Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Letter from Wales

In the above title I am referring, not to this present post, but to a poem addressed to Siegfried Sassoon by Robert Graves after the First World War and published in his 1925 collection Welchman's Hose (a curious title which I initially misread as Welchman's House, a mistake I'm sure others will have made). It was one of several poems he wrote to Sassoon, and shows indisputably that - whatever their later relationship - he thought of the latter not only as a friend but as a kindred spirit, one who had been his comrade through the best and worst of times.
Graves had officially died during the war.  His condition was so bad after being wounded at the Battle of the Somme that it was thought impossible he would recover and he was left for dead in a dressing station until, many hours later, the medical staff noticed that he was still breathing. By the time he was well enough to contact his friends and family, his commanding officer had written a letter of sympathy to his mother and a notice of his death had appeared in The Times.
I confess that, had I not been fortunate enough to attend the launch, earlier this month, of Charles Mundye's new edition of Graves' War Poems, coincidentally published by my local publishing house Seren, I might not have paid such close attention to these poems, many of which I have never read previously. In fact, I don't think I had ever read "A Letter from Wales" right through, and a re-reading throws new light on the fellow-feeling between the two wartime friends. As Sassoon would later do in his prose works, Graves bestows pseudonyms on both - Sassoon becomes "Abel Wright", which sounds a rather backhanded compliment (especially when you consider Sassoon's earlier poem "Ancient History"), and Graves himself is "Richard Rolls". He refers to the wartime diaries in which Sassoon, firmly believing his friend to be dead, began work on a verse epitaph - before finding out that he had in fact survived.
The poem continues the fantasy that Graves did in fact die and was replaced by a doppelganger who resembles him outwardly but is different inside - not only that, but Sassoon also died, perhaps more than once, and was replaced by another lookalike. The two impostors holidayed in Wales "pretending a wild joy/That they had cheated Death..." The idea is an illusion, as they are both damaged beyond repair and, in attempting to blot out their war experiences, have become something different and unnatural. Worse still, the denial of what they remember has adversely affected their friendship: "there was a constraint in all our dealings," he laments.

This was before the great falling-out between Graves and Sassoon that resulted from the publication of Good-Bye to All That and was never really mended. Here, however, we seem to find Graves in apologetic and regretful mode, and Sassoon's response must have been one of recognition. Although fully aware of Graves’ tendency to upset his friends unintentionally, he had become less tolerant of him since the war, and Graves’ explanation for this rings very true.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Meet the Poet Laureate

Much as I would like to be able to say that “I met the Poet Laureate last weekend”, it would be a slight embroidering of the truth. Better to say that I was in the presence of the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, at the Wilfred Owen Association’s Shrewsbury event. The only words she said to me were: “Are we having coffee here or in the other room?” Nevertheless, it was a privilege to hear her recite a sample of her work, and she certainly showed why she is a worthy winner of the 2016 Wilfred Owen Poetry Prize.
Carol Ann Duffy is, as I’m sure all readers know, the first woman to hold the position of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, the “Makar” or National Poet of Scotland is also a woman, Jackie Kay, and the position of National Poet of Wales has just been vacated by another prominent female poet, Gillian Clarke. Wales perhaps has an alternative national poet, in the form of the Archdruid; the person who presides over the National Eisteddfod must be a former winner of the Chair or the Crown, the two premier Welsh-language poetry competitions. The Archdruid who vacated the position in 2016 is another woman, Christine James; she was also the first female to hold the title.
It was in fact not until 1953 that a woman won the Eisteddfod Crown, and - almost unbelievably - no woman had won the Chair before Mererid Hopwood’s victory in 2001. Since the eisteddfod competitors are known only by pseudonyms, there can be no suggestion of discrimination in the judging, and I am therefore forced to the conclusion that women were simply not entering these competitions in any numbers until the mid-twentieth century.
Looking back over the centuries, it is obvious that poetry, at least in the English-speaking world, has traditionally been a male occupation. Yes, there were female poets in ancient Greece, but it was men who wrote the epics and verse dramas that we think of as the masterpieces of early literature and it was men who roamed medieval Europe earning their living as poets at the courts of monarchs and nobles. Even in the nineteenth century, one would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of female poets who could rank alongside the Wordsworths, Brownings and Tennysons. It is hardly surprising that, for 400 years, the position of Poet Laureate was the exclusive preserve of the male gender.
Siegfried Sassoon was on friendly terms with two of the twentieth-century holders of the title. He was first introduced to Robert Bridges just after the First World War, when he visited the "Pantheon" of poets resident on Boar's Hill, just outside Oxford. At first they were not too keen on one another - Sassoon was displeased by Bridges' dismissive attitude to Thomas Hardy's poetry, while the elderly Bridges mistook him for a German and addressed him as "Siegfried Digweed". Bridges lived at Chilswell House, now a Carmelite priory and retreat centre, and the two men eventually reached a level of friendship where Sassoon was able to become an occasional lodger.
The role of the poet laureate in English and later British society is not one historically distinguished by great poetic talent. Early laureates did their duty by producing occasional odes and eulogies such as Thomas Shadwell's birthday odes to William and Mary.  Shadwell had unseated his rival John Dryden as poet because of the latter's association with the deposed King James II/VII.  Some of his successors took their roles more seriously than others. New depths of mediocrity were plumbed by Alfred Austin in his often-quoted 1871 poem "On the Illness of the Prince of Wales": O'er the wires the electric message came/'He is no better; he is much the same."
On Bridges' death in 1930, his replacement was John Masefield, whose work Sassoon had parodied before the war but whom he had come to admire. Masefield was not the obvious candidate; Kipling was favoured by many, but the government favoured the younger Masefield. By the time Masefield vacated the position on his death in 1967, Siegfried Sassoon was eighty years old and seriously ill, only months from his own death.
Cecil Day-Lewis, editor of Wilfred Owen's poems and an aficionado of Thomas Hardy, was a choice of which Sassoon would have approved, although he held the position for only five years, succeeded on his death by Sir John Betjeman, a more conventional successor. One of Betjeman's first attempts at fulfilling the duties of the laureate's role was his poetic tribute on the occasion of Princess Anne's wedding in 1973. I recall my English teacher correctly predicting that "he'll come up with something", and I also remember the exact words with which she later described the offering: "A horrible bit of jingly-jangly nonsense".  Betjeman got an equally bad press a few years later when he tried to write something to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Thereafter, the post of Poet Laureate began to seem like an anachronism.
But in the 21st century, poetry is back in a big way. We owe this in no small measure to the interest stoked up by the approaching centenary of the First World War, bringing writers such as Owen, Sassoon, Graves and Rosenberg to the fore again.  Poetry is once more becoming a pursuit for both genders, no longer regarded as something for cissies, and we have both male and female poets worthy of the name. Carol Ann Duffy, in her 2009 poem "Last Post", showed how a poet laureate can represent the feelings of a nation without being sycophantic or lowering her own creative standards. Now that she is more than halfway through her tenure of the post, we can only hope that her successor will prove equally deserving.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Siegfried's Strangest Journey

