Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 6th June 2017

June, it seems, insists on being bright and sunny, which for we basement dwellers in the windowless world of the Pitshanger Archives is a complete waste.  But for those in the non-troglodyte domain of Walpole Rec above our heads, the roses are red and the violets are blue.  Indeed, it is noticeable how our volunteer internees are picking up the habit of arriving late, leaving early, and taking longer and longer lunch breaks (always a danger when one’s bunker is located beneath a public park), all the while complaining that the cataloguing of punch-cards is no work for the summer, except as makeshift fans.

But poetry will not wait for the nip to re-enter the air and the coffee to replace the soda.  For the past five hundred years, every lord, squire, merchant and dairymaid within an evening’s horse-ride, foot-stroll or penny-farthing-career has descended upon the Manor clutching their sheaves of pentameters, ballads and trochees with an urgent need to share all with sundry, and somebody has to preserve their posterity.

Written in our ledgers we can every one of them is written up, if only we can first find our ledgers.  Clearly what we need is an efficient organisational system, and thus we have undertaken the Great Microfiche Project in the new Theophilus Marzials wing.  This provides a ready reference to our vast catalogue, which will indicate which chapter to search in our many-volume index, which in turn elucidates which of the chronicle tomes is required to find the relevant key to locate the correct directory containing the necessary codex revealing the relevant register recording the particular page in the loose-bound ledger.  We’ve no time for summer.

No such pasty-faced sun-dodging for this week’s workshopees, which was full of healthy outdoorsyness.  Pat Francis has been butterfly-spotting and brought us a poem in two wings, while Peter Francis has been collecting sorrows in a graveyard and Aisha Hassan has been revising her rainbow rivers.  For John Hurley, the trees are on to us even before the axe is swung, and Owen Gallagher has been out doing the rounds of the yards and sites with the exciseman.  Alas, Nayna Kumari must report on a shut-in who’s only sign of nature is in their jigsaw, and Daphne Gloag has been spending her halcyon days with her nose in the a book, but inbetween Alan Chambers has returned us to our wild ways by summoning up an ocean in a prairie.  Doig Simmonds reported a death like the lifting of a summer storm to first allow a final burst of sunshine, and perhaps the weather has likewise been interrupting Martin Choules’ attempts to glumhood by relentlessly cheering him up against his wishes.

A favourite sandwich-spot for the interns to while away their lunchtimes is the beehive in the park.  Ingeniously fitted with a large window to reveal the inner workings, they strangely seem to able to relate to those restive drones constantly hustling along in their dark, cramped maze.  Sir John himself was most keen on beehives, and the tradition has continued, so that when the grounds became the public park it is today the bees were already in residence, although it is unclear if this were officially or as squatters.

In the 1920s, Alan Alex Milne was a regular attendee, and would often wile a while with the bees beforehand.  He was also a honey fiend, and not above knocking back a couple of hexes if he thought he could get away with it.  One summer’s day, overcome by sugarlust, he was determined to snatch a slurp off the Walpole bees, but he wasn’t so reckless as to blunder in unprotected – first he protected his hand from the stingers by stuffing it inside a stuffed bear toy that he snatched off a passing urchin.  Suitably gloved, he swooped, smashing through the comb and using the fur to soak up as much liquid gold as the teddy could bear.  But tragedy !  His now-bulky hand could not retreat through the opening, nor his hand from its ursine protector.  Trapped, he was, yellow-handed !

As luck would fortune, the other poets had decided that such a gorgeous evening was not for cooping up in manor houses, and took their workshop into the park.  They soon spotted poor Al Al, and once they had finally finished laughing they got down to saving him.  Bob Graves suggested they amputate, while Edie Sitwell was more of a mind to try lubricating with creosote.  But ever-practical Graham Greene soon won them round to playing it cool – the problem was that Milney, in his panic, had caused the blood to rush to his hand and swell it up.  What was needed was to read him their poems to calm him down, and at the end of the session they all grabbed a bit of Al Al pulled and pulled while he owwed and owwed until he popped like a cork from a honeypot.  And then the workshop had to be swiftly concluded as dozens of angry bees came pouring out of the hole (presumably angry at the theft of their larder, but you never can tell with bees), and the poets went pell mell for cover, but not before many a sting was landed.  But were these attacks any worse than the stabs of the critic’s stiletto ?  But then, what critic is so incensed he is prepared to die to snark ?


