Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 16th April 2019

Presentation is everything in poetry, whether a crisp white collar and highly starched diction, or sharp white pages and Times New Roman.  And no less a part of the packaging is the choice of meter or even the choice of title – tidy pages show a tidy mind.  Here in the Archive, we also appreciate a correctly-categorised shelf and meticulously-index stream-of-conscious, so we always appreciate when a poet takes extra care to ensure that all of their full stops are precisely the same size.

Talking of presenting poems, may I remind our loyal reader of our upcoming Poetry Evening upon the stage of our genial host, the Questors Theatre ?  Tell me more, you say ?  Certainly, please see the accompanying post, even if it does rather gloss over the vital cataloguing and syllable-counting that goes on here in the Archive.

And an added bonus for followers of these weekly reports is the opportunity to finally meet the poets behind the many names which flit in and out of the workshops, who were out in strength this week as fourteen crowded into the Library and extra chairs had to be stolen from the cafe.  First to breath out was Niall Cassidy, who has been rummaging through old drawers and big-eared wardrobes, followed by Peter Francis musing on the unfortunate uptick in American poetry suicides in the last century.  Roger Beckett recalled when his uncle came home on leave but still very much in the army, while Michael Harris has been looking into eyes of different colours and Caroline Am Bergris has been warming her hands on the memory of warmth.

Pat Francis has been chronicling a seething desperation of many a lonely housewife, leading onto Christine Shirley celebrating the spirit of the ancient cow and the treatment of her modern descendent.  For John Hurley, the Fifties were a time of milkmen and ‘No Irish’ signs, while meticulously documented sexual encounters may have landed Owen Gallagher into trouble (or at least his poetic alter ego).  Martin Choules had been wondering why the Germans need their own fancy (and confusing) ligature, while Daphne Gloag ended with a song about possibilities.

But of course, when it comes to public reading, nothing dampens a poet’s flow quicker than messy handwriting.  How can the words leap off the page when the copperplate has verdigris ?  And imagine being an archivist trying to decipher what was never intended to be coded but which is looks more like it has been written in Cyrillic by tap-dancing spiders.  Alas, so many poets it seems are just so darned scruffy, with a natural inability to keep their paperwork in any kind of order.  Their correspondence (when mercifully legible) so often omits the date, the page number, sometimes even their own name, and worse of all any sort of footnotes to refer back to previous conversations.  Honestly, how is the hard-working literary eavesdropper expected to determine why Alfred Tennyson had been in an odd mood all day, or whether the wine on Virginia Woolf’s shopping list was red or white ?

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Workshop, 9th April 2019

For my money, creators of aphorisms are the most irresponsible wordsmiths available for public hire on the Queen’s Highway.  Compared to penners of pamphlets revolutionary, carbuncular cartoonists satirical or even showbiz editors of tedious tabloids, those who make their bread by composing concentrated droplets of advice are dangerous in the extreme.

And what have you done, dear reader, to deserve such a tirade from this, your weekly poetry sage?  Well, nothing, obvs.  I on the other hand, your loyal correspondent, have spent the week restricted to bed, in the throes of that pitiful plague most of my fellow-man seem to endure with the innocuous; ‘I seem to have a bit of a sniffle’.  Oh, the hand I have been dealt.  Just as the weather was getting better and I was looking forward to breaking out the blazer (stripy) and boater (straw), I have been brought to a pitiful state and dare not stray more than a few steps from my box of tissues.  The reason for my ire?  A pal, who shall remain nameless, had the gall to drop in on my hour of need with a bag of oranges, a bottle of ginger wine and good wishes.  How generous, you might say, a Good Samaritan, you might add, except for his parting gift; ‘Chin up!’ he exclaimed. ‘Remember laughter is the best medicine!’

