Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Unawareness of Youth

"Youth excels in unawareness," wrote Siegfried Sassoon, formulating his prose memoirs from memories of the past and poring over old diaries. "It seems reasonable to ask how a mind that understood so little of itself at the time can be analysed and explained by its owner thirty years afterwards!" 

Many is the middle-aged person who has asked him or herself that question. I am shortly to attend a college reunion marking the fortieth anniversary of my arrival in Oxford as an undergraduate. It seems quite incredible that this could be possible, since, looking in the mirror, I see the same person I have always seen, albeit with more wrinkles. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to ponder on this phenomenon, but it probably explains why I have recently begun to appreciate the older Sassoon more than ever. 

When most people think of Siegfried Sassoon, they think of the young soldier, impassioned yet in control, innocent yet knowing, strong yet fragile. Perhaps I thought of him this way when I first became acquainted with his poetry. Once I had read his prose, however, I started to see him differently. I could have come away from the poetry admiring and yet without any particular urge to continue reading it. My mind would have drifted on to some other writer and the SSF would probably not have been formed in 2001, though I have no doubt that it would exist by now, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, in some form or other. 

Sassoon wrote, looking back on his younger self, that it had never occurred to him that he would be different as an old man, merely that he would be older. As the number of my aches and pains increases and I watch my parents becoming dependent on assistance from the social services, I become more and more in tune with his point of view. 

Looking back on those first weeks at university - in fact, looking back on my whole university career - I recall many incidents that make me want to cringe. Talk about green. Like Sassoon, I was brought up by a doting, protective mother, and arrived not knowing how to use a washing machine and barely able to boil an egg. My tutors were not exactly worldly women, but I imagined they must have been sometimes incredulous at the extent of my naiveté. Thankfully, they had seen thousands of girls like me in the course of their careers and felt no need to comment on it. I suppose that this was the way Helen Wirgmann saw Siegfried. "Half one's life is spent trying to understand things," she told him, "and the other half in trying to make other people understand what one has learnt." He claimed, in The Weald of Youth, that he did not understand this advice at the time. I tend to think that, even as a young man, he was more astute than he would have us believe.
I think this is why The Weald of Youth has been my favourite Sassoon work, ever since I first read it. There is something so endearing about his way of looking back on his youth, something very diffident and self-effacing and yet sharply observant. It makes me feel very close to the author – as if I had not already felt that when I began to read his poetry. It would be asking a lot of a younger person to feel the same, so it is rather curious that Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was put on the school syllabus so soon after its publication.  It is, of course, a very entertaining book.  I recall falling about with laughter when I first read the description of the Butley captain, nicknamed "Did I say myself?" for obvious reasons, and the passage in which young Sherston goes for his first solo ride, only to lose his horse, is equally amusing though also rather poignant. 
I'm guessing that there will be people reading this blog who have never read Sassoon's memoirs, which have been somewhat overlooked in recent years in favour of his war poetry.  The general public distaste for blood sports may also have contributed to a loss of popularity for the Sherston trilogy, as many see the title Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and naturally expect some kind of apologia for the practice of fox hunting.  What they would get, if they progressed past that title, would hugely exceed their expectations.

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