Workshop, 22nd November 2106

“Words, words, words”, as the Danish Prince so pithily put it before tearing the Lord Polonius off yet another strip.  Words are our baggage, our currency and our legacy.  The English language is stuffed with words like some sort of alphabetised Chesterfield sofa, while other tongues get by with a narrow Chaise Longue or spindly Mies van der Rohe chair to settle back on when they want things to make sense.  Is it any wonder the world rushes to learn English, considering how many words we have to choose from?  Thank goodness the English no longer own their own language or who knows how we might conspire to ruin it.  Enough! I hear you cry.  Break off this interminable preamble and get to the point.  In which case I will.  It has not escaped my notice that this is the time of year when The Dictionary Industry of the English Speaking World likes to corral an annual crop (is it possible to corral a crop?  What would work better? Harvest a herd?  Wrangle a regiment?) of neologisms.  Now, there’s a word that must have sent ruddy-faced Colonels to their blotters to dash off a flamer to The Times.  Why the devil do we need a word for new words?  Piffle!  Yours, Apoplectic of Andover (Mrs).

Any new words appearing in this week’s Workshop were handled in the traditional and time-honoured way; humanely netted, delicately stunned, they were then pinned to a green baize board alongside a small hand-written paper label.  Daphne Gloag does not always approve of neologisms but is always inventive in her use of words, as in this evening’s Tintorreto-inspired examination of Christmas Journeys.  David Hovatter was not one to discourage new words as he traced the journey from fish hook to sushi.  Jagdish applied a new meaning or two to old words as he told us about a potted plant at prayer.  Pat Francis played with words and form as she contrasted two views of fate.  Alan Chambers returned us to fish, lines and nets with another contrast- this time of two farms in a sea Loch.  Danuta Sotnik-Kondyck is embracing the English language with a poem about wolves she translated from a piece she originally composed in her native Polish.  Peter Francis chose some disturbing words for his imagined evidence to a truth and reconciliation commission.  John Hurley rendered extraordinary ideas to paper as he imagined an Irish President’s introduction to a President Elect. Nick Barth brought us a stranded astronaut, hearing words from the ether.  Martin Choules has not got anything to say, but he chose some great words to say it.  Finally, Ariadne Kazantzis pictured an alien learning English in order to teach young Anthony a few things about our planet.

I am sure you will be familiar with the more headline-grabbing neologisms of 2016.  Brexit has followed the increasingly unfamiliar Grexit and foreshadows the hypothetically water-logged Nexit.  The alt-right have caused many people to become trumpatised following a momentous event of some moment over the pond.  The OED now recognises moobs, whether or not they are scrumdiddlyumptiousSlacktivism is joining clicktivism in replacing activism, or the messy and exhausting process of painting banners and catching agoraphobia in the company of hordes of unruly strangers.  The now over-familiar mamil is being supplanted by the much more attractive spandexual, often on individuals who are beardtastic.

Which rampant hashtaggery brings me to the word which The Pitshanger Poets will strive to bring to popular usage in 2017, if only because we strongly advocate its application in this world of chronocide (the killing of time), via wexting (walking while texting) and linkulitus (the habitual sending of web links to others).  The word is unliterate, meaning a person who knows how to read but staunchly refuses to do so.

If you have been on this occasion, thank you for doing so.

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Workshop, 15th November 2016

The workshop was bursting to the beams this week, with the committee room at Questors groaning under the weight of the students rehearsing in room above.  Does stomping and bumping really need to form part of the modern actor’s tuition ?  Well, judging by some leaden-footed turns in the West End of late, who are we to judge ?  And it all helps those who wish to perform some beat poetry.

Here in the Archives beneath Walpole Park, we have become used to the very ground moving above our feet as the transformative works continue to the Manor.  Sir John would surely approve, a man always restless with redecoration – indeed, many a Tuesday was set to the background music of sawing, hammering and swearing as his latest grand design slowly became his next underwhelming knock-through.

We started the workshop with a duet of sorts, as new member Fengfan Zhou read us a famous Chinese poem (about a soon-to-be monk saying goodbye to worldly things) in the original Mandarin, followed by Steven Cowan providing us with his own translation, full of red curtains and fatted carps.  Doig Simmonds was next, exploring a very busy delta where children are priests and fear is magnificent, whereas Alan Chambers has been finding the house only full of empty mirrors wheezy clocks.  We then had a rare event courtesy of fellow newbie Danuta Sotnik-Kondycki: a song.  About AIDS.  And really quite funny.  Martin Choules, on the other hand, has become a little jaded at a lifetime of setting the world to rights, and Owen Gallagher has been watching the latest get-ahead start-up arms-dealing entrepreneurs.