The eyes of the world have been firmly focused on the United States in the past few weeks. Now it is all over bar the shouting, as they say – or maybe the real shouting is only just beginning. Whatever happens, I am not going to make any comment on the result of the presidential election. Anyone who knows me will be able to guess what I think and anyone who doesn’t should not care what I think.
Google on "Sassoon in America" and you will get the locations of all Vidal Sassoon's hairdressing salons in the USA, rather than the locations of the Siegfried Sassoon archives in places like Texas and New York. But American scholars value these literary treasures as much as we do, and Sassoon's work has received as many plaudits across the pond as it has in his homeland.
However hard I try, I find it difficult to imagine Siegfried Sassoon touring the USA – as of course he did for six months in 1920, on a tide of popularity resulting from the publication of his war poems there towards the end of hostilities. Americans had purchased over 2,000 copies and some of the reviews had been ecstatic. Siegfried recognised that he owed much of this to John Masefield and Robert Nichols, both of whom had gone before him and more than adequately prepared the way.
In Siegfried’s Journey, published in 1945, Sassoon writes extensively about his experiences but it always seems to me that he gives little away about his true feelings. George Simmers refers to it, in his understated way, as "an unsatisfactory book", and I fear I cannot really disagree with him on that. One can almost glean more by reading articles written about him by American journalists during the period, or the parody of an interview he produced. The hilarious "A Poet as He Really is" was published in Vanity Fair in 1920; he himself called it "deplorably facetious". Dr Mhairi Pooler focused on this article when she spoke to us about Siegfried's self-image at our 2010 conference.
Sassoon used his diaries as the source material for almost all the prose works published in his lifetime and it is not difficult to tell that he had one eye on eventual publication. Pages were sometimes torn out - we must assume because they contained indiscreet comments or possibly accounts of sexual activity. He stops short of pouring out his heart and soul. Instead we get a picture of a diffident, anxious man who at first found the idea of going on a lecture tour in the USA almost laughable. After participating in a reading at the Poetry Bookshop, he took elocution lessons to improve his delivery (at the Albert Hall, no less).
He arrived in New York in late January, to find the streets deep in snow and himself put up by the agency in budget accommodation (or what Siegfried always called "depressing"); newspaper journalists arrived before his luggage did. The interviewers were at least sympathetic about the toothache from which he'd been suffering. But he soon discovered that bookings were few and far between and he might not receive the remuneration he had been counting on. He was obliged to do most of his own marketing (a situation familiar to many authors, but self-promotion did not come naturally to Sassoon).
At Bryn Mawr College, an appreciative audience of young ladies listened to Sassoon read some of his best-known poems, but not everyone cared for his anti-war stance. The critic John Jay Chapman, an acquaintance of Robert Nichols, was initially summed up in Siegfried's diary entry as "rather a nice old thing", but this would prove less accurate when Chapman called him "brain-sick", and climbed onto the platform after an appearance at the Cosmopolitan Club at which Mrs Chapman had introduced Sassoon to the audience, to rail against his pacifist views in no uncertain fashion. This anxious moment was made worse by the fact that Chapman had lost a hand and instead wore a hook, which he proceeded to brandish threateningly at Sassoon. Understating the situation as usual, Siegfried writes "Poor Mrs Chapman and I sat there not knowing which way to look".
Chapman, a larger-than-life character, was old enough to be Siegfried's father, and had, in fact, lost a son to the war. Rather than turning him against military conflict, it made him an outspoken supporter of the war, who took Sassoon to task for his 1917 protest as well as for his poetry. By a weird coincidence, Chapman had earned the nickname of "Mad Jack" while at university, inviting comparison with the former officer who had been known for his daring trench raids in 1916. The day after the incident, Chapman wrote to Sassoon with a near-apology: "I suppose the universe will not be wrecked by you or by my trying to stop you", at the same time advising him to "get out of the way of people who want to exploit you", by which he meant anyone with pro-German sympathies.
Siegfried Sassoon returned to the UK in April  1920, moderately unimpressed, especially by what he called "high-class hospitalities", seen off only by his new friend Sam Behrman (author, among other things, of the screenplay for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Quo Vadis). Twenty-five years later, he wrote: "I find some difficulty in believing that it was really me who went to Chicago all by himself... I go nowhere now, from one year's end to another..."
In addition to Mhairi Pooler's article in the Winter 2010 edition of Siegfried's Journal, transcripts of some of the press articles covering Sassoon's appearances in America can be found in David Gray's on-line Sassoon bibliography here:

