Monday, 19 September 2011

On administering to art: the bellows-pumper

So I meditate, starting with this early poem from a set of poems about misericords in November and May (1981).


My sister sow pays homage to St Cecilia,
I merely pump away at the bellows
While keeping an ear cocked to her delicacies of feeling.

She has taken the veil but I am mother
To a thriving farrow. She tickles heaven
With her music while the family are tugging at my dugs.

I know my place well: strictly behind the organ,
But keep myself clean in the knowledge that
Whosoever administers to art goes not unnoticed:

But my sister, she keeps herself quite spotless,
The perfect nursery pig. Music charms
The ticks off a scarred hide. It is of immense value to pigs.


I am not sure whether the above misericord is the one I was writing about but it is not unlikely. One authority suggests that the creature pumping the bellows is a fox. I doubt it. There is a piglet suckling at her. And surely, the organ-playing pig is a nun of some sort. The headgear indicates a vocation.

Why does this come to mind? As readers of this blog will have noticed over the last few days I have been puffing the virtues and attractions of the Wymondham Words Festival, of which I am the chair, chief programmer, interlocutor and general factotum, though it may be argued that I need not in fact fac the whole totum since there are plenty of very capable, excellent people to take care of the various aspects of the festival. The committee is enthusiastic and efficient beyond reproach. It's just that I can't help feeling responsible.

Over the last few decades an entire professional field, based on degrees of mounting expertise, has developed and grown into an empire of dazzling palaces and Kafkaesque offices where the wheels of art are oiled and gilded, provided it is the right kind of art. Our committee is not that. We are amateur but, as the Hungarian would have it, szorgalmas, a lovely word that implies hard working and 'glad to be of use'.

At the closing event of the festival last night the harpist doing the musical interval asked me, in what I took to be a slightly miffed tone, 'Are you the organiser?' I don't quite know why my heart sinks at the term 'organiser', even if I am only a co-organiser, but it did. Another comment by a member of EB's entourage to the effect that I should be careful because, as he put it, 'creative people' (ie people like me, as opposed to others who were not 'creative') shouldn't be doing this kind of thing because it might ruin their powers of creation.

I say I don't quite know why my heart sinks at terms like 'organiser', but that's a lie. Actually, I do know and am about to explain, explain - as all these blogs do - to myself, perhaps especially to myself.

The explanation is there in the misericord and the poem - written some thirty years ago, I should say. I was a school teacher at the time of some six or so years of experience, still not quite comfortable in my role. I was OK, in fact I was head of an art department, but the world of teaching, of being responsible, of being called 'sir' seemed almost antithetical to the world of art. I did not seem to be leading 'the life of the artist' which was, according to my own lights, more bohemian, less happy with being a figure of authority, more isolated and generally romantic.

But I have been in education throughout, albeit at degree and higher degree level for almost twenty years, and furthermore in all that time I have not taught more than two days a week. Although I am still uncomfortable with official designations I am happy teaching: talking about things I like with younger people who also like talking about things I like, does not seem a bad deal. It has made me think about things I like and I don't think that has done me any harm at all as a writer. In any case if I didn't teach I'd be spending all my time at this desk while being out and being with young writers is energising. I am not short of energy.


But then those pigs and that concert. Becoming an artist, such as the organist pig, is a risky, and far from guaranteed, enterprise. It does mean, in some respects, taking the veil, and one is always aware that the veil is hard won. Moving to the other side of the organ ('organ' being a mischievously playful pun, but then art is necessarily mischievous, which is one of the reasons it feels a little uneasy when bearing responsibility and respectability) is a curious stretch. An organist pumping the bellows! Can it be done?

For the purposes of the festival I am a bellows-pumper. I feel responsible for ensuring that we get the right organists, that the organists feel well treated and appreciated, that they are treated as organists with due attention to their organist headgear. Behind the scenes I too am an organist. The other organists respect my toccatas and I respect theirs. But my job on this occasion is to pump their bellows. And then, say, a harpist calls me: Hey, bellows-pumper, are you responsible for this? and a gentleman-artist tells me, Pumping bellows isn't good for you, dear boy. It is unbecoming. Leave that to the bellow-pumpers.

But there is something in me that, for the moment at least, loathes the gentleman-artist. Contemptuous snob, I think. What gives you the right? I have heard that you have fiddled with the organ yourself but I have never heard you play.

A little ache remains. I have, after all, spent forty years of my life as an organist, with the desire of being a great organist. There are a few who would say it is not an altogether deluded wish. I have the letters, awards and reviews to comfort me at dark times though I never look at them and prefer simply to remember that they are there. An organist must be allowed such vanities.

