Workshop, 1st October 2019

Computers ?  Pah !  Nothing but an abacus crossed with a slide rule.  While the Pitshanger poets might be very pleased with their Ferranti Pegasus that once resided in the vault of Pitzhanger Manor and has since been banished to the vaults of the Town Hall as though it were a family ancestor or a box of Christmas lights, I’m very pleased to say that we have no truck with such jumped-up pocket calculators down here in the Archive beneath the park.  And that’s not because our perpetual damp makes electricity inadvisable.  Our ongoing microfiche project will have researchers squinting long after their latest gizmo with its valve-drive processors and almost-eight-thousand-word rotating memory has been upgraded out of existence by devices with actual keyboards and screens.

But despite my many lectures and training sessions to the interns about the utility of pen & paper and superiority of correction fluid over any delete key, still they complain at having to write out every comprehensive index in triplicate while manually sorting through the hundreds of boxes of punch-cards for the one that catalogues how many commas are used by Shakespeare sonnet.  Why will they not appreciate that art and beauty must take time ?  How is one to appreciate the rarity of having time to stop and stare if one has already sent all one’s emails and updated one’s spreadsheets by nine-thirty and is already looking forward to spending the rest of the morning reading poetry blogs online?

And therein lies the great irony of this modern world – that the days of sending out these weekly briefings by letrasetted news-sheets to be carried by the night mail over the border or rushing out breaking-news ‘tweets’ by pigeon-post are long over.  Now we are finally forced to embrace the 1940s and enter the computer age with these regular diaries being hand-carved in boxwood, handpainted with Indian ink, photographed onto glass plates, packed in straw and trundled by handcart over to a certain gentleman’s gentleman who by strange alchemy makes my words appear on as many as ten screens via pushing a few electrons down a wire.  At least, I assume my words appear, as I’ve never sullied my hands on a keyboard to check.

I’m delighted to report that this week’s workshop was thoroughly old-school, in presentation at least, though Nick Barth did lead off with a dispatch from the culture wars as he railed against the lack of civility that comes from being too connected, while Caroline Am Bergris kept her own deliberate rudeness at her tormentor cold and focused.  Daphne Gloag has been hitting a rhyming dictionary this week as she wandered through her echoing memories and Anne Furneaux has been rummaging through a toybox for hers in the form of a much-loved bear.  Alas, Alan Chambers has been lost in the haze, unsure if he’s seeing a hawk or a flamingo, while Martin Choules has been rewriting a Victorian fairy tale with a slightly puckish grin.

What Sir John would have made of the monster in his basement is unknown, lurking in a cavern beneath his manor house, bolted down to stop it from floating off and crashing through its ceiling (on account of being mostly constructed of vacuum tubes) and on through the floor of the grand salon in the middle of one of Dame Eliza’s Improved Rose-Growers balls.  But it was undeniable that by 1968 these computational devices were starting to catch on.  At one meeting that year, the Archive reveals, Edwin Morgan dropped in to share thoughts on how best to translate Beowulf with a budding young Seamus ‘Jimmy’ Heaney and to compare nightingale and starling populations in urban squares with Eric Maschwitz.  He also hoped to read out a verse from his new collection entitled The Computer’s First Christmas Card, but alas no sooner did he start when the entire page turned blue except for the word ‘error’ and remained thus despite the book being closed and opened again multiple times.

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So Now We Know – Pat Francis

They listened to somebody or other on TV
who said extremists were to blame
they tuned into experts on the radio
who told them it was apathetic non-voters

they read newspapers       went online
it was reckless lefties stirring up trouble
it was because of self-serving capitalists
it was wishy-washy liberals sitting on the fence

They listened to the gossip
it was the bosses the strikers the foreigners
the old the young the rough-sleepers
who were to blame

Unemployed car-workers in the Midlands
knew it was southerners living easy who caused it
In Lancashire they knew Londoners started it
though Yorkshire had a hand in it

the Irish knew
as the Scots knew
it was always
England’s fault

they listened to the candidates
unequivocally  incontrovertibly
it was the stupidity the carelessness
the downright duplicity of the other party

