Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 13th November 2018

The Great War was a watershed moment for poetry, when the censorship governing the polemic of prose was waived away for the protest of poesy.  Perhaps the great and good thought that it was safe enough since nobody pays any attention to the self-obsessed diarising of dandies and waifs.  Surely these verses would have such a short shelf-life that they shall not grow old.  It was also a time for protest speech to grow up, to leave the sniping satire and mirthless moralising of old, and to embrace the gallows-humour of the absurd made all-too-real.

The Workshop this week celebrated the 100 years since the Armistice by enjoying the peacetime freedom that allows us to remember in our owns ways at our own times.  Peter Francis was first over the top with an epic of vinegar vignettes of the many little tragedies, every bit as bitter as was called for.  But Pat Francis broke ranks to listen to the birdsong of three types of in-between fowls, the third of which was us.  Daphne Gloag has been keeping morale up by speaking a song of nature’s exhuberance (featuring birds again), while Anne Furneaux has been patrolling the cliffs of the Channel listening out for any gossip coming in with the tide.  An overnight epiphany of peace has fallen over Michael Harris, as a silent night gives rise to his own heartsongs – and likewise coming out of his shell was Martin Choules, surveying the amassed carcasses of shedding spiders to rival any battlefield.  Finally, the all-clear was sounded by an abstract Alan Chambers, looking deep into a painting and finding the free-forming Jazz Age to come.

Siegfried Sassoon had been a regular of a Tuesday night before hostilities, and was one of the fewer to return in the aftermath.  He would often forgo reading one of his own to instead introduce the group to a little known Wilfred Owen who he felt deserved a wider audience, and who tragically would never be able to attend himself.  But infact the name was not unknown to those Ealing residents who had the good fortune to be too old, or too lame, or too female to be called up.  It transpired that Lieutenant Owen had actually popped in the Spring of 1918 while waiting to be sent back to the Front, and whose first-hand reportage was all the more poignant for attempting to keep to a rank and file of regular rhyme and rhythm, only to find the whole thing falling apart as soon as it comes face to face with grim realities.  And then he was gone, becoming one of his own doomed youths.

But Ziggy Sassoon kept coming for years, even though most of the later pieces he brought could never live up to his war poems, fully aware that the monster had in the end brought him such life.  For him, the vibrant noise of the guns was drowned out as soon as everybody sang.


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Workshop, 6th November 2018

The completion of the restoration of Pitshanger Manor is almost upon us.  As with all building projects, the closing stages have dragged themselves out.  It’s not for me to impugn any contractors’ diligence or sense of urgency but it does seem to have taken the fellows working here an enormously long time to address the final details.  As you know, I am in the fortunate position to be able to walk the hallowed halls of the manor to keep an eye on progress, (as long as I scrupulously avoid bumping into the Project Manager again) and occasionally engage the skilled artisans in friendly conversation.  I asked them, in a deliberately non-hectoring tone, why things were taking quite so long.  They told me that many of the materials required for a restoration of this kind were hard to come by, which sounds only reasonable.  They told me work was held up while they located supplies of Georgian striped paint, Cyrillic pencils, left handed screwdrivers, glass hammers and bubbles for the spirit levels.  Indeed, on my last visit to the Manor the Foreman suggested that it might save them some time if I nipped out to collect an item from the local hardware store, and of course I readily agreed.  He gave me a piece of paper and told me to show it to the chap in brown overalls at the counter.  And so I did; the man at the shop looked at my piece of paper and immediately scuttled off, disappearing for quite a while.  When he eventually returned, I asked him whether he had located my item and he retorted that I had already received it and I should now leave with alacrity, although he did not use those words exactly.  Quite flummoxed, I asked to look at the piece of paper.  On it was written a long weight.  I returned empty handed to the clearly disappointed foreman who told me that the best way to get a long weight was to order it by carrier pigeon from Timbuctoo and would I like to oblige?  I took this as my cue to exit stage left and see if my man could make sense of the episode but when I told him what had happened, he suffered an uncontrollable snorting fit of some kind and had to be excused.  I will never understand working people.

