Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 26th November 2019

I am sure my loyal readership will agree with me, there is a great deal of lying, falseness and downright fakery in the media these days.  The insistent clarion call; ‘It must be true, I read it in a book!’ of our childhoods has been replaced with the no-less strident; ‘It must be true, I read it on the internet!’  It seems that the Alt-Right and Alt-Left have decided that it is just fine to take an Alt-Liberal approach to truth, and that as long as your web site, Tweet or Facebook Post says something we can agree with, we are more than happy to accept that your pants might be on fire.

There is something about this fast-and-looseness with the truth which sticks in the craw of this, your devoted correspondent.  Here at the Pitshanger Poets Blog we have always stood cheek-by-jowl with veracity, shunning the glittering shortcuts of mendacity to tread the longer, less fascinating road with the sacred sword of truth burning there in front of us, dazzling our eyes and generally making it impossible to know where we are putting our feet.  Not for us an easy tale of poets long-dead, caught in slapstick situations at the famous Manor while the indulgent Architect looks on.  Each Pitshanger Poets Blog is a scrupulously-researched detailing of your actual verité, redolent with the smoke-filled atmos of the time and as true as Don Juan is long, unless that is, a big-name Netflix producer reading this just happens to get in touch at the usual address, wishing to turn our epic tales into the next must-see box-set, in which case every last word is Copyright Aubrey Ffinch-Whistler & Felicity Chalice 1610-2019, so there.

Copyright is not something we worry about too much at the Pitshanger Poets Workshops.  We poets tend to be somewhat careless with our hard copies and I do wonder what would happen if some go-getting editor was to simply sweep up the spares following a Workshop and compile a slim volume, they might sell as many as, well, fifteen copies and make enough money to ride the E2 bus all the way to Greenford Broadway.  Certainly, Roger Beckett did not collect the remaining copies of his ‘Poet’s epitaph’ piece, another characteristically amusing and sophisticated poem.  Alan Chambers has several published volumes to his name and this week brought a piece which is no doubt in copyright, for the weird sisters he once met at a poetry workshop.  Owen Gallagher gave us a work in progress, no doubt for his next volume, on the theme of how to sandblast a non-unionised workplace.  Daphne Gloag brought us a revision, exploring the dimensions, all of them.  John Hurley told us a story that he would perhaps rather forget, concerning a series of misunderstandings with a single woman, for whom English was not her first language.  Pat Francis has always been generous with her copyright, as is evidenced by the number of her poems she has contributed to this Blog, this week she continued her Picture Post Theme and the safe birth of the first Rhesus Baby.  Peter Francis has always been adept at adaptation, this week he gave us a ribald story from a woman’s point of view.  Nick Barth is always careful to copyright his work, but no one knows why.  This week he brought us a revision of an old piece, concerning the importance of listening to one’s thoughts.  Martin Choules is so prolific that he has started his own poetry Blog, with a new poem every day, you really should take a look.  This week’s poem tells the tale of a girl mulling over the way angels might fly.

I have been thinking about fake poetry recently.  It’s not something one hears about so much these days, but a few years ago it was somewhat newsworthy.  Who can forget the Lost Poems of Richard Wagner, so enthusiastically promoted by Hugh-Trevor Roper and published at length by Rupert Murdoch in the Sunday Times?  Or the ‘missing’ Larkin poem later discovered to be the lyrics to ‘The Caravan of Love’ by fellow-Hullians, The Housemartins?  How about the forty plays, 154 sonnets and sundry other works attributed to one W Shakespeare but later discovered to have been written by Francis Bacon, the modern artist?  I still remember where I was when I learned that a collection of amusing TS Eliot poems about Cats read to me by Nanny on her knee, was in fact the Book for a stage musical and at least two singularly strange motion pictures with tunes by Andrew Lloyd-Webber.  If that was not enough, we have in these august pages revealed to the world that the poet known as William McGonagall was in fact a fiction invented by Thomas Hardy.

Personally, I yearn for the day when the Conservative Party decides to target my inbox with fake poetry.  If Labour proposed to increase state spending on poetry development and support by £308 billion, I would whoop for joy, even if the only way to achieve that was to ask Mark Zuckerberg to send us the contents of his small change tin.  There is, in my humble opinion far too much reality in fake news these days.  If D Trump started tweeting ‘The Raven’, by E A Poe as his own work, I would take it as a sign that the Dark Times were well and truly over.  One can but dream.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 19th November 2019

There was a smaller group than usual at the Workshop this week, so there will be a suitably smaller than usual diary to recount it.  This is nothing to be alarmed at, the future of poetry is not behind us, the Questors Library shall soon enough see pentameters to the rafters once again – but clearly the literati of Ealing needed a breather this week, perhaps suffering from Mid-November blues when one realises that one’s determination to this year definitely keep Christmas confined to December is once again about to fail.

