Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Gate of the Year

"And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

The correct name of the poem is "God Knows", and it was written by a British teacher called Minnie Louise Haskins in 1908.  The reason it is so well-known is that it was the text selected by King George VI for his Christmas radio broadcast, towards the end of 1939.  It is generally felt that it gave heart to the nation at a time of great fear and uncertainty.

The King's Christmas broadcast was a relatively new thing.  His father, King George V, had begun it in 1932; George V himself had been resisting the idea of speaking to his people through the wireless for nine years before finally giving in to the BBC's repeated requests.  Like many of his speeches, the 1932 address was written by none other than Rudyard Kipling.  The King had been nervous about the occasion, but was persuaded to continue in later years by the positive response from his audience, especially when he came to see it as a way of communicating with the furthest reaches of his Empire, an Empire in which political cracks had already begun to appear.  

"It may be that the future will lay upon us more than one stern test," said George V, prophetically.  Many in his kingdom believed that a second war with Germany was inevitable, sooner or later, but few foresaw that it was his second son, Prince Albert, then merely the Duke of York, who would be the one to make the first royal Christmas broadcast of that war.  Albert, as most people were aware, suffered from a speech impediment that made it difficult for him to perform in public, and no one could have imagined that he would be the one to make the most memorable such broadcast of the twentieth century.  

King George VI, as Albert became in 1936, was not a natural leader or a man of great intellectual gifts.  He did, however, have several things his charming older brother (the former Prince of Wales who briefly reigned as King Edward VIII) had lacked; one of these was a family.  The words were first suggested to him by his wife Elizabeth, and the poem was a favourite of hers and of her elder daughter's.  It was not written with a particular occasion in mind, and made no reference to war, yet it captured the imagination of the public, making the poem known to a global audience as well as being a morale-booster for Britain.  The King, who had given his support to Neville Chamberlain's peacemaking attempts, must have clutched gratefully at the ready-made pep talk, with Kipling having died in 1936 and no longer being available to provide such memorable lines for his use.

At New Year, I always think of those words from the 1939 speech (though of course it was long before I was born) and remember my parents and grandparents telling me how they found them an inspiration at the beginning of a long and terrible war that would cause even a military veteran like Sassoon to despair of humanity.  I have no doubt that Siegfried, traditionalist that he was, listened to the broadcast, and I cannot imagine how he felt, seeing Europe once again split apart by armed conflict. Yet I cannot help thinking that he would have been impressed by the way a few lines from a minor poet could move millions.  

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Looking forward

For many people around the world, 2014 has been a year they would rather forget.  That is true in my own case, and I know it is the same for some members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.  I am getting to an age where attendance at funerals has become a regular event.  In my immediate circle of friends, illness, infirmity and death are a frequent topic of conversation, and I have lost several friends and acquaintances this year.  For others, even the young, there are different problems - getting and keeping a job, establishing personal relationships, looking after children, and simply finding time to do things.

Before this turns into "Thought for the Day", I thought I would use this post to remind our members and friends that they are not alone.  So many friendships have been forged through the Fellowship over the years that I feel its very existence has been an active force for good as well as a way of giving enjoyment to others.  Siegfried Sassoon was a man who had many friends.  He wasn't always lovable (and he knew it), but he was, nevertheless, at the centre of a network of friendships that extended around the world even in those days when writing letters was the normal method of contact between friends; few people had access to motor cars, and international telephone calls were almost impossible.

As with other kinds of social group - sports clubs, reading groups, universities, you name it - a literary society can provide a support network for people with similar interests.  In our case, the age range, gender distribution and geographical spread may mean that the bond is less obvious to an outsider, but it is no less strong for this.  I know that many of our members have undergone personal crises in the last few years, and that several have found a route back to normality by participating in SSF events, where they are able to be themselves without the pressures of work or study and do not have to worry about being judged or compared with other individuals.  When I find myself in personal difficulty, the other members of the SSF committee are often the first I turn to outside my immediate family.

Although this is true, to an extent, of other literary societies, it makes particular sense when you consider what Siegfried himself went through in the course of his life.  As a young man, he found himself catapulted into a military environment and thence to one of the bleakest, most horrifying landscapes anyone can possibly imagine.  No one could have been prepared for entering a war zone. our knowledge of what participants in the First World War endured is not just an eye-opener for people today; it shocks and terrifies us.  This is undoubtedly one of the reasons the war is being commemorated so vigorously.

A few years after the war, Sassoon went through a period of terrible depression (as did many of his fellow soldiers, such as Richard Aldington), unable to shake off the memory of lost comrades and what he now felt had been a pointless conflict.   He was also suffering from writer’s block, a subject Neil Brand has dealt with so effectively in his play Between the Lines.  Romantic and/or physical relationships with other men failed to bring emotional fulfilment, making it difficult for him even to take pleasure in his eventual success as a prose writer.  The legacy that enabled him to purchase Heytesbury House also enabled him to afford the lifestyle he relished, but his marriage, though it brought great happiness and the son he had longed for, did not last.
In his later years, Siegfried Sassoon seems to have found what he was looking for in the Roman Catholic faith, and he certainly met his end with equanimity, if Dom Philip Jebb’s account of their last conversation is anything to go by.  Philip and his fellow monk Dom Sebastian (both of whom have been lost to us this year) bore witness that Sassoon’s conversion to Catholicism was more than a whim, and Sebastian insisted that it was the result of a mystical experience.  Perhaps it is only through such an experience that any of us can hope to achieve the belief in an after-life that makes the last years of one’s life tolerable.  We can, however, find considerable fulfilment in other activities.
It is medically proven that exercise can reduce the effects of depression, and this, I think, is where Siegfried’s early interest in sport paid dividends later in his life.   It is no accident that Wilfred Owen found him preparing for a round of golf when he went to his room to introduce himself.  Professor Alistair McCleery recounted to us, some years ago, the story of the doctors, the poets and the gardener, as evidence of how physical activity can help in this respect.  Another “natural remedy” for depression is involvement in group activities that take one’s mind off one’s troubles, and this certainly works for me when I attend literary events, forgetting myself entirely as I chat to people with similar interests.
Once again, I’m not suggesting that the SSF should be seen as some kind of self-help group, but I recognise that for many of us it is a factor in fending off the kind of negative state of mind that Sassoon so often found himself in.  The fact that we relate to him so strongly indicates that we are individuals with certain sensibilities – not better or worse than, for example, fans of Jane Austen, but with a style and character of our own, one that responds to “our” author, “our” poet, “our” Siegfried Sassoon.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


