Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Guerrilla Treeplanter


An article in the latest edition of The Author caught my eye. Let’s face it, “Tree planting with Thomas Hardy” is an intriguing title by anyone’s standards. The content of the article did not disappoint, though it turned out to be something a little different from what I had initially expected.
Some followers of this blog may recall me writing, way back in 2014, about the "Hardy Tree" at St Pancras Old Churchyard in London, where Thomas Hardy, then a junior architect, was given the task of relocating a number of graves, and placed them in a circular pattern around an ash tree. What I had not realised was that several of Hardy's works contain what the author of the article calls handy tips on tree-planting.
Jonathan Tulloch is a novelist, journalist and musician who has an unusual hobby - planting trees. I say unusual because it is not part of his job. He is what he calls a "guerrilla treeplanter", going out at night to repopulate the British countryside by means of random acts of propagation. Rather like Admiral Collingwood, who used to go around with a pocketful of acorns and distribute them at the roadside in the hope of raising new oaks (presumably for shipbuilding purposes), Tulloch considers it his duty to take a role in raising a new generation of trees to replace the ones repeatedly being mown down by mechanical excavators.
This idea appealed to me somewhat, and also reminded me of the talk given by Anne Powell at our legendary Cardiff conference in 2013. Anne has taken an interest in the "gardens" created and tended by soldiers of the First World War. Apparently there are photographs of soldiers with watering cans, caring for plants at the Front, sometimes even in the trenches, where it seems that celery grew particularly well! I can only assume that this was during the summer in places where there was not much fighting going on; I can't imagine that anything pleasant could have been grown in the mud of the Somme and Passchendaele at the height of battle. The article in The Spectator from which I derived this interesting information also tells me that the Imperial War Museum holds among its collection a medal for prize-winning tomatoes submitted to the Le Havre horticultural show of 1918.
Philip Gosse (1879-1959), a family friend of Siegfried Sassoon, took after his grandfather and namesake, the great naturalist (and Darwin denier) whose biography was written by Ann Thwaite in 2002. Gosse junior - of course the son of Edmund - served with RAMC and spent his time on the Western Front collecting rare species for the Natural History Museum. His 1935 memoir, modestly titled Memoirs of a camp-follower, gives an entertaining account of his efforts to keep his specimens safe and find the required materials for taxidermy when appropriate.

Such were the lengths taken by First World War military personnel who loved the natural world and could not bear to see it laid waste by the activities of both armies. Sassoon, Blunden and Graves were among those who witnessed and commented on the work of nature at the Front. For those not brought up in the inner cities, there was little beauty to be seen in the trenches and they longed for the rural idylls that many of them had known as children.

 




Thursday, 28 September 2017

At Home in Cambridge

The fortunate few who were able to attend this year's AGM on 16th September at St Paul's Church Centre, Cambridge, had a very enjoyable time - and I apologise to those three people who went to a different church thanks to a postcode error made by me in the original announcement. Thankfully, they arrived in time for the two wonderful talks. Somehow, we always seem to find great speakers for the AGM and invariably we are given new or previously-overlooked information about Siegfried Sassoon, his work and his friends.
This year, by something of a fluke, our two speakers were both Cambridge residents. I mean to say that we chose the venue before we had finalised the speaker programme and we were lucky to get two local people who are experts in their particular fields as well as being members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.
It was lovely to see Kayleigh Fitzgerald again. Those of you who have been members for more than five years will remember Kayleigh as a committee member, but recent years have seen her having to interrupt her academic studies, as well as her work on a biography of W H R Rivers, because of ill health. She is now studying theology at St John's College, Cambridge, and we were very happy to see her looking so well. Kayleigh and her boyfriend are both preparing to be ordained as Anglican priests and we wish them every success in their future careers.
Kayleigh's interest in William Halse Rivers Rivers [sic] goes back to her schooldays, and the opportunity to study at St John's, where Rivers was a Fellow and where he died suddenly in 1922 (Or was it? Apparently there are conflicting versions of the story), was one she couldn't resist. In her scholarly and comprehensive talk, she gave us a whistle-stop tour of his life and career which was much appreciated by the knowledgeable audience, concentrating particularly on his investigations into the repression of memory, a phenomenon to which he could strongly relate because of his own personal experience and which helped him treat patients like Siegfried Sassoon.
  Our second speaker, Anne Penton, is the great-niece of David Cuthbert Thomas, Siegfried's closest wartime friend. David was only 21 when he died, and might have done great things if he had not become a victim of the carnage of the Western Front. Anne has researched his life and family background in great detail, and has already written several fascinating articles on the subject for Siegfried's Journal. The audience was very excited when she produced several artefacts that had belonged either to David himself or to his family. These included his school rugby cap and his service book. Perhaps because of his youth, he had not written anything like the number of personal notes into the book as Sassoon did. Sassoon mentions in his diaries that he recalled David taking notes on his poetry while they talked, but no such notes have been found; they have probably gone the way of most students' lecture notes and it seems unlikely we will ever see them.
At the end of the afternoon, we were joined by Nick Jewers of BBC Wiltshire, who is in the process of preparing a radio programme about Sassoon and happened to be in Cambridge on that day. Nick interviewed the Chair and Vice Chair, and even followed us to the pub for additional informal conversation (some of which will, no doubt, need to be excised from his recording for reasons other than length!) We are looking forward to hearing more about his programme in the future.


