Workshop, 5th September 2017

When does Autumn begin ?  September the 1st,  with its implications of back to school, across the yawning bank-holiday-less expanse of the ‘ember’ months ?  Or perhaps September the 22nd, after the equinox, with its hope that perhaps September will still be warm enough for shirtsleeves and sunglasses.  The latter is perhaps the optimist’s view, or should that be the pessimists when we factor in global warming ?  Of course, an Antipodean would tell us that Autumn begins in March, cooling things down ready for the snows of August, but since they’re half the world away, they’ll have to shout it to be heard.

Either way, there’s no escaping that Autumn, if not already here, is texting to say that it’s on the bus and only a couple of stops away.  Not many leaves have fallen yet, but they’re looking less than healthy, and a few acorns and conkers are already crunching underfoot.  It would make an interesting experiment to take such a tree as it gears up to wind down, and transport it to the land of the transportees to see how quickly it works out that it needs to start working out.  One supposes that the reverse would also be true, and that some poor twig could be kept in perpetual slumber, not dead, but definitely not putting any rings down.

No seasonal blues in the Autumn browns at this week’s workshop.  Alan Chambers instead thrust himself and his key deep into the lock of the bleak Midwinter, while Michael Harris brought us a bookmark to sink into, and John Hurley has been penning a chorus of disapproval while listening to the hold music.  For Owen Gallagher, memories of his father are reminders of how few of them he has, while James Priestman has been lurking in an Elsinore graveyard and was surprised to hear a young prince trying out some Biblical metaphors.  Martin Choules, meanwhile, has been eyeing up some modern portraits and found himself wishing that the artists had cracked a joke or two with their sitters, followed by Caroline Am Bergris noticing the signs of age,  not in the mirror, but in the flotsam of daily life, and finally Daphne Gloag has been talking to her bees, who gave her a few sharp retorts in return.

Here in the Archives, every March we undergo a thorough Spring clean, and it must therefore follow that the previous Fall we underwent an Autumn clutter, where dust, litter and tat accumulates in the corners.  A look around the vaults with a season-adapted eye reveals that this process has already started, with for example postcards from the interns’ holidays already taken off the office fridge and moved to the Drawer of Stuff besides the lockless keys and money-off vouchers for services we’ll never use, all the things which one feels cannot be thrown away but which we vaguely hope will evaporate by themselves.

Some poets have described having such a drawer in their minds, where they file away a good title or an interesting rhyming pair, ready to be pulled out in an emergency that never comes.  If only Emily Dickinson had practised such mental tidiness, she may have had the necessary words to hand and not been forced to use yet another placeholder hyphen until such time as they presented themselves.


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Workshop, 29th August 2017

Re-ensconced in their beloved meeting place, the Pitshanger Poets have come home.  The Committee Room is looking as poky as ever, but it is the right sort of pokyness.  Of course, being romantics at heart, the members are more accustomed to refer to the room as the Library, on account of the darkwood cabinets of plays that line the walls.  Through the glass-fronted doors can be seen a different sort of slim volume, collecting scripts by Coward, Stoppard, Chekhov, Shaw and the like, as well as rumoured glimpses of Cardenio, Niobe and A Brilliant Career through the cobwebs and fug of less tobacco-conscious times, but it seems that the keys to the locks are as elusive as a capital letter in a Neil LaBute script.

With these silacious soliloquies and deitic dialogues looking down upon proceedings, this week’s workshop felt like an amphitheatre, but our poets showed no sign of stagefright.  Doig Simmonds gave the prologue as he pondered the size of an angel, and Daphne Gloag conducted the orchestra in a tune which slows down in perfect time with the expansion of the universe.  Next entered John Hurley wise elder, recalling the metaphorical wakes of the old country which accompanied very real departures, and the chorus then recited Alan Chambers’ change of season lamentation.

Then entered the gravedigger, Owen Gallagher, undertaking the herculean task of scrubbing the headstone, followed by the punning wordplay of Michael Harris’ fool, and a short lyrical turn by Peter Francis tempting rain.  Leading lady Pat Francis gave us a classic tragedy, with Guinevere’s betrayal leading to Arthur’s own, and Martin Choules ended with a farce involving a giant antenna and global warming.

