Workshop, 4th June 2019

Ah June, that first burst of Summer before the mugginess sets in, that step-up from the promising but changeable May yet still unsullied by the monotonous heat of July.  Dragonflies flit round Sir John’s pond in Walpole Park, potatoes and blackberries put out their surprisingly pretty flowers, bumblebees bumble around looking a bit like regular bees who have let themselves go, and all the world is at peace on an endless Sunday afternoon when the church clock does indeed stand at ten to three.

Alas, this week’s workshop eschewed the prospect of meeting plein air across the road, and so the picnic of poesy was instead spread across the lawn of the Library.  Opening up the hamper was Roger Beckett, who has been thinking about star-gazing despite it being close to the longest day, while Pat Francis has been handing round the greaseproof-wrapped sandwiches and musing on the driftwood of language in a poem she says she found inside a bottle.  Peter Francis meanwhile poured out the Thermos into plastic beakers as he compared the glorious sunset to stained glass windows, and Doig Simmonds started up a shaggy dog story about the one that got away as he tore open the crisp packet and placed it centrally on the rug for all to dip in.  Alan Chambers passed round the pork pies as he highly recommended a Summer exhibition at the Tate, alas from many years ago but clearly still vivid in his memory, while there has been no Summer slacking from Daphne Gloag as she polishes her prologue of possibility and polishes-off the first of the chocolate fingers.  Owen Gallagher then took a calm workmanlike approach to dividing the Victoria sponge evenly between all present, and took it as a cue to praise the white-van denizens who keep our world painted, oiled, and weeded, before Martin Choules gave a brief ode to a big fish and a finger-wag at a lizard as he gathered in the paper plates.

Of course, Walpole Park used to be the grounds of Pitzhanger Manor, and maintaining it fell to Eliza Soane.  Not literally maintaining it, of course, she barely knew one end of a trowel from a wheelbarrow, but overseeing old man Haverfield the Younger as he pottered about rotating the sunflowers and fluffing up the hydrangeas.  Officially, it was her husband who drew up the grand plans for the plantings in strict accordance with architectural principals, but it fell to Eliza to be his clerk of works and make sure that things got done.

But then, at least in the garden, she could avoid those damnable poets and their mooning around a daffodil by any other name.  She was not such a wilting violet herself to blush at the thought that all of her bower’s pretty blooms were no more than the plants waving their willies in the air, even if she were far too sensible to ever say so, but she did have a natural mistrust for any poet who boldly claimed that their ‘luve’ was like ‘a red red rose’.  Aye, Rabbie, she knew just what you meant.

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Workshop, 28th May 2019

I see our friend Aubrey the regular poet-about-town and contributor to this ongoing ‘blog’ (to use the parlance of the young and unpoetic, for was there ever such an uneuphonic word) has been lately exploring the backstreets of Dormer’s Wells, a suburb to a suburb with a name like a matinee idol.  But there is nothing new in estate agent upspeak, as witnessed across the pond where they insist on calling themselves real-estateers, though whether the adjective is meant to encourage us to think of ‘by royal appointment’ or ‘honest guv, we really do have this bridge to sell you’ is far from clear.  Now, far be it for I to perpetuate the myth of the estate agent as anything other than probably actually jolly nice professionals, but certain of their profession have been known to partake in the marketing department’s grade-A dollop of bovine excrement when it comes to rebranding so-so neighbourhoods, and for most of the last century their chief crime was to refer to Ealing as ‘the Queen of the Suburbs’.