In between blogging, I came across another blog - ironically belonging to Charles Mundye, one of the speakers we've booked for next year's AGM - that more or less summarised what I had been thinking. Charles picks up on a phrase used by Patrick McGuinness, "this past business" .  He was referring to the "anniversary culture" with which we seem to be currently beset, and you can read his views on the Dylan Thomas centenary here: https://theconversation.com/remembering-dylan-thomas-our-frenzied-anniversary-culture-26081

Anniversaries are going to be the in thing for the next few years.  Perhaps people will be so glad to see the back of the First World War centenary that they will really get stuck in; alternatively, they may not want anything to do with such commemorations.  What does it actually mean, when you come to think of it?  The First World War is still what it is or was, regardless of how many years have passed since it began.

I think the reason we celebrate – or at least commemorate - centenaries is simply that a nice round number like 100 focuses our minds on the amount of time that has passed since a certain event and helps us to see it in historical perspective.  Members of my local history society have pointed out that next year, 2015, will bring opportunities to mark several significant historical events – the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, for example, and the 200thanniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  In some cases, these events had little long-term impact.  The Battle of Agincourt, for instance, which took place 600 years ago next October, was a major event in the context of the Hundred Years’ War, but it only served to stave off the inevitable outcome for a few years.  We are interested in it mainly because an army of English and Welsh men defeated the French when the odds were against them; we don’t celebrate the battle of Formigny, an equally decisive victory for the French in the same war.

Centenaries and multi-centenaries are cropping up so often these days that it is easy to miss them.  Did anyone do anything to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of French one-hit-wonder novelist Alain-Fournier in September, for example?  If so, I missed out, which is a pity, as I am a great admirer of Le Grand Meaulnes (I can’t describe it to you, you’d have to read it for yourself).  What about the 200th anniversary of the death of another, rather different, Frenchman, the Marquis de Sade?  I don’t recall hearing anything about it.  Is that also because foreigners' anniversaries are considered to be less deserving of recognition than those with direct relevance for British history?  I think it probably is.

Many of next year’s celebrations and commemorations will be of literary interest – Alun Lewis will be among those not present to see his 100th birthday celebrated, and Anthony Trollope would be 200 years old if he had not died in 1882.  The Trollope Society will of course be hosting the annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies in York next year.   The following year, it will be the turn of the Brontë Society to host the conference, in recognition of the bicentenary of the birth of the family's most illustrious member, Charlotte.

Other forthcoming literary centenaries, not surprisingly, have to do with the First World War.  We could note the 100th anniversary of the deaths of the poet Julian Grenfell and his brother Gerald.  Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley also died in 1915.  At least the lesser poet Roland Leighton, best known as the fiancé of Vera Brittain, will have the centenary of his death noticed, thanks to the new film adaptation of Testament of Youth which is to go on general release in January.

We don’t have to limit ourselves to commemorating death, though.  We could perhaps give a nod to the founding of the Welsh Guards; and our annual conference in September will be primarily concerned with Siegfried Sassoon’s career in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which he joined in 1915. It was also in May 1915 that Canadian medic John McCrae wrote his timeless poem, “In Flanders Fields”, and I think we can be certain that the museum in Ypres that bears the poem’s name will be doing something to celebrate that event - even though it's run by Belgians.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Goodbye to a Great Writer

This blog was originally going to be about literary societies, but, while working on it, I heard of the death of P D James, and felt I had to write about her instead.  There is, I hasten to add, no connection that I know of between Phyllis, as we knew her (she was an honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a frequent guest at meetings of the Barbara Pym Society) and Siegfried Sassoon.  She was born in 1920 and thus had no memory of the First World War, and she did not have her first novel published until 1962; thus there was little overlap between her literary career and Sassoon’s. 

Nor did they move in the same circles.  Phyllis Dorothy James was not from a poor family, and had a good basic education, but was nevertheless forced to leave school at the age of sixteen to go along with her father’s wishes.  Her career as an office worker was interrupted by the Second World War, in the course of which her husband, Ernest, developed a mental condition that prevented him being the family breadwinner.  She continued to work in the public sector, which (to my mind) makes it rather surprising that, when called to the House of Lords in 1991, she joined the Conservative backbenches.

I cannot claim that I knew Phyllis, and I have only read three of her books.  But I met her and heard her speak on several occasions, and I was always enthralled and full of admiration for a woman who could speak so fluently and so interestingly on different topics.  She had, I believe, told the Secretary of the Barbara Pym Society that she “liked” Barbara Pym, as have so many other eminent people.  Usually – if we can get them to speak at all – they come up with a moderately interesting account of what it is they like about Barbara Pym and how they came to read her books.  This speech was completely different, an analysis of the Pym world in great and knowledgeable depth, shedding new light on the subject and never losing the audience’s attention for a moment.

