Tuesday, 29 December 2015

To Our Mothers

In years to come, I will look back on 2015 as the year I lost my mother.  It is an experience most of us eventually share, an unwanted bonus of advancing age.  Yet we never quite know what to expect until it happens to us.

Theresa Sassoon died in 1947, aged 93, having lived through two world wars.  By the time of her death, she had lost one son, seen another become a literary figure of international importance, and her eldest son, Michael, was settled with a wife and children close to where she lived.  Her son Siegfried wrote that he could not face attending her funeral: "I just resolved not to indulge in feelings".  Although he was by now a father, his marriage to Hester Gatty was effectively over, but the dutiful Hester would have attended the funeral (despite past friction with her mother-in-law) had Siegfried not instructed her to stay away.

Georgiana Theresa Thornycroft was born in 1853, a member of a notably artistic family, and Siegfried's own drawings show that he had inherited a modicum of talent.  Theresa's mother and father were both sculptors, her father Thomas being best known for his statue of "Boadicea and her Daughters", which can still be seen on London's embankment, beside Westminster Bridge. Theresa's brother, Hamo Thornycroft, would become at least as well-known as his father, producing such notable works as the statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester city centre and that of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament.  Hamo had in fact obtained a commission from the wealthy Jewish Sassoon family early in his career, when he was chosen to sculpt Rachel, the older sister of Alfred - the young man who would become Theresa's husband.

Theresa was perhaps doomed by her gender not to equal her male relatives in renown, despite early success as a painter.  Had she not met and married Alfred Sassoon, eight years her junior, and had this not sparked a family split that resulted in Alfred being cut off financially from his rich relatives, her career might have been very different.  As it was, she gave birth to three sons within the space of four years.  Even with servants to deal with the humdrum domestic duties, the boys' upbringing made demands on her time.
Siegfried Sassoon’s feelings towards his mother seem to have been rather ambivalent.  He bitterly regretted the loss of his father, who left the family when Siegfried and his brothers were all under ten years old, and died when Siegfried was nine.  Effectively left without a male role model, he often turned for comfort not to his mother (who could hardly have been expected to preserve a “normal” family life while bringing up three boys without a husband) but to family friends and sometimes servants, such as Tom Richardson the groom, immortalised in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man as “Dixon”.  Anyone who has read the passage where young Siegfried returns to the house in embarrassment, after his horse runs away, will have observed the annoyance with which he receives the clucking concerns of the maids about his welfare.  Only Dixon – by his very silence - recognises the importance of allowing the child to retain his dignity.

Incidents like these convey the apparent loneliness of Sassoon’s early life as well as explaining his attitude towards his mother.  Siegfried expresses no anger over Theresa's part in his parents’ marriage break-up - she was clearly the wronged party, if there was one - yet it does sometimes appear that he resents her in some small measure and partly blames her for his father’s desertion and death, and thus for his own loneliness.  This is reflected, perhaps subconsciously, in the way he turns her into a spinster aunt in MFHM. The loss of her youngest son, Hamo, at Gallipoli, caused her to flirt with spiritualism, resulting in the incident that Robert Graves recorded for posterity in Goodbye to All That.  Despite his own sorrow at Hamo's death, Siegfried found her conduct an embarrassment. 

Nevertheless, their relationship was a close one.  There were certainly moments of conflict over the years.  Theresa was conservative and did not like it when her son took a job with the Daily Herald; she liked it even less when he considered standing as a Labour MP. Although she initially took to Siegfried's lover Stephen Tennant, she came to disapprove of the relationship, just as she had disapproved of his first lover, Gabriel Atkin.  By the 1920s, she and Siegfried had become somewhat estranged; he had begun to feel that they belonged to different worlds.  

In 1928 Sassoon produced "To My Mother", a poem dedicated to Theresa and published in a limited edition, illustrated by Stephen Tennant.  In this he recognised the "selfless duty" with which she had brought him up and cared for him even in adulthood.  Perhaps it was the re-living of childhood for his fictionalised memoir published in the same year, that had caused him to appreciate her efforts more fully.  In conversation, Siegfried affectionately called her "Ash"; the origin of the nickname would appear to be a supposed resemblance to a cleaning lady called Mrs Ash, once employed by the family. 

Some of her letters to Siegfried are held by Cambridge University Library and images can be seen on-line: https://specialcollections.blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=5533 

After Theresa's death, her son was once more able to recognise her best qualities, commenting that "Somehow she seems nearer to me than before she died."  This strikes a chord with me in my present situation and others have made similar observations.  When someone close to us becomes ill and too old to enjoy life, their death can come as a relief and perhaps even free us from feelings of obligation, guilt and shame that may have been troubling us for years.  We gradually learn to remember them as they really were, and to view their imperfections, such as they were, in realistic proportion. 

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A Delicate and Sensitive Nature

While leafing through Rupert Hart-Davis's edition of Siegfried Sassoon's letter for the years 1923-1925, I came across an entry that reproduces a letter Siegfried had received from Delphine Turner.  It concerns the conduct of her husband Walter.
Siegfried had been sharing a house with the Turners at Tufton Street in Westminster, but was not happy with the arrangement.  Although he had been very friendly with Walter Turner at one time, living in close proximity to the couple had proved difficult (as indeed often happens when friends try to share accommodation, however fond they may be of one another).  Siegfried had become particularly fond of Delphine, as is evident from the diary entry, where he mentions how much he appreciates her "direct and honest" approach.
Those of us who know a little about Siegfried himself may suspect that there was another side to him, a side that did not always want others to be honest and direct, because he was - as Delphine puts it in the letter - of a "delicate and sensitive nature".  Appealing to his kindness of heart (which she had cause to value, since without his assistance she and her husband might have been homeless), she suggests that Walter is going through a "period of apparent disintegration", and that she expects Siegfried to remember his friend's good side when he misbehaves, just as she is forced to do herself.  Delphine admits that she has considered leaving Turner, something that would have been very difficult for a woman of her time if she wished to continue to live in polite society, but stays because of an awareness of his finer qualities.
The blame for Siegfried's falling out with Walter Turner is put squarely on the shoulders of - who else? - Robert Graves, a mutual friend.  Siegfried had recognised, almost as soon as he met Graves during the war, that he was a difficult man who tended to make himself disliked.  Delphine suggests that Graves had deliberately tried to break up the friendship between Siegfried and the Turners by repeating, out of context, remarks made by her husband.  Among other things, Turner had accused Siegfried of meanness and said that he found his company annoying.
Siegfried received the letter on the day before his 39th birthday.  He was travelling in the West Country, and had just visited his great friends Thomas and Florence Hardy. The time spent in their welcoming company may have shown up, by contrast, his discomfort with the Turners.  Nevertheless, he wrote back to Delphine, promising to try to put his quarrel with Walter Turner behind him.
It was not to be.  On his return to London, Siegfried heard another third-hand account of unkind things Turner was supposed to have said about him, this time from Robert Ross's old landlady Nellie Burton.  Between them, Nellie and Ottoline Morrell (who was already upset by Turner's behaviour towards her personally) persuaded them to look at other accommodation.  Eventually he took rooms at 23 Campden Hill Square, a house once owned by Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her family, and often visited by J M Barrie.  Siegfried was embarking on a happier time of life, at the root of which was a fulfilling relationship with the young actor Glen Byam Shaw.  I believe his only regret, as he left Tufton Street, was having to say goodbye to his beloved Delphine.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