Which is not the most constructive advice to give to the mainspring and tireless rudder of one of the world’s oldest Tuesday evening poetry workshops.  Fortunately, the lurgy had yet to strike during this week’s session, meaning I did not have to interrupt the proceedings with any raucous and unwarranted sneezing.    I was able to fully appreciate John Hurley’s arid poem ‘Hill Walking’, on the need to get a little fresh air in the lungs.  Christine Shirley’s take on street culture was not lost on me either, with its exposure of knife culture.  Anne Furneaux’s recollection of the time her father fell victim to a stroke while fishing also struck me as apposite, and I am glad that I did not need some unctuous linctus to appreciate it.  Peter Francis followed up with a dark and lascivious view of gun culture which gave me something to think about, back in those pre-cold days of last week when I could think.  Our newest member Sara brought us a poem about tea, which tastes differently when it snows – how I could taste anything.  Daphne Gloag brought a very personal view of a lost friend which nonetheless managed to strike us universal.  Another new member this week, Roger Beckett (two new members in a week, and where were you?) brought us something of a metaphor in his poem revealing our better selves.  Pat Francis described the place I really would not have minded being this week, the Celtic heaven of Avalon.  Nick Barth is lucky in that he can think unaided an has been thinking about the process of writing poetry.  Finally, Martin Choules has been using his clear, mucus free eyes to read some radical theories about the structure of the universe and its essentially electric structure.

So, who did coin that most dangerous phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine’?  Ironically there is almost no chance at all that the originator was Humphry Davy, he of the lamp of the same name and early experimenter with nitrous oxide.  According to his own accounts, Davy was an enormous fan of the stuff, self-administering great quantities of gas, along with port, wine and anything else he could lay his hands on, to addle his senses, all in the name of Science with a capital ‘S’.  The thing that strikes one as odd about Davy is that he never made the cognitive leap from the dissociative effects of the gas to its myriad uses in the short-term elimination of pain.  Perhaps it was Davy’s dysfunctional relationship with the dour, gothic Samuel Taylor (the late Samuel Taylor to his friends) Coleridge.  Long-time associates, Davy and Coleridge were recorded several times at Pitshanger Poets Workshops in the early eighteenth century.  On one famous occasion, Davy prevailed upon Coleridge to settle an argument that he was having with the rest of the scientific community.  You see, very few learned men held with the young Davy’s assertions that laughing gas could be used to distract the human mind, such that it could effectively prevent pain.  To test this on a range of human subjects, Davy had Coleridge come up with a dreadful piece of banal doggerel to read out at the next PP Workshop – something about wedding guests and albatrosses, would you believe, while Davy and his assistants had nitrous oxide pumped into the room under the door.  Unfortunately, the results were not good for Davy’s theories.  Not one of the workshop attendees found anything amusing in the tiresome, long-winded tale of the cursed sailor.  The gas was clearly innocuous, had failed to raise a titter in the audience and was unlikely to have any reproducible effects on the human brain.  Davy dropped his research into nitrous oxide and it was to be another eighty years before its invaluable benefits to surgery and dentistry were at last arrived upon.  Meanwhile Coleridge found that he could not lay aside his crazy tale of the cursed sailor and just had to complete the story.  Samuel Taylor read the final, epic poem at many public events throughout his life.  However, he would freely admit that it never met as warm a reception as that night when its first faltering opening lines were first performed to a tripped-out roomful of Pitshanger Poets. 

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 2nd April 2019

‘Tis Spring.  It’s at this time of year that poets of all hues and opinions emerge from their sleepy burrows, wrapped triumphantly in the drafts of their next sequence or despondently casting aside the quatrains of winter, eager to replace them with the fresh sestinas of the new season.  As the bards appear, blinking in the milky sunlight, the high druids of British Poetry will finally establish the date of the moveable feast known as The Great Performance Poetry Debate in the calendar, which, for the sake of an easy life, always coincides with Easter.  Good Friday arrives with the condemnation of the reliance on public performance – a noted poet will wash his or her hands of the whole messianic, self-promotional business, insisting that words belong on the page.   Saturday is reserved for buying chocolate and sparkling wine to cushion the effect of an extended Bank Holiday, which is convenient as there are usually plenty of these items in the shops.  (Easter) Sunday is traditionally spent at home, trying to read vibrant poetry from a truly innovatory, fresh voice while wishing one had not consumed so much lunch.  By Monday the hapless poet is desperate to get out of the house and is scouring the internet for an Open Mic, Book Launch, Reading or even a bit of lunchtime jazz and spoken word at a local hostelry, if only to get way from the mournful faces of the rest of the household for a while.  As a result, April (or March, depending) is the cruellest month.

