Sunday, 13 January 2019

A Hogmanay Tragedy



On the morning of Wednesday, 1st January, 1919, householders in the Hebridean island of Lewis were looking forward with eager anticipation to the imminent arrival home of many of their menfolk, who had been serving with Britain's armed forces overseas in the effort to win the First World War. The fighting was behind them now, and the men themselves looked forward to returning to their homes and crofts and catching up with family life. 283 sailors were travelling home to Stornoway on the Iolaire, and at around two in the morning, they were within a few hundred yards of their home port.
The Iolaire was a yacht launched thirty-seven years earlier. It was privately owned but had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, and had been pressed into service on this occasion because there were not enough suitable vessels available to ferry home the latest band of troops returning to Scotland from active service. One man, 27-year-old Kenneth Macphail, had served throughout the war, including a stint at Gallipoli. In 1917, his ship had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean and he had survived by clinging to wreckage; he spent 34 hours in the water before being rescued, almost the only survivor. The experience was so traumatic that Kenneth, who had completed his recuperation only six months earlier, told his brother Angus that, were he ever in the same situation, he would prefer not to go through the ordeal again and would resign himself to his fate. That was why, when Kenneth's body was recovered from the sea a few days later, his hands were placed firmly in his pockets.
It is hard for most of us to imagine a person not wanting to save his or her own life, but such feelings were not uncommon among servicemen during the First World War. Kenneth Macphail was nevertheless unusual; when the Iolaire struck a rock, within sight of Stornaway harbour, and quickly sank, many of the passengers showed great heroism in trying to escape and help those around them. 201 men - more than two thirds of those aboard - died that night, but John Finlay Macleod, a 30-year-old seaman, had the knowledge of how to ride the crest of a wave to take himself safely onto the rocks, from where he set up a rescue line to bring others safely to dry land. Another survivor, Donald Morrison, actually went down with the ship but managed to climb a mast and cling to it until daylight came and he was rescued.
The causes of the Iolaire disaster were never officially stated, but there were many contributing factors: there were gale-force winds, the ship was not designed to carry so many men, and the crew had never sailed into Stornoway after dark before, and did not have adequate lookouts. The men aboard were weighed down by their uniforms and equipment. Rumours quickly spread that some of the crew had been drunk, which would not have been surprising given that it was Hogmanay and the troops were celebrating their return home. Local people held the Admiralty mainly to blame, but no one was ever disciplined for the failure to bring the men back safely.
Some called the Iolaire's sinking "the crowning sorrow of the war". Women who had been airing the civilian clothes of their husbands and sons in front of their fires found themselves bereaved and in many cases destitute. If Siegfried Sassoon thought that those at home could have no comprehension of what he and his comrades had suffered, he would have been anguished to see the impact on the small communities whose people came down to the shore to find the drowned bodies of their loved ones lined up for identification.
Afterwards, like many of those who had served at the Western Front, the people of Lewis made a point of not talking about the Iolaire disaster. They simply could not cope with the grief. In the recent BBC documentary on the subject, a psychologist pointed out that silence was the way of dealing with such emotions in those days; the islanders never had the benefit of treatment by someone like Dr William Rivers, who might have helped them talk through their thoughts and feelings in order to assuage their grief and stop them sinking into depression (the fate of some of the survivors as well as the bereaved).
Only a hundred years later, now that all those who remember it are dead and gone, has the local community felt free to acknowledge the impact of the events of 1st January 1919. On 1st January this year, Prince Charles - as Duke of Rothesay - and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attended a memorial service at the monument to those who lost their lives on that tragic night. As a more lasting tribute, local artist Margaret Ferguson painted portraits of a hundred of the sailors, while composer Iain Morrison, the great-grandson of one of the victims, was commissioned to write a piece in memory of the events. Morrison said that he struggled with the task because he found it difficult to create anything that did not carry a sense of reflection and a message of hope. You can see part of the documentary and hear an extract from the piece on Youtube by following this link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-PpKyjWseQ

