Category Archives: Workshops

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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Workshop, 7th March 2017

It appears the Ferranti Pegasus is not happy in her temporary home.  The venerable cold-war-era valve-based computer was originally installed in the undercroft of Pitshanger Manor as part of a hugely hush-hush project by Ealing Council, and as you may recall the Pegasus has been forced to relocate to the basement of the Town Hall while restoration work to the Manor continues.  The idea hatched by the Town Hall’s Data Science Boffinery was to mathematically model the effects of a Soviet invasion on the Borough, paying specific attention to the impact a column of tanks would have on bus scheduling in the Haven Green/Ealing Broadway area.  It was the kind of project which could justify significant funding in those restive times.  It even extended to the test installation of tank traps on Ealing Common to simulate the measures which would be required to maintain the vital 207 bus link into Shepherds Bush, should the Soviet Sixth Guards Tank Corps decide to make a lunge for the Town Hall via Kew Bridge and the North Circular.  Not actually having any tanks the boffins simulated the effect of armoured personnel carriers and tracked missile platforms sweeping across the Common carrying all before them using the Council’s fleet of ride-on lawnmowers.  It’s comforting to know that the fortifications were totally effective against the lawnmowers and, forcibly repelled, they had to fall back to the South Western corner of the Common just opposite The Grange pub, which they effectively occupied until closing time.

Fortunately, one of the Boffins, Parsonage, is also a doyen of the art of Prosery and when the punch card machine was not otherwise occupied he set about reprogramming the Pegasus for poetry.  The resulting compositional algorithm, based on a statistical analysis of word frequency, syntax, rhythm and phonetics is still able to churn on a passable sonnet but cannot be trusted with half-rhyme, tricky enjambment or a hanging trochee.  Thereafter, the Pegasus’ microphone was a fixture at Pitshanger Poets workshops throughout the Sixties and Seventies, absorbing and processing every word, resulting in a lengthy daisy-wheel printout of relevant statistics which would be filed carefully in the archive.

Unfortunately, it appears that some of the Pegasus’ Cold-War subroutines became enmeshed into her Poetry Analysis programming.  Decades of sifting data in order to detect communist threats took their toll on the Pegasus’ ability to appreciate the spoken word in a balanced fashion.  Given the wide range of views expressed by Poets in the typical Pitshanger Workshop it is welcome that the somewhat febrile witch-hunting computer was equipped with nothing more powerful than a daisy wheel printer.  This did not stop her acting against poets she considered threats, however, aided by a supply of Ealing Council-headed paper.  For example, it is suspected that the virulent snow storm of Parking Tickets issued to Louis MacNiece on each of his visits to the Workshop (despite him not actually owning a car) were the work of the Pegasus, while Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas both found their journeys into the heart of Ealing compromised by ‘flash’ road works, the latter writer famously never succeeding in reaching a workshop.

This weeks’ Workshop would have got the Pegasus’ relays clacking were she still listening in.  Pat Francis brought a short, perfectly formed piece on the sound of the world.  Christine Shirley has been feeling glum, but her States of Feeling piece was full of light as well as shade.  John Hurley’s style has evolved in the last few months and his free-verse observation of a sick friend greeting a precious morning was touching and powerful.  Newbie John Cheung gave us a tight, poignant, social poem describing of an encounter with a homeless man in Hammersmith.  Olwyn Grimshaw has been counting the cells in the human body, keen to show that life is just as much about why as how.  Another newbie, Jamie Warren also brought us a distinctly social piece about a man in the Borough he found dying.  Nick Barth has been travelling again and found himself distracted by the phrase ‘for personal use’ on a Customs Notice.  Alan Chambers has been bringing poems he has written to cure Writer’s block, this weeks’ piece stressed the lack of easy cures to this crippling condition.  Peter Francis has been musing on Group Dynamics; more than one attendee felt he was writing about the PP Workshop itself.  Finally, Martin Choules has been railing against the futility of an entertaining dream.

Bringing the story of the Ferranti Pegasus up to date, Parsonage tells me its McCarthyist behaviour forced him to rebalance her moral compass circuits with a couple of blows from a nine-pound hammer, and that the council work continues.  Parsonage even jury-rigged the Pegasus for the internet using an Ethernet card scavenged from a long-dead Amstrad PC.  This re-commissioning formed the basis for the Ealing Borough Council Listening Project in which the Pegasus was pressed into service monitoring every possible threat to fluid traffic flow in the West London area from the forces of evil, wherever they might originate.

