Sunday, 21 April 2013

To commemorate or not to commemorate 1914?

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a colleague questioning why societies like ours are arranging special events to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.  To quote him verbatim: " surely there must come a time when this tragic event begins to slip from our list of 'celebrations'".  Indeed there must.  Now that the last veterans have left us, along with their memories (although fortunately not without their words and deeds having been recorded for posterity), many of us are probably beginning to wonder where it will all end.  When the centenary of the end of the war has passed, in 2018, will we make a conscious or unconscious decision to tone down our commemoration so that in future the 1914-1918 conflict has a similar status in our minds to the Battle of Waterloo?

One thing I am certain of: as long as there is armed conflict going on in the world, and as long as "The West" is involved in it (which it invariably is, one way or another), there will be a place for the commemoration of Siegfried Sassoon.  So many young people see the words and actions of Sassoon, and his friend Wilfred Owen, as symbolic of something to which they aspire.  Owen is viewed, I believe, as a poetic genius whose tragic sacrifice at the age of 25 represents the need to end all wars.  Sassoon's significance is perhaps less palpable, but more enduring.  In terms of pure literary influence, Owen is clearly out in front, albeit for a small body of work - and perhaps this is part of his charm, in that the less accomplished of his works are easily ignored in favour of the finely-polished jewels that Sassoon helped him perfect, and of course helped to publish.  Siegfried's own lasting influence is of a quite different variety.

"Most people think I died in 1919," the older Sassoon used to say.  That is quite untrue; his prose work appeared in the GCE syllabus during his lifetime, but he suffered from the misapprehension that none of his later achievements measured up to his early success as a poet.  For me, and for many others, it is Sassoon the man who makes the most impact.  The "Soldier's Declaration" of 1917, which he believed to have been an impotent and empty gesture, is nowadays seen as an act of extreme courage.  Put this together with the ground-breaking poetry and the wonderful memoirs and you have a fully-rounded historical figure whose memory will, I believe, endure for many generations to come.

That is why the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship exists and will participate actively in the English Association's "British Poetry of the First World War" conference, to be held at Oxford in September 2014 (details  The SSF will be hosting a "panel", the exact theme of which is yet to be decided.  If you have any ideas to contribute, whether or not you are a member, we'll be pleased to consider them.  Alternatively, if you want to give a paper yourself on another subject, the instructions for submission can be found here:

As you will see from the links, several eminent speakers are already lined up for the conference, including Professor Jon Stallworthy, Edna Longley and Jay Winter, but we have quite a few more in the SSF "bag" who may be drawn out for your delectation.  Several of my correspondents have already commented that the delegate fee for the conference is too expensive.  Well, it certainly isn't cheap, but neither is hosting a conference, and I guarantee it will be over-subscribed.  Because of the timing (8th September being Siegfried's birthday), this event will replace our own annual conference next year, but as always we will be holding a range of other SSF events, including our spring joint meeting with the Wilfred Owen Association, and a special annual dinner, during 2014.  And of course, we still have our 2013 conference in Cardiff to look forward to!

Personally, I think there is still a lot to be said on the subject of the First World War and, for the time being, it holds a level of interest for the "younger generation" that should only be encouraged, in an age group for whom history and literature are not normally closely linked.  The life and work of Siegfried Sassoon can teach us more lessons than he could ever have envisaged, and the SSF's participation in the many commemorative events scheduled for 2014 will, I hope, be a very active one.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Talent in abundance

I have just been thinking how lucky we are, as a society, to be able to call on such a wealth and depth of talent when planning our events.  The speaker programme for September's annual conference in Cardiff is now confirmed as including prolific author and broadcaster Phil Carradice, distinguished editor and anthologist Anne Powell, and one of Wales's top poets, Mike Jenkins.

Last Friday I was fortunate enough to be invited to Phil and Mike's latest book launch, where Phil read from his new children's adventure novel The Wild West Show, and Mike from his new poetry collection Barkin!  It was an evening that emphasized the versatility of these two writers, who are both novelists, poets, and non-fiction writers on a range of subjects. Phil, of course, is a founder member of the SSF and has been a great help to us from a publicity angle, in addition to appearing on the speakers' platform to host the discussion between Dennis Silk and Max Egremont which remains one of our most memorable past events.

Anne Powell is best-known to many of us for her contribution to Cecil Woolf's War Poets series:  Alun Lewis: A Poet of Consequences. Her other works include Deep Cry: First World War Soldier-poets Killed in France and Flanders (1998) and Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War (2009).  She is also something of an expert on Edward Wyndham Tennant.  Just to underline her versatility, the title of her talk at our conference in September will be "Gardens of War".