Sunday, 6 November 2016

What can we learn from the poppy?

It’s November, the month of remembrance, and as usual an SSF representative will place flowers on the grave of Siegfried Sassoon at Mells. Real flowers, not poppies, though people often do place artificial poppies at this spot.

I bought a poppy last weekend and decided to try the stick-on variety because the pin-on ones have a habit of falling apart.  I lost it a few yards from the British Legion stall. Picking it up off the road, I took it back and a very kind gentleman decided to replace it with two poppies, one of each type. The sticky one fell off before I got back to my car and this time I couldn’t find it. The pin-on one lasted a few more days but then disappeared of its own accord and all I could find was the pin. You would think someone could have come up with a better design after all these years.

I suppose there is method in their madness. You don’t want people continuing to use the poppy from the year before rather than buying a new one, do you? Comic Relief get around the problem by redesigning their red noses every time. On the other hand, that could lead to having surplus stocks of last year’s design left over, another waste of funds. 

What is more intriguing is the sheer endurance of the poppy as an emblem. It has lasted nearly a hundred years now, having first been adopted by the British Legion in 1921. Although several million were made for fund-raising purposes (and they weren't plastic then), they were selling out so fast every year that the Scots had to open their own factory in 1926 to ensure they got their fair share, with Lady Haig - wife of the much-reviled senior commander Douglas Haig - as its patron. It is still running, making approximately five million poppies a year along with other commemorative items such as wreaths, crosses and corsages.

The SSF has laid a few poppy wreaths over the years as well - notably on the grave of Siegfried's great friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, at Fricourt, a visit that can be either very pleasant or very challenging, depending on the mud.

A forerunner of the Poppy Appeal was the Alexandra Rose Day, an event inaugurated in 1912 by the widow of King Edward VII. Queen Alexandra had associated herself with many charitable causes, and conceived the idea of selling paper flowers, made by the disabled, to raise money for hospitals. Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (founded in 1902) still exists, as does the Alexandra Rose charity, but the roses are no longer sold on the streets. In the course of the Great War, the “Q.A.s” numbers swelled from 300 (with a reserve of around 2000) to a figure of 10,000 plus.

The symbolism behind the choice of the poppy seems to be an idea of resurrection and renewal – live flowers coming out of the devastated earth, the colour of the blood of those who died there. Life from death. It has been used memorably on screen - at the end of Oh! What a Lovely War!, for example, as well as the final scene in Blackadder Goes Forth. The message is clear from these examples.

But that was not quite what Canadian medic John McCrae meant when he wrote his classic poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, nearly three years before he died of pneumonia in northern France. The inspiration came to McCrae after he had buried one of his best friends, but he seems to have seen the poppy not so much as a symbol of peace as a reminder to the living that they have a duty to continue the struggle. Regardless of how good a poem it may be, should we be concerned about whether this is an appropriate message to be sending out today?