Something I will always understand is a Pitshanger Poets Workshop.  It is perennially a charming of melange of verse and verbiage, and a Tuesday evening is incomplete without it.  John Hurley got things started in traditional John Hurley style, with a darkly amusing take on Halloween.  Owen Gallagher must have been aware of my plight with the contractors of the Manor bringing a poem calling for solidarity among working people.  Christine Shirley took us to a simpler time with her traditional prayer for good luck.  Alan Chambers writes about grace and the perfection of love.  Daphne Gloag seemed to pick up on the traditional vibe with her song-like poem exploring time.  Michael Harris has been self-examining his own self-examinations and noting his own lack of enthusiasm for underlying details.  Niall Cassidy used his poem to admit to having visited a poetry reading, quite at his own risk, and there were knowing nods at the tropes he revealed.  Martin Choules used an opportunity to write a war poem to point out how much better things are than they used to be, despite what we think we think.  Pat Francis also brought us a war poem, a poignant piece concerning the war dead who never make it to the casualty lists.  Peter Francis read us something we could only describe as an ant-love poem, a counter-weight to Alan’s we mused.  Finally, Nick Barth brought us a mildly-revised piece concerning the covenant between a mainframe computer and its programmers.

As you will have guessed, my man is not the most loquacious of fellows, which is both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand it’s nice to spend time with people who do not butt in all the time, on the other sometimes he can be inscrutable to the point of irritation.  He never did explain to me what he found so amusing about my last trip Pitshanger Manor and the Hardware Counter, instead the following day I found a copy of ‘A Fool’s Errand’, Dermot Healy’s last slim volume, mysteriously left on my bedside table.  Wheels within wheels, eh?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 30th October 2018

Halloween is a time for dark evenings and ghost stories around the hearth.  But we can attest here in the Archive that ghost poems just do not work – a regular meter plays havoc with any attempt to create some tension, while rhymes are no friend of the surprise revelation.  But the group has seen many an All Saints’ Eve in its time, and the ghosts of halloweens past continue to haunt the memory.

For, alas, there have been several attempts over the years to encourage a little masquerade spirit, but ‘dress as your favourite poet’ parties have always been a let-down:  Bald, beard, codpiece ?  Sigh, yet another Shakespeare.  Bald, glasses, library book ?  Put him with the other Larkins.  And for the ladies, crinoline, shawl and centre-parting could be either Dickenson or a Bronte with no way to tell them apart.  And the ‘come as your favourite character from a poem’ nights were no better: two giant shins with nothing on top ?  That’ll be Ozymandias again.  But what’s this character ?  It looks like a very good rendition of a sad, virginal bank teller ?  Is it perhaps J Alfred Prufrock ?  Oh, I see, you’re not actually wearing a costume.

At least this week’s workshop had no such dress-code, and even the apple tree in John Hurley’s opener was doing an Autumnal  striptease, while Alan Chamber’s beggar is spending the Fall by dreaming of Spring (whether he wants to or not).  Christine Shirley has been taking a walk back in time to take tea with the ghosts of the past, while Daphne Gloag has been finding a modern rom-com in an ancient Greek myth.  For Anne Furneaux, breakfast is something to be lingered over, while Michael Harris thinks that the cosy relationship between church and state has been lingering on for too long.  Martin Choules has been busy keeping the natural in the super-natural, and Pat Francis has been keeping an eye on the twinkling granite – but can she believe what she sees ?  Peter Francis has been freely translating a well-known French song into his well-honed free verse, while a seasonal Doig Simmonds has been gently preparing for the grave without wanting to make a fuss.

