Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop 6th March 2018

As the lynchpin and doyen of perhaps the oldest Tuesday evening Poetry Workshop in the Western Hemisphere, I am often asked if I would consider a pause to my weekly labours, a brief hiatus to take stock and smell the roses, as it were, or in the charming parlance of the greengrocers in the West Ealing Farmers Market (and I am paraphrasing of course), why don’t I just give it a rest?

Of course it is because of Pitshanger Poets great longevity that I throw myself, butterfly-like upon the wheel, week after week, to carry out the many and various arduous duties that derive from running such a complex and sophisticated intellectual process. To boil the whole thing down to something which might fit, neutron-star-like, into a nutshell: Some folks turn up at eight o’clock and read out their stuff.

It would have taken a great deal of Mr Putin’s fragrant gas to boil down this weeks workshop to a reduction worth sending out for a case of preservation jars and a flagon of aspic. Peter Francis took us off in one direction, obsessing slightly about Norma Jean Baker. Daphne Gloag took us off in another, with an exploration of distances and snow geese roaming far and wide. Martin Choules took a pot-shot at the Pre-Raphaelites and their somewhat monotonous choice of models, something of a shot at and open goal we thought. Alan Chambers applied the handbrake and spun the wheel into a cul-de-sac of conversations with aspects of the natural world. Pat Francis engaged the Flux Capacitor and took us into the far future and life underneath the sea, where we see all warm and safe beneath the storm. Doig Simmons has been revising a recent piece, on a long goodbye, to great effect. Nick Barth has been thinking about steam locomotives and how the sight of one inspires people to travel.

One wonders how the Pitshanger Poets have managed to plough our furrow for so long, when other groups have fallen by the wayside over the years. For example, loyal readers will recall Alexander Pope’s grotto-bound Tuesday night workshops, damned to a premature end by the grotto’s necessarily damp conditions, causing runny ink and torn parchments. Or the Ham House Commoners, a group of presbyterian wordsmiths which regarded John Bunyan as a guiding light until the weekly long walks from his home in Bedfordshire resulted in foot problems which would not be resolved until Dr Scholl’s famous poetry and podiatry workshops in Chicago in the early 20th Century. Horace Walpole’s House Strawberry Hill hosted a workshop which competed with PP for the attention of the Romantics. Walpole had constructed a wedding-cake white Gothic Revival fantasy for a family castle at a time when this particular architectural style was about as popular as an orangutan in an orangery. The Romantics were impressed and Strawberry Hill looked likely to grab the poetry workshop crown from Pitshanger Manor. All went well until a certain SJ Coleridge discovered the laudanum cabinet on the way to the workshop. The meeting collapsed with Coleridge being stretchered to the local sanatorium muttering ‘the caves of ice…’ and the remainder of the poets resolving to return to a building with slightly less outrageous architecture. If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, January 30th 2018

For some the dank, gloomy months at the beginning of the year are a chance to take stock, to jot a few idle lines on the futility of horticulture, to review ones’ Port collection and to find a combination of armchair and cushion that makes sense in our increasingly globalised economy.  For others this is a period of frenetic activity as they butter-up performers, juggle running-orders, organise hospitality, ensure sufficient pulled-pork sandwich, haloumi and gassy beer provision and recruit needle-workers skilled in yurt repair.  I am of course talking about Festival Organisers.

As I write the dining-room table is strewn with brochures and invites from the best and brightest of Europe’s many music, arts, food, drink, drama and haberdashery festivals.  And so it falls to your humble correspondent to sort the wheat from the gluten-free and select which festivals would most benefit from the presence of the Pitshanger Poets.  At one end of the scale there is the poetry tent at Glastonbury – perhaps the biggest event of its kind but not to be tackled without keen preparation for mud, typically requiring a diving suit and full breathing apparatus.  Roskilde in Denmark makes much of its Viking roots but should not be attended by anyone unwilling to wield an axe or set fire to a village in order to obtain a beer.  At the other end of the scale some of the UK’s smaller festivals take boutiquery to an obsessive extreme, for example Festival Number 6 takes place entirely in one scaled down Tuscan fisherman’s cottage in Port Merion in North Wales.  I am told that when busy the queue for the toilet can stretch all the way to the main stage, which is not surprising as it is just outside the back door, but at least you can answer the needs of biology while not missing any of your favourite performance.

