Sunday, 18 January 2015

Another London Walk

Many Sassoon enthusiasts will be unaware that, in 1903, while a student at Marlborough, Siegfried was confirmed in the Church of England at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.  He was aged around 17, and the ceremony was carried out by Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London from 1901 until 1939.  A strong supporter of the war effort, Winnington-Ingram was even accused by Asquith of xenophobia, and is likely to be the bishop referred to in Sassoon’s poem “They” – which stops short of actively criticising the bishop’s conduct but nevertheless mocks his response to the war.

For those who, like myself, are not Anglicans or Catholics, "confirmation" is the ceremony of initiation into the church.  Only after confirmation is one entitled to take communion, hence the experience is normally reserved until the candidate is old enough to understand what is going on.   Being confirmed into one denomination also tends to remove any need for a further confirmation if the person changes denomination; thus Sassoon was “received” into the Roman Catholic church in 1957, rather than being confirmed a second time.

I cannot think that the ceremony meant a great deal to the teenage Siegfried.  Perhaps he already had doubts about the strength of his Christian faith, as many teenagers do, but he must have gone along with it readily enough.  He was not, at least at that stage, a natural rebel, and probably conformed to peer pressure.  His friend Stephen Gordon Harbord, of Colwood Park, was the son and grandson of Anglican clergyman, but we can tell from the way Sassoon writes about “Stephen Colwood” and his father in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man that he was not greatly impressed by church services.

Most of what I know about Siegfried’s confirmation originates from our Vice-Chair, Christian Major.  Christian, a dyed-in-the-wool Sassoon admirer, has taken the trouble to research numerous London locations associated with our hero, even going to the lengths of getting himself elected to that worthy institution, the Reform Club.  As luck would have it, Christian's office is close to St Paul's, and, as host of our recent SSF committee meeting, he volunteered to take us on a little excursion around the surrounding streets to try to locate the spot where the Daily Herald offices stood, in John Carpenter Street (named after a 15th-century Town Clerk of London, not the better-known director of horror films).

The offices where Siegfried worked in 1919 seem to have disappeared now, and I've had no success in finding an image of them.  He would have travelled up to town twice a week from Weirleigh in Kent, where he had returned to live with his mother after his brief period of "independent study" in post-war Oxford.  In Siegfried's Journey, he describes his time at the Herald in his usual self-deprecating style.  The paper, at that time, was run by George Lansbury, later leader of the Labour Party.  (For those of you who like celebrity-spotting, Lansbury was the grandfather of both Angela Lansbury and Oliver Postgate.)  Not all Sassoon's friends approved of the appointment, and his mother was certainly no admirer of the Herald.  

Nevertheless, Siegfried was paid £5 a week for his job as literary editor, and the sense of liberation he enjoyed at becoming self-supporting (probably the opposite of what most of us feel after holding down a job for a few years) led him to write his most famous poem, "Everyone Sang".  Among the budding writers he would encourage during his brief tenure were W J Turner (with whom he would share a house at Tufton Street) and Edmund Blunden, who was to become a lifelong friend.  The reviewers he employed included Robert Graves, Robert Nichols and, famously, E M Forster.  Another new acquaintance was H M Tomlinson, a friend of Thomas Hardy; Tomlinson would remain within Sassoon's social and professional circle for many years to come.

We rounded off our walk with a visit to the Cheshire Cheese, a historic public house with which Siegfried would certainly have been familiar.  Rebuilt following the Great Fire of London, the pub has been frequented in its time by Goldsmith, Johnson and Dickens, and was the home of the "Rhymers' Club", where W B Yeats met up with such worthies as Oscar Wilde.  Sadly, the club was already defunct by Sassoon's time.  Nevertheless, it seemed an appropriate spot to conclude our walk.