Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 15th January 2019

In one sense, mid-January is the middle of Winter.  Not according to the solstice-equinox approach to season definition, of course, which sees Winter kick off a mere four days before Christmas, and neither by the Westeros-prophesy reckoning, and well, the less said about the Southern Hemisphere the better – but in terms of actual temperature, the start of Advent also marks the start of the big freeze.  Except in globally-warmed London, that is, which most nights so far hasn’t got close to a decent smoky breath, let alone frost.  For, despite being a respectable 51.5˚North (on a par with the Viking-visited Northern tip of Newfoundland and the polar-bear-infested Southern tip of Hudson bay), it is bathed by both the freakishly warm Gulf Stream and the worryingly warm concrete heat-island effect, all of which means that the days of the frost fares on the Thames are as unlikely to return as a return to the rolling glaciers of the ice age.  Australians hoping to see their first ever snowfall will need to venture out of town to the Pennines, or wait around till February for that one-flurry-a-year that London puts on just to keep its hand in.

Which brings us on to the ongoing crisis in poetry.  The problem is…well, a lack of problems.  Bards are creatures of extremes, of great awe in the face of relentless Nature, and nobody wants to read an Ode to a Bit Nippy Dawn, or a sonnet on a season of damp.  Given us a bracing minus 20 to really get a good whinge going, but decrying the implacable gale force one-and-a-half just sounds pathetic.  Here in the Archive, we have even turned off the heating, much to the howling and chattering-of-teeth of the interns.

There were plenty of possibly-superfluous scarves at this week’s workshop, but once everyone had unwound themselves it fell to Doig Simmonds to break the ice with a lament to golden sunlight and silver clouds, handing over to Michael Harris listening out for the space between words and watching the mortar between bricks.  Martin Choules next, relishing most than just that new book smell as he runs his fingers over the page, and Daphne Gloag has been talking with a wood pigeon using the same old words, but thinking about new ones.  Then came new member Shuko Mfaume who recounted meeting a wolf in the pubs and folktales of Ireland, and Owen Gallagher who found unexpected solidarity on a picket line.  Natasha Morgan, meanwhile, has been sharing a dance before the politics begin, and Pat Francis has been spotting a new use of a very old word and off into a reverie with Yeats and Anglo-Saxons, while Peter Francis has been watching the woman who watches the trains.

Back at the tail-end of the Little Ice Age, Pitzhanger Manor saw many a bitter new year.  Sir John could always be relied upon to lay on a three-log fire in his salon, and Mrs Conduitt was a stickler for drawing the curtains the moment dusk set in to keep the cold out in the dark where it belonged.  The attendees, arriving with a cold blast through the front door as St Mary’s struck eight, were by no means at home as the cycle of the seasons swung to its lowest point, and would take a good fifteen minutes to defrost before in any state to wax the lyrical, a time taken up with the smallest of talk: Georgie Byron (a man far more at home on a sunny Greek isle) would grumble how he had read in The Times with incredulity how the Astronomer Royal had said that the Earth was actually closest to the sun in early January, greeted by a snort of agreement by Johnny Keats, who’s natural palette tended to the Autumn, and who would always grousing how his intended Ode to the North Wind was again delayed due to his ink freezing in its well.  Bill Wordsworth was no Southern softie, having been hewn from the Lakeland granite, but even he saw little of cheer before the daffodils sprouted, and often exclaimed to Bisshie Shelley (would have far rather just hibernated for the whole season) how much he envied the latter’s traveller from an antique land.  Indeed, the only one present who seemed alive to the frigid beauty was young Mary Wollstonecraft, who marvelled at the prospect of sailing to the North Pole.  “Best leave that to the esquimaux” would mutter Sammy Coleridge, “they’re used to the cold”.  “But I could become used to it too” she would retort, “it’s simply a matter of acclimatisation.  I could start off in the Alps, perhaps, near Lake Geneva…”


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Workshop, 8th January 2019

As my loyal readership know, I am a true Renaissance man, a polymath (-glot?, -gon? I can never be sure).  I am as likely to turn my attention to the latest news from a probe investigating a vast rock model of a peanut on the edge of the solar system as a social novel on the struggle to be an open-minded, educated window cleaner in Barnsley during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or for that matter the latest attempt by the kazoo orchestra of South Brisbane to set the poetry of Elizabeth of Aquitaine to music.  In Medieval French.