For Pat Francis, modern communication lacks a certain worlessness, while a Peter Francis told of an older time when a lonely old spinster accused of being a witch may not have been so incorrect, but was still horribly wrong.  Christine Shirley has been remembering her parents, while blasphemy was in the air for John Hurley’s take on a picnic provided by a somewhat-peeved messiah.  And although it is only November, Daphne Gloag is already thinking of January with her meditation on the Magi, Tintoretto, and the painting that links them.  Nayna Kumari, meanwhile, was looking forward to a time when we could shake off our endless hope of finding love, and finally the welcome return of David Hovatter with a tale of how an unseen beetle’s demise brought down the full wrath of Nature.

Such was the noise some weeks, that the poets felt duty-bound to complain, but being poets, they could only do so through the medium of verse.  So it was that Johnny Keats protested the round-the-clock renovations with Ode to a Nightingale, while Billy Blake’s Auguries of Innocence hinted at how even woodworms had a right to exist.  But the hammering and the harrumphing all fell on Sir John’s deaf ears, and Percy Shelley could do nothing but mutter in a sarcastic tone “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair !”

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Workshop, 8th November 2016

Depression is inevitably a depressing subject to think on, and despite great advances in its understanding, there are still far too many black dogs on the prowl.  Nor is it something one can easily make jokes about, if for no other reason than that those who most understand the humour are in no mood to laugh.  But the romantic image persists the glums is a vital component of genius, that Gustav Mahler and V.V. Gogh were only so great because they were so low, or that anyone who leapt out of bed this morning and sang in the shower will never amount to anything.

Of course, poetry has always had its sad-sacks, and sometimes they have simply been quiet, thoughtful types who tended not to smile so often.  But there have also been characters who rolled a double-one in brain chemistry and no amount of telling them to cheer up is ever going to help.  After all, what else is down-at-mouth Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven but one man’s memories about his lost love opening up a pit beneath him where his black-wingèd gloom literally glowers over him.

Nothing depressing about this week’s workshop, even when the subject matter took a more serious turn.  Doig Simmonds imagined a loss of innocence and a body the colour of iron, and Alan Chambers has been rummaging through a cupboard and turning up the most unexpected bric-a-brac.  John Hurley recounted a step-nephew with a lazy attitude and a CV unblemished by success, while Martin Choules has been foretelling the end of the world, and having a cracking time of it.  Daphne Gloag has been finding elements of the four elements everywhere, while Peter Francis has been reading some old Scots verse by both candlelight and computer screen, while the light that shone on Pet Francis’ short, tight piece has revealed a rainbow of connotations.  The Moon loomed large in Nick Barth’s living room, while Michael Harris has been out in the suburbs spotting tractors.

Needless to say, it is a mistake to assume that serotonin-shyness in the brain leads to being monolithically mopey or incapable of brightening up when the stars and the neuro-receptors align.  So the archives reveal it was with Sylvia Plath when she used to attend in the early 1960s.  This was the period of her most creative writing, bringing us The Colossus, Ariel and The Bell Jar, but also her most bleak.  However, since she would of course only attend when she felt more upbeat, so the group’s memory of her was as a slightly nervous American lady who would always apologise for not wanting to read one of her heavyweight, gut-wrought pieces.  Instead, she would inevitably declare that what she brought was “just a bit of fun” as she passed around her latest limerick or nonsense verse.  Rumour also has it that she loved a pint of Guinness and a dirty joke in the Red Lion afterwards, though this seems less likely.

But it just goes to show that depression isn’t endless blues without the odd outburst of pop, and that its sufferers cannot sometimes grab that black dog by the collar, snap on a lead and take the damn thing out for a jolly good walk.

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Workshop, 1st November 2016

Such are the many and various literary luminaries who have graced the workshops run by Pitshanger Poets over our long and illustrious history that I would not be at all surprised if you, the gentle reader, did not survey some of the events described in this blog with a degree of sceptical chin-stroking.  Indeed, it would be over-ambitious, not to say foolish for your humble correspondent to claim that ‘Bill’ Shakespeare and ‘Chip’ Marlowe (as he was called by his enemies) ever congregated around a large oak dining table in a manor house in Ealing, to discuss comparisons of significant others with summer days or to evaluate the chances that faces ever launched large quantities of ships.

