Friday, 22 November 2013

Friendship Continued

A correspondent recently contacted me about a painting by Gabriel Atkin that includes an idealised nude male figure.  It was very intriguing to consider whether Atkin had in fact based the figure on Siegfried Sassoon; the physical resemblance was superficial, but the possibility remains that Atkin admired his lover’s physique enough to want to paint him.  It is well-attested that Gabriel Atkin (1897-1937) provided Sassoon with his first sexual experience, in November 1918, just after the war had ended.  The relationship did not last long, and the two men seem to have had little to do with one another in later years; they did not form the same kind of warm friendship as Sassoon later did, for  example, with Glen Byam Shaw.  Siegfried did, however, support Atkin financially, enough to enable him to continue with his artistic career.  In the late 1920s, Atkin got married, but he and his wife were both addicts and died tragically young.

Financial assistance seems to have played a large part in many of Siegfried’s post-war friendships.  Although he was never wealthy, did not make a substantial income from his writing, and was only able to afford to purchase Heytesbury House in Wiltshire in 1934 because of a long-awaited legacy from his paternal aunt, Rachel Beer, he was generous with his funds.  Others who benefited from his largesse included the poet Robert Graves, Sassoon's former army batman John Law, and the composer William Walton (who was still in his teens when he first met Sassoon and who later dedicated his “Portsmouth Point” overture to his benefactor).

Of those to whom he made generous loans, few can be described as close friends of Sassoon, exceptions being Graves, with whom Siegfried famously fell out in 1928 after the publication of Goodbye to All That, and the lesser writer Walter J Turner.  Sassoon’s patronage of Turner was less direct: he lent his friend money to buy a house in Tufton Street, Westminster, which he then moved into with Turner and his wife Delphine.  I will digress slightly here to comment that, when I read Siegfried’s words about Delphine Turner and about Phyllis Loder, the wife of another of his friends, I have no difficulty in believing that he was bisexual; he clearly admired, and was attracted to, both women immensely and might have married either of them, given the opportunity.  Sadly, Delphine also went out of his life when he decided he had seen enough of her ungrateful and somewhat slovenly husband.  (Turner, for his part, found Siegfried's piano-playing an annoyance, and Siegfried got the message.)

There is clearly a question mark over whether Sassoon was trying to buy friendship, whether he sought gratitude and recognition for his kindness to others.  To my mind, the fact that he kept a list of names and amounts indicates one of two things – he either expected to be paid back at some stage (which, in view of the people he lent money to, seems unlikely) or he was storing up good deeds so as to reassure himself that he was deserving of his own good fortune.  I feel we should not judge this habit too harshly.

Dennis Silk often speaks of the generosity shown by the older Sassoon when entertaining Dennis and his Cambridge cricketing friends in local restaurants.  Siegfried seems to have enjoyed the conviviality such occasions offered, and no doubt he felt that this more than repaid any financial outlay involved.  He used the opportunity to coerce the youths into joining in his favourite parlour game of “Cricketers’ Initials”.  I will not try to tell Dennis’s most famous anecdote about this - Dennis is the only one who can do justice to it.

Another friend who might have needed, but would surely never have sought, financial assistance from Siegfried was Edmund Blunden.  (I was lucky enough to be present when Margi Blunden saw, for the first time, the tiny cottage on Boars Hill where her father had started his married life, and I will never forget how moved she was by the realisation of how the young couple must have struggled.)  Sassoon and Blunden met only after the war, and immediately found they had much in common: their literary tastes, their shared interest in cricket, and, perhaps most significantly, their feelings about the war.  Sassoon referred to “little Blunden” in the same kindly way he had formerly referred to “little Owen”, though it would be fanciful to suggest that Blunden in any way replaced Owen in Sassoon's affections; these were two very different friendships.

Blunden's first letter to Sassoon, written in 1919 in appreciation of the latter's work as literary editor of the Daily Herald, was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted until Siegfried's death, and the results are now available to enthusiasts in the form of Selected Letters of Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, 1919-1967, edited by Carol Z Rothkopf and published by Pickering & Chatto in 2012.  The three-volume set, although beyond the budget of most individuals at £275 (there is a hefty discount available for SSF members), is the kind of thing any self-respecting library ought to try to acquire - and you can help them make up their minds about this by requesting it as many times as you need to!  Both men were accomplished letter-writers and the result is as entertaining as it is interesting.

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