Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 17th October 2017

It seems that we are still playing hunt-the-room at the Questors, with the door to our usual Library being stoutly deadbolted.  A query to the barstaff of the Grapevine just raised bequizzed expression that the door even possessed a lock, but they gamely fished around amongst the pens and paperclips for any keys they may have unwittenly keptsafe.  Alas, only two were found, both looking far too old for such a new fixture, one showing its age through rust and the other through its lack of teeth.

Still, the assorted stools and poufs of the Lower Foyer were arranged about a bear-stained table and the show went on.  First up was Caroline Am Bergris’s rapture to an iceskating triumph that likewise glided surefooted across the page, handing seamlessly on to Samir Hazlehurst who has been listening to his library books with his morning cup of rust.  Anne Furneaux then brought back her piece on the land not reaching the sea soon enough, and a bolshy Martin Choules imagined the less-than-romantic peasants muttering about that there Lady of Shalott.  Autumn is full of suicidal leaves for Doig Simmonds, while Pat Francis sees it as the season of pea-soupers and choking fruitfulness, and for Owen Gallagher it will always bring to mind the scent of the peat on the fire.  Michael Harris has tweaked his poem about metaphysical mis-hearing, followed by John Hurley’s cogitating on loneliness, though at least he had all of us to share it with, and we wrapped up with Daphne Gloag presenting her research on the love particle.

Being barred from poetry is nothing new to the Pitshangers.  There were times when eager wordifiers would roll up on a Tuesday evening only to find that Sir John was out of town and Mrs Conduitt attending her sewing circle.  Undeterred, they held their workshop on the steps of the Manor, or if wet in the saloon bar of the Red Lion.  One unfortunate evening, both happened when a threatening sky and a thirsty chairman lead the others off down Ealing Green, and then a rather late Johnny Keats showed up to the steps.  He had, he later admitted, ‘emptied some dull opiate to the drains’, and was not entirely in his altogether, witwise.  Finding the doors firmly in their frames, and the driveway wholly lacking in versesmiths, he landed on the bizarre notion that he was to conduct the workshop with the birds on the trees.  After listening to a nightingale sing for a fully five minutes, he constructively critiqued her song in a rhyme of his own.  Considering his state, we are fortunate that he was later able to recall his composition, though alas he says he could not recollect any of his other brilliant replies, and so his Ode to a Pigeon must remain lost.


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Workshop, 3rd October 2017

There was still a faint whiff of paint in the newly grey Library of The Questors this week, but that wasn’t what was giving the poetry world a headache.  Rather, the revelation of how the foreign secretary had a Kipling reverie in a Buddhist temple in Myanmar came to light, and fair to say that the popular press could not hold their heads when all around were keeping theirs.  Despite their best effort to agitate, declaim and demonise, the great British public saw the words poem and recital and shuddered in schoolday-induced union.

It may surprise regular readers to hear that not all of the unpaid interns in the Pitshanger Archives are foreign exchange students or culture-seeking migrants, and a fair few hale from these very shores.  Since these young things are of course much closer to their schooling than their grizzles, bewhiskered mentors, it is from them that we learn what is afoot of late in the world of educatulocution.  And judging by their awed amazement at our mop-topped diplomat-in-chief’s ability to recall on command a line-and-a-half of verse with only the one mistake of substituting ‘British’ for ‘English’, we deduced that compulsory learning of five Kiplings, three Popes, ten Shakespeares and a Rossetti for the girls is no longer beaten into the brains and the backsides of the modern pupil, more’s the pity.

Nobody at this week’s workshop delivered their pieces from memory, such is the slippage of standards, but at least they were fine enough works to be worth getting word perfect on the page.  Michael Harris cleared the first throat and delivered a poem based around a homophone phrase that could be heard two ways, to which John Hurley rebutted with a shaggy dog story about some scruffy Satanic birds a poitín-and-shotgun Sir.  Next upto the lectern was Anne Furneaux, reciting a litany of woe that rang out to the very ends of the land, followed by a nocturne stage-whispered by Alan Chambers as he waits up for his Muse, and a fine oration from Samir Hazlehurst, being heckled by an impish Eros walking on his neck.  Pat Francis sighed her ode to an unexpectedly-still kingfisher, while Peter Francis eulogised both a fallen woman and an raised-up hillock, though in truth they both fell rather flat.  It was a wistful Nick Barth who intoned his eternal questions about humanity, god, and one lump or two, and finally Martin Choules  recited that old hymn of the humane heretics.