The group that congregated around the oh-so-collapsible table of the Questor’s Library this week were delighted to maintain the traditions of Pitshanger Poets.  Martin Choules lead off with a highly disturbing Halloween poem, disturbing for its lack of undead myths or inventions.  Nick Barth lead on with the disappearing spirit of a departed friend.  Doig Simmonds wondered in 1963 if there was room for God, with the rhetorical answer that there probably was.  John Hurley remembered a cousin in Ireland, though we wanted to hear more about the hungry goat.  Christine Shirley has been looking at Autumn and enjoying the dragons in the fireplace.  Alan Chambers had enough to be going along with in a well-wrought observation of a heavy morning.  Anne Furneaux continues her dissection of the world of art with a shot across the bows of an abstract impressionist in residence.  Finally Daphne Gloag revised her poem on the subject of the colour blue, a colour the ancient Greeks had no word for.

It would take more space than I have here to examine the historical origins of PP, which are in any case lost in the mists of time and are the subject of a long and learned tome I am determined to write one day.  However, I have other hake to fricassee.  To whit, leafing through one of the broader sheet newspapers other day I was struck by a piece of research which claimed to prove that Chip Marlowe assisted Bill Shakespeare quite considerably in the writing of several of his plays, specifically in the ones which featured Henry, horrid or otherwise.  Like all things of any note these days this insight was arrived at with the help of a computer, which had been prevailed upon to analyse the specific vocab. and word frequency employed in The Bard’s plays and compare them with similar data from other playwrights.  Imagine, if you will Tom Stoppard being assisted by a contemporary teenager in the development of his next hit: Instead of saying ‘I said’, characters would say (or be like), ‘I was like’. Instead of ‘are you mad?’, they would be like (or say), ‘are you fricking special?’ and so on, until the audience storms out, throwing their salted caramel ices at the actors in high dudgeon.

This musing had me wondering whether any Pitshanger Poets were guilty of comparing notes outside the workshops, perhaps on lengthy journeys to Ealing or while waiting in a draughty anteroom for a quorum to be declared.  I nipped over to Ealing Town Hall, which is the temporary home of the Ferranti Pegasus ‘artificial brain’ while work on the Manor continues and asked my chief geek, Parsonage to knock up a word-frequency algorithm for me.  The complete works of all the Poets ever having attended a PP Workshop already residing in the memory of the Pegasus, the new code composed, I threw the ‘engage’ lever (having so much more drama and occasion than a return key) and waited for the giant daisy-wheel printer to start spewing wisdom onto the green stripy continuous-feed paper which can now only be obtained from surplus stock owned by the KGB.

The results were astounding.  Parsonage’s algorithm identified a number of relationships, but the one that had me reaching for the yellow highlighter was ‘Burroughs-Betjeman, P=0.75’.  In stats terms, Parsonage assured me this was a trail worth pursuing.  Searching for corroborating evidence led me not only to a shared love of trains between William S (for it is he) and John B but also a neighbourly existence on the Portabello Road.  The two will certainly have bumped into each other in the early sixties, and according to the reliable account of a jolly goat-herd, the two men visited the Jungfrau Bahn in Switzerland together.  Whether Burrough’s influence can be felt in late Betjeman collections such as Trains and Buttered Toast, Tennis Whites and Tea Cakes, and Scones, Junk and Correct Care of Mugwumps is something upon which you will have to draw your own conclusions.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 11th October 2016

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, National Poetry Day is over for another year!  In many ways Poetry Day is the bane of an otherwise mellow, mild and delightful time of year.  Autumn is traditionally the season for poets to don a woolly jumper, venture out to the park, take a few lungfuls of bracing air, gaze at the fluttering leaves in all their myriad colours, find a nice bench with a view of the deepening sky, sharpen a pencil, flip open a notebook and prepare to write something truly depressing about Winter.  National Poetry Day ruins the sombre atmos like an ice-cream van cruising for business in a cemetery.  I would be delighted to see it annulled and struck from the calendar, or at least moved nearer to the Eurovision Song Contest in May, where it might at least nestle next to something appropriate to its intellectual level.  It would be better in May.  Everyone knows you cannot churn out a good piece when the sun is shining and there’s a picnic to be organised.

Now, I realise I am coming across all Scrooge-like in the communal good cheer one is told to affect in the face of a National Day for the Support/Celebration/Cherishment/Utter Defeat of Something Dear to The Heart, but writing poetry is not like baking cakes.  Poetry will never be exploited as a witty, heartwarming reality TV contest starring a talented but slightly past-it comedy double act as hosts, judged by a glamorous lady poet, permanently ready with the mot juste and a dishy, rakish poet with a touch of the Mr Rochesters about him whose sole purpose seems to be to maintain the female audience of a certain age.  I cannot imagine anything more dreadful, and I for one would not countenance being involved in such a disgusting farrago – if farrago is the correct term, which I for one doubt.  Not unless I was to be paid a quite obscene amount of money.  Wait a moment, does anyone have a phone number for Peter Bazalgette?