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Green Hollow

From his late twenties until the end of his life, Siegfried Sassoon suffered from nightmares, triggered by memories of what he had seen and experienced on the Western Front during the First World War. Ironically, these terrible dreams, as well as being recorded in verse, may have contributed to saving both his life and his sanity, since the pioneering psychiatrist, Dr William Rivers, to whom he was sent for treatment, was able to point to them as evidence of "war neurosis" and thus keep Sassoon safe at Craiglockhart Military Hospital for a few months.
Jeff Edwards, who was buried alive for two hours on the morning of 21 October 1966, still has nightmares about the experience. Jeff spent that time unable to move, with the body of a dead acquaintance pressed against him – so reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s experience when he was obliged to spend several days sheltering from shellfire with the body parts of a fellow officer lying alongside him. But Jeff was only eight years old when he was trapped at his school desk. The little girl who had died sitting next to him was the same age.
It is a terrible coincidence that the children of Pantglas Junior School, Aberfan, should have suffered a fate comparable with that endured by grown men on a battlefield, but such was the case. The event that caused their deaths was caused by human failure, just as wars are. And, as with most wars, the guilty were never brought to justice.
On that awful day in October 1966, I was a week or so short of my eleventh birthday. To the best of my recollection, we knew nothing of what had happened in the morning at Aberfan until the school bus dropped us off at our homes just after 4pm. The teachers had not mentioned it to us; perhaps they did not even know about it themselves. There was no television set in the building, probably not so much as a radio in the staff room. Very few children went home for lunch. But some of the adults who worked at the school must surely have heard about it. I rather think they did not know what to say; after all, the rescuers at the scene were still working, still hoping to bring out living children as darkness closed in on the ruins of the school. They did not know that Jeff Edwards would be the last to emerge alive.
We got off our bus and entered a warm, well-lit room to find my mother transfixed by the television news reports. Naturally we did not feel the horror of the events as strongly as she did - we had never even heard of Aberfan - but we did understand that nothing would ever be the same again. In the weeks that followed, much was said about the disaster, but it was a long time, perhaps years, before I became aware that the disaster had not been an "accident" in the true sense of the word. "Buried alive by the National Coal Board", as one bereaved father put it, a phrase now immortalised in the libretto of Karl Jenkins' new commemorative work, Cantata Memoria.
In those days there was no talk of counselling for families who had been bereaved or for those who had been injured. The church or chapel was the nearest they could get to comfort. Several of the children who survived were sent to participate in psychological studies, but, although much was done to alleviate their physical suffering, nothing practical appears to have been done about the possible effects of their experiences on their state of mind. Way back in 1917, Siegfried Sassoon had been luckier.
Dr Rivers resigned from Craiglockhart, along with other medical staff, about a year after Sassoon's departure, when a new, less “sympathetic” regime was introduced. The new director had personal doubts as to whether such a thing as “shell-shock” (PTSD being today’s equivalent) actually existed.  He saw the psychological effects of war on soldiers as being either a pretence or evidence of cowardice or, at best, over-sensitivity.
I wonder what Siegfried Sassoon thought and felt when, as a man of eighty, he heard the news about Aberfan. He had been to Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding valleys in 1921. He had gone there specifically to find out what life was like for the families of striking miners, spurred on by a conversation with some of his wealthy friends, who, he felt, failed to appreciate the hardships endured by ordinary men of the kind who had served under him in the recent war. His poem, "The Case for the Miners", pitifully expresses his frustration when faced with this kind of attitude, and does so more effectively than the articles he sent back to London for publication in The Nation.
On the 60th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, the people turn once again to poetry to express their feelings, whether of loss, anger, or simply bafflement. Owen Sheers' "film poem", The Green Hollow, will be broadcast for the first time tomorrow evening (if you're in England, you may have to wait until Sunday). Sheers eloquently recounts his feelings about the making of the film: how he was at first unsure whether it should be done at all, but came round to the idea that it was "a historical story with a deeply urgent contemporary resonance". That description could equally well be given to the world events that blighted the youth of Owen and Sassoon. Over the years, it seems to me, society has learned many lessons from the Aberfan disaster. I wish the same could be said about the First World War.

Friday, 23 September 2016

My Scottish Trip

Max Boyce once wrote a song called "The Scottish Trip".  He was referring to the biennial coach trip enjoyed by Welsh rugby union fans every time they play Scotland at Murrayfield. It is a ridiculous song, albeit a hilarious one.  The idea of a coachload of fans attempting to travel to Edinburgh and back from South Wales in one day (and in the 1970s when there wasn't even a motorway covering the whole distance) is quite ludicrous and these days it would be illegal to attempt that distance with only one coach driver.

Many years ago I went on a coach trip to the Epsom Derby, which I thought was going to be a nice family day out.  The bus kept having to stop at off-licences for some of the adults to get tanked up, and we actually missed the first two races, by which time it was raining heavily and I fell over in the mud with a hot dog in each hand.  On the way back, certain members of the party began complaining and blaming the driver for our lateness.  The organiser's husband threw a can of beer which missed the driver and hit my husband on the back of the head.  (He'd never wanted to go in the first place.) It was one of the most miserable days out I can ever remember. But that's what you get if you try to cover too many miles in one day.

