Friday, 16 August 2013

Sassoon's Travels

Someone recently asked me why the SSF is holding this year’s annual conference in Cardiff.  I found this question slightly puzzling.  Our previous conferences have been held in lots of different places: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Matfield, Marlborough, Stratford-upon Avon.  I suppose the reasoning behind the question is that most of the other places we have been (though not last year’s venue, Radley College) have had a fairly close association with the events of Siegfried Sassoon’s life, and Cardiff has no obvious link.  However, I think it should be recognised that Sassoon (despite a propensity for staying at home and enjoying his privacy) was both very sociable and very widely-travelled, more so than most men of his generation.

He did of course visit Cardiff.  In the course of his road trips in the early 1920s, there was scarcely any part of the UK that he did not visit.  As a soldier, he had been on active service in France, Belgium and Palestine and had temporarily been lodged in various military camps and hospitals in towns ranging from Lewes to Liverpool, from Edinburgh to Limerick.   After the war, he enjoyed visiting Europe despite the ravages left behind by the recent conflict in some areas; he dallied with a German prince in Rome, visited the South of France with a wealthy patron, went to Sicily with Stephen Tennant and to Switzerland with the composer William Walton.  Perhaps this eagerness to travel is one of the reasons for the many friendships he established with eminent people all over the world, of which I intend to say more in a future post.

Let us restrict ourselves to Sassoon’s travels for the time being.  In April 1921, Sassoon was in South Wales as a "correspondent" for The Nation, and visited industrial towns such as Neath and Llanelli (where he bought two large bananas and went for a walk) before arriving in Cardiff on 13 April.  He found the city "depressing" and went to bed before dinner, commenting wryly in his diary "What a vivid account I am writing".  He did, however, enjoy viewing Dante Gabriel Rossetti's altarpiece in Llandaff Cathedral in his few moments of leisure.  From there he went to Merthyr to see for himself the effects of the miners' strike.

David Gray, in his bibliography at, lays out the itinerary of one of Sassoon’s 1924 road trips, which lasted for a fortnight in September.  Earlier in the summer, he had been in Wales visiting his poet friend Walter de la Mare at Manorbier in Pembrokeshire.  Siegfried's diaries often record which hotels he stayed in, and these included the Royal at Ross-on-Wye, the Globe at King's Lynn and the Lamb at Ely.  Of the whole list, only one - "The Hotel" at Church Stretton - is no longer a hotel.  So there is plenty of opportunity to walk in Siegfried's footsteps or even sleep in a room where he once slept, if you are prepared to do the research.

A member of the SSF committee did in fact locate the very room Siegfried slept in when he was a convalescent patient at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1917.  It was temporarily occupied at the time by an overseas student on a summer course, who was delighted to learn that the room had been previously used by "a famous English poet".  We also located the rooms in Merton Street, personally selected by Lady Ottoline Morrell for Siegfried when he returned to Oxford after the war to pursue a "course of independent study"; he ended up spending most of his time visiting other literary acquaintances such as John Masefield and Robert Bridges, on "Parnassus" (as Boars Hill had become known).  The latter was the location for one of the most memorable SSF excursions of all time, back in 2008.

Perhaps one of Sassoon's most memorable journeys, and the one that forms a major part of such "action" as there is in one of his last books, Siegfried's Journey (1946), was the lecture tour of the United States, on which he embarked shortly after the First World War.  In addition to earning him over $2000, it opened his eyes to a way of life so different from his past experience that he found it almost overwhelming at first.  (On arrival in New York, he admitted to finding the city "depressing" - so perhaps Cardiff was not so bad after all.)

By the time he wrote Siegfried's Journey, Sassoon was at another emotional low point.  Now in his sixties and separated from his wife, he did little travelling after that date (although he never ceased to drive with panache, frightening the wits out of new friends like Dennis Silk).  His visits were now restricted to places like Cambridge, where his son George was an undergraduate in the 1950s, and Stratford, where he went to see plays produced by his old friend Glen Byam Shaw, who had become director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1952.

I could go on - but what, I hope, stands out from this short summary of Sassoon's travels is the enormous scope it gives the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship for future events and conference venues.  As a literary society, we are at a disadvantage in not having a "base", in the form of a house or museum open to the public where we could hold events.  On the other hand, moving from one location to another and still managing to find Sassoon connections is a wonderful way of bringing his life and work to the notice of people around the country, and indeed the world.  It also makes it possible to meet a large proportion of our membership; if you can't make it to one of our events because of the distance or difficulty of travel, do not despair: we are almost certain to be in your area, sooner or later.

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