Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 8th August 2017

Trouble at t’theatre recently has seen the Pitshanger Poets moved out of their regular room for the spacious, if less cosy, Upper Foyer.  There are numerous rumours flitting the rounds as to why half the building is cordoned off, from an outbreak of ghosts awaiting a dour exorcist to an outbreak of pigeons awaiting a suitable pie.  Some claim that the building is sinking into the Thames, while others insist the cause was a very precise earthquake.  Here in the Archives we have learned the hard way of the dangers when confusing concertina screens with load-bearing walls, but could it be that an over-enthusiastic get-out crew have taken down more than the flats and the curtains ?  (The trick is to remember than retaining walls are so called because they should be retained.)

Anyway, this week’s workshop was quite able to fill the extra space of the foyer.  Michael Harris took centre stage with his poem about shifting shame, but showed no remorse for its brevity, while Doig Simmonds filled the space with an imagined battlefield, and even had enough distance to look back and reflect, followed by John Hurley declaring his love to the furthest corners, and cheering himself up into the bargain.  For Alan Chambers, well used to wide open areas, his triolet reported his unfortunate recent injury three times, but he assured us it had only happened once.

Daphne Gloag meanwhile, freed from the confines of the Committee Room, has been gazing into the vast space around her and wondering if it might all be timeless.  Such an unfamiliar space also suited Owen Gallagher’s poem about returning to one’s childhood haunts and finding them all so changed, leading to Aisha Hassan filling the hall with a wake, complete with a closed casket and a river of milk.  It fell to Martin Choules to test the echo with a tardy thunderstorm and some basic arithmetic.

Relocation has inevitably happened before during the centuries-long society of the Pitshanger Poets, including one time which saw the reverse of our present circumstances: in 1826 it was customary to meet in the main Salon, but one time when he had the decorators in, they had to adjourn to the boot room.  It was certainly snug among the dubbin and lasts, and all those newfangled mid-calf Wellesleys.  An aging Bill Blake commented that trying to cram their collected poetic wisdom into such a priesthole was akin to seeing the world in a grain of sand, and grand-tourist Harry Longfellow felt as if the poets were in the place where the squirrels hid their acorns.

But it was a young Joe ‘greenthumbs’ Paxton, just about to quit Chiswick for Chatsworth in the wilds of up-north who summed it up, quoting from the late Jack Keats whose heroine Isabella carries around a pot-plant at all times, containing both a bush of basil and her murdered lover’s head.  “I feel as cramped as the wretched contents of that pot !” he moaned.  “That poor herb’s root system, crowded out by that bloody head !”

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Workshop, 25th July 2017

Where would the English Summer be without the English Summer rain ?  And where would underground bunkers be without the constant doik-doik into coffee mugs and tin buckets ?  Fortunately, here in the Archive we have an emergency plan for surviving being flooded – we wrap everything in clingfilm and supermarket carrier bags and break out the emergency kagools.  All interns are on mop duty, superstitions are damned as umbrellas are left up indoors, and we are coming down hard on the slightest hint of a Gene Kelly impression.

But no wet drips at this week’s workshop.  Caroline Am Bergris turned on the taps with a poignant piece about tea at the Dorchester and the best kind of fawning, while time and tide and Daphne Gloag cannot remember there ever being an instance without them, and Anne Furneaux had us laughing like drains at her plea for less tragedy and more travesty.  Next, Michael Harris remembered his father’s final words and very subtly opened the floodgates, leaving a sou’wester’d Alan Chambers facing a yellow warning on the canal, and John Hurley sense the rising waters around us as we each man become an island.

For Pat Francis, ice belongs in a tall glass as she observes how busy a still life is, while Peter Francis fishes out cliches from the swarming schools and proves he’s certainly not wet behind the ears.  Diving undaunted into the Milky Way was Martin Choules, while Owen Gallagher felt in his water the irony of self-immolation coming back as black snow, and finally Doig Simmonds watches his halo flying over the Sahara and can’t quite turn off the dripping tap of doubt.