Monday, 4 September 2017

A Rather English Abbey


It only struck me last weekend that there may be tourists these days who turn up at Downside Abbey believing it to be Downton Abbey. In fact, I will be surprised if this is not the case. Downton Abbey was, however, completely unheard-of last time I visited Downside, in 2007. So many things have changed, among them the conference facilities, which have moved from the St Bede Centre which we used for the SSF conference ten years ago to the Weld Cafe (both are equally difficult to find until you know your way around the multi-purpose complex of abbey and school).
The reason for visiting on this occasion was a symposium organised by Joseph Melling to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Dom Sebastian Moore, whom I had interviewed on camera in 2007. Sadly, my DVD of this meeting has deteriorated, and the Abbey seem to have lost the copies we gave them at the time. As a result I wasn't able to show the film as planned. Instead, I gave a talk to the small but knowledgeable audience about Siegfried Sassoon, his conversion to Catholicism and his relationship with Sebastian. For those who do not know, the two men met in 1957 - sixty years ago - when Sebastian was appointed to give Siegfried his instruction in the Catholic faith. Ten years later, Sassoon died at nearby Heytesbury House, but by this time Sebastian was working as a parish priest in Liverpool. He subsequently spent some years in the United States, as a college chaplain, first in Milwaukee and later in Boston.
Like Siegfried, Sebastian was a rebel, though mainly in theological terms. He had also suffered a mental breakdown, which he agreed might have led to him forming a closer bond with Siegfried than would otherwise have been possible. It is difficult, looking at Downside now, to imagine anyone either wanting to rebel or being unhappy there. The monastic community seem to be very laid-back about their duties. When I spotted an old acquaintance, Father Alexander, in the road outside the abbey, I thought for a moment he must have left the order, as he was wearing an old sweater and serviceable trousers, which he explained by saying that he had just been on a pleasant country walk.
Apart from having to get up early in the morning for Lauds, it was difficult to see any sign of hardship in the life of a 21st-century monk. One of my fellow guests did tell me that he had seen a bat in the monastery's sleeping quarters (the part that I, as a woman, was not allowed to enter), and of course they have to share a bathroom and are expected to eat their meals in silence. All seem like a small price to pay for having the beautiful Victorian Gothic buildings in golden Bath stone around one all the time, surrounded by well-tended gardens and the kind of rolling countryside so typical of south-west England. Father Dominic Mansi, who looked after us in the guest wing, seems a progressive thinker and even apologised for women not being allowed to roam freely!
The symposium was an international affair, with American, Irish and Portuguese academics among the speakers, not to mention Father Louis Roy, Master of Sacred Theology at the Dominican University College in Ottawa, Canada. Those attending included former students of Downside School - now very much segregated from the Abbey even though the two institutions share the same site - and others who knew Sebastian, including theologian Peter Harvey, who told me that he had played cricket alongside Siegfried Sassoon. Peter kindly corrected me when I stated that the Ravens, Downside's cricket team, had been trained by the late Father Martin Salmon. "None of us were trained," said Peter. "Martin just happened to be the captain." I hope to persuade him to write up some of his memories for Siegfried's Journal at some future date.
Also present was our own Lindsey Spears, who taught at Downside School and knew Sebastian Moore well. At one time it had looked as if I would not be able to attend the symposium and Lindsey had agreed to fill in for me if necessary; in the end, the timings were changed and I was able to make my appearance after all. Even though I was unable to attend the afternoon session, I would have been very disappointed to miss it altogether. Luckily Joseph had distributed transcripts of all the talks to us, so we could read them at our leisure. However, I must say that some of them stray into arcane theological territory which left me feeling intellectually inadequate (and anyone who knows me will understand how difficult it is for me to admit that).
I have one final tip on visiting Downside, which seems not to be generally known to local tourist agencies. The abbey's visitor centre, which is run by volunteers, contains not only a very nice bookshop and gift shop, but also some coffee and tea-making facilities. If you are lucky, you will also get a slice of cake, in return for a small donation. Cheaper than Starbucks and much, much more congenial.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