French Leave

The expression "to take French leave" is no longer widely used. It was first recorded in the 18th century and essentially refers to the habit of leaving without saying that one is going.  As a social behaviour, it might be regarded as rude (leaving a party without thanking the host) or alternatively as polite (leaving a party without disturbing the host).  It's clear, however, that the origin of the term is military, and therefore hardly surprising that the French use the equivalent term "filer a l'Anglaise", i.e. they take "English" leave.
I've been on leave from this blog, and I suppose it was French leave in a sense, as I didn't announce to the world that I was going anywhere - I try not to do that when I'm going on holiday, for obvious reasons.  I just annoy people with my holiday photos when I get home.  If you want to see those, they are viewable on Facebook if you are one of my "friends", as many of you are.  You might also notice that I've changed my profile picture and overlaid it with the French flag, as many of my friends have done. 
I don't know if Siegfried would have taken such an action.  I often wonder what he would have thought of Facebook and other social media (incidentally, a novelty publication entitled The History of the World through Twitter includes a section in which Sassoon and Wilfred Owen have a playful argument with Rupert Brooke - I didn't find it very funny but others might).  Owen was, to my mind, more the kind of person that might have done so, particularly in view of his pre-war residence at  Bordeaux and Bagnères-de-Bigorre.  His knowledge of the French nation and its language must surely have been far superior to Siegfried's.

Siegfried Sassoon knew all about patriotism, and I'm sure could understand the feelings of French people on being invaded and defeated by the Germans, but he might not have had the same degree of empathy with them that Owen would have done.  Despite his anger at the death of David Thomas and his willingness to take part in wild raids on the German trenches, he seems in general to have felt almost as much sympathy for the enemy as he did for his own side.  Many have referred to him as "the quintessential English gentleman", but that might carry with it implications of blinkered obedience to popular national sentiment that would be quite unjustified.

To the best of my knowledge, Siegfried had never been to France before he arrived at Boulogne in November 1915; I do not think he had been outside Britain, and thus his awareness of the world beyond his native land was limited, certainly by comparison with men like Owen, Charles Sorley, and Richard Aldington, all of whom had lived abroad prior to their enlistment.  In that sense, and perhaps in many others, Sassoon was an innocent.

The same would have been true of most of his fellow soldiers, probably even including the junior officers.  Very few would have been outside the British Isles before.  Television was decades in the future and cinema images were still monochrome; even books rarely contained coloured photographs. I cannot help wondering what he made of it.  As the troop ship pulled into the quay, was his eye caught (like mine, the first time I ever went to France) by the tall, narrow houses, so different in style from what he had left behind in Britain?
Always a nature lover, Sassoon would quickly have fallen in love with the French countryside.  He had been all over England and seen various landscapes, and he would surely have appreciated northern France just as much.  The evidence that he felt this way is to be found in a little-known poem, "France", which would be published in his collection, The Old Huntsman, in 1917.  It is written in a traditional vein.  Though not without merit, it is not one of his best known, and for fairly obvious reasons, as it appears – up to a point – to glorify the soldier’s role.  Siegfried seems to be saying that the country, with its “radiant forests” and “gleaming landscapes”, is well worth fighting for.  At this moment, I am certain that many French people feel exactly the same.  Was France, for the poet, just a hook on which to hang a poem?  I’m not sure whether, in his mind, it represents a mother land, whose defence is a good reason for its people to be prepared to go to war, or just a place Siegfried felt was beautiful and deserved to be saved.

At the weekend I heard a lot about France at the Wilfred Owen Association's AGM.  As most of you reading this will be aware, there is a thriving French organisation, based in Ors where Owen is buried, dedicated to preserving his memory.  The Forester's House in Le Pommereuil, where he wrote his last letter to his mother, is a tourist attraction.  Both Owen and Sassoon seem to have felt that France was a land worth fighting to save, and I have no doubt that both would at this moment be experiencing a deep sadness about recent events in Paris.  Whether either of them would have believed that bombing Syria was an answer, I am less certain.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Can a Poet be a Nice Person?

This was the question I found myself asking after I’d watched two documentaries last week.  One was about Ted Hughes, famously married to Sylvia Plath who then famously committed suicide.  Not so many people know that the “other woman” in the case, having had Hughes’s child, then also killed herself (and the child), apparently because of his indifference to her.  Feminists have long blamed Hughes for both suicides, but Frieda, his daughter by Plath, doesn’t seem to.  She remembers him as a good and loving father, who has inspired her to write poetry of her own.  Hughes himself seems to have been haunted, to his dying day, by the mistakes he made in his relationships.  

I subsequently watched Return to Larkinland, in which A N Wilson analysed Philip Larkin’s attitudes to women.  I once actually met one of the women in Larkin’s life, Maeve Brennan, who was a member of the Barbara Pym Society prior to her death, though at that time I was blissfully ignorant of the details of her affair with Larkin.  Listening to Wilson’s analysis, it was a wonder Larkin ever formed any kind of sexual relationship, what with his ambivalent attitude to his own parents and his generally misanthropic nature.  It was sad to hear that Wilson, having known Larkin personally and liked him, became disenchanted when, following his death, the content of the poet’s diaries became public and it was found he held certain far-right views (though the wisdom of age has brought him to a better understanding now).  What troubles me, and I think most readers, about this is the idea that a writer can produce sensitive and moving work whilst at the same time being quite obnoxious in real life.  Oscar Wilde famously said of George Bernard Shaw: “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.”  Presumably Wilde considered himself a friend.

I thought further about this when I attended a talk by publisher Cary Archard on the subject of Alun Lewis’s life and work.  Cary laid emphasis on Lewis’s “likeability” as a person, but it was noticeable that he chose to exclude personal relationships from his analysis, despite the recent publicity, in Lewis’s centenary year, about his affair with Freda Ackroyd.  When I asked him why, he explained that he felt there had been too much concentration on the subject and that it was not relevant to Lewis’s poetry.  Admittedly, Lewis did not meet Freda until 1943, when he had already produced his best work.  But what about Lewis’s wife Gweno, whom he married in 1939?  What about his earlier, unfulfilled relationship with the poet Lynnette Roberts, which certainly provided Roberts with poetic inspiration even if it didn’t have the same effect on Lewis?

Ted Hughes seems to have needed a “muse” to get him going. Yet Philip Larkin’s inspiration dried up late in life, when he was seeing three women simultaneously. Siegfried Sassoon did not begin to produce great poetry until he began to accept his sexuality, and David Thomas was certainly a catalyst, one way or another.  Of course, sex is not the only way in which a poet can stray from the moral path.  Byron is, perhaps, one of the most obvious examples.  He was horrible to his wife and mistresses alike (Lady Caroline Lamb famously described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”), yet there was something that attracted them to him.  His love for his illegitimate daughter Allegra is well-known, though he appears to have had little interest in the rest of his progeny.

