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.