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.