One of the most entertaining afternoons I have ever spent was at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2011, when 90-year-old Phyllis shared the stage with another outstanding novelist, Jill Paton Walsh, for a debate: Agatha Christie versus Dorothy L Sayers.  There were many reviews of the event, one of which you can read here: http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/agatha-vs-dorothy.html  Jill took Dorothy’s side, while Phyllis stuck up for Agatha.  Amusingly, both agreed that Sayers was the better writer, but Phyllis stuck to her guns on the basis that, since Agatha had sold so many more books and given so much pleasure to so many people, she must be superior overall.  The whole debate took place in a spirit of true literary appreciation, friendship and humour – there were such a lot of laughs.  The personalities of the two speakers came across very clearly, with Phyllis being particularly fun-loving and wickedly witty.  They interacted perfectly.

At question time, a member of the audience got up and congratulated Phyllis for her recent radio performance, “handbagging” BBC Director-General Mark Thompson when she was a guest interviewer on Radio 4’s Today programme.  In the course of the interview, she described the BBC as "a large and unwieldy ship” with a crew that was “somewhat discontented and a little mutinous, the ship sinking close to the Plimsoll line and the customers feeling they have paid too much for their journey and not quite sure where they are going or who is the captain".  In particular, she criticised the six-figure salaries of some BBC executives, ageism, and the general dumbing-down of the corporation’s output.  I can’t help feeling Siegfried would have admired a woman who, even in advanced age, was capable of out-thinking and out-manoeuvring her juniors.

And, just as I was about to put this to bed, I did succeed in finding a connection, albeit a tenuous one.  James was a crime writer, one of the most successful of all time.  When asked how she tackled the genre, she referred back to some ground rules laid down by a noted crime writer of the 1920s and ‘30s, Ronald Knox, and said that these still applied: “a) no information available to the detective should be kept from the reader, b) there should be no identical twins, and c) definitely no Chinamen.”

Knox, in addition to being a writer and radio broadcaster, was a Roman Catholic priest, and was the man selected by Siegfried Sassoon as his instructor in the faith when he converted in 1957.  Sadly, Knox was already too ill, and died that same year.  Siegfried chose to be buried only a few yards away from him, in the churchyard at Mells, Somerset.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Great War on the Big Screen

“With its centenaries approaching we can expect many more Great War films over the next few years,” wrote William Philpott two years ago in History Today, reviewing Spielberg’s War Horse. “Can we ask them now to get that war right?”
As we all know, the truth is sometimes too complex for accurate representation in the mass media.  Most people are aware that the British cavalry never carried out a Light Brigade-style charge in the First World War, even in its earliest days.  Nevertheless, for me, seeing the film for the first time on television, this scene was quite unnecessary to enable us to understand the plight of the millions of horses that died in the course of the war.
Another film I have recently seen for the first time is Richard Attenborough’s 1969 classic Oh! What a Lovely War.  Like War Horse, it strays into historical inaccuracy throughout.  If you look back through earlier posts, you will see that I praised the BBC’s drama series 39 Days, shown earlier this year, for its depiction of the events leading up to the war and its subtle portrayal of the personalities involved, particularly Sir Edward Gray, the British Foreign Minister, later a close acquaintance of Siegfried Sassoon.  In Lovely War, Gray is played by Ralph Richardson as a stiff, unsympathetic figure.  Douglas Haig, played by John Mills, fares even worse, stolidly ignoring the escalating numbers of dead and wounded as the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele are played out, far away from his perch on top of a helter-skelter on Brighton’s West Pier.
Murray Melvin, who appeared in the original stage production, is reported as saying, “The Haig family wanted to take out an injunction on us because we were denigrating their ancestor.  But everything that we said on stage was documented. Word for word. Lines like, 'I ask thee for victory, Lord, before the Americans arrive’.”
Unlike War Horse, Oh! What a Lovely War was never meant as a straight drama; it was always a satire, reflecting some of the less pleasant aspects of the conduct of the war and events that the public – when it came out, many veterans were still under the age of seventy - had previously preferred to ignore.  When it made its stage debut in 1963, Joan Littlewood's production “seemed to offer a way of thinking about all wars, including the ones to come”, to quote The Telegraph, reviewing a 2014 revival.  Bertrand Russell, attending an early performance, said: "If there were any way in which I could make people understand how true and important your play is, I would wish to do it."  But Russell was a non-combatant – how could he judge the truth of the war?  How could Littlewood (who adapted it from a radio play by Charles Chilton), or the film’s director, Richard Attenborough, who was not even born until 1923?  One of the few veterans in the film’s cast was Cecil Parker, who had been a sergeant in the Royal Sussex Regiment; no one seems to have asked him what he thought of it.
If those who were not involved in the war cannot judge the accuracy of the media’s representations of it, can historians do any better?  Is it possible for any individual to hope to summarise the historical significance of a four-year world war, or even to scratch the surface?  Some historians think they can – yet they insist that Siegfried Sassoon’s satirical poems, a “bottom-up” view of what was actually happening on the battlefield, written by someone who was directly involved, cannot be considered either truthful or representative.
Although a direct comparison between the two films would be meaningless, there is common ground in that they represent the war both at its best and at its worst. The camaraderie of the soldiers in Lovely War shines through against the backdrop of pointless slaughter; the very fact that they are singing in unison tells us that they feel this, and the frequently ironic lyrics do not detract from the general impression of esprit de corps that they at times share with the enemy (specifically in the Christmas scene). This is also shown in War Horse, as soldiers from opposing trenches meet in No Man’s Land in an effort to relieve the suffering of a dumb animal on which both sides have pity. “Good” characters appear in the guise of German grooms as well as British Tommies, and it is thanks to a Frenchman that Albert finally gets his horse back. Admittedly, the fictional Major Stewart acts like a complete ninny, although not as heartless as Haig; the point, however, is not to show up the British military commanders as fools but to illustrate the scale of the carnage faced by all ranks (and their animals) whilst shining a spotlight on individual acts of heroism and compassion of the kind that we know took place throughout the conflict.
Lovely War nevertheless focuses on loss and hopelessness whilst War Horse encourages us to believe in the possibility of survival against the odds. Private Smith ends his war by lying down peacefully in a green meadow among his former comrades (in a scene that blows the climax of Blackadder Goes Forth out of the water); they all look rather fed up. Joey and Albert, by contrast, return to their Devon farm to be reunited with their loved ones.
Looking at it dispassionately, I can’t but agree with William Philpott that “It was a new sort of war on an industrial scale; a hard fought war with the usual amount of military mistakes and battlefield horrors; but a real war and not that of its recurrent cinematic truisms,” even if I don’t agree with him that the representation of the war in satirical works like Blackadder Goes Forth and  Oh! What a Lovely War is a misinterpretation.
I would, rather, concur with the Daily Mail reviewer of War Horse who said that “Whatever the reservations about Michael Morpurgo’s story and the movie, it contains a truth which goes far to explain our emotional response.”  His name?  Max Hastings!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Other Woman

