Saturday, 28 March 2015

A Friendship

Having mentioned T. E. Lawrence in my previous blog, I felt I had not done justice to his role in the life and literary development of Siegfried Sassoon, so I thought I might use this blog to make some amends for that.

Robin Lindsay (a nephew of Helen Waddell) told me that Lawrence was one of the subjects that came up in conversation when he visited Siegfried at Heytesbury in the early 1960s to give him the famous recording of one of Helen’s broadcasts.  This was because of the recent release of David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, which Sassoon must have been to the cinema to view.  He commented that the screen portrayal was “nothing like” the Lawrence he had known.  This is perhaps unsurprising: the slight, plain-looking man who was one of Siegfried's most valued friends from 1918 until his death in 1935 was not movie material - as was proven when the Korda brothers rejected Sassoon's proposals for the script of a film about him.  

Sassoon cannot be said to have cultivated Lawrence's friendship, at least not in the early days.  The latter owed much of his international fame to the efforts of an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, who arrived in Palestine during the First World War looking for a sensational story.  On his return to the USA in 1919, he began lecturing on the subject, with the assistance of a film show which no doubt explains the popularity he immediately enjoyed.  The film, entitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, made Lawrence internationally famous, to the extent that the shy colonel sought to hide from the limelight by joining the RAF under the assumed name of John Hume Ross, later becoming T E Shaw and joining the Royal Tank Corps.  (When Sassoon visited Lawrence at home in 1924, Lawrence showed him a book he had been given by George Bernard Shaw, inscribed "To Private Shaw from Public Shaw".)

Thus, when Sassoon and Lawrence met for the first time towards the end of 1918, it was as near-equals. They were introduced, at Lawrence's instigation, by Edward Marsh.  Lawrence outranked Sassoon (who was two years older), but Sassoon knew something of Lawrence's wartime activities, and they hit it off straight away.  When Lawrence got around to publishing his own account of his time with the Arabs, under the title Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in 1922, Sassoon was one of the first people to be allowed to read it.  He was obliged to reassure Lawrence of the book's worth, referring to it as a "bloody masterpiece", in a letter which ended, "It is a GREAT BOOK, blast you!" 

Many have speculated on Lawrence's sexuality.  Like Sassoon, he felt an attraction to his fellow-servicemen, but this is far from conclusive.  I have never heard or seen any evidence that even suggests that he might have had a romantic or physical relationship with Siegfried.  It is, however, fairly well attested that Lawrence had masochistic tendencies, and we can only hazard a guess as to the psychological trigger for these.  Much seems to have remained private between the two friends; it seems to me highly likely that Sassoon either did not know or did not care what Lawrence did in his own time.

In due course, Lawrence came to share Sassoon's friendship with Thomas Hardy, who was equally fond of both men, just as Florence Hardy was attracted to both.  Lawrence had settled at Clouds Hill, near Wareham in Dorset, in the mid-1920s, half an hour's motorcycle ride from the Hardys.  In 1934, Siegfried Sassoon moved into Heytesbury House in Wiltshire, around 45 miles away, but there is no truth in the often-heard claim that Lawrence was returning home from Heytesbury when he was involved in the accident that ended his life in May 1935.  

After colliding with a cyclist in a country road near his cottage, Lawrence lay in a coma for six days. His head injuries (in those days before crash helmets became common) were so serious that it was clear he could not recover; King George V sent his personal physician just to make sure there was nothing that could be done.  The news was devastating for Sassoon, but it led to a life-changing experience.  The day after Lawrence's death, he felt he had received a sign from his dead friend, a sign that convinced him of the existence of an after-life, and this would indirectly lead to his embracing Christianity, in the form of Roman Catholicism, two decades later.  

Sassoon's poem on the subject was submitted to The Times, but rejected by none other than Edward Marsh.  Perhaps he felt that Siegfried was still suffering from the shock of Lawrence's death and that the experience about which he wrote was "all in the mind".  It rather makes me think of the initial reaction to Sassoon's early war poems and the horror expressed by most of his friends when he put himself in the firing-line with his "Soldier's Declaration".  How little vision they had.

To learn more about the friendship between Lawrence and Sassoon, you could do worse than to read Dennis Silk's monograph on the subject, printed in 2010 by Reading Room Press - if you can get hold of it.  If not, help is at hand, as the lecture Dennis gave, on which the booklet is based, was recorded by the IWM and can be found here: 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Loving The Lamb

