Workshop, 12th June 2018

I notice from my barely-manageable inbox that some of this column’s regular followers have been eager to get in touch with me of late.  In a display of scarcely-credible diplomacy, organisations large and small have been writing to me requesting my permission to be permitted to write to me again at some point in the future.  According to my Solicitor, whose advice I sought on the matter, this is due to a measure called GDPR, which I think I remember my mobile phone using before 3G was introduced.  This must have been around the time my man told me I had to stop using my nice little phone with simple number buttons on it, as everyone was now obliged to stare into a thing resembling the monolith from the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, while being required to prod the things incessantly on the Tube.  He tells me this is what the young people are into at the moment, with train spotting, the hoola-hoop and watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on VHS being on their way out.

Perhaps I am at risk of over-egging this GDPR thing, but the logical implication seems to be that because I once requested a catalogue from them, World of Bow Ties incorporating Cravat Hut are obliged to ask my permission to remember me.  It did get me to wondering whether the arrangement is reciprocal.  I have therefore asked my man to write to the various purveyors of holidays, sofas, curtains, kitchens, concert tickets, books, gadgets, quail’s eggs, vintage spare parts, cummerbunds and folderols in my inbox to ascertain whether I may have their permission to remember them, just in case I want to do business with them in the future. My man has instructions to erase the details of any vendors I do not hear from within the month from my computer.  The law may be an ass, but if I am, as a result of this required anonymity, to refer to companies by means of cryptic clues, such as ‘South American river appears to have a loose approach to paying tax, one word’, or ‘a fruit falling on Newton’s head will have you searching for a charging lead, one word’, or ‘higher class grocer issues imperative to a flower to pause, one word’ in everyday conversation, so be it.

Everyday conversation this week’s Workshop was not.  Michael Harris got things started with a piece on truth and lies, a short poem which inspired a lot of discussion.  John Hurley has been visiting old friends and relations in a graveyard and captured the atmos precisely.  Pat Francis has been watching a heron, and we went on to discuss whether these birds belong in air or water.  Peter Francis got us talking about man’s place in the World Wide Web.  Nick Barth wondered whether a poem can really be a machine.  Anne Furneaux told us that for some people, every day is like Sunday, while some of us feel that every day is like Monday.  Owen Gallagher showed us a boy staring into a pawn shop window at his own guitar, a peculiar cruelty.  Fred Burt had us wondering whether thoughts can really leap like dolphins.  Martin Choules should have inspired a longer conversation about fate and predestination, but for the fact that we needed to hear from Alan Chambers and his modern take on a war poem, before we ran too late to spend a little time in the bar.

One of the other questions which exercises my correspondents, apart from the question of whether we are permitted by law to make a note of each other’s names, is the current state of Pitshanger Manor.  I am glad to say that my twice-weekly visits to the old place indicate that work is proceeding smoothly.  While I was horrified when an innocent enquiry of one of the hardworking brush-bearers elicited the response that when painting the ballroom ceiling he had run out of magnolia and was switching to white with a hint of elephant dung, I was later assured by the Project Manager that this was an attempt at humour and should not be paid any attention.  I have always considered myself as a man of the people, a brother in spirit with the skilled artisan used to the arduousness of physical toil, and had not expected such flippancy.

There are many fascinating aspects to the Pitshanger Manor Restoration, enough to fill an Award-Winning and decent-selling book by a local aesthete,  bon viveur and doyen of the Ealing creative writing circuit, methinks.  The objective of the project was to return the house to the condition as completed by Sir John Soane in 1804.  However, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, his house was but one of the several locations where the aspirational Georgian could mix with the enlightened.  There were the Workshops of the Pitshanger Poets, Wilbraham Tollemache’s Classicism Study Evenings at Ham House, King George’s Arboreal Dialogues  at Windsor Park,  Landscape Painting with JMW Turner in John Soane’s grounds, Jeremy Bentham’s regular discourses on the advisability of cruelty to criminals from Westminster, Needlepoint with Princess Amelia at Gunnersbury, non-lethal duelling in the grounds of Boston Manor, and last and by no means least, Comet Hunting with the Herschels in Slough.  For a Renaissance Man like Erasmus Darwin, seeking inspiration for his Lunar Society in the rare journeys he was able to make to London from Birmingham, this must have seemed like an embarrassment of riches.  Imagine poor Darwin’s dismay upon his arrival to find that due to, some might say, overly-competitive planning, all of these delights were held on a Tuesday Evening.  Once arrived in the locale, poor Erasmus set to, furiously rumbling along the turnpikes in an attempt to visit as many meetings as he could in one evening, in a premonition of the ‘seven bridges of Konigsburg’ problem, before admitting defeat and retiring to the relative tranquility of Derbyshire.  If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, 5th June 2018

It has been suggested that poetry is the reserve of the tuneless and lazy, those teenage sensitive types who long to be an artist but can’t hack the art.  Want to be a songwriter but never stuck with your piano lessons ?  Fancy being a novelist, but can’t be doing with all those chapters ?  Then poetry is for you !