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Workshop, 23rd May 2017

How many poets does it take to change a light bulb ?  Pah, real poets only compose by candle-light !  And so, it seems, do Archivists at present, as we are beset by the black dog of no electricity, un-windowed in our nuclear bunker with only a few sticks of hardened bee by-product to light our way and use up all our oxygen.  Still, we’re only surrounded by shelves and shelves of highly flammable paper, so nothing to worry about.

And just what has caused us to wash up upon the night’s Plutonian shore ?  Have we run out of old shillings to feed into the meter ?  Has our Frankenstein-style circuit-breaker tripped the dark fantastic ?  Has our improvised fuse-board made out of old coat-hangers and fridge magnets finally blown ?  Or could it all be a metaphor for the pointlessness of attempting to order and classify something as ephemeral and subjective as the literary muse ?  Or have we simply forgotten to pay the bill ?

But we defeated be not shall !  By touch alone, we groped our way to the boiler house and fired up the emergency cucumber-powered generator, while gig-economy interns kept the treadmill turning until we were generating just enough power to run the office refrigerator, as then we could leave the door open and use it’s light to see by.  Alas, it turned out that the bulb had fused, and it further turned out that we arty types aren’t very proficient at household repairs, and so the answer to the first question is that it takes every poet you have to change a light bulb, and then you just end up with reams of contemplative verse on the frustrations of modern life, and a still-dead lightbulb.
But no dim-wits at this week’s workshop.  Aisha Hassan struck a match when she totted up the cons of her relationship and it’s not looking good, while Doig Simmonds shone a light on an accident and the reactions of bystanders.  Pat Francis has never extinguished her dream of a cottage in the country, but she has modified it to a library in town, while Daphne Gloag was all a-glow to rediscover a lost-one’s smell, and bag, and notebook.  Sparks of creativity came off of Alan Chambers’ concert at sea, and Michael Harris made light of an old English teacher driven to retirement by too much language.  Peter Francis’ minor upset was no ecorching fire, thankfully, (and definitely no typo, either !), while John Hurley brought the disinfectant of sunlight into the gloom of some refugees’ enforced sojourn in a run-down hotel, and Martin Choules gave us a quick celebration of man-size crockery before snuffing out the candle on another successful workshop.

So, you may be wondering how it is you are even able to read about our misfortunes on a website that obviously cannot be accessed without using electricity to move electrons about.  Well, truth to tell, we don’t know if you’re reading this at all, for we have scribbled this entire entry on hundreds of tiny slips of paper by candlelight and sent them out into the world via pigeon-post.  Not  trained carrier-pigeons, mind, but any passing stray in Walpole Park that we failed to avoid out butterfly-net-equipped interns.  Each slip is carefully numbered, and it is surely not beyond the wit of Ealingers to put two and twelve together and realise that they are missing nine others inbetween.  A little community sharing and a sub-eight minute record with the Times crossword is all that’s required.

One small advantage of our pre-industrial predicament is to get the opportunity to commune more closely with the gloomy meetings that must have taken place in Sir John’s day.  Mrs Conduitt ran a very tight house, with no money wasted on fripperies like oil lamps, meaning that candles had to do all the heavy lighting.  During those times of national tallow shortage, these would be strictly rationed to one per residence, and Pitzhanger Manor would more resemble Castle Ortranto.  The whole atmosphere had a profound effect on the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft who insisted in dressing entirely in black and wearing a veil, while Bill Blake was inspired to excise any furious spirits with a quick exorcism, but unfortunately he could only find a copy of the libidinous Tom Jones to be his book, and his bell had the unfortunate effect of repeatedly summoning Mrs Conduitt, how was certainly a furious spirit by the fifth occasion.

