Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 9th January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Workshop, 2nd January 2018

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

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

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

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

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Workshop, 5th December 2017

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

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

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

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


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Workshop, 21st November 2017

Meeting each week in the Questors Theatre, we naturally are alert to the latest in gentleman theatricals, and our interns are often abuzz on a Monday morning following yet another first night.  But sometimes they will spurn the queen of the arts for more melodic entertainment, seeking out a musical evening that doesn’t keep getting interrupted by a ridiculous play.  Yes, our trainee archivists have been gigging – and this isn’t a reference to their current zero-hours contracts.  No, they have been out to see a band.  Naturally, the name of the long-haired herberts making all the racket is quite lost on your diarist – but suffice to say they are barely old enough for a paper round, and already they have racked up more number ones than Kim Jong-il’s golfing scorecard.

Of course, flashy flashes-in-the-pan are nothing new, and nor is their pretentions to write lyrics beyond the tutti-doo-wah–ob-la-diddy-diddy which made them famous.  And for that, they need the help of poets.  If only Wolfie Mozart had thought to consult a wordsmith for his Magic Flute, he could have avoided all those embarrassing pah-pah-pahs when he obviously couldn’t think of any rhymes.

No lack of words at this week’s workshop, with Bashir Sakhawarz taking lead for the opening number about childhood friends on trees swapping bee stings, handing over to John Hurley’s song of the streets, particularly the ones dug-up and abandoned.  Peter Francis then sung a lamentation to the hard-working butterfly, while Doig Simmonds was channelling the hippies of old with his hymn to passing over and passing on the life-force, leading on to Pat Francis and her ballad of a young, black-blooded Tennyson.  Michael Harris then gave us a feel-good number in a major key and Daphne Gloag crooned for a model bird that almost sang.  A country song followed from Martin Choules, telling how deadly vegetation is really our misunderstood friends, and for the finale Alan Chambers gave us a hoedown to the moon from his new collection.

Technically, composers already had tame poets on tap in the form of their librettist, but maybe it is no surprise that we never remember their names when it’s the music guy with his name above the title.  And perhaps the composers realised the pressure on them to oversee the entire production.  And so it is no surprise to find in an entry for June 1900 that Jackie Puccini was in town to oversee the London premiere of his latest masterpiece, Tosca.  While that opening was still three weeks away, and perhaps finding the rehearsals dragging, he took himself off to the theatre and a visiting play from Broadway called Madame Butterfly.

Despite speaking little English, he immediately decided to operize it, and naturally sought out the leading poetry collective to help him get a libretto worthy of such a tragic tale.  But the workshop did not go well, with Gilby Chesterton probing him about the rumoured anti-Catholic subtext of Tosca, and Bernie Shaw buttonholing him for his patronising portrayal of the poor in La Boheme.  Little wonder, then, that when working on his next Oriental opera, and needing a lyric for the centrepiece of the second act, he threw up his hands and just told his cast to hum along.

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Workshop, 14th November 2017

Finally the books have returned to the Library at Questors and the shelves are once more with purpose.  The cabinets are still locked, though, keeping the scripts therein pristine and unread.  Meanwhile at the Archives, the contents of our own stacks are being actively digitised, as in being pawed over by all manner of greasy hands.  Time to get the microfiche project back on track, but alas these days funding is only available for ‘grand’ projects – for what grant-awarding grandee wants to be known for supporting a minisculisation ?

In other subterranean news, the caverns beneath Walpole Park are feeling the pinch of Autumn as the temperature plunges and the water table rises.  There is now a chill upon our airs, a frost upon our Robert Frost, a rime upon our Ancient Mariner.  The interns of course complain incessantly, but gas fires are out of the question with so much paper and 150° proof absinthe about the place.

But plenty of warmth in this week’s workshop, beginning with John Hurley’s lament on our modern world’s turn to violence, and a back-of-the-envelope masterpiece from Bashir Sakhawarz.  Samir Hazlehurst has been taking three bites of the fruit of knowledge, not exactly forbidden but with definite consequence, while Alan Chambers is listening for meaning in nature and crosswords, and Owen Gallagher has been enjoying his birthday pizza with extra batter.  Two poems about empire next, with Doig Simmonds remembering the fanatical struggle for independence and Martin Choules taking a tour round the pink parts in his childhood atlas.  Pat Francis then began meeting with the various literary conscripts and inmates of Epping Forest and Peter Francis imagined a touching yet rough night scene on the freezing Embankment.

We tell the interns that this cold is good practice for their years of freezing garrets, but grumbling about the cold is nothing new about poets, who love an excuse for a good moan.  Back in Sir John’s day, Mrs Conduitt wasn’t always available to bank up the fire and sometimes they had to meet with nothing but their visible breath to keep the ink from freezing on their quills.  Indeed, local legend has it that this is the real reason why Sammy Coleridge never finished his vision of Xanadu, complete with its caves of ice, dreaming of a sunny pleasure-dome to warm his hands against.  And no wonder Mary Shelley would start and end her New Prometheus in the Arctic wastes, where the stolen fire is spluttering in the long, long night.