So, what would the Empire’s laureate have made of the recent kerfuffle over his ballad of the cockney sapper and his still-remembered Burmese beauty ?  Well, upon his return from the subcontinental jewel in the colonial crown in 1890, he popped into the Pitshanger Poets of a Tuesday to scandalise the regulars with his wicked tales of comingling cultures, but the one which most filled the fainting couches was Mandalay.  For some, it was the mere suggestion of a this mixing of the races, for some it was the mixing of the classes, and for one or two it was the mixing-up of geography (having dawn come up like thunder from across the bay, which inconveniently lies to the west – but he wouldn’t hear of their suggestion to change it to the dusk going down like drizzle.)

So was it insensitive of the right honourable Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson to recite this particular verse in that particular temple ?  That is a question that this blog will leave to other best beloveds to answer.  But it should be noted that Britain and Myanmar are not yet at war – though perhaps that has more to do with this modern trend of not drilling dozens of old imperial poems into their pupils.

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Workshop, 26th September 2017

It was with a hopeful heart and an optimistic air that I donned the brogues, tipped the hat and buttoned the tweeds to step out and join The Beat this week last.  Was I preparing to top up the numbers of a once chart-bothering Two-Tone Ska combo featuring Rankin’ Roger?  Or was I about to join the ranks as a Special Constable, albeit in civvies?  The answer, you will be relieved to hear, is neither.  The Beat is the ingenious acronym for the Borough of Ealing Art Trail, a house-to-house invited search for local art, the aim to provide a much-needed ad-hoc gallery for the professional and amateur dauber alike and an excuse for citizens of the borough to have a jolly-good poke about in their neighbours’ houses in the hope of collecting some ideas as to what the devil to do about that laminated flooring that needs to be ripped out and replaced with something more acceptable.

I offered the Powers That Be the chance to let my neighbours inveigle chez moi with their disdainful walking boots and their appalling facial hair but I was turned down. Ostensibly this was on the grounds that charging people ten guineas apiece to take selfies of themselves with me while I sit in my wing-backed arm chair and read aloud from my collected works was not quite what they meant by visual art.  Whatever I think of this narrow-minded and suffocating definition of the term ‘visual art’, I can only hope that they come around to my way of thinking by next year as I am getting a brighter bulb in the drawing room to improve the ambiance and we would not want that to go to waste.

Certainly, this week’s workshop could have done with brighter lighting.  We are still a somewhat nomadic poetry group, as remedial action to The Library at Questors is not quite complete.  The fresh paint and incomplete wiring led the somewhat nauseous poets to opt for The Lodge, the slightly disturbing Maisonette which perches, trunk-like, to the roof of the Grapevine Bar.  The interior of the Lodge is a fantasy of oatmeal woodchip, but it at least had enough functioning fluorescent bulbs to read by and the meeting progressed with unabashed camaraderie.  Nick Barth opened with a warm tribute to the Borough of Ealing Art Trail, though I am glad to say that we did not bump into each other in the pursuit of aesthetic betterment.  Pat Francis wrote about portraits and photographs of those lost before the last war.  Martin Choules chimed in with a back-handed tribute to John Dryden and his odd ideas about the English language.  Caroline Am Bergris gave us a dense rumination on the cycles of an unrequited relationship.  Samir Hazelhurst made his debut with the group by means of a flavoursome lament on an absent lover.  Daphne Gloag read aloud from a fresh new work celebrating the Light on the Hill, though copies were unavailable.  Peter Francis mused at the victory of an all-powerful creator over a destroyed creation, wondering if He would smile.  Finally, Ann Furneaux drew the woodchip experience to a close with a wry observation of Land’s End, seen through the eyes of a hopeful traveller.