Anyway, straight onto the Workshop, where a not-at-all time-pressured Roger Beckett brought us the only poem he had kept from his youth, complete with nightmare and Freud – perhaps it was a rather troubled youth ?  John Hurley has been musing on refugees and whether there is no room left at the inn (darn it, there’s that Christmas again !)  Meanwhile Alan Chambers finds his daydreaming disturbed by a concert, not that he minds, and Doig Simmonds has been ponderoing how his memories have not yet reached the distant aliens.  Pat Francis has been reworking her piece about the Picture Post of her youth tucked under the cushions, while Peter Francis has been watching his shadow under the gaslights down his street, and Martin Choules has some wise words on the dark art of peacemongering.

Back in Sir John’s time, some weeks were so quiet that even Eliza and Mrs Conduitt had to be drafted in to make up the numbers, much to their annoyance.  Since Sir John composed very little himself, they in effect became an audience for the solitary poet who had shown up who, once they had read their one prepared poem, would then be required to search in their memory or pocketbook for any scraps of ideas or offhand couplets to fill the time.  Things went better when the only attendee was Leigh Hunt, who was far more of a promoter for others than a scribbler himself, for then they could spend the evening playing rummy instead.

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Workshop, 12th November 2019

Memory and poetry are inextricably intertwined.  For many the simple times-tables and a smattering of poetry were the first things one had to learn by heart at school, and those repetitive numbers and redoubtable phrases will stay with us long after everything else has faded and we struggle to recall what we had for breakfast.  It is a common trope that with age, memory fails, but is this truly the case?  Sometimes I am sure that my memory is not what it was, but then my memory is so poor how can I be certain?  There is of course the possibility that with time one has less of significance to remember; that as one gets older one day will inevitably resemble the next, that one poem will recall the last poem.  Reassuringly, one may remember the nice little pocket calculator that one has on one’s phone and the whole nerve-shredding horror of learning your seventeen-and-a-half-times-table (one of Mr Harridan, the Maths Master at my Prep School’s favourites) will fade like a nightmare on waking one bright summer morning.

We don’t expect poetry by rote at the Pitshanger Poets in this day and age.  Of course, the Victorians were very hot on the idea and for a few years in the late Nineteenth Century a poet could expect a barracking for consulting their spidery hand-writing, with shouts of ‘reading!’ from the other members of the Workshop.  At the time there were cruel souls who claimed that it was no great punishment to send Oscar Wilde to reading gaol, but they had surely got the wrong end of the stick that they were using to beat about the bush.  Behaviour of that type never rears its ugly head in today’s enlightened times, for we understand that poetry is both a written as well as an auditory form.  As has so often been said, Nicholas Parsons should by rights be our Chairman, for he understands the vagaries of the English better than any man alive.  Owen Gallagher has always been economical with the written word and skilful with sound.  This week he gave us a revision of his poem playing cowboys and Indians as a young adult with his normally mute father.  John Hurley is getting into the spirit of winter with a poem about showers and sodden pavements.  Roger Beckett presented something much more enigmatic with his sketch on moving from place to place.  Pat Francis brought us a triptych of a poem which served to build hope in the room, while Peter Francis gave us a colder view of Christmases past, when despite being a child, he was never a kid.  Nick Barth has been thinking about tattoos and has written about ink from two points of view.    Martin Choules clearly sees himself as a victim of fate and finds himself behind his keyboard  on a daily basis, ticking the days off.  Fortunately, Daphne Gloag was on hand to inject some brightness back in the room with an observation of a welcome, wintery visitation; a fox in her garden.

Keen-eyed readers (and I know many of you are, despite the protestations of my penury-ridden optician) will have noticed that this week’s erudite and entertaining blog is even more delayed than usual.  I must lay my cards on the table and admit that I was unavoidably detained over the last few days by a member of Ealing’s Finest.  The few clues that I can glean from the detective who came to sit in my best wing-backed armchair and drink tea from my second-best china is that Uncle Archie has been in trouble again.  Archie has been uncontactable for the last few months, and it may be that the sleuth knows why, but she remained tight-lipped on the subject.  Instead she fired a series of questions at me between mouthfuls of my third-best shortbread, but I denied all accusations.  As you, my loyal readership are my witnesses, I am innocent of the various crimes and misdemeanours she was so ready to drop weighty hints about.   Besides, the events she referred to are all a frightfully long time ago.  As a result, I do not remember meeting Archie or any of his various lady-friends in March 2001, although I do recall the Pizza Hut in Workington on the night in question and the Meat Feast Pizza and Cheesy Garlic Bread I ate there with startling accuracy.  As for the statement of the young lady, I am not a man given to perspiration; Let the record show that while seventeen and a half times seventeen and a half is equal to three hundred and six and a quarter, I had all of the sweat beaten out of me by Mr Harridan while at Prep School.  So let the case rest, m’Lud.