History's Hot 100

I don't think anyone took much notice of my Facebook group post urging Sassoon enthusiasts to vote for him in this recent poll carried out on-line by the BBC. This year seemed the best opportunity we were ever going to have to get him into the top 100 "most interesting" historical figures of the moment. The results, published in BBC History magazine, don't include voting statistics, so maybe the number of people interested in the war poets is just paltry by comparison with the number who are interested in Richard III, who came top of the poll for the third year in a row.
Although the usual suspects continue high on the list - Anne Boleyn, Winston Churchill, Shakespeare and Henry VIII - there are a few unexpected new entries and risers, such as Aethelflaed of Mercia (for which I think, sadly, we have the recent adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's novels as The Last Kingdom to thank, rather than Michael Wood's masterly documentaries on Alfred the Great and his successors). Historian Peter Frankopan calls the list "predictable, insular and narrow", while Joanne Paul points to dramatisations of popular novels such as Wolf Hall and The White Queen as responsible for lifting people like Cecily Neville, Margaret Beaufort, Thomas Cromwell and Louis XIV (you know, that bloke with the long hair in Versailles) up the poll.
Victimised mathematician Alan Turing enters the poll at number 63, courtesy of The Imitation Game. Other entries are more difficult to explain. Francisco Franco? Bess of Hardwick? Isabella of Castile? Vlad the Impaler? William Marshal is at number 14, one place above Jesus Christ, but one behind Benito Mussolini. I don't know how Eleanor of Aquitaine made it to number two though; David Olusoga points out that the proportion of women in the list has risen, which to me seems a good thing - but they are almost all women who wielded positions of earthly power.
Olusoga is a historian who has shot up in my opinion since I heard him participating in the debates on the history of TV, presented in rather a lacklustre way by Melvyn Bragg earlier this year (one reviewer called it "a rational if indigestible celebration"). It is fortunate that we have people like him who are able to take a broader view of history and recognise that it is not all about kings and queens. Sometimes it is about individuals like Siegfried Sassoon (yes, and Wilfred Owen), whose influence in their own lifetimes may be small but grows exponentially in the decades that follow their deaths.
It is not surprising that the poll is so Euro-centric. Even after Michael Wood's hard work, most people in the UK would be hard pressed to name a Chinese or Indian figure of historic importance, or even an Australian for that matter. Unless Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is televised, we can expect Sassoon to remain obscure as far as the general public is concerned. I am, however, surprised at the omission of Wilfred Owen, who has fans worldwide; I'm also certain many Welsh readers will have voted for Hedd Wyn. Perhaps the war poet vote was split between several of our heroes, but it seems strange that no one connected with the First World War appears at all, unless you count Churchill. Maybe people are already suffering from centenary fatigue syndrome.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