But coach travel can be enjoyable, as we have found on our annual journeys to the Western Front, guided by Viv Whelpton and Clive Harris (sadly cancelled this year for lack of interest, but running again next July with a Sassoon-specific itinerary).  Our four-day visit to Ypres in 2010 was such a big success that we had planned to run a similar trip to Scotland in 2017, when the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and Wilfred Owen Association will jointly host the Alliance of Literary Societies AGM and conference at Craiglockhart, but it turned out it was not what members wanted. Instead, delegates will make the journey independently, by car, train, bus, plane, or whatever means of transport they prefer. Those who live in Edinburgh may be able to do it by Shanks's pony.  When they get there, some will quickly begin to wonder why they have never attended an ALS conference before.

As though in anticipation, I have just been to Argyll on holiday. Some readers will be aware that this is considered the "midge capital of Scotland", so perhaps we were lucky to have started our holiday in wind and rain. It did improve, however, and we were able to enjoy some wonderful views of the lochs and glens. We spent a day at Inveraray, where a famous memorial to local lads - "those young loved lamented" - who died in the First World War stands beside Loch Fyne, an unforgettable sight.

Equally poignant was a story I came across in an exhibition at nearby Inveraray Castle. The music hall entertainer Harry Lauder lost his only son, a 25-year-old captain in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, in the Battle of the Somme. Lauder never recovered from the loss, and the knighthood he received in 1919 for his services to the country must have been small consolation. Yet not only did he continue to perform, he actually went to the Western Front in 1917 to entertain the troops. Apparently he wrote a book, A Minstrel in France, describing his experiences during that journey and the visit he made to his son's grave. John Lauder is buried in Ovillers Military Cemetery, along with over 3,000 other soldiers; only about 30% of them are known by name.

A September day in Oxford

Our Annual General Meeting has come and gone, and I was thrilled that so many members made a real effort to get to Oxford for a half-day meeting rather than our usual full day conference. I hope those who did so felt that it was worth while. I have had so many thank yous and so much positive feedback that I am fairly sure they did. Thus we were able to pass the constitutional amendment to amend the quorum for a general meeting to fifteen members, including at least two officers - a more realistic number than the vague "10% of membership" previously specified.

All societies evolve, and the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship has grown from around 15 members at the first meeting in Malvern to over 200. Our Journal is the envy of many other societies, but it is expensive to produce, the major component of the cost being the postage. Lots of ideas have been put forward about how it could be made cheaper, and the move to our present printer is one of many ways we have reduced the costs, but we still have to give this matter our attention if we are going to continue to cover it from subscriptions. I believe the time has come when a large proportion of members - possibly a majority - believe that the subscription rates need to be raised. 

This topic was discussed at length during this year's AGM and we have not yet come to a final decision, partly because SSF subscriptions are tied in with those of the Wilfred Owen Association through the joint membership agreement, so we need to be in accord with the WOA if we are to continue with this arrangement. Personally I am very proud that we have survived for so long with one of the lowest subscription rates of any literary society in the country. For example, the Dickens Fellowship charges £17 adult rate; the Barbara Pym Society charges £18, and the Anthony Powell Society £22. All these societies offer varying benefits and it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a straight comparison, but I'm convinced we are offering extremely good value at the moment.

Lecture over - which leaves me a bit of time for praise of our two speakers. There is not much left to say about Vivien Whelpton. Time and again she has - I was going to say "surprised" us, but there are more appropriate words. Let's just say that she once again delighted us, this time with a perceptive and eloquent analysis of the many and varied influences on the war poets that assisted them in finding a "voice".

Sharing the platform with Viv was Alistair Lees-Smith, grandson of the MP "Bertie" Lees-Smith, who in 1917 read out the Soldier's Declaration in the House of Commons. Alistair gave us a potted biography of his grandfather and discussed the reasons for his action. There is clearly a lot more to Bertie Lees-Smith than meets the eye. Look out for an article on the subject in a future edition of the Journal.

In the evening, a small group of us joined the Barbara Pym Society for its annual dinner at St Hilda's; it was pure coincidence that our annual events were in the same place on the same weekend. I think that the other Sassoonites were pleased with the welcome they received (only to be expected when you consider that Michael Wilson, Chair of the Pym Society, is also one of our members). We had a lovely meal, followed by a talk, and joined the Pymites for drinks afterwards. More of these get-togethers with other literary societies could be arranged, and I know that members would enjoy them. Next year we will be mixing with other societies in no small way, since we will be co-hosting the Alliance of Literary Societies annual conference at Edinburgh. More news on that will follow in other blog posts. In the meantime, please feel free to share any ideas you may have for joint events.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Somme: an object lesson... in what?