Mike Jenkins, who is a former editor of Poetry Wales, and himself won the Wales Book of the Year title in 1998, taught English at two South Wales comprehensive schools over a period of thirty years, and an extract from one of Mike Jenkins' poems has been used as part of the "public realm regeneration" of Merthyr Tydfil town centre.  Siegfried Sassoon, as you may know, visited Merthyr in 1921, and Mike has found Sassoon's poetry a major inspiration.

Knowing that we have three such illustrious names on our programme has given me a feeling of confidence in the success of this year's conference, and it will be interesting to see whether the composition of the audience differs significantly from our previous conferences, since we have never strayed beyond the borders of England for a major event before.  (Scotland, we haven't forgotten you - plans are afoot.)  This, of course, comes hot on the heels of our recent meeting at The Lamb, where we also welcomed two very distinguished speakers (see my previous post) who did not fall short of expectations.

Some day, I trust, we will be able to afford to pay such speakers the level of appearance fee they have a right to expect.  For now, we rejoice in our ability to draw from a pool of eminent people who are prepared to speak to the Fellowship because of their admiration for the remarkable man in whose honour this organisation was set up.  In life, Siegfried knew all the major literary figures of his day, and many from other fields such as politics, music and the visual arts.  What a legacy he has left us|

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Aesthetes and Intellectuals

Well!  Saturday's joint event with the Wilfred Owen Association, at The Lamb in Bloomsbury, turned out to be a memorable experience.  For the benefit of anyone reading this who doesn't know The Lamb, it's a very historic pub with notable literary associations.  It was Charles Dickens's "local", when he lived just a short walk away at Doughty Street, and was also the setting for Sylvia Plath's first date with Ted Hughes.  It's located in Lamb's Conduit Street, which is named after a 16th century philanthropist called William Lamb (or Lambe), who paid for drainage improvements - hence the "conduit".  

This is the third annual event we've held at The Lamb, and it looks like becoming a regular spring fixture in the calendar.  The room we use can only take a limited number, and so far there has always been sufficient demand for places to ensure that we fill the room.  So it can be a hot, sweaty, and intimate experience, but it has so far never been a disappointing one.

This time, however, I felt that the contrast between our two featured speakers was particularly noteworthy.  We began with Dr Santanu Das of King's College London, who gave us a fascinating insight into his task as editor of  the Cambridge Companion to the First World War.  I had first heard Dr Das speak at the opening of the Sassoon exhibition at Cambridge University Library back in 2010, and had looked forward to hearing him again.  On this occasion, his illustrated talk, as the title of this blog suggests, whilst being clear and easy to follow, appealed to the intellectual in all of us, I felt.  It was also very gratifying to hear him talk in detail about the reasons he holds Sassoon in such high regard as a poet.  We must now wait for the book to come out later this year in order to follow through some of the strands of argument that were presented to us so tantalisingly at the weekend.

In complete contrast - but "not in a bad way", as they say - was our second session, at which Christian Major of the SSF committee introduced the distinguished writer, journalist and raconteur Simon Blow.  Mr Blow happens to be a great-nephew of the late Stephen Tennant, with whom Siegfried Sassoon had a lengthy relationship during the 1920s and 1930s.  Stephen, a younger brother of the budding poet Edward Wyndham "Bim" Tennant (who was killed on the Somme in 1916), is a figure most of us find terribly intriguing.  When, in later life, he made the acquaintance of his young great-nephew, he had become a reclusive figure, a shadow of his glamorous youthful self.  Simon Blow's account of his friendship with Stephen was both entertaining and poignant, and made me ponder on what drew Sassoon to him and what kept him so attached to this beautiful but self-centred young man.  Could it, I wonder, in addition to the obvious physical attraction, have had something to do with Siegfried's then unfulfilled longing for a son?  Did he eventually realise that he was playing a game he could not win, and that a heterosexual relationship was the only way he could ever have the family life he craved?

Pure speculation on my part, and there is no need to follow the thread any further.  If your appetite is whetted, Simon Blow's memoir "No Time to Grow" comes highly recommended, and you may also be interested to know that we will hear more of "Bim" Tennant at our annual conference at Cardiff in September - the final arrangements for which will be advertised next month.  For the moment, suffice it to say that both speaker sessions went down very well, as evidenced by the fact that no one was in a hurry to leave when we ran out of time, and both speakers dealt with numerous questions from the enthralled audience.  I love these events for the opportunity to mix with members and hear their various "takes" on the subject of Owen, Sassoon and literature in general.  I hope to meet more new faces at next year's event.