When I was writing a previous post, I came across the name of Julia Constance Fletcher, the American writer for whom Alfred Sassoon is said to have left Theresa.  For some reason, she has never been on my radar previously, and I started to wonder about her.  There was a limited amount of information on-line, but here's what I've established so far.

Fletcher was born in 1853, making her about eight years older than Alfred, which puts paid to any theory that he left Theresa for a younger woman; Theresa was the same age as Constance.  Under her pseudonym, "George Fleming", Fletcher was a prolific writer, turning out such gems as The Head of Medusa (1880) and  A Nile Novel.

The more I find out about Constance, the more interesting a character she seems.  Much of her attraction, I would suggest, is the result of her unusual upbringing.  Her father, James Cooley Fletcher (1823-1901), was himself the son of a prominent Indiana citizen, the banker Calvin Fletcher.  Fletcher Junior moved in literary circles; he was a close friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and also knew Henry James.

In about 1850, James Fletcher married Henriette Malan, daughter of a Swiss clergyman.  He had met her in Europe, but spent some years working as a missionary in South America.  Being a Presbyterian minister did not prevent James from showing off, and in 1866 he constructed Hawkswood, a mock “castle” (in my opinion, suspiciously similar to the Addams Family house) on the banks of the River Merrimac.  By this time, however, Henriette had left him for Eugene Benson, a painter, and the couple had moved to Italy, taking with them Henriette’s two children by Fletcher, Constance and her brother Edward.  Constance eventually settled in Venice.

Her father continued his career, marrying twice more after his divorce from Henriette and enjoying a successful career as a diplomat as well as writing about his experiences in South America.

Constance herself had several dalliances, including one with Oscar Wilde, who, while still an studying at Oxford, dedicated his 1878 prize-winning poem "Ravenna" to "my friend George Fleming".  Her novel of the same year, Mirage, is semi-autobiographical, reflecting her experiences in Wilde’s company.  Henry James was one of her visitors in Venice; although a friend of her father, he was close enough in age to have been attracted to her.

A later novel, Andromeda, published in 1885, was secretly subsidised by none other than Alfred Sassoon, but the nature of his relationship with Fletcher at this point is unclear.  Siegfried was not yet born, and it seems Theresa did not find out about Alfred's infidelity until they took a holiday in Venice in 1888 and she actually met Fletcher - or perhaps not even then.  Alfred finally moved out of the family home in 1891, but did not move in with Fletcher, who had no shortage of other admirers.  He remained in Britain.

Gertrude Stein met Fletcher in Italy in 1911, long after Alfred's death, and one of Stein's least-known works, A Portrait of Constance Fletcher, was published in 1922.   Don't bother reading it if all you want is to find out more about Fletcher, because it contains no biographical data.  Only if you are a fan of Stein, or at least familiar with her style, is it likely to mean something to you.

I feel certain there are people reading this who know much more about Julia Constance Fletcher than I do - I have only scratched the surface, and have not even had the dedication to read any of her novels in the course of my brief research.  If anyone would like to fill us all in on her life in more detail, please feel free to do so in the Comments box!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

White Poppies

The other day, someone sold me a white poppy.  I was rather surprised, as I had not heard anything about them since the 1980s, when I was a member of CND.  Along with the poppy came a leaflet about its history, and along with that came thoughts of Siegfried Sassoon.  

The elderly gentleman who sold me the poppy is, as I knew, an ex-Communist - or possibly still a Communist.  I have to admire him for sticking to his principles in a time when it has become unfashionable to declare oneself a pacifist, as though to do so were somehow to negate the sacrifices made by British soldiers in continuing conflicts around the world.  At the time the white poppy first appeared on the streets, in 1934, it was difficult to imagine that the "war to end all wars" would not, at least, keep Britain out of any further wars for the foreseeable future.  Yet, only five years later, the cycle resumed.

The Peace Pledge Union was founded by a canon of St Paul's named Dick Sheppard.  Only a few years older than Sassoon, and himself an old Marlburian, Sheppard had been a chaplain in France during the First World War, but was sent home after suffering a breakdown.  A charismatic speaker despite his repeated bouts of ill-health, he began calling on the public to make a "pledge" of peace in 1934.  The PPU was formally established two years later, in the belief that the Nazi party in Germany could be appeased.  Sadly, Sheppard died the following year, and his legacy was quickly overwhelmed by a growing recognition of the dangers of Fascism.

The movement nevertheless attracted some big names, including the novelists Rose Macaulay and Vera Brittain, and acquaintances of Sassoon's such as Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley.  Its chair was the Labour politician George Lansbury, who continued in the job until his own death in 1940. Siegfried was personally recruited to the cause by Sheppard himself, who wrote to ask him to appear at a peace rally in the Royal Albert Hall in 1935.  Sassoon read some of his own poems at the meeting, and persuaded his friend Edmund Blunden to make a speech on the occasion.