Halloween was threat to a carefree atheist like Bysshey Shelley, who would happily spend the haunted night in St Mary’s graveyard just to make a point.  Which would have been fine if he’d toddles off after the workshop wound down, and especially if Georgie Byron could then sneak up behind him with a sheet over his head, but it just wasn’t on when he would insist that the entire workshop take place amid the headstones.  In a foretaste of the famous Lake Geneva ghost-writing competition, he wanted all present to pen a story of gothic chills and subliminal sublime, with father of the house Willy Blake to judge the best.  In short, they all had to try and put the willies up Willy.

Georgie ‘Brian’ Byron went first with his creepy tale of a reanimated corpse of a once-fair Liverpool lass who now only stalks in Bootle and strikes at night.  Sammy Coleridge rattled off his latest fever-dream set at the battle of Waterloo, where a ‘booby man’ terrorised the camp washer-women in his lust for ‘pleasure domes’.  But the bays were taken by the ingénue Molly Wollstonecraft who, knowing the judge to be a keen animal lover, described a dark forbidding mansion where a young hero discovers such unspeakable horrors as a bird in a cage, a hungry dog at its master’s gate, and a wanton boy killing a fly.  It was indeed a terrible, twisted tale, witnessing such cynical cheating in one so young.

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The Dreamer – Alan Chambers

Who is the old woman
curled warmly into sleep?
Her dreams are the shadows
that gather in the street.
She wants no awakening
to this cold, dim day,
she is only the guide
through another way:

Where the paths are thorny,
where the rivers run deep,
where the sea is forever
and mountains steep,
where a castle towers high
on its smooth black rock,
where a key rusts slowly
in a broken lock.

Only a brave dreamer
can venture this land,
with a badge of truth
in a clear left hand.
A sinister dragon
waits below the crag
and the sea’s armed might
with its blind tides’ drag,

Beware of the song
that the dragon sings,
beware of the pedlar
and the Fisher King.
A courageous dreamer
may climb the rock,
to turn the key
and loose the lock,
then enter the castle
that has no end,
to meet himself,
to call him friend.


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Workshop, 23rd October 2018

As I write this blog a no doubt a sizeable number of you, my loyal readership, will be preparing themselves for the most terrifying time of the year.  Soon, and by soon I mean imminently, we face Halloween, replete as it is with the daunting prospect of darkened streets populated by costumed children asking for sweets.  Actually, it’s not the ghouls, zombies, werewolves, vampires, witches and other tropes of the horror genre I object to, so much as the misguided parents who insist on making Halloween ‘fun’ by encouraging, or indeed insisting that their offspring dress as anything they bally well like for the evening.  Kids do not need another excuse to dress up as princesses or super-heroes – with no attempt being made to make said character twisted, evil, psychopathic or deeply committed to public service.   There should be a law against it.  Halloween is all about encouraging irrational fear and nameless terror.  I almost threw in the last round of golf I had with the vicar, who in all other respects is a perfectly decent fellow, after he told me he was holding a ‘festival of light in the darkness’ at his church as ‘an alternative to all that superstition’.  I was tempted to tell him all the things that were wrong with that statement, but I was three holes up and we were playing for a dram of Auchentoshan in the bar at the 18th, so I kept schtum.

Then there is Guy Fawkes Night.  The horror there is easy to spot.  Here comes another anniversary of an occasion when the British Establishment were so beastly to a group of people that they started plotting to blow up a building full of a significant proportion of the British Establishment.  I would like to pin this one solely on the English, but by then the Scots were truly implicated in the affairs of state, so at least we can share the shame.  Then there is the experience itself.  On the one hand it is nice to stand in the field outside the Scout Hut holding a sausage, while old Mad Pete runs around in almost pitch darkness randomly setting off fireworks with his blowlamp, but on the other, any sense of enjoyment is offset by the knowledge that one of the assembled company will be called upon to find out whether it’s possible to call for the emergency services in said field when they have dropped their reading glasses in the mud.

