Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Controversy and Camaraderie

If there is one thing every member of the SSF is agreed on, it is this: the First World War should never have happened.  Whether one believes it could have been avoided, or that Britain could/should have stayed out of it, or that the outcome made little practical difference, one cannot but regret the loss of life and the atrocious conditions endured by soldiers and civilians alike in the course of those four horrible years.

Of course, the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship probably would not exist if the war hadn't happened.  Sassoon would not have been the man he was without his war experience.  Wilfred Owen might have remained undiscovered and lived to be ninety.  National borders would be substantially different, and perhaps the world would not be as comfortable as it is today (at least for most Europeans).  For all that, everyone wishes it could have been avoided.  The recent public debates as to whether it was a "necessary" war have aroused strong emotions, some of which came to the fore in the discussions that arose out of two excellent talks at Saturday's London meeting of SSF and Wilfred Owen Association members.

That was not the only controversy, either.  Following Guy Cuthbertson's interesting take on the dilemmas facing a biographer (as experienced in the creation of his new biography of Owen), a spirited discussion arose as to whether Wilfred was gay and, if so, whether it matters to our appreciation of either his personality or his poetry.  Vivien Whelpton, in her fascinating comparison of the lives and writings of Sassoon and his contemporary Richard Aldington (the latter being the subject of her new biography), looked in depth at the responses of the two poets to their war experiences.    

It is of course a shame that the room we use for our annual joint meeting at The Lamb is small and numbers have to be limited.  However, it would not be possible to run a "cheap and cheerful" event like this at a bigger venue (we have considered this from every angle, believe me) and I hope we will be able to continue to do so for many years to come.  This year will be the last time that Vanessa Davis, stalwart Secretary of the WOA, masterminds this event, and sadly Vanessa was ill and unable to attend in person.  Let us hope a successor will come forward who can equal her quiet competence and creativity in the 25 years she has served the WOA.  At least next year Vanessa will be able to relax and enjoy her lunch like the rest of the audience.

A pleasant moment during the proceedings was when Meg Crane rose to announce that a long-serving and loyal member of both societies, Phil Carne, has been unanimously selected by the SSF committee to receive the honour of SSF life membership.  This is quite different from being a "patron" of the Fellowship, a title reserved for those who have a strong personal or academic connection with Siegfried Sassoon.  Life membership is a status we invented as a way of recognising an outstanding contribution to the work of the SSF.  Though it does carry with it the small material benefit of not being obliged to pay an annual subscription, all four of our existing life members have put far more into the SSF than they could ever hope to recover in purely material terms.

The ever-modest Phil then drew the winning ticket in the prize draw; the prize, a book donated by Napier University, went to Jane Potter.  Coming away from the Empire Room, I felt that this was one of the most stimulating meetings we've had at The Lamb.  In terms of attracting and keeping new members, it also pays dividends.  Attend this (or any other event organised by either the SSF or WOA) and I can almost guarantee that you will be "hooked" - or so I'm told by members.

My expectations have been raised by something that happened as I was walking through the downstairs bar just before the meeting.  I was accosted by a couple who wanted to know what was going on upstairs.

"A meeting of the Wilfred Owen Association and the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship," said I.

As anticipated, they looked blank.

"First World War poetry," I added.

"Oh!" they replied.  "Sassoon!  Of course!  Sorry, we misheard."

A warm glow came over me.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Faceless Ones

This blog doesn’t go in for TV and book reviews as such.  However, I do hope that anyone who is able to receive BBC2 or use iPlayer saw the 3-part drama 37 Days which focused on the diplomatic efforts to avoid (or in some cases ensure) war in the period between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the start of the First World War.  This well-written and superbly-acted series is, to my mind, one of the best things the BBC has produced in years.

My first thought was that audience interest could not possibly be sustained through the gloomy dialogues and machinations of a few dark-suited men in wing collars and oak-panelled offices, discussing in hushed voices the complex relationships between European nations that no longer exist.  No doubt it will all have been too slow for many viewers.  It was the personalities that drew me in.  The events of the thirty-seven days leading up to war are certainly intriguing.  Most people, even at the time, will have had no idea what was going on behind the closed doors of Whitehall, and even the occupants of Whitehall could only make an educated guess at what was going on in Berlin.  Putting together a drama like this must have entailed an enormous amount of research, and much of the material must have been gleaned from memoirs as well as from official papers that were not released until many years later.  That the actions of the few affect the lives of millions is a truism, but that is what happened here.

Most people are familiar with the Churchills, Lloyd Georges and Asquiths who were at the forefront of British government activity, but these characters took a comparative back seat to Sir Edward Grey, on whose shoulders the burden of trying to avert war fell.  Grey, Britain’s longest-serving Foreign Secretary, was in his fifties at the time, a Liberal politician from an aristocratic family, educated at Winchester and Balliol (where he gained only a third-class degree).  In 1885, aged only 23, he became the youngest MP at Westminster.  His first wife died in 1906 (in a riding accident); his second, whom he would not marry until 1922, was the socialite and writer, Pamela, Lady Glenconner, mother of the war poet Edward Wyndham “Bim” Tennant and – of course – of Stephen Tennant.  Grey thus became Stephen’s stepfather; Bim was killed on the Somme in 1916.  Siegfried Sassoon met Grey after the war, through Stephen, and remarked on his "perfect simplicity and kindness".  However, if the portrayal of him in 37 Days is at all correct, Gray surely must have felt a burden of guilt left over from his misjudgements of the situation on the European continent in 1914.

Another, more obscure, personality brought to life in the TV drama was the trade unionist John Burns, a native of Battersea and one of the first working-class men to become a member of the government.  Burns, despite his history of involvement in militant industrial actions during the 1880s, was the only member of the Cabinet to resign in protest at Britain’s decision to participate in the Great War.  At the time, I am sure, most of the public would not have been in sympathy with his action, principled though it was.

Almost more interesting than the British politicians were their opposite numbers in Berlin.  Enough has been written and said about Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troubled personality to save me having to say anything about it here; but the portrayal of the emperor by German actor Rainer Sellien was riveting as well as scary.  Equally accomplished were the performances of Ludger Pistor as the sophisticated German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, and of Bernhard Schutz as fiery General Helmuth von Moltke; these two contrasting personalities, almost guaranteed never to be friends, worked together to ensure that German pride was maintained in the face of a somewhat tricky political situation.

Many of us have been sceptical about the content of some of the centenary programmes so far offered by the BBC.  Up to now, however, they have delivered several worthwhile documentaries as well as this excellent drama.  Let's just hope they can keep it up.