But while Blake and Byron shivered, Perce Shelley sat around in his undershift and stockingless, as oblivious to the cold as a two trunkless legs of stone.  “Don’t be so soft” he chastised Bill Wordsworth when the latter asked if they really needed the casement open – “That there is the West Wind, blowing out the chaff and blowing in the change.”  He then proceeded to cajole Johnny Keats to join him skinny dipping in Sir John’s pond, as soon as the ice could be broken through.  In later years, Mary would insist that he never really drowned in the Gulf of Spezia, but had simply swam down the Styx.

In honour of the one the interns call ‘The Bysshe’, we have given them each a Pitshanger Archives-branded string vest and long-shorts to wear as they engrave each microfiche slide by hand using big magnifying glasses and single-bristle brushes.  We hoped it would inspire them, but instead they tend to look upon their work-clothes and despair.

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Workshop, 7th November 2017

You may have read before in these Proceeding of the Poetical Society of Pitshanger how Ealing once played host to future revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, but he was a latecomer compared to the patriarchs of the proletarian paradise.  The fact is that London was one of the greatest cities in the formation of Communism, a melting pot brought to the boil, where Karl Marx was granted the asylum that he could find nowhere else in Europe, and where Vladimir Lenin pitched up on six occasions between 1902 and 1911, including the second conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in and around Bloomsbury.

Never heard of them ?  Well, the most notable occurrence at the conference was a split in the party between a minority faction (the Mensheviks) and the majority (the Bolsheviks).  They convened again in 1905, the year of the failed revolution, and in 1907 the fifth convening was the largest yet, with Stalin, Trotsky, Maxim Gorky and Rosa Luxemburg all in attendance on the Brotherhood church on the Islington/Hackney borders.

This month, November, is the hundredth anniversary of the ten days that shook the world (because of course the October Revolution was only in October by the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian).  What followed is very well documented, but before 1917 nobody in London was watching these agitators and dreamers except a few spies from the Tsar, and maybe the Met.  So who is hanging around in London today what we will all have heard of in a dozen years time ?

Were there any revolutionaries at this week’s workshop ?  Maybe Doig Simmonds from the veteran versifiers, hanging on the line to Heaven’s switchboard, or Peter Francis of the Shropshire Underground, receiving brief absolution with a penny for the beggar.  Radical academical Anne Furneaux has been musing on Free Will (in defiance of the historical inevitability of our struggle), while Caroline Am Bergris of the catering corps has been cooking up a big batch of Freedom.  Tin-pan rhymer Martin Choules has been busy writing slogans to rally the comrades, though they seem to suggest a different outcome for our glorious struggle, of which John Hurley poignantly reminded us with memorial to the recent attack in Manchester and what we’re up against.

New recruit Bashir Sakhawarz brought us a troika of poems smuggled out of his homeland, and ever-watchful Pat Francis has been intuiting the religion of the leaves and birds.  Attracting the wrong sort of attention was Samir Hazlehurst, showing impressionistic, even decedent tendencies in his recounting of a breakup, while Daphne Gloag wove an allegory about a lizard and an asteroid, but what could be its deeper meaning ?  And as for Alan Chambers, he has been eavesdropping on conversations held by the wind, the river, and the heartless stars.

It is easy to glamorise these figures after a century, especially as London was so far away from the subsequent purges.  Now Lenin was no Stalin, but at the very least he was elbows-deep in the Red Terror which led to the murder of tens of thousands, and one wonders how many deaths it takes to start feeling queasy about the blue plaques (but on the other hand, they are intended to remind us of just how much stuff has gone on in London).  And let’s face it, they are so easy to glamorise because they are glamorous – literal world-changers, dynamic, idealistic, rugged and bearded in second-hand ushankas and as-yet uncorrupted by their later actions.

At this point the patient reader may be expecting a recount of the time Volodya Ilyich and his wife Nadya Krupskaya dropped in on a Tuesday evening following an intense session at the convention and needing to unwind with some heavily accented and heavily Marxist critiquing of Rudd Kipling as “imperialist” and Algie Swinburne as “bourgeois”, while cheering on Alfie Noyes’s Highwayman, but it is with some relief to tell you that no such reference has been found.

Instead, let us turn to the meeting on Tuesday the 7th of November, the very evening when the Bolsheviks were storming the Winter Palace in Petrograd, and the Second Battle of Passchendaele was waging: the old guard of Tommy Hardy and Billy Yeats were facing off against the upstarts Tom Eliot and Hilda Doolittle, Victorian versus Modernist, struture against liberation, but in typically British fashion the only violence was when a rhythm sprung and an infinitive got split.

