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.