If you have been, thank you for reading, or is that Reading?

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Workshop, 5th November 2019

Every time that the hardworking and unimpeachably impartial councillors in Ealing Town Hall are trying to decide how to best stoke up hate for a four-hundred year old terrorist, they will inevitably propose a massive bonfire in Walpole Park.  And every time we will have to remind them that there are caverns beneath with ceilings that can barely hold when an earthworm decides to go for a wiggle, and which are protecting millions of highly-flammable pages, not to mention our Winter fuel stores of tinder-dry tinder.  And so once again it must fall on Poetry to be the killjoy who makes life that little bit duller even out of school.

What with our thoroughly-expected general election in full swing, there are of course parallels a-plenty to be shared among the chattering class-warriors about of how they wish old Guido would succeed-oh, as if the Papist Plotters were still living in the present tense.  These humourless True Believers (including many of the Archives present interns, despite their lack of an ability to vote) are proselytising doing away with democracy ‘just this once’ because they already have all the answers and if only we would shut up and do what they say then we’d be in the land of Milk and Honey faster than a cow being chased by a bee.  Nonsense, say their opponents (some of whom are also present down here), the Sunny Uplands lie in the completely opposite direction, while yet others fret over the King Over The Water, or is it King Billy Goat Gruff ?

But that’s quite enough politics this election, and the Workshop was blessedly free of attempts to set the world to write.  The speaker’s chair was first occupied by Roger Beckett, declaring he lacked the gift for giving presents yet still bestowed us with a freely-given free verse, followed by a point of order from Daphne Gloag oohing and ahing the at the spaces between the fireworks.  The Father of the House Peter Francis then described a scribe having to leave room for the later racy marginals, and Caroline Am Bergris asking an urgent question about the epic question she might have been asked in her youth by the gods.  John Hurley then proved to be a very crossbencher while poetically ranting over the recent Season of the Dead, while Madame Chairman Pat Francis read out a report on her son’s soft toy both present and absent.  The eternally independent member Owen Gallagher was looking down on human hypocrisy with a crane-driver’s eye, and Martin Choules informed the select committee on the need to disagree like gentlemen, leaving Michael Harris stood to defend his seat while giving a non-pology for loving in his own way.

Of course, election fever has gripped the Pitshanger Poets before, like the year when Harold Wilson dropped-in in November 1974, weary from the campaign that followed the equally wearying nine months of a hung parliament.  What he needed was an evening away from the white heat of door-knocking and baby-kissing and to be a simple husband accompanying Mary Wilson the budding poetess.  In truth, Harold was never the literary sort (unlike his opponent Ted Heath who even went to the trouble of writing his own), but he could find one end of a sonnet from an eye-rhyme.

However, he was in for a shock that night as a puckish Philip Larkin read a favourite of his by the late Robert Frost – The Death of the Hired Man.  Who should we encounter therein, but a certain Harold Wilson, simple farm boy with ideals and learning above his station who was always slogging and arguing with old man Silas as they tried to build up the hayricks.  But was the latter, suggested our Phil, an allegory for Socialism itself and this “Harold Wilson’s” uneasy working relationship with it ?  The PM took this in, sucked on his pipe, and mused that that must make Farmer Warren the arch capitalist who would deny old Silas the chance to make a living and drag young Harold out of school to deny him the chance of betterment.  No, Harold thought that Harold was better off keeping out of the hayfields and concentrating on his future in the cities, where the future came so slowly – after all, a week was a long time in piling ricks.

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Workshop, 29th October 2019

It is appropriate that just before Halloween, the gremlins got into the Archive and mixed up the order of the index cards, leading to Yeats and Wordsworth unexpectedly leading the pack while poor Allan Ahlberg was taught a harsh lesson in alphabetical privilege.  Indeed, it has instantly given our latest unpaid interns a new cause to champion, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with them mostly being Polish with names featuring a not-disappointing number of zeds.

