It was with great sadness that we heard of the recent deaths of two of Siegfried Sassoon’s friends, both monks at Downside Abbey in Somerset. I met Dom Philip Jebb, who passed away last weekend, on two or three occasions, when he spoke at Sassoon-related events. I only met Dom Sebastian Moore once, but it was a memorable meeting and one that has stuck with me if only because I made a film of it which I bring out and watch from time to time. Articles in past issues of Siegfried’s Journal contained material from both Philip’s and Sebastian’s memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, and will no doubt be reprinted at some future date and made available to members who are interested.
The reason I went to Downside to make a film with Dom Sebastian was not that I am some kind of Oliver Stone wannabe but because he was due to speak at our 2007 conference but had to cry off because he was going on holiday! If you are anything like me, your immediate response will be “I didn’t know monks had holidays”. Well, they do, although I gather it’s not a frequent occurrence, hence Sebastian’s reluctance to cancel. In a somewhat surreal conversation, I spoke to him on my mobile while walking round the wine section of a Sainsbury’s supermarket in London (not far from The Lamb, though I didn’t realise it at the time). Naturally, news of a minor disaster like this is always going to reach you when you are away from home and cannot easily communicate with the other party. You can just imagine my husband’s incredulity, sitting at home when a nonagenarian monk rang up to try to speak to his wife! To cut a long story short, I had managed to come up with one of my Brilliant Ideas. These usually come to me in the early hours of the morning after a sleepless night worrying about some SSF-related situation or other. I could hardly ask Dom Sebastian to cancel his holiday, so I asked him to give me an interview which I would record on video and play to the conference, and that is what we did.
It turned out much better than I had hoped. I spent an hour or so talking to Sebastian, although only 15 minutes of our conversation is recorded on film after some judicious editing. Somewhat naively, I anticipated getting nothing but the truth from a priest, so I took him at his word when he told me that he had felt daunted because he was “practically illiterate” when he first met Siegfried. I had no idea, at the time, that he actually had a double first in English Literature from Cambridge; I learned this only later when speaking to Dom Philip. I suppose that what he meant was that he felt inadequate in the presence of a famous writer like Sassoon. Yet it sounded to me as though the pupil-teacher relationship between Sassoon and himself had been just that. He told me that Siegfried never questioned any of the more difficult dogma of Roman Catholicism but simply accepted it; I daresay Dom Sebastian was very grateful for the respect shown him by his elderly pupil, but I feel equally sure that the self-effacing instructor earned his keep.
The nicest thing about my visit to Downside to see Dom Sebastian, I think, was our walk to the rock garden where he had given Siegfried much of his instruction. We closely inspected the bench in the garden which appeared to have been installed long enough ago to have been the one on which Siegfried and Sebastian sat, though it could have been a later replacement. Dom Sebastian said he did not remember for certain, giving me the impression that he had not spent a great deal of time in the garden since – and yet it was the perfect setting, and I could just picture the two of them there, side by side, with the monk hesitantly explaining the finer points of Catholic doctrine and Siegfried attempting to listen intently, his attention sometimes diverted by the beauty of the natural world around them.
The other side of Dom Sebastian was his humour. He had a very easy manner and appeared not to be put off in any way by my being female. He had lived so long that he had no need to worry about conventions or rules, and I gathered he was considered something of a rebel, in theological terms. He was of course a little forgetful about some details. The subject of Wilfred Owen came up, and I asked if he had read the biography by Dominic Hibberd, which had just come out. He thought about it for a moment then said, "It was a big book, wasn't it?" I concurred, and he said he had found it very moving. He proceeded to go into detail on the subject, and, although I had read the book, I didn't remember the content well enough to discuss it in any depth, so, like an idiot, I just copied down everything he said. It was only later, when Meg checked the text of the interview, that I discovered he had been talking about some completely different poet (possibly Geoffrey Dearmer).
As I'll be writing an obituary of Dom Sebastian for a forthcoming edition of Siegfried's Journal, I will move on to Philip Jebb. The grandson of Hilaire Belloc, he was some years younger than Dom Sebastian and still a relatively young man when he visited the terminally-ill Siegfried Sassoon in hospital in 1967. He had known Siegfried for some years (as did most of the Downside monks) through his participation in the abbey's cricket team as well as his occasional visits for religious reasons, and wrote movingly of the poet's last days in a letter to his own parents written shortly after the funeral.
I only met Philip Jebb as an elderly man, and, like Sebastian, he suffered from a little difficulty in recalling details. This led to some embarrassing moments before and during our conference at Downside in 2007. Dom Philip was responsible for the abbey's guesthouse accommodation, and one or two delegates arrived to find they had not been booked in (thankfully, no one was left out in the cold as a result). Nor would those who were present quickly forget the five minutes or so (it seemed more like an hour) at the beginning of Dom Philip's talk which was spent searching the conference room for the precious letter, which he had put down somewhere.
The most amusing incident, however, was one I was told of by Meg and Dennis after the event. A couple of years earlier, Dom Philip had been one of the speakers at a "Sassoon Day" hosted by the War Poets Association at Mells. When Dennis began talking about Mells at our annual dinner on the evening of the Downside conference, Dom Philip suddenly said, "You know, I should go and give a talk at Mells". "You did," said Meg and Dennis in unison. "Did I? When was that?" asked Dom Philip, and duly received a reminder. Demonstrating once again the monastic sense of humour, he replied, "Really? Why wasn't I told?"