Alan Chambers has a new collection out, all about the moon. Available from the Grapevine Bar for an incredibly reasonable £3, with all proceeds going to Q-Renew to help keep the theatre standing without the aid of the current scaffolding.
Meeting each week in the Questors Theatre, we naturally are alert to the latest in gentleman theatricals, and our interns are often abuzz on a Monday morning following yet another first night. But sometimes they will spurn the queen of the arts for more melodic entertainment, seeking out a musical evening that doesn’t keep getting interrupted by a ridiculous play. Yes, our trainee archivists have been gigging – and this isn’t a reference to their current zero-hours contracts. No, they have been out to see a band. Naturally, the name of the long-haired herberts making all the racket is quite lost on your diarist – but suffice to say they are barely old enough for a paper round, and already they have racked up more number ones than Kim Jong-il’s golfing scorecard.
Of course, flashy flashes-in-the-pan are nothing new, and nor is their pretentions to write lyrics beyond the tutti-doo-wah–ob-la-diddy-diddy which made them famous. And for that, they need the help of poets. If only Wolfie Mozart had thought to consult a wordsmith for his Magic Flute, he could have avoided all those embarrassing pah-pah-pahs when he obviously couldn’t think of any rhymes.
No lack of words at this week’s workshop, with Bashir Sakhawarz taking lead for the opening number about childhood friends on trees swapping bee stings, handing over to John Hurley’s song of the streets, particularly the ones dug-up and abandoned. Peter Francis then sung a lamentation to the hard-working butterfly, while Doig Simmonds was channelling the hippies of old with his hymn to passing over and passing on the life-force, leading on to Pat Francis and her ballad of a young, black-blooded Tennyson. Michael Harris then gave us a feel-good number in a major key and Daphne Gloag crooned for a model bird that almost sang. A country song followed from Martin Choules, telling how deadly vegetation is really our misunderstood friends, and for the finale Alan Chambers gave us a hoedown to the moon from his new collection.
Technically, composers already had tame poets on tap in the form of their librettist, but maybe it is no surprise that we never remember their names when it’s the music guy with his name above the title. And perhaps the composers realised the pressure on them to oversee the entire production. And so it is no surprise to find in an entry for June 1900 that Jackie Puccini was in town to oversee the London premiere of his latest masterpiece, Tosca. While that opening was still three weeks away, and perhaps finding the rehearsals dragging, he took himself off to the theatre and a visiting play from Broadway called Madame Butterfly.
Despite speaking little English, he immediately decided to operize it, and naturally sought out the leading poetry collective to help him get a libretto worthy of such a tragic tale. But the workshop did not go well, with Gilby Chesterton probing him about the rumoured anti-Catholic subtext of Tosca, and Bernie Shaw buttonholing him for his patronising portrayal of the poor in La Boheme. Little wonder, then, that when working on his next Oriental opera, and needing a lyric for the centrepiece of the second act, he threw up his hands and just told his cast to hum along.
I listen to a conversation
between the river, it’s shingle beach
and the tide lapping round the landing-stage.
It is now a mild day with a blue sky,
a faint air pushing a dark cloud
that would interrupt our dialogue.
I listen to a conversation
as the whispering wind plucks answers
from the riddling reeds bowing their heads
to the rising flow. They communicate
beyond my understanding, commanded by
the jet stream and the invisible moon.
I listen to a conversation,
the after-dinner glow convivial
as we collaborate, trying to find
answers to questions from a crossword quiz.
Perhaps I would be better off alone
seeking answers beyond the heartless stars.
Finally the books have returned to the Library at Questors and the shelves are once more with purpose. The cabinets are still locked, though, keeping the scripts therein pristine and unread. Meanwhile at the Archives, the contents of our own stacks are being actively digitised, as in being pawed over by all manner of greasy hands. Time to get the microfiche project back on track, but alas these days funding is only available for ‘grand’ projects – for what grant-awarding grandee wants to be known for supporting a minisculisation ?