As for art in Ealing, we can be reasonably sure that the odd piece was dashed off in Pitshanger Manor itself.  J M W Turner was a regular guest of Sir John Soane’s, though whether we can blame poor lighting in some of the rooms of the manor for his more careless splattering is a matter for speculation.  As has been noted in these pages, William Blake was part of a regularly inebriated cadre of poets to join the Workshops at the turn of the 18th Century.  Glancing at his poem London

… But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

makes one wonder whether Blake was inspired by lying awake, in his cups, staring at the ceiling, suffering from a strident outbreak of Urban Fox.  I surmise we have all been there, haven’t we, dear reader?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 19th September 2017

The Questors is gearing up for another season of thespicular theatricals and actorial ejaculations.  Crowns are being polished, humps are being stuffed and limps are being hammed as the place is braced for another onslaught of butterflies.  It is almost as if the eggs are implanted at the first read-through of the script, and hatch out in the stomachs of the troupe during rehearsals.  Mostly unnoticed, except for the odd twinge when the director suddenly decides to do the whole play in Russian accents, they have pupated by the latter rehearsals and the actors start to feel relaxed and confident.  But, as any gardener will tell you, pupas don’t remain pupas forever: once the cast first start rehearsing on the stage proper, beneath those hot lights, they begin to stir…

Except of course that no actual parasite could survive long in the high acidity of the stomach.  Oh, tapeworm eggs can pass through unscathed, but they don’t hatch out until safely suckered onto the intestine wall.  No, a far better metaphor is not butterflies in the stomach, but wasp larvas in the head.  (And yes, that’s larvas with an ‘s’, because once you are having your brains selectively eaten away by a zombie-creating parasite, one of the first things to go is any consideration for the finer details of archaic plural forms.)

Day by day, the grub chomps through a few more ganglias of the cortex, but in very precise locations that cause the cursèd host to be overcome with an extraordinary desire to stand up public in well-lit, slightly-raised spaces, and exclaim to all that they come not to praise Caesar but to know him Horatio.  And it is at this point that the now-fully-adult but microscopic wasps fly out with the projected voice to reach the very back wall of the auditorium, and to be inhaled upon the collective gasp of the audience to begin its life-cycle over once again.

Of course, the above entomological parasitography goes some way to explaining how it is so often a trip to the theatre as a young, defenceless child that first implants the idea in us of throwing off all thought of pursuing a sensible career as a firefighter or train driver, and instead yearning to tread the wormy, rotten boards of the plague-pit that is show-business.  And, not wishing to alarm any potential audience, but alas both stage venues at the Questors have been known for years to be a hive of waspish stings and unfounded confidence.  A plague on both its houses, indeed…

But there were no flies on the poets at this week’s workshop.  Pat Francis was infected by an earworm, but it didn’t affect her perhaps as much as it should, while Daphne Gloag has been giving her poem about time and silence a checkup, and has now shaken off any malingering doubts.  Peter Francis has been conducting a detailed study of the cross-generational health benefits of dancing in a small Irish community, followed by an intense investigation into the trauma of birth upon a foetus from Doig Simmonds.  A bespectacled Martin Choules has completed his analysis on the use of personal adaptive optics in the betterment of vision, and finally Nick Barth, in suitably appalling handwriting, has released a previous composition of his from quarantine now that it is redrafted and bug-free.

Many was the time in the old days that the numbers attending the weekly Tuesday were low on account of the latest lurgy, as attested to by the Archives in robust and unnecessary detail.  But one poet who would never let feeling down get him down was Billy Blake.  All of God’s nature to him was wonderful, even the ticks, maggots and bedbugs.  Indeed, when in 1803 he brought an early version of Auguries of Innocence, it contained many extra couplets that did not make the final cut:

A louse plucked from a child’s hair
Shall cause this world to grow less fair.

A guinea worm dug from an eye
Shall leave behind a greater stye.

A flea disturbed before she dines
Is desecration of the shrines.

For veins of blood washed free of flukes
Shall topple kings and pillage dukes.

Each tapeworm flushed from out the gut
Shall see our stenchful filth in glut.

And tortures wait in Hell for he
Who cures amoebic dysent’ry.

Alas, then only copy of his manuscript which includes these also appears to bear a large yellow-green stain across the page which obscures the rest of it.

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Workshop, 5th September 2017

When does Autumn begin ?  September the 1st,  with its implications of back to school, across the yawning bank-holiday-less expanse of the ‘ember’ months ?  Or perhaps September the 22nd, after the equinox, with its hope that perhaps September will still be warm enough for shirtsleeves and sunglasses.  The latter is perhaps the optimist’s view, or should that be the pessimists when we factor in global warming ?  Of course, an Antipodean would tell us that Autumn begins in March, cooling things down ready for the snows of August, but since they’re half the world away, they’ll have to shout it to be heard.