They called it Passchendaele

One of Siegfried Sassoon's best-known lines of poetry is finally getting some recognition, courtesy of the centenary. "I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele." How many times have you heard that quoted in recent days? The Guardian used it. The Telegraph used it. The Daily Mail used it. The BBC website used it (along with the curious comment that "One hundred years on, Passchendaele is still remembered through the war poet Siegfried Sassoon"). The irony, for those of us who are familiar with Sassoon's war record, is that he was not present at the Battle of Passchendaele. At the time the battle took place, he was not even at the Western Front.
I had heard of it long before I knew how to spell it, and long before I knew what it referred to. "Passion Dale" - it actually sounded quite pleasant. But "passion" means "suffering", and the picture it conjures up nowadays, for anyone who knows the slightest thing about the battle, is of thousands of men suffering in an environment that had once been attractive but was now so badly damaged as to be unrecognisable.
The news inevitably reached the home front. Whenever politicians and military leaders try to cover something up, it always gets out eventually. Sometimes it takes decades, but even with censorship being strictly applied it would have been difficult to prevent word getting back to the soldiers' families and friends, either through personal accounts or by means of telegrams sent to the mothers, fathers and wives of the innumerable dead.
Heavy irony makes itself felt again here. If there is one thing history is consistent about, it is that those who actually witnessed the horror of Passchendaele found it almost impossible to talk about it in the years that followed. Harry Patch, "the last fighting Tommy", had to be coaxed into giving vent to his memories, in conversation with Richard van Emden and others, when he was aged over a hundred.
Nevertheless, Sassoon heard about Passchendaele. The first day of the battle coincided with the reading of the "Soldier's Declaration" in the British Parliament by Bertie Lees-Smith, ensuring that as many people as possible heard about this courageous rebel. On August 14th, in an Edinburgh hospital, Siegfried received news of the death of one of his oldest friends, Gordon Harbord (the Stephen Colwood of Fox-Hunting Man). Harbord, whom he had known for nearly ten years, was killed at Wieltje while supporting the action at Ypres. One might argue that Harbord was one of the lucky ones; the location of his grave is known. Sassoon's immediate response to the news was to write a poem titled "A Wooden Cross". He wrote, "The world's too full of heroes, mostly dead," and he refers to the war as "a stinking lie". By now he was being treated by the sympathetic William Rivers, and he did not leave Craiglockhart until late November, when the fighting at Passchendaele was virtually over.
Another, better-known, casualty of the battle was a Welsh-speaking farmer called Ellis Humphrey Evans, remembered by his bardic name of "Hedd Wyn" (literally "white peace"). Although the National Eisteddfod was not broadcast through mass media as it is now, most of Wales could not help being aware that the winner of the bard's chair at the Birkenhead Eisteddfod had been killed some weeks earlier, on the first day of the Passchendaele offensive; the announcement was made in the presence of the prime minister, Lloyd George.
The Menin Gate, the physical reminder of the battle, has become a favourite place to quote from the war poets, but it was not something that Sassoon loved. He saw the "pile of peace-complacent stone" shortly after it was erected, and was disgusted enough to write a poem disowning it. "This sepulchre of crime" he calls it, in his 1927 poem "On Passing the New Menin Gate". I have argued with many who say that Sassoon disliked the Menin Gate, because I do not think it was the building himself that angered him, nor even what it symbolised. Rather, he found it intolerable that the authorities should think they had in some way made up for the losses of all those men by building a monument to them and inscribing "Their name liveth for evermore" on it. This, to Sassoon, was simply not enough. The result is possibly the last of his angry war poems.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Lions led by men?

While reading the Spring 2017 edition of the Western Front Association's excellent Bulletin, I was intrigued by an exchange between a WFA member, Peter Crook, and the historian Gary Sheffield. Mr Crook was unhappy that Mr Sheffield, in a recent article, had dismissed Alan Clark's 1961 book, The Donkeys, as bad history. Gary (to whom I once gave an SSF pen) responded to the effect that no serious historian - presumably excluding Basil Liddell Hart who oversaw the publication - considers the book to be of any value.
I admit I have never read The Donkeys. However, the focus of criticism has for a long time been that Clark, son of the better-regarded Sir Kenneth, and now remembered chiefly for the controversial diaries covering his career as a Tory MP, "made up" the quotation "Lions led by donkeys" from which he took the title of his book on the First World War. Whatever the merits or demerits of the book, this accusation is wholly unjustified.
In the days before digital media and the internet made out-of-print books so accessible it was never easy to find out where a quotation had originated, unless it happened to be so well-known that it appeared in a published book of quotations. When asked, Clark was evasive. It seems clear to me that he had heard the phrase but did not know where it came from. He and Liddell Hart had puzzled over its origins, but it was too good a title to give up, so they used it regardless.
It has been left to others to point out that the phrase had been used as a book title by one P A Thompson as long ago as 1927, for his own book about the First World War, with the subtitle "Showing how victory in the Great War was achieved by those who made the fewest mistakes". It has in fact been traced back as far as the Crimean War, when an identical quotation, albeit in French, appeared in print in 1855. As an afterthought, sources now tend to mention that Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an English gentlewoman who in 1907 had married into German nobility, stated in her published diaries that she had "heard it straight from the Grosse Hauptquartier". The full quotation, as she puts it, reads like this:
"The English Generals are wanting in strategy. We should have no chance if they possessed as much science as their officers and men had of courage and bravery. They are lions led by donkeys."
What exactly is going on here? Why is Evelyn Blücher's account ignored as though it could not possibly have anything to do with the overall debate? Is it because she was female and a non-combatant? Evelyn, maiden name Stapleton-Bretherton, was ten years older than Siegfried Sassoon and was descended from a family of Lancashire coach proprietors as well as from the 12th Baron Petre. Following her marriage to a descendant of the great Prussian general Blücher, she went to live on Herm in the Channel Islands, moving to Berlin when war broke out.
The memoir Evelyn based on her diaries, called An English wife in Berlin, was published in 1920 and is therefore far closer to actual events than any secondary history written by Alan Clark or Gary Sheffield, neither of whom was yet conceived. (Basil Liddell Hart had actually served at the Western Front before eventually being invalided out of the forces.) Evelyn lived until 1960 and was thus still alive when Clark and Liddell Hart were working on The Donkeys. Her divided loyalties naturally caused her to question the "lions led by donkeys" statement, which was made in 1918, possibly by Ludendorff, the man who nearly won the war for Germany. It was to him that Clark attributed the quotation and it seems to me he may well have been correct, even if he could not remember where he had heard it.
In the past I've sometimes doubted feminist historians when they talk about women being "airbrushed out of history" and so on. This is, however, a case in point. Evelyn Blücher may not have been party to much military intelligence, or had much understanding of what was happening at the Western Front, but she was there, in Berlin, and certainly knew Ludendorff in person. She was suitably sceptical about what she heard, as was her husband, who was in charge of a hospital train. "...The offensive has not made the wished-for impression on the enemy," she writes, "but if anything has put new courage into them. The pacifists in England and France are fewer and have retired into the background." I suppose she would have numbered Sassoon among these.