On one such evening we find Percy Bysshe Shelley, faced with the prospect of another attempt by Leigh Hunt at shadow puppetry (who never quite mastering his vaguely dog or deformed rabbit), likening the gloom to that faced by Jonah during his long-weekend in the belly of the fish, a fascination he would unfortunately take to its logical conclusion in the Gulf of Spezia.  This set Johnny Keats to giggling as he imagined Jonah accidentally igniting the sea-monster’s intestinal gasses, and made up an Ode to a Fishy Heartburn on the spot.  Eventually, after squinting over their verses and one final round of ‘murder in the dark’, they retire to bed, with a grumpy ‘Brian’ Byron muttering how on reflection he has come to see that walking like the night is less beautiful and more painful when one is unable to avoid walking into the sideboard.

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Workshop, 9th May 2017

After many years in the wilderness, George ‘Bernard’ Shaw is once again in vogue, complete with elbow patches and hipster beard.  His most popular play is currently running at the Questors – Pygmalion.  You know, the one named after the ancient Grecian sculptor we all pretend we learned about in grammar school, and who anyway has only the most tangential connection to the story on offer.

This fact did not go down well with the ‘alternatively paid’ interns, some of who are proud Greeks delighted at the prospect that even in these Eurosceptic times, we English can still host a drama about one of their lesser myths.  “Not a single lump of marble anywhere on stage” one sobbed the next day into his overpriced coffee.  “And what happened to all the songs ?” muttered another.  When asked to describe what they had seen, one summed it up as “a moral tale of a proud young working woman reduced to sponging off others, brought about by the erosion of her characterful accent and her homogenisation into a bland inoffensive RP.”

Plenty of characterful voices at this week’s workshop.  Michael Harris played out a gritty coming-of-age drama of an emasculated boy getting his Man back, while Daphne Gloag choreographed a ballet on the event horizon in a show that will run forever.  Peter Francis opened his curtain on the library of his youth, and had us rolling in the aisles between bookshelves, while Pat Francis’ musical had a showstopping weepy whose cunningly cynical words are no match for the subversive power of a good composer.  Finally, in true ’Enry ’Iggins style, Martin Choules has been teaching us the correct grammar for the counter-factual mood, just to have his selfless efforts moodily shoved up his subjunctive.

Bernie Shaw was a frequent attendee in Edwardian times – and just like his famous professor, he had an annoying habit of pointing out the errors in the speech of the other members, past and present.  In between lamenting the double negatives employed by Jane Austen, the relentless passive voice of Artie Doyle and Bill Shakespeare’s multiple sins of ending sentences with a preposition, he might decry the modern lackadaisical lyricism of the latest literary leprechauns.  One evening, for instance, he upbraided John Masefield to his face for completely omitting the verb in his opening line “I must down to the sea again”, and Thomas Hardy for his excessive use of dialect in The Ruined Maid.  Indeed, when he took issue with Edith Nesbit for her ‘slovenly’-titled Five Children & It, she was so taken aback that all she good plead in defence was “lawks, guv’nah, I’m a good girl, I am !”

But we’ll leave the last word to ‘Hilarious’ Belloc in his typical style of pithy, yet totally off the point:
Bernard Shaw, as sharp as a razor,
Quite at home in a tie and blazer.
But his beard is less Belgravian –
He may be Shaw, but never Shavian.

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Workshop, 2nd of May 2017

Researching, composing, editing, type-setting and binding the blog has had to take a bit of a back seat this week as I have had vital poetry campaigning work to attend to.  The burning issue is the Hanwell Hootie, an annual music festival based in Ealing’s smaller but no less salubrious neighbour here in green West London.  The Hootie has been growing like Topsie over the last few years and now occupies a meadow, a dozen pubs and a Saturday night to a Sunday morning.  The issue is that the Hootie appears to have defined itself merely a music event and offers no space to the declamatory arts.  We at Pitshanger Poets have been campaigning on this issue by the normally effective means of complaining about it in a loud mutter in the Questor’s Bar but so far no commitment has been received from the Hootie Head Honchos.  This week I was forced to take further action and appeal to the Hootie High Head Honcho Himself, I am referring of course to Mr Jools Holland.