It’s too damp around here to risk opening up one of the Archive’s tomes, so this one’s being told from memory: in Sir John’s tenure as lord of the Manor, he tried to interest his guests in a few overs of cricket in his grounds during the long summer evenings, which would inevitably leave little time for poeting.  The others were less enthused by the sport of gentlemen, with Wordsworth wending off to the edges of the boundary incase a four should roll his way, while Keats’ bowling would take as long to get going as his odes, and Byron would position himself behind the wicket and proceed to ‘sledge’ with his snide remarks about the shortcomings of the batsman’s verse.

So nobody but Sir John was upset on those evenings when rain stopped play, except young Shelley, who fancied himself as quite the all-rounder.  For him, the two vast and trunkless legs of stone were two-thirds of a Nephalim’s giant wicket (and yes, he did know that Nephalim was already plural, an no, he didn’t care.)  He saw no reason to retire from the crease just because of a few splashes of rain, and insisted the others keep the field until he was out.  “Look on my runs, ye mighty, and despair !” he would boast, until Sir John judged his very next ball to be lbw, or language before wicket.  After all, no English gentleman should ever be seen to disgrace their whites with a wrinkled lip and sneer.

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Workshop, July 18th 2017

The time is rapidly approaching when I will be permitted to down the hammer and chisel, hang up the leather apron, wash the dust from my calloused hands and take a break from the perpetual task of spinning gold from the straw of everyday existence.

I am of course musing on the prospect of taking a holiday.  This year I plan to embark on a simple tour, just myself, the two-seater, my man and the usual caravan of motorised palanquins, utility vehicles and support staff.  This year I plan to visit my despicable Uncle Augustus who was exiled to live in a decrepit Palladian Villa in a disreputable village on the infected outskirts of the dank swamplands of the Lido di Venezia, simply for committing a disgusting act which is now available to all comers on the NHS with nothing more than a consultation with one’s General Practitioner.

Fortunately, the leisurely pace of the two-seater even at full chat, together with its proclivity to break down, coupled with the need to pause at various Logis en route for rest, repose and refreshment means that by the time we arrive at the loathsome abode of Uncle Augustus there will barely be time for a Limoncello before it is time turn the whole lot around and head back home.  Thank goodness for that, I can still recall our last meeting, when he and the Countess both took me to task for leaving a jam jar of newts under the Portico.  Looking back on it I suppose I deserved the beating, for I was a boisterous young pup and very full of myself having just been put in charge of my first Nationalised Industry.

There was no need to take anyone to task at this evening’s Workshop and newts were notable by their absence.  John Hurley took a long weekend with a bit of a tirade against his own family and their criticisms.  Aisha Hassan travelled to India to spin us a tale of a drowned uncle.  Pat Francis has taken a sabbatical to study St Cuthbert.  Owen Gallagher has returned from Goa with an album of images featuring the women who sweep the beaches.  Peter Francis brought a snap from a Box Brownie capturing a memory of following someone into a field of wheat.  Doig Simmonds has been wondering how much of his travels were real and how much experienced on television.  Nick Barth took a trip to the Cosmodrome to survey the curve of the Earth.  Finally, Martin Choules took a look ahead to the journey our country has embarked upon and believes we might as well keep going.

Of course, it is vital when discussing one’s holiday plans with friends and acquaintances, especially those one is not very keen on, to emphasise one’s role as a citizen of the world rather than a chap with a knotted handkerchief simply hankering for a bit of sun.  As I am almost certain, someone quite well-known for these things once said; ‘He is a tourist, you are a holidaymaker, but I am a traveller’.  I suspect it was Cocteau, but my Man tells me it doesn’t sound very much like Cocteau, to which I retorted that that is how you can tell it is Cocteau, QED and so there.  I think he’s in a huff as he’s gone to polish the two-seater’s trumpets.

