Workshop, 16th July 2019

It is that time of year when all aspiring poets start to mull over the possibility of a holiday poem.  One might have deadlines to meet, the Editor might be on the blower demanding final copy for the next slim volume, the pressures of keeping up with the twists and turns of Brexit may demand the keenest concentration as one works towards the three-act verse-play cunningly intermingling the themes of Halloween, new beginnings, departures and a buffoon hanging from a zip wire by his undercrackers, and yet, yet.  One only has to find oneself in a deckchair with a notebook, pencil and cold glass of something refreshing to hand for the familiar cues to come flooding in.  The seaside, an old-fashioned resort; finding just the right flavour of ice-cream in that place on the beach.  The shock of the cold sea on one’s first dip. Eating moules frites overlooking the harbour with a demi-pichet of vin rose.  Watching the gruff fishermen unloading their catch in the afternoon.  Staying in that charming Beaux-Arts Hotel at La Rochelle where we met the mysterious Baron.  Visiting the Casino with the Baron and learning Vingt-et-un.  Drinking Champagne and entering into an exciting business partnership with the Baron to build a new and even better Canal in Suez.  Being informed by the bank that one’s current account has been emptied by a mysterious transaction, and that one has no money to pay the bill at the charming Beaux-Arts Hotel.  Slipping out of the back entrance of the charming Beaux-Arts Hotel in the early hours and making a dash for the two-seater.  The strange scent of the La Rochelle Gendarmerie Interview room.  Surely, we all have had holidays like this?

This week’s Workshop saw a fair number of double poems.  For those not in the know, a double poem may be a piece quite genuinely developed in two parts.  Or it might be two poems that just happen to come together by some chance juxtaposition.  Or it might be that a poet has written a very short poem, and rather than just leave it at that, they decide to print a second poem on the same piece of paper and bring both pieces to the workshop in order to ensure that they get a proper turn.  Pat Francis lead out with a war poem with stanzas arranged in two columns which could be read cross-wise or lengthways with fascinating results.  John Hurley brought us a single and singular poem about the battles fought in the streets between bicycles and car wing-mirrors.  I would sympathise, but the two-seater does not possess such hideous protuberances as wing-mirrors; they would spoil its unmatched lines.  Michael Harris brought us a triple poem, no less, concerning a secret he is keeping.  One day he will have to tell all.  Martin Choules brought a single poem telling the story of a housing officer discovering the body of an old woman who died in her flat, and who then made homes for her living cats.  New Pitshanger Poet Mateen Mirza, in a classic double poem ploy, brought us two short poems which he insists are discrete works, yet both feature the theme of roses.  Roger Becket brought us a proper double poem, mainly about metalwork and filing metal away.  Niall Cassidy has been remembering a time when his mother told him he was in trouble with God, but luckily his grandmother was up there to stick up for him.  Caroline Am Bergris has been leaving dogs to lie, imagining their dreams of marrowbone and rain.  Nick Barth has been to Rome and tells us he is going back to revisit his beloved Pantheon.  Finally, Peter Francis rounded off with a recollection of a town on one perfect morning before the errand boys went away to war and the high street filled up with beauty parlours and hair salons.

Perhaps my holiday memories are slightly less halcyon than my esteemed readers’, I do hope so.  In search of reading more amenable to a relaxing time, I started scouting about and alighted on ‘Sand-Between-The-Toes’ by one Alan Alexander Milne almost immediately. His books are a constant feature of my bedside table and are guaranteed to get me back off to the land of nod should I wake in the middle of the night in a state of the screaming heebie-jeebies (screaming heebie-jeebies is putting it mildly dear reader; recently I have been cursed with a recurring and quite inexplicable nightmare that Donald Trump is the British Prime Minister).  You, the innocent (though never naïve) reader might assume that Sand-Between-The-Toes is based on a hallowed memory of father and son, as so much of Milne’s work certainly is; of walking along the beach with Christopher Robin.  Careful reading of the PP Archive puts another slant on things.  My colleague, the Archivist, Ms Chalice points out that Milne was an infrequent visitor to our workshops in the mid-twenties, just at the point when he was attempting to find himself as an author.  Co-incidentally this was the same point in history when a certain Thomas Edward Lawrence was also attempting to find himself.  Both adventurers in thought sought resolution in poetry, both writers beat a path to the Manor’s door.  However, it seems that two such large egos could not be contained by one small Breakfast Room.  Lawrence, a man more habituated to the stick than the carrot as a child was vocally unsympathetic to Milne’s playful stories of days out with his son.  Milne, on the other hand, a passionate pacifist, was unreceptive to Lawrence’s tales of derring-do, trudging round the desert waving swords and shooting Enfields at Ottomans.  Sand-Between-The-Toes was a sly dig, keenly aimed at Lawrence and his near-constant invocations of the sand, the heat and the other privations of life on the Sykes-Picot Line, which, by the way, points from the North to the West, hence the reference to the ‘good Nor-Wester’ in the poem.

The Archive attests that Lawrence either ignored or failed to understand Milne’s subtle dig, as peace reigned that evening.  The scene even made it to David Lean’s epic movie of 1962, with Kenneth Williams brilliantly cast as a serious but wry AA Milne opposite Peter O’Toole’s latter-day, deflated Lawrence.  Unfortunately, the Pitshanger Poets’ first appearance in a major motion picture had to be consigned to the cutting room floor, as earlier that year Walt Disney had acquired the film rights to every goddamned word AA Milne had ever written.  If you have been, thank you for reading.


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