You are no doubt eager to hear about the goings-on in this week’s Workshop, where poems of greatness got their first public airing to an appreciative reception.  Nick Barth brought in a revision of something he thought of while repairing a computer, reflecting the birth, death and rebirth of the hard drive.  John Cheung made a welcome second visit to deal copies of his Poker-inflected poem which had us all on the edge of our plastic seats.  Michael Harris brought a tightly-argued and somewhat irrefutable piece on the value of love over narcotics.  John Hurley has got himself into a lather over the inhospitality of the part of the world to offer succour and respite to another part, and will this change any time soon?  Nayna Kumari brought another accomplished, if shocking picture, this time on the ramifications of violence.  Daphne Gloag has been thinking about the word ‘light’ and brought us a villanelle on the very same.  Peter Francis would have us believe he has been over-turning sexism in the golf club with this poem.  Pat Francis conjured a memory of hearing the bombs falling during the Blitz.  Martin Choules has been fretting over Gargoyles and why they are not bigger.  Finally Anne Furneaux has been suffering compassion fatigue in the face of the complaints of a woman she met at a party.

The case I set out to make to Mr Holland is that the Hanwell Hootie always was a mixed arts festival.  As you might expect from this blog, the origins of the Hanwell Hootie have been lost in the mists of time but what is known is that its success is not unrelated to the support it got from the Jim Marshall Company, manufacturers of amplification to the stars.  The Marshall name has a strong association in the mind of the public with popular virtuosos such as Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Mrs Mills, all of whom exploited increasingly huge ‘Marshall Stacks’ in an aural arms race .  What is less well-remembered is that in 1965 poetry ‘went electric’ when an exhausted Roger McGough, hoarse and drained at the end of a long tour, picked up a microphone discarded by a departing Beatle and recited a short poetry set to an increasingly fractious and turgid reaction from the audience.  Roger carried on his performance, to shouts of ‘Judith’ (Roger later insisted he had never been known as Judith and was puzzled by the reference), little realising that the world had now changed.  Before too long the vast majority of live poetry was amplified with poets such as Ted Hughes, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn and John Betjeman eager to achieve the now-fashionable Marshall Sound, replete with howling distortion and feedback effects.  Live poetry rose to new heights of auditory and visual spectacle during the sixties, a process reaching its peak perhaps, with Allen Ginsberg’s notorious reading at the Isle of Wight Poetry Festival in which he set fire to his text using lighter fluid while reciting ‘America the Beautiful’, provoking near-hysteria from the vast crowd.

I was surprised to find that I was obliged to remind Mr Holland of these aspects of the declamatory arts’ illustrious past and even more surprised by the deathly silence my increasingly strident emails I have been obliged to write to his ‘people’ evinced.  Finally, I received a very formal note claiming that Mr Holland had no relationship with any festival taking place in Hanwell and that since I was clearly getting Hootie confused with Hootenanny that I should perhaps like to desist contacting him or legal assistance of a particularly threatening nature would be sought.  I think Mr Holland is trying to duck the issue.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 4th April 2017

Back in December, you may remember this blog speculating on matters whodunit, on considering the couplet-quoting cop of the poetry procedural.  Well, we’re delighted to announce that we have received literally ones of letter on the subject, from Alan Ayckbourne’s under secretary’s cleaner’s nephew’s imaginary friend which reads “Dear Pitshanger Archive, can you recommend a good rhyme for orange ?”

All of which only serves to distract us from considering poets who had a secret sideline in detective fiction.  The obvious prime suspect is Gilbert Chesterton, whose Father Brown has shown such skill sleuthing that he has likely inspired far more boys to join the police than the priesthood.  Charles Bukowski is also gloriously pulpy and a world away from comparisons to a summers day.  But most of the other likely lads fall short on motive: Kipling, Milne and Hardy are as famous for their prose, but they both tend to be short on murder (well, alright, there’s murder in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but it’s not like we don’t know who dunit).  Michael Ondaatje and Raymond Carver wrote a novel and play respectively which were turned into Oscar-winning films, but at no stage do the a-list casts get summoned to the drawing room to wonder why they have all been called there tonight.

There have also been occasions when thriller writers couldn’t resist raising their profiles with a slim volume or two – Agatha Christie and Arthur “Conan” Doyle both flirted with respectability, only to see their collections sink faster than lead-weighted corpse or a femme fatale’s morals.  As for poems themselves featuring a murder mystery, the only one that comes to mind is Who Killed Cock Robin ?