Of course, as anyone who has ever attempted to find a rhyme for purple will attest, it’s harder than it looks.  And looking through the Archives at our Tuesday night attendees over the centuries, it is clear that most of them never came to much, couplet-wise.  But then, perhaps the life of freezing garrets and editor disinterest hold less of an allure to some would-be wordsmiths, who quietly get on with their bookkeeping or plumbing or ministerial brief and keep the poesy on the QT.  After all, who needs the constant chorus of pedants thinking that anyone who puts a piece of their souls out there is fair game for a sniding (yes, I’m well aware of the argument that disinterest is not a synonym for uninterest, and I reject it).  Far better to wax lyrical at the weekend after a hard week of Mammon.

This week’s hobbyists were led out by Pat Francis celebrating the humble vole with its frustrating lack of a moral, followed by Fred Burt allowing the dreams to answer back in his response to a previous dozy rhyme.  John Hurley has been caught in the rain on market day and huddled with some happy farmers, then Daphne Gloag has been finding a place in the woods with trees made for climbing.  For Peter Francis, stray cats going about their business can only lead to unwanted kittens, while Martin Choules’ childhood business was dreaming of escape from the suffocating countryside, and Alan Chambers has revisited a memorial but found it different from his memory.

Some of the day-jobs of actually-did-make-it poets are well known – Robbie Frost’s farming, Gerry Hopkins’ monking and Georgie Byron’s boozing.  But what of the careers that never were ?  Eggie Poe for instance tried his hand at fortune telling, but his doomy prognostications were not a hit.  Teddy Hughes, meanwhile, almost became a zoo keeper until it became apparent that his only interest in animals was as metaphor.  And the less said about Alfie ‘Highwayman’ Noyes’ moonlighting, the better !

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Rabbit – Peter Francis

My mother would skin a rabbit
But gut them she would not.
(That fell to our lodger, Ken
Who later hanged himself from a tree).
The country women brought them in
Laying them out on the market trestle
Like bodies dragged from rubble,
Brown eyes  still open.

A slit in the fur opened them up  for inspection.

My mother would look for signs of shot,
Black pellets spotting the flesh not good
She wanted her meat snared or ferretted

In Fishy Lowe’s they hung from hooks
small buckets attached to their heads
alongside hares – too upper class for us.

Or skinned they lay on the marble slab
Headless  like Saturn’s children
But they made good stews and cheap
That saw us through the dark days.

After chitterlings, tripe, brawn. faggots, pig’s trotters,
rabbits were luxury.

Finding the heart was prize.
Like finding sixpence in the Christmas pudding
You’d chase it floating on the gravy
through a wrecked cathedral arch of ribs.

But rabbits do not have wishbones.
And as for feet
They were dismembered.





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Workshop, 29th May 2018

One of the ever-endless duties of an archivist is finding new space for old stuff.  Time’s wingéd chariot is constantly dropping feathers and hubcaps, and it is our job to come along with the dustpan of history and sweep up behind them.  It is extraordinary just how much significance can be gleaned from Tennyson’s blotter or Lord Byron’s laundry list, in much the same way that an archaeologist can determine an entire diet from a coprolite, and likewise we must both shine our respective droppings.

But where to keep the meticulously cleaned and catalogued collections of metaphorical toenail clippings ?  In this regard, we can learn a lesson from those archivists of old, the monks.  It takes a certain kind of personality to find great excitement in holy relics, in the prospect of touching a box that is touching a item that touched a genius.  And above all, it takes great faith to instinctively know that this prepuce is the only one of the hundreds claimed to be the prepuce, or indeed to trust that the gaudy casket contains anything at all.  For us these days, it is less body parts and more autographs we engather, but it does no harm to think that a few skin cells must have brushed off onto the page.

Anyway, there were fewer starry-eyes at this week’s workshop as Christine Shirley got us underway, floating with the leaves on the river of memory, while Pat Francis imagined evacuees leaving London but not the Thames.  For Peter Francis, it is rabbits all the way as he recalls the stews of his youth, whereas it was always the trees and the girls which would do for the boyish Doig Simmonds.