The question of the validity of Performance Poetry is one of those Imponderables My Man likes to saddle me with when he sees that I am listless and ill-at-ease.  Can poets read their own work out loud?  Can actors read poetry out loud?  Can Michael Gove read poetry out loud, or at least take some responsibility?  Is it rude to view a live performance as a way to catch up on one’s sleep, and if it is, why is it so popular? 

In many ways a Pitshanger Poetry Workshop is a performance, and on occasion it can be quite a performance, I can tell you.  The evening starts by attempting to erect the folding table in the Library without anyone losing a digit.  Then we have to estimate the number of chairs required and scoot off to collect additional seating if required (Parsonage has developed an algorithm to predict likely attendees at a Workshop, based on temperature, rainfall, local traffic conditions, recent events worth writing about and the phases of the moon).  Once the readings begin, we get on with the ceremonial handing out copies of our work, for which no reliable algorithm has yet been developed. 

If this all seems like rigmarole, that is soon forgotten once the Workshop begins, as it did this week.  Michael Harris is usually a man of few words, but this week indulged in a stream of consciousness which spanned two pages, and its horsy references set us up quite nicely for the Grand National.  Pat Francis, to whom I apologise for missing out of the blog last week got us thinking about the scientist of hygiene, Sir Joseph Lister, and his wife Agnes, and whether his ideas were really the result of her talents at cleaning up.  Alan Chambers knows how to make a poetry workshop think, and this week was no exception, with a purely abstract piece about questions and answers.  Simone Nunziata is new to the group, a native Italian studying Romantic Literature, and it is no mystery that he was drawn to the Internationally-renowned Pitshanger Poets.  Simone wrote with aplomb about love and the eclipse of affection.  Peter Francis is a veteran of poetry readings, whose delivery is never less than engaging.  This week he chose sheep as a metaphor for enduring punishment.  Doig Simmonds often tackles love in his poetry, but then again, he has been writing almost as long as anyone on the group, so can be forgiven for occasionally mulling over age as well, and just who is that person in the mirror.  Martin Choules is not only a talented poet, he also regularly claims the prize for most efficiently handing out his copies.  This week he gave us a rip-roaring appraisal of the state of the art of war and what it might be good for.  Daphne Gloag is never less than considerate with her copies, tonight bringing us an escape into the winds of time itself.  Finally, Nick Barth brought a revised poem; memory of a hurricane in Mexico which sent the tourists flying.

Whatever one’s opinion of Live Poetry, in the raw, the feeling of leaving the hall with the breath of the declaimer still warm on one’s face, we would be remiss if we did not inform our loyal readership that the Pitshanger Poets will be performing Live and In Person at the Questor’s Theatre (Studio) on the evening of May the 6th.  Those of you with a yen for poetry or even the sure and certain knowledge that another Bank Holiday will send you to stir if you do not leave the confines of those four walls, make it a date.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 26th March 2019


Writing, it is said, is a solitary profession – perhaps that is why very little is written about the partners of poets. Who are these long-suffering spouses shivering in narrow beds in draughty garrets while their other halves are scribbling their restless lucubrations ? How patient must they be to put up the constant lyrical-waxing, metaphor-extending and witticism-pitting ? Perhaps they are positively turned-on by people who would rather compare them to a Summer’s day than use said day to get on with harvesting the barley.

Before the 20th Century, such wives were invisible (and back then, they invariably were wives). But then came the vogue for confessional verse, and suddenly they had a leading role as impossible muse who can only disappoint with their revealed only-humanness, uncomprehending dullard bent on frustrating the genius in their midst, or philandering chancer whose every betrayal is documented and whinged on at length.