Still, at least this week’s workshop was free from nefarious plots and cryptic messages.  Nick Barth has been keeping a close eye on the silver birch in his street, while Daphne Gloag has been keeping her ear to the ground listening to the tick and the slosh of time.  Alan Chambers presented a convincing alibi of his whereabouts during the equinox, while Michael Harris has been picking up clues about the stranger at the bus stop.  A rundown of the last fifty years of marriage was presented from John Hurley’s breast-pocket notebook, while Martin Choules has been investigating the underworld looking for criminals, but only finding a ferry, and Anne Furneaux has been spending valentine’s recce-ing her heart with a clear head.

Gilbert Chesterton was a regular at the Tuesday workshops, quipping with Bernie Shaw and “Hilarious” Belloc, and generally not taking matters very serious.  One evening in 1932, they were joined by a brash young American called Orson Welles, fresh from starting his acting career in Dublin and just been turned down work a work permit in London.  He quickly took to Gilbert, who obviously had a big influence on him, what with being was very tall, very stout, with a long cape, swordstick and fantastic facial hair.  His writing as well impressed young Orson, from the absurdity of The Napoleon of Notting Hill to the mystery figure whose identity must be pieced together in The Man Who Was Thursday.

As for whodunits, Orson at times provided the radio voice for Sherlock, Hercule and The Shadow, but never Father Brown.  For a man who rarely discussed religion, could it be that the dog-collar made him itch ?  Gilbert, of course, was a Catholic convert, and that evening the Archives record how Orson was admiring the string of beads hanging from his ample belt.  What were they ?  Affecting an American accent, GK responded “why, that’s my rosary, buddy”.  “My word !” exclaimed Orson, “Rosary Buddy – what a great idea for a film !”

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Workshop, 21st March 2017

Regular readers of this column will know that I am simply a huge fan of the internet.  Quite apart from the hours of sweat and toil I devote to this this Blog, I delight in sharing images of whatever comestible is on the plate in front of me, commenting forcefully on the standard of service or accommodation currently on offer wherever I happen to be, or Tweeting whatever thought just happens to be flitting between the windmills of my mind.  My small, perfectly formed smart phone is my breast-pocket friend and I demand that it is always available for use, even if that means that my Man is obliged to trail around after me with a lead-acid car battery and step-down transformer on a gurney to charge the thing.

I am continually amazed at how social media has allowed us access to the human psyche to an almost spooky degree, almost as if web sites were able to read our very minds.  For example, it is a common occurrence for me to find myself clicking on the images at the bottom of a web page, almost as if the designer knew that the thing I most wanted to know was what various child stars of twenty years ago look like today or why a selection of wardrobe malfunctions had gone unnoticed by the wearers.  However, with great power comes great responsibility; I have become aware the internet does not entirely cover itself with veracity.  I am alarmed by the huge amount of fakery apparent; specifically, the fake poetry invading the web.  I am determined to do something about it.  Google, Facebook, beware!

There was no fake poetry at this week’s Workshop.  John Hurley got the ball rolling with a dark polemic on the state of the world’s newer leaders.  Danuta Sotkin-Kondycki is deeply concerned with people in love and that they should continue to believe in Starlight.  Alan Chambers inspired the group with one from the archive, enigmatically reflecting on the death of Philip Larkin.  Daphne Gloag is also reprising something of a project with her poem on the four elements and the words they inspire.  Nick Barth remembered childhood day trips to London’s dark tunnels.  Martin Choules is excited about Spring and bulbs, which is atypical poetic behaviour, while Pat Francis has been wondering about the legacy of the mysterious Picts, which is typically poetic.  Peter Francis has been listening to Classical Jewish music and detecting a gender divide.  Finally, Ann Furneaux’s William lost his passport and cannot visit France.

As I say, the World Wide Wonderweb appears to be teeming with Fake Poetry these days and it is incumbent upon me to warn you, the gentle reader about it.  So, imagine the scene; you are innocently scanning a web page containing a column of text, usually indented and grouped into familiar stanzas.  How does one identify that this is, in fact, Fake Poetry?  I would like to suggest a few simple tests:

