Workshop, 12th March 2019

Which is better, preservation or restoration?  This question has been whirling round the old bean of late due to events which I shall come to.  To draw a parallel, I am aware of how much the folk of Ealing enjoy seeing me pootle past in the old two-seater by their vociferous gestures and loud supportive cries.  How much would they enjoy my beloved automobile without its authentic perforated exhaust, machine-gun tappets and rumbling wheel-bearings?  If the vintage thermostat was not issuing forth its authentic drift of fragrant steam, would my fellow-travellers enjoy the experience of witnessing my progress up the Uxbridge Road quite as much?

Of course, I am being oblique with you, dear reader.  This week I was honoured to attend the glittering opening of the newly-restored Pitzhanger Manor (with its newly-restored letter ‘z’), and what a glittering occasion it was.  Now, it is not for me to report on the event itself, that is for the society pages and I would direct you to them.  Suffice it to say that the Prosecco flowed liberally, there were as many cheese and pineapple sticks as anyone could have wanted and I doubt any of the attendees saw their beds much before nine-thirty.  I am also not going to give you a critique of the restoration itself, except to congratulate the team on a magnificent job.  I encourage you all to hie you to Walpole Park to experience it for yourself.  No, I would prefer to draw your attention to the subtleties in the restoration, the mere details which only a connoisseur such as this correspondent would have a hope of spotting with the trained, porcelain-like orbs

Now, as per tradition, let me break my narrative for a short while to cover the essential proceedings of the last Workshop, for what a Workshop it was.  It never ceases to amaze how many poets will roll up for an evening’s prosody however chill and grim the weather.  Spring has not yet arrived, despite Feb’s false Spring, and yet we had thirteen readers (and where were you?) 

Alan Chambers was invited to lead off, bringing back a poem which raised the possibility of fading solace in the reflections in a window.  Pat Francis was up next, remembering a part-feral boy she was at school with who met a sticky end.  Anne Furneaux has been thinking about Sicily, music, dances and breezes.  John Hurley took us back to Ireland to witness Tim the gardener constructing a fertile plot.  Sara Cornejo brought back her poetic meditation for us to muse over.  Caroline Am Bergris took this evening’s poem as an opportunity to relate a story of a sexual offender, a story she has lived with for a long time.  Owen Gallagher brought back a poem with another kind of sexual offender – but much more of a voyeur.  Nick Barth has been imagining himself travelling on one of Volk’s more outlandish creations just off the coast at Brighton.  Peter Francis has been thinking about toads, and men and the essential distinctions, and essential similarities between the two.  Michael Harris has written us a cento, a poem made up of other poems, even if the lines he brought would all be familiar to a presenter on BBC 6Music.  Martin Choules has writers block.  Which has not stopped him from writing a poem.  Which must be some kind of paradox.  Doig Simmonds has been channelling his inner tabloid-editor in this weeks’ ironic reflection on the beggar.  Finally, Daphne Gloag stepped in bravely from the cold to bring us an evocation of Spring and the possibilities of Time.

As you may recall, I have been lucky enough to join the skilled restorateurs at Pitzhanger Manor on many occasions as they went about their labours and it was gratifying to see that they have taken note of the hastily-scribbled Post-It notes that I would regularly leave in my wake.  As one of the restorers told me himself, I am able to effortlessly span Architecture and Literature, a genre spanner in point of fact, making me one of the greatest spanners he had ever had the pleasure to meet.  Without my help, I fear many aspects of the patina of Pitzhanger Manor would have been lost.  For example, what of the dent in the skirting boards of the Breakfast Room left by the head of Alfred Tennyson as he dozed off for the third time during a reading by Robert Browning of his Bishop Blougram’s Apology?  Should it be lost to the filler’s knife?  Or the dents in the floorboards left by the sprightly heels of Gerard Manley Hopkins as he bounced rhythmically around the room while reading aloud, his preferred mode of declamation?  One has to look carefully, but I am happy to say that these crucial imprints remain.  However, some of my suggestions were not so lucky.  John Soane’s bright colours leap from every surface, in an effect many visitors will appreciate, however I mourn the loss of the nicotine wash which used to coat the interior, so evocative of the chain-smoking modernists and their reckless approach to health and personal hygiene.  Another of my recommendations was rejected by the team; there were two dents in the wall at the head of the four-poster bed in the master bedroom, caused by the posts repeatedly striking the surface during some athletic activity.  Alas, my entreaties that the damage could be due only to the nocturnal visits of one Lord Byron were met with blank stares by the artisans.  The impacts now repaired, one can only try to imagine Byron’s romantic exuberances, though I would always advise against that sort of thing.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 5th March 2019