       I had been thinking of blogging about children. While I was searching for angles on the topic, the latest issue of the Western Front Association's Stand To! magazine plopped through my letterbox and I forgot about starting a new post - until I opened it.
       It wasn't a surprise that it was a Somme commemorative issue. Let's face it, bearing in mind all the activity of the past few months, it would have been more of a surprise if it hadn't had "Somme Special" plastered all over the cover. The first article I began reading was a summary of the Westminster Abbey Vigil that took place on the night of 30 June - 1 July; only when I got to the end did I discover that it was written by my friend Vivien Whelpton, an expert on the subject if ever there was one (as all the attendees at this year's AGM agreed).
     The article's contents took me back to the subject of children, as I read the poignant words of letters written by young men who anticipated their deaths and wanted to reassure their families that they were not afraid and that, if fate dictated it, they were prepared for an "honourable" death in the service of their country. That in turn made me think of Siegfried Sassoon's poem "The Hero", one that tells the truth about the nature of many of those deaths and what they actually meant in terms of service: "And no one seemed to care/except that lonely woman with white hair".
       Sassoon knew what he was talking about because he had actually been at the Battle of the Somme. Most of us now accept that the campaign was a waste of life that did not much advance the allied position, but, in recent years, General Haig has been rehabilitated and we have begun to make allowances for military commanders who were "a product of their time".
       Peter Barton's recent BBC documentary series, The Somme 1916: from both sides of the wire, told a somewhat different story. Tale after tale of British ineptitude, as described in contemporary accounts from both British and German participants, made for uncomfortable viewing, seeming to confirm what Sassoon believed at the time, not what he came to believe in his later, mellower years.  The casualties were, indeed, much greater than was necessary, partly due to Haig's tactics and partly to other disastrous decisions by Britain's leaders. One reviewer likened Britain's underestimation of the enemy to that of the England football team in recent years, and one can see his point.
         Let's take an example. Most people know that the British were depending on an artillery barrage that would cut through the German barbed wire and leave almost no resistance; our troops would be able to walk across No Man's Land and simply occupy the empty trenches. Over the years I've heard several explanations for this tactic, the most convincing being that the soldiers carried a heavy pack containing their supplies and it was simply not practical to run. Yet, Barton revealed, German machine-gunners watched their approach with incredulity, knowing that they would have been overwhelmed by the enemy's numbers "if they had only run".
     The over-confidence of the First World War commanders seems to me to be a typically British mindset, one we share with the United States of America. The world, we believe, revolves around us. The world could not survive without us. Europe cannot survive without us. Our Olympic Games were better than any others ever held. Our people are morally superior to those of any other country. When experience proves us wrong, we simply laugh and say, "Oh well, we're British, we're used to disappointment." Yet we continue to believe it.
      I'm not suggesting our nation should go round hanging its collective head and feeling inadequate and inferior - far from it. In a man like Siegfried Sassoon, we see the very best of British. We see not only talent and intelligence, but principles and true morality. 
       Let's suppose that you agree that the Somme was an "object lesson", as it is so often described. What exactly did it illustrate? Some would say "incompetence"; others would say "lack of foresight". For me, the kindest word I can find is "callousness"; failing that, I would feel obliged to say "cruelty".

Sunday, 14 August 2016

A Wiltshire Tragedy

The Thomas Hardy Festival is held every other year in Dorchester, and is a week-long orgy of lectures, concerts, walks, tours and other events that would probably blow my mind if I had enough spare time to take full advantage of the opportunities.  This year I spent three full days in Dorchester,  a town I’d never fully explored previously. As well as making the standard tourist visits to Thomas Hardy’s birthplace and the house he built for himself at Max Gate, I participated in three group visits by the THS to places of interest in the area: Kingston Lacy, Stourhead and Portland.  Of the three, the one that carries the most resonance is undoubtedly Stourhead, the former home of the Hoare baronets, now in the care of the National Trust.  

The trip to Stourhead was organised, very capably, by Andrew and Marilyn Leah, who were my hosts when I last participated in the festival, two years ago. Hardy first became acquainted with the 6th baronet, Henry Hoare, through his wife, Lady Alda, a memorable personage if her portrait is anything to go by.  I imagine her as a slightly more laid-back version of Lady Ottoline Morrell. The Hoares had a very successful marriage and would die within a few hours of one another in 1947; she had always said that she could not imagine living without him.   Their lives were marked by tragedy, however, since their only child, their son Harry, died in Egypt in 1917, as a result of which the baronetcy eventually passed to a nephew and the house and gardens were bequeathed to the nation.