Anyway, on with this week’s workshop, where I’m glad to say the participants were in a strictly phoneme-neutral order.  Daphne Gloag was first among equals as she saw a universe in the canvases of a minimalist painter while Owen Gallagher observed an insult from beyond the cold grave.  Michael Harris has been speaking God’s truth about love, in all its forms, while a perfectly cheery Pat Francis has been thinking about where she’d like to be buried, and husband Peter has been watching the sun catching the underside of Autumn leaves.  It is fire that has been heating John Hurley’s passion of late, as he wishes Prometheus had been less gung-ho and had considered the pollution, before Martin Choules has been watching the skeletons in a seasonal tale as long as it is tall, and finally Doig Simmonds has been asking the eternal question: war, what is it good for ?

Sir John’s salons were always informal, and there was never a set order of readers, not by name, age, height, or even (much to Gerogie ‘Lord’ Byron’s chagrin) social rank.  Sometimes the ‘conch’ of the day (usually the bottle of port) would orbit the room in a clockwise manner, though in late October it was not unknown for their playful host to insist on brandy, thereby forcing the company to be daringly widdershins.  This would always upset William Blake, who liked to sit himself on Sir John’s right hand to ensure that he would get to go last, and dreaded the times when the lord of the manor would turn to him with a jovial “Tell me Bill, how does Matthew 20:16 go again ?” to which he would be forced to mumble “So the first shall be last and the last first.”

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Workshop, 15th October 2019

As many of my loyal readership are aware, the Pitshanger Poets is not my only social outlet.  There’s the Driver’s Club for the Two-Seater, a form of Vintage Car aggregator for the more obscure marques.  One of the fellows who comes along to the irregular meetings claims to own a car by a pre-war manufacturer so exclusive that none were actually made, a paradox which none of the many club meets we have organised has resolved.

Then there is the Golf Club.  This used to be a regular pastime.  I have been a member for simply decades and for a long time I could not imagine a week without getting together with the fellows at the club – a game, a snifter at the bar, the annual May Ball and the Christmas Party, I really felt like I belonged, and they made it clear they valued my maturity and experience with organisations of this kind.  I got myself a parking space, a regular wing-back armchair in the lounge, a discount on the membership, but then a few years ago I realised I was not as enamoured with the place as I thought.  I decided that much as I enjoyed playing with the other chaps that the rules and regs were a little oppressive.  I quite fancied the idea of playing at other clubs.  There was an American chap making a lot of noise about his Club and that I should go there a few times a week.  I still loved the old place, loved the freedom of just being able to drop in whenever I liked, but you know, even with the discount the dues seemed steep.

This week’s Workshop was anything like the bar at the Golf Club, but I could not say the same for the session in the Grapevine Bar afterwards.  Anne Furneaux enjoys a glass of posh white in the Grapevine Bar, and has been remembering the toys of her childhood.  Today she touched on a not altogether untroubled character from the toy box, the Golliwog, with delicacy.  Doig Simmonds is supreme at the long drive over the water and explored the stone which is removed from the block to reveal the sculpture beneath.  John Hurley’s poetry is famous for clearing the fairway from the tee.  This week he told us about George, a legendary character from Ireland.  Michael Harris played the well-known double-poem ruse, on the subjects of Nearly and Neverland and Nowhere, a very concentrated piece of advice on the desirability of getting a life.  Roger Becket is superlative with the delicate putt, none so delicate as this metaphor of creating to build ones own musical instrument.  Pat Francis tells a fine story which counts for a lot in the bar.  This weeks was about sand, on the beach and in the fire buckets during the Blitz.  Husband Peter also tells a good story in the bar when given a chance.  He’s been thinking about where all that gas comes from to keep out living rooms as warm as the tropics.  Nick Barth’s handicap is lower than you would expect from looking at his clubs, but he is still able to spin a tale out of a clock made for a Soviet Submarine.  Owen Gallagher will tell anyone what a weird lark this is being a poet.  Daphne will engage anyone sporting a pair of tartan trousers with a Socratic argument on the value of black holes.  Finally, Martin offered a somewhat sceptical discussion on the value of some of the weirder elements at the bottom of the Periodic Table, no matter what potential value these metals might offer to the manufacture of golf equipment.

So, I determined to leave the Club.  I wrote the familiar ‘Dear Don’ letter to the chairman, who told me that it was a great shame.  We agreed a departure date so that I could get a few rounds in with the old gang and figure out which clubs was going to play with next.  There was obviously my old mate Leo – I had promised him a few games in advance, and I could not go back on my word.  In March, the President of the Club, Don, generously gave me a few more months’ membership, just to get me to the end of the October.  No one likes to play too far into the Autumn, and last week Leo told it would be fine, we could still play just as well after I left the club, which cheered everyone up.