Ever keen to copy all-things American, it seems that the Met Office is now giving names to the wind – more specifically, to whatever stormy waifs and tempestuous urchins blow in from the Atlantic.  But is this not the very kind of situation that the post of poet laureate was created to serve ?  We can hardly go labelling the weather as any old Tom, Dick, or Harry, or indeed in these equally opportune times, as Tilly, Dolly, or Hetty.  No, the wind is something to be respected, admired, and honoured with a name of suitable gravitas – the recent Storm Freya is definitely along the right lines, but the preceding Storm Eric sounds about as dangerous a petulant teenager.  Any poet worth their couplets would have chosen Erebos, Edric, or even Ebenezer.

This week’s Workshop was a gas, starting with Pat Francis’ imagining of the Celts who were driven out by the Saxons, and Niall Cassidy feasting his senses on a newborn, followed by Anne Furneaux filling her parlour with the best brics and finest bracs.  John Hurley has had an American relative descend on him, and Daphne Gloag has been planting the seeds of the months from a pomegranate, while Peter Francis recalled his father with foreboding.  For Doig Simmonds, inheritance is all in the genes, while Owen Gallagher thinks it’s in his parents’ language, and Martin Choules has been listening to the weather report.

In Sir John’s time when a genuine need for a poet was required to christen a wind of change, all Percy Shelley could come up with was ‘West’.  And for all that his Ode blusters against convention and blasts for revolution, it puffs-up the importance of the Poet as the only one who can blow up a storm.  But the Reform Act was still over a decade away, long after his own breath had so tragically ceased, and brought on not by Byronic fury, but the politicians’ hot air.

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Workshop, 26th February 2019

After the recent extraordinary warm spell for what all of the newspapers insist is still Winter (though surely within a precocious crocus of official Spring), it does raise an interesting question that is increasingly less-theoretical – how will climate change affect poetry ?  Where would Phil Larkin’s newborn lambs be if they learned to walk in a welcome width of warm ?  Did an unexpected mild snap cause Shakespeare to comment that now was the Winter of his discontent made glorious Summer ?  And would Robert Frost have got so much existential mileage if he’d stopped by woods to watch them fill up with sunbeams ?

A sunny set of poets met at this week’s workshop, if not quite dressed in shorts and flip-flops.  Doig Simmonds was first to risk doffing his coat as he told us how his memories kept intruding, and Peter Francis knotted his hankie while recalling a break-up in Holland Park complete with low-flying bats and a seen-it-all owl.  For an elegantly-fanning Daphne Gloag, the Mesopotamian sun god had indeed been in attendance, and John Hurley mopped his brow while he laid out a tale about a mysterious hermit with who knows what hidden past.  Anne Furneaux changed her glasses for her shades as she sang a song to the houseboats in the tidal mud, while Martin Choules brandished his straw hat in his on-urging hand as he called on the spirit of Voltaire.  Sara Cornejo meanwhile erected her deckchair as she meditated on seeds and meditation, and Pat Francis took a long sip from a tall drink before tenderly writing about her un-written family history.

Sir John was an avid thermomitrist, and took daily readings in Ealing every morning, noon and suppertime (or rather Mrs Conduitt did the actual reading).  Even after he left the Queen of the Suburbs, the Archive continues the practise, and sifting the data makes for fascinating reading.  So did the Little Ice Age end in the mid-Nineteenth Century because of the relentless CO2 spewing from those dark Satanic mills ?  Well, if it did, it took its time about it, with heavy snowfalls experienced every Winter until well after the First World War.  But yes, by the 1980s, there was a run of snowless years when in Walpole Park a snowflake was as rare as a rhyming couplet in the verses of the day.

But a curious outlier occurred a hundred years before, in the Winter of 1881-2.  While not especially balmy, it was far more grey than white, with little frost and less snow.  Considering how 1881 had begun with a blizzard, the absence of same a year later was indeed cause for comment as Frederica Percival chaired the weekly workshops.  On one occasion, Oscar ‘Ozzy’ Wilde was pondered if all the time that Winter was showing such a clement attitude, it was keeping its real weather lurking about up in the North Pole – something which intrigued Bob ‘Louis’ Stevenson who wondered how one season could contain two opposing personalities.

