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 BĂ©atus 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.