Thinking back, I’m not sure it can be the experience of being installed in the Town Hall basement that the Pegasus finds so objectionable.  It’s true that every few days there is a flare-up of activity and Parsonage is forced to replace a valve or free a stuck relay but her troublesome behaviour appears to have started sometime around January the 20th.  Her breakdowns are often accompanied by cryptic messages on the continuous paper rattling out of her printer, for example the other day I saw:






Which was followed by a loud bang and a cloud of smoke from the computer’s logic boards.  What could this mean?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 28th February 2017

Ah, the modern times we live in. In general, the daily effervescence of the news does not penetrate our underground caverns beneath Walpole Park, but one of our more recent interns (who still cannot believe it possible that down here they can receive absolutely no signal on their pocket distractor) has informed us that Her Majesty has put her seal on the plans to drive a new high-speed railway through Ealing borough, and incidentally on to Birmingham. Alas, unlike in the original plans where it would run alongside the Central Line through the North Circular gyratory, it is now to be tunnelled throughout and the hopes of a future Hanger Lane High Speed station for non-stop trains direct to Glasgow or Prague is not to be.

Plenty decidedly was to be at this week’s workshop. Danuta Sotkin-Kondycki gave us a slice of lives on the prom, with an ocean liner thrown in for good measure, and Daphne Gloag has been following a star, and so have the Magi. For John Hurley, the lost world of the plough is tilled once more, while Owen Gallagher has not been enjoying his Aussie pint quite as much now that he’s reminded of home, and Peter Francis has been musing on synchronicity and how blackboard equations can be turned into striking chords. Nayna Kumari was keen to try out a highly regarded gastropub, but found the waitstaff less tasteful, and Pat Francis has been singing the blues, just for the hell of it. Michael Harris thinks that the path to enlightenment leads from application uninstallation, while Martin Choules has been keeping a tally of everything and found it adds up to not much. Finally, moles, Old Nog and Alan Chambers have been up late of late.

Speaking of Prague, one can imagine what a thrill the sight of such sleek high-speed locomotion would be to the ghost of Antonín ‘Tony’ Dvořák, a man of as many talents as diacritics. A lifelong trainspotter, in 1885 he managed to take time off from premiering his 7th Symphony at St James’ Hall to slip off to Paddington with a notebook and platform ticket, lost in a world of Dean Goodses and broad-gauge beauties. He even made a detour to Ealing via the Metropolitan District Railway service from Mansion House to Windsor. His purpose that Tuesday was to finally meet with Bill ‘Schwenck’ Gilbert of ‘& Sullivan’ fame – the two had been enjoying a considerable correspondence ever since the latter had hit upon setting a comic opera entirely within a busy suburban platform tea room, possibly with a love affair between a well-bred housewife and a rakish doctor. He needed a train buff to make it ring true, and he knew just who to turn to.

Unfortunately, the Archives reveal that old Tony was less interested in coming up with tips about getting the porters’ uniforms right or the right kind of whistles, and more with scoring the entire show. This of course was stepping on Artie Sullivan’s toes in a big way, and besides, Schwenck secretly thought that the Bohemian rhapsodist was somewhat less than hum-able. To extract himself from a thoroughly Victorian embarrassment, he desperately observed that surely the trains would be much bigger in America – indeed, whereas poor old Britain only had railways, the Yanks had whole railroads ! “Best to take the next steamer from Liverpool…don’t worry about my little operetta…silly idea anyway…oh, don’t cry, old man…oh, I see, just something in his eye…well, try pulling your eyelid down as far as it will go…yes, thank you Swinburne, but he really doesn’t need your suggestions…oh, I see you’ve done it anyway… um, would you like to borrow my handkerchief ?”

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Workshop, 21st February 2017

A recent works excursion to the Troubadour public house in the Old Brompton Road and their Coffee House Poetry event led to two observations among the interns: 1) the lack of coffee, and 2) the surfeit of poets.  It seems that half of West London is be-mused and verse-iferous in their barditry.  Following an evening of readers who used the stage to cover all stages between bracing and whimsy, rhyming and freestyle, we managed to grab a few words with the hostess and all-round orateuse, Anne-Marie Fyfe.  It turns out that she runs her own workshop, somewhat like the Pitshanger Poets, but perhaps more of a seminar with a professor than a round-table in the student’s union.