Friday, 21 December 2018

Centenary Christmas Reflections

The Christmas of 1918 should have been a time to celebrate. Not only had the Kaiser been defeated, but the British people could look forward to the end of food rationing, air raids and disruption to families. Women had been given the vote and men were no longer being called on to sacrifice their lives in a foreign land. Surely everyone must have entered the festive season with optimism and goodwill?
Well, not everyone. Some people faced Christmas with the knowledge that they had lost husbands, fathers and sons; a much smaller, but still appreciable, number had lost wives, mothers or daughters. Some men remained in prisoner-of-war camps in continental Europe, while others had returned home with terrible injuries that would eventually take their lives or prevent them from holding down a job. Still others would have difficulty settling into civilian life, because of their physical or mental condition.
As for Siegfried Sassoon, not only had his life been completely changed by the experience of war, but his sudden exit from the Western Front after being shot earlier in the year had caused further upheaval. He was unimpressed with the London crowds who cheered the news of the Armistice, not knowing that among them was another young man who was going to make a major impact on his emotional development. He was introduced to an aspiring artist, Gabriel Atkin, later in the month.
The few weeks that preceded and immediately followed the end of the war found Sassoon caught up in something of a social whirl, despite the sudden death of his mentor Robert Ross in October. Introduced in turn to T E Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, Wilfrid Gibson and John Galsworthy, he also caught up with his former psychiatrist and father figure, Dr Rivers. The meeting with William Atkin (nicknamed "Gabriel" because of his supposed resemblance to an angel) had been engineered by another friend, the musicologist Edward Dent, who shared Sassoon's sexual preferences and foresaw that he would be attracted to Gabriel.
It is well attested that Siegfried Sassoon had eschewed physical sex until this point, and the time was ripe for him to embark on his first homosexual affair, which he soon did. Gabriel, much younger but far more worldly, entranced Siegfried with his looks and apparent need for affection. Their relationship was relatively short-lived, and would peter out when Sassoon left for a speaking tour of the United States early in 1920. They remained friends, and Sassoon occasionally toyed with the idea of renewing their affair, but was put off by the knowledge of Gabriel's addiction to drink and drugs; Gabriel eventually married a writer, and died at the age of forty.
At Christmas, Sassoon took Gabriel home to Weirleigh to meet his mother. It did not go well, and it was probably fortunate that Dr Rivers had been invited to stay with them in the post-Christmas period. Theresa Sassoon recognised the nature of her son's relationship with Gabriel, and found little common ground with the young man, despite his being, like herself, an artist. She got on much better with Rivers.
In the early stages of their affair, Gabriel described Sassoon as "the most amazing gorgeous person in the universe", unconsciously emulating the hero-worship of another of Sassoon's close friends, Wilfred Owen, who had been killed in France just before the end of the war. Sassoon does not appear to have been missing Owen, and himself says that it was months before he head the news of the latter's death; perhaps this is unsurprising, given the level of activity that followed the end of the war. It seems likely that he did not want to think of anything that would remind him of his military career, although he did introduce Gabriel to Vivian da Sola Pinto, who had been his second-in-command during his last period of overseas service, and to his great friend Robert Graves.
Graves had upset Sassoon by getting married and starting a family. Siegfried firmly believed that Robert was denying his true nature by marrying - though he would himself eventually do the same. It was the beginning of the end of their friendship, but for now the relations between them remained cordial, at least on the surface. In the meantime, Sassoon did something he had never thought of doing before the war, and got a job. He had spent much of early 1919 in Oxford, where he met people like John Masefield and Robert Bridges and intended to remain for a period of "independent study". He soon realised that this was a dream rather than a practical proposal, and was pleased to accept the post of Literary Editor of the Daily Herald.
In working for a newspaper that supported the Labour Party, Sassoon was dabbling in politics, with the encouragement of Dr Rivers, himself a prospective Labour candidate. It would never come to anything, but it gave him temporary satisfaction to feel he was adopting principles that he had developed as a result of his war service - a period during which he had begun to feel intense sympathy for the working classes who made up the majority of the men he associated with at the Western Front.
This post could easily turn into a saga if I were to continue. I would recommend any reader who wants to know more about Siegfried's post-war life to go to the second volume of Jean Moorcroft Wilson's biography of Sassoon, The Journey from the Trenches, which tells the story far better than I can ever hope to do.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