So, will the plays in the Library ever again be plays of the stage ?  Will rust or woodworm once again open these scholarly sarcophagi and let the puckish banter tumble out onto the boards ?  A glance through the Archives reveals that drama is not such a stranger to these workshops, as in the time in 1820 when Percy Shelley brought in his monster four-acter Prometheus Unbound.  Intended as a closet drama, it was far too long and wordy to ever be staged, and was intended to be performed only in the theatre of the imagination.  He doled out the parts to those present (giving himself the lead, naturally, with Leigh Hunt as Mercury, Sir John as Ione, his wife Mary as everyone else, and Byron as Jupiter in a classic piece of type-casting) and they got down to wading through the thousands of couplets.

As the evening wore on with Act 1 still a long way from becoming Act 2, and the readers aware that this was eating into their time to present their own verses, so the silly voices started, with Panthea becoming inexplicably Welsh and Second Fury an attempted cockney that could honestly have passed for French without comment.  This clearly annoyed the playwright, whose own delivery became more clenched as the speeches droned on.  Finally, Mrs Conduitt entered with some shaved ice refreshment and an immediate intermission was called.  A somewhat put-out author joined the queue for the chamber pot, and then retook his seat in the for the second half, only to find that not one of his audience had bothered to return after the interval.  He soon tracked them down to the bar of the Red Lion, complaining to each other how turgid the writing had been, how hammy the leading man, and how lacking legroom the armchairs.

Of course, such conversations are unheard of in the Grapevine at Questors, but it just goes to show why many a playsmith may be more than happy for their labours to remain safely behind glass.

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Workshop, 15th August 2017

Alas and Alack! The Pitshanger Poets are without an enclave, a camera, a sanctuary, a niche, vault or lodging to listen to, absorb and digest our declamatory works.  Not since the Perceval Sisters threatened to terminate the Tuesday Workshop in favour of an ill-conceived ‘Steam and Nautical Engineering Soiree’ have the Pitshanger Poets been faced with homelessness.  On that occasion, the daughters of Britain’s only assassinated Prime Minister, having taken a shine to one Isambard Kingdom Brunel and wishing to build their own ocean-going steamship had requested a weekly step-by-step how-to course for themselves and their companions from the great engineer.  Fortunately for the Poets Brunel found Tuesdays inconvenient and the ladies had to settle for Wednesdays.  The resulting ‘HMS Pungent’ in eggshell puce with lime green vine-leaf accents and ruched bulwarks saw long and happy service until it was accidentally sunk when the bung was knocked out one summer afternoon in 1871.

The reason for our parlous state is that the Questors Theatre Building which has been our home for many years finds itself in need of urgent remedial work.  A wall, which a surveyor alleges was fulfilling the vital role of holding up part of the roof was apparently in danger of imminent collapse.  Whether the wall’s fragility was the result of poor construction or its location above the long-rumoured secret tunnel leading from the Town Hall to the undercroft of the building is now the subject of much debate in the Grapevine Bar, which mercifully escaped all danger.  The town hall tunnel was supposedly excavated by unemployed sappers in the 1920’s in order to permit a succession of expressive but bored Mayors to escape turgid Council Meetings and attend rehearsals for the annual panto.  Mayor Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Robertson Kimmitt’s Widow Twankey was by all accounts a tour-de-force.

We are not entirely homeless, of course.  We soldier on and the Workshops continue, albeit in the upstairs Café which is grand, comfortable and spacious, but not entirely without interruptions from other users of the space.  Doig Simmonds helped a latecomer into the auditorium while reading his recollection of a child’s first flight.  Caroline am Bergris managed to deliver a powerful and vehement description of her time in hospital without succumbing to the desire to buy a choc ice from the trolley.  Michael Harris waited until the teas had been served before getting going on his memory of the light from a bright morning window.  Nick Barth did a little Front of House before reprising his mini-epic on the subject of the Balkans.  Farrah Alebik bravely made her debut with the group, reading a powerful work about an old friend in Syria while the crockery was cleared.  John Hurley found a window of peace while the Questor’s Mime Troupe rehearsed and he revealed the hidden depths in the peat of Ireland.  Daphne brought us a new revision of a piece from her Time sequence while the rest of the group discouraged an earnest volunteer to whizz around with the Hoover.  Finally, Martin read a very short piece wondering at the F1 key’s ability to interrupt proceedings while the rest of the group resisted the urge to put chairs on tables.

It is not the purpose of this sorry correspondent’s contemptible discourse to discourage anyone from attending our Workshops and next week we should find a quieter place to meet, such as a corner of the Grapevine Bar.  As always, we will attempt to finish before Nigel calls ‘time’ in his characteristic, urgent manner.  Perhaps you, dear reader, can find a way to work it into a poem, though I cannot think how this might be done.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 8th August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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Workshop, 25th July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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Workshop, July 18th 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, 11th July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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