Which brings me to a postcard I found, leafing through the PP Archive last week.  It appears to be a holiday missive to the Workshop, jotted by the notable spelling confusionist Frances Crofts Cornford, who was a regular in the first decades of the Twentieth Century.  To my astonishment, I believe I have come across an early draft of her iconic woman in gloves poem.  Mrs Cornford must have been highly satisfied with her piece to send it on from her travels to Pitshanger Manor and the Workshop.  Unfortunately, it appears she shot herself in the foot metaphorically, as the celebrated humourist GK Chesterton was also a regular and must have come across the iconic postcard in the iconic Manor’s iconic post basket.  Quick as a flash, the wit wrote, submitted and published his now more-or-less iconic riposte to Cornford’s poem before the original hit the bookshops, if you follow me, please try to keep up.  This turn of events has always confused literary historians, poor dears, so believe it, you read it here first.

Of course, it would have been enlightening to be a fly on the wall as Cornford faced Chesterton following the return from her trip, in the full knowledge that he had yanked the rug from under her feet in publishing terms, were it not for the fact that early twentieth-century poets were renowned for their harsh treatment of flies and a swift death would have been a certainty.

If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, 11th July 2017

The Questors season is winding up, with the final play in the calendar about to open, followed by a quick benefit shindig for those preparing to take British theatre to the Monegasque next month.  But rest assured the Pitshanger Poets will be ploughing through August with nothing more than a sunhat and lazy manner to fend off the heat.  At least the dozen copies of their offerings they clutch make for a handy impromptu fan.  But before we reach the month of the first emperor, let us finish enjoying the one of the last dictator – when the days are dogs, the ants are flying, the schools are out, and the lawns are sighing.

Sometimes it feels like there are too many poems about summer, especially when it is one’s job to collate them.  Must you really compare me to a summer’s day, again ?  And is having your train grind to a halt in the middle of nowhere really muse-worthy ?  But it seems that tall drinks and long evenings will forever draw quill to parchment, even as we lesser mortals are too heat-exhausted to lift much more than an eyelid.  Are they cold-blooded, quickening with the quicksilver, or building up their tolerance for their hoped-for holiday in Dante’s Inferno ?

Plenty of seasonality at this week’s workshop: Aisha Hassan, taking a break from measuring the sunflowers, presented a mother suffering a hot flush at an innocent question, while Owen Gallagher has been watching the Test, and remembering the great sadness of the stiff upper lip.  Fresh from the pool, Christine Shirley has been catching a glimpse of the other side, while Doig Simmonds has packed up his picnic and has been returning to his old haunts as a haunted man.  Still wearing her whites from the mixed doubles, Daphne Gloag has been spilling her milk setting rooms on fire, while Martin Choules has been wondering if he’s been missed as he ties up his punt for the evening.  Peter Francis was washing out his watercolour brushes as he told us about the widow of Johnny and how little she knew him, while Pat Francis was toying with the fruit salad in her Pimm’s glass as she remembered the east-enders making do with scraps of garden to raise the chickens in.  For Michael Harris, carefully rolling up his new Panama, the noisy concrete of here contrasts strongly with the familiar graveyard of over there, which left John Hurley, with his hopes for the Ulster future accompanied by a chorus of crickets, to close the meeting just as the shutters needed drawing.

Of course, the Pitshanger Poets haven’t always braved the heat of Hyderabad through the with only a pith helmet to prevent sunstroke – time was when August was verse-less.  This was as true in Sir John’s day, when the regulars were instructed to lay off the poesy till September, and the housekeeper was sentried on the veranda ready to shoo-off any whimsical types clutching their latest Ode to a Punch Water Ice or The Ballad of the Thunderbug.  The Manor, she told them, was closed for the Season.  If they had no country estate to retire to, perhaps they might like to try one of the upcoming spas such as Windermere or Brighthelmstone, but Ealing was on sabbatical until September…