All Kinds of Conferencing

Literary conferences aren't about making money, and it's just as well. All too often, they make a financial loss - that is the price of trying to bring the work of writers like Sassoon and Owen to a wider audience.
Those who have never attended a conference will have a false impression of what it involves. "Was your conference very dull?" asked a fellow-guest at my hotel in Oxford, as I returned from a satisfying day of lectures at Wolfson College. Did she really think I would be paying to attend something I didn't enjoy? Or did she perhaps assume that I was being forced to attend, for the good of my career?
It's true that many of the delegates at literary conferences in general are academics. However, that is not the case with the annual meetings of most literary societies. Of the nearly 30 people at our recent Marlborough conference, only one could truly be described as an academic, though a few were teachers or librarians by profession. But there were also lawyers, doctors, firefighters, social workers and IT specialists, all interested in Siegfried Sassoon for different reasons. You don't have to be highly qualified to enjoy good writing.
There's a book in the "Thursday Next" series of fantasy novels by Jasper Fforde in which Thursday (the heroine) learns that Pride & Prejudice is to be made into a reality TV show; she pulls a fast one on the producers by telling the characters to "do what you would normally do" rather than acting up for the cameras. The result is a huge number of additional viewers tuning in to find out whether Jane will marry Mr Bingley and what will happen to Lydia. The moral is that good literature is much more interesting than the faked on-screen bitching and "relationships" that millennials seem to find so fascinating.
What's more, most of our talks are not specifically about literature but about many other aspects of Sassoon's life and work. Most SSF members agree that he is more than a mere subject for literary criticism; he emerges in his writing as a three-dimensional human being, not always admirable in his conduct, but certainly always interesting.
Enough of that. It can't be denied that conferences come in all shapes and sizes. The "Wilfred Owen and Beyond" conference at Wolfson College, Oxford, was - sadly - not as well attended as had been hoped. This was partly because the dozens of people who had applied to speak and had their proposals turned down decided not to come along to hear those who had been successful. I believe that this is fairly normal for academics, who are increasingly under pressure to publish research and present at conferences in order to maintain their CVs. That is such a pity. I don't know what proportion of those who submitted proposals were actually in academia, but I suspect it was the majority; certainly there were no speakers at the conference who were not either academics or students, which is in contrast with my experiences at Sassoon conferences.
The "call for papers" encourages younger academics and graduate students to prepare something for a literary conference, and the competition can be considerable, but it is also potentially divisive. Umbrage may be taken by those whose papers were not selected, especially if they are long-standing members of organisations (such as literary societies) dedicated to furthering particular authors or aspects of literature and feel that their enthusiastic ideas have been passed over in favour of bigger "names".
At the other extreme you will find many literary societies that are not in the least highbrow. Come to the Barbara Pym Society's annual conference and you will meet a handful of academics,(and those mostly from overseas). The speaker programme generally includes a few, but it also typically includes people who have no pretensions to "lecturing" in the normal sense of the word. For example, at this year's conference, one of the most interesting talks was given by a member who had set herself the task of attempting to make some of the dishes mentioned in Pym's novels, using contemporary recipes.
The post-centenary ennui that appears to threaten the continuity of organisations such as the Western Front Association and the societies dedicated to the poets of the First World War is only to be expected. I feel as though we have just been on the receiving end of the Ludendorff Offensive and are enjoying one last gasp of success as we celebrate the Armistice.
What next for the Sassoon Fellowship? I look forward to a period when we will give closer examination to the post-war lives of 1914-18 veterans and to the work produced by one of Britain's greatest prose writers between the 1920s and 1940s. I wonder if I will make it to the centenary of the end of the Second World War, and, if I do, how much my opinion of conferences will have changed.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Not a Disappointment