Browsing the web in search of further examples, I came across – believe it or not – a list of ten poets considered by the webmaster as mad, bad and/or dangerous to know, in order of their badness.  Tenth on the list came Franҫois Villon, the 16th century French thief and murderer who remains one of France’s most notable poets.  Byron himself only comes in at number six.  So who is top?  Naturally it’s not an Englishman.  Italian Fascist poet Prince Gabriele D’Annunzio takes the title, partly for his political views but also for his propensity towards cannibalism and insistence on his housekeeper providing him with sex three times a day.  Unfortunately I don’t have enough Italian to judge the quality of d’Annunzio’s verse, but it would seem his fellow-countrymen still hold his literary output in some regard.

Other poets on the list include Swinburne, Shelley, Baudelaire, Pushkin and the Earl of Rochester.  Whatever we may think of their private goings-on, they certainly produced some good poetry.  Indeed, I find that it is very difficult to locate a prominent poet who didn’t have, at the very least, a tangled love life.  Even Thomas Hardy, that grand old man beloved of all who knew him, is alleged to have treated both his wives badly. Nevertheless, judging by the devotion he inspired among his contemporaries, Hardy must have been “nice”, at least to one’s face.

The most obviously less-than-nice of the war poets is possibly Robert Graves.  Even while writing of their friendship in the trenches, Siegfried Sassoon noted that Graves was much disliked by his fellow-officers, and he doesn't seem to have improved with age.  His ménage à trois with his wife Nancy and the American "poet" Laura Riding didn't keep any of them happy.  He was condescending to other poets, appointing himself Owen's prime critic, and taking Siegfried's traumatic personal experiences to use as fodder for his own memoirs.  Even the magnanimous Edmund Blunden (himself no stranger to marital break-ups) was offended by his conduct.  In the event, Graves's personality has not made his poetry and prose any less popular.

I'd contend that poets and other writers are, on the whole, no worse than the general public.  Divorce is rife these days, but even when it was rare, marital discord was no less common.  Looking at the non-literary world, it is difficult to find a marriage or relationship that hasn’t had its problems, sometimes critical, sometimes less disruptive.  However much affection Siegfried may have inspired in his friends, he was quite capable of unkind or anti-social behaviour.  I wonder how much decent poetry he would have produced if he had been a saint.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

On Wenlock Edge

In my previous blog, I perhaps neglected to mention that, when Siegfried Sassoon drove from Ludlow to the “Hydro” at Church Stretton, he did so by way of Wenlock Edge, a section of the Shropshire landscape made famous by A E Housman in his 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad.  Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney were among those inspired to write music by these poems, which gradually came to be regarded as a prophesy of the disruption of the rural way of life by the effects of the First World War.
Nowadays, the Edge is designated a site of special scientific interest for its limestone outcrops, whilst remaining a popular route for walkers.  Neither of the two best-known hills in the area (sometimes known as Little Switzerland), the Long Mynd and the Wrekin, is actually part of Wenlock Edge.  Although quite different from Sassoon’s beloved Weald of Kent, we can immediately see the appeal of this rolling - and sometimes rather pointy - countryside for him, and no doubt he also enjoyed pushing his little car to its mechanical limits on the quiet rural roads.  Automotive performance would seem to have improved little since 1924, however; on arrival at Lichfield he boasts in his diary of having done 200 miles on four gallons of petrol. Perhaps this is because cars in the 1920s, although capable of high speeds, were not really built for them, and the roads in Shropshire certainly would not have lent themselves to fast driving.
What associations Wenlock Edge may have had for Sassoon are not entirely clear from his diary entries. “Went across Wenlock Edge by Roman Bank to Church Stretton” is about all he tells us of the journey. Housman himself is mentioned three times in the published diaries for 1921-25, but never with any clue as to what Sassoon thought of his verse. However, we know that (in addition to Lionel Johnson's Essays, which brought him Robert Graves' friendship), he had taken a copy of A Shropshire Lad to the trenches with him. Housman was one of the poets Sassoon approached when he was planning the birthday tribute to Thomas Hardy in 1919. Although his best-known work was twenty years in the past, Housman was still very active as a lecturer, and was one of the names Sassoon's agent complained were dominating the post-war speaker circuit. In 1933, he would publish his lecture on the subject of "The Name and Nature of Poetry", which struck a chord with Siegfried; they shared the view that poetry should appeal to the emotions. There are already signs of Housman's influence in many of the war poems. Whether Housman had any admiration for Sassoon's work is less certain, since he wrote to an associate in 1931, complaining that Heinemann wanted to print one of his poems in "a wretched selection containing, for instance, six pieces of Sassoon's".
Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was a native of Worcestershire, studied Classics at Oxford, and worked at the Patent Office in London.  Like Sassoon, he failed to complete his degree course, though he was undoubtedly more academically-inclined and spent the last 25 years of his life as a Cambridge professor.  Also like Sassoon, Housman had homosexual proclivities, and became very attached to a fellow-student at Oxford who, sadly, did not return his feelings.  The book that made him famous, A Shropshire Lad, was written while he lived in London, and published privately after Housman had failed to interest a publisher; this was another experience he shared with Sassoon.  
Yet the selection of Shropshire as a setting for his great work seems almost accidental.   The evocative phrases “blue remembered hills” and “land of lost content” both originate from Housman’s poems, but, although his ashes are buried at Ludlow, he spent little time in the county, and once confessed that the settings for the poems were “not exactly a real place”.  The hills of southern Shropshire, neighbouring his home county, evidently held some fascination for him. Perhaps precisely because they were not his home, they provoked a longing that could not be satisfied, a kind of Shangri-La that could never be achieved.

The A E Housman Society has been going for 43 years. This is not surprising, given the continued popularity and apparently timeless appeal of A Shropshire Lad. Long may it continue.

Friday, 25 September 2015

At the Hydro

Serendipity is perhaps not quite the word for it, but whenever I go on a “road trip”, I always seem to collide with some obscure fact about Siegfried Sassoon, some place where he has been or stayed or that is associated with one of his many friends and associates.  Sassoon himself was a great one for road trips.  He seems to have enjoyed travelling for the sake of it.  Thus, though he would usually make the journey specifically in order to visit a friend or see a specific sight, he would stop off en route to admire the countryside.  The list of hotels in the UK where he stayed for one or two nights is long, and I have often considered taking a little trip of my own to re-trace his steps.  Maybe when I retire…

At our recent Wrexham conference, a member suggested that we should consider holding a future event at the Longmynd Hotel in Church Stretton, where Siegfried spent a night in September 1924.  As it was on my way home, I called in the following morning to try to discover what might have appealed to him about this small town in Shropshire.  I could imagine that the centre of the town might not have changed that much since the 1920s, and old photographs would seem to confirm this.  Church Stretton still has many quaint old shops and buildings.  The hotel, which I finally located at the summit of a long and winding road, clearly dates from the early 20th century and was in fact built as a "Hydro".   In a previous blog post, I mistakenly said that the hotel where he stayed was no longer a hotel, but it is only the name that has changed.   In 1924, it still went by the name of the Hydropathic Hotel.  Siegfried's diary calls it simply "The Hotel".

Siegfried reached Church Stretton after driving from Ross-on-Wye, where he had spent the previous night. Earlier in the day he had been in Hereford listening to music at the cathedral, where he just missed Sir Adrian Boult. From there he went on to Ludlow.  At the famous 17th century Feathers Hotel, where he lunched, he found he had just missed Lady Ottoline Morrell. From Ludlow, it was a short journey of about 18 miles to Church Stretton, and he was there in time for tea.