No such hyperbole at this week’s workshop, where Michael Harris kept his wordplay to an almost-anagram and if Niall Cassidy were exaggerating about his father always sitting down, we won’t stand for it.  Daphne Gloag may have been rather fanciful with her flying bath, but she pulled it off with panache, while Alan Chambers looking up at a construction crane while keeping his feet on the ground.  Plain-talking John Hurley has been recalling some of the kisses in his life, all very believable, leading to James Priestman seeking to demystify the opening of Genesis.  Doig Simmonds has been having some weighty but very true thoughts about the holocaust,  leading to a complete contrast from Pat Francis as she swung on the swing of her memory, and who’s to say she didn’t ?  The seven gazes into the mirror of time were then recounted by Peter Francis (haven’t we all been there), and finally Martin Choules gave us a fact-based comparison between the fact-free theories of early astronomers.

So why was Ealing assumed to be a) superior to all other suburbs and b) female ?  One wonders if the occurrence of the world-famous Tuesday workshops had anything to do with it, if by ‘world-famous’ you mean ‘known about equally on every continent by that tiny proportion of the world who read poetry, in English, and went to the right sort of school’.  Or was it a barbed comment on the presence of The Question Amateur Theatricals and Terpsichorean Troop with its attendant the drama queens ?  Tom Eliot was always keen on the moniker, saying that every town should have three names, it’s everyday practical name (“Ealing”), it’s fancified, unique, name (“Queen of the Suburbs”), and then the name that is known only to its residents, who will never tell it.  After much intensive research here in the Archives, we can now exclusively reveal this name to be…“town”, as in “I’m just off to town, want me to pick you up a more interesting name ?”

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Workshop 21st May 2019

I have always been a believer in the care-worn adage that travel broadens the mind.  It was only last week that I was driving the two-seater along to Dormer’s Wells to meet up with an old school friend who is hoping to improve his heroic ballads.  Now you might not think that Dormer’s Wells is such a great distance, but what with the increasingly eccentric mechanical habits that the old jalopy has adopted recently, it’s quite a trek.  These days it’s unwise to go anywhere in it without spare water, oil, petrol and the assistance of a diligent fire crew bringing up the rear.   

Now, of course, Dormer’s Wells does not exist, as such – apologies if you happen to think you live there, but your residence is actually positioned in a kind of no-man’s-land between Hanwell and Southall.  It was cooked up by a cabal of Estate Agents some years ago in order to end a vicious turf war that had broken out between rival Agents.  A Geographers A-Z Map of West London was unfurled on the snooker table at Ealing Golf Club and the various territories were divided up.  The diligent land-grabbers swiftly realised that there was an uninhabited area between leafy Hanwell and desirable Southall.  Some calculations were performed, some money changed hands and a peace treaty was agreed, with the knuckle-dusters and coshes were put back in the sports equipment chest for another year.  With no delay, the bulldozers and cranes rolled in and another community of anthropomorphised furry and feathered creatures were forced to hit the road, belongings tied up in red-spotted handkerchiefs.   Bar a few strong estate-agent terms the whole thing was sorted out to the satisfaction of all, and so much more equitable than the Battle of Ealing Broadway which created the gated community of Ealing Village, from whose bourne no traveller returns, as the bard had it.

When all is said and done, I like to think that my little trip to the very edges of Southall has taught me a little more about The Common Man, his ways and his travails.  I like to think of myself sitting on a park bench enjoying some chips and a fizzy drink with the suntanned gentlemen you see, quenching their thirsts and talking loudly about the burning issues of the day.  I am sure they would welcome a man of the people such as I, and I am confident that a few stanzas from my oeuvre would bring peace to the most troubled brow.

Peace was something we had in reasonable quantities at this week’s workshop.  We had but six poets reading, which is a comparatively small quorum.  Anne Furneaux led off with the first of a two-parter from her childhood, remembering the work people used to do; delivery and working people.  I am sure people still do work, it’s just that there are fewer reasons to get so filthy doing it today.  Daphne Gloag has been thinking about Persephone and that fateful picnic of two Pomegranate seeds which committed her to Hades’ less than welcome time share.  Roger Beckett continues to surprise us with the dry wit of the poetry he tells us he has been writing for quite a while now.  This week he was telling tales of telling tales of sheep.  John Hurley returns, week after week, to get things off his chest, this time his view of critics, which is critical.  Nick Barth brought back an old one inspired by the silence of a volcano and the noise of tinnitus.  Finally, Martin Choules has been puzzling over butterflies, or rather the word ‘butterfly’, whose origins appear lost in the murk of time.