Nevertheless, this week’s Workshop was a delicious, heartwarming affair.  Peter Francis was first out of the oven with a multi-faceted recollection of his brother.  Alan Chambers’ Birth Song delighted us and ought to do well in the public vote. New member Jagdish brought a freshly-decorated autumnal concoction to the group, redolent of Autumn.  Angela Arratoon brought out an old recipe with a conversation with a school master, recalled on a train.  Louise Nicholas gave us a fresh, slightly salty concoction based on observing office workers at play.  Daphne Gloag has been gathering magic apples to bring us a poem about Now.  Nick Barth has been baking us something of a Neapolitan flavour, with only four colours.  John Hurley has been working on a bit of satire following a brush with an American recipe book.  Finally Pat Francis rounded things off with a tender morsel on the subject of Gallipoli.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, Poetry is not a thing for the rank amateur.  Now, it is true that we at Pitshanger Poets welcome all to our ranks.  We do everything we can within the confines of our weekly, two week workshops to foster and encourage the budding, as well as the sprouting and downright drooping poet to Higher Things.  But for us, every day is Poetry Day.  The problem with National Poetry day is that bad poets will go and gather in large public spaces for ‘open mic’ sessions.  It’s as if one were out one day for a nice stroll and suddenly came upon the Jarrow Marchers, Chartists and Wat Tyler and his mob of peasants in a park and with a shock realised that they had somehow acquired a Public Address system and an addiction to rhyming couplets.  Quite apart from anything else, the presence of amplification equipment just makes the whole thing just a little too easy, does it not?  Time was, a loud voice was de rigeur for the touring poet.  It’s said that Robert Browning could be heard from one end of The Serpentine  to the other.  AG Swinburne could cause dogs to bark simply by clearing his throat, while Christina Rossetti’s public audiences were advised to position portable soft furnishings within easy reach of any nervous females following the mass faintings experienced at a notorious reading Goblin Market.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 4th October 2016

What a night !  Verses leapt and sonnets soared as poem after beautiful poem was silkily sonorrated into the willing ears of a crowd thirsty for verses.  The sighs of contentment that were to be heard between couplets were as mellifluous as the gasps of astonishment.  Truly, the words were on fire last Monday night in the Studio, as seven actors brought every element of their craft to the faultless lines of our poets in residence.  All in all, it made for a grand night out.

But then, we should not be surprised at the literary ability of the common man, nor the quick wits of the average housewife.  Humans use language every day, and use it in extraordinarily inventive ways.  Even an inconsequential chat about football during a cigarette break or overheard commuter communing with their mobile phone will be replete with metaphors, similes, puns and new coinages to such an extent that we cease to be aware of how clever we all are.  And why wouldn’t it be so, for humans are a talky species, indeed most of the time we simply won’t shut up !  So, as National Poetry Day approaches, the only surprising thing is that we only celebrate the fact for one day.

All of the above was much in evidence at this week’s workshop, where few were the silences and many were the voices.  Alan Chambers led us out, reworking his recent poem about foxes by, among other things, increasing their number.  Will it be four foxes next week ?  Peter Francis was next up, walking the tightrope of how much to reveal to the reader beforehand, and John Hurley left us wondering if his woman in the fishmongers was being picky or choosy.  Pat Francis went looking for silence in stars but couldn’t hear it over the throbbing of her heart, while Nayna Kumari has been stepping out alone, and inadvertently stepping on a few toes – but then who do those toes think they are to judge her so ?  Michael Harris, meanwhile, has been off to the races but those around him are losing faith, while Martin Choules has been using the wrong title and the wrong rhythm, and Louise Nichols tells us how sharp her mother was with both a sewing machine and penetrating question.  The French Revolution has not fulfilled its promise for the subject of Owen Gallagher’s quiet tragedy, while Ariadne Kazantsis is still experimenting with how an alian and a superhero might best save the world.

Of course, public poetry readings are nothing new to the Pitshanger Poets.  The Archives reveal one memorable event in 1755 when, after much cajoling by sometime-attendee Thomas Coram, the group agreed to give a reading of their works to raise funds for the Foundling Hospital – after all, where would literature be without its waifs, strays, and assorted orphans ?