  1. Is the poem about cats?  The reader is reminded that no legitimate poetry about cats has been written since 1939, and that TS Eliot (for it was he) was in all probability anticipating the dark days of War in Europe which were about to ensue.  The last thing that ‘Old Possum’ was on about was cats.
  2. Is the poem attempting to be amusing? Legitimate poetry is not funny, and if it is, this was not the writer’s intention.  Even poets who can carry off a comedic poem are merely reflecting a dark inner conflict gnawing at their soul.  You may laugh, but you are laughing at yourself.
  3. Does the poem rhyme? Now, don’t get me wrong, we are all in favour of rhyming poetry at PP, however arming the untrained writer with a rhyming dictionary is akin to arming a Yorkshire Terrier a megaphone.  It will not sound pretty.
  4. Is the poem entirely in lower case? e e cummings famously discovered lower-case poetry when his typewriter’s caps key failed.  No poet writing today can claim the same credible excuse for what is the poetic equivalent of muttering.
  5. Is the poem entirely about the poet? All poets begin writing poetry about themselves, however, most soon learn that this does not provide nearly enough source material.  Few legitimate poets are interesting enough to sustain a lifetime’s output based entirely upon themselves and are forced to vicariously hoover up the experience of other people.  How can we poets be interesting when we spend so many hours of the day sitting in cafes and public libraries shuffling words around in notebooks?
  6. Does the poem name a commercial product? This is the real reason for the rise in fake verse; the creeping commercialisation of poetry.  It is not for me to point out the futility of writing poetry for profit but who of us at one time or another has not felt inspired to book a city break in Berlin after browsing a bit of Auden, pop out to the Garden Centre after catching some Wordsworth, yearned for an orthopaedic sandal following a choice passage from William Blake or fancied taking up taxidermy following a session with Ted Hughes?  The power of poetry is not lost on the advertisers.  They want your clicks and will use Fake Poetry to get them.

If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, 14th March 2017

The decade that Sir John Soane spent at Pitzhanger Manor was a decade of turbulent family life.  He and his wife Margaret were troubled by wayward sons, who showed no interest in following their father’s profession, or indeed any profession.  John Junior was a wastrel and George was a scoundrel, and both were a great source of worry.  Indeed, Sir John (actually, Mr Soane at this time, though the locals of Ealing nicknamed him Sir John on account of his being the lord of the manor) increasingly used his home in the country as an escape from his home in the wars.

On Tuesday afternoons he would leave his office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields early and take the stage from High Holborn to Ealing, where Mrs Conduitt had already prepared the house for that evening’s workshop.  An hour later the first guest would arrive (invariably Bill Wordsworth, whose pre-punctual manner earned him the soubriquet of Early Romantic).  Georgie Byron was always the last, rolling-in five minutes late and two drinks heavy.  They would read out their works-in-progress over a bottle or six of fine Rhenish, debate them, become outraged, challenge duels, start fist-fights, break priceless vases, kick the cat, and finally troop off to bed in a huff, and for Sir John it was such a quiet and relaxing evening that he often fell asleep in his favourite wing-backed chair.

No such tempers at this week’s workshop, but plenty of passion.  Daphne Gloag has been on retreat to a burial mound and come back full of life, while Doig Simmonds has been eavesdropping a cocktail party while the past goes on around them.  Peter Francis has likewise been people-watching in a station hotel, but all the transient drinkers are going nowhere, while John Hurley has shown how his sojourn from rhyming has sharpened his rhyming as he reflected on attending a sparse funeral while the gravediggers wait with shiny shovels.  Meanwhile, Michael Harris’ father is less impressed with his son’s education, and the nurse on Anne Furneaux’s ward is less conciliatory to her patient, but she then introduces us to Doris who’s a wise old bird.  Pat Francis has been searching for some suitable adjectives to describe the Thames, while Martin Choules has been giving an old war its post mortem.

Wednesday mornings were just as refreshing for Sir John: up with the lark for sweet coffee and Mrs Conduitt’s scrambled eggs.  His houseguests would eventually stagger in, clutching their heads and bellies for fear of upsetting either.  Rivalries from the night before were quite forgotten, often because the participants now had complete blackouts of the affair, which was a great boon to friendship, even if it did sometimes lead to the same poem being read out on four consecutive weeks.  Soon it was back with the mail coach to the bustle and conflict of London life, but for that one night did Sir John a stately pleasure dome decree.  As ‘Brian’ Byron would later pen “I say the future is a serious matter / And so – for God’s sake – hock and soda water !”

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