There you have it, a week with very little in the way of travel.  It’s coming up to holiday season, however and poets everywhere will be packing their buckets, spades, notebooks and assorted stationery ready for the moment they can luxuriate in a lounger or deploy a deckchair and write how wonderful they would be feeling if it wasn’t for the (…insert theme here…).  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 14th May 2019

Following the thrill of the greasepaint, things are returning to normal here in the Archive, as far as ‘normal’ goes.  We have a new poet laureate just intime for the new royal sprog, and I for one can’t wait to see Mr Armitage’s fulsome praise over this latest appendix to the civil list.  In  other news, the perpetual dithering over Brexit is making it difficult to recruit new interns in rural Bulgaria and metropolitan Malta, with a natural reluctance on their part to commit to a seven-year indenture when who knows where we’ll all be by then.  Well, we know where they’ll be, down here in the Archive working off their boat fare over, and you’d think that working underground would be a positive plus in a world edging to a new cold war.  And incidentally, before the letters start flooding in (because we don’t currently have the staff to read them), no we are not doing local archivists out of a wage, because the positions are strictly unpaid.

Anyway, moving onto this week’s workshop, we saw a smaller, tighter group this week with only five readers, but plenty of tangents flown off on between poems.  Martin Choules already had his head in the clouds as he bemoaned the lack of really alien aliens, while John Hurley has been breathing the foul air of modern life and gasping out his warning in couplets.  Meanwhile, the blues have befallen Daphne Gloag, which gave her plenty to smile about, while Alan Chambers is losing his five senses but thankfully not his sense of language, and finally Caroline Am Bergris’s lifeforce has given her a good talking to.

The former poet laureate who spent the most time at the workshops must surely be William Wordsworth.  The young firebrand who saw revolution as very heaven was much cooled by his appointment in 1843, and one wonders what his cocky younger self would make of this aged establishment sellout.  And perhaps his wiser older self would reply that Keats, Shelley and Byron were twenty years dead, and likewise his publishing career, with even Sir John passing on to the great workshop in the sky.  But was a little of the old young Northern tyke still about his refusal to write any official verses for the new queen ?  And for her part, why was she so quick to agree that her first appointed could, well, rest on his laurels as a tribute act, packing them in on the salon circuit with his greatest hits ?  Perhaps she was just relieved she wouldn’t have to hear any more about those bloody daffodils !

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Workshop, 7th May 2019

By now I will venture that you, my loyal readership will have appraised yourself of the minor triumph which was the 3PE, or Pitshanger Poets Poetry Evening, either via the life-changing perspicacity of your own attendance of the event, or via notices in the more reputable corners of the literary press.  I never read my own notices of course, preferring to pass that unenviable responsibility to my Man, who can be trusted to provide an interpretation of the review (often using the medium of dance) which has been gently tuned to the sensitivities of his employer.  I am delighted to say that I have never been disappointed by what I have heard, although many critics seem to be fixated on the quality of my neckwear or tailoring rather than my performance or material.  However, I trust my manservant implicitly in these matters.

As for the 3PE, it is my hope that as a result of our little perf, this edition of the PP Blog is fortunate enough to welcome a host of new readers.  I do hope you enjoy these vociferous ramblings and are planning to come along one Tuesday as a result.  I was astounded to learn, via an informal survey carried out by your correspondent in the Grapevine Bar after the show, that not every member of the appreciative audience was a reader of this organ, with some pleading ignorance of the institution which is the Pitshanger Poets itself.  One hopes that the welcome publicity which the 3PE has afforded will ensure its even greater import on the poetry world stage.  It is of course dangerous to over-think this sort of thing, but surely the awarding of a Nobel Prize to a certain Mr Robert Allen Zimmerman last year sets a dangerous precedent.  Here in the PP is an internationally renowned institution, surely doing more for World Peace than any other Tuesday evening poetry workshop.  Dare we suppose that the Committee, even the King of Sweden himself, is even now adding our name to the appropriate shortlist?