While we piece together the Pitshanger Poet’s next wildly successful European Tour, it is time to review this week’s Workshop.  A special Questors Event in the Library had us ejected from our usual haunt and roughing it in the Theatre Office, which is always a risk.  The last time we were there we carelessly left a number of copies in the Producers’ Inbox and within a week a random set of PP Workshop poems had been re-worked into a three-act verse play set on a trawler in the Irish Sea with the motifs of a tricky banoffee pie and the unrequited love of the Captain for the First Mate, while time ran mysteriously in reverse.  Luckily, we managed to clear things up before much work had been done on the set.

While the cosy office environment does lead to a more intimate meeting, removal from their usual rendezvous is something the poets do not take lightly.  John Hurley paused the photocopier to read his description of the last time we were locked out of the office; only John’s Irish brogue is licensed to rhyme ‘choir’ with ‘foyer’.  Pat Francis adjusted her office chair to the right height before giving us two traveling cats, one in time and one in space.  Doig Simmons, next to the water-cooler, has been drinking wine and thinking of love, surely he is not the first to do this.  Owen Gallagher, partially obscured by the filing cabinet remembered when he was taken Nessie-hunting by his father but found a teenage awakening.  Martin Choules worked up a thought-experiment about trams into a tirade against automation, as only he can.  Nick Barth was dissuaded from leaning back and resting his walking boots on the desk opposite before reading his impressions of Death Valley.  Finally, Peter Francis noticed that the calendar still read December 2017 before launching into his rumination on a visit to a Holyrood Hotel in Ireland.

The debate continues – any contributions to festival planning are gratefully received.  In the meantime, thank you for reading.



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Workshop, 23rd January 2018

There are plenty of authors who, despite being born in Not England, have nevertheless overcome their deficiency of not speaking the Mother of Tongues to write some of the most memorable novels in English !  From Joseph Conrad to Jung Chang via Jack Kerouac (Quebecois, since you ask).  By the way, Vladimir Nabakov and Kazuo Ishiguro don’t count, as they were already fluent while still in short trousers.

But poets ?  There are a few in our current times, though one wonders if writing in the modish free verse might make things a little easier for them.  However, if searching for evidence of mastery of weather-obsessive rhythm and warm-beer rhyme, then one need look no further than the pop charts, where the likes of Abba, Neneh Cherry, and super-producer Max Martin have dominated the discoteques of Albion for decades.  Hmm…come to think of it, is it only the Swedes who are so good at English ?  Well, there’s always Björk, though who knows what on earth she’s going on about…?

Anyway, this week’s workshop was a monolingual affair, but none the worst for it.  John Hurley spun a yarn about childhood friends ending up on opposite sides of a bank balance, and Pat Francis told us about a very precise woman watching the slapdashing children.  A stowaway’s dreams crashing down was recounted by Peter Francis, while Alan Chambers has been shouting about the waterfall that wants to drown him out.  Owen Gallagher has been pondering the source of the Latin flair in an Irish village, while Michael Harris has been seduced and  consoled, but has he been resolved ?  Perhaps Daphne Gloag could tell him, although she does seem rather preoccupied by her lunch, and Anne Furneaux is imagining the Top Brass in the RAF having less of moral dilemma than we might wish for.  Finally, Martin Choules is determined not to let an irrational fear get in the way of his phobia.

Oh course, back in Sir John’s day, a respectable gentleman was expected to be proficient in French, Italian, ancient Greek, and maybe even a smattering of German.  The Royal Navy may have been busy exporting the Common Tongue to all nooks of the empire, but once a grand tourist had disembarked from the packet boat at Calais, then it was as much use as a teapot in a vineyard.  It wasn’t as if the locals of Geneva or Venice were hoping to write the next crowd-pleaser to sweep the music halls of Hackney.  Byron’s witty epigram about catching cold while swimming the Hellespont would be quite lost on the Hellespontese.  But English’s day would come…and then it would go, and one supposes in future centuries the lyrically gifted of these wet and windy islands shall have to turn their fine novels and couplets in Arabic or Mandarin, or maybe even Swahili or Tagalog.