They listened to government ministers who said
It is quite clear       and I cannot stress this too strongly
it is all the fault of the French
the French and the Germans      maybe the Americans

So they asked the philosophers
and the philosophers said
they had thought long and hard about this question
and were minded to believe that quite possibly

there was always

somebody

somewhere

to blame

Pat Francis

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Workshop, 24th September 2019

I have never been keen on heights, and the idea of climbing anything not fitted with substantial bannisters makes me go weak at the knees.  A brisk walk up Castlebar Hill in Ealing is as close to mountaineering as I am willing to perform, and I demand a nice sit down on achieving the summit.  Climbing is of course a hugely popular activity and there are people willing to risk their lives in pursuit of the sport, an aspect of life’s rich tapestry which I was reminded of as I read the notices on the sad passing of Al Alvarez.  Alvarez was a polymath; not only a literary editor, but also a poker player, writer and organiser of competitive poetry bouts in the pubs and clubs of Britain, an amateur in the best sense of that word.  In the 1960’s Alvarez joined the heady world of climbing, rubbing shoulders with Chris Bonington and Ian MacNaught-Davis.  Davis was something of a TV personality at the time, having performed various climbs on the small screen, including the Eiffel Tower for a series on ABC tv in the United States.  He would go on to become an early proponent of computers, presenting programmes on the BBC and helping to establish a pioneering computer time-share company, Comshare (for the non-technical, a room full of computers for hire, nowadays known as ‘the cloud’) in the 1970’s.  Thereby hangs a tale, coming up right after these words from our sponsors, the Pitshanger Poets.

This week’s workshop was anything but a hard climb.  Doig Simmons, a polymath himself, has again been raiding his own archive and came up with a breathtaking tale of a woman in Africa, caring for her mother in one small room.  John Hurley found inspiration in the natural phenomenon of bird spit for an exploration of hedgerow fruits and jam.  Owen Gallagher took us back to the ‘what’s my line’ school of poetry with a wry tale of a career on the buses which lasted just a day.  Peter Francis seemed not to be having a lovely day when a neighbour wished him one and he found himself peeling back the layers of meaning in the encounter.  New Poet Abdullah read us a piece in Arabic about his homeland, and promises to return with a translated version.  Pat Francis has written an examination of the root causes of all the stuff which is going on in the world today, and put it in this week’s poem, so now we know.  Martin Choules appears not to like drummer and balding 1980’s heart-throb Phil Collins, or does he?  Nick Barth is getting ready for Brexit and speculating on what life will be like once it’s all over.  Very brave.  Roger Beckett went back to a workplace theme this week, remembering an early proponent of desktop publishing and the things he used to find to publish.  Daphne Gloag is busy constructing her sequence, possibilities, and we benefit from seeing early drafts of pieces which may well make it into print.  This week, Daphne mused on words and the possibility they would become words.

What of these intrepid mountaineers and their enthusiasms?  Is there a school of heroic mountain poetry, composed in the bivouac or yelled into a recording device from the slope itself?  Perhaps.  What I do know is that without Mr Al Alvarez and his friendship with ‘Mac’ as we used to call MacNaught-Davis we would not have the Ferranti Pegasus.  Both Alvarez and Mac were intrigued by the Pitshanger Poets’ early experiments into poetic-text analytics and would donate our computer scientist, Parsonage, time on Comshare’s Mainframes in the night when things were quiet.  However, Parsonage’s analytics became ever-more processor-hungry and routines to calculate such imponderables as whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, or who ate all the plums that were in the icebox? (answer, William Carlos Williams) led to his programs eating into Comshare’s customer bandwidth.  So it was that Parsonage was disturbed one evening by Mac, Alvarez and Bonington in a large removals van.  It turned out that Comshare had an antiquated Ferranti Pegasus mainframe in its Chelsea Data Centre which it was planning to decommission.  Mac had hit on the idea of giving it to PP.  A few hours later it was installed and running in the basement of Pitshanger Manor.  The young Parsonage was overjoyed and started coding, while the three mountaineers headed for the Pub.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

 

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Workshop, 17th September 2019