As a result, I am an enormous fan of the Enlightenment, and never let a day go by without being even a little bit enlightened.  I like to think that if I was around in those enlightened times I would have made sure I was on visiting terms with the Herschels, perhaps to chat to William about the music of the spheres or to shin up a ladder after Caroline into her viewing loft to get an eyeful of her refined optics at first hand.

Of course, that also makes me an enormous fan of the equinox we have just passed and the beginning of the long climb out of the darkness of winter that we experience at this time of year, as far as I know a thing that happens almost every year without fail.  Even now I am looking forward to the end of March when we move the clocks forward in order to give our gardens and crops an extra hour of sunlight, a prospect made all the more vital by the prospect of entirely cutting ourselves off from any European imports, a subject I will not dwell on here.  Suffice it to say I have been purchasing refrigerators and stocking up on the essentials; to whit, Orangina and Haagen Dasz.

This Tuesday saw the return of the Pitshanger Poets Workshop after a two-week hiatus over the Christmas and New Year period.  I suspect that some of our number did not respect the express instructions to desist from all poetry-related activities in order to maximise the opportunity for excessive consumption.  We have to regard this as cheating as it can be seen as gaining an unfair early start to the year.  I have to admit to taking a little time out to sketch out a Spring Sequence on Boxing Day but it is now almost illegible due to an accident with the brandy butter.

Christine Shirley got proceedings started with an enigmatic winter poem recalling a lost friend.  Michael Harris followed with a pair of typically short poems on the theme of cutting cords.  We cannot help feeling Michael is moving on in 2019.  Martin Choules has been thinking about jellyfish, more precisely the word itself.  Caroline Am Bergris wants to learn to fly for Christmas, simply in order to do less walking.  Natasha Morgan brought a reminiscence of a cathartic New Years’ Day to her first visit to Pitshanger Poets.  Nick Barth imagined a moment of parting caught on a wave of time for his first poem of 2019.  Pat Francis also alluded to a wave and a moment in time, in this case based on the sea.  New poet Steve (my apologies for neglecting to note Steve’s surname this week) found the perfect time to wear his father’s old jacket in his piece.   Peter Francis brought an iPhone into his post-modern poem, though he claims not to know what an iPhone is.  How post-modern is that?  Finally Daphne Gloag advocates taking a sail around the Universe the next time you take a bath, which brought us back to astronomers and the enlightenment.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 18th December 2018

Not every poem needs to be an epic – for every Hiawatha, there must be a thousand haikus.  Sonnets seem to lie on the vague border between what feels like a quickie verse and the start of a ballad.  But as any seasoned poet will attest when it comes to their composition, keeping it short dies not always mean keeping it quick.  There is a real art to being pithy, of turning a perfect couplet that says it all, without the luxury of tangents or flourish.

Here in the Archive we always appreciate brevity, especially when having to catalogue the feet of every line.  Nothing sinks the heart more that turning the page of a slim volume to find a pageful of long, rambling line after line to be analysed into iambs, dactyls and spondees.  But ah, the bliss of turning the leaf to find nothing more than a Limerick and acres of crisp white space…

This being the final workshop of the year, it was suggested that readers might want to bring along two or three quickies that ordinarily would feel a little brief.  Attendees of course are welcome to keep things as short as they like, but some might feel that a poem all over in ten seconds is likely to be critiqued by the others just as speedily and hardly getting their money’s-worth.  So this week, a few readers made up for length through multiplicity.  Pat Francis gave us a concise assortment of observations on the workings of the Workshop, Martin Choules brought multiple scraps of paper sporting various mental droppings, Alan Chambers then riddled us ree, Anne Furneaux found her lovebirds had clashing schedules, while Nick Barth risked a few haikus and had an enjoyable whinge on an escalator, and William Morton caught his breath to sing to the season of jingling tills.

