Thursday, 21 March 2013

Not About Me

In a way, I'm pleased that there weren't any comments on my last post.  At least it means people weren't annoyed, aggravated or outraged by it.  It could alternatively mean that no one read it, but some people told me they did, which was a relief.

So I'll use this post to talk about something that annoyed me instead.  Yesterday's post brought with it my copy of the Spring 2013 edition of The Author, a worthy journal that often contains thought-provoking articles.  My eye was quickly caught by an article entitled "Scribbling Soldiers" by one Andrew Uffindell.  Mr Uffindell is the author of five books about the Napoleonic era, and evidently knows what he's talking about when it comes to discussing military memoirs of the period.  I'm not so sure that his knowledge of First World War literature is equally great.

One of the best eyewitness accounts of the Napoleonic wars, apparently, is Alexander Cavalié Mercer's Journal of the Waterloo Campaign.  Not having read it, I am not entirely sure why this volume is regarded with such admiration, and the article does not really tell me the answer.  It is more interesting, it seems, mainly because it is written by an officer from an unfashionable regiment, the Royal Artillery, and was written for his own amusement rather than with any thought of publication.  First World War writers, on the other hand (according to Mr Uffindell), wrote their memoirs ten or twenty years after the events they describe, and were able to get them published because disillusionment had become flavour of the month as a result of a film being made of All Quiet on the Western Front.  Owen and Sassoon, he suggests, are famous but unrepresentative.  I found this a curious conclusion to draw, and quite unsupported by the few facts he quotes.

Also, according to the article, Charles Carrington, author of A Subaltern's War, failed to make such a great impact simply because his memoirs were not as negative as those of other veterans.  "Most memoirists," we are told, "actually had mixed feelings about the war".  This statement does make one wonder whether the author has ever read Sassoon's memoirs or Owen's letters, the latter written in the thick of events and the former based largely on Sassoon's own trench diaries. 

I don't really have any quarrel with Andrew Uffindell's statement that military memoirs are difficult to evaluate.  Some criteria he suggests include "accuracy" (an elusive quality if ever there was one), "readability", which I tend to think is generally dependent on the level of literacy of the individual doing the reading, and "realism", an even more nebulous characteristic.  He has also done me the great favour of suggesting some further reading on the subject: Témoins ("Witnesses") by Jean Norton Cru, published in 1929, a study of personal reminiscences of the Great War by French soldiers which brings out the enormous variations in the truth as perceived by individuals who saw the same events from different points of view. 

This is hardly likely to shock anyone familiar with war literature.  Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, at one time the best of friends, fell out over the publication of Goodbye to All That, by coincidence also in 1929, which Sassoon felt misrepresented events and people, yet towards the end of his life he was not only ready to forgive Graves but to take back most of his criticisms.  What else  would one expect from soldiers in different regiments, from different backgrounds, fighting in different theatres of war using different weapons?  There will be similarities in opinion, and there will be differences.  Sassoon never talked about lions led by donkeys, but from time to time he expressed his frustration at the frequent mismanagement of resources by those in charge - much as all of us do in our day-to-day existence.  The difference, for a soldier at the Western Front, was that it was a matter of life and death, just as it is for today's military forces in Afghanistan.

I shouldn't go on.  The article presumably was written for a readership that is either relatively unfamiliar with the military memoir as a genre or has not seen below the surface.  Unlike my readers.  It would, however, be nice to know what you think...

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Still on the treadmill...

I don't know much about this blogging business and have resisted it until now.  However, having been obliged to create an ID in order to add comments to someone else's blog, I thought I might have a bash at starting one that would keep my SSF friends in the picture about what's going on.

It's a very busy time, getting ready for the forthcoming event at The Lamb in Bloomsbury, whilst simultaneously trying to make logistical arrangements for September's annual conference, which will be in Cardiff.  I thought I was saving myself a bit of effort, holding the conference in Cardiff, which is only 10 miles or so down the road from my home, but now I realise I am not going to get off lightly.  I will still have to stay in Cardiff overnight if I want to enjoy the camaraderie of my SSF friends.  The only real benefit is that I can easily nip home if I forget anything!

Coming up to the conference - or any event - I will probably start having the usual anxiety dreams.  Either no one has turned up and the speakers are sitting around twiddling their thumbs, or the audience has turned up but there are no speakers.  In one dream, Sir Patrick Moore arrived unexpectedly (he was still alive then) and asked if I'd mind him putting his old astronomy magazines up for sale.

I hope I don't sound like I'm complaining about the fact that we have all these interesting events going on.  However, I do sometimes pause to look at myself from the outside and think, "Why am I doing this?"  You see, I co-founded the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship (way back in 2001) because I thought it would be rather nice to have events like these to go to.  What I didn't anticipate was that organising them would cause me so much hassle (only some of the time, of course) that I would often not have much chance to enjoy them myself.  Towards the end of one of the conferences, while the Chair and I were washing up, she turned to me and said, "I didn't even have a chance to try the cheese scones".  I replied indignantly, "I didn't even get a cup of tea!"

Er...yes, I do sound like I'm complaining.  I recognise myself as a certain (possibly rather annoying) type of person who likes to be in control of situations.  We are life's organisers, and we spend all our time rushing around telling other people what to do (and of course not being happy unless they do it our way), so much so that we sometimes feel, usually after the event, that we've missed out on the enjoyable bits.  Nevertheless, there is a perverse pleasure to be had from it all, and I would do it all again (although hopefully some of it would be more successful at the second attempt). 

No, it's not all drudgery - far from it.  I look back with great pleasure on some of our past conferences: watching Neil Brand's moving play "Between the Lines" being brought to life by a first-rate cast; having tea in the sunshine at Cambridge after a walk to the grave of William Rivers; listening to Max Egremont and Dennis Silk discuss their memories of George and Siegfried Sassoon; the many superb lectures from Jean Moorcroft Wilson on a multitude of subjects; an inspiring poem being read out by a (then) complete stranger in the memorial garden at Stratford; and of course the never-to-be-forgotten minibus trip to Boar's Hill.  The fun I've had - arguing over bills, proof-reading the Journal, driving to Malvern in thick fog, losing Meg on the London Underground, wandering round Ypres in the dark, walking to Henry Vaughan's grave in the pouring rain, being accidentally poked in the eye by Kayleigh and throwing up in my hotel room... I could go on all night!

The best thing about it all, though, is the making of friends.  I don't just mean all the new friends I've personally acquired through the SSF, but the way I've watched other friendships spring up, independent of me, between "like-minded people".  It's a somewhat clichéd phrase, but it really means something.  The sheer diversity in the ranks of our members came as a surprise to me as much as it did to anyone; what they have in common is that they all see something special in the life and work of Siegfried Sassoon.  You may be one of them.

So I hope, if anyone's actually reading this, that you'll join me at The Lamb on 6th April to hear Dr Santanu Das and Christian Major, have lunch with the gang and see some of the "novelty" goods I've acquired for sale in aid of SSF funds.  And really, don't take any notice of my moaning - if I wasn't Secretary of the SSF, I don't know what I'd do!