Which was a great pity if the rumours are true that one Tuesday evening in August during the lordship-of-the-manor of Thomas Gurnell, there a heard a panting of hooves and a skidding of breath as a tired and tam-o’shantered Rabbie ‘Robert’ Burns came riding up eager to join the society that had extended him so many invitations, (and also, keen to avoid being lunch to the midges back in Ayrshire).  He had a burning desire to share with them how his luve was like a red red rose, but he was of course politely but firmly informed that there would be no poetry until the nip was in the air, if he would care to return then, and she was sure the regular poets would be thrilled to finally meet him.  “Ah, pox yer heid, Missus !” he spat back, disgusted, “Ye’ll nae mair see me roond these parts agen till a’ the seas gang dry !”

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Workshop July 5th, 2017

Summer is well and truly here.  The air is full of the sounds of the season – catgut on willow, leather on chalk and oil on tarmac.  Due to the desire to go bowling down a country lane at upwards of thirty miles an hour I have asked my man to prepare the two-seater for the finer weather by folding the roof (my car has a mechanism developed in the West Midlands specifically for the purpose of removing fingers), removing the fish tin from its space over the exhaust manifold (the attractions of a freshly-poached salmon on arrival being less of a priority once the hunger for a quinoa salad sets in) and ensuring that the Jerry Can on the rear bumper is filled with water.  I am sure the owner’s manual boasts of the car being equipped with an internal combustion engine, but strangely the machine creates as much steam as the Coronation Scot breasting the summit at Shap.

Steam of a metaphorical kind was very much in evidence at this week’s popular workshop (and where were you?).  Alan Chambers depressed the clutch and turned the starting key with a short, sharp observation on languages foreign or familiar to the ear.  Nayna Kumari engaged first and looked over her shoulder with a warning poem about a regretful abuser.  Caroline Am Bergris indicated and prepared to proceed with a welcome poem on the power of the sea to glisten.  John Hurley got us on our way with a fine reflection on a certain Theresa.  Pat Francis took note of the prevailing speed limit with a poem of Haiku on the theme of museums.  Michael Harris accelerated smoothly to join the dual carriageway with a poem which indicated he might just be leaving.  Owen Gallagher paused at the services for a coffee and a packet of digestives while he reflected over the swift death of a favourite uncle.  Nick Barth came close to topping his petrol tank up with diesel while he pictured the art of Hokusai.  Doig Simmonds cast aside his atlas to take us to a secret place.  Martin Choules found the perfect country lane to head down, and then, while telling us all about the Bible and its secret numbers, found himself stuck behind a tractor.  Peter Francis found himself at the perfect balance of speed and economy as he described the Zen-like perfection of a bowl of tea.  Finally, Daphne Gloag almost found herself exceeding the speed limit in a built-up area as she pictured a pile of rocks in the past, present and future.

There are few enough poets who have much good to say about motoring.  I would welcome a few (civil) suggestions but the vibe on the blogosphere seems to imply that a poet cannot make a good driver and vice-versa.  Perhaps it is because part of the charm of driving is that, speaking personally at least, the inner monologue fades to an imperceptible whisper while under way.  Until, that is, the milkman attempts to race me to the mini-roundabout at Ealing Green and I find myself going fast enough to overtake Parsonage turning into Mattock Lane on his fully-recumbent, yelling words you never heard in a song by Paul Simon, I can tell you.

It would seem that it is nigh-on impossible to write behind the wheel, and I believe it is the fading inner monologue which is surely responsible.  Given the busy life a jobbing poet leads and the lax attitude to responsible driving in times gone by it is not as if multi-tasking, or even the law was a barrier.  Many are the descriptions of poets managing to finish a pint of bitter, tamp a pipe of tobacco and castigate a secretary while negotiating the Snake Pass in a barely-roadworthy Humber Super Snipe while the local bobby, smiling, waved them on.  Whether Philip Larkin ever dashed off a famous piece while driving is unrecorded, however Martin Amis (who thought all novelists had bad teeth) maps Larkin’s decline as a writer to his growing prowess as a driver and posits that his long poetry drought coincided with his desire to perfect the heel and toe pedal and cross-arm steering techniques of his idol, the Swedish Rally Driver Ove Andersson, while on the daily commute to Hull Library.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 20th June 2017