The gardens at Stourhead are world-famous and it was a pity that heavy rain prevented us from seeing them at their best.  A tour of the house is nevertheless enough to satisfy anyone who wants to know about Hardy and his relationship with Lady Alda.  I do get the impression that there was more enthusiasm for a continuing friendship on Lady Alda's side than there was on his. She began by writing him a fan letter, to which he politely replied, but Hardy was not a man who gave a great deal of himself away, and, of the 18-year correspondence between Stourhead and Max Gate, only three of the letters that survive were written by Hardy himself; the rest were exchanged by Alda Hoare with his two wives - first Emma, until her untimely death in 1912, and later by Florence, whom he married two years afterwards.

The sympathy shown by Lady Alda when Emma died was equalled by Florence's response to the news that Harry Hoare, aged 29, had died of wounds received while fighting in Palestine in 1917.  His service in the Middle East did not overlap with that of Siegfried Sassoon, who did not arrive there until the spring of 1918, by which time there was little going on in the way of military action.  Sassoon saw no fighting until his return to the Western Front.

Lady Alda herself had been busy supporting the war effort by welcoming "Tommies", as she referred to them in her diary, to Stourhead and encouraging them to eat enormous teas, including such treats as game sandwiches and currant-cake. The men came from a convalescent hospital in nearby Mere.  Even after the loss of her son, she continued to entertain them, and I cannot help thinking it gave her a reason to carry on.  Harry had a good baritone singing voice and sometimes sang, accompanied by his mother, at musical evenings in the drawing room at Stourhead.  This activity brought mother and son together, and her love of music was a comfort to her in the years following this great loss. She referred to the Tommies as her "soldier sons", and it proved truer than she had ever intended.  Sir Henry wrote that Harry was "our only and the best of sons".

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The non-conforming Nonconformists

The art of preaching has historically been very important in Christian communities, none more so than Nonconformist Wales.  "Fire and brimstone" preaching still exists, but in general the best-loved and most respected preachers are those who combine eloquence with a lightly-worn intellectualism and a subtle wit. Anyone who has ever heard Siegfried Sassoon's biographer, John Stuart Roberts, speak in public will understand what I am talking about. 

Last weekend I attended a fascinating talk in Cardiff, hosted by the United Reformed Church History Society.  The speaker, Rev Dr Robert Pope, is a Reader in Theology and Joint Head of School at the University of Wales Trinity St David, probably better known to you as St David's College, Lampeter. He is also the kind of preacher I referred to in the introductory paragraph. Dr Pope's subject was "Conscription, Conscience and Building God's Kingdom: Welsh Nonconformists and the Great War", which interested me for obvious reasons.  I hoped to learn more of how Siegfried Sassoon's anti-war protest of 1917 fitted in with the general climate of popular feeling at the time, particularly in the region from which the Royal Welsh Fusiliers drew many of its recruits.

I knew, for example, that Ellis Evans (Hedd Wyn), the Welsh-language poet who was posthumously awarded the bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod of 1917, had not particularly wanted to go to war. Brought up in a Christian household, he was a pacifist by nature, and managed to avoid having to make the choice between enlisting and becoming a conscientious objector for three years by virtue of being in a reserved occupation - farming. However, he gave in to the inevitable when the authorities decided that either he or his married younger brother would be called up, and spared his brother the ordeal.  Evans was sent to Litherland - a place familiar to Sassoon - for training, and achieved some respite when he was allowed a few weeks' leave to help in the ploughing season. His luck soon ran out, though, and he was killed at Passchendaele less than two months after arriving in France.

Evans' experience would not have been untypical, as the Nonconformist clergy appear to have been split between pacifists like the radical and uncompromising T E Nicholas (who moonlighted as a dentist), college principal Thomas Rees, and the blind preacher John Puleston Jones - all of whom spoke out against the war - and the traditionalists who accepted Lloyd George's view that the war was a battle against evil and that it was their Christian duty to join in, or at least to encourage others to do so.

Nicholas, popularly known as "Niclas y Glais" from the name of the village where he ministered for ten years before the war, was a close friend of Keir Hardie, whose parliamentary seat he contested in 1918, after resigning the ministry. Having had his activities monitored by the police during the war, he lost miserably to Charles Butt Stanton, a former miners' leader who had supported Lloyd George's government. Continuing to peddle his controversial views during the Second World War, Nicholas was imprisoned in 1940 - along with his son - for having in his possession a map (cut out of the Daily Express) on which he had pinned German flags in order to follow the progress of the war. The result of his incarceration was a volume of Welsh-language sonnets, many written on slate or toilet paper, that would become a best-seller. Eat your heart out, Jeffrey Archer.

Thomas Rees, an illegitimate child of Pembrokeshire peasants who obtained what little formal education he had from his local chapel, had risen to become principal of Bala-Bangor College in 1909 and was an unrepentant and outspoken pacifist. His reward was to have his windows broken and to be expelled from Bangor Golf Club. Despite the sometimes violent opposition of many of his own denomination as well as outsiders, he continued to denounce the war and in 1916 launched Y Deyrnas (“The Kingdom”), a monthly publication that publicised pacifist views throughout Welsh-speaking communities.  A major contributor was a poet named T Gwynn Jones, who had abandoned all religious activity when his own minister in Aberystwyth prayed for victory.

