In the latest interview in his series on Christian stewardship, John Myhill talks to Norfolk painter Clarissa Upchurch and partner and poet George Szirtes.
Art transforms us in ways that economics and politics cannot. I have long seen the world differently as a result of the atmospheric edginess of Clarissa’s paintings of buildings in landscape, and the musical energy and challenge of George’s poetry. As he says: “art must be ambiguous, not propaganda, with depth not passivity.”
But it is the beauty of all they do that has given them a well-deserved international reputation. Romantically recognising each other only on their last day at college, they married at 21. Living since 1994 in a simple Tudor terrace with wonderful views of Wymondham Abbey, their home is full of their own paintings and books, with little need for luxury.
They are ethical people who are almost unaware of their own unambiguous values: assuming that shopping will be co-op, fair-trade, organic, with solar panels and minimum car use.
George has helped as a translator for Hungarians who have been exploited by gang masters, became involved with PEN’s work for refugees, acted as chair of the Puppet theatre and Poetry Book Society, and remains an inspiration to generations of students. Just as he was helped and inspired by Martin Bell and Peter Porter, so he has helped others through Cafe Writers in Norwich and more recently Wymondham Words festival.
So where does their spiritual energy and ethical leading come from? George describes himself as a “sceptical agnostic”, although he is also a “residual Christian”; but he admits that if government shifts further towards persecution, he would have to stand as a Jew (his mother was in a concentration camp, his father in forced labour) – although he was brought up as a Lutheran and he and Clarissa were both baptised by full immersion at the age of 21.
Clarissa accepts that she believes in “something greater, something within”. They feel no need for institutional religion, although George is attracted to Catholic ritual and symbolism, and they both feel they could cope with Quaker silence. Clarissa’s father, a Baptist missionary in China and Malaya, persecuted under the Cultural Revolution, hated writing sermons, and neither Clarissa or George are preachy people, and would hate to be preached at. Twelve years teaching at a Quaker based vegetarian school in Letchworth has not stopped them eating meat!
Clarissa, came to England aged ten, and felt the outsider; whilst George came as a Hungarian refugee, aged eight, and quickly learnt the language and felt accepted - a sense of belonging. Over a few months in 1956, 20,000 Hungarian refugees arrived in this country, and were welcomed as heroes. He understands that some people have a problem with migration, but believes we can regain our traditional tolerance and liberalism, when we know the facts, rather than “mischievous misrepresentation”. As artists they are outside the “irritating class system” cutting through the “bland” to the “dramatic and exotic”.
As poet, teacher and translator, George, “squeezes the meaning out of words”. He is “notoriously prolific”. He first came to Norwich College of Arts to teach on a five-term Cultural Studies course that he designed, combining poetry with the theory and practice of art. As well as 20 plus translations from Hungarian classics, his life has been full of the work of translating one form of life into, another. Writing was an instinct from age of 17.
They have both retired from teaching: “but you never retire from writing or painting”: nor from engaging with the problems of the oppressed, as far as I can see.
George Szirtes poem “Flying” is to be broadcast, set to music, as part of the traditional BBC nine lessons and carols from Kings College, Cambridge this Christmas.
Pictured above are Clarissa Upchurch and George Szirtes.
Click below to read the previous articles in this series