He records in his diary that the hotel brought back bitter-sweet memories of happier times.  He had stayed there almost a decade earlier, when visiting the area with some companions from his regiment, the RWF. The diary claims that he cannot recollect whether one of these was David Thomas, or possibly Bobbie Hanmer.  At one time Siegfried felt tenderness towards Bobbie of the same sort he felt towards David, but it nevertheless seems odd that he would confuse the two.

There are several factors that may help to explain this episode of forgetfulness.  Siegfried had been mentally ill during the last stages of the First World War - not in the same way that Ivor Gurney (for example) was mentally ill, but nevertheless quite enough for it to have affected his memory.  His diary jogged his memory about a number of things, but perhaps he had never recorded the previous visit in writing.  In 1915 he had not long met "Tommy", the man who would become so important to him. As he comments, "Strange to think that on that day I knew so few of my present circle of friends."   On the surface, it seems more likely that it was indeed David Thomas who had been with him, rather than Bobbie Hanmer; he had been acquainted with the latter for longer, though more superficially, and one would think he would have remembered more clearly if he had been one of the party.  Of the two, however, it was David who was shipped out to France at the same time as Siegfried later in 1915, and who became much closer to him.  Could it be that David and Bobbie were both members of that earlier party?

Siegfried also records in his diary that he went for a walk up the hill after tea.  No doubt he went as far as the recently-erected war memorial towards the top of the hill, in the form of a Celtic cross, the sight of which would have opened up further sores, unpleasant memories from his military career.  On returning to the hotel, he had dinner, accompanied by half a bottle of German wine, and had a quiet evening alone.

From Church Stretton he would make an even shorter drive to his next stop, Shrewsbury, where he made a point of not visiting Wilfred Owen’s mother Susan.  He was feeling "unsociable" - a state not uncommon in Siegfried, despite the wide circle of friends he could boast.  That night he would bed down at the George Hotel in Lichfield, a city where I once spent a very pleasant literary weekend, courtesy of the Samuel Johnson Society.  Siegfried commented that "the Midlands feel friendly after the Welsh hills", a rather curious comment coming from a reserved Englishman.  Consistency was never his strong point.

Disappointingly, when I reached the entrance to the Longmynd Hotel, I found a notice on the door that pronounced, somewhat apologetically, that "The hotel is no longer open to non-residents".  I went inside anyway, and found no one in the reception area to tell me to get out, but there was nothing much to see.   Perhaps, like Siegfried, the present management were feeling unsociable.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Where two or three are gathered together...

The Wrexham conference has been in the planning for some time, so it was a great disappointment to me when I realised the numbers were way down on our last conference in Cardiff.  There seems to have been no single specific reason for this.  Some people found the location “remote”, yet we have plenty of members in the north-west, Wales and the Midlands who theoretically should have found it easier than travelling to the south-east or south-west.  For whatever reason, no new faces appeared, unless you count our two wonderful speakers, Charles Mundye and Jonathan Hicks, both of them established members of the Fellowship. 

A returning “old” face, if he’ll forgive me, is Graham Lampard, who was a member of the SSF committee for some years in the early history of the Fellowship and is now back on board, taking the place vacated by Phil Carradice.  So once more we have a full committee, standing to attention in the service of our members, ready to do battle with ignorance, apathy, and anything else that may stand in the way of our continued success as a literary society.

The venue, Wrexham Museum, is very convenient and well-appointed.  As luck would have it, they were putting on an exhibition about local breweries in the courtyard outside, which led to several members of the committee spending most of their lunch break sampling alcoholic beverages – including the famous Wrexham Lager, first brewed in 1881 by German immigrants, discontinued in 2000, and now available again as a result of the construction of a new factory in 2011.  The drink was popular enough to be stocked on board HMS Titanic in 1912.  Sad to say, during the First World War, the brewery’s German head brewer was interned as an enemy alien, and sales were adversely affected by anti-German prejudice.  I can’t help wondering whether Siegfried, with his German name, ever tried it.

The RWF was an incubator for a number of well-known First World War poets and writers, including Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones and Hedd Wyn.  You can read more about the regiment and its literary heritage in Phil Carradice’s blog post on the subject here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/entries/3d274d6c-ddc8-3c3c-a7a0-273879f69180

Additional light was thrown on “that astonishing infantry” (to quote Napier’s History of the Peninsular War) by Jonathan Hicks’s account of the Welsh at Mametz Wood, an action in which Siegfried Sassoon was directly involved.  Jonathan’s gripping illustrated talk had the audience on the edge of its collective seat, particularly when he produced a few impressive props.  Charles Mundye, President of the Robert Graves Society, followed up with an account of the friendship formed between Graves and Sassoon when they met as junior officers in the RWF and how they briefly collaborated on Graves’ proposed collection entitled The Patchwork Flag, which was never published although some of the constituent poems were.  I subsequently came across Charles's podcast about Graves on the web, which is well worth listening to: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/your-lips-my-life-hung-robert-graves-and-war

Graves undoubtedly influenced Sassoon in his poetic direction and helped him find his true “voice”, but he has never been popular with Sassoonites.  The two men fell out as a result of the publication of Graves’ war memoir Goodbye to All That in 1929; things were never the same between them after that, and Graves is regarded by some as an insensitive egotist as well as an unreliable witness.  When curator Karen Murdoch brought out her boxes of Sassoon-related papers after the tea break, however, conference delegates were able to view and handle historic documents, including letters by Graves himself, J C Dunn and Edmund Blunden, as well as officers’ handbooks issued to Sassoon, in some of which he had doodled, drawn sketches, or written additional comments in pencil.  No one minded that he'd had no emotional attachment to these books; the mere fact that they had been carried around in his pockets seemed to bring us closer to him.

After-dinner entertainment has become a tradition in recent years, and this year we were lucky to have as a guest another Oxford academic, the distinguished poet and writer Patrick McGuinness, who kindly read to us from his collection Other People’s Countries.  Lowering the tone somewhat, this year’s “producer”, our Vice-Chair Christian Major, rehearsed a small group of gentlemen in an extract from Goodbye to All That, featuring Bev Steele as the hapless Private 99 Davies, caught red-handed causing a “public nuisance” while off-duty in Wrexham.  Colonel Major dealt out justice with assistance from Sgt-Major Gray, Sergeant Timmins/Clinch and Corporal Jones/Lampard, as well as prisoner’s escort Adrian Wells, and the result was laughter.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Bloomsbury in the Bathroom

The Bloomsbury group seem to be a popular subject at the moment.  No sooner had they featured in Victoria Coren’s series on Bohemianism (see my post from last month) than Vivien Whelpton was taking a group of Sassoon and Owen enthusiasts on a walk around that district of London, pointing out such sights as the location of the Poetry Bookshop.  Next thing you know, the BBC is showing a dramatisation of the careers of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell; perhaps this is not such a coincidence, “themes” being the broadcasting corporation’s latest big thing.