Then of course there is Christmas, a subject which I have discussed before, and the least said the better.  I can appreciate that by now you might be getting a little fidgety, wondering when I am going to talk about the Workshop.  This week’s Workshop was not as terrifying as perhaps it should have been.  James Priestman was perhaps edging towards shock and awe with his retelling of John 1: 1-18.  Alan Chambers introduced a welcome element of mystery with his enigmatic dreamer’s tale.  Peter Francis remained suitably rational with his excellent translation of the Charles Aznavour song.  Pat Francis dipped a metaphorical toe in the darker waters with her exploration of the medicinal herb, selfheal.  Nick Barth stayed well and truly in the real world picturing a driver who rediscovers his words.  Christine Shirley brought us a bright, optimistic and fresh poem which was nevertheless about this frightening time of year.  John Hurley was sticking firmly to politics this week while praying for the soul of America.  Owen Gallagher told us all about the many mothers he was raised by, all played by the same woman.  Finally, Michael Harris met a man from Florence who may well have been looking for love, although that was left unsaid.

My thesis is this; we enjoy doing things we know will terrify us, which is why we make such terrible decisions at elections.  We enjoy the thrill of fear much as we enjoy the first cold days of autumn.  These things remind us we are alive, and we forget how long they will last.    Halloween is just the opening salvo, worthy of a dose of Poe or a dollop of Emily Dickinson.  By November we might turn to a Christabel by Coleridge or a spot of AE Houseman.  By December we are looking for a proper ghost story to contrast with the comfort of crumpets, and that can mean only one thing.  Whisper his name if you dare, feel the fear coursing through your veins… Charles Dickens.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 16th October 2018

Sometimes, when the sun is out on Walpole Park and the pigeons are bobbing to and fro, it can seem like the Autumn will last forever.  The leaves are brown but still on the trees, the last of the roses and the cyclamen borders are in full bloom, the ducklings have all become ducks and there are conkers underfoot.  What could be more pleasant for a lunchtime stroll once briefly freed from the gloom of the Archives ?

And yet, the nip is on the air and the swallow is on the wing for Africa.  And the poet is too busy recovering from the writers’ cramp of Summer or working up their latest collection for the Christmas market to stop and comment on the season around them.  Perhaps they feel that Fall is a pessimistic time of year, but when did that ever stop them before ?  Or maybe they don’t like the transitory nature, of hurrying but never arriving, though that could be said of all life in general.  No, we suspect that the answer is more prosaic – nothing rhymes with Autumn.

No season gloom in this week’s workshop, that began with Christine Shirley rummaging around in her pockets and finding tall ships and sunbeds, followed by the tongue-filled cheek of John Hurley at his most dictatorial, banning metaphors and bleeding hearts – but let’s hope he would pardon Owen Gallgher’s touching poem comparing his mother to a caged bird, spreading her wings like a crucifix.  For Doig Simmonds it is the hearth that warms his memory as his woollen jersey steams, while Peter Francis has been imagining humanity trapped outside the cage that holds a peaceful garden, a theme taken up by Pat Francis as her office drudge finds solace in an evening’s weeding.  Meanwhile, Martin Choules has found the month far too superstitious for his liking and Michael Harris has been celebrating his decade of self-helping himself.

The vernal times were no more popular a muse in Sir John’s day as now, so it was with some surprise one week when Johnny Keats came bounding up leaf-strewn Ealing Green with three plump verses of a ripe Ode.  The day had been something of an Indian Summer and the workshop was meeting on a Tuesday afternoon to enjoy the last of the warmth, but over the five minutes of his thirty-thre lines, the sky became overcast, the breeze became icy and the wheatear and warbler gave way to the crow.  Consequently, Keats was banned from ever mentioning the A-word again, and perhaps the memory of this is why poets rarely wax lyrical on the season.