John Hurley then recalled a relative who had married well and soon knew her trencher from her porcelain, while Anne Furneaux has been eavesdropping on the Axis bomber command and their fateful decision to target high streets over runways.  Next was Martin Choules seeking to unseat an unscrupulous politician, who seems a safe target not likely to sue, given that he’s both a century old and fictional (the politician, not Martin), handing over to Alan Chambers to navigate both the foggy waters and the soundtrack.

The current restoration of Pitzhanger Manor is turning up plenty of would-be relics from the Tuesday convocations, from Bill Wordsworth’s pressed daffodils to Willy Yeats’ trampled dreams.  They all have to be carefully removed from beneath the floorboards and behind the wainscot and laboriously conserved by many different techniques that all seem to involve formaldehyde.  They are then very carefully slid into a manila envelope and reverently laid into a box file which is then stacked with the others currently propping open the door to the teleprinter room.

And then we come to Patrick Moore’s monocles, of which we have thousands.  The astronomer would often pop in after filming The Sky at Night in Lime Grove studios just down the road in Shepherds Bush, and it was guaranteed that he would get through half a dozen of Colonel Mustard’s finest over the course of the evening.  Indeed, it only took a particularly surprising or shocking poem to be read out and there went another one down between the cushions – so much so that the other guests would deliberately spice up their verses just to see the scale falling from his eye.

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Workshop, 22nd May 2018

I am sure I do not have to remind my incisively intelligent readership that one of the several impending global catastrophes which will surely engulf us all, whether or not we appreciate poetry, is known by the insipid term climate change.  Now, I do not pretend to know much about this subject area, but I am confident I know a little more about it that the average Republican Congressman.  Ever since my doctor advised me to take a keener interest in Global Politics in order to address low blood pressure, I have found that getting inside the heads of a small cohort of deeply doolally elected public servants is a highly effective way to really get the blood on the boil.  A few days ago, my Man had the dubious pleasure of walking in on me mid-rant as I was catching up with coverage of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee In Washington DC.  A gentleman by the name of Mo Brooks, Congressman for Alabama was insisting that that rising sea levels were likely caused by the White Cliffs of Dover falling into the English Channel.  One presumes that he drastically over-estimates the absorbent properties of chalk.  Such was the intensity of my fulmination that I fear my treatment may be a little too effective and now dare not get too close to anything sharp without an Emergency Oil-Well Blowout team on hand, just in case I accidentally prick a finger.

This experience got me wondering how any British Climate Scientists ever became convinced that global temperatures were on the rise, given that the phrase ‘climate change’ so succinctly describes our weather even when things are behaving themselves.  The answer to my conundrum, the rain-soaked elephant in the room, is of course May.  May has now become the long hot English summer, and because it follows on from a typically Baltic April we have skipped Spring altogether.  Summer will be a fond memory; in June it will start raining and Autumn can get going in earnest.

That being said, none of our poets this week chose to take inspiration from the month of May.  Perhaps next week when winter has set in, the spirit of remorse with take over and we will see a few poets expressing nostalgia for that long hot summer of 2018.  Peter Francis gave us a highly original, Robert The Bruce-eyed view of a beetle determinedly climbing a wall.  Pat Francis was next up to the metaphorical pulpit to paint a picture of pre-Roman fortifications in nearby Brentford.  John Hurley brought another entertaining rant, this week concerning Brexit, a subject which has not been covered sufficiently in the opinion of this correspondent.  Doig Simmons produced a wry review of the slightly fire-and-brimstone nature of the sermon at that wedding.  Ann Furneaux continued her fascinating exploration of two comparative experiences of the same bombing raid during WWII.  Michael Harris is a master of the short form, able to encapsulate a single thought, and this week was no exception, with a view of the possibilities of an empty space.  Alan Chambers surprised us again with a couple of Galician Rites, remade for today.  Owen Gallagher brought back a note-perfect picture of loss to a family.  Finally, Fred Burt brought a remarkably accomplished and entertaining piece which he asserts is his first poem.  We wish him well with his next poem and hope he brings it back to The Pitshanger Poets when it is ready for an outing.

