine (acquired in 1970 from Squaretoe & Sandall’s Shoe Shop, Stepney), their faded ink was finally made readable again.  What gems of lost instruction might we have here ?  What proscriptions to proper prose and potent poesy ?  The first to be deciphered and clearly in the crabby hand of Bill Blake had undergone much revision, with whole sections on ‘wine women and song’ and ‘the importance of smiling’ heavily crossed through to be replaced with ‘don’t worry about making sense’ and ‘spelling’s really not all that’.  Another ball in a more feminine script appears to be an exercise in crafting a signature in multiple columns of repeated attempts with slight variation.  Like all good signatures, the name itself is unreadable, but after consulting Parsonage (and parting with several pounds from our tea fund), we were able to run them through a clever algorithm which determined with a 48% probability that the moniker was ‘Mary Bysshe’, although sometimes rendered as ‘Mairee Bishop’, ‘Mare E Biscuit’ and ‘Marry me, Bysshe, for God’s sake !’ , though who can say who wrote it ?  But perhaps the most fascinating ball is the surprisingly brief and precise dictum we found on a piece of Lord Byron headed notepaper which simply reads ‘Think fast, Keatsy”.

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