Sunday, 23 February 2014

Craiglockhart - Past and Present

I was very fortunate, recently, to be invited to attend a dinner at the Rivers Suite on Napier University's Craiglockhart Campus, hosted by the Vice-Chancellor.  It was the first opportunity I have had to view the War Poets Collection since it was set up in late 2005, and indeed my first visit to Craiglockhart.  Approaching after dark, it occurred to me that the facade of the "Craiglockhart Hydropathic" (just about all that is left of the original building) would have looked somewhat forbidding, had it not been for the well-lit footpath.  My instinct, naturally, was to try to enter by the front door, but this is now in use only as a fire exit, and official visitors gain access by going around what appears to be the side of the building, where a more modern but equally impressive entrance is to be found - the famous "egg".

Craiglockhart came into the possession of Napier University (then a technical college) in 1984, and the later conversion of the building to house the university's Business School was somewhat controversial.  The War Poets Collection, located in the original entrance hall, was launched shortly after Professor Alistair McCleery had been a guest speaker at a joint annual meeting of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and the Wilfred Owen Association, giving an inspiring lecture entitled "The Doctors, the Poets and the Gardener".  Those who were present will, I'm sure, recall the occasion; for those who missed it, there may be a future opportunity.  More of that later.  Suffice it to say that the SSF played a major role in supporting the exhibition, something of which we are very proud.

Archivist Catherine Walker, though now semi-retired, is devoted to the collection, which she continues to manage on a part-time basis, and was on hand to explain the exhibits to guests and to ensure they all signed the visitors' book.  Because of the limited space available for the exhibition, it is not possible to have all 600 accessioned items on display simultaneously, and the contents of the display cases is regularly rotated.  So, if you are planning to visit and want to see something in particular, do check beforehand.  You can find contact details here: http://www2.napier.ac.uk/warpoets/contact.htm 

I wrote recently about The Hydra, the internal publication briefly edited by Wilfred Owen.  Catherine tells me that only one issue of the magazine now remains unrecovered.  If any of my readers should happen to be hiding issue no 6 of the "New Series", she wants it!  In the meantime, donations of appropriate items are welcomed by the curators and will be treated lovingly and made available to those with an interest in the work and experiences of Sassoon, Owen, and other war poets.

The dinner which followed our tour of the exhibition was given by Professor Andrea Nolan, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Napier, who discussed a range of challenges and opportunities currently facing the university.  It is clear that the governing body sees the war poets' connection with Craiglockhart as a major "plus" in its attempts to raise the profile of the university and it seems to me that this building and its history are regarded with particular affection and respect.  Following Professor Nolan's introductory talk, Professor McCleery (who had "risen from his sickbed" especially to be present) gave a concise exposition of the importance of the War Poets Collection before we dined on a meal that showed off the expertise of the university's catering department to great advantage.  I was seated between Dr Graham Forbes, Chair of the University Court, and Mr Iain McIntosh, a university dean, both of whom expressed great interest in the work of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and showed considerable knowledge of the subject of war poetry. Following the meal, Lady Balfour of Burleigh (better known as historian and biographer Janet Morgan) described her own vision of how the war poets fitted into Napier's future as well as its past.

The SSF and the WOA have made a joint bid to host the 2017 annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies at Craiglockhart, as part of our recognition of the centenary of the meeting between our two poets. The intention is to use part of the Rivers Suite and adjacent lecture theatres as a venue for this conference, and there are plans for a coach to travel up to Edinburgh from London, stopping en route at Sassoon- and Owen-related occasions.  If you have four nights to spare, this could be a memorable little holiday, on a par with our unforgettable visit to Ieper in 2010.
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