Party Conference season is upon us, and even down here in the Pitshanger Archive it makes itself known – not that many of our work experience interns are scuttling off to the seaside for some off-season shenanigans.  No, the modern poetry-inclined youth tends to see oneself as above such mere matters as running the country.  However, it does seem an appropriate time of year to stocktake our assorted protest pamphlets, imperial eulogies and satirical sonnets that pile up all year in our letterbox, or even shoved down our overhead molehills.  And keeping the little tykes busy will stop them glued to their phones waiting for the latest tweets to announce that the minister for administrative affairs had tugged on his earlobe for the third time this speech.  Honestly, we were assured that insulating our cavern with an entire public park atop it would stop all radio signals from penetrating, but nothing it seems can stop 5G from distracting us all from productivity – no wonder some people think that foreign governments are involved.

Anyway, we have previously addressed the use of politics in poetry, so this time let us consider the poetry in politics, from Tony Blair’s rhyming couplets when addressing the TUC, and the pithy refrain on ‘Maggie Thatcher, milk-snatcher’, to the present Prime Minister’s mumbled Kipling while standing around being official in a Myanmar temple (and if their temples are anything like our churches, the services can certainly drag prompting all sorts of memory-testing and schooldays roting to stave off the arms of sleep).  So it would not be a surprise if one of the various parties let slip a policy to introduce a Minister for Poetry, responsible to ensuring all citizens had access to publically-funded ballads and free-at-the-point-of-delivery verse ?

This week’s workshop was thankfully free of pledges, amendments and delegations.  Peter Francis opened with by getting out of bed and re-donning the world, while Pat Francis has been thinking how much better Londoners understand rivers to mountains.  Newly-published Owen Gallagher is already working on material for his next collection as he praises the plumber who flushed through his mind, leading onto John Hurley’s stroll down the unpaved roads of his youth.  Alan Chambers has been considering an old master considering the young apprentices in his studio, though one wonders what he would have made of Daphne Gloag’s artist who proudly paints nothing, or indeed Roger Beckett’s chatty mother would have loved to discuss the matter with every stranger on her train.  Finally, Martin Choules has been remembering all the things we hide on a first date – is he trying to tell us something ?

Politicians wanting to hone their poesy are always welcome at the Pitshanger Poets, because everyone is always welcome.  But note that we are not civil servants there to instruct ministers on the best use of the semicolon, so take our advise under advisement.  The same could be said of the week that Teddie Heath dropped-in in 1965.  The newly-selected leader of the opposition was painfully aware that he was the Conservative & Unionist Party’s first state-school educated head, and was concerned that he lacked a proper grounding in the literature so beloved by the landlord class.  How was he expected to pepper his upcoming conference speech with quotes in ancient Greek or Latin bon mots ?

Fellow grammar-boy (and fellow-Ted) Ted Hughes was dismissive of such reliance on the forms of the past, while Seamus Heaney thought that the pro-Union attendees would surely appreciate some sprinkled Irish instead.  Secret-Tory Phil Larkin was disappointed to see the Party’s young leader (a mere 49) not looking to inject some youth into the fusty blue-rinse hordes, but the only direct advice came from old-Shirburnian yet former communist Cessy Day-Lewis: manducare excrementis, fascibus !

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Workshop, 10th September 2019

In my position as champion and unifying focal point for Ealing and Acton‘s poetry activities, I find myself in demand for critical advice on poetry from the moment when I leave the flat until the moment I return and close the front door, drained intellectually and emotionally.  No sooner have I broached the borough’s fine thoroughfares than I am accosted by one or more fellow denizens, eager for recommendations.  I am often hailed by workers at building sites with a friendly, ‘Oi, read us a poem, then!’ Market-stall holders will raise issue with my choice of reading, insisting I ‘have a listen to a real poem’ and then assail my ears with a succession of bawdy limericks, such as can only be set in Ealing.  I am given to understand that this quest has become even more desperate for locals since the large and important Ealing Central Library started selling camping gear and fitness clothing; something readers will need to visit the Broadway Arcade to appreciate.  It’s not just the heavy-handed sons and daughters of toil who seek me out; I am often asked which schools of poetry I favour.  This is a question which often puzzles me.  After all, the poem has been written and can not help what it is.  The reader, on the other hand has tastes and proclivities.  I think it is more helpful to talk of schools of listener, and have been drawing up a handy list.