Sassoon would not have taken much convincing.  In 1933 he had written to William Temple, then Archbishop of York, to protest at the Church's apparent support for a war against Germany.  To Ottoline Morrell, he wrote, "...it is as if the powers of darkness were winning."  The involvement of his wealthy cousin, Philip Sassoon, did not help.  By 1936, Siegfried had become so close to Sheppard that he invited him to officiate at the baptism of his long-awaited son, George.  He continued to appear on the PPU platform even after Sheppard's death, but the excesses of the Nazi regime were beginning to make him have second thoughts about his commitment to pacifism. Although he shared the views of many, that the failure to settle the First World War fairly had led to the situation in Germany, he had begun to change his mind after seeing a Fascist government in action during a visit to Italy in 1937.

Whilst admiring Chamberlain's efforts, Sassoon must have found himself in a quandary comparable with that of recent British governments trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan.  Fully aware of his Jewish roots, he could not have failed to understand that his life would have been in danger if he had been a German citizen.  When the inevitable came to pass, in September 1939, and Heytesbury House prepared to accept the first evacuees, he was resigned to it, but did not welcome it. To his old friend Blunden, he wrote "Edmund, I don't want to write anything about this war."

And indeed he mostly steered clear of the subject, yet it indirectly brought about a work that contains some of Sassoon's most memorable prose: The Weald of Youth.  "It was the war that did it, I think," he wrote to Max Beerbohm, referring to the fact that he had overcome a nasty case of writer's block in order to begin his second volume of autobiography (after a disappointing public response to The Old Century).  The book ends where Siegfried's career as a writer really began - with his decision to enlist on the outbreak of the First World War.  Once, he genuinely had believed that it was the war that would end all wars.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Literary Trees

It may seem an odd subject for a post, but it is more apposite than I realised when I began.  The seed of the idea (if you’ll forgive the botanical pun) came when I read about a tree that until recently stood in Oxford’s Botanical Gardens.  A black pine (botanical name pinus nigra), it was closely associated with the writer and First World War veteran J R R Tolkien.  Those who came on our "literary walk" following the Spring School earlier this year will recall that Tolkien at one time lived and worked in rooms in Merton Street, just a stone's throw from the Botanical Gardens and barely a hundred yards from the rooms Siegfried briefly rented in 1919.

According to our friend Dr Stuart Lee, Tolkien was fond of trees from childhood and hated to see them chopped down.  The specific tree in question is said to have inspired the character of Treebeard in Lord of the Rings, though Stuart is less certain about this, pointing out that "in fact the Ents have many sources."   The tree is believed to be over 200 years old, but scientists will not be able to confirm this until they have studied the trunk - for the tree has had to be felled because limbs were beginning to fall off and its days were numbered. Now the wood will be used for an "educational project", and the specialists at the Botanical Gardens will of course also propagate from it.

It was a complete coincidence that, the day after I read about the black pine, my attention was drawn to the existence of “the Hardy tree” in St Pancras Old Churchyard, London.  The Hardy in question is of course Sassoon’s friend Thomas Hardy, who worked in the area during his early career as an architect, during the mid-1860s. At the time, the churchyard was about to be invaded by the construction of new stations for the Midland Railway.  Hardy's supervisor, Arthur Blomfield, a bishop’s son, delegated to his junior the responsibility for relocating thousands of graves in order to accommodate the railway company without upsetting the local community.  This obliged Hardy to be present at the churchyard every evening to ensure that the exhumations were carried out in privacy and with sensitivity, and it was a task that seems to have distressed him.  

Many of the headstones were placed in a circular pattern around an ash tree (botanical name Fraxinus excelsior), which still stands in St Pancras Gardens.  It has been suggested that one of Hardy’s early poems, a blackly-humorous ditty entitled “The Levelled Churchyard”, was inspired by his experience of clearing the stones; the poem was, however, written later, when Hardy and his first wife Emma lived in Wimborne, where he became involved with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings because of work that was being done at the Minster.

"Blunden's Beech" at Heytesbury
Siegfried was fond of trees, as he was of all nature.  The third tree I thought I should bring into this post is “Blunden’s Beech”, the tree so nicknamed in honour of his friend Edmund Blunden.  Those who have been lucky enough to visit Heytesbury House will have noticed the tree or perhaps had it pointed out to them by Dennis Silk.  At Yalding, where Blunden grew up, a plaque has been installed with the text of Sassoon’s poem “Blunden’s Beech” engraved on it.  The poem was published in his 1940 collection Rhymed Ruminations.  In this poem, the tree stands in place of his absent friend.  Sitting at its base, Siegfried feels his companionship: “…and Edmund never guessed/How he was there with me…” 

Clearly there is no shortage of trees with literary connections, and I would just like to mention one more – one that many SSF members will know about but may not have seen, simply because, when we made our unforgettable visit to Boars Hill in September 2008, the summer had been too wet to allow us to walk up the muddy track that would have led us to it.  The following year, however, I managed to see it on another trip to Boars Hill, again led by the inimitable Philip Stewart, arborist extraordinaire, who subsequently succeeded in getting the view from the hill (immortalised by Matthew Arnold in his poem “Thyrsis”) officially protected by persuading the Oxford Preservation Trust to purchase the land.   This tree, described by Arnold as a “signal-elm”, has been the subject of intensive research by Philip, who deduced the location of the tree that had inspired the poem and finally established that it is actually an oak!  Siegfried, too, would have seen the tree many times when he was staying at Boars Hill, where he visited Robert Bridges, John Masefield and Robert Graves, but, despite his love for nature, he would probably not have been aware of its literary significance.

Friday, 24 October 2014

AGMs and other animals

I admit I was quite anxious about this year’s Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship AGM, even though it was a much smaller-scale affair than usual.  It wasn’t so much the food orders (Irene kindly took that worry off my hands), the accommodation arrangements (there weren’t any) or speaker logistics (we only had one speaker).  It was more to do with the possibility that, for the first time in years, the AGM might not be quorate.  The last time I recall having such a concern was in 2007 at Downside.