Either way, there’s no escaping that Autumn, if not already here, is texting to say that it’s on the bus and only a couple of stops away.  Not many leaves have fallen yet, but they’re looking less than healthy, and a few acorns and conkers are already crunching underfoot.  It would make an interesting experiment to take such a tree as it gears up to wind down, and transport it to the land of the transportees to see how quickly it works out that it needs to start working out.  One supposes that the reverse would also be true, and that some poor twig could be kept in perpetual slumber, not dead, but definitely not putting any rings down.

No seasonal blues in the Autumn browns at this week’s workshop.  Alan Chambers instead thrust himself and his key deep into the lock of the bleak Midwinter, while Michael Harris brought us a bookmark to sink into, and John Hurley has been penning a chorus of disapproval while listening to the hold music.  For Owen Gallagher, memories of his father are reminders of how few of them he has, while James Priestman has been lurking in an Elsinore graveyard and was surprised to hear a young prince trying out some Biblical metaphors.  Martin Choules, meanwhile, has been eyeing up some modern portraits and found himself wishing that the artists had cracked a joke or two with their sitters, followed by Caroline Am Bergris noticing the signs of age,  not in the mirror, but in the flotsam of daily life, and finally Daphne Gloag has been talking to her bees, who gave her a few sharp retorts in return.

Here in the Archives, every March we undergo a thorough Spring clean, and it must therefore follow that the previous Fall we underwent an Autumn clutter, where dust, litter and tat accumulates in the corners.  A look around the vaults with a season-adapted eye reveals that this process has already started, with for example postcards from the interns’ holidays already taken off the office fridge and moved to the Drawer of Stuff besides the lockless keys and money-off vouchers for services we’ll never use, all the things which one feels cannot be thrown away but which we vaguely hope will evaporate by themselves.

Some poets have described having such a drawer in their minds, where they file away a good title or an interesting rhyming pair, ready to be pulled out in an emergency that never comes.  If only Emily Dickinson had practised such mental tidiness, she may have had the necessary words to hand and not been forced to use yet another placeholder hyphen until such time as they presented themselves.

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Workshop, 29th August 2017

Re-ensconced in their beloved meeting place, the Pitshanger Poets have come home.  The Committee Room is looking as poky as ever, but it is the right sort of pokyness.  Of course, being romantics at heart, the members are more accustomed to refer to the room as the Library, on account of the darkwood cabinets of plays that line the walls.  Through the glass-fronted doors can be seen a different sort of slim volume, collecting scripts by Coward, Stoppard, Chekhov, Shaw and the like, as well as rumoured glimpses of Cardenio, Niobe and A Brilliant Career through the cobwebs and fug of less tobacco-conscious times, but it seems that the keys to the locks are as elusive as a capital letter in a Neil LaBute script.

With these silacious soliloquies and deitic dialogues looking down upon proceedings, this week’s workshop felt like an amphitheatre, but our poets showed no sign of stagefright.  Doig Simmonds gave the prologue as he pondered the size of an angel, and Daphne Gloag conducted the orchestra in a tune which slows down in perfect time with the expansion of the universe.  Next entered John Hurley wise elder, recalling the metaphorical wakes of the old country which accompanied very real departures, and the chorus then recited Alan Chambers’ change of season lamentation.

Then entered the gravedigger, Owen Gallagher, undertaking the herculean task of scrubbing the headstone, followed by the punning wordplay of Michael Harris’ fool, and a short lyrical turn by Peter Francis tempting rain.  Leading lady Pat Francis gave us a classic tragedy, with Guinevere’s betrayal leading to Arthur’s own, and Martin Choules ended with a farce involving a giant antenna and global warming.

So, will the plays in the Library ever again be plays of the stage ?  Will rust or woodworm once again open these scholarly sarcophagi and let the puckish banter tumble out onto the boards ?  A glance through the Archives reveals that drama is not such a stranger to these workshops, as in the time in 1820 when Percy Shelley brought in his monster four-acter Prometheus Unbound.  Intended as a closet drama, it was far too long and wordy to ever be staged, and was intended to be performed only in the theatre of the imagination.  He doled out the parts to those present (giving himself the lead, naturally, with Leigh Hunt as Mercury, Sir John as Ione, his wife Mary as everyone else, and Byron as Jupiter in a classic piece of type-casting) and they got down to wading through the thousands of couplets.