Then, purely by chance, Strange Meetings comes to the top of my bedside book pile and I find myself re-reading Harry Ricketts’ account of the historic encounter between Sassoon and Rupert Brooke at Eddie Marsh’s flat in Raymond Buildings.  The SSF has visited Raymond Buildings twice, but never been able to gain access (people must have thought we were bonkers, standing in such an unprepossessing side street reading poetry out loud).   Vivien’s group did somehow manage to get onto the premises, though I get the impression there was nothing particularly inspiring to be found within the walls; one would have to work hard to reproduce the atmosphere of those heady days, a century ago, when Brooke and his literary friends frequented the area.

Brooke was well-acquainted with Virginia Woolf, so much so that he once invited her to come skinny-dipping with him.  If Life in Squares is anything to go by, this was a bit of a trend for the family; Vanessa Bell was shown sharing the bathroom with her husband’s gay friend, the artist Duncan Grant, who later became her lover.  Brooke, despite – or perhaps because of – his angelic appearance, had relationships with many women (and some men) before his untimely death.  Like most of the writers who were part of the Bloomsbury Group, he also had a nice line in satire.  Having felt out of his depth in the discussion at Marsh’s breakfast, Sassoon went to the zoo and got an equally cool reception from the chimpanzees, which he then recorded in a poem that attempted to emulate Brooke’s style.
For the benefit of anyone who may have had as much difficulty as I did following the early scenes of Life in Squares, Vanessa and Virginia were the daughters of Sir Leslie Stephen, who, besides being a writer and critic, was an accomplished mountaineer.  In addition, he was an Anglican clergyman with "strong opinions" (as Virginia put it), who believed in long walks and “muscular Christianity”.  In addition, he had two sons.  The older of these, Thoby, became the head of the family when Sir Leslie died, and is shown encouraging his sisters to follow their natural instincts now that their father is out of the way.  The younger brother, Adrian, shared in the Thursday night gatherings that formed the basis of the Bloomsbury Group, and had a homosexual relationship with Duncan Grant, whom he introduced into the gathering.  Great things were expected of Thoby Stephen, who shocked everyone by dying of typhoid, aged 26, and never fulfilling his promise.

You will already have gathered that the web of inter-relationships, both intellectual and sexual, is extremely complicated.  Bloomsbury must have been a little like Coronation Street, with every cast member at some stage becoming involved with every other cast member.  I think, however, that the general public has greater difficulty feeling any empathy with the Bloomsberries than it does with the fictional characters of popular soap operas.  George Simmers has already picked up on a lot of this in his blog so I need not elaborate further.

Naturally, the most interesting thing about the Bloomsbury Group, from my point of view, is their tenuous connection with Siegfried Sassoon, achieved partly through the activities of Lady Ottoline Morrell, who generously gave “jobs” on her estate to men like Duncan Grant and Clive Bell (Vanessa's husband) during World War I to save them from having to take the punishments handed out to other conscientious objectors. Ottoline, incidentally, is alleged to have tried to lure Grant to come nude bathing with her in a Garsington fishpond.

Siegfried Sassoon would become a friend of several other members of the Bloomsbury Group, including E M Forster and John Maynard Keynes; most had, like him, been undergraduates at Cambridge.  Sassoon was not, however, a man who would ever have accepted a labouring job (which would have been a piece of cake for someone of his physical attributes) rather than facing the music.  We can be thankful that he chose to make his protest against the war in other ways.

Siegfried also knew Lytton Strachey and another "Bloomsberry", the critic Desmond McCarthy, well.  He claimed that Strachey’s intellect and gentility made him feel inferior, like “a beefy young rowing blue”.  Was this the reason he did not become a member of the group?  I think not; they were a well-established clique, together since 1905 and not open to new members (apart from relatives) by the time Siegfried came into close contact with them.  Nevertheless, his sense of inferiority must have acted to prevent him getting onto intimate terms with the group as a whole, as shown by his reluctance to accept a dinner invitation from Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1923 because he feared a “rarified intellectual atmosphere”; he was greatly relieved to find himself taken into their fold – though Virginia’s affection for him seems to have been tempered with a lack of understanding of his character and experiences.  In this, no doubt, she resembled many people, especially women, who had had little or no direct contact with the reality of war.  Although herself a Modernist, she sympathised with his dislike of T S Eliot, but thought him behind the times, as did the Sitwells, with whom he had been friendly for some years.

Sassoon's relationship with the  Woolf family, however, continues through Cecil Woolf, his wife Jean Moorcroft Wilson, and their “War Poets” series of monographs as well as through Dr Wilson’s magnificent two-volume biography of Sassoon.  

Friday, 24 July 2015

High Society

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may be expecting this post to be about cricket, since you would be aware that the annual match between Matfield Cricket Club and Sherston's XI took place last weekend.  Much as I enjoy watching cricket, something even more interesting happened to me on my way down to Kent.  

Polesden Lacey, near Dorking, although it belongs to the National Trust, is not a particularly old house by British standards.  It was built in the early years of the twentieth century, on the site of an older house, and soon afterwards sold to a society couple, the Grevilles, who moved in the very best circles.  Following her husband’s untimely death (though of course after a seemly period of mourning), Mrs Greville continued to entertain on a lavish scale.  Her visitors included King Edward VII and later his grandson, the Duke of York (who would become King George VI); the latter spent part of his honeymoon at Polesden Lacey.

As I looked around the photographs of Mrs Greville with some of her eminent friends, my eye was caught by a guest list that included the name “Arthur Sassoon”.  This is not really surprising; Arthur, a paternal uncle of Siegfried’s, was a wealthy banker who became a close associate of Edward VII.  He and his equally notable wife Louise lived in Brighton, where the King would sometimes stay while visiting his mistress, Mrs Keppel.  When Arthur died childless in 1912, he left over half a million pounds to the children of his brother Reuben. (Siegfried, son of his disgraced brother Alfred, got nothing.)

You may be thinking that this is not a very exciting discovery; what interested me was that the National Trust guide told me that Siegfried himself also visited Polesden Lacey.  Unfortunately the visitors’ books are not on open access, though I believe they are available to bona fide researchers, so I could not confirm what year his visit took place, or whether he was there more than once.  The connection appears to be through Osbert Sitwell, a regular visitor who was a close friend of Mrs Greville’s.  He was also, of course, a friend of Siegfried’s, though they fell out regularly.

What this discovery did was simply to confirm my impression that Siegfried got everywhere.  He probably never regarded himself as a member of “Society” – or if he did, with his personal preference for solitude and privacy, he would not have regarded it as being of prime importance. I can just picture him, in the “Gold Room” where Mrs Greville did most of her entertaining, surrounded by braying upper-class voices and perhaps feeling rather out of it at times.  Yet he would have enjoyed the feeling of acceptance that he got from such occasions.  No doubt he was introduced to the assembled company as "the famous war poet" or perhaps, if it was after 1928, as the author of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.

Another member of the RWF who was familiar with Polesden Lacey was a chaplain, Maurice Berkeley Peel (a grandson of Sir Robert Peel).  Maurice was almost in his fifties when he volunteered at the outbreak of war.  After a period spent recuperating at Polesden (then in use as a convalescent home) from a wound received at Festubert, Peel returned to civilian life as vicar of Tamworth from 1915 to 1917, with a Military Cross to his name for accompanying his men over the top and working to help the wounded.  He could not rest on his laurels and went out again to France with the RWF, where he was again decorated, the citation reading: "He went out to the advanced patrols with two stretcher-bearers and succeeded in bringing in several wounded men.  Later he worked for 36 hours in front of the captured position and rescued many wounded under very heavy fire."  Finally, in May 1917, Peel was shot dead while again working with the wounded in No Man’s Land.