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Workshop, 9th October 2018

Recent talk of manifestos has reminded us that the Pitshanger Archive’s collection has not been re-catalogued nor freshly indexed for many a-year.  Pulling down the dusty packing crates with the help of three interns to a corner has revealed that they were in a hopeless muddle, simply tossed in with little regard for alphabet, major theme or even spine colour – thus we found Ezzy Pound cheek-by-endpaper to Ginni Woolf, a most unnatural pairing, while poor retiring Emmy Dickinson forced into the boisterous company of Georgie Byron.  In another crate there were more Pounds sharing their berth with the jottings of Thomas Penny and Johnny Cash, while in a third Isaiah Berlin and Nathanial Hawthorne must host yet more Ezra Pound.

Slowly we are tallying a full stock-take of what is turning out to be a rather eclectic collection, ranging from the vellum-bound memoranda of the very Times New Roman John Betjeman, through the spiral-bound notepads of the impeccable-copperplate Muriel Spark, to the beermat and fag-packet collection of blotchy-biro Dylan Thomas.  As for their contents, this was as varied, from Gerry Manly-Hopkins’ rigid lists of unacceptable topics such as “smut, double entendres, or cats”, to Will Wordsworth’s vague musings about “flowers, trees, fluffy clouds, stuff like that”.

At least there were plenty of agendas on display at this week’s workshop (and yes, we are fully aware that agenda is already the plural of agendum, especially after reading the bullet points of John Milton).  Both Nick Barth and his muse, Frida Kahlo, have been in full agreement with the old adage that ‘the medium is the message’, while John Hurley’s poignant blackberrying with his late wife is very much from the school of ‘write what you know’.  Daphne Gloag offered us a revised take on the swifts and the spaces between them when an old poem received fresh polish, attesting to her lifelong dedication to ‘practise makes perfect’, while Peter Francis and his memories of childhood of shaving managed to ‘show not tell’ without getting into a strop.

Anne Furneaux avoided the cliches about older folk and Eastbourne by adhering to the strictures about ‘truth is beauty’, something disagreed by Niall Cassidy who’s boyhood scamp-dom lean more towards ‘warts and all’.  Alan Chambers, meanwhile, clearly subscribes to ‘keep it simple’ in his short tight piece about leery old men, leading onto Owen Gallagher’s latest draft documenting the touching deaths of his grandparents, now with added clarity thanks to his adherence of ‘if at first you don’t succeed’.  For Pat Francis, finding beauty in an overlooked tree is very much part of her ‘less is more’ philosophy, laying the groundwork for Martin Choules stipulating that we must never be stipulated to.

Looking through our newly-rediscovered piles of pamphlets and folders of flyers, there is a notable absence from Sir John’s days.  Hardly surprising, one may think, for those free-wheeling, come-what-may, don’t-tie-me-down,man Romantics.  But on looking more closely, we found an alarming number of screwed up paper balls.  After teasing them open under laboratory conditions and run them through the Archive’s X-ray machine (acquired in 1970 from Squaretoe & Sandall’s Shoe Shop, Stepney), their faded ink was finally made readable again.  What gems of lost instruction might we have here ?  What proscriptions to proper prose and potent poesy ?  The first to be deciphered and clearly in the crabby hand of Bill Blake had undergone much revision, with whole sections on ‘wine women and song’ and ‘the importance of smiling’ heavily crossed through to be replaced with ‘don’t worry about making sense’ and ‘spelling’s really not all that’.  Another ball in a more feminine script appears to be an exercise in crafting a signature in multiple columns of repeated attempts with slight variation.  Like all good signatures, the name itself is unreadable, but after consulting Parsonage (and parting with several pounds from our tea fund), we were able to run them through a clever algorithm which determined with a 48% probability that the moniker was ‘Mary Bysshe’, although sometimes rendered as ‘Mairee Bishop’, ‘Mare E Biscuit’ and ‘Marry me, Bysshe, for God’s sake !’ , though who can say who wrote it ?  But perhaps the most fascinating ball is the surprisingly brief and precise dictum we found on a piece of Lord Byron headed notepaper which simply reads ‘Think fast, Keatsy”.

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