You see, we cunningly ensure maximum attendance at our AGMs by combining them with our annual conference, which members are normally keen to attend as long as it is affordable and is held in a convenient location on a convenient date; many now keep the second Saturday in September free in their diaries for precisely this reason.  On this occasion, however, we had to make it a separate meeting because the “Arcadia, Armageddon, Aftermath” reading at Heytesbury in August affected the events calendar as well as taking its toll on the committee resource that would normally have been spent on the conference.  In addition, the big war poetry conference at Wadham College, Oxford, created a clash that was impossible to get around.

So in fact we were lucky that a few extra people turned up at the last minute, ensuring that we didn’t need to worry about having a quorum.  Not that it would have been the end of the world if we hadn’t been quorate.  We could still have held a discussion, but, being a charity, we wouldn’t have been able to take any major decisions; anything we might have wished to do would have been subject to ratification by the requisite number of members at a later date.  The purpose of a quorum is, of course, to prevent important decisions being made in secret by a small group (the committee, for example), without agreement from the general membership.  Many organisations find it so difficult to get a quorum at their meetings that they end up having to amend their constitutions – which itself requires a quorum – in order to get anything done at all!  Our quorum (10% of the SSF’s total membership) is a little ambitious, but we’ve managed to get thirty members or more in recent years without difficulty because our conferences have been so well-attended.

At any rate, we were able to hold the AGM without any complications this year, because there were enough people who were willing to make the trip to central London in the dank days of early autumn, to enjoy a free lecture from Dr George Simmers entitled ‘ “Too terribly beastly and nasty and corpsey”: How novelists of the nineteen-twenties represented war poets.’  Talk about well worth the trip!  Even those of us who had heard part of the talk before – at the Wadham conference last month – were more than happy to revisit the subject and explore a very different angle on war poetry.

I hadn’t realised how easy Sassoon is to parody until I head George recite a poem by J B Morton, from his “Gorgeous Poetry” collection (an obvious take-off of the Georgian poetry with some soldier-poets thrown in), published in 1920.  “This book is not an attack,” Morton insisted.  I wonder if Siegfried laughed, or whether the events that inspired the poem were still too painful in his memory to become a source of amusement.  It might be all very well for him to write something like this, for example, referring to the dramatic moment when he threw his M.C. ribbon in the River Mersey:

"...the poor little thing fell weakly on to the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility.  One of my point-to-point cups would have served my purpose more satisfyingly, and they'd meant much the same to me as my Military Cross."

But was it all right for Morton to make a mockery of such things?  Probably, since the parodist himself had been transferred to army intelligence, after fighting on the Somme, for the sake of his mental health.  Sassoon had, after all, begun his own literary career with a parody of John Masefield’s work, only to become friendly with Masefield when they eventually met in Oxford just after the war.  At any rate, I don’t think there was a single person in George’s audience who wasn’t entertained by Morton’s ditty.

I will not reveal any more about the content of George Simmers’ talk, simply because it is based on research that he has been engaged in for a long time and which is still being pursued.  However, those of you who are members will have the opportunity to read more about it in a future edition of Siegfried’s Journal.  I know that you will be as fascinated as the rest of us were.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

An Italian Odyssey

You may have noticed that I've had a short break from blogging.  This is because I've been away on holiday, a holiday that took me, among other places, to Italy.  Although I never heard Sassoon's name mentioned in the course of my two-week trip, I at times felt my mind being drawn to consider the significance of the visit he made to Italy with his lover Stephen Tennant, in 1928.  

It was, for Siegfried at least, a difficult journey, thanks largely to the demanding young man who accompanied him.  Stephen was used to being cosseted and waited on, and this was the role he expected Siegfried to play throughout what should have been a holiday for both of them.  They had already driven through France and Germany in Sassoon's latest acquisition, a red Packard automobile, before crossing from Austria into Italy in early September, with the aim of attending a performance of young William Walton's Facade, a collaboration with Sassoon's old friend Edith Sitwell.  (It occurs to me that Siegfried's style of driving might have suited Italian road etiquette very well.)  

The Faҫade project had been on the go since 1921, and the suite had been performed before, but two new segments had been written and were to be premièred at the Siena Festival.  As a patron of the 26-year-old composer and a close friend of the poet, Siegfried’s presence at the occasion was expected, and Siegfried himself had been looking forward to it.  Siena is not much more than 200 miles from the border, and they had allowed themselves plenty of time. However, thanks to Stephen's preferred mode of travel, involving a lot of luggage and many stops, the pair failed to reach their destination in time.  Whether Stephen caused the delays deliberately, perhaps because he wanted to demonstrate that he was more important to Siegfried than the latter's long-standing circle of friends, or simply through a lack of consideration, I am unsure.  At any rate, Siegfried was extremely angry.  His failure to attend the performance caused a falling-out between him and Edith; he would have to work hard to make it up to her. Nevertheless, he went ahead with his plan to spend the subsequent days as a visitor at the castle of Montegufoni, owned by Sir George Sitwell, Edith's father.

After Montegufoni, the couple moved on to Bologna, Padua, and eventually Venice, where their stay, according to Jean Moorcroft Wilson, marked a turning-point in their relationship.  

Siegfried had visited Venice twice before, once in 1922 with “Toronto” Prewett (on which occasion he bumped into both Osbert Sitwell and Ivor Novello), and again in 1926 in the company of Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband.  The trip with the Morrells had not been an easy one.  Sassoon had found himself pig-in-the-middle as the couple quarrelled with one another, their daughter, and other members of the party.  Still at the time involved with Glen Byam Shaw, he wrote to the latter from Verona and Bologna to tell him how much he missed him.  