Well, they say, a poetry workshop facilitator’s work is never done, and never have those words been more true than today, for hardly had the afterglow of Monday evening faded than it was Tuesday and time for another of our vital gatherings.  Natasha Morganna lead off with a fiendishly metaphorical piece on the theme of lust, or was it?  John Hurley has been darkly reflecting (or is that reflecting darkly? For never has the question of the split infinitive seemed more important than today), on his own mortality in a poem which nevertheless managed to raise a wry smile.  Alan Chambers suffers from colour blindness, a condition which he used to great effect in the points of colour which highlight this week’s monochromatic poem.  Roger Beckett is a new poet to the group, but he tells us he has a large stock of work ready to bring along.  He knows as well as any other poet in the PP that the regular beat of the Tuesday evening workshop can become addictive, spurring the creative on to ever new heights.  This week Roger remembered Adam West, the One True Batman in many peoples’ eyes.  Steve Burchell has also been reflecting on mortality, giving us a dense and satisfyingly cryptic moment in the life of a doula, employed to help the chronically sick in their journey out of this world.  Martin Choules has been thinking about sonnets, and the essential role of the Volta in the same ‘thesis, synthesis, antithesis’ as my philosophy master used to mutter in his sleep.  Nick Barth has also been thinking about death, only he refers to the valley of that name, where life struggles to maintain a foothold.  Pat Francis brought the meeting to a conclusion with a sparkling piece remembering sparking ‘Blakeys’, longed-for steel reinforcements to shoes.  Peter Francis seemed to be holding a good hand, but he folded at the last minute.  Perhaps we will hear his poem next week.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention another triumph, in this, the nation’s foremost poetry blog, and that is the truly-deserved elevation of Simon Armitage to the seat of Poet Laureate.  Of course, we at the PP whole-heartedly congratulate Simon and wish him well penning lines on the various Births, Marriages, Deaths, Bar Mitzvahs, Handing-Ins of the Royal Driving License and other sundry events that the role demands.   Now here at the PP we don’t wish to blow our own cornets, but we have been waiting for this announcement for some time.  The post of Poet Laureate is in the gift of the monarch, but of course the decision is made by the Prime Minister of the day.  Well, what with one thing and another Mrs May has lacked the, what is the terrible modern word?  The bandwidth to make a decision of such import.  She did ask her cabinet but apparently the only member of that esteemed brigade who knew anything about poetry was Mr Michael Gove, and when asked for an opinion the only names of poets he came up with were those long dead, or perhaps they were characters from Game of Thrones, the Cabinet Office appeared unsure.  Now, I’m not going to allege that this highly-reputable institution was in any way responsible for the latest selection of Poet Laureate, but when duty calls, one answers, and does so with all conviction.  I can go no further, save to suggest that mine might be a pint of Sack when you’re next in the Grapevine, Mr Armitage.  As you have been, thank you for writing.

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Workshop, 30th April 2019

Preparations continue apace for the upcoming Pitshanger Poets Poetry Evening, or 3PE, as it is referred to here in the Archive.  Of course, this is also a particularly proud moment for your humble Archivist, who is making her stage debut at our erstwhile host, the Questors Theatre.  I have naturally publicly spoken before, such as when I was awarded runner-up at Librarian of the Year or when raising a point of order at a branch meeting of the Allied Cataloguers, Indexers and Alphabetisers, but this is altogether more momentous.  For the Studio stage has been previously trodden by such luminaries as King Richard the Third, the Second Mrs de Winter, and Just William.  There is blood, sweat, and the tears of a clown upon that floor, grease of the paint, elbow and lightning varieties oozing between its boards, upon which have been the walls, doors and windows of bedrooms, red rooms, dark rooms and lighthouses, all lit up by more bulbs than Blackpool.  Indeed, the intimate stage of the Studio is a very big space to fill.