Schools of listener were flitting through my mind during this week’s Workshop.  John Hurley frequently appeals to the ‘it’s not poetry if it does not rhyme’ school of reader, this week reminiscing about lost crafts of Ireland.  Owen Gallagher often finds himself read by the ‘grit beneath the finger-nails’ school, but this week’s piece offered a little more whimsy as he mused upon the mode of his final disposal on the seas of Ireland.  Pat Francis’ poetry is frequently bemusing without being overly-enigmatic.  This week she examined how to become a cat, in the Daoist sense, a move which I feel will appeal to the Cat Poetry School of reader.  Peter Francis also appeals to those interested in ideas, but this week’s poem had more than a nod to the school of urban realism as he played out a conflict amongst neighbours over the fence.  Claudia Court, new member of our humble workshop explored life and hope in a poem which is bound to appeal to dance poetry enthusiasts.  Nick Barth is clearly looking for readers in the Polonius School of tragical-comical-historical-pastoral poetry, though this week we could add political as well, as he examines a diplomatic mission by a new leader with a deadline to hit.  Martin Choules appears to be appealing to the ‘What’s My Line?’ school of poetry reader with this week’s examination of the role of the Registrar.  Roger Beckett was definitely appealing to the pencilphiles in his readership with this week’s confessional vignette.  Daphne Gloag’s poem this week will definitely appeal to the Christmas-obsessed reader, despite being a light-touch invocation of the visitations of the three wise men.  Finally, Doig Simmons poem will appeal to the photo album school of poetry reader as he paged through a life in a few short couplets.

There is a temptation to believe, as poets, that schools of readers will match schools of writers, however I fear that we are deluding ourselves.  Just as 62.5% of all internet traffic is devoted to images of cats, some 59.8% of all poetry read is devoted to our feline friends.  As a result we have to declare Pat Francis this week’s winner.  A sobering statistic from an enjoyable meeting.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

 

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Workshop, 3rd September 2019

September is rarely welcomed, but always permitted.  Children trudge back to school, workers abandon beach and caravan, birds take to the wing and rain commutes to the ground.  Television starts debuting new shows and offices announce new projects now that the population is back in town and paying attention, and hopefully poets open up a new spiral-bound and get on with their metaphors.  After all, while lucubration may be difficult under the long evenings, once we’re passed the equinox the six o’clock gloom is properly oppressive.

Here in the Archive, we spend the start of Autumn making shelf-space for all of the upcoming news, slim volumes, and tragic cold-snap obituaries that will follow while the Earth hangs around on the wrong side of its orbit.  Journals and papers are ruthlessly swept from the bookstacks and meticulously hand-engraved onto microfiche slides while the originals are stacked up on the furthest corners of our subterranean lair, awaiting their ceremonial cremation throughout the long months as we commit their noble words into heat to keep the icicles at bay.

But the sunshine hadn’t completely left this week’s workshop, where Alan Chambers described the experience of a canal lock raising a boat from gloom into light as the waters swell, and Pat Francis considers the Taoist approach to preferring an uncarved block of marble to whatever a sculpture can release from within.  John Hurley then gave us a touching child’s eye view of a funeral wake, and Christine Shirley passed on a message sent to her by her dear departed friend.  A change of tone next as James Priestman responded to the prophet Isaiah’s brimstone with some rather more measured words of his own, and Daphne Gloag has been admiring an artist who attempts to paint nothing at all.  The desert wind and hunting hawk have been filling Doig Simmonds’ awe, and Anne Furneaux has been hunting for the lost chord of a poetic idea she once had and never wrote down, and rounding us out we had Martin Choules viewing the latest political shenanigans and getting het up about the need to calm down.

Thinking more about Pat Francis’ poem this week, we are reminded of the argument of Nature verses Manufacture, of the qualities of the Chippendale chair against the beauty of the tree which berthed it.  In these more environmentally-conscious times, lauding the simple and low-entropy nature of Nature, but this is a dangerous path to embark upon – for how long will it be before somebody admires the virgin white sheet over the same covered in unsightly verses of carbon-rich ink ?  Surely it was only the destruction of natural trees and blocks of stone containing iron ore that gave ancient Chinese society the wheel and plough that enabled them to stop their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settle down to some hard work ?  And was it now this work that led to surpluses which led to cities which led to captive audiences to which the ancient Taoists could preach to ?

