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.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Regenerated

In my last post I wrote about mental illness, with particular reference to Siegfried Sassoon's time as a patient at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh during 1917. In June of that year, he wrote in his diary "I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as 'an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb'. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts."
Siegfried knew what he was talking about, and was careful to focus on the politicians rather than the generals as the cause of all the trouble when he made his famous protest, the "Soldier's Declaration", which got him admitted to Craiglockhart because his targets did not dare court-martial someone with a military record such as his. Last weekend at Craiglockhart, now the home of Edinburgh Napier University, the Alliance of Literary Societies met for its annual conference and members of the SSF, along with many other societies, learned more about the period. Many did not know about Sassoon's actions or his writing, and the conference was bookended by events focused on Wilfred Owen, which means some will have gone away without realising the dominance of Sassoon in their literary partnership - a friendship that lasted only from the summer of 1917 until November 1918, when Owen was killed in action.
Friday evening's reception in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle was one of those very special occasions that turn out as memorable as they are unexpected. It was not even planned at the time the conference programme was being drafted, and Fiona McDonald worked extremely hard to bring everything together in time, but no one went away disappointed (apart from one or two people who were unable to get there in time because of issues with satnavs, domestic emergencies, etc, and had to spend all weekend hearing other people telling them how wonderful it had been and what a shame they had missed it!)
I don't have space to say much about each individual element in the conference weekend, but SSF and WOA members will read more in our respective Journals later in the summer. Simply being at Craiglockhart, standing in the former entrance hall where Sassoon and his companions once stood, and seeing the photographs, film and other memorabilia in the War Poets' Collection brought a better understanding of their experiences, and many people commented on this.
Friday evening had its hangover, and during Saturday we discovered there would be some changes to the programme of entertainment planned for the end of the afternoon. While Professor Alistair McCleery was giving his lecture on the First World War and the Scottish novel (and now I absolutely have to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic Sunset Song) and people were enjoying a soup and sandwich lunch, Sam Gray and I were running around trying to find out who exactly was coming and what they were going to do. Caroline Clegg and violinist Thoren Ferguson were very able stand-ins, and those who had missed the previous evening's event at least had a chance to hear Thoren play. Unfortunately he could not stay for dinner because he was shortly to be on stage at the Usher Hall!
Linda Curry & Alistair McCleery
By this time we had enjoyed a truly brilliant lecture by Professor Hazel Hutchison and also concluded the business of the ALS AGM. I think that those delegates attending for the first time were surprised and pleased to discover that others shared their experiences in running, or belonging to, a literary society. New committee members Jodie Robson and Cally Phillips brought a fresh viewpoint to the challenges facing the Alliance and individual societies.
Dinner in the Rivers Suite fulfilled all our expectations, a real culinary treat, followed by readings by individuals from various societies. Many have read at previous events and know what to expect; others approached the task nervously but were warmly received, and there were quite enough volunteers to fill the allotted time. To those who thanked me for my efforts, I can only say "Thank you for coming". Conferences don't happen unless enough people are willing to make the effort to attend, and they are only successful when those same people make allowances for the glitches and an come away saying they enjoyed their day (or in this case, their weekend). 
For those who joined Sunday morning's walk, there were further delights in store, not all of them related to Wilfred Owen. John Lennon, Braveheart, and Wojtek the beer-drinking bear also figured in the equation. Neil McLennan was a lively and popular guide, and some of us repaired afterwards to the Ensign Ewart public house in the Royal Mile to mull over the weekend. I wish you had all been there.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Mental Health Awareness Week

It always amuses me when the media informs me that "many people have mental health".  For some reason, despite making efforts to dispel the stigma attached to it, they are still reluctant to use the term "mental illness". This is presumably because, for many decades, "mental illness" has been synonymous with "madness" and has been viewed as meaning that the person concerned has something wrong with them. That "something" is still not generally regarded as the equivalent of a broken leg or a bout of flu, and the victim is often thought of as dangerous and incurable.
It's true that some mentally-ill people are dangerous, though usually the danger is more to themselves than to others. It certainly isn't true that they are incurable, though, as with cancer, we have not discovered all the cures yet. Mental illness is also not contagious, and there is normally no need to avoid seeing or speaking to such people. Attitudes have certainly changed, but not always for the better. Even Siegfried Sassoon, a man of great compassion, referred to his fellow-patients at Craiglockhart Military Hospital as "dotty", and found it hard to relate to them.
Sassoon naturally did not like to think of himself as "ill" when he was admitted to the hospital through that slightly forbidding main entrance (which some of us will see when we attend the ALS conference in Edinburgh in just a few weeks' time). Many doctors thought likewise, even when they were treating soldiers who were suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. They called those men cowards, shirkers, fakers, and many other things - as if they were not already feeling worthless enough.
Not only did many doctors not believe in or see any distinction between "shell-shock" and "madness", but even those who did, the sympathetic pioneer psychiatrists like William Rivers and Arthur Brock, were unsure how to treat such patients. Brock particularly favoured physical activity, which in some cases produced good results, and Sassoon certainly believed that his long conversations with Rivers were helping him recover.
A charity called Glenart uses music, art, and other activities to help rehabilitate injured military personnel and those who, for whatever reason, need assistance in returning to civilian life. Appropriately, one of Glenart's sponsors is Napier University, the establishment which now occupies the buildings at Craiglockhart and acts as custodian of the War Poets Collection, which is mainly housed in the former entrance hall of the military hospital. Performers from Glenart will also be providing some entertainment at the ALS conference. The charity takes its name from HMHS Glenart Castle, a hospital ship of the First World War that was torpedoed and sunk in the Bristol Channel during 1918, killing 162 people, mainly patients and medical staff.
If you have watched television or listened to the radio recently, you cannot have helped hearing that Mental Health Awareness Week is just drawing to an end. The experiences of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have done a great deal in recent years to foster understanding of PTSD and other mental problems resulting from involvement in warfare. These are hardly any different from the experiences of soldiers a century ago, but we have a greater awareness of it now, and thank goodness for that. Even in the "normal" adult population, though, statistics suggest that only 13% of people have "high levels of good mental health", whatever that may mean.
Sassoon was one of the lucky ones, though he did not always feel that way himself. He survived the war, both physically and mentally, and went on to make a great contribution to English literature. Compare him with Ivor Gurney, a talented poet and musician, who wasted away in a mental institution for nearly twenty years before his premature death, or even with David Jones, a poet and artist who had two severe breakdowns, one brought on by the very process of reliving his memories for the purpose of writing his unique prose/poem "In Parenthesis". We should remember them all when we enter Craiglockhart and meet representatives of Glenart.