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Workshop, 16th January 2018

Well, it barely feels as if the New Year has begun and we are already one twenty-fourth the way through it.  But the Ides of January are the slough of the year, the long Sunday sofa slump-out recovering our energy, our credit and our waistlines.  They are a doldrum poetically too, with a great drought of inspiration and a great flood or lethargy.  But that is no reason for the unpaid interns of the Archive to think that they can laze about comparing gifted jumpers and fidgeting with their phones (and good luck getting a signal down here, and the Archive wi-fi network has long since been postponed until next century.  Incidentally, while we’re in this parenthesis, our resident ‘teckie’ is always moaning about the term ‘wi-fi’: “I mean, what does it even mean ?  The ‘wi’ I get, but why ‘fi’ ?).

No, January is the perfect months for cataloguing.  Every tome must be taken down from the shelves and raised up from the stacks, to be measured, weighed, pan-toned, and have a census made of every word therein.  How many of our slim volumes contain a suitable verse to express one’s vague feeling of regret at not remembering to buy more coffee the last time they were in the shops ?  We will soon know.

Anyway, this week’s workshop showed no signs of slacking as Alan Chambers shared his relief about the restrained nature of the weather forecast and Daphne Gloag pitied the ancient, silent lyre and the crushed, trampled hands prevented from plucking it.  Michael Harris has been complimented for his lack of love, which touched a nerve, while Pat Francis has been enjoying her early suburban mornings surrounded by human life, out there somewhere.  Husband Peter has been recalling the looming prison which shared a party wall with his old playground, and the hypothesised giraffes on the other side, while for Owen Gallagher it is lost love and active imagination that is fuelling his reminiscences.  Finally, Martin Choules has been watching the monkey and the organ grinder, both with and without his rose-tinted pince-nez.

Daphne, incidentally, has a new collection out from Cinnamon Press, so that’s yet another book to add to the Archive’s in-tray.  I suppose we should be thankful that poets tend to be short-burst, long gestation authors, waiting for months for the muse to attend an at-home, or polishing a line to give just the right weight to the semi-colon mid way along.  Imagine if there were pulp-poets, sprouting-out a disciplined seven-thousand words per day, knocking out quotas of couplets, writing metres by the foot.  Not only would their verses be little better than random number generators, but they would run to eight hundred pages.  And most galling of all, they would be selling them by the thousands from airport stationers and supermarket trolley-fillers.  So often lumped in with such journeymen are the much-maligned greetings card pensmiths, but here in the Archives we won’t hear a word against them – at least their doggerel is short.

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Workshop, 9th January 2018

I don’t know anyone who really enjoys January, do you?  I suppose the package holiday people are feeling bright and hopeful that punters are still leafing through the tome-like supplements that fell out of the Christmas Radio Times, sharpening their credit cards to book another slap-up cruise of a lifetime.  The diary and calendar industries are looking for that tell-tale upswing in the early January sales figures that demonstrates beyond doubt that the smart phone and the tablet have at last ceased to ravage their market and the same retro hipsters who are now buying vinyl have all decided to revive the Filofax and the cute kitten calendar for 2018.  I am quite sure that the vast Christmas Tree recycling multi-nationals are enjoying their bumper month and badgering their marketing departments to have another go at re-popularising further varieties of indoor foliage, from the Valentine’s Virginia Pine, Holy Easter Douglas Fir and August Bank Holiday Colorado Spruce, in an almost certainly vain attempt to fill our streets with spiky green corpses all year round.

Clearly, it’s overtime all the way in the country’s salt, zinc and vitamin C mines, but those vast rolling plains of Echinacea in the mid-west have surely already been harvested and safely bundled up into huge nostrum silos ready for distribution through a billion highly reputable emporia by now, even if no-one really knows what it’s supposed to do.

My loyal poetic readership will even now be yelling at their Netscape Navigators that I am ignoring the not inconsiderable Rabbie Burns industry.  Of course, I am aware that many people enjoy the aphrodisiac qualities of lengthy tracts of vernacular verse accompanied by the traditional two-pound Haggis and even now Scotland’s sheeps-stomach-and-barley mills are running at full stretch, while boutiques around the world are laying in such exotic items as Wee Timorous Beastie provocative underwear and Best Laid Plans prophylactics for the night of passion itself.  The local adult specialist, so conveniently located next door to the emergency locksmiths has already got its tartan bunting up.  It’s no wonder so many Scottish people have their birthdays in September, don’t you think?