So many great houses were used during the war as hospitals or homes for the wounded or needy.  The pattern would be repeated in the Second World War, when Siegfried's own home at Heytesbury House would open its doors, first to evacuees and later to American troops.  

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Tours, Tanks and Trotter

Another Western Front Association War Poets Tour has come and gone, leaving one small band of enthusiasts suffering serious withdrawal symptoms.  It is, however, very satisfying to note that Siegfried Sassoon is the only poet who has been prominently featured on each of the first four tours, largely as a result of the variety of his military experience and the extent of his geographical travels – but also, I think, because of the quality of his work and his versatility as a poet and prose writer.  So perhaps no coincidence that, for the first time, the majority of passengers on the tour were members of the SSF.

Siegfried, despite his looks, talent and achievements (and most of the female contingent agreed he was the best-looking of the six poets on the cover of this year’s accompanying booklet, with Richard Aldington coming in second), was always vulnerable to self-doubt; he paints a picture of himself as a soldier which is appealing in its modesty.  This is just one of the many secrets of his success.  But of course, it wasn’t all about Siegfried.  Graves, Aldington and Gurney all had a major role this year, and we also focused our attention on some lesser-known poets, such as 26-year-old Bernard Freeman Trotter, a graduate of Canada’s McMaster University and author of the touching “Ici Repose”. 

The tour was more sparsely attended than usual, which was a shame but possibly due to the fact that it covered some of the lesser-known actions of the war, including Loos and Cambrai - the latter, of course, known mainly as the battle where the British forces made their first effective use of tanks.  Anyone who did not book just because they hadn't heard of these actions would have to be uninterested in the literature of the war, as the visits to some of the more obscure battlefields and cemeteries not only protected us from the annoyance often caused by other large groups of tourists but also exposed us to some truly inspiring poetry – and prose - from a large range of writers.  They also missed a two-night stay at one of the best hotels on the Western Front, the Hotel Béatus at Cambrai, with its wonderful gardens, comfortable rooms, friendly staff and excellent restaurant.  And as you can see from the photo, the weather was lovely.

On the third night, unfortunately, we had to move to Lensotel, but were pleasantly surprised that such a large hotel in such an uninspiring location could provide such good service.  For those who do not know the area, Lens is situated in the midst of the coal-mining region of northern France, a district now suffering as much from post-industrial deprivation as most of the traditional coal-mining areas of the UK (though they have been given a branch of the Louvre to try and make up for it).  Imagine fighting in such a landscape, using industrial landmarks such as the (now departed) Cuinchy brickstacks as an impromptu trench system.

Yet the best thing about the tours is not the selection of visits, or the high standard of guiding, or even the poetry.  It’s the chance to get together with people who are interested in the same things and whom we’ve come to regard, over the years, as friends.  In this year’s group, there were only three passengers who hadn’t been with us in previous years and I think they would agree that they had no difficulty fitting into the established core of enthusiasts.  This may be partly because we are a cross-section of Western Front Association members and SSF members, so everyone has an existing connection.  No longer do the military-minded group and the literary-minded group eye one another in a guarded fashion across the restaurant tables; those who were not truly interested in war poetry have long since fallen by the wayside.  

Now we are as one, and for this we can thank Vivien Whelpton and Clive Harris and the symbiotic relationship they have developed.  With encouragement from Viv, we do not hesitate to argue the case for our favourite poets.  So what if we disagree on the merits of E A Mackintosh's "verse", or whether Sassoon is better-looking than Aldington?  Healthy debate helps us learn from one another.  Even the redoubtable John Richardson was keen to admit that he has come round to admiring Jean Moorcroft Wilson as a biographer - and as usual, John's war poetry quiz was much anticipated and hotly contested.

Originally there was to be a series of only five War Poets tours, but Battle Honours has agreed to run at least two more – one specifically on Sassoon in 2017 and another on Owen in 2018.  Book yourself on one and don’t miss out on a treat that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Siegfried among the Bohemians

Someone asked me recently what Siegfried Sassoon saw in Stephen Tennant.   The second episode of Victoria Coren's new TV series, "How to be Bohemian", focused briefly on Tennant and the "Bright Young Things".  This group, nominally - but not really - the subject of Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies, included others who were among Siegfried's close friends and associates: the Sitwells, Rex Whistler and Beverley Nichols, not to mention Waugh himself.

The TV series explores the phenomenon and its origins, but inevitably scratches the surface.  What does it actually mean to be "Bohemian"?  The concept, or at least its name, originates from an old term for the gipsies of eastern Europe, who lived the kind of free-and-easy lifestyle that was both despised and envied by more conventional society.  The idea of pursuing this alternative way of life out of choice, rather than necessity, seems to have started in the early nineteenth century in - where else? France.

Siegfried Sassoon, though undoubtedly eccentric in many ways, was not, I feel, Bohemian, either by nationality or by nature, but he did associate with people who led what has come to be known as a "bohemian" lifestyle.  The kind of people we associate with "bohemianism" tend to be artists of one kind or another - poets, painters, musicians (though I must say I have met some who live the dream but have absolutely no creative talent of any kind).  As a result of such associations, he flirted with the lifestyle.  In other ways, he could hardly have been more conventional or less bohemian.

Stephen Tennant's bohemianism was essentially a pose, possibly his means of rebelling against his respectable and generally un-bohemian family; his elder brother, Edward "Bim" Tennant, joined the Grenadier Guards (as did the Sitwell brothers, though Osbert at least proved very unsuited to a military career) and Stephen's stepfather, Sir Edward Grey, had been Britain's Foreign Secretary before and during the First World War (in which Bim was killed). That arch-bohemian, Oscar Wilde (to whom Sassoon was of course inextricably linked through his friendship with Robert Ross), put this idea into words thus: "The first duty in life is to assume a pose.  What the second is, no one has yet discovered."

I'm sceptical about the claims of any rich person to be truly bohemian.  As Coren pointed out, one of the essential features of the authentic bohemian life is a shortage of money, often leading to starvation, tuberculosis, hypothermia, and other experiences we associate with the dramatis personae of Puccini's La Bohème.  Stephen Tennant certainly never came close to starving - he had Sassoon washing peaches for him on their drive through Italy in 1928 - but Stephen did in fact suffer from TB, and I feel sure he was conscious of how much this unfortunate fact contributed to his image.  Tennant was also an artist, contributing illustrations to an edition of Siegfried Sassoon's poetry.

Siegfried, though nowhere near as rich as the Tennants, was never in serious financial difficulty. The only time he might have known hunger, albeit briefly, was while on active service at the Western Front.  Yet in the circles in which he moved, he could hardly help associating with those who led a bohemian lifestyle, either genuine or affected.  Lady Ottoline Morrell, one of his best friends and most loyal supporters, was surely bohemian in her ways.  Siegfried's description of her clothing at their first meeting suggests he was struck by her unconventionality; he was, at that time, not yet an accepted member of the literary fraternity, and his meetings with people like Rupert Brooke and W H Davies (a true bohemian who had lived as a tramp in the USA) only made him feel excluded.