There was a definite nervous energy about this week’s workshop, where Pat Francis was discovered with her curtain-raiser of a very old love story much retold, and introducing husband Peter with his tale from the riverbank, gleaning folk wisdom from the energetic salmons.  Next on the bill was John Hurley with his performing birds and a just-so story to explain their absence, and a subtle minor-key observation from Owen Gallagher about the drive to fit-in.  Alan Chambers then spun his strange dream-vision over us in the time it took a lock to fill, and Martin Choules gave us a rousing patriotic ballad searching for a new audience, followed by an old classic with updated words by Daphne Gloag.  Roger Beckett played the part of his uncle in the War, one of a new guard not in it for the medals, while Simone Nunziata kept his stand-up meditation on words and silence short and sweet, and Nick Barth brought on a finale full of the joys of Spring and a promise of performing an even bigger show later in the year.

It is usually at this point that I crack open one of the mighty Pitshanger ledgers to find a juicy tittle-tattle titbit from glories past to recount, but in truth I have been too busy learning my butterflies and rehearsing my pauses to get round to it.  I’m sure Sir John and the Romantics had many a theatrical experience, with Bill Blake and Gerogie Byron in particular the very epitomes of the drama queen, but how will researching such ancient minutia help me to remember my sodding lines (which to be frank are really quite appalling, but what can one expect from such a provincial playwrite ?)  But rest assured, come Monday night then the Hamlet of modern Ealing poetry will very much have its prince, and there shall definitely be something written on the stage of Denmark.

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Workshop, 23rd April 2019

It may surprise you to know that I was no great shakes at school.  I was sent to a middling public school, situated in a drafty and disused middling country house on the outskirts of a drafty and disused middling RAF Airfield in a drafty and disused part of England, roughly in the middle.  At the start of term my father would bowl me up to the grand old school in the Jaguar Mk X, hoof me out of the passenger door without stopping, and, saint among men that he was, wish me well before roaring back to London in a cloud of dust and pipe-smoke.  I would pick myself up, reassemble my trunk and enter the hallowed portals for another period of doing my best to avoid the work, intellectual inquiry or strenuous physical exercise which were reluctantly pushed in my direction by the lacksadaisical teaching staff.  In this way my education set me up perfectly for the life I now lead, and I am eternally grateful.

I only mention this because as one of the leading lights of the intellectual life of Ealing, it is often assumed by the various mongers I meet on the busy thoroughfares of our fair borough (mongers seem to be mainly fish these days, although I note with concern that fear is gaining in currency while costers now choose to devote themselves entirely to frothy coffee), that I am some kind of polymath and am able to perpendicularly bisect the centre of a circle with a chord while conjugating the Latin verb ‘to be’ from the top of a moving unicycle.  I find it refreshing to admit that I have no such capacity.  Very early at school I found that a talent for trotting out a trochaic tetrameter at the drop of a cap kept me out of the clutches of all but the most determined bullies, while I was the go-to boy for an apposite rhyme or two when the beaks’ end-of-term revue needed a bit of spit and polish.