Perhaps I should be a little less deplored by January.  As a month, it provides few interruptions to the lyrical arts.  It might be a bit dark and dingy, but we are now on a clear run into Spring.  This enthusiasm was shared by this week’s Workshop.  Caroline Am Bergris presented a polished, well-developed poem on the subject of a monster she once lived with.  Ann Furneaux brought a rhetorical work revolving around the orientation of North and South.  Daphne Gloag has also been thinking about a monster, through the eyes of Gilgamesh.  Sometimes a PP Workshop unconsciously produces a theme, as happened this week, with Owen Gallagher remembering a childhood of dragon-slaying in the tenements of Glasgow.  Doig Simmonds calmed us down with a spiritual experience in Africa at a shrine to Sango.  Bashir Sakhawarz drew us to the mountain-walled Afghanistan, and bread.  Alan Chambers took us in a new direction with an old poem recalling the distant sounds of a fairground.  Nick Barth has been thinking about the next spin around the Sun.  Pat Francis settled us down with three scenes from Twickenham and the gentleman’s game which is played there.  Finally, Martin Choules stepped into controversial territory by musing on modern witch-hunts.

At this juncture, I must apologise for the break in the usual service over the Christmas and New Year period.  The truth is, apart from the usual fripperies and folderols I was intensively engaged in an investigation into one of the many filing boxes that has emerged from the cavernous undercrofts of Pitshanger Manor during its restoration.  The team came across a box of index cards which refer to spoken word recordings of poets reading their own works.  As will be familiar to you by now, the Pitshanger Poets have always been early adopters of technology and the Workshop first acquired an Edison Speaking Machine in the 1890’s and continued to capture poets reading their own works for many years.  As is only right and proper, the vulnerable and delicate recordings themselves were long since donated to The British Library Spoken Word Collection, however this one box of orphaned index cards, featuring only the first lines of the recordings featured represent a puzzle that I found myself wrestling with in every waking hour.  For example, there is Robert Browning’s apparently lost poem, read by the man himself, which begins with the enigmatic line, ‘Do I speak into this?’.  Then there is a George Bernard Shaw piece which starts with the pithy; ‘Is this thing on?’.  On what?  Mysteries abound.  I simply cannot find the Thomas Hardy poem which in any way resembles the highly metrical first line; ‘This one for level. One, two, one, two’, and yet here is the card, neatly typed and dated 1919.  I would certainly like to find a printed copy of the Robert Frost poem which commences with the visceral; ‘Drat, I fluffed it, I’ll go again’.  If you can throw any light on these lost works, please drop me a line.

Happy New Year, and if you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, 2nd January 2018

Well, time has done what it always does – it came to pass.  2017 is over and 2018 must take its place as predictably as a doggerel couplet.  Here in the Pitshanger Archives, the interns have been busy replacing all thirty-seven calendars we have hanging about the place with ones we saved from 2001 (having already been reused in 2007) – all three years began on a Monday, you see, and well, waste not.  A bottle of correction fluid and they’re good to go, except for the full moons, but who cares about those when we work in a windlowless basement ?  Oh, and the date of Easter…

There was a freshness about this week’s workshop, with Michael Harris opening the year with dreams of the old country, from the worries of the new, while James Priestman was walking with Jonah in the desert, a long way from the sea.  Pat Francis has been digging for diamonds in high society, and Martin Choules has already been writing up the old year, either as history or obituary, we’re not sure.  The Magi were re-imagined by Peter Francis, who never did hand over the gold et al.  Alan Chambers is warming up the depths of Winter with a stewing Basque Summer where only the silent men remain in the scorching plaza, while John Hurley’s youthful Summer culminated in his first kiss, but no invitation back the following year.

For a long detailed view of the passing years, one can do well to turn to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  And though there is no evidence that he ever visited the Tuesdays (or indeed often left the environs of Paris), he was a keen Anglophile, if a little rusty on the language.  But with the help and proficiency of his maman Jeanne, he would send over rough drafts of his domestic epic to be read aloud to the assembled, starting in 1909.  Indeed, these would turn up most weeks, and the council librarian, who was running the workshops at the time, would diligently respond the thoughts of the group, if a little more politely than they were offered.