In other subterranean news, the caverns beneath Walpole Park are feeling the pinch of Autumn as the temperature plunges and the water table rises. There is now a chill upon our airs, a frost upon our Robert Frost, a rime upon our Ancient Mariner. The interns of course complain incessantly, but gas fires are out of the question with so much paper and 150° proof absinthe about the place.
But plenty of warmth in this week’s workshop, beginning with John Hurley’s lament on our modern world’s turn to violence, and a back-of-the-envelope masterpiece from Bashir Sakhawarz. Samir Hazlehurst has been taking three bites of the fruit of knowledge, not exactly forbidden but with definite consequence, while Alan Chambers is listening for meaning in nature and crosswords, and Owen Gallagher has been enjoying his birthday pizza with extra batter. Two poems about empire next, with Doig Simmonds remembering the fanatical struggle for independence and Martin Choules taking a tour round the pink parts in his childhood atlas. Pat Francis then began meeting with the various literary conscripts and inmates of Epping Forest and Peter Francis imagined a touching yet rough night scene on the freezing Embankment.
We tell the interns that this cold is good practice for their years of freezing garrets, but grumbling about the cold is nothing new about poets, who love an excuse for a good moan. Back in Sir John’s day, Mrs Conduitt wasn’t always available to bank up the fire and sometimes they had to meet with nothing but their visible breath to keep the ink from freezing on their quills. Indeed, local legend has it that this is the real reason why Sammy Coleridge never finished his vision of Xanadu, complete with its caves of ice, dreaming of a sunny pleasure-dome to warm his hands against. And no wonder Mary Shelley would start and end her New Prometheus in the Arctic wastes, where the stolen fire is spluttering in the long, long night.
But while Blake and Byron shivered, Perce Shelley sat around in his undershift and stockingless, as oblivious to the cold as a two trunkless legs of stone. “Don’t be so soft” he chastised Bill Wordsworth when the latter asked if they really needed the casement open – “That there is the West Wind, blowing out the chaff and blowing in the change.” He then proceeded to cajole Johnny Keats to join him skinny dipping in Sir John’s pond, as soon as the ice could be broken through. In later years, Mary would insist that he never really drowned in the Gulf of Spezia, but had simply swam down the Styx.
In honour of the one the interns call ‘The Bysshe’, we have given them each a Pitshanger Archives-branded string vest and long-shorts to wear as they engrave each microfiche slide by hand using big magnifying glasses and single-bristle brushes. We hoped it would inspire them, but instead they tend to look upon their work-clothes and despair.
They say we’re controlled by the brain,
But that is part of the body
And they interact – that’s plain.
Every woman knows too well
Of the monthly ups and downs:
Without reason she’s euphoric
Then in slough of despond drowns.
(Unless that’s past or she’s “on the Pill’)
A genetic, chemical mix-up: Me?
Do I have a Soul or a mind that’s free?
And what about Free Will?
It’s tempting for men and women
To turn to drugs or drink
When looking for a quick-fix
For how they feel and think
Fall victims of persuaders
Who create a ‘must have’ need
And claim they have our good at heart.
It couldn’t be fuelled by greed?
Now, without their aid – I think –
I’m thinking about me
Thinking about me.
Are these two different mes?
And what about the me
That a me is thinking about?
It knows very well that the question is asked,
But the “How?” and the “Why” are in doubt.
So we come to the all-important “Who?”
Who am I? and right now Who are we?
And how do we know that we both really care?
Oh, who cares? We just know that we do.
You may have read before in these Proceeding of the Poetical Society of Pitshanger how Ealing once played host to future revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, but he was a latecomer compared to the patriarchs of the proletarian paradise. The fact is that London was one of the greatest cities in the formation of Communism, a melting pot brought to the boil, where Karl Marx was granted the asylum that he could find nowhere else in Europe, and where Vladimir Lenin pitched up on six occasions between 1902 and 1911, including the second conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in and around Bloomsbury.