Couples are always welcome at our Workshops, which this week was begun by Pat Francis whose best friend may be ‘cheating with charm’, but is best kept out of tight corners, while John Hurley has been thinking about the mass while daydreaming in the pews. Sara Cornejo has been listening to a woman who talks too much, but who has plenty to say, followed by Alan Chambers remembering the spirit of a fish. A smiley Doig Simmonds has been lit up by happy face, while it’s houseboats and towpaths that have been pleasing Anne Furneaux. Peter Francis has been keeping an eye on increasingly-bolshy slugs, and Nick Barth has been stuck on a train that seems to have shunted into a siding, while Martin Choules has been ranting at those trying to force the train to go in reverse.

Sir John wasn’t a poet himself, but clearly his love of the art rubbed off on his own endeavours, which explains the lack of any reference to his wife Eliza in his architecture. Nowhere do we find any mention of her in his arches and doorways, and search in vain for her silhouette in his ground plans. But one detail appears more promising – the caryatid ! This is where a classical column is replaced with a statue of a female draped about with a flimsy cloth quite unsuited to the British climate, especially when their breasts have a habit of popping out. Sir John erected many of these, including on the facade of his home in Lincoln Inn Field, often bashed out with the help of Mrs Coade’s all-weather artificial lithomorphs, but it is unclear if he had a direct hand in shaping their curves or if he picked them up off-the-shelf. The catalogues of the time would insist that they were not simply load-bearing lady-forms, but finest ancient Roman Palazzo Farnese 3rd Century load-bearing lady-forms. But did he sneak a likeness of Eliza above those perfect proportions and beneath those delicate curls ?

Now, readers familiar with Pitshanger Manor may be aware of the four stone ladies atop the porch, not technically caryatid ad they aren’t holding anything up, but definitely female and definitely put up there by Sir John. Identical in face and pose, it is unsurprising that the just-departed conservators referred to them as the Percival Sisters, but could it be Eliza’s fourfold vigilance keeping a wary eye on all those married poets who have been let out for the evening ?



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Workshop, 19th March 2019

As a leading exponent of the quill, ink and vellum school of poetry, I believe that it is my role to be a thinker, to mull and to ponder life’s imponderables.  Often my man will find me outstretched on a divan, pale hand raised to brow, mulling over some pretty sticky dilemma, poser or problem.  More than once now he tells me that he has had difficulty in rousing me from my trance-like state, particularly after a heavy meal or a greater than usual slug of the port.  I am unfazed by his implications; meditation, the act of raising the consciousness, of clearing the mind to find the answers within often strike one midway through a Sunday evening in the old wing-backed armchair while the television crackles gently in the hearth, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of that.

What, I hear you ask, am I pondering?  It takes a sharp brain to identify life’s great imponderables, let alone resolve them, but I believe that with a little fish paste I can make a dent in them.  I started off thinking up my own questions, but after a while my man realised that I had brain capacity to spare and started supplying me with some of the world’s great questions. As soon as he suspects I am at a loose end he supplies me with more, and he likes to keep me busy. For example, this is what I am working on this week: – Where do birds go when it rains?  What is an occasional table the rest of the time?  Can caged birds be trained to fly on command to save on shipping costs?  When the inventor of the drawing board hit a snag during the development of same, what did she go back to?  Was Yuri Geller merely a ruse of the cutlery industry, and what is he now?  Has Nicholas Parsons always been?  Where can I find the origin and meaning of the word ‘etymology’?  Whither Canada?  Why is it that despite the high cost of living, it remains so popular?  Is it possible to imagine a world with no hypothetical situations?

Which reminds me, I was in a Public House the other evening with a couple of chums who were arguing that Google had spoiled all pub discussions by providing an answer to every question.  I attempted to ask Google whether that was correct, but it provided no answer.  In which case, how could my chums be right?