Not everyone was in such a hurry though, and Niall Cassidy was found perusing an airport bookshop in a fruitless search for verse, while John Hurley recalled his first intense teenage crush.  Owen Gallagher was in allegorical mood with his cautionary tale of Democracy, Christine Shirley remembered her late brother by a waterfall in a touching piece, and Peter Francis rode the grim, stampeding train to the promised land.

Sir John was always a lover of the short and sweet approach, much against the verbose spirit of his times – Johnny Keats was incapable of ode-ing for fewer than fifty lines, and Georgie Byron was constantly adding to his Don Juan which he always insisted on reading from the very beginning, while Sammy Coleridge seemingly had his Ancient Mariner tell of his entire voyage, wave by wave .  Indeed, so strained did Sir John become with every passing can to, that he went so far as to make discreet enquiries so that he might personally thank the Person from Porlock.

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Workshop, 11th December 2018

I am proffering apologies in advance this week for what will, needs must, be a bit of a hastily-thrown-together blog.  Normally I treat this weekly writing exercise as a cauldron of kimchee for the soul, with the major themes sketched out by Wednesday morning, the nouns and the verbs knocked into some kind of shape by Thursday and the counter-points and minor themes on parade by Friday evening.  Then the blog reaches its maturation phase and it is buried beneath such on-going projects as my adaptation for the stage of Ian Allan’s ABC of British Locomotives (1944), the book of The Musical of the life of Alec Douglas Home (as yet untitled and unfinished, but the lead number ‘There’s Room for Home’ is a cracker), and the latest stock take for the ten-year food and medicine store in the basement bunker, Should The Worst Come To The Worst.

By Monday the blog has been unearthed from its dark, fertile home and enters the long and laborious process of transferring to a digital medium before upload to the world-wide internet.  It’s only recently that My Man stopped using recordable Compact Disks for this process, insisting to the last that smearing jam on the surface of the medium did nothing for the contents, a position I remain vehemently opposed to ever since I saw Michael Rodd doing just that on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ one evening just after the Ark was floated.

The poetry in this week’s Workshop were less unearthed as discovered; a collection of small treasures for a winter’s evening.  Doig Simmons strode forth with a short, sharp observation on the next, or perhaps final step in a relationship.  John Hurley told us he was encouraged by his priest to write a poem on Brexit, which throws as much light on theology as it does on John’s own inspiration.  Peter Francis gave us a neat take-down on poorly-executed Christmas Greetings, which needed saying, quite frankly.  Pat Francis gave us a taste of the life of Shostakovich and the dark master he served.  Martin Choules joined the Christmas fray with an argument for re-gifting which managed to take us all back to the real meaning of the season.  Nick Barth rounded it off with his own thoughts on the longest night and entropy itself.  An enjoyable evening (and where were you?).

The reason for the unrefined quality of this weeks’ blog is that I have been struck down by a common malady, surely familiar to any poet this time of year.  Have you had it yet?  I think I must have been caught in the rain on that miserable afternoon last week.  I rushed home and had a Ginger Wine and thought nothing of it.  Then I noticed it again, sitting at my writing desk with the ABC of British Locomotives open at the Stanier Mixed Traffic 5MT class, and I realised that despite once being the most populous locomotive on British Rails I could not think of an opening scene to introduce such a major character.  Yes dear reader, I have a nasty case of winter writer’s block.  Knowing my luck, I’ll be stuck with it for weeks.  And to think they were offering Writer’s Block Jabs at the Prosery Pharmacy in Pitshanger Village.  I knew I should have jumped at it, but you know how it is, you never think it’s going to get you.  The same thing happened in the Spanish Writer’s Block outbreak of 1919.  Such a tragedy; so many poets we never heard from again.

Next Tuesday (the 18th) will be our last workshop before the Christmas/New Year break and despite the enthusiasm of the Pitshanger Poets, the way the Tuesdays fall means we will not have another meeting until Tuesday the 8th of January 2019.  To mark the last evening, we are suggesting that poets bring short pieces and we will read more than one by each, with vim and vigour, if you can summon any.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, December 4th 2018

Judging by the long queues of fractious traffic leading towards the Broadway in Ealing, my fellow residents of the Queen of the Suburbs have been caught out by the inevitability of the calendar and have decided to treat December as a mad dash for the finishing line.  As you may be aware, many of Ealing’s denizens work in the film industry and habitually don the characteristic insulated puffer-vest of the movie set during colder weather.  I have never witnessed such rowdy scenes as of the last few weekends, with hundreds of such people sweeping up and down the Broadway, blocking the thoroughfares and causing distress to ordinary, law-abiding citizenry.  Such was the rowdiness of these ‘gilets gris’ that the council had to call in the Constabulary to enforce order.  It does seem hugely unlikely that such unsociable behaviour should be associated with something as innocuous as a gilet.  Only in Ealing, eh?