Alas, the resulting event was not an unqualified success, not helped by the then-current vogue of publishing anonymously, which saw many readers reciting from behind a heavy curtain.  Thomas Gray tried to win the audience back with a rendition of his famous Elergy, but unfortuntely his doomy moping was not much of a feelgood crowd-pleaser.  And surely it was a mistake to top the bill with Samual Johnson, reading an extended extract from his latest offering,  A Dictionary of the English Language, starting from A and continuing for page after page of abacus, abasement, abbess, abeyance, abide, abode, abolish and abomination (though strangely not aardvark).  As George Handel was heard to wearily comment to William Hogarth “wake me up when he gets to zootomy”.

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Workshop,27th September 2016

One of the great boons of the much-heralded forthcoming restoration of Pitshanger Manor is the much-heralded and just-completed demolition of Pitshanger Manor.  Of course I am messing with your mind to quote my teenage nephew, I do not mean the entire Manor, just the modern Public Library extension.  This structure was cruelly and with malice aforethought grafted on to the Manor in 1902 and had all the charm and majesty of a public urinal.  Remarkably it was the Tuesday evening home of The Pitshanger Poets Workshop for most of the 20th Century. Many may feel that I am stretching a point when I say that this depressing edifice was wholly responsible for the demise of the flower of British Poetry.  However I insist in pressing my case since so many talented individuals found the prospect of action in Wars One, Spanish Civil and Two preferable to a Workshop among the gloomy portals and fierce draughts of the Library chambers.  Certainly Ealing Council’s swift prohibition on the consumption of alcohol on the premises discouraged the attendance of our more well-lubricated poets, some of whom were eventually persuaded to yell their works through the windows from outside the building, pint freshly delivered from the Red Lion in hand.  Does this make Dylan Thomas a Pitshanger?  It’s a technicality.

Somewhat of a technicality was the fact that this week’s workshop was the most popular for some years (and where were you?), the room was packed.  We do appear to be attracting a number of husband and wife poetry tag-teams which is welcome and shows poetry at last shaking off its Bohemian Bloomsbury image at last.  Louise Nicholas returned on her annual sojourn from the land of Oz to the land of Uk with a poem about a dog with a conscience.  Owen Gallagher has the Clyde running through him, though his clothes are mercifully dry.  Angela Arratoon made a most welcome return to the group with a cat poem that was anything but a cat poem.  John Hurley has been thinking about finding love in his latter years, maintaining a wry smile, or is that simile?  Michael Harris has been mis-hearing his mother from the big city in a wonderful binary poem.  Alan Chambers has been watching foxes.  Pat Francis has been thinking about love and Dame Julian of Norwich.  Peter Francis picked the theme of poetry and ran with it.  Nick Barth has been trying to escape from or with his own inertia.  Anne Furneaux brought back a revised piece in her modern art series.  Daphne Gloag has been wondering whether the birds go on for ever.  Finally, Martin Choules brought three short poems which may be read at our Poetry night on Monday the 3rd at this very theatre.  There, I told you it was a popular evening.

Which pandemonium put me in mind of a Workshop past I discovered in the Archive recently.  As you may recall from these pages, the Workshop predates Sir John Soane’s own ‘Restoration’ of Pitshanger Manor in the early nineteenth century.  The Poets were accustomed to meeting in Sir John’s beautiful Eating Room, however Sir John never saw the Manor as a finished project and from time to time all would be step-ladders, dust-sheets and ‘Egg-Shell White with a Hint of Laudanum’ , forcing the poets to find another room.  On this occasion they had decamped to the cozy Breakfast room, which had a only one small circular table and four chairs.  There were ten poets present, including a fatherly William Wordsworth and a young Percy Shelley in London eager to air Queen Mab to his peers.  The Workshop started as announced on the chimes of eight o’clock and Percy was given the floor.  No sooner had he reached the end of the first stanza than the door burst open and a certain Samuel Taylor Coleridge sidled in, dragging a large arm chair.  After the usual bows and greetings the reading was resumed, only to be interrupted again by a coughing John Keats carrying a stool.  Again, after some gratuitous enquiries after his health the reading resumed.   Which brave effort was again impeded by the entry of an apologetic John Clare with Mrs Clare, a crate of chickens and a settle of some nature.  Finally, the camel’s back was broken by a swaying, discombobulated Lord Byron outside the breakfast room, carrying a tankard of ale, rapping loudly on the window with his cane and demanding to be let in.  It is believed that after some negotiation the meeting was reconvened in the private saloon of the Red Lion.  Whether Shelley got to the end of Queen Mab is not recorded.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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