There is no doubt that the number of members attending our recent annual conference at Marlborough College was lower than we had expected and hoped. It confirmed me in my growing impression that, after nearly four years, the general public is quickly losing interest in the centenary of the First World War, and perhaps also in the "War" poets. This, coupled with the other factors I mentioned in my report on the year at the AGM (Brexit and consequent tightening of belts, and the less-than-ideal accessibility of the venue), goes a long way to explain the poor attendance.
As one person after another pulled out of the event at the last minute, I grew more and more despondent about its success, but on the evening of Saturday 20th October, I felt great satisfaction at how the conference had gone in general. The SSF will undoubtedly lose money - quite a lot of money - on the event, but even thirty people can still have a good conference, as this one undoubtedly was.
One of the good things about the day was the opportunity to hear Jean Moorcroft Wilson, a long-standing patron and the author of a recent biography of Robert Graves, talk about the "fruitful triangle" of poets - Sorley, Sassoon and Graves - with the latter providing an unexpected link between the two old Marlburians. But that was just for starters.
Philip Neale, a newcomer to us but already seeming like an old friend, is the Chair of the T E Lawrence Society, and talked about Lawrence's attempts to become a writer, a process on which Sassoon's enthusiastic and (sometimes sardonic) encouraging words had a not inconsiderable influence.
"It is a GREAT BOOK, blast you!" Sassoon wrote exasperatedly, in response to yet another self-doubting enquiry from the author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. "Are you satisfied, you tank-investigating eremite?"
Whether or not you think that Seven Pillars is a great book (and it was interesting to learn from Philip that most of those who begin reading it never finish it), the fact that Sassoon thought so is evidence that it is worth the effort of doing one's best to appreciate it for what it is. Phlip's explanation of how Lawrence and his editors worked on it over a long period makes one wonder how it might have ended up being revised if Lawrence had lived to a ripe old age. Would he, like Sassoon in old age, have considered much of his earlier work immature and unworthy of consideration? Would he, with the benefit of hindsight, have brought out yet another edition?
For dessert (after tea) we heard a sparkling talk from Jonathan Fryer on the subject of Robbie Ross (the centenary of whose death we mark this autumn) and his mastery of early twentieth-century forms of social networking. Ross is a figure who continues to intrigue and attract many students of literature, and this is a topic we might profitably explore further at some future event.
All in all, a successful conference by anyone's standards, I think. At any rate, all the delegates thanked us for organising it and commented how much they had enjoyed the day. The catering was pretty good too.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Little Blunden

The well-known poetry publisher Carcanet has just brought out a new edition of Edmund Blunden's poems. It occurred to me that I haven't written much about Blunden in this blog, and it's quite a while since I even mentioned him, so I feel I should redress the balance. After all, he was Siegfried Sassoon's best friend, and while he didn't perhaps influence Siegfried's poetic development in the way Robert Graves and others did, he certainly influenced him as a person, probably for the better.
Blunden was born in 1896, and thus was ten years Sassoon's junior. Had they met during the war, their relationship might have been very different. Blunden was at Oxford with Graves after the war, but did not stay the course. This may have had something to do with his decision to marry, in 1918. He and his wife Mary moved into a tiny cottage in Boars Hill, an area also frequented by Graves and Sassoon in the immediate post-war period, although it was some time before he and Sassoon became close friends. Some years ago, the SSF visited the house; in our company was Margi Blunden, one of Blunden's daughters from a later marriage; she was astonished to see how small it was.
On that occasion, Margi told us the sad story of how Blunden and his wife Mary had lost their first child, a daughter named Joy, as a result of being sold contaminated baby milk. The child was only a few weeks old when she died, and her father's grief inspired him to write a number of poems. It was barely a year since Blunden had seen service on the Western Front during the Great War; there he had experienced things as dreadful as what Sassoon and Owen had faced.
No wonder he took offence at the content of Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, published at around the same time. By 1928 he and Sassoon had become firm friends, having met through poetry rather than a short-lived wartime camaraderie. From their correspondence, Sassoon immediately recognised Blunden as a potential kindred spirit. It may even have been Blunden who introduced Sassoon to the work of Henry Vaughan, about which I have already written so much that you do not want to hear it again. They subsequently found further common ground in their mutual love of cricket, and it was Blunden who would later orchestrate a meeting between Sassoon and the young cricketer Dennis Silk, now President of the SSF, resulting in another firm and long-lasting friendship.
Blunden's marriage, adversely affected both by the trauma of Joy's death (even though they had another two children together) and later by Blunden's decision to take up an academic post in Japan, broke down in the late 1920s and the couple divorced in 1931. Blunden found some comfort in his relationship with Sylva, a writer, whom he married in 1933. There were no children from this second marriage, which ended in 1945. The Second World War brought further upheaval, and Blunden became friendly with a young student, Claire Poynting, who was studying at St Hilda's (by coincidence, my alma mater). Ironically, Claire's love of cricket was one of the things that brought them together.
Claire was the mother of Margi and another three daughters, and the love of cricket has extended into the next generation, with Margi's son Ted Miller being one of those who have won the "Man of the Match" award at our annual commemoration of the "Flower Show Match" at Matfield. Blunden's marriage to Claire finally brought him the settled family life and band of children he had hoped for, and which Siegfried Sassoon would have liked to emulate through his own marriage to Hester. Perhaps his reason for introducing Siegfried and Dennis had something to do with his understanding of Siegfried's longing for a son who would share his interests, since George Sassoon lived with his mother in Scotland and did not see as much of his father as both would have liked.
There is certainly no doubt that Sassoon's post-war life would have been a lot emptier without his friendship with Edmund Blunden. The picture shown is the famous photograph of the older Siegfried, flanked by Edmund and Dennis, sitting on the porch at Heytesbury House, listening to "Test Match Special".