Ever the eco-warrior, I am determined to do my bit to combat climate change and the roving eye has naturally fallen on the glistening flanks of the old two-seater.  The Summer is always a high-mileage time for the old girl and myself, with invitations to festivals and readings as far afield as Chiswick and Harrow being shoved into my inbox.  I decided that while converting the car to electric power sounds very laudable I cannot do without the straight-six’s cacophonic purr.  Instead, I have opted for a conversion to natural gas, which thanks to my discovery of a World War Two Town Gas plant small enough to be mounted on a trailer, I now have a plentiful supply of.  After all, what could be more natural a gas than Coal Gas?  Unfortunately, the two-seater is not virile enough to haul the gas-production equipment itself, so my man has taken it upon himself to tow the trailer using the Thames Van, running in convoy with a flexible hose supplying the needful to my car via a gas tank fashioned from an inflatable mattress strapped to the roof.   On our first run I am proud to say we were able to get as far as the Coal Merchants in Greenford before needing to restock with another hundredweight of the black stuff, and we got back to Ealing with hardly a hitch just before Midnight.  So, apart from a few tons of coal a week, we are carbon-neutral.  Beat that, Prince Charles and your high falutin’ electric E-Type Jaguar.

If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Poems for Spring at the Questors

Ah Spring!  Season of lambs and mellow daffodils. Definitely in the top four of seasons, and long an inspiration for artists and nature alike.  So we shall be celebrating by presenting some of the finest poems written about it, however tenuously, from the whimsical to the sardonic via the witty and enraptured – all read by some of the finest actors in The Questors, fresh from a-Maying with the whitethroat and the wise thrush.

But this year also marks the centenary of the Armistice of the Great War, and to note the occasion we will also be reading some of the war poems from the time, not those familiar ones dealing with the hell of the trenches, but rather about the aftermath, including by female poets who had a very different kind of war.

And since we are occupying the Dark Monday during the run of Peer Gynt (thanks, guys !), we will also be taking a short detour up a fjord or two to see what Scandinavian poetry looks like – don’t worry, it has been translated !

So come to the Studio on Monday 21st May to join Thomas Hardy, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Mew, Rupert Brooke and Emily Dickinson among many others.  Oh, to be in Ealing, when all’s right with the world !

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Workshop, 15th May 2018

Last week these venerable pixels displayed a pithy anecdote concerning William Butler Yeats.  But alas, and with all due etc to my erstwhile what-have-you, he never even attempted to discuss the most pressing question about that great poet – why did he have two surnames ?  The easily cynical amongst you might be tempted to answer ‘because he was a Victorian, dur !”, but here in the Archive on a ling Friday afternoon when the sun is out but we alas are very much stuck in, this is precisely the sort of question whose lack of answer has driven poetry to its current lamentable state.  As T S Eliot once commented, nobody names their child ‘Stearns’ out of love.  We might add that poor Gerard Hopkins’ parents seemed determined to encourage him to be suitably macho, and one suspects that poor Percy Shelley’s parents were really taking the Bysshe.

Anyway, no silly names at this week’s workshop: Anne Furneaux came closest, but produced an impeccable family tree to prove her fully justified right to end her name with a silent ‘x’.  She also read to us a rather fine tale of one thousand bombers and one excitable little boy.  Alan Chambers next jogged upto his poem about running down that hill, and Michael Harris has been finding his inner voice to the liking of his inner ear.  The state of the -isms have been exercising John Hurley of late, but at least he’s still got his star sign to fall back on, while Nick Barth has been finding the oncoming Summer far too interesting for his liking.  Then followed some griping about nuts by Martin Choules, who subsequently won’t ever be offered a slice of Bakewell tart again, and Owen Gallagher told us how he almost became the last human alive in rural Donegal, before Daphne Gloag gave us an exclusive when she interviewed the Sun, which had us worried, until it turned out she meant the star, not the rag.

Anyway, a search through the Archives revealed perhaps the most be-saddled poet of all: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Now before we are accused of sniggering at his twice-entendered last-name, let us assure you that we consider it a fine, upstanding moniker.  Likewise, Wadsworth by itself is perfectly dignified and would rouse no further interest except possibly making the denizens of middle-Wiltshire a little thirsty.  No, the problems begin when his parents decided that poor dear little Harry needed every help he could get, whether he wanted it or no.

Now, it should be noted that Wadsworth was his mother’s maiden name, and why should it only be the father who gets to wave his handle in the air ?  And once that decision was made, why not also slip the Wadsworth in there for company ?  And this would have been fine had they also loaded up the christening certificate with plenty of good solid Johns and Edwards until the Wadsworth was very much the middle-name of last resort.  But no, just three names was all they could afford.  Ah, if only they had had more confidence, they would have realised that any son simply named Henry Longfellow was always going to stand out.

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