The Morrells accepted and welcomed Sassoon into a community of writers and artists that included Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Gilbert Spencer and Aldous Huxley.  Members of the Bloomsbury Group, such as Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey, were often house guests at Garsington Manor; they certainly played at bohemianism.  Yet it was also at Garsington Siegfried was also introduced to people such as W B Yeats and Bertrand Russell, who seem to me not to fall into the bohemian category, despite Yeats' interest in spiritualism and Russell's belief in sexual freedom.

Another eccentric individual mentioned by Coren was Edward Carpenter, the writer who would nowadays probably be described as a "gay activist".  It was to Carpenter that Siegfried had written in 1911, seeking reassurance about the homosexual inclinations that so troubled him.  Carpenter was a vegetarian, an environmentalist, a socialist and many other things that made him stand out and would have marked him as "bohemian" whether he liked it or not.  Bohemian, also, was Siegfried's first lover, Gabriel (real name William) Atkin, an artist who came to rely on Siegfried for financial support.  Atkin subsequently married a writer, enjoyed various addictions, and was dead by 1937.

Some of these associations must have rubbed off on Siegfried Sassoon.  He appears to have been untroubled by Stephen Tennant's penchant for cross-dressing and to have participated in the parlour games and other activities promoted at Garsington.  From his own limited resources, he was glad enough to offer financial assistance to other poets, artists and musicians, some of whom depended on this to give them the opportunity to practice bohemianism.  In photographs taken by Lady Ottoline, however, Siegfried always looks uncomfortable and out of place, even allowing for the constraints of early 20th century photography and the affected poses his hostess required of her subjects.

But bohemian?  I think not.  Sassoon was too conventional, too well brought up to be a rover.  Hard as he may have tried to live the artist's life, he remained a fox-hunting man at heart.   

Monday, 15 June 2015

A Private Occasion of Family and Friends

In the run-up to the bicentenary of a certain great battle, I thought it would be appropriate to share this guest post from our old friend Dr Gerald Morgan of Trinity College, Dublin.  Although it has nothing directly to do with Siegfried Sassoon, it brings to mind earlier conflicts of which Siegfried must have been aware during June 1915, as he began his service as an officer with the RWF at the Western Front:

The 1st Duke of Wellington, appointed commander of the Anglo-Netherlands army on Napoleon's escape from Elba, left Vienna on 29 March 1815 accompanied by Lord William Pitt Lennox,  fourth son of Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, as one of his aides-de-camp  and arrived in Brussels on 4 April 1815 to prepare for what turned out to be the decisive battles with Napoleonic France at Quatre Bras and Waterloo on 16 and 18 June 1815. On 6 April he was at a dinner party with the Richmonds. On 22 May 1815 he was accompanied by Lady Georgiana Lennox (third daughter of Charles Lennox) in inspecting Hanoverian and Brunswick troops at Vilvorde.

The Duke of Richmond, a notable cricketer and founder-member of the MCC, was an old friend from Dublin as far back as the late 1780s, when he and Arthur Wesley (as Wellington then was) were aides-de-camp in Dublin Castle to the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Marquess of  Buckingham (1787-1789). 

The Duke of Richmond was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1807-1813 when Wellington himself (1807-1809) and his elder brother, William Wellesley-Pole (1809-1812), were Chief Secretary. Richmond's eldest son, Charles, Earl of March (Westminster and TCD), was aide-de-camp to Wellington in the Peninsular War in 1810-1814 and at the time of the ball aide-de-camp to the Prince of Orange (who was wounded at Waterloo).

The Duchess herself, a formidable lady who produced seven sons and seven daughters for the Duke, was born Charlotte Gordon, eldest daughter of Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, who raised the 92nd (originally 100th) Regiment of Foot, the Gordon Highlanders. They distinguished themselves at the ball, as they were later to distinguish themselves in the battle, with a display of highland reel and sword dance in the presence of their Commanding Officer, John Cameron of Fassiefern (mortally wounded at Quatre Bras, dying in Waterloo village itself on the night of 16 June 1815).

As Wellington prepared himself and Europe in Brussels in April, May and June 1815  for the decisive battle, he would perforce have had to attend many balls. He himself, for example, hosted a concert, ball and supper for the King and Queen of the Netherlands and the young Prince of Orange on 28 April and on 27 May a Grand Ball in honour of Field Marshal Prince Blucher of Prussia. The trust engendered between these two men on such an occasion assured Europe of victory at the end of the day at Waterloo. More worthy of comment on that occasion, perhaps, was the fact that Wellington danced always with the young (born 23 May 1793) and no doubt adoring Lady Frances Caroline Webster-Wedderburn (nee Annesley, second daughter of the 1st Earl of Mountnorris). She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to a son, Charles Byron, in Paris on 28 August 1815.

The Duchess of Richmond's ball of 15 June 1815, however, was a private not public event, organised and paid for by the Richmonds and held at their residence in the Rue de la Blanchisserie. It was the Duchess herself who controlled the invitations (some 230 in all), and the Lennox family turned out in force, although the Duchess was helped by Capt John Gurwood (10th Hussars) (wounded at Waterloo) in making the arrangements, since just over half of the guests were military officers.

Naturally many Irish men and women of note were present at the ball. Sir William Ponsonby of Imokilly, Co. Cork, was there (killed leading the famous cavalry charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo). So too Sir Denis Pack of Kilkenny.  So too was Henry, Earl Conyngham, his wife, Elizabeth, Countess Conyngham, and three of their children, including Viscount Mountcharles, a name still famous in Slane today. 

So too the lady who had attracted so much of Wellington's attentions on the dance floor. Lady Frances Webster-Wedderburn evidently inspired him by her presence and beauty as the fateful day approached. Thus he wrote to her on the morning of the battle, at.3.30 a.m. on 18 June 1815, to assure her of the 'desperate battle on Friday (16 June), in which I was successful'  and of the need to make preparations for a possible move from Bruxelles (sic) to Antwerp,  and again at 8.30 a.m. in the immediate aftermath of the battle to tell her that 'the finger of Providence was upon me', as it surely must have been.

But the price of victory was ' immense'. No wonder Wellington was overcome by the loss of his friends after the battle. 

The people of Ireland, and particularly of Summerhill and Trim, Co. Meath, may well be proud of such a man to this day. I have no doubt that the battle would have been lost without him. Blucher would have exposed his troops to the French guns at Waterloo as he did at Ligny.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

In Siegfried's Library

One of the most important rooms, if not the most important room, in Heytesbury House during Siegfried Sassoon's tenure was the Library.  Yesterday I, along with other members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, was lucky enough to be in that room - although it is no longer the library.  

After Siegfried's death, his son George lived in the house for a time before selling it.  Then began a period of neglect, when parts of the house were badly damaged by fire, and it was some years before it was habitable again.   When residents moved in who appreciated the house and its history, it was gradually restored to its former glory, but some things naturally changed, and another room is now used as the library, while the huge and interestingly-shaped room in which Siegfried kept his books now houses a snooker table.  The view of the gardens and grounds remains intact, and is possibly enhanced by not having the windows lined with bookshelves.