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Workshop, 19th February 2019

I trust the gentle reader will forgive a shorter than usual notice this week, on account of a whole lot of not much happening down in the Archive.  It seems that some weeks, not much is doing in the poetry world, and we can take things easy and give the unpaid interns some unpaid time off.

So, on with the Workshop, where poeticising is still in full swing:  Michael Harris has been finding love in a coffee shop, and Doig Simmonds has been gazing upon a modern madonna and child, while John Hurley recalled an old sailor long home from the sea.  Caroline Am Bergris could be found attending a beautiful, seasonal funeral, and Peter Francis has been watching the pigeons as they race.  The dance of the coming Spring has been stirring the feet of Pat Francis, and newcomer Sara Cornejo has been imagining a violent origins legend where the Old World clashes with the New.  Martin Choules has been musing on some marvellously misnamed creatures, before handing the tiller to Alan Chambers as he enters the Zuiderzee.  Daphne Gloag then juggled her metaphors flawlessly and Owen Gallagher looked back on his mute father with sadness.

Lulls are nothing new, and were common enough in Sir John’s day, thanks largely to the combination of laudanum and lethargy brought on in such sensitive sorts.  Indeed, some workshops were convened where not a single attendee had written so much as a couplet, and the anachronistic conch was rapidly passed round the circle and back into the lap of the host inside a minute.  After a couple of minutes of embarrassed shoe-buckle gazing, retiring to the saloon of The Red Lion would be suggested by someone (usually ‘wrist-raiser’ Byron), and the heroic muse was sacked before she’d even got her lute in tune.

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Workshop, 12th February 2019

One of the most commonly posed enquiries I am challenged with as I sally forth o’er the highways and byways beneath Ealing’s green and pleasant skies is, how does one become a member of The Pitshanger Poets?  The answer, which I am delighted to give at length while standing on any street corner, is that the Pitshanger Poets are nothing but exclusive.  There is a complex and protracted application, approval and initiation procedure involving forms and questionnaires, background checks and blood samples, monetary deposits, lives of thy first born and holy writs, and that the entire thing is overseen by an ancient clause known colloquially as ‘the backstop’ in which all Pitshanger Poets commit to come to the cause of poetry in time of its direst need, in order to organise a Workshop in the spirit of the Pitshanger Poets, should it prove necessary.

My regular readers will detect that I am in fact joshing.  The criteria for becoming a Pitshanger Poet is charmingly simple; turn up, poem in hand and critical faculties honed.  It’s all we ask.  Of course, the corollary of this fiendish codicil is that it is virtually impossible to leave the Pitshanger Poets, a fact which will become clear to so many wordsmiths should we need to activate the backstop, and they are obliged to initiate warm hearted and convivial weekly workshops up and down the country, replete with constructive criticism, nutty beer and enjoyable banter (or enjoyable criticism, constructive beer and nutty banter, as you will).

Speaking of enjoyable banter, this week’s Workshop featured more than our usual helping.  Alan Chambers got the discussion going by harking back to bears and not treading on the lines on the pavement.  Pat Francis countered with a vision of Sisyphus, able to pause for a moment, take a breath and perceive the landscape around him.  Owen Gallagher pulled a story from his hat about Kit and her four unmarried sons.  Peter Francis introduced a sombre note, conjuring the tears of clowns, but what are they crying about?  Martin Choules told us that he just had to make a Valentine’s contribution this week, peeling back the layers of those foul, distasteful human habits, to wit, kissing and laughing in his witty poem.  Michael Harris drew upon the evolving skyline of London at dawn to parallel his own thought processes on staying or perhaps leaving.  John Hurley contributed a unique story from his own memory banks, this time the re-patriated to Ireland Pat the Yank, home but unwanted.  Nick Barth returned with the second half of a sinister two-parter concerning a passenger who looks and may go further.  Finally, Daphne Gloag’s poem was crowded with happy and vital memories, triggered by pet sounds.