People do love our annual joint meetings with the Wilfred Owen Association, at The Lamb in Bloomsbury.  Actually, 14thMarch this year was the third time in twelve months that the SSF had visited the pub, since we held our AGM there in the autumn.  No one seemed to mind making an extra visit, given the opportunity to visit a historic and atmospheric building with a great atmosphere and at the same time enjoy good food and drink as well as the company of friends and some great talks from top-rated speakers.
I dare not include myself in that last group, as I was very much a stand-in last Saturday.  The room was comfortably full (not too crowded, as it has sometimes been in the past) for a lecture by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of Whitman College, Washington, USA, the author of the 2010 classic, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War,  now re-issued in paperback.  Her subject was “The underworld journey in Owen, Sassoon, Graves, and Aldington”.  Professor Vandiver spoke about how these poets approached the topic of the afterlife in their work, and I will not attempt to give a full résumé here, as those of you who are members will see one in Siegfried’s Journal soon enough.
One of the matters Elizabeth focused on was the way in which the individual poets’ educational background affected their treatment of death and the afterlife.  Wilfred Owen, being a grammar school boy, treats the subject more straightforwardly than the others with their public school background – with the possible exception of Sassoon, who appears to be bending over backwards not to reveal his classical education in his satirical war poems.  I agreed wholeheartedly with Elizabeth’s view that this was deliberate.  Sassoon’s concern was to convey his feelings about the war in language that everyone could understand, and his success in doing so was his great achievement.  Today (in my opinion) he remains the most accessible of the major war poets.
Insights into the classical education of the boys who would go on to become junior officers as well as poets have been given in past SSF meetings and conferences by speakers such as Vivien Whelpton, Michael Copp and Gladys Mary Coles.  Thinking back to these, I was surprised that I seemed to have overlooked such an obvious aspect of Sassoon’s war poetry as his avoidance of any intellectual element that might create a barrier between him and his intended audience.  Elizabeth’s comments were a revelation, and, in my own subsequent talk (on the subject of Sassoon’s relationship with Thomas Hardy), I was able to go some way towards demonstrating the correctness of her observations by quoting a passage from his diary from which it is clear that, though he may not have been an academic success, he had not forgotten his knowledge of the Classics.  This appears to demonstrate that it was a conscious decision on his part to leave the classical references out of his poetry, at least during the war years.
It was good to see so many familiar faces at The Lamb, but also several new ones.  Unlike many other literary societies, we have a good gender and age balance among our membership, which has stood us in good stead so far and should continue to do so.  The grandly-named "Empire Room", where we always have to open the windows because of the mass of warm bodies within, has become a home from home, whilst landlord Leigh and his team, dashing around trying to serve thirty different menu choices, are now familiar faces.   Long may the joint spring meeting continue!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Exceedingly Good Poems

Were it not for the wonderful Mr Michael Wood (how come he hasn't been knighted yet?) the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rudyard Kipling might have passed me by altogether.  In his column in this month's BBC History magazine, Michael points out that "writers are made by their times", an astute observation from someone whose first occupation is not literature - although who can forget his wonderful documentary series on Shakespeare?

Quite rightly, he points out the dichotomy between Kipling's two sides - as both champion and critic of the British Empire.  Siegfried Sassoon's response to Kipling's work was equally ambivalent.  He certainly admired Kipling as a writer, but became self-conscious about this as he gradually realised how closely associated the latter was becoming with Establishment and Empire.  It was by now recognised that his Just So Stories, which so many of his critics had enjoyed as children, represented the colonial lifestyle that was already not merely out of fashion, but had fallen out of favour with some - though it would be many decades before it died out altogether.

One thing Siegfried Sassoon and Rudyard Kipling had in common was that they lived in the south-east of England at the same time, though Kipling did not move there until 1897, having previously lived in India, South Africa and the United States, as well as other parts of the UK.  Eventually, in 1902, he and his American wife Carrie settled permanently at Bateman’s, a Jacobean house near Burwash, now in East Sussex.  The house and gardens now belong to the National Trust and are open to the public, and come highly recommended (by me).  This was Kipling's home until his death in 1936.

John Kipling
Kipling's son John would have been four or five years old when the family moved into Bateman's.  He was born at their previous home, "The Elms" in Rottingdean (also in Sussex).  John's story is widely known, having been adapted into a play, My Boy Jack.  Kipling's attitude towards Jack is seen by many as having brought about the young man's death, and this outcome is generally regarded as a just punishment for his father.  Severely short-sighted, the boy was turned down at least twice for military service before Kipling senior used his influence to get him a commission in the Irish Guards, aged only seventeen.  He lasted about a month at the Western Front, before going missing in September 1915.

As for Rudyard Kipling, his activities as a government propagandist made him unpopular with liberals and the literary fraternity, even before the war.  When a nervous Sassoon met Rupert Brooke for the first time, he made the mistake of assuming that Brooke would share this opinion, and commented (according to his own account of the occasion) that Kipling's poetry was "terribly tub-thumping stuff".  Brooke disagreed, pointing to "Cities and Thrones and Powers", which Siegfried was forced to admit he had never read.

By a strange coincidence, Kipling died, aged 70, two days before King George V, who was six months his senior.  For some years, Kipling had been writing the King's most important speeches, and his 1922 poem, "The King's Pilgrimage", describes a visit made by George V to the battlefields of Europe to visit the graves of those killed in the service of Empire during the War.  Jack's grave was not, of course, among them, as his body had never been identified.  Kipling was by now a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission, perhaps helping to assuage some of his own paternal grief by writing inscriptions to commemorate other men's sons.  "Known unto God" (on the graves of unidentified soldiers) and "The Glorious Dead" (on the Cenotaph at Whitehall) are just two of the phrases he coined.

I would not dream of passing myself off as a Kipling expert, but my own feelings towards his work were considerably softened by Meg Crane's reading of his wonderful short story, "The Gardener", to the coachload of Sassoonites who travelled to Ypres in 2010.  If you were among them, I know you will remember it too.  If you haven't read it, try to do so and you will understand why I will stop at that.