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Workshop, 31st October 2017

The residents of Ealing are well advised to take care when going abroad on our shadowy late-autumnal alleyways and byways, for fear of coming across your humble correspondent, dressed to the nines in a cape, tuxedo, starched collar, a haunted expression on my pale visage oddly complemented by a set of vampirical teeth dripping with blood.   Perhaps he is taking Halloween a mite too seriously, you would ask yourself as you repaired rapidly to the Red Lion for a medicinal whisky and a bit of a sit down.  I had no idea he was of the Gothic persuasion, you might shakily comment to a pal as he gets you another one in a bid to return you to a state of calm.

If that does happen to you, let me apologise strenuously in advance and offer this lengthy tale in defence.  However much I might enjoy a little guising on All-Hallows Eve, I have another reason entirely for adopting the tropes of the legendary Count and wandering the Borough in high dudgeon.  I am trying my dammnest to keep in with the Ealing Bram Stoker Appreciation Society, a group I have been happy to attend each week for some time now.  That is, all was going swimmingly with the BSAS until I let slip that I suspected Bram of having been drawn into the heady world of the Pitshanger Poets at some stage in the past.  There being scant news on the Bram Stoker front to fill a weekly meeting, the man not having written a much in recent years due to being, in a word, dead, any straw is greedily clutched to fill the time until the moment when the Port can be broken out and passed.  Which, I might admit under duress is the sole reason for being there, the spirit being a particularly fine Taylor’s Vintage drawn from the cellars of the former Greystoke Manor.  In any case I found myself promising Miss Eldritch, the BSAS Chair, that I would open the PP Archive and do a little research.

Keeping the Archive up to date is a crucial component of every Pitshanger Poets Workshop and this is how we know that John Hurley has been mildly obsessed with his teeth for the last few months.  The record will also show that Daphne Gloag tried out a new and somewhat experimental work on the group, with the theme of Lapis Lazuli figuring large, the kind of treat one only gets in such an eclectic workshop as ours.  Ever-youthful Doig Simmons has been writing longer than some of us have been, as in have been, so it was appropriate that he brought us a new piece on the subject of fitting everything in.  Nick Barth was not ashamed to bring back a poem which has graced the archives before, on the subject of debating world politics in North London, for there are no rules as to how many times a poet can bring back a revision, though some, naming no names, do stretch the patience somewhat.  It was Peter Francis’ turn to bring a true classic from the archive, with an appalled reaction to Domesday in masterful Saxon alliteration written a mere fifty years ago.  Records will show that Pat Francis has been down in the West Country thinking about places named after saints.  Samir Hazlehurst is new to the group but has been writing at a high standard for a while if his beautiful evocation of a coming of age trip to the beach is anything to go by.  Alan Chambers has featured at Pitshanger Poets Workshops more times than the Ferranti Pegasus cares to remember, yet consistently produces great pieces, such as this poem with a twist on the subject of the full moon.  And in a packed programme tonight it was Martin Choules who saw us home with a Halloween theme, which becomes this weeks’ featured poem.

I was as good as my word with Miss Eldritch and arrived at the following meeting with some Archive entries detailing a visit of Bram Stoker to the PP in 1890 during a tour of Britain.  There was not much to tell.  Stoker heard about the Pitshanger Poets through a fellow writer, probably Oscar Wilde.  He was not there to read, but to listen.  He mentioned being exhausted following a long journey from Whitby, where he had been to see an old school friend who had just opened a Hotel there.  The friend wondered whether Stoker could do him the favour of creating a little notoriety for the obscure fishing port, to ‘put it on the map’, so to speak, and Stoker, mysteriously in this man’s debt in some way, had agreed.  To this end, Stoker talked about planning a little salacious pot-boiler with a key role in it for the town in order to encourage visitors.  He was reasonably sure it would attract an audience, but the poets wondered whether his heart was in it and advised him to stick to the higher arts instead of dabbling with Gothic Horror, surely a mere step away from the Penny Dreadful.

You can probably guess Miss Eldritch’s reaction to this bombshell and the pantone number of the shade her face arrived at a moment later.  She poured scorn on the PP and everything we stand for.  As a result of this massive faux pas I have been politely requested (read; ‘sentenced’), to help out with her small business; ‘Bram Stoker’s Haunted Walks of London by Miss Andrea Eldritch’.  Essentially my role is to hang back and ensure that stragglers do not get left behind in any given cemetery, hostelry or ancient midden.  It was either that or forever forego the Taylor’s, a fate I could not bear.  I must finish now, as I can hear my man sharpening the fangs ready for tonight’s perilous promenade.

If you have been, thank you for reading.


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