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Journey's End

In 2018, we mark the end of a journey that lasted more than four years - four years of war, four years of centenary commemorations. In November, as well as marking the Armistice that (more or less) delivered peace, or at any rate the end of hostilities, we will note the 100th anniversary of the death of a great poet - Wilfred Owen. I notice that stamps are to be issued in recognition of this event, though I am not sure they should have used a quotation from Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth", since it is generally known that Siegfried Sassoon gave him considerable assistance in producing the final published version of this particular poem.
The other night I watched the latest big-screen version of R C Sherriff's play, Journey's End, a play I'd never actually seen, despite its long production history. First performed in 1928 - the same year as the publication of Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man - it deals with subject matter that Sassoon would have found very familiar. Sherriff searched long and hard for a suitable title for the play, and what made him select the title by which the play is now known is unclear. For me, the main character, Captain Stanhope, appears to be nowhere near his journey's end; on the contrary, we glimpse a bleak future for this man who in many ways resembles Sassoon. Only the dead officers and men have come to a point where they do not need to go on.
Stanhope is a young man, probably younger than Sassoon was at the end of the war, since he has been at school with Raleigh, the second lieutenant who is barely out of his teens. The original director, James Whale, recognised this by casting 21-year-old Laurence Olivier in the role of Stanhope. Sherriff was ten years younger than Sassoon, and had been just out of school when the war began. Initially rejected for a commission, possibly because of his grammar school background, he nevertheless admired the ex-public school officers with whom he came into contact on joining the Artists' Rifles in 1915. Like Sassoon, he did not reach the Western Front immediately on enlisting, and he arrived in France as a Second Lieutenant in the East Surreys, in the autumn of 1916. After being seriously wounded at Passchendaele, he never rejoined his battalion. Thus, although his own journey was at an end for the time being, it must have been hard for him to accept that friends and comrades were continuing to be killed. The observations in this post owe much to the article by Peter Crook in the August 2018 edition of the WFA's Bulletin.
Sherriff's other literary output, including plays and novels, never achieved the same success as Journey's End - even though theatre proprietors were at first unhappy that there were no females in the cast. Leading ladies like Zena and Phyllis Dare, Sybil Thorndike, and later, Jessie Matthews, could be a big draw for West End audiences; moreover, women made up a significant proportion of theatre-goers, and men who had served in the war themselves must have hesitated at the prospect of taking their wives to see this dark drama that threatened to reveal the unpalatable truth that they had kept from their families for years. It seems, however, that this was the secret of the play's success. Sherriff himself explained: "Old soldiers recognised themselves, or the friends they had served with. Women recognised their sons, their brothers or their husbands, many of whom had not returned..."
Rather than setting the play in the Ypres Salient where he had served, Sherriff chose the backdrop of the St Quentin region and the Spring Offensive, an event that occurred after he had been sent home. Perhaps this was partly to distance himself from the characters and thus avoid the suggestion of autobiography; perhaps another reason was to make the efforts of Stanhope and his men to stem the implacable tide of the German advance appear all the more pointless. He would have had the stories related to him by friends as raw material on which to build his plot, without having to go through the painful experience of reliving his own memories of battle.
Sherriff's depiction of senior officers, their callousness resulting from a "there's nothing else for it" kind of attitude that appears to rank human life equally with ammunition in terms of importance, is far from complimentary. He would certainly have read Sassoon's "The General", as well as having his own encounters to go on. He recognises, as Sassoon did elsewhere, that this frame of mind can be seen at lower levels, as Stanhope orders the inexperienced Raleigh to participate in a trench raid, knowing that he will probably be killed but unable to find anyone more suitable for the task. A CWGC blog post I came across gives us a clue to the real men behind some of Sherriff's characters, and you can read it here.
Sassoon would use false names to disguise the real people behind his characters, but with a lack of skill in subterfuge that makes them easily recognisable: Cromlech for Graves, and so on. His purpose was different from Sherriff's. He was exorcising his own ghosts by writing autobiography, and most successfully from a reader's point of view. For Sherriff, the catharsis of writing Journey's End is equally apparent. I do not know to what extent he succeeded in laying his own ghosts.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Living History

