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.


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