Organ Tours Inc. Visits Barchester

This essay first appeared on the electronic mailing list Piporg-l

(Subscribers Piporg-l had received an electronic circular promoting a US-based organ crawl of Britain - those of us who live here were intrigued)

Imagine the scene .....

We are standing under the crossing of Barchester Cathedral. Motes of dust hang in the beams of tinted sunlight streaming through the gaudy victorian glass of the clerestory windows. A middle-aged lady in a Paisley headscarf and a green Barbour jacket is arranging Dahlias in a vase in front of the choir screen. Above her, looking rather grim and threatening, towers the great pile of the famous Barchester ORGAN, resplendent with gaudy diapered front pipes, and with various odd-looking zinc wind-trunks and multicore cables emerging from under its petticoats, from where they snake off towards holes in the wall to feed remotely placed pedal 32s and triforium-concealed expressive divisions. It is of course a great work of FATHER WILLIS - no matter that it has been rebuilt every decade since its installation in 1878 and now contains only half a dozen ranks that HW1 would recognise - it is the pride of Barsetshire and of course of the current Organist and Master of the Choristers, Dr. Cecil ffrench-Polysshe FRCO ARCM Mus D etc and bar ...

A noise at the west door! A murmur of voices! In the otherwise empty Nave there apears a party of visitors, standing still for a few moments while their eyes adjust to the dimness of the interior and taking in the view of 300 feet of mediaeval vaulting (note the traces of original painted colour on the bosses of the fourth bay from the west - and don't miss the monument in the south aisle to the 17th century organist Starling Goodfellow, with its charming polychrome representation of a table organ).

It is, of course, nothing less than the party organised by ORGAN TOURS INC. The visitors consult their folded paper handouts eagerly. A quick look at the schedule - Aha! It's Thursday morning, so this must be Barchester!!

As the party makes its way towards the Quire a figure emerges from the gloom of the south transept. He is a man of perhaps fifty-five, of middle height and stature, with strands of greying hair loosely attached to his scalp. He is wearing curiously shiny grey trousers and a brown mackintosh, neither of which are entirely spotless. He is carrying a key. It is, of course, no less charismatic a person than Dr. ffrench-Polysshe himself. If we stay where we are for the time being we will see him introduce himself briefly to the party and we can hear him saying a few words. Members of the group look a little tired, and one or two of them are sitting on the steps under the screen, staring up at the vault and stifling a yawn.

After a few moments the party gathers itself together and disappears through the screen door, only to emerge again a few moments later on the pulpitum itself (all we can see are a few heads poking up above the red velvet curtains). There is a buzzing sound, followed by a click and a whirring from some distant underground chamber. Creaking is heard from the organ, and then a rushing sound, as of twenty distant toilets being flushed simultaneously. The wind is on!

At that moment further figures can be seen to be lurking in the shadows. Who is that, walking briskly from the north choir aisle, wearing a brown house-coat? And why is he wearing dark glasses? And that extremely unrealistic looking moustache - not to mention the wig ..... Why, it is none other than MARK PURCELL - and is that not an ELECTROLUX twin disc floor polisher he is carrying? And there, near the bookstall at the west end, with a couple of cushions stuffed up his jumper and wheeling in a GOBLIN industrial vacuum cleaner (one half horsepower, c1958), is that not a thinly disguised STEPHEN BICKNELL? Unrolling a cable drum to ensure a healthy supply of juice, is that not ROGER BROOKS?? - and, his head emerging from an inspection cover where he is working with a pair of heavily-insulated cable cutters, is that not BRIAN STYLES?

Yes, it is the PIPORG-L HIT SQUAD at work, taking revenge on the unseemly invasion of their forum by matters of mere commercial interest. Just as Dr. ffrench-Polysshe is about to launch into the Concert Overture in C minor by Alfred Hollins there is a bright flash and a bang from the pit where Brian Styles is working, followed by the sudden emptying of wind from the mighty Willis - Harrison - Hill - Norman & Beard - Compton - Nicholson (major rebuilds only noted here), leaving only a few wailing strands of the opening chord to ooze out into the eight second reverberation of the ancient church.

Uncannily, at that very moment, what remains of the peace of the building is broken by the sound of the Electrolux in B flat, quickly joined by the Goblin, hovering somewhere near C sharp - and isn't that the unmistakable rumbling of a Hotpoint 'Supreme' top-loading washer-dryer somewhere in the background, adding its plaintive diminished seventh to the tottering harmony of the two electric cleaners?

Dr. ffrench-Polysshe trots briskly down the spiral stairs to see what can be done - how unfortunate! - just when there were visitors from America to see the organ! By the time he reaches the nave silence is magically restored and the nave is mysteriously empty - but were there not cleaners standing around only moments ago?

The hit squad have melted into the background again, their nefarious machinery loaded hastily into an unmarked van that is even now speeding out through the gateway of College Green (thanks for the loan of the kit, Charlie Lester!). Inside the cathedral the organ is unnacountably not working. By the time the Clerk of Works has been found, and by the time he in turn has found the Electrician, and by the time he in turn has discovered the fault ('It looks like rats in the conduit again, Dr. ffrench-Polysshe'), it is, sadly, time for the vistors to get back into their coach and leave Barchester for another place. What a shame that they should have come so far, that they should with care have singled out Barchester as a place well worth the trouble of visiting, only to meet with such a disappointment. Let us hope that they meet with better luck at St. Aidan's Chisleworth, where they are expected later this afternoon.

Now, where has that unmarked van got to?



Helium Cylinder Found at Scene of Crime

(Barsetshire Herald, Wednesday 14th August 1996)

Barsetshire Police were today investigating a bizarre chain of circumstances that led to disruption at a Chisleworth church yesterday afternoon. Forty American tourists had their visit to St. Aidans, Gasworks Lane, Chisleworth disrupted when practical jokers released Helium into the organ inlet.

In their haste to get away the unknown spoil-sports left the empty gas cylinder in the churchyard. Detective Inspector Ted Arbuthnot of Barsetshire Royal Constabulary said: 'we have removed the alleged object to Chisleworth Police Station where we are looking into it.'

When asked whether he thought the untoward event had ruined the American organ buffs' visit, the Rector of St. Aidan's, the Rev. Lionel Chasuble, said: 'Yes, I think it may have spoiled their visit, but I am glad to say the organ has recovered completely and the whole affair is not without a certain childish humour.'

Apparently the introduction of Helium into the organ's compressed air system caused it 'to sound all squeaky', according to regular church organist, Mr. Reginald Turley. 'It sounded like a whole darned flock of Donald Ducks' opined Brad Herzog, who had travelled from Lawton, Oklahoma to see St. Aidan's organ.

St. Aidan's organ was built more than a hundred years ago by Father Smith and was played on by the composer Handel.