Straight down to business this week, with no time for preamble.  We archivists are but teeming termites in a complex warren of labyrinthine mazes far too engrossed in our own particular cog to be able to stand in awe of the awful, awesome machine that is Poetry.  From the formulation of modern nursery rhymes for a society without nurseries, through the playgrounds of the ever-evolving clapping chants, passed on from one six-year-old to the next with a little bit of mutation sometimes creeping in, to those long afternoons in double English, where a jaded old master must try to enthuse her class that no Billy, poems don’t have to rhyme.  The world of the Word will never stop turning, so neither must we, alas.

It is sometimes quipped that it is an artform with more writers than readers (which would mean that many a versifier does not read even their own efforts, which actually explains a lot.)  But such wags are right about one thing – we all of us are poets at heart, stumbling upon a pithy couplet here while trundling down the pasta isle, or a telling turn of phrase there while insisting that  no, you really haven’t got any PPI.  The human being is a talky animal, indeed it rarely shuts up for long enough to hear the marvellous off-the-cuff bon mot of its neighbour.

And we in the Pitshanger Archive have to keep a record of all of it.  Well…all of it that comes into the Pitshanger Poets, anyway, which is a lot more than just the verse our attendees have printed on the page.  Like the time when George ‘Don Juan’ Byron overheard Percy ‘Bliss’ Shelley boasting about his latest conquest…

No, dammit, didn’t we just say that we didn’t have time for all that ?  Honestly, you can’t trust poets to be brief about anything verbal, and don’t get us started on their famous last words…of course, most of them have them memorised decades in advance…oops, off on a tangent again.  So, on with this week’s workshop, which we are in no illusion is the real reason our loyal readership turn up each week, and never mind all that waffle about the time Tommy Eliot’s cat was trapped in Erwie Schrödinger’s suitcase.

First up was an unhurried John Hurley looking wistfully on his past and failing to take the advice of his own title, easing aside to give Aisha Hassan centre stage with her prose poem about her grandfather’s flight from his partitioned homeland and his subsequent wistful looking-back at the cups of tea of his youth.  Alan Chambers hove into view, island-hopping the Hebrides, but what lies ahead ?  Daphne Gloag then was in no hurry to examine whether there was any such thing as time to enable hurrying in, and Michael Harris has been his lane over the decades, as the trees go up over the decades and come down overnight.

Pat Francis has decided she is not yet finished with her Victorian vignettes about the London poor, and has extended the series with every intension of doing so again, while Peter Francis has time to pity the rich their burden of wealth.  For Owen Gallagher, the road less travelled has become so overgrown it is fair to say that there is no way through the woods – which means a longer way home for him, giving time to ponder if it’s worth the effort to re-cut the shortcut.  Maybe next year…

Time has also been on Martin Choules’ mind as the Summer Solstice approaches, but he knows he only has to wait and it will soon be Winter, and wait some more and before he knows it, next Summer is here.  And finally, proving the virtue of patience, Ariadne Kazantzis has spent the intervening months honing her tale of teenage and alien eco pro-action – for while her superheroes’ mission cannot wait, the telling of their antics certainly can while the perfect metaphor is hunted down.

Well, however languid the readers may be, the Archives must run at their usual OCD-rush, getting the minutes of the workshop written, rewritten, spellchecked, typeset and letrasetted into the Archive’s current copper-bound ledger before being interrupted by the latest Andrew Motion memo on the decline of the comma, or a Michael Rosen round-robin on the many overlooked poems about trousers.

