Workshop, 23rd April 2019

It may surprise you to know that I was no great shakes at school.  I was sent to a middling public school, situated in a drafty and disused middling country house on the outskirts of a drafty and disused middling RAF Airfield in a drafty and disused part of England, roughly in the middle.  At the start of term my father would bowl me up to the grand old school in the Jaguar Mk X, hoof me out of the passenger door without stopping, and, saint among men that he was, wish me well before roaring back to London in a cloud of dust and pipe-smoke.  I would pick myself up, reassemble my trunk and enter the hallowed portals for another period of doing my best to avoid the work, intellectual inquiry or strenuous physical exercise which were reluctantly pushed in my direction by the lacksadaisical teaching staff.  In this way my education set me up perfectly for the life I now lead, and I am eternally grateful.

I only mention this because as one of the leading lights of the intellectual life of Ealing, it is often assumed by the various mongers I meet on the busy thoroughfares of our fair borough (mongers seem to be mainly fish these days, although I note with concern that fear is gaining in currency while costers now choose to devote themselves entirely to frothy coffee), that I am some kind of polymath and am able to perpendicularly bisect the centre of a circle with a chord while conjugating the Latin verb ‘to be’ from the top of a moving unicycle.  I find it refreshing to admit that I have no such capacity.  Very early at school I found that a talent for trotting out a trochaic tetrameter at the drop of a cap kept me out of the clutches of all but the most determined bullies, while I was the go-to boy for an apposite rhyme or two when the beaks’ end-of-term revue needed a bit of spit and polish.

Which brings me neatly to coverage of this week’s Workshop, depending as it did on rhyme for much of its proceedings.  Martin Choules, ever the craftsman with a well-honed rhyme scheme in his toolbox took another look at the creative block, from the point of view of the young and older poet.  Roger Beckett allowed an alternate line rhyme scheme to permeate his poem, reflecting on his twin vices, cricket and statistics.  Niall Cassidy could not resist a few rhymes creeping into a reminiscence on one of the more verbose thugs he went to school with.  Daphne Gloag likes to know that a rhyme has bought and paid for its position in a poem, and will use them on occasion, but not tonight, as she re-told the romance of Psyche and Cupid from a modern context.  Doig Simmonds, will rhyme with the best of them, as tonight’s discussion on his conversion from a fighter to a lover shows.  Nick Barth tells us he sometimes rhymes, but only in the lounge bar at his local Pub.  This week he brought us a compressed argument on the value of observation in support of one’s world view.  John Hurley seems to prefer writing to a rhyme scheme – he tells us he finds rhyming easier than not.  This week he uncovered the bare bones of a boat he used to own, buried by the shore for many decades.  Peter Francis has a free style, unfettered by too much in the way of form, but he will rhyme if the mood takes him.  This week brought a flowing, rolling poem about salmon on the river, or was it about fate?  Almost finally, Pat Francis wrote this week about the culture of the back garden, that private plot of dreams, in a piece which again was notable for its sparse use of rhyme.  And then, as a way of rounding off the session, and because we had a little time, Martin stepped in again with another poem, deploring in excoriating terms the mock-Georgian in contemporary architecture.

One of the many questions frequently asked of this resplendent organ is; why have the Pitshanger Poets installed a Ferranti Pegasus Mainframe Computer in the cellars of Pitzhanger Manor?  What business does a poetry workshop have in running a large, complex and troublesome valve-based computer in any case?  Come on, my fine fellows, what in blazes do you think you are up to?  The answer has two parts:  Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and Education.

As George Gordon (Baron) Byron’s only legitimate daughter, Ada was brought up with both an innate hatred for her father (who booted her and her mother out of the marital abode when she was just a month old) and poetry.  Ada’s mother, Anne Isabella ‘Annabella’ Milbanke, was determined to bring her daughter up to not follow in her father’s uneven footsteps.  As a result, poetry, laudanum and swimming lessons on the Hellespont were unequivocally off the curriculum.  Ada grew up with a love of science and mathematics, fuelled by her Mother who had received an excellent education herself.  As history records, the young Ada was only seventeen when she encountered a somewhat crusty and cantankerous Charles Babbage.  The two hit it off immediately.  Charles opened up a future of mechanical thinking machines to Ada, while she showed him that the objective of these machines need not be isolated to pure mathematics, a huge relief for those of us whose love of computers begins and ends with their ability to run ‘Candy Crush Saga’, officially the most addictive pastime since the invention of Croquet.

The inevitable link with Ealing and the Manor is by way of a sideswipe from Ada.  Her Mother Annabella was determined to use her powers for good, and established a school in Ealing using one of Byron’s properties, which became today’s University of West London.  Soon after and with the encouragement of Babbage, Ada established ‘A Research Institute into the Proposed Development of a Machine-Based Semantic and Taxonomic Interpreter, Employing the Judicious Removal of Romantic Linguistic Embellishments and the Normalisation of Extraneous Rhythmical Cadences’.  The research began with linguistic interpretive algorithms and smoothing functions intended for mechanical devices, but Ada’s fortune was extensive enough to permit continued development well into the electronic age, when a large enough computer could be commissioned to see her vision to its conclusion.  The result?  A machine designed to read poetry, so that humans don’t have to. 

In a clear sideswipe to the local poetry workshop, which she regarded as a dark agency which only served to compound her father’s Romantic insanity, Ada established her Institute in the largely-deserted Pitzhanger Manor and charged the poets with the proper organisation of the project, supporting its research and development and the leading the commercial exploitation of the resulting contrivances.  In this way, by eliminating the need to read or analyse poetry, Ada Lovelace took her revenge on the art, her feckless Father and the Pitshanger Poets with one stroke.  The intellectual challenges involved with Ada’s near-impossible (and quite implausible) objectives have been hugely arduous.  On the plus side, the Manor has never lacked for heat since the Pegaus was installed. 

Remember, remember the reading at Questors on the 6th of May, and if you have been, thank you for reading.

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