Which random questions lead me to the answers in this week’s workshop.  Doig Simmons pondered the idea of change and using a powerful and original metaphor.  Peter Francis took us to the zoo to consider animals who being aware of animals who are not imprisoned, fear freedom.  Daphne Gloag has been thinking about the blue and the black, bringing back a piece which is gradually being honed to perfection.  John Hurley has been meditating in a timely fashion on the life of St Patrick, the fortunate image of the shamrock and its three leaves.  Anne Furneaux has been remembering the time she met her husband for the first time and considering the power of music and attraction.  Martin Choules’ poem was a succession of ponderables and imponderables, a meditation or perhaps a case of a poet treading water?

And so to a historical imponderable which is close to our hearts.  We know that John Soane, (as he was), built Pitzhanger Manor, (as it was), to provide a country seat for himself and his family for the remainder of his life (so to speak).  Why then do we find him leaving the country for the town after barely ten years’ residency in his Grand Design?  Historians have long concluded that it was his wife Eliza, who missing life in the hurly-burly of London persuaded John to up his sticks and move them to three strangely cramped houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  The truth is more nuanced.  Pitzhanger Manor had been home to a poetry workshop for a great many years, and Soane knew that his acquisition, demolition and rebuilding of the structure would do nothing to interrupt the group’s regular Tuesday Workshops.  Eliza might have hoped that consigning the rowdy romantics to the relatively bijou and compact Breakfast Room might cool their ardour, even ordering the servants to leave the soiled egg cups and crumb-covered plates where they lay, but the poets were unconcerned.  Eliza Soane even established her own Tuesday evening activities, inviting friends for Country Dancing sessions, brass band recitals and demonstrations of the dangers of explosive compounds from the scientist Humphry Davy (traditions we continue to endure in our home at Questors Theatre, more or less), but the poetry workshops continued remorselessly.  Now, her husband John had any number of eccentric friends who spent time at the Manor, both he and Eliza enjoyed the arts, so why the need to depart the country seat a and ship off to the smoke?   The only answer was surely that Mrs Soane hated poets, but given the deplorable habits of the Romantics, as related carefully and at length in this column, who could blame her?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 12th March 2019

Which is better, preservation or restoration?  This question has been whirling round the old bean of late due to events which I shall come to.  To draw a parallel, I am aware of how much the folk of Ealing enjoy seeing me pootle past in the old two-seater by their vociferous gestures and loud supportive cries.  How much would they enjoy my beloved automobile without its authentic perforated exhaust, machine-gun tappets and rumbling wheel-bearings?  If the vintage thermostat was not issuing forth its authentic drift of fragrant steam, would my fellow-travellers enjoy the experience of witnessing my progress up the Uxbridge Road quite as much?

Of course, I am being oblique with you, dear reader.  This week I was honoured to attend the glittering opening of the newly-restored Pitzhanger Manor (with its newly-restored letter ‘z’), and what a glittering occasion it was.  Now, it is not for me to report on the event itself, that is for the society pages and I would direct you to them.  Suffice it to say that the Prosecco flowed liberally, there were as many cheese and pineapple sticks as anyone could have wanted and I doubt any of the attendees saw their beds much before nine-thirty.  I am also not going to give you a critique of the restoration itself, except to congratulate the team on a magnificent job.  I encourage you all to hie you to Walpole Park to experience it for yourself.  No, I would prefer to draw your attention to the subtleties in the restoration, the mere details which only a connoisseur such as this correspondent would have a hope of spotting with the trained, porcelain-like orbs

Now, as per tradition, let me break my narrative for a short while to cover the essential proceedings of the last Workshop, for what a Workshop it was.  It never ceases to amaze how many poets will roll up for an evening’s prosody however chill and grim the weather.  Spring has not yet arrived, despite Feb’s false Spring, and yet we had thirteen readers (and where were you?) 