Another of the Commonly Posed Enquiries I am frequently asked (by the way, Commonly Posed Enquiries  does have a ring about it don’t you think?  Perhaps we should add a selection of Commonly Posed Enquiries or CPEs to the blog.  I predict it will catch on as the latest internet ‘thing’), is why, oh why does the PP meet on a Tuesday?  The simple answer is that traditionally Tuesdays have been reserved for club nights, going back to Times of Antiquity, when chaps of holy orders would reserve Tuesdays for chess, Wednesdays for rhetoric, Thursdays for false modesty, Fridays for sarcasm and the weekends for waking the neighbours.  Mondays are for silence as the neighbours had by now asked that the rowdy friars pipe down.  The Tuesday Night Club tradition explains why it is no coincidence that some of the most notorious gatherings of the Age of Enlightenment were held on this night of the week, including Alexander Pope’s Grotto Mopes (Twickenham, 1720’s), William and Caroline Herschel’s Pompous Pipes, Fantastic Fiddles and Tremendous Telescopes (Datchet, 1780’s), Erasmus Darwin’s Lunar Society Weekly Cheese on Toast and Any Other Business (Birmingham, 1860’s) and most notoriously, Lord Dashwood’s Doing A Little Of What Thou Wilt Does Thee Good (Medmenham Abbey, West Wycombe, 1750’s).  A few Tuesday club nights can be found running to this day, including our own Pitshanger Poets and the Retired Schoolmasters and Opium Eater’s Supper Club. This last example is not strictly a Tuesday club, but seeing as the Retired Schoolmasters and Opium Eaters are never quite sure what night it is, it has to be run every night.

Another CPE I am oft challenged with is this; does one have to attend the PP every Tuesday?  Well, no, that is not obligatory, but as Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer PC, FRS, would say; doing a little of what thou wilt does thee good.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 5th February 2019

Some people, although ostensibly regarded as employed in a clerical nature, are rarely to be found at their desks.  Some work extensively from ‘home’, although this appears to cover everywhere from the sofa to the neighbourhood coffee shop, but others it seems are always on the go – conferences, trade fairs, client presentations, big lunches, racking up the air-miles while their cats and houseplants are left to fend for themselves.

However, here at the Archive we prefer to let the world come to us.  Despite the keen requests of the unpaid interns that they might be let out of their monkish cells for have a few days of sunlight, there is really no need.  Newspapers, journals and slim volumes all make their way down our post chute to be catalogued, bound and filed on the miles of waiting shelves lining our caverns measureless to man, so who has time for jaunting around airport hotels and brutalist convention centres ?

Well…actually, next week we do, as we prepare to exhibit our latest indexing methods at the All-Anglia Amalgamated Archivist and Allied Almanac Association Annual Assembly.  It may surprise you to learn, dear reader, that even we can feel down sometimes when we have to spend all day counting syllables or censoring Limericks, and it will do us good to meet fellow-librarians and to be reminded that we are not alone in our lonely profession of word-herding, and that our work means more than simply curating commas and fattening bookworms.

Of course, documenting the weekly workshop also gives us a chance to poke our heads above ground, and this week’s was certainly worth the seven-storey climb.  Doig Simmonds has been seeing a vision of loves past, while Michael Harris has been watching the watchful eyes.  However, the unexpected sighting that haunts Niall Cassidy is the ghost left behind by dementia, and who knows what uncanny apparitions Alan Chambers saw in Fingal’s Cave – certainly not him, who has no memory of it, just like Owen Gallagher cannot recall what befell him one time in the cinema of his youth.  Pat Francis has found out the life doesn’t deal in denouements, while husband Peter has been weaving a tale of Latin American weavers, soldiers, and inevitability.  Next came a requiem by John Hurley for a moonshiner who was rather fond of his own wares, and finally Martin Choules has been wistfully remembering his student days as he fills in his tax return.

The life of a poet has always been one of constant conferences, networking and sales pitches, and they would often not appear for many Tuesdays in a row as they were yet again taking the packet boat to the continent (business class, of course) or were wiling away the wee hours in a coaching inn between connections.  One of the grumpiest gadabouts was Tommy Eliot, who having crossed the Atlantic once saw no reason to do so again.  When he did finally reappear from some sonnet symposium or unconventional-forms convention, it was with a litany of lamentations: “A cold coming we had of it !  There wasn’t even the funny little basin we’re supposed to wash your in face in !  Alas, we shall not cease from exploration…”