Which brings me neatly to coverage of this week’s Workshop, depending as it did on rhyme for much of its proceedings.  Martin Choules, ever the craftsman with a well-honed rhyme scheme in his toolbox took another look at the creative block, from the point of view of the young and older poet.  Roger Beckett allowed an alternate line rhyme scheme to permeate his poem, reflecting on his twin vices, cricket and statistics.  Niall Cassidy could not resist a few rhymes creeping into a reminiscence on one of the more verbose thugs he went to school with.  Daphne Gloag likes to know that a rhyme has bought and paid for its position in a poem, and will use them on occasion, but not tonight, as she re-told the romance of Psyche and Cupid from a modern context.  Doig Simmonds, will rhyme with the best of them, as tonight’s discussion on his conversion from a fighter to a lover shows.  Nick Barth tells us he sometimes rhymes, but only in the lounge bar at his local Pub.  This week he brought us a compressed argument on the value of observation in support of one’s world view.  John Hurley seems to prefer writing to a rhyme scheme – he tells us he finds rhyming easier than not.  This week he uncovered the bare bones of a boat he used to own, buried by the shore for many decades.  Peter Francis has a free style, unfettered by too much in the way of form, but he will rhyme if the mood takes him.  This week brought a flowing, rolling poem about salmon on the river, or was it about fate?  Almost finally, Pat Francis wrote this week about the culture of the back garden, that private plot of dreams, in a piece which again was notable for its sparse use of rhyme.  And then, as a way of rounding off the session, and because we had a little time, Martin stepped in again with another poem, deploring in excoriating terms the mock-Georgian in contemporary architecture.

One of the many questions frequently asked of this resplendent organ is; why have the Pitshanger Poets installed a Ferranti Pegasus Mainframe Computer in the cellars of Pitzhanger Manor?  What business does a poetry workshop have in running a large, complex and troublesome valve-based computer in any case?  Come on, my fine fellows, what in blazes do you think you are up to?  The answer has two parts:  Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and Education.

As George Gordon (Baron) Byron’s only legitimate daughter, Ada was brought up with both an innate hatred for her father (who booted her and her mother out of the marital abode when she was just a month old) and poetry.  Ada’s mother, Anne Isabella ‘Annabella’ Milbanke, was determined to bring her daughter up to not follow in her father’s uneven footsteps.  As a result, poetry, laudanum and swimming lessons on the Hellespont were unequivocally off the curriculum.  Ada grew up with a love of science and mathematics, fuelled by her Mother who had received an excellent education herself.  As history records, the young Ada was only seventeen when she encountered a somewhat crusty and cantankerous Charles Babbage.  The two hit it off immediately.  Charles opened up a future of mechanical thinking machines to Ada, while she showed him that the objective of these machines need not be isolated to pure mathematics, a huge relief for those of us whose love of computers begins and ends with their ability to run ‘Candy Crush Saga’, officially the most addictive pastime since the invention of Croquet.

The inevitable link with Ealing and the Manor is by way of a sideswipe from Ada.  Her Mother Annabella was determined to use her powers for good, and established a school in Ealing using one of Byron’s properties, which became today’s University of West London.  Soon after and with the encouragement of Babbage, Ada established ‘A Research Institute into the Proposed Development of a Machine-Based Semantic and Taxonomic Interpreter, Employing the Judicious Removal of Romantic Linguistic Embellishments and the Normalisation of Extraneous Rhythmical Cadences’.  The research began with linguistic interpretive algorithms and smoothing functions intended for mechanical devices, but Ada’s fortune was extensive enough to permit continued development well into the electronic age, when a large enough computer could be commissioned to see her vision to its conclusion.  The result?  A machine designed to read poetry, so that humans don’t have to. 

In a clear sideswipe to the local poetry workshop, which she regarded as a dark agency which only served to compound her father’s Romantic insanity, Ada established her Institute in the largely-deserted Pitzhanger Manor and charged the poets with the proper organisation of the project, supporting its research and development and the leading the commercial exploitation of the resulting contrivances.  In this way, by eliminating the need to read or analyse poetry, Ada Lovelace took her revenge on the art, her feckless Father and the Pitshanger Poets with one stroke.  The intellectual challenges involved with Ada’s near-impossible (and quite implausible) objectives have been hugely arduous.  On the plus side, the Manor has never lacked for heat since the Pegaus was installed. 

Remember, remember the reading at Questors on the 6th of May, and if you have been, thank you for reading.

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