Workshop, 1st October 2019

Computers ?  Pah !  Nothing but an abacus crossed with a slide rule.  While the Pitshanger poets might be very pleased with their Ferranti Pegasus that once resided in the vault of Pitzhanger Manor and has since been banished to the vaults of the Town Hall as though it were a family ancestor or a box of Christmas lights, I’m very pleased to say that we have no truck with such jumped-up pocket calculators down here in the Archive beneath the park.  And that’s not because our perpetual damp makes electricity inadvisable.  Our ongoing microfiche project will have researchers squinting long after their latest gizmo with its valve-drive processors and almost-eight-thousand-word rotating memory has been upgraded out of existence by devices with actual keyboards and screens.

But despite my many lectures and training sessions to the interns about the utility of pen & paper and superiority of correction fluid over any delete key, still they complain at having to write out every comprehensive index in triplicate while manually sorting through the hundreds of boxes of punch-cards for the one that catalogues how many commas are used by Shakespeare sonnet.  Why will they not appreciate that art and beauty must take time ?  How is one to appreciate the rarity of having time to stop and stare if one has already sent all one’s emails and updated one’s spreadsheets by nine-thirty and is already looking forward to spending the rest of the morning reading poetry blogs online?

And therein lies the great irony of this modern world – that the days of sending out these weekly briefings by letrasetted news-sheets to be carried by the night mail over the border or rushing out breaking-news ‘tweets’ by pigeon-post are long over.  Now we are finally forced to embrace the 1940s and enter the computer age with these regular diaries being hand-carved in boxwood, handpainted with Indian ink, photographed onto glass plates, packed in straw and trundled by handcart over to a certain gentleman’s gentleman who by strange alchemy makes my words appear on as many as ten screens via pushing a few electrons down a wire.  At least, I assume my words appear, as I’ve never sullied my hands on a keyboard to check.

I’m delighted to report that this week’s workshop was thoroughly old-school, in presentation at least, though Nick Barth did lead off with a dispatch from the culture wars as he railed against the lack of civility that comes from being too connected, while Caroline Am Bergris kept her own deliberate rudeness at her tormentor cold and focused.  Daphne Gloag has been hitting a rhyming dictionary this week as she wandered through her echoing memories and Anne Furneaux has been rummaging through a toybox for hers in the form of a much-loved bear.  Alas, Alan Chambers has been lost in the haze, unsure if he’s seeing a hawk or a flamingo, while Martin Choules has been rewriting a Victorian fairy tale with a slightly puckish grin.

What Sir John would have made of the monster in his basement is unknown, lurking in a cavern beneath his manor house, bolted down to stop it from floating off and crashing through its ceiling (on account of being mostly constructed of vacuum tubes) and on through the floor of the grand salon in the middle of one of Dame Eliza’s Improved Rose-Growers balls.  But it was undeniable that by 1968 these computational devices were starting to catch on.  At one meeting that year, the Archive reveals, Edwin Morgan dropped in to share thoughts on how best to translate Beowulf with a budding young Seamus ‘Jimmy’ Heaney and to compare nightingale and starling populations in urban squares with Eric Maschwitz.  He also hoped to read out a verse from his new collection entitled The Computer’s First Christmas Card, but alas no sooner did he start when the entire page turned blue except for the word ‘error’ and remained thus despite the book being closed and opened again multiple times.

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