Whatever the chaos outside, the institution which is the PP Workshop continues to go from strength to strength.  Pat Francis deployed some Celtic philosophy in a short poem about inspiration.  Peter Francis seems to be getting his inspiration on the way to buy hardware, judging by this week’s observational poem.  John Hurley has been troubled by the ghosts of his own Christmases.  Anne Furneaux rounded off a tryptic of poems telling the story of a weekend on the south coast.  Christine Shirley brought us a poem and a drawing in one with a peon to snow.  Alan Chambers took us back to the sea, bringing us glimpses of fish and nets.  Finally, Nick Barth rounded off the evening with a white-out on a mountain that nevertheless required selfies.

My own approach is to amble into Christmas.  By June I have already decided upon the predominant colour scheme for my decorations.  By July the Christmas Card list is all but done, together with the appropriate order to send my messages out.  By August I have finalised the executive decision-making on gifts, leaving my Man to actually select and acquire the items.  By September I have chosen the music to be played on Christmas Day and in what order.  This leaves October and November for the menu, the final decisions on napkins and cracker novelties.  And what of December, I hear you ask?  I leave December for the most important decision of all, being the poem I will read to my guests after we take our places at the dining table, just prior to the commencement of eating and drinking.

Last year I delighted my guests with William McGonnegal’s ‘The Christmas Goose’.  Faithful readers will recall that the PP archives exposed the fact that McGonnegal was a fictional character conjured up as an outlet by that master of dark wit, Thomas Hardy.  I chose not to drop this bombshell on my guests until the end of my enervating performance, in order to enhance their enjoyment of this truly tedious, tiresome work.  So, what shall I read to my pals this year?  I suspect that Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Christmas Truce’ might be just the inspiration my guests need for a jolly evening of amusing conversation.  What do you think?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 27th November 2018

Poets these days are too full of care, indeed it seems they have no time to stand at stare.  And the poetry they produce is all so serious, as if their verses could actually change the world.  Silly romantic fools, the best a poet can hope for is to knock out a memorable couplet that can be endlessly misquoted until it becomes a cliche – after all, a groan is still a reaction.  Whatever happened to light verse ?, the easy-listening to free-verse’s jazz.  It’s easy to look down upon the Spike Milligans and Pam Ayreses as somehow lesser, but ask your average denizen of the Clapham omnibus to quote a post-war poem, and…well, actually they probably would just insist they had no change on them and avoid eye-contact, but nevertheless the irregardless.

Naturally, a couple of stacks in the Archive’s new Theosophy Marzials Wing are given over to verse so light that the interns nickname the section laughing gas.  Presumably this is not a reference pulling teeth or the oft-noted hilarity of reciting Ruddy Kipling’s If on helium.  Perhaps they instead are commenting on how its contents are no longer employed by the medical profession, replaced by the altogether more serious syringe.

This week’s Workshop was also imbued with a little more gravitas that usual, starting with Pat Francis’ looking up at the stars and remembering her brother, and husband Peter Francis telling of a lonely spinster, victim of one war, passing on her skills to the be-widowed of the next.  John Hurley meanwhile has been up with the lark to observe the Autumn colours and listen to the heartbeat of the motorway, while Owen Gallagher has been tuning his ear to the Scots dialect on his boyhood paper round.  For Anne Furneaux, the muse struck at a previous week’s Workshop, though inspiration proved illusive, while Daphne Gloag has been thinking of the poor victims of a sculptors zeal to show stampeding, cheerful horses.  Alan Chambers has been celebrating lovers of a more abstract nature in his piece, full of vanquished thighs across the wires, leading to a mindful Martin Choules musing on the poor poetry orphans who are only remembered as a line or two.