Interest in the printed book also continues at Heytesbury, which was a highlight for the bibliophiles among our members, several of whom own first editions and other curiosities about which they shared information during our tea.  We were supplied with drinks and a choice of cakes (not, of course, while handling books) while we chatted about the house.  We also listened to Dennis Silk's memorable Radio 4 programme - now, unbelievably, more than ten years old - which gave us a wonderful mental picture of what the house was like when Siegfried sat recording his poems on a reel-to-reel tape recorder while occasionally tapping out his pipe on the grate.

Successive owners of the apartment that contains the rooms where Siegfried spent most of his time have been very kind in allowing Sassoon enthusiasts entry from time to time.  Last time I visited, it was pouring with rain and we only ventured into the garden for a few moments to look at "Blunden's Beech".  On this occasion, the weather was kind, and we spent some time outside, looking at the changes made to the grounds over the decades since the poet died at his Georgian mansion in 1967. Most upsetting for Sassoon was the news that a new road, the A36, was to be constructed across part of his estate.  Although he did not live to see it as it is now, with the house cut off from the village by the highway, he would not have approved of this development any more than he would have liked seeing the modern houses that now take up a large section of the grounds.

I am sure he would have loved the garden, though.  Now that the house is divided into apartments, the individual residents have their own private areas as well as sharing the wider grounds, and the garden one sees from the library window contains statues, an ornamental pond, and a striking stone obelisk installed by previous owners.  There is still plenty of unspoilt greenery around too, with many mature trees as well as a weedy little cedar that has been planted in an unsuitable location and as yet refuses to thrive.  Perhaps one day it will be rival to its massive relation that grows close by.

As we passed up the drive towards the house, Diana Silk shared with us her memories of the walled garden and stables, both now converted for other uses.  After becoming engaged to, and subsequently marrying, Dennis, she spent many happy hours at Heytesbury House, sometimes with her children. Siegfried's own marriage, to Hester Gatty, with whom he moved into the house in 1934, did not last, but it is evident from some of the photographs we looked at that Siegfried and Hester did enjoy great happiness in their early years at Heytesbury.  Had that not been the case, why would Siegfried have remained there after the Second World War (in the course of which the house was also occupied, first by evacuees and later by American troops)? 

One of the attractions of the Heytesbury estate for Sassoon must have been the cricket pitch, now separated from the house by the road.  Siegfried played, or attempted to play, cricket into his seventies, and also made frequent visits to Downside Abbey, about 25 miles away, where he had joined the "Ravens" cricket team, recruiting his long-standing friend, the poet Edmund Blunden, as well as Dennis Silk (at one time captain of MCC), to play alongside him.

Visitors to Heytesbury House in the latter years who wrote down their memories of visits included Anthony Powell, Margaret Keynes, Muriel Galsworthy and Charles Causley.  Edmund Blunden, Siegfried's most enduring friend, was of course a visitor, and Dennis also recalls Hester returning from Scotland to see her estranged husband.  Dennis has often told us how Siegfried used to complain about "never seeing anyone" - whereas in fact the house welcomed regular visitors of all shapes and sizes.  The wheel has turned full circle, with the SSF now having members all around the world, all of whom would love to have had the experience a few of us were able to enjoy yesterday at Heytesbury.

Monday, 25 May 2015


As so often happens with this blog, several strands have come together in my mind (while I was gardening) and once again it leads around to war art.  Although this was initially prompted by the Perspectives programme on British TV the other night, in which Eddie Redmayne, currently flavour of the month because of his recent Oscar win, presented his thoughts on the topic, there have been other contributory factors.  I'll come to those later.

Redmayne, it turns out, is not without qualifications for his role as presenter, having studied art history at Cambridge.  Although he perhaps not as fluent a presenter as, say, Alistair Sooke, he is more eloquent than most, and the programme was consequently much better than I'd been expecting. The art does, of course, speak for itself to a certain extent.  You can admire and appreciate the work of Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, Stanley Spencer and David Bomberg (Redmayne's "favourite") without having a degree in art history.  Colour television certainly helps with that; perhaps it's ironic that the general public in 1914-1918 would not have had much opportunity to see some of these works in their full glory.
David Bomberg - "Sappers at Work"

Apart from the omission (again) of Isaac Rosenberg, who is presumably disregarded partly because he was a poet and has thus been pigeonholed to be dealt with in TV programmes about poetry, another war artist who rarely gets a mention is Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959).  A notable painter of horses, Munnings was the man who captured Major-General Jack Seely and his horse Warrior in oils, as I recently learned from Brough Scott's book Galloper Jack.  The painting is now in the National Gallery of Canada, in recognition of Seely's service as commander of the Canadian cavalry during the war, and Munnings seems to have had as hard a time as almost anyone, at times working a short matter of yards from the front line. 

Another of his paintings, Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron, depicts one of the last cavalry charges of the war, one which came to be regarded as a success and won Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew a posthumous VC.  Brough Scott's book, making a valiant effort to be unbiased in dealing with the exploits of his grandfather, Jack Seely, suggests that it achieved little and was less than critical to the final outcome of the war.  Munnings could not have captured the action "live", as a photographer might, but he did paint it the year it happened and personally knew the participants.  His skilled depiction of the horses' suffering may, however, be the key to the painting's success.  (Flowerdew, incidentally, was saddled with one of the same personal disadvantages in life as Siegfried Sassoon; his middle name was "Muriel".)

The other strand in my thinking about war art this week is the painting at the centre of the Danish drama series, 1864, a work which again strives for neutrality by depicting the Danes as the (albeit unwitting) aggressors in the Second Schleswig War.  I gather that it's about as historically accurate as The Tudors, but that's not really relevant to my subject.  In an English-language scene, James Fox as Lord Palmerston admits that "Only three men in Europe have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein Question: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it." 

The painting, which a rebellious present-day teenager finds in the attic of the mysterious old "Baron" for whom she is working as a carer, also appears in the opening credits of each episode.  Whether it is a real contemporary painting or a plot device created specifically for the series I have not yet discovered, but it sends the girl into a hallucinatory episode where she begins to notice the presence of other 19th century artefacts (a pistol, a sword) around the place, and becomes frightened by the idea of the war.  In other scenes it is suggested that the present generation has little comprehension of what it meant to fight, just like the two main characters, the brothers Peter and Laust, who go cheerfully off to soldier at the behest of the "Baron" of their own time.  (Naturally, one is put in mind of Sassoon's poem "Memorial Tablet".)

Although the early episodes don't fully illustrate the horrors that are no doubt coming to the two boys, the first scenes featuring the Baron's son returning as a war hero (in fact, his father has bribed officialdom to conceal the evidence of his cowardice) give us a pretty good idea of the potential psychological damage, as Baron junior begins a reign of terror over the estate workers.  He will, of course, have to go back, and he's not looking forward to it.  

I don't have a snappy conclusion to this blog.  I merely observe how visual depictions of war can combine with the written word to build up a picture that may or may not be accurate.  Say "the Western Front" and most people will immediately visualise desperate-looking, dirty, hungry men in trenches, closely followed by a desolate landscape of murdered trees.   Is that how it really was?