The final deadline is approaching fast and my feet are colder than the proverbial Siberian herdsman thrown out of the dacha in the middle of winter without his boots and flask of vodka.  Part of me wants to head off into the wild blue yonder and play golf with Norwegians, Canadians, even the Swiss.  Part of me thinks that if I leave now, I will never get a favourable introduction to any other club. Surely, I have already made my choice and must stick to my guns.  I had become convinced that this was not the right club for me.  Obviously, they have done everything to keep me, but somehow this has not helped.  In the words of Groucho, I would not be a member of any club that would have me.

I know this a long and complex story, very anecdotal, and probably has no relevance to poetry or to the life you lead, still it is troubling, and I have no immediate answer.   I know the chaps in the club are desperate for me to make up my mind.  Do you know the answer?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 8th October 2019

I must admit, I have never been one for problem-solving.  I approach tricky problems the way I approach mountains – this particular example may look picturesque from a distance, but if someone else has already climbed it, and there’s a handy funicular, why reach for the rope, pitons, tent and bivouac?  I sometimes find myself gazing at Parsonage, sitting at the Ferranti Pegasus’ well-tempered key-enterer with a mixture of admiration and incomprehension.  There he is now, clacking away, coding an algorithm to grade various poetic onomatopoeia by similarity to the sounds themselves, not only solving a problem which has never been solved before, but also raising the Pegasus’ own intelligence by a degree or two, towards an eventual goal he calls the singularity.

The singularity (always in italics) is a mind-blowing tipping point in artificial intelligence, by which theoretical time the machine becomes so dashed clever that it can work out what problem we want to solve before we have even thought of it, and will then immediately go on to solve that problem – but most importantly, will not endlessly bang on about it, meaning that vital afternoon naps are not disturbed.

It is for this reason that I have not volunteered my peerless intellect up to the nation to help solve this Brexit thing.  As far as I am concerned, Brexit should be corralled with the Irish Problem, the 38th Parallel, Roswell, The Marie Celeste, The Priory of Sion, The Voynich Manuscript, the smile of the Mona Lisa, and the inverse motivational characteristics of the domestic printer (it only works when you don’t need it to and never works when you do) as unsolved and insoluble.  I am not interested in Occam’s Pendulum, Foucault’s Razor, the Gordian Riddle or the Knot of the Sphinx.  One might as well attempt to cross the Rubicon in a Ship of Fools using the Sword of Damocles as a paddle as attempt to pass a Brexit Bill through the eye of a needle, as my old Classics Professor used to say.

This week’s Workshop was an exercise in peace and understanding, with no requirement for anyone to cry, ‘order, order!’  Peter Francis was given the first turn at the dispatch box with a gender-identity poem about his own childhood which could nevertheless be set in the present day.  Pat Francis then took control of the order-paper, offering up a proposal on the impossibility of designing either flowers, or one’s friends.  Nick Barth stood up next, recounting a possible present in which a certain politician just did not exist.  Roger Becket presented a very plausible treatise on the value and structure brought to him by work and honest toil.  We almost believe him!  Daphne retuned to a theme she has brought to this august assembly in the past, also to do with work, but the great pleasure brought to her late friend Beryl by embroidery.  Michael Harris made two very short interjections on the subject of love, the house approved of them both.  Doig Simmonds brought the subject of death to the table, recounting a story of a ghostly flight to the other side.  John Hurley professed himself tired of mere talking shops, perhaps in contempt of the very Place where he was speaking.  Finally, Owen Gallagher spoke up for parents condemned to silence, specifically his father.

Now I’m not saying that poets as a species are incapable of exploring the mysteries of existence, far from it, it’s very much what we are here for.  It’s just that the poetic form has considerably less space for showing one’s working out, and as my Mathematics master always used to make clear, that’s a very good way of losing marks.  Perhaps there’s no reason why the poet cannot step up to the Scientist’s blackboard, covered with the densest mathematical symbols representing her life’s work and rather like the alien Klaatu in the film The Day The Earth Stood Still, fill in a blank space, solving the problem at a stroke.  On the other hand, poets have an approach to truth that Alan Chambers, the inestimably talented poet and sailor of this parish would understand as going towards.  A navigator aboard a sailing vessel would never claim that he is going to a destination, only that he is going towards it.  An approach to addressing great mysteries such as Brexit which reminds me of a line of Donne’s; ‘On a huge hill, / Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will. / Reach her, about must, and about must go’.

Which is why when a Workshop is ended, I never propose going to the bar, only going towards it, for if one gets there first, one is bound to have to buy the first round.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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