Never heard of them ? Well, the most notable occurrence at the conference was a split in the party between a minority faction (the Mensheviks) and the majority (the Bolsheviks). They convened again in 1905, the year of the failed revolution, and in 1907 the fifth convening was the largest yet, with Stalin, Trotsky, Maxim Gorky and Rosa Luxemburg all in attendance on the Brotherhood church on the Islington/Hackney borders.
This month, November, is the hundredth anniversary of the ten days that shook the world (because of course the October Revolution was only in October by the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian). What followed is very well documented, but before 1917 nobody in London was watching these agitators and dreamers except a few spies from the Tsar, and maybe the Met. So who is hanging around in London today what we will all have heard of in a dozen years time ?
Were there any revolutionaries at this week’s workshop ? Maybe Doig Simmonds from the veteran versifiers, hanging on the line to Heaven’s switchboard, or Peter Francis of the Shropshire Underground, receiving brief absolution with a penny for the beggar. Radical academical Anne Furneaux has been musing on Free Will (in defiance of the historical inevitability of our struggle), while Caroline Am Bergris of the catering corps has been cooking up a big batch of Freedom. Tin-pan rhymer Martin Choules has been busy writing slogans to rally the comrades, though they seem to suggest a different outcome for our glorious struggle, of which John Hurley poignantly reminded us with memorial to the recent attack in Manchester and what we’re up against.
New recruit Bashir Sakhawarz brought us a troika of poems smuggled out of his homeland, and ever-watchful Pat Francis has been intuiting the religion of the leaves and birds. Attracting the wrong sort of attention was Samir Hazlehurst, showing impressionistic, even decedent tendencies in his recounting of a breakup, while Daphne Gloag wove an allegory about a lizard and an asteroid, but what could be its deeper meaning ? And as for Alan Chambers, he has been eavesdropping on conversations held by the wind, the river, and the heartless stars.
It is easy to glamorise these figures after a century, especially as London was so far away from the subsequent purges. Now Lenin was no Stalin, but at the very least he was elbows-deep in the Red Terror which led to the murder of tens of thousands, and one wonders how many deaths it takes to start feeling queasy about the blue plaques (but on the other hand, they are intended to remind us of just how much stuff has gone on in London). And let’s face it, they are so easy to glamorise because they are glamorous – literal world-changers, dynamic, idealistic, rugged and bearded in second-hand ushankas and as-yet uncorrupted by their later actions.
At this point the patient reader may be expecting a recount of the time Volodya Ilyich and his wife Nadya Krupskaya dropped in on a Tuesday evening following an intense session at the convention and needing to unwind with some heavily accented and heavily Marxist critiquing of Rudd Kipling as “imperialist” and Algie Swinburne as “bourgeois”, while cheering on Alfie Noyes’s Highwayman, but it is with some relief to tell you that no such reference has been found.
Instead, let us turn to the meeting on Tuesday the 7th of November, the very evening when the Bolsheviks were storming the Winter Palace in Petrograd, and the Second Battle of Passchendaele was waging: the old guard of Tommy Hardy and Billy Yeats were facing off against the upstarts Tom Eliot and Hilda Doolittle, Victorian versus Modernist, struture against liberation, but in typically British fashion the only violence was when a rhythm sprung and an infinitive got split.
Why do shadows lurk and clump
Wherever there’s a lack of light ?
Why do hearts and footsteps thump
When too much nothing gives us fright ?
So why do throats grow sharp and taut,
And fingers white, and faces pale ?
And why does breath get loud and short
And turn into a vapour trail ?
I know, I know, it’s only night
When only nerves attack…
Yet what is watching out of sight,
And turning shadows black ?
Who’s that walking where I’m walking,
Pacing half a pace behind ?
Who’s that lis’ning when I’m talking,
Twitching back the mental blind ?
What’s this tongue that’s speaking tongues ?
Who’s beating heartbeats next to mine ?
Who is that breathing in my lungs,
And shivering upon my spine ?
I know, I know, I’m overwrought,
From which my phantoms stem…
But who is thinking all my thoughts,
And who is hearing them ?