But perhaps that misses the point, perhaps their meaning was that if one intends to break apart an honoured stone, one should make sure that the resulting sculpture is worth it.  Again, the implications for poets about to besmirch a crisp page in one’s Moleskine is daunting.

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Workshop, 27th August 2019

This week’s informal, informative and often insolent blog is perforce a rushed affair this week.  These words are transmitted to you via the miracle of the Internet, using a method slightly more complex that usual.  I have been taking a break from the hurly-burly of Ealing,  touring the lowlands of Scotland and doing a little research into the life of the National Poet Rabbie Burns.  In order to save hours on the motorway dicing with lorries, the two-seater was transported to Carlisle by steam-wagon and I met it off the train from Euston.  I hit the road fresh and found my way to a lovely hotel near Alloway.

Now, it might have something to do with the car, or my attire but I think the Hotel Receptionist thought I was some kind of wedding planner.  On arriving in my room I set to writing the blog, and dropped the hand-written copy off with the nice lady with my home address.  However, as I say, I think the receptionist thought I was organising a wedding.  I asked her to email the copy to my man in London, but instead she faxed it to a baker in Jedburgh who iced it onto the top of a cake.  After a somewhat frantic conversation the cake was couriered to my flat where My Man made the best of coming up with a final version.  As you can tell by the contents of this introduction this required a second draft, though my Man’s response to receiving the blog in icing being to have his final corrections iced onto a cake and sent back was surprising to say the least. Nevertheless, the cake was delicious, but huge.

Pat Francis led off this week with an extremely reductionist approach to music, which would not appeal to the organisers of the Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, which is perhaps a shame as I am an enormous fan.  Doig Simmonds has been mulling over love and taking a somewhat of a hall of mirrors slant to the experience.  John Hurley tells us he is often up and out with the lark, an experience which informed this week’s observations on the relationship between man and wildlife. Nick Barth tells us that any poet worth his onions has got at least one in his box on the subject of Schrödinger, or has he? James Priestman brought us something new and Brexit-tinged, but do not let that put you off, as it was as sharply observed a portrait of someone who’s last name should rhyme with ‘garage’ as we will ever read.  Alan Chambers took us back to the seashore and perhaps somewhere else.  Daphne Gloag brought us the very start of her possibilities sequence and the possibilities are intriguing.  Christine Shirley is working on a Verse Play, an endeavour I applaud enthusiastically, she read us an early excerpt.  Roger Beckett has been thinking back to the kind of punishments we used to dole out to children before the RSPCA really got going.  Finally, Martin Choules has had a really serious go at producing some proper nonsense.

My experience of touring the lowlands of Scotland is that poetry has a bit of a poor reputation.  The reason is this; ruined abbeys.  It is possible to find more or less ruined anything here in the borders of Scotland, from castles to churches and a fair number of abbeys.  Many were ruined during the ‘rough wooing’ of Henry VIII’s time when he tried his best to have Mary Queen of Scots betrothed to his son, Edward.  The Scots, being a staunchly independent people resisted this unification by any other name and instead packed MQS off to France where she had, by all accounts, a lovely time.  The French helped to defend the Scots from the rough wooing, but a large amount of nice real estate was roughly wooed as a consequence.  The trouble was, while there were a lot of romantic, ruined abbeys about, Scotland, along with the rest of Europe underwent an excess of romantic poets in the 17th and 18th Century.  It became ever so fashionable to have a ruined abbey on one’s property, in order that one could be seen wandering pensively around the roofless spaces and glassless windows, declaiming the latest romantic verses to the gathering dusk.  Soon the nobility, major landowners and other grandees were taking churches that could just have done with a bit of sprucing up and ruining them, or worse, building new ruined abbeys and pretending that they had been there all the time.  Fortunately, romantic poets tended to have tragically short lives, so the fashion for ruined abbeys eventually came to an end.  A number of dented churches must have breathed sighs of relief.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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