Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Gate of the Year

"And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

The correct name of the poem is "God Knows", and it was written by a British teacher called Minnie Louise Haskins in 1908.  The reason it is so well-known is that it was the text selected by King George VI for his Christmas radio broadcast, towards the end of 1939.  It is generally felt that it gave heart to the nation at a time of great fear and uncertainty.

The King's Christmas broadcast was a relatively new thing.  His father, King George V, had begun it in 1932; George V himself had been resisting the idea of speaking to his people through the wireless for nine years before finally giving in to the BBC's repeated requests.  Like many of his speeches, the 1932 address was written by none other than Rudyard Kipling.  The King had been nervous about the occasion, but was persuaded to continue in later years by the positive response from his audience, especially when he came to see it as a way of communicating with the furthest reaches of his Empire, an Empire in which political cracks had already begun to appear.  

"It may be that the future will lay upon us more than one stern test," said George V, prophetically.  Many in his kingdom believed that a second war with Germany was inevitable, sooner or later, but few foresaw that it was his second son, Prince Albert, then merely the Duke of York, who would be the one to make the first royal Christmas broadcast of that war.  Albert, as most people were aware, suffered from a speech impediment that made it difficult for him to perform in public, and no one could have imagined that he would be the one to make the most memorable such broadcast of the twentieth century.  

King George VI, as Albert became in 1936, was not a natural leader or a man of great intellectual gifts.  He did, however, have several things his charming older brother (the former Prince of Wales who briefly reigned as King Edward VIII) had lacked; one of these was a family.  The words were first suggested to him by his wife Elizabeth, and the poem was a favourite of hers and of her elder daughter's.  It was not written with a particular occasion in mind, and made no reference to war, yet it captured the imagination of the public, making the poem known to a global audience as well as being a morale-booster for Britain.  The King, who had given his support to Neville Chamberlain's peacemaking attempts, must have clutched gratefully at the ready-made pep talk, with Kipling having died in 1936 and no longer being available to provide such memorable lines for his use.

At New Year, I always think of those words from the 1939 speech (though of course it was long before I was born) and remember my parents and grandparents telling me how they found them an inspiration at the beginning of a long and terrible war that would cause even a military veteran like Sassoon to despair of humanity.  I have no doubt that Siegfried, traditionalist that he was, listened to the broadcast, and I cannot imagine how he felt, seeing Europe once again split apart by armed conflict. Yet I cannot help thinking that he would have been impressed by the way a few lines from a minor poet could move millions.  

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Looking forward

For many people around the world, 2014 has been a year they would rather forget.  That is true in my own case, and I know it is the same for some members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.  I am getting to an age where attendance at funerals has become a regular event.  In my immediate circle of friends, illness, infirmity and death are a frequent topic of conversation, and I have lost several friends and acquaintances this year.  For others, even the young, there are different problems - getting and keeping a job, establishing personal relationships, looking after children, and simply finding time to do things.

Before this turns into "Thought for the Day", I thought I would use this post to remind our members and friends that they are not alone.  So many friendships have been forged through the Fellowship over the years that I feel its very existence has been an active force for good as well as a way of giving enjoyment to others.  Siegfried Sassoon was a man who had many friends.  He wasn't always lovable (and he knew it), but he was, nevertheless, at the centre of a network of friendships that extended around the world even in those days when writing letters was the normal method of contact between friends; few people had access to motor cars, and international telephone calls were almost impossible.

As with other kinds of social group - sports clubs, reading groups, universities, you name it - a literary society can provide a support network for people with similar interests.  In our case, the age range, gender distribution and geographical spread may mean that the bond is less obvious to an outsider, but it is no less strong for this.  I know that many of our members have undergone personal crises in the last few years, and that several have found a route back to normality by participating in SSF events, where they are able to be themselves without the pressures of work or study and do not have to worry about being judged or compared with other individuals.  When I find myself in personal difficulty, the other members of the SSF committee are often the first I turn to outside my immediate family.

Although this is true, to an extent, of other literary societies, it makes particular sense when you consider what Siegfried himself went through in the course of his life.  As a young man, he found himself catapulted into a military environment and thence to one of the bleakest, most horrifying landscapes anyone can possibly imagine.  No one could have been prepared for entering a war zone. our knowledge of what participants in the First World War endured is not just an eye-opener for people today; it shocks and terrifies us.  This is undoubtedly one of the reasons the war is being commemorated so vigorously.