The debate of how much weight a poem should bear is a long one no more settled in Sir John’s day as now.  Will Wordsworth was all about the serious, while young Johnny Keats was more given to whimsy, and Leigh Hunt was a light as a cloud.  The strangest one to fathom, though, was Bill Blake – were his visions to be taken seriously, or mere Xanadu-like raptures of reverie ?  Each week the other Workshop attendees were at a loss as to how to listen to his latest lyric – as highbrow hyperbole or polemical parody ?  Their usual response was a sage nod and chin stroke and mutters of it being “powerful” and “delightful” and various other adjectives without committing to any nouns.

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Workshop, 20th November 2018

There are few things more annoying to a precise and organised archivist than an unshelved volume, a gap in the teeth of otherwise identical tomes, a row of likewise leather and regulation tooling, with only the Roman numeral to distinguish one from its neighbours, but with one of them missing !  It is of course unavoidable if regrettable that these books will from time to time have be taken down from their native land to be read, but should never be travelled more then a dozen paces beyond to one of the reading desks, whence the tutting librarian can harvest them back home once the barely tolerated public are ushered out of the bibliarium a full ten minutes before the official closing time.  (And Lord alone knows how lending librarians are able to cope).

But, the wily reader may be voicing, how does this affect the organiser of poetry’s slim volumes, whose receptacles are less bricks and more slates to be slid passed one another.  Surely a missing volume would be unnoticed, so narrow is its spine ?  Indeed, these booklets cannot even stand themselves up without leaning upon their neighbours (and there’s a metaphor for poetry that has inexplicably gone begging).  But the experienced book-keeper knows the precise volume of each volume, and can spot a short measure down to the millimetre.  And woe betide the desecrating reader who has purloined so much as a pamphlet to use as a makeshift fan or to even up a wobbly reading desk…

This week’s Workshop also took place in a library, this one full of scripts as befits a theatre like the Questors, and under their dramatic gaze Alan Chambers opened proceedings with a redraft of expressions of a expressionist painting, handing over to Daphne Gloag also fine tuning a previous work concerning a petrified lion frozen in a frieze.  Revisions were also being revived as Anne Furneaux looked upon the Mediterranean three times and with a painter’s eye and a storyteller’s ear, and Christine Shirley has been revisiting her imagined grandparents as she went walking back over her walking back, and Owen Gallagher has been tinkering with his working man’s prayer that is no closer to receiving an answer.  There then followed brand new words from Doig Simmonds about seeing ghosts in the mist from the salty sea-spray, and John  Hurley has been hitting a wall when trying to deal with committees, while it is the futility of the stars that has been keeping Peter Francis in their cruel gaze.  Pat Francis has been facing up to the tanks of old age and Michael Harris has felt the longing at the passing of a playwright, while Martin Choules has been having a quite word with America, one old empire to the new kid in town.

Sir John kept a modest library in Pitzhanger Manor from which his guests were wont to borrow books for a week or fifty when penning a particularly obscure ode to some ancient Greek tragic  muse who appears in one line of an obscure one-act farce of Euripides, or to check the spelling of ‘tiger’ in his Doctor Johnson (and then to reject the finding anyway as too modern and Frenchified).  Sir John kept a tally of who had taken what, which makles for interesting reading: “Geo Byron, still has not returned my ‘Trickster of Seville’ – says he intends to write a short Verse or two about its central Character, Don John.  He thinks it should only take him half an hour, if he ever gets round to it.”  In another entry we find “Had to rebuke Wm Wordsworth for once again my first Folio of the Bard for pressing Daffodils in.”  But most telling is the note about Oddfellow’s British Birds and the Hedges they Frequent:   “Pcy Shelley came in wanting my Oddfellow, determined to write an Ode to a Skylark – had Jn Keats in complaining that he needs to look up the Chapter on Nightingales.  Also Wm Blake, who says he has caught the Bug and wants a crack at the Seagull, tho he may be referring to his recent belt of Ague and seeking revenge on the one who delivered it to him.  Alas they must all wait until I receive it sent back from Overseas and young master Poe who though only a small boy has an unusual Obsession with the Corvids.”

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