Not that there wasn’t plenty of advice and experience at this week’s workshop, beginning with Nayna Kumari giving a fairytale a jolly good shake up and talking to, and John Hurley’s younger self attending a wake and on his way to a blacksmith’s forge.  Pat Francis recalled how messenger pigeons were yet another casualty of the Great War, while Daphne Gloag has been occupying herself with a kaleidoscope.  Doig Simmonds has been spending his nights not sleeping but listening, while Nick Barth has been people-watching at the airport and wonders how well they might climb a tree.  For Peter Francis, a union of two ends up in secession, while Michael Harris has been getting existential in Soho and Alan Chambers has found new inspiration in an amaryllis.  Finally, Martin Choules has been keeping a weather-eye on the glass and his taste buds set  to metallic.

The practice of established poets leading a workshop for laymen and shopgirls is not as recent as one may think.  Alf Tennyson held a thrice-annual session on how to write long, epic poetry, passing on his tips for making sure your verse runs to at least a thousand lines.  He would then set his pupils an exercise, give them a theme, and slip off down the Red Lion for a few hours before returning.  Tom Hardy tried his hand at teaching the art of the limerick, but inexplicably could find no takers.  And poor Gerald Manley Hopkins longed to share with the world his invention of springing a rhythm, but since he feared the creep of ego and had never published one of his masterpieces, it did make his workshops difficult when he was unable to give any examples.

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Workshop, 14th February 2017

Well, that’s the compulsory day of singleton-shaming over for another year.  And rest assured that the subject will feature no further in this blog.

Anyway, down in the Pitshanger Archive beneath Walpole Park, we have been inundated by messages, requests, appointments and final demands, so much so that our unpaid interns have been unable to cope with the endless rounds of receiving, reading, cataloguing, composing and launching the necessary pigeons in reply, and we now have such a backlog of correspondence that we have one of the world’s premier stamp collections.

And what are all the Mrs Trellises of North Wales writing to us about ?  Why, poetry !  Or, in the more unpleasant ones, why poetry ?  We get letters asking how best to compose a rondeau, how best to compose a rondel, how best to round out a roundelay and how to redoublé a double entendre.  We get invited to mixed metaphors, rejected from limericks, poison-penned in rhyming couplets, and liked for our similes.  People want to know how to avoid splitting an infinitive, how to avoid people who insist one avoids splitting an infinitive, how to start a career in poetry, how to finish a career in poetry, how to finish last week’s crossword, and how to get a head-start on next week’s.  No wonder our zero-hours archivists are racking up the overtime.

Meanwhile, this week’s workshop was a world-away from such epistolic apocalypse.  John Hurley was first to break out the Basildon Bond with a touching reminiscence of a much-missed loved one, and Michael Harris uncapped his trusty Waterman to comment on the weather.  Alan Chambers has been leaving notes for us requesting some paintings, while the unpensionable Owen Gallagher has been reluctantly collecting prescriptions.  Next up we had Katie Thornton quite unable to verbalise her emotions yet remarkably able to jot them down, then Daphne Gloag using very little ink to say so much about a flying visit, followed by Pat Francis recording an imagined conversation that was never said but is now written.  It then fell on Peter Francis to write an inventory of an old master depicting an unusual love triangle, while Martin Choules has been scribbling a sestina in the supermarket, and Doig Simmonds has been looking for love in a maze and practicing his mirror writing.  And just before pencils down, we had a convalescing Anne Furneaux in a muffled kerfuffle further down the ward.

As mentioned, Pat Francis’ poem this week tells us of a meeting between Billy Blake and Mickey Faraday.  In actual fact, such a meeting did take place at the Pitshanger Poets one Tuesday evening in 1823.  On the surface, they may seem quite opposites, one looking for mystical answers where the other sought the science of the situation, but this pair were both unschooled, self-taught cockney upstarts – apprentices, craftsmen, barrow boys in the market of ideas, each with a personal, unorthodox take on religion.  Where one railed against the dark Satanic mills, the other braced up to the Great Stink.

But a little known fact is that both men were a terror to their respective postmen.  Keeping ones dispatches in timely order has always been one of the more taxing aspects to being a gentleman of letters, and the sight of a bulging sack over the shoulder of a scarlet tailcoat was enough to put all Heaven in a rage.  Blake would hang up a sign at his Broad Street residence declaring ‘beware of the tyger’, while he would hide behind the door making growling noises, while Faraday would go even further and surrounded his rooms at the Royal Institution with a mesh of wires through which he would attach a voltaic battery just as the postman reached for the letterbox.  Thus he proved the principal that his ‘Faraday Cage’ could block the passage of all signals and telegrams.

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