Such busyness did not impress William H Davies when his tramping brought his Ealing-way shortly before the Great War.  He joined a Tuesday workshop and read first, with an early draft of his poem Leisure.  He then spent the rest of the evening stood beside the French windows, staring straight ahead, unblinking, untwitching and unyielding as the others attempted to conduct themselves under his gimlet gaze.  But the longer he watched, the shorter their own attention spans became, and the meeting broke up by nine-fifteen.  It seems that while Bill Davies certainly did have time to stand and stare, nobody else had the time to be stared at.

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Workshop, 13th June 2017

Well, it’s nice to know that some things are still done properly.  I read recently that the Queen’s Speech will be delayed; not because Mrs May’s happy crew have only the faintest notion what to put in it (a bill to remove any mention of dinosaurs from the National Curriculum anyone?) but because, being hand-written on vellum, it takes some days for the ink to dry.  Apparently, the Q of E refuses to read anything not written on the stuff, which plays merry hell with the Palace Laser Printers and the production of the lunch menu.  As discussed in prev Blogs, a similar process is involved in the production of this very hifalutin diatribe, although one doubts that the Queen’s Speech will be knocked up on anything as unsophisticated as my early Macintosh 128k, which I use for anything requiring a nice uninterrupted run-up.  The Macintosh has no truck with the Internet, which does wonders for the concentration.  I’m sure you have found that it’s far too easy to think you have a long, complex document in the bag only to be distracted by a post on the Facebook or a Tweet from a beloved comedian.  As a result you find that you have committed some awful howler and are forced to book a national press conference to get yourself out of a hole.  It must have happened to all of us.

This week’s workshop was certainly not a hole, although it was a very popular sesh (and where were you?).  Pat Francis got things under way in a detailed fashion with a piece on the death of Lallans Gaelic.  Aisha Hassan brought us lovers becoming sea-serpents in a work that took shape upon the page.  John Cheung then refreshed our palates with a darkly comic Haiku on the subject of love and keeping quiet about it.  Peter Francis dug into the past of his father and his reluctantly-opened chest of oiled tools.  Martin Choules also reached for saws, hatchets and other blades to discuss the pros and cons of pollarding.  Owen Gallagher took to the floor and made a return to language to examine the outlawing of the Irish tongue.  John Hurley has been finding it hard to sleep and appreciating the early dawn as a result.  Daphne Gloag has also been appreciating time, in all its forms for the first poem in her new sequence.  Nick Barth brought us a work picturing mankind as passengers under the command of an autopilot.  Finally, Michael Harris capably juxtaposed the birthdays of a strange mix of personalities in an amusing piece inspired by a newspaper.

I am not entirely sure whether poetry and politics should be allowed to mix.  On the one hand, I have nothing against the ‘isn’t it all dreadful’ school of poetry as opposed to the ‘hello flowers, hello trees’ variety, as life can be dreadful whether one finds oneself stuck in a foxhole or mulling over the state of religion while reaching for an Irish sixpence.  The problem with politics is that it’s all very well for a chap to bemoan the current state of the nation and yearn for improvement but it’s dashed hard to outline a coherent set of policies, fully costed and reviewed by the Department of Budget Responsibility within a few lines, sticking to a snappy metre and keeping the rhyme scheme subtle.  It is not as if it has not been tried.  Ezra Pound had a passion for financial detail in his poetry, railing against bankers and usury with the frequent appearance of columns of numbers in the margins of his early drafts.  The irony of Pound mentoring TS Eliot, who actually was a banker, became starkly clear during a Tuesday night workshop at Pitshanger Manor.  Eliot pointed out to Pound that he had forgotten to carry the one in a compound interest calculation and the heated discussion resulted in Pound crossly departing the meeting, threatening to leave Britain to stay with his friend Benito in Italy, ‘where they invented this interest stuff’.  One wonders whether Ezra would not have been far happier with a nice job with a big bank in the City where his somewhat extremist views would not have seemed so unusual.  He could have kept his fascism to the Golf Club bar and made a lot more money without actually being declared insane.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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