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.

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