The festival went very well on the whole. The attendances were pretty good and I think we are growing. We make a good team - Barbara, John, Robert, Ed, Jeff, Wendy, Pippa, Rachel, myself and now Moniza, not to mention our great sound man, Ian - and if any gentleman artist patronises any of us, let him at least drop a very handsome tip in our outstretched caps, because while we wear no veils and are there primarily to ensure that organs as well as organists may be provided, that there be money and publicity and design and amenities and lights and sound, as well as intelligent conversation, we do have caps for such occasions.


The reader of the above poem will be aware that by setting the world of art in the world of pigs I am only following the misericord artist. The bellows-pumper may be a fox, of course, as the authority suggests, and while I am pretty convinced it isn't a fox it is sometimes salutary to bear in mind that it might be.

I'll talk about some of the individual events later.


Anne said...

It is not a fox. It has bristles and trotters. Interesting to think that when this misericord was carved, pigs looked different. Interesting to think that whenever we see three pigs, a fox (or a wolf) is not far away in the imagination.

By the way, there is only the veil to identify the organist as a sow. Perhaps that is part of the moral.

There are so many ways of reading this scenario, and I'd love to know what the carver had in mind.

Excellent post, George. Let's hear it for the bellows-pumpers.

George S said...

By the way, there is only the veil to identify the organist as a sow. Perhaps that is part of the moral.

I always look for my inner sow, Anne :)

Stephanie Green said...

Dear George Szirtes,

I realize your post is really about the compatibility of being organist and bellows-pumper (poet and organizer) etc, but fascinated by this misericord and the mystery as to whether it's of pigs or foxes - or maybe one of each? My husband and I have differing opinions - a lively debate ensued. The one on the left seems to have fur (though this could be bristles as post above suggests)? The heads seem to be fox-heads - too long for pigs? But one on right has trotters and that's definitely a baby piglet suckling. Maybe the carver was not too observant - or maybe the carvings refer to a mediaeval tale about hybrid animals?

I come down in favour of foxes because I've seen quite a few carvings of foxes dressed as monks (so why not nuns - presuming the one on the left is wearing a veil)? For instance, there's a wooden panel of fox-monks taken from a church in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh - and I suspect this is part of a mediaeval tradition of satirizing monks - rapacious, cunning foxes in sheep's (monks') clothing so to speak. So why not nuns in foxes' clothing? It would be interesting to know what a mediaeval scholar had to say on this.

That said, I am not criticising your enjoyable poem, of course! Your right to interpret it anywhichway you like - and the poem must stand by itself.

P Lane Anon said...

"For instance, there's a wooden panel of fox-monks taken from a church in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh - and I suspect this is part of a mediaeval tradition of satirizing monks - rapacious, cunning foxes in sheep's (monks') clothing so to speak. So why not nuns in foxes' clothing?"

I know that panel! But they aren't foxes: they're red pandas. Long since disappeared from Scotland, of course, but now bred at the Highland Wildlife Park near Newtonmore.

George S said...

There are scholarly interpretations of many anonymous medieval (and later) works. Stephanie is right, of course, that foxes in clerical costume have a firm place in this galère, but the various associations of pigs might serve a similar purpose, as they do in the poem.

I think it is possible that the pigs are based on boars, such as the sus scrofa (here:, or the Guinea Hog (as here: Our general idea of the pink pig is not the only pig in the poke.

As to the satire, we talk of 'pigging out' when overeating. The Hungarian malackodás, meaning 'piggery', can refer to sexual misbehaviour of an orgiastic sort. In either case the charge is inordinate indulgence.

I rather like the idea of the spiritual-musician-artist being represented as the most earthy and filthy - reputedly - of domestic animals. The flesh masquerading as the spirit! The appetite as prayer! I speak as an artist myself of course and am occasionally in touch with the pig inside, as I remarked to Anne, above.

John Wood said...

Wymondham has three major arts ventures running at the moment, in music, visual arts and literature. All these depend on bellows-pumpers to support the organists, who generally appreciate what is being done for them. But there's another role not represented in this misericord, and it's needed by bellows-pumpers and organists alike. George Szirtes, as well as bellows pumping and organ playing, leads and inspires the others. It's a vital role in all our arts ventures, not always well appreciated. But George, your team do appreciate what you do. Thanks from us all for all you've done for Wymondham Words 2011!

Diane said...

As with John Wood, I thought yesterday about all of this and came to a similar conclusion. My own thoughts are that words are, of course, insanely powerful, not to say occasionaly disturbing......the potentially Germanic "organiser" translates into "inspiration" and "leadership" in the Gallic tradition. And it is from the quietude of George's leadership and inspiration that the arts are flourishing -- not merely in Wymondham but also very, very far afield.