Sassoon had also, in 1921 and 1922, been to Rome, and commented that he was not interested in the vestiges of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance or the Baroque, but in “the physical aspect of Italy”.  He was particularly taken with the gardens of the Villa d’Este, which would be featured among the illustrations for his 1923 collection, Recreations.  It was here that he had been introduced on his first visit, by Lord Berners, to Prince Philipp of Hesse, who briefly became his lover.  Although Philipp turned out to be uninterested in a lasting relationship, he and Siegfried would remain on amicable terms.  Philipp later married Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III, and settled on the royal estate just outside Rome.

As a result of his familiarity with Venice, Siegfried was now hoping that Stephen would appreciate the great works of art to which he planned to introduce him; in this, at least, he was not disappointed, and it went some way to making up for his disappointment at not arriving at Siena in time.  On the other hand, Stephen was apparently too wrapped up in himself to be sympathetic when Siegfried recalled his mother’s experiences –  Theresa had been in Venice when she discovered her husband Alfred was having an affair with an American novelist; now she wrote to her son to tell him about a painting she had seen there.  However, it was also in Venice that the positive reviews of the newly-published Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man reached them.  
In the following year, Siegfried and Stephen returned to Italy, this time to Rappallo, where they had been invited to stay with Max Beerbohm.  Siegfried was in a state of great annoyance over the recent publication (and success) of Robert Graves’ memoir, Goodbye to All That, which included personal information about Sassoon and his family, to which he strongly objected.  Only when he met W B Yeats in Rapallo did he learn of Graves’ recent domestic problems.  Meanwhile, Sassoon was working on the second volume of his own memoirs, which would cover some of the same ground as Graves’ book.  He continued to work on it as he and Stephen travelled on to Naples and subsequently to Sicily, and also toyed with poetry, producing “Presences Perfected” and “We Shall Not All Sleep”.  Another poem, “In Sicily”, sums up his feelings about their relationship.  One of the "Ariel poems", it was printed in 1930 in a limited edition, with Stephen's own illustrations.  You can buy a second-hand edition for around £250! 

Monday, 29 September 2014

Artists at War

Two articles in the latest edition of the Western Front Association's Stand To! magazine caught my eye, both on different aspects of what might be loosely labelled "war art".  This comes in a huge variety of shapes and sizes - art that was created in a war environment, art that was created about the war, art that was created by those who had been influenced by their war experience.  Siegfried Sassoon himself was something of an artist, and created both cartoons and more "serious" work, as can be seen from items found among his papers in various collections around the UK and USA - you can see examples here: 

The articles in the magazine to which I referred represent two quite distinct categories of war art. Eric Henri Kennington, RA, a friend of Robert Graves, was a trained artist who served on the Western Front in 1914-1915, until wounded and discharged.  He subsequently became a war artist and found himself back at the Front in 1917-1918.  His work was being exhibited before the end of the war, and concentrated on everyday scenes of Tommies going about their business, mostly without either glorifying their efforts or trying to convey the horrors they faced in battle.  Nevertheless, his work of reporting the war must at times have made uncomfortable viewing (as in the case of "A Gas Patient"), even though it was intended to inform and encourage.

Private Edward Cole was quite a different kind of artist.  Relatively little is known about Cole's life, but he certainly produced a wide range of work, including programme designs taken from watercolour originals, and Christmas cards for official use by the battalion.  Most remarkable, however, is the collection of fourteen caricatures that turned up at the museum of the East Surrey Regiment.  All are of officers, including medical officers and a chaplain, and it is highly possible that the drawings were commissioned, for purposes lost in the mists of time.  Checking the caricature of Captain G S Pirie against a contemporary photograph shows them to have been very accurate in terms of both appearance and mannerism.

Not really by coincidence, the BBC has just launched Andrew Graham-Dixon's new series on war artists.  The first programme, focusing on the tormented Paul Nash, was illuminating; the second, on Walter Sickert, who "understood that the theatre of war was not confined to the trenches", was less inspiring.  As one reviewer commented, only five minutes of the programme covered Sickert's work between 1914 and 1918,  "hardly what you'd expect of a series titled British Art at War".

The third and final programme in the series focuses on David Bomberg, bringing us neatly to the subject of Isaac Rosenberg, who has surely been at the back of your mind while you’ve been reading the rest of this post.  Why Bomberg?  Why not Rosenberg himself?  Is it because one is better known than the other (which one?) or because Rosenberg’s career as an artist is complicated by the fact that he wrote poetry?  I surmise that it is actually because Rosenberg didn’t produce much of what one might call “war art”.  There was not much opportunity for more than quick sketches for a soldier involved in trench warfare, and Rosenberg’s final flourish was cut tragically short by his death in 1918.  Perhaps the manner of his death would have been too obvious a device to ram home the impact of the war on British art.  The purpose of the series is, I assume, to explore the various effects of war experience on artists of different backgrounds and styles (albeit all of them painters).

The fine arts are not my field and I can’t go much further with this short overview.   Suffice it to say that, like music, art was – at least for the soldier - both a way to forget about the war and way to express one’s feelings about it.  Whether you sketched a rat or wrote a poem about it depended entirely on the nature of your talent and what your mood was at the time.  Rosenberg remains the only First World War combatant who showed equal talent in both fields, and we will never know what he might have become if he had survived.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Digging the Great War

Having been an enthusiast for archaeology for most of my life and having many happy memories of excavations on Roman and other sites in the UK, I find the reports of Martin Brown’s “Plugstreet project” very interesting. I thought that others might like to have a look at the embryonic website: http://www.plugstreet-archaeology.com which includes a blog (not very up-to-date, but I can understand that, if anyone can) and photographs of some of the artefacts discovered during the excavations that took place in July this year – a time when I was very preoccupied with planning our centenary programme.