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Workshop, 29th January 2019

When it comes down to it there’s no more worthwhile thing to do on a winter’s evening in January than to cram the corporeal form round a wobbly folding table in a draughty meeting room in Britain’s foremost amateur theatre and discuss a spot of poetry, or at least this is what is insisted to my Uncle Archie when he sat me down for an ‘and how are you my dear boy’ conversation at his club a few days back.  It was delightful to be able to spend time with Uncle Archie, an experience made even more piquant by the failure of extradition procedures by the United States Justice Department against him.  Archie was recently accused of maple syrup running, the Americans becoming aware of large quantities of the stuff seeping out of Canada and sloshing into backstreet bottling plants.  There is huge concern in the US about the addictive properties of maple syrup, particularly at breakfast time, and Canada is being blamed for the interminable expansion of the American waistline.  Archie tells me (while pleading his innocence), that if the redoubtable Trump gets a second term, he will propose a wall along the Canadian border to stop the flood of the sweet accompaniment, though even now, smugglers are digging trenches and laying sophisticated maple syrup pipelines using garden hoses with Hoselok connectors. 

Given the Canucks’ reputation for niceness and general fair play, Trump’s new wall will likely only need to be a simple low picket fence with the occasional notice with a neatly-lettered ‘just stay out now, eh’ notice in neat red lettering.  Given America’s northerly neighbour’s growing irritation with the wavy-haired wonder, the likelihood is that they will happily nail that fence together themselves one Sunday afternoon between smashing each other in the face with ice hockey pucks.

Of course I told Uncle Archie that I am not the only person in Ealing who feels that joining fellow poets on the trail of discovery is a worthwhile thing to be doing on a Tuesday evening.  For example, there is Martin Choules, whose inventive rhyming and rhythmical verse regularly stretches its fingers to a wide range of subjects.  This week he presented a plot against Brussels Sprouts on a vegetable patch, a Brexit metaphor if ever there was one.  Caroline Am Bergris is an enthusiastic Pitshanger Poet even in this grim season, describing her perspective of a flat she lived in and lost- rather like the other lost wonders of the ancient world.  Pat and Peter Francis braved the cold to bring their own individual oeuvres to the group.  Pat described the effect the lengthening day has on the dawn chorus as it rolls up the country.  Peter drew a metaphor from a finger dipped in a pond for the effect our own lives have on the universe.  Michael Harris’ work is characterised by enigmatic short forms – though perhaps this weeks’ piece was as short as he can comfortably get while staying away from the dreaded haiku.  The presentation of the self-affirmative, skinny twelve-line poem on the merest skinny strip of paper was not lost in the other poets.  John Hurley braved icy pavements to return to a recurring theme, remembering old flames.  Clearly John took to poetry late in life as he must have had little time for writing in his youth.  Doig Simmons appears to have been writing a lot longer than John, but this week chose to bring us something both new and reflective on taking time while there is still time to take.  Owen Gallagher is no stranger to the cold and the flurry of snow which splattered on to Ealing must have seemed trivial compared to his childhood in Glasgow.  This week Owen took us back to the era of the public baths and the tradition of a regular Friday night scrub up, whether he needed it or not.  Daphne Gloag could be forgiven for wanting to stay at home on a rough night in late Jan, but she has been working on her own bath time piece, charming the group with an odyssey by tub, visiting constellations and galaxies before the water got cold.  Nick Barth gets to PP by bike and claims not to need snow chains just yet, but we think he will.  Nick tells us he has been working an epic poem, but because it is about Britain’s most talked-about subject, it may never be finished.  In the meantime he brought us a pithy descrIption of a mysterious, unwelcome observer.

Uncle Archie asserts that there are a great many other valuable activities to occupy one on a sleety evening in January.  He tells me his current passion is boats, and that in the last few months he has acquired quite a collection of small craft capable of crossing the English Channel.  He spends his evenings exploring the Kent coastline, looking for obscure coves and inlets accompanied by his crew of contract maritime experts.  I of course began to wax all lyrical about the broiling, wine-dark sea, lonely unspoilt beaches and romantic seascapes, but Archie was at pains to emphasise that his was no leisure pursuit.  Although he kept his cards close to his chest, I strongly suspect that he is looking for investment in a new venture, something to do with freight services.  Archie is clear that come the end of March there will be no end of people wanting things to be sent over the channel, things that have suddenly become much more difficult to obtain here in Britain.  I did ask Uncle Archie what would possibly cause this huge change in normal trading conditions, but he just sighed at me and shook his head.  What do you think he has in mind, trusted reader?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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