Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Hydra v Siegfried's Journal

I’ve been invited to attend the opening, next month, of the new “Rivers Suite” at Craiglockhart – a conference and function suite that includes a “Siegfried Room” and a “Wilfred Room”.  This started me thinking forward to 2017 and the centenary of the two men’s first meeting, which we will of course be celebrating, in collaboration with the Wilfred Owen Association.  If anyone has any doubts about whether we should be celebrating the centenary of the war, there can surely be no one who will object to a celebration of the centenary of that significant meeting.

This led me on to look at Napier University’s on-line archive of material relating to the First World War, which contains some fascinating memorabilia dating from the days of Siegfried’s incarceration at what he called “Dottyville”.  You can find an on-line catalogue here: http://www2.napier.ac.uk/warpoets/   Most interesting of these documents, to my mind, are copies of The Hydra, a newsletter produced by and for the inmates, which can be browsed on-line.  The magazine, which owes its title to the origins of the building in which they lodged, as a “Hydro” or health spa, was famously edited by Owen, who approached Sassoon to persuade him to “write something” for its pages.

The Hydra, as was doubtless intended, is a cosy publication, and includes an “Arrivals” section in which newcomers such as 2nd Lieutenant Sassoon (RWF) are welcomed; his name appears in number 8, dated August 4th, 1917.  In the editorial at the beginning of the same issue, an “overheard” conversation is related, in which other ranks discuss the meaning of the word “Hydra”.   The most learned of the participants comes out with this gem: “A ‘ydra’s a ‘undred ‘eaded serpent, and the ‘eads grew again as fast as cut off, signifyin’ these ‘ere officers at Craiglockhart, for as soon as one gets too uppish, like, they cut ‘im off the strength, an’ another comes up in ‘is place.”  The wit in question was probably unfamiliar with the reasons for Sassoon’s presence and did not know that he had actually been brought to Craiglockhart for being rather too “uppish”.

In issue no 10, dated 1st September, along comes the hoped-for contribution from Sassoon, in the form of that favourite poem of Dennis Silk’s, “Dreamers”.  Like many of the other original contributions, it is signed only with the author’s initials “S.S.”

The literary quality of the content would appear to have deteriorated somewhat with the advent of a new editor following Owen’s departure, and my attention was drawn to a letter printed in the July 1918 edition, from a Miss Violet Loraine.  I got excited on seeing this surname, thinking that the lady was possibly a relation of the Rev Loraine to whom Siegfried owed his unusual middle name and had perhaps heard of his presence there.  However, on further investigation I discovered that Miss Loraine was born Violet Tipton and adopted the surname as her stage name when she became a music hall star.  She became particularly associated with the song “If You Were the Only Girl in the World”, which she first sang as a duet with George Robey in 1916.


Miss Loraine writes encouragingly to the occupants of Craiglockhart to tell them “how proud I and all Britain’s women are of you and our splendid men”.  She bemoans her female status thus: "We women cannot go to war and fight, as you have done, but we are doing our best."  In words we would probably deride for their sentimentality nowadays, she goes on to say that "we are comrades all, meeting the most diabolical foe that ever trod God's earth, as one, shoulder to shoulder, we stand for liberty."  Punctuation was evidently not her strong point.  Nevertheless, I give her full marks for what she was doubtless attempting to do, making these men who had suffered so much feel that they were still part of the national effort and deserved praise for the service they had already given.

There is something about The Hydra that reminds me a little of our own publication, Siegfried’s Journal.  There is a kind of homeliness about it, as if to say, “If you are reading this, you understand me and I understand you”.  The group that had access to The Hydra was of course smaller than the readership of Siegfried’s Journal,  but ours remains a compact group.  I was complimented recently by a member on the sheer friendliness of the SSF, and it was suggested that this in some ways stems from Sassoon’s own sociability.   He was in many ways a shy man, but evidently he had a charisma that drew people to him and continues to do so.  In the Journal, however, we don’t only write about Sassoon (though connections will keep springing up, as they have been doing throughout my brief history of blogging). 

Siegfried’s Journal is, like The Hydra, a dual-purpose publication.  Under Owen’s editorship, the latter became a lifeline to the inmates of “Dottyville”.  How they must have looked forward to each new issue, keeping them up to date with the latest news, full of humour and fellow-feeling!  Despite its informality, it contained contributions of real literary merit, as well as many mediocre ones; this latter is one respect in which it differs from our Journal, which is painstakingly edited to present even the most mundane of contributions in the best possible light.  Shell-shocked officers would not, probably, have responded well to having their spelling and grammar corrected, whereas contributors to the Journal are only too pleased to be able to call on the support of skilled proof-readers and editors.

Looking back over past editions of Siegfried’s Journal, I am drawn to the humorous, friendly tone of many of the articles, as well as to the scholarly nature of others.  There are not many magazines that offer such an eclectic mix.  Articles that stand out in the memory include Christian Major’s hilarious – though heavily censored - account of the memorable minibus trip to Boar’s Hill in 2008 and Freddy Rottey’s imaginative musings on his visit to the Reform Club in the same issue (gosh, what an excellent read number 15 was!)  Aunt Evelyn’s problem page arose from the fact that there are so many little snippets of information that cannot be easily fitted into an article, and the occasional obituary allows us to pay tribute to all the members who have made this such a great society, as well as others who have contributed to Sassoon scholarship.    We have, over the years, published several original poems as well as rediscovering obscure or forgotten poets and novelists, and, more recently, have been allowed the privilege of printing extracts from a remarkable PhD thesis by the late Theodore W Bogacz (by kind permission of his wife Cynthia Haggard).

I would like to think that the bi-annual publication produced by our own small editorial team bears favourable comparison with what Wilfred Owen achieved as a one-man operation.  Just as reading The Hydra makes you long to be “on the spot”,  I defy anyone to read Siegfried’s Journal without thinking either “How lucky I am to be a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship!” or “I wish I belonged to this wonderful group of kindred spirits!”

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