As the evening wore on with Act 1 still a long way from becoming Act 2, and the readers aware that this was eating into their time to present their own verses, so the silly voices started, with Panthea becoming inexplicably Welsh and Second Fury an attempted cockney that could honestly have passed for French without comment.  This clearly annoyed the playwright, whose own delivery became more clenched as the speeches droned on.  Finally, Mrs Conduitt entered with some shaved ice refreshment and an immediate intermission was called.  A somewhat put-out author joined the queue for the chamber pot, and then retook his seat in the for the second half, only to find that not one of his audience had bothered to return after the interval.  He soon tracked them down to the bar of the Red Lion, complaining to each other how turgid the writing had been, how hammy the leading man, and how lacking legroom the armchairs.

Of course, such conversations are unheard of in the Grapevine at Questors, but it just goes to show why many a playsmith may be more than happy for their labours to remain safely behind glass.

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Workshop, 15th August 2017

Alas and Alack! The Pitshanger Poets are without an enclave, a camera, a sanctuary, a niche, vault or lodging to listen to, absorb and digest our declamatory works.  Not since the Perceval Sisters threatened to terminate the Tuesday Workshop in favour of an ill-conceived ‘Steam and Nautical Engineering Soiree’ have the Pitshanger Poets been faced with homelessness.  On that occasion, the daughters of Britain’s only assassinated Prime Minister, having taken a shine to one Isambard Kingdom Brunel and wishing to build their own ocean-going steamship had requested a weekly step-by-step how-to course for themselves and their companions from the great engineer.  Fortunately for the Poets Brunel found Tuesdays inconvenient and the ladies had to settle for Wednesdays.  The resulting ‘HMS Pungent’ in eggshell puce with lime green vine-leaf accents and ruched bulwarks saw long and happy service until it was accidentally sunk when the bung was knocked out one summer afternoon in 1871.

The reason for our parlous state is that the Questors Theatre Building which has been our home for many years finds itself in need of urgent remedial work.  A wall, which a surveyor alleges was fulfilling the vital role of holding up part of the roof was apparently in danger of imminent collapse.  Whether the wall’s fragility was the result of poor construction or its location above the long-rumoured secret tunnel leading from the Town Hall to the undercroft of the building is now the subject of much debate in the Grapevine Bar, which mercifully escaped all danger.  The town hall tunnel was supposedly excavated by unemployed sappers in the 1920’s in order to permit a succession of expressive but bored Mayors to escape turgid Council Meetings and attend rehearsals for the annual panto.  Mayor Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Robertson Kimmitt’s Widow Twankey was by all accounts a tour-de-force.

We are not entirely homeless, of course.  We soldier on and the Workshops continue, albeit in the upstairs Café which is grand, comfortable and spacious, but not entirely without interruptions from other users of the space.  Doig Simmonds helped a latecomer into the auditorium while reading his recollection of a child’s first flight.  Caroline am Bergris managed to deliver a powerful and vehement description of her time in hospital without succumbing to the desire to buy a choc ice from the trolley.  Michael Harris waited until the teas had been served before getting going on his memory of the light from a bright morning window.  Nick Barth did a little Front of House before reprising his mini-epic on the subject of the Balkans.  Farrah Alebik bravely made her debut with the group, reading a powerful work about an old friend in Syria while the crockery was cleared.  John Hurley found a window of peace while the Questor’s Mime Troupe rehearsed and he revealed the hidden depths in the peat of Ireland.  Daphne brought us a new revision of a piece from her Time sequence while the rest of the group discouraged an earnest volunteer to whizz around with the Hoover.  Finally, Martin read a very short piece wondering at the F1 key’s ability to interrupt proceedings while the rest of the group resisted the urge to put chairs on tables.

It is not the purpose of this sorry correspondent’s contemptible discourse to discourage anyone from attending our Workshops and next week we should find a quieter place to meet, such as a corner of the Grapevine Bar.  As always, we will attempt to finish before Nigel calls ‘time’ in his characteristic, urgent manner.  Perhaps you, dear reader, can find a way to work it into a poem, though I cannot think how this might be done.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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