A few years after the war, Sassoon went through a period of terrible depression (as did many of his fellow soldiers, such as Richard Aldington), unable to shake off the memory of lost comrades and what he now felt had been a pointless conflict.   He was also suffering from writer’s block, a subject Neil Brand has dealt with so effectively in his play Between the Lines.  Romantic and/or physical relationships with other men failed to bring emotional fulfilment, making it difficult for him even to take pleasure in his eventual success as a prose writer.  The legacy that enabled him to purchase Heytesbury House also enabled him to afford the lifestyle he relished, but his marriage, though it brought great happiness and the son he had longed for, did not last.
In his later years, Siegfried Sassoon seems to have found what he was looking for in the Roman Catholic faith, and he certainly met his end with equanimity, if Dom Philip Jebb’s account of their last conversation is anything to go by.  Philip and his fellow monk Dom Sebastian (both of whom have been lost to us this year) bore witness that Sassoon’s conversion to Catholicism was more than a whim, and Sebastian insisted that it was the result of a mystical experience.  Perhaps it is only through such an experience that any of us can hope to achieve the belief in an after-life that makes the last years of one’s life tolerable.  We can, however, find considerable fulfilment in other activities.
It is medically proven that exercise can reduce the effects of depression, and this, I think, is where Siegfried’s early interest in sport paid dividends later in his life.   It is no accident that Wilfred Owen found him preparing for a round of golf when he went to his room to introduce himself.  Professor Alistair McCleery recounted to us, some years ago, the story of the doctors, the poets and the gardener, as evidence of how physical activity can help in this respect.  Another “natural remedy” for depression is involvement in group activities that take one’s mind off one’s troubles, and this certainly works for me when I attend literary events, forgetting myself entirely as I chat to people with similar interests.
Once again, I’m not suggesting that the SSF should be seen as some kind of self-help group, but I recognise that for many of us it is a factor in fending off the kind of negative state of mind that Sassoon so often found himself in.  The fact that we relate to him so strongly indicates that we are individuals with certain sensibilities – not better or worse than, for example, fans of Jane Austen, but with a style and character of our own, one that responds to “our” author, “our” poet, “our” Siegfried Sassoon.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


In between blogging, I came across another blog - ironically belonging to Charles Mundye, one of the speakers we've booked for next year's AGM - that more or less summarised what I had been thinking. Charles picks up on a phrase used by Patrick McGuinness, "this past business" .  He was referring to the "anniversary culture" with which we seem to be currently beset, and you can read his views on the Dylan Thomas centenary here: https://theconversation.com/remembering-dylan-thomas-our-frenzied-anniversary-culture-26081

Anniversaries are going to be the in thing for the next few years.  Perhaps people will be so glad to see the back of the First World War centenary that they will really get stuck in; alternatively, they may not want anything to do with such commemorations.  What does it actually mean, when you come to think of it?  The First World War is still what it is or was, regardless of how many years have passed since it began.

I think the reason we celebrate – or at least commemorate - centenaries is simply that a nice round number like 100 focuses our minds on the amount of time that has passed since a certain event and helps us to see it in historical perspective.  Members of my local history society have pointed out that next year, 2015, will bring opportunities to mark several significant historical events – the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, for example, and the 200thanniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  In some cases, these events had little long-term impact.  The Battle of Agincourt, for instance, which took place 600 years ago next October, was a major event in the context of the Hundred Years’ War, but it only served to stave off the inevitable outcome for a few years.  We are interested in it mainly because an army of English and Welsh men defeated the French when the odds were against them; we don’t celebrate the battle of Formigny, an equally decisive victory for the French in the same war.

Centenaries and multi-centenaries are cropping up so often these days that it is easy to miss them.  Did anyone do anything to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of French one-hit-wonder novelist Alain-Fournier in September, for example?  If so, I missed out, which is a pity, as I am a great admirer of Le Grand Meaulnes (I can’t describe it to you, you’d have to read it for yourself).  What about the 200th anniversary of the death of another, rather different, Frenchman, the Marquis de Sade?  I don’t recall hearing anything about it.  Is that also because foreigners' anniversaries are considered to be less deserving of recognition than those with direct relevance for British history?  I think it probably is.

Many of next year’s celebrations and commemorations will be of literary interest – Alun Lewis will be among those not present to see his 100th birthday celebrated, and Anthony Trollope would be 200 years old if he had not died in 1882.  The Trollope Society will of course be hosting the annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies in York next year.   The following year, it will be the turn of the Brontë Society to host the conference, in recognition of the bicentenary of the birth of the family's most illustrious member, Charlotte.

Other forthcoming literary centenaries, not surprisingly, have to do with the First World War.  We could note the 100th anniversary of the deaths of the poet Julian Grenfell and his brother Gerald.  Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley also died in 1915.  At least the lesser poet Roland Leighton, best known as the fiancé of Vera Brittain, will have the centenary of his death noticed, thanks to the new film adaptation of Testament of Youth which is to go on general release in January.

We don’t have to limit ourselves to commemorating death, though.  We could perhaps give a nod to the founding of the Welsh Guards; and our annual conference in September will be primarily concerned with Siegfried Sassoon’s career in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which he joined in 1915. It was also in May 1915 that Canadian medic John McCrae wrote his timeless poem, “In Flanders Fields”, and I think we can be certain that the museum in Ypres that bears the poem’s name will be doing something to celebrate that event - even though it's run by Belgians.