Alan Chambers was invited to lead off, bringing back a poem which raised the possibility of fading solace in the reflections in a window.  Pat Francis was up next, remembering a part-feral boy she was at school with who met a sticky end.  Anne Furneaux has been thinking about Sicily, music, dances and breezes.  John Hurley took us back to Ireland to witness Tim the gardener constructing a fertile plot.  Sara Cornejo brought back her poetic meditation for us to muse over.  Caroline Am Bergris took this evening’s poem as an opportunity to relate a story of a sexual offender, a story she has lived with for a long time.  Owen Gallagher brought back a poem with another kind of sexual offender – but much more of a voyeur.  Nick Barth has been imagining himself travelling on one of Volk’s more outlandish creations just off the coast at Brighton.  Peter Francis has been thinking about toads, and men and the essential distinctions, and essential similarities between the two.  Michael Harris has written us a cento, a poem made up of other poems, even if the lines he brought would all be familiar to a presenter on BBC 6Music.  Martin Choules has writers block.  Which has not stopped him from writing a poem.  Which must be some kind of paradox.  Doig Simmonds has been channelling his inner tabloid-editor in this weeks’ ironic reflection on the beggar.  Finally, Daphne Gloag stepped in bravely from the cold to bring us an evocation of Spring and the possibilities of Time.

As you may recall, I have been lucky enough to join the skilled restorateurs at Pitzhanger Manor on many occasions as they went about their labours and it was gratifying to see that they have taken note of the hastily-scribbled Post-It notes that I would regularly leave in my wake.  As one of the restorers told me himself, I am able to effortlessly span Architecture and Literature, a genre spanner in point of fact, making me one of the greatest spanners he had ever had the pleasure to meet.  Without my help, I fear many aspects of the patina of Pitzhanger Manor would have been lost.  For example, what of the dent in the skirting boards of the Breakfast Room left by the head of Alfred Tennyson as he dozed off for the third time during a reading by Robert Browning of his Bishop Blougram’s Apology?  Should it be lost to the filler’s knife?  Or the dents in the floorboards left by the sprightly heels of Gerard Manley Hopkins as he bounced rhythmically around the room while reading aloud, his preferred mode of declamation?  One has to look carefully, but I am happy to say that these crucial imprints remain.  However, some of my suggestions were not so lucky.  John Soane’s bright colours leap from every surface, in an effect many visitors will appreciate, however I mourn the loss of the nicotine wash which used to coat the interior, so evocative of the chain-smoking modernists and their reckless approach to health and personal hygiene.  Another of my recommendations was rejected by the team; there were two dents in the wall at the head of the four-poster bed in the master bedroom, caused by the posts repeatedly striking the surface during some athletic activity.  Alas, my entreaties that the damage could be due only to the nocturnal visits of one Lord Byron were met with blank stares by the artisans.  The impacts now repaired, one can only try to imagine Byron’s romantic exuberances, though I would always advise against that sort of thing.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 5th March 2019

Ever keen to copy all-things American, it seems that the Met Office is now giving names to the wind – more specifically, to whatever stormy waifs and tempestuous urchins blow in from the Atlantic.  But is this not the very kind of situation that the post of poet laureate was created to serve ?  We can hardly go labelling the weather as any old Tom, Dick, or Harry, or indeed in these equally opportune times, as Tilly, Dolly, or Hetty.  No, the wind is something to be respected, admired, and honoured with a name of suitable gravitas – the recent Storm Freya is definitely along the right lines, but the preceding Storm Eric sounds about as dangerous a petulant teenager.  Any poet worth their couplets would have chosen Erebos, Edric, or even Ebenezer.

This week’s Workshop was a gas, starting with Pat Francis’ imagining of the Celts who were driven out by the Saxons, and Niall Cassidy feasting his senses on a newborn, followed by Anne Furneaux filling her parlour with the best brics and finest bracs.  John Hurley has had an American relative descend on him, and Daphne Gloag has been planting the seeds of the months from a pomegranate, while Peter Francis recalled his father with foreboding.  For Doig Simmonds, inheritance is all in the genes, while Owen Gallagher thinks it’s in his parents’ language, and Martin Choules has been listening to the weather report.

In Sir John’s time when a genuine need for a poet was required to christen a wind of change, all Percy Shelley could come up with was ‘West’.  And for all that his Ode blusters against convention and blasts for revolution, it puffs-up the importance of the Poet as the only one who can blow up a storm.  But the Reform Act was still over a decade away, long after his own breath had so tragically ceased, and brought on not by Byronic fury, but the politicians’ hot air.

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