Category Archives: Workshops

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:

+++YOU KNOW WHAT URANIUM IS, RIGHT+++

+++IT’S THIS THING CALLED NUCLEAR WEAPONS+++

+++AND OTHER THINGS+++

+++LIKE LOTS OF THINGS ARE DONE WITH URANIUM.  INCLUDING SOME BAD THINGS+++

+++BUT NOBODY TALKS ABOUT THAT+++

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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Workshop, 7th February 2017

As the London winter limps on, unable to decide if it wants to be a proper cold snap or a damp squib, dithering its mercury around freezing without ever bringing out the snow, here in the Archives we are resisting turning on the heating to save money and maybe turn few slugs into ice-cubes as an added bonus.  Of course, there are the inevitable whinges from the unpaid interns that they have to cradle their inkpots between their hands for ten minutes each morning just to get it runny enough to write with, or indeed why do they have to use a quill in the first place, but did you ever see Bill Wordsworth waxing lyrical in Word Perfect ?  Anyway, ever since the Archives invested in the Canada Goose Quill Company it makes sense to use our own product, and to promote organic farming and localism – indeed the quills are harvested from the very geese of Walpole Park as they sleep.

International readers of this blog may be less impressed at London’s inability to have a proper Winter, and our whining while basking in a balmy one degree above zero, (or at least the Northern Hemispheroids may, while the Antipodeans just crack open another tinny and toss another prawn on the barbie), but let’s not forget that suffering is as good for the poetic soul as is pure white blankets and frozen nature for metaphors.  So blow, blow thy Winter wind of discontent !  Welcome, wild North-Easter !  Freeze the Darkling Thrush on his branch, greet the newborn lambs with a wretched width of cold, and watch the woods fill up with snow that sifts from leaden sieves.  A cold coming we should have of it, or else a Winter wonderland, but never just a hazy shade with nothing worse than all the leaves being brown and the sky being grey.

Plenty of hearthside huddling at this week’s workshop, as Olwyn Grimshaw lit our fire with her piece on tabloid sensationalism and red-blooded redtops, while Martin Choules has been spending his long evenings pondering the choosing of an English name, and Michael Harris found heartwarming inspiration despite a less than happy New Year.  Katie Thornton then flushed our cheeks with her sestina on a pair of piebald hands, followed by whistles both absent and present and a non-stop bakelite radio from John Hurley.  Owen Gallagher was in apocalyptic mood as he turned up the thermostat and started torching the earth, leaving Alan Chambers to recall the eternal Summer of childhood only to find himself back in the Winter of today.

Once the interns finally got their quills out, we were able to start looking back through the Archive to Winters past.  The obvious place to start was with Robert Frost, whose very name says it all and who once declared that “you can’t get too much Winter in the Winter”.  And indeed, we soon found evidence of his feud with fellow ex-pat Ezra Pound coming to the fore on a chilly Tuesday evening in 1914.  It seems that Ezzie’s faint praise of Bob’s poem led the latter to mutter how, when it comes to criticism, the cold shoulder is as effective as the wrathful invective: “For destruction,” he complained, “ice is also great, and would suffice.”

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Workshop, 24th January 2017

The trouble with reading poetry is that you only get to read the successes.  Look through any of the slim volumes on the 821 shelf of the local library and you will never find anything less than competent.  Maybe not to your tastes, but perfectly able to keep a metre or abandon same with obvious purposefulness.  No tone deaf hack has ever managed to hoodwink a publisher save William McGonagall, and only he because he was an elaborate joke of Thomas Hardy’s.

But for every Alfred Tennyson there are a hundred would-be versifiers who are every bit in thrall to poesy, but are unable to spread their garret-jottings to the rhythm-hungry world.  Sure, some of them would be Vogons, but a good portion must be Van Goghs only able to get a little wallspace in a sympathetic cafe.  Taking it further will require somehow getting past the gatekeepers who edit the five or six literary magazines that have any impact on publishers, but alas these days those all-powerful half-dozen are cut from the same mould and woven from the same pod.  So impress one, and there are five more births just waiting for your particular brand of brandishment.  But find yourself out of fashion or an all-round square peg and only your immediate family or readers of obscure blogs will ever know just what we’re missing.

This week’s workshop alas contained no literary agent on the prowl, but nevertheless held sufficient poetic wisdom to shame even a golden age.  Daphne Gloag has been listening to the tick-tock of time and wondering if it even exists, while for Anne Furneaux’s observations on the ward, the beat has come from machines that go ping.  Meanwhile a very ordinary day for Michael Harris has been coloured by world politics and personal matters, though not in equal proportions, while Alan Chambers has been watching the boats go by without being able to lend a hand, and Danuta Sotkin-Kondycki has expanded her poem from last week about a busy forensic doctor and her out-of-a-bottle daughter.  Then we welcomed two new unsigned balladeers to our weekly jam, starting with Katie Thornton and her guitar-playing muse whose lessons had a big impact and may even one day lead to being able to play, while Carol Thornton has been feeling as safe as a teddy bear.  Martin Choules then told us all about an arsenic-coloured pretty dress to die for, and Doig Simmonds hit us with a poignant account of mixed-up attitudes to mixed-race non-conformers.

Looking through the Pitshanger Archives, one cannot help but wonder what these records must look like in a parallel universe, where different attendees caught the editor’s ear.  Like the time when the great John Bull read his latest sonnet on wazygeese, or when Jane Doe won her bet with her unicycle, or when Joe Public was heard to comment that undertakers prefer to use both hands.  Ah, the gems we’ve lost.

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