At the recent Brenchley First World War Centenary Weekend, the SSF shared the marquee (left over from the authentic Flower Show which had taken place on the previous day) with a "living history" group - the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Living History Group, to be precise. That there are people willing to give their time to the recreation of history, purely for the love of it, is remarkable, and their knowledge of the period is second to none (if you exclude those who actually participated in that horrible war).
This paid off in terms of the number of visitors who wanted to view and handle the artefacts on display - including those of us who were supposed to be minding the SSF stall, which sadly attracted relatively few visitors. However, kudos to the village archive team, who put on a lovely display of material about the history of Brenchley and about Sassoon hmself in a room just off Gray's community cafe.
I don't remember Gray's being there last time I visited Brenchley village hall, and it's a fabulous facility for the village. They sold me one of the best cheese scones in living memory (and I consider myself something of an expert on that subject). Neither Brenchley nor Matfield has a great deal to offer in the way of shops or eating places nowadays. Matfield Cricket Club's favourite haunt, the Cricketer's Arms, has been closed for a year and there is no sign of it re-opening. Matfield's Cherry Tree Tea Rooms closed some years ago, and Matfield's community shop has also closed. "The Poet", though thoughtfully named, is an upmarket restaurant which doesn't tend to attract cricket teams.
You may think I have departed from the topic of living history, but I really haven't. The Brenchley archivists and the West Kent military history enthusiasts are all contributing to the understanding of our world as it was a hundred years ago. The photographic evidence survives of the self-contained rural community in which Siegfried grew up. When we were asked "Which biography of Sassoon should I read to find out about his life in this area?", we suggested reading The Weald of Youth instead. Some will argue that we don't need to "live" history. Some will say that the past is best forgotten.
Up to a point, I agree that we need to put the past behind us. I have been particularly disturbed by some of the coverage of the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, which has mentioned the defeat of the Germans as a matter for exultation as often as it has sounded regretful about the mass slaughter. I discovered recently that a neighbour's grandfather was a VC recipient; he keeps very quiet about this and was actually annoyed that one of his relatives had agreed to be interviewed by TV reporters. Even siblings can view the significance of history from quite different angles.
Siegfried Sassoon made his views on remembrance quite clear - as the lovely new carving at Brenchley says, "Look up and swear by the green of the spring that you will never forget." It was not because he wanted to remember. He saw the lists of names on the Menin Gate memorial as a cause for shame rather than a focus either for celebration or even for respectful mourning. On the other hand, if one did not remember, how could one hope to prevent a recurrence? The outbreak of another world war in 1939 filled him with despair.
Those of us who study history in the hope of not repeating the mistakes of the past are fully aware that we are wasting our time. Better, perhaps, to concentrate on understanding the past in order to see the present in context. So many of the racial and political tensions prevalent in today's world can be attributed to mere ignorance of the past.