Sunday, 27 October 2013

Time on his hands

Our Chair will shortly be going into hospital for an orthopaedic operation, and will afterwards be under several weeks “house arrest” as a result of being forbidden to drive until fully recovered.  Such periods of enforced physical inactivity can cause depression and a feeling of worthlessness, as anyone who is out of work will know.   Siegfried Sassoon found this when he was confined to “Dottyville” (Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh), where he was being “treated” during the summer of 1917.  As an outwardly healthy man, used to physical exertion, it grieved him to have to get his exercise from a daily round of golf while his former companions were still enduring shell-fire at the Western Front; this, of course, is why he eventually insisted on going to rejoin them.  In the intervening period, however, he had discovered and mentored a young man who would become the iconic poet of the First World War; I refer of course to Wilfred Owen.  It cannot therefore be said that Sassoon’s stay at Craiglockhart was a complete waste of time!

A period of enforced leisure, even if confined to the house or to bed, can, however, be fruitful in many ways, provided that one’s mind is active.  Our Chair will have little difficulty finding something to do with her time while she is unable to go out to work.  For a start, there is our SSF Journal, which she edits.  Looking back over past issues of Siegfried’s Journal, I am always struck by the sheer variety of content, something few literary societies’ journals and newsletters can equal.   In recent editions we’ve had poetry (both original and “vintage”), reviews of books, films and theatre, memoirs, extracts from a previously unpublished thesis, genealogical research, humour, photographs – actually it would be easier to list what we haven’t had.

So there will be no shortage of “stuff to do” for our Chair.  Siegfried Sassoon had previously found how rewarding enforced leisure time can be when, having being taken ill after "eight days in hell" during July 1916, he was unexpectedly shipped back to Britain to recuperate at Oxford.  Physically he was already much recovered, but a sympathetic medical officer had  (or so Sassoon himself thought) been influenced by his recent service record and winning of the Military Cross and recommended he be sent home for a period. Living in female student accommodation at Somerville College - temporarily requisitioned as a military hospital - he used his time profitably, not only writing new poetry, but making new friendships which were to be highly influential in his future career.  The most notable of these acquaintances was Lady Ottoline Morrell, to whom he was introduced by Robbie Ross.

Lady Ottoline, though her personal interest in Sassoon led to a unilateral romantic attachment, would prove a significant figure in his life and career, whether for good or ill.  She encouraged him as a poet, of course, but he was only one of many up-and-coming writers who would profit by her generosity and protection: Aldous Huxley and D H Lawrence were among her other protégés (few of whom showed the same gratitude as Sassoon did).  In the following year, when he was again sent home, this time with a shoulder wound, it was the influence of the Morrells' circle that led to his one-man protest against the continuation of the war for, as he felt, political reasons.  Many of his friends disapproved of his action, and yet it was perhaps the one thing in his life for which he is now most admired.  From this period come many of his most remarkable war poems, following hot on the heels of his major collection, The Old Huntsman.

Sassoon would once again be forcibly removed from the battlefield in 1918 when, accidentally shot in the head by one of his own men, he was forced to retire permanently from military action and could spend time in London with old friends; these included “little Owen”.  On 17 August, the two men spent a glorious afternoon together, at Osbert Sitwell’s London home and at the Chelsea Physic Garden close by.  Sadly, they would never meet again in life, as Owen (much to his friend's dismay) returned to the Front, where he was killed less than three months later.

Apart from intellectual and social activity of the obvious kind, time spent in such circumstances gives the opportunity for reflection, and this is something Sassoon also profited by, turning out some of his best poetry when he had the time to think about it without the distractions of shell-fire and the daily duties of an officer.  Even after the war was over, he would need time and leisure to allow his most polished work to ferment in his mind until ready to be transferred to the printed page.  Seldom, in his later life, would he need to worry about returning to the daily grind; this proved both a blessing and a curse, as he would never have the subject matter that the experiences of military service had brought him.  He would, however, have time to look back over his early life, and the result was the wonderful Sherston trilogy, which brought him a wider readership and even greater recognition.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

It's A Mystery!

I hear that next year's annual Crime & Mystery Conference at Oxford will recognise the centenary of the outbreak of World War I by taking as its theme "War in Crime Fiction".  I wish them luck with this.  War is a tricky subject, one that can be so painful to read about that the addition of a crime, particularly a murder, to the mix would seem like overkill (if you'll forgive the unintentional pun).

Writers of today are far enough away from the events of the Great War in temporal terms to be able to distance themselves from its events just long enough to attempt the feat.  Two that I can think of, off the top of my head, are Ben Elton and Carola Dunn.  I read Elton's The First Casualty some years ago, and reviewed it for Siegfried's Journal.  It was in many ways an enjoyable read, but the author seemed to be so busy trying to give his readers a history lesson (and simultaneously trying to please female readers by throwing in a bit of romance) that he clean forgot to write the convincing murder mystery he had presumably intended.  Those who picked it up because they were fans of his comedy act must have been extremely disappointed.  Still, it was a valiant attempt.

Carola Dunn's Anthem for Doomed Youth was about as different as it could be.  Capitalising on the title of a Wilfred Owen poem without ever actually mentioning any World War I poetry, it is (as I said in my review for the WOA Journal) a superficial story with entertaining moments.  Unlike Elton's novel, it is not set during the war, but a few years later; events that took place during the war link the suspects and give away most of the plot before it has been enacted.  Once again, it is not very successful as a whodunnit.

A series of mystery novels by a present-day writer that have been given a better reception are Anne Perry's series of five books set in World War I, No Graves As Yet (2003) and its successors, featuring mild-mannered academic Joseph Reavley, a character based on Perry's own grandfather, who himself served in the trenches.  I have to confess I have not read any of these myself and therefore can neither recommend nor warn you off them.  If you are intrigued enough to pick one up, you will judge for yourselves.

Go back further in time, and you find that there were indeed crime writers, during and immediately after the Great War, who used it as a theme in their work.  Their books, popular at the time, have mostly faded into obscurity.  W F Morris, a Norfolk schoolmaster and former middle-ranking army officer, obtained some success with accomplished mystery novels such as Bretherton (1929) and Behind the Lines (1930), but his works are out of print today.

Interestingly, Dorothy L Sayers' famous detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, wins over his audience by his humanity, revealed in part through his war experience.  A major in the Rifle Brigade, Lord Peter suffers from nightmares and flashbacks as a result of the traumatic events he witnessed, and his servant Bunter (formerly his batman) has the job of picking up the pieces.  The war does not play a direct role in the crimes and mysteries solved by Lord Peter, but it is an important aspect of the back story.  Sayers' own husband, Oswald Arthur Fleming, was disabled as a result of his war service; but, by the time she married, she had already created Wimsey in the image of her perfect man.

John Buchan's celebrated adventure story, The Thirty-Nine Steps, certainly involves crime and mystery, although it would be inaccurate to call it a crime novel.  Published in 1915, it came too early to deal with the unpleasant truths that the war would bring home, and limits itself to suggesting that Richard Hannay, by unveiling the spy ring and thwarting their plot, has reduced the danger of Britain's defeat in the forthcoming conflict.  In later works, Hannay goes on to become an army officer, and is wounded at the Battle of Loos just before the events of Greenmantle. By the time he stars in Mr Standfast, he has reached the rank of Brigadier-General.  Conscientious objectors and shell shock play a role in this last Hannay outing.  There is, by this time, no doubt that his creator understands the implications of war; Buchan's brother Alastair, a lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, was killed in 1917.

If you would like to find out more about the C&MC conference "experience", you can read about it in somebody else's blog!