Monday, 19 June 2017

J. M. Barrie - a Scottish writer

It has come to my attention that today, 19 June, is the eightieth anniversary of the death of that great Scottish writer, J. M. Barrie. Although nowadays chiefly remembered as the author of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, Barrie was much more than a writer of children's stories. He was in his forties, with many successful novels and plays to his name before he ever produced Peter Pan. Cally Phillips, of the Galloway Raiders, has recently founded the J. M. Barrie Literary Society; since I know the work involved in setting up a new society, I congratulate her on her efforts and wish the project well.
Siegfried Sassoon met Barrie while preparing a birthday tribute for Thomas Hardy, in 1919, having met Hardy in person for the first time only six months earlier. Barrie was living in a top-floor flat in Adelphi Terrace, a street which was almost entirely demolished in 1936, and Hardy, just coming up to his 80th birthday, was staying with him. Sassoon described Barrie as "almost dwarfish in a very old blue suit". Sassoon continues, "I was struck by the expression of melancholy which haunted his queer facial shabbiness." This he attributed to tiredness, as Barrie, "our most successful living dramatist", had a new play in the final stages of rehearsal in the West End.
In addition to Hardy and Barrie, another poet, J. C. Squire, was present in Barrie's apartment, and Sassoon saw him chatting with Florence Hardy. Whereas the Hardys were already regarded by Sassoon as great friends, Barrie would never fall into that category. However, in 1925, their paths crossed again, more obliquely, when Sassoon rented the top-floor flat at 23 Campden Hill Square in London (where there is now a blue plaque in his honour). He discovered that this house was where Barrie had written most of Peter Pan, a literary connection he could not resist.
It had actually been the home of the Llewelyn Davies family. George, the eldest of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies's five sons, had been killed in action near Ypres in 1915. Another brother, Michael, drowned in a boating accident on the Thames, along with a friend, the aristocratic Rupert Buxton; there were rumours that the two young men had an "unhealthy" relationship. Barrie had based the "Lost Boys" on the Llewelyn Davies boys, but the character of Peter Pan had been invented when they were still children and their tragic future remained unsuspected.
Barrie's divorce from Mary Ansell in 1909 had been a source of great sorrow to him, to the extent that some friends had written to the editors of leading newspapers to ask them not to report the court case. Following the death of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies's husband, Barrie had become a second father to the boys, and appears to have begun a relationship with her, but she died a year after his divorce, of cancer, making Barrie, or "Uncle Jim" as they called him, a joint guardian to her children. He had no children of his own, and bequeathed the copyright on the Peter Pan series of works to Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. When he died in 1937, he was buried in his birthplace at Kirriemuir; the house where he was born is open to the public and cared for by the National Trust for Scotland. I hope to visit it some day.
Siegfried Sassoon's relationship with Barrie, such as it was, deteriorated beyond recovery when, on Thomas Hardy's death in 1928, Barrie was one of those who campaigned to have Hardy buried, against his wishes, in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey; only his heart is buried in Stinsford Churchyard. Sassoon wanted Hardy's wishes to be respected and was angry with the big names who claimed Hardy and brought about the double funeral - so distressed that he found himself unable to take his seat in the Abbey for the service to which Florence Hardy had especially invited him. He said unkindly of Barrie that, when he died and a post-mortem took place, they would find that the man had no heart. It was one of many bitter remarks Sassoon made over the years. He did not always mean them. He outlived Barrie by thirty years, and we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death at our AGM in September. I hope to see many of my readers there.