I haven’t done any digging for a couple of years now, mainly for lack of time.  It’s a sad fact that many of us have to reach retirement age before we get the opportunity to take up hobbies in earnest, which sometimes means we are slowing down physically and unable to put as much “welly” into it as we once could have.  Fortunately there are still a lot of archaeology students around, and how I envy them!  It’s a terrific pastime, simultaneously relaxing, exciting and fulfilling.  Although, as far as I’m aware, Siegfried Sassoon never did any excavating, he certainly had an interest in the subject.  You only have to read “On Scratchbury Camp” to realise that.

“I walk the fosse, once manned by bronze and flint-head spear;”

Don’t tell me he didn’t know his prehistory!  Indeed, there is more direct evidence of an interest in archaeology, since he donated prehistoric artefacts found on his estate to a local museum.  During the Second World War he commented, in a letter to Edmund Blunden, "I sometimes feel that I am living in a world that is as unreal to me as the Bronze Age", unwittingly revealing himself to have more of an interest in ancient history than he would have others believe.  It was the recent past he had a problem with.

What would Siegfried have thought of people a hundred years on, digging up the remains of his First World War experience?  I doubt that he would have approved.  In his mind, the past was buried and ought to stay that way.  He may have imagined that future generations would not want to understand the past in this hands-on manner.  After all, didn’t his poetry say it all?  It certainly did, for anyone who was actually involved in the war.  Yet those he took to task for not understanding are the same ones who can benefit from the exercise of excavating First World War battlefields and trenches.

If you saw my recent article on the WFA website (http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/wfa-tours/3947-wfa-poets-tour-july-2014-a-report.html), about the July “Poets’ Tour” to Ypres, you may remember me mentioning the small museum at Pond Farm, where Stijn Butaye and his family have lovingly collected and researched a miscellany of artefacts, mostly everyday objects, found in the local fields.  The Plugstreet excavation, and its sister project the “Plugstreet Experience”, which opened in November 2013, give us the opportunity to get further acquainted with the day-to-day life of soldiers in the trenches.

The same team has been excavating in the UK, working with Staffordshire County Council on the site of the Messines Model on Cannock Chase.  Apparently, scale models of sectors of the Western Front were used in training and preparation for the Battles of Messines and Cambrai.   What can we learn from this?  Well, the mere fact that such models existed is not common knowledge, despite photographic evidence.  Getting close to the troops obviously takes more than familiarity with their everyday lives.  But it's a start, isn't it?

Monday, 15 September 2014

Siegfried's Garden

Last weekend I went to the small town of Saint-Venant in Nord Pas-de-Calais, France, to see the final realisation of Didier Rousseau’s two-year project to create an exhibition based on the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon.  Didier, an environmentalist and man of letters, is the owner of the Manoir de la Peylouse, a historic house built contemporaneously with the dismantling of the neighbouring Vauban fortress.  The remains of the original fortifications can still be seen in the town, and the 17th-century powder-store in the grounds was saved from demolition by Didier and his wife Luce, who have converted it into a small arts centre, now known as “La Poudrière”. 

Early in the war, the house itself was used during the war as the headquarters of Indian and other Commonwealth troops.  It subsequently passed through the hands of General Haig, who used it as a staff college, as evidenced by historic photographs that can be seen around the house. In 1916, Portugal entered the war, and the Portuguese army used the house as a headquarters in 1917-18.  

The Manoir was also for a time the home of the editor Daniel Halévy (1872-1962), who was responsible for the publication of one of the most notable French novels set during the First World War, Le diable au corps, a sensational work by a teenager, Raymond Radiguet (who would die of typhoid at the age of twenty).  The book became a best-seller, more for its scandalous nature than for its literary merit or its relatively few references to the war.

Right next to the gardens of the Manoir is the River Lys, now a haven for pleasure-boats.  Fierce fighting took place in this area in 1918, some of it involving the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were back again in 1940 as recognised by a granite memorial that stands alongside the river.  A Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, containing burials from both wars, is incorporated into the town cemetery, a short walk away from the Manoir. 

When Didier Rousseau read of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, he became enchanted with his work.   Realising that Siegfried must have been stationed close by (“The Dug-out” is dated July 1918 and was written at Saint-Venant), he conceived the idea of an exhibition, centring on the Manoir’s beautiful gardens, that would draw the attention of the people of the region to Sassoon’s former presence in the area as well as spreading the word about his poetry.  Photographic evidence shows that the gardens are little changed since that time, and Siegfried would not have missed the chance to walk in them, even if he had no reason to enter the house.  However, Didier’s investigations suggest it is entirely possible that Sassoon was there as early as 1915, when the house was a training centre for military personnel in the use of the trench mortar, a new weapon developed by the French army.

It was Didier’s vision to create a garden walk for his visitors; it has taken time and effort to obtain the necessary permission to reproduce Siegfried’s work for a temporary exhibition, as well as obtaining support from the local authorities and deciding the form of the exhibition – which poems to include and how to display them.  Some have been translated into French in order to attract French visitors to Sassoon’s work. The poems are printed on weatherproof canvases and attached to the ancient trees, of many varieties, that are to be found in the garden.  Other information has been printed on panels displayed on tree-"stumps" manufactured from non-endangered species.

Inside La Poudrière, visitors can see another exhibition entitled “Siegfried & Co”, which includes information about 12 “soldier-poets” who were stationed on the Artois-Lys front at one time or another.  The criteria for inclusion are somewhat relaxed, as can be seen from those numbered among the twelve: as well as Sassoon, Blunden, Gurney, Graves and David Jones, we have Osbert Sitwell, Frank Richards, “Bim” Tennant and C S Lewis!

The garden is open to the general public at weekends, free of charge, but La Poudrière is reserved for Didier’s invited guests, so don’t forget to let me know if you are thinking of calling in.  Didier and Luce are always delighted to welcome Sassoon enthusiasts from the UK.