There is a suggestion that he so enjoyed this feedback that he felt he had to maintain writing more and more chapters just to keep receiving the replies.  Finally, in 1920, in the librarian’s absence due to a cataloguing conference, Tommy Eliot stood in as chair, and promptly sat down in disgust – “Oh, not old procrastinating Proust again.  I’m going to tell him straight that we’ve all long forgotten how this bloody book started !  And I thought my Waste Land was dragging on a bit.”  Robbie Graves agreed, muttering how he had only picked up the recitals late in the series and couldn’t keep track of the two thousand-odd characters.  What affect this letter had on Marcy Proust is unknown, but the pages stopped coming and a couple of years later he died, with three volumes not yet published.

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Workshop, 5th December 2017

The ‘phony winter’ of November is well and truly over.  Open skies and sharp frosts remind poets to get on with what they like doing best; writing about how miserable things are for a poet in winter.  It is little surprise that the Poet in Winter is such a classic, nee clichéd image for Christmas cards.  I would be astounded if I do not receive half a dozen examples in this year’s haul, depicting such classic images as the poet on a bare tree branch, staring into the middle distance with his beady little eye, or the poet on a snow-covered wall, wearing a bright red waistcoat, mulling over a tricky couplet.  Then there are the silly ones, where the snow is falling heavily and the artist has Photo-Shopped a ridiculous woolly hat on to the poet’s little head.  You can see why children are convinced that there is some innate connection between poets and Christmas, and that poets need to be looked after at this time of year.  Personally, I have found it hard to perch on a bench in Walpole Park with a notebook and pencil recently without some toddler rushing up with a beef sandwich and a mug of hot, steaming Famous Grouse, egged on by their beaming parents in the distance.

This weeks’ workshop was a hectic affair, there being many highlights.  Doig Simmonds brought a new piece evoking a first meeting.  Peter Francis Has been finding his black level while lost in fog.  Samir Hazlehurst read the next part of his gluttonous examination of a feast, we still look forward to finding out what is going on in his story.  Pat Francis has been learning about the First World War poet Ivor Gurney and brought us a miniature of his time in training.  Daphne Gloag has been reviewing a relatively new piece, Aspects of Water, a fine poem, too.  Christine Shirley is clearly incensed by the Paradise Papers, if this poem is anything to go by.  Michael Harris’s poem reveals lovers expanding to meet each other in an indulgent image which chimed with us all.  Martin Choules may look forward to being able to write about winter, but has his poem shows, he is not willing to let November go before it’s ready.  Finally, Nick Barth freely admits that he ripped off Phillip Larkin in this week’s Homage to a Government.

Of course, part of the challenge with this time of year is persuading the two-seater to emerge from its slumbers into some form of life in order that I can make my accustomed journey onto the broad expanses of Mattock Lane.  The process often takes several hours, with my Man needing to carefully warm the block with paraffin heaters, pre-heat the coolant in a milk pan, coddle the battery with scarves and stimulate the points with encouraging words before finally engaging the complex sixteen-point start-up sequence which will fire up the engine.  Once the car is running smoothly, which often does not take much longer than another forty-five minutes, it is ready for me to dart off like a gazelle on the mile and a half drive into town to visit Pitshanger Manor

Now that the house is nearing what surely must be the end of its long restoration process, it has been my honour to poke my head around the door and grant myself a little privileged access.  Over the last few months the painstaking work on Sir John’s Classical interiors have really begun to take shape and I have offered unfettered audiences to the talented craftsmen and women as they wobble on their stepladders.  It’s at this stage in the project when their skill is so evident, as they piece the stucco back together, match the heritage colours, restore the woodwork to its glowing best, while taking care not to over-restore, to respect the patina of the house itself, when I am sure they really welcome the many, many questions that occur to me as I talk to them on the job.  Occasionally, I do find myself helping out by catching a dropped hammer or stepping smartly sideways to avoid a falling paint pot.  It does appear that the restorers become a little clumsy when I am around, perhaps they are simply impressed by the clear grasp I have of the milieu, the spirit of the house and wish to keep up with my train of thought.  There will be more about what I learned in a future blog, in the meantime, thank you for reading.


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