I admit I was quite anxious about this year’s Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship AGM, even though it was a much smaller-scale affair than usual. It wasn’t so much the food orders (Irene kindly took that worry off my hands), the accommodation arrangements (there weren’t any) or speaker logistics (we only had one speaker). It was more to do with the possibility that, for the first time in years, the AGM might not be quorate. The last time I recall having such a concern was in 2007 at Downside.
You see, we cunningly ensure maximum attendance at our AGMs by combining them with our annual conference, which members are normally keen to attend as long as it is affordable and is held in a convenient location on a convenient date; many now keep the secondin September free in their diaries for precisely this reason. On this occasion, however, we had to make it a separate meeting because the “Arcadia, Armageddon, Aftermath” reading at Heytesbury in August affected the events calendar as well as taking its toll on the committee resource that would normally have been spent on the conference. In addition, the big war poetry conference at Wadham College, Oxford, created a clash that was impossible to get around.
So in fact we were lucky that a few extra people turned up at the last minute, ensuring that we didn’t need to worry about having a quorum. Not that it would have been the end of the world if we hadn’t been quorate. We could still have held a discussion, but, being a charity, we wouldn’t have been able to take any major decisions; anything we might have wished to do would have been subject to ratification by the requisite number of members at a later date. The purpose of a quorum is, of course, to prevent important decisions being made in secret by a small group (the committee, for example), without agreement from the general membership. Many organisations find it so difficult to get a quorum at their meetings that they end up having to amend their constitutions – which itself requires a quorum – in order to get anything done at all! Our quorum (10% of the SSF’s total membership) is a little ambitious, but we’ve managed to get thirty members or more in recent years without difficulty because our conferences have been so well-attended.
At any rate, we were able to hold the AGM without any complications this year, because there were enough people who were willing to make the trip to central London in the dank days of early autumn, to enjoy a free lecture from Dr George Simmers entitled ‘ “Too terribly beastly and nasty and corpsey”: How novelists of the nineteen-twenties represented war poets.’ Talk about well worth the trip! Even those of us who had heard part of the talk before – at the Wadham conference last month – were more than happy to revisit the subject and explore a very different angle on war poetry.
I hadn’t realised how easy Sassoon is to parody until I head George recite a poem by J B Morton, from his “Gorgeous Poetry” collection (an obvious take-off of the Georgian poetry with some soldier-poets thrown in), published in 1920. “This book is not an attack,” Morton insisted. I wonder if Siegfried laughed, or whether the events that inspired the poem were still too painful in his memory to become a source of amusement. It might be all very well for him to write something like this, for example, referring to the dramatic moment when he threw his M.C. ribbon in the River Mersey:
"...the poor little thing fell weakly on to the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility. One of my point-to-point cups would have served my purpose more satisfyingly, and they'd meant much the same to me as my Military Cross."
But was it all right for Morton to make a mockery of such things? Probably, since the parodist himself had been transferred to army intelligence, after fighting on the Somme, for the sake of his mental health. Sassoon had, after all, begun his own literary career with a parody of John Masefield’s work, only to become friendly with Masefield when they eventually met in Oxford just after the war. At any rate, I don’t think there was a single person in George’s audience who wasn’t entertained by Morton’s ditty.
I will not reveal any more about the content of George Simmers’ talk, simply because it is based on research that he has been engaged in for a long time and which is still being pursued. However, those of you who are members will have the opportunity to read more about it in a future edition of Siegfried’s Journal. I know that you will be as fascinated as the rest of us were.