John Puleston Jones, nephew of the Conservative MP Sir John Puleston, was blinded in an accident as a toddler, but became well-known for his independent spirit, riding unaccompanied around his home district and later, at Oxford, becoming co-founder of the "Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym". Having been a preacher from the age of seventeen, he maintained an anti-war stance and also contributed to Y Deyrnas

These men, however brave they may have been, were too old to be called up to fight. When we come to the conscientious objectors themselves, perhaps the saddest case of all is that of John Llewellyn Evans, who died of consumption as a result of the ill-treatment he received after being sentenced to hard labour - it was difficult to prove, but questions were asked in Parliament, where the Under-Secretary of State for War was told that Evans had previously "never suffered a day's illness".  Evans had been in training as a Christian missionary. His name now appears on a plaque in Tavistock Square, London, in memory of those who followed their consciences by refusing to participate in the First World War.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

How it all began...

The annual cricket match between Matfield Cricket Club and Sherston's XI was held for the first time in 2006.  It was the brainchild of the late Bob Miller, a member not only of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship but of a number of other literary societies.

Bob was a remarkable man, who, despite his outgoing and jovial exterior, managed to hide a good deal of his light under a bushel.  The work of Siegfried Sassoon was one of many interests, ranging from golf to politics.  He even tried to found a club for bow-tie wearers! For his work in setting up the annual match, he was awarded life membership of the SSF in 2012 – an honour reserved for a select few - but sadly did not have much time to enjoy it, as he passed away in 2014 aged only 66. 

Not only was Siegfried Sassoon fond of cricket, but his friend and fellow-poet Edmund Blunden shared his love of the game, as did their mutual friend, the SSF President, Dennis Silk, who continues to attend the match, occasionally umpiring and often presenting the trophy.  It was at Fenners cricket ground in Cambridge that Dennis and Siegfried first met.  Siegfried continued to play cricket into his seventies, often as a member of the Downside Abbey XI.

Simon Knott, the captain of Matfield CC in the early years, was an enthusiastic supporter of the match, which, thankfully, continues, largely through the combined efforts of the present Matfield captain Peter Danby and his SSF equivalent Jeremy Lawson (Siegfried’s great-great-nephew).  "Deadly" Derek Underwood, now a local resident, has been another frequent supporter. 

The match was originally held on a weekday afternoon, which meant anyone who wanted to see it and was not retired had to take a day off work.  This did not greatly help attendances, but the move to a Sunday made it much easier for the SSF committee and other visitors to join the fun.  I say “fun” because I always enjoy it but inevitably some members are less enamoured of the game of cricket.  The new arrangement also makes it possible to combine the match with the fete weekend, with the Horticultural Society's marquee standing at the boundary opposite the refurbished pavilion.

The first match was recorded for posterity on an imaginative DVD made by Andrew Chapman, who played several times for Sherston's XI before moving to another part of England, making a triumphant return to the team in 2015. Andrew tells me that he hopes to repeat this exercise at some future date.

This year’s match was an absolute cracker, with the result decided in the final over when Sherston’s XI managed to get Matfield all out.  I generally consider a victory for Sherston’s to be little short of miraculous, bearing in mind that it is a scratch team with only half a dozen actual SSF members ever having played.  Chris Sutherby was a shoo-in for the Bob Miller Man-of-the-Match Award, for his century in the Sherston’s innings plus a fantastic one-handed catch to remove one of Matfield’s batsmen (the kind of thing you wish you could see an action replay of).

Although sometimes referred to as the "Flower-Show Match", it is not a faithful replay of the original, which, for those who are new to Sassoon, features prominently in his book Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.  Leaving aside the fact that the names of the characters and places involved are changed in the memoirs of Sassoon's fictional alter ego, George Sherston, the match on which he bases his account was played, not on Matfield village green but at Brenchley cricket ground a few miles away.

None of this alters the fact that the match has now gathered its own momentum and Matfield Cricket Club seem to look forward to it as much as the rest of us do.  If only everything else in life could bring us such simple and unadulterated enjoyment.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

To Matfield with Love

My involvement with the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship has given me so many memorable weekends (not to mention the weekdays) over the years that it would be difficult to single out a particular experience.  However, our 2016 weekend in Siegfried’s home village of Matfield has to be a contender.

There were three separate, but connected, events on 16th-17th July.  We began on Saturday with the annual village fete.  To tell the truth, Jack Sturiano and I started somewhat earlier in the day, by paying a visit to Matfield’s parish church, where Siegfried’s brother, Hamo, is commemorated by an excellent information board; their mother, Theresa, lies buried in the churchyard.  For the casual visitor, the grave is difficult to find, partly because the ground has subsided beneath the memorial cross, and partly because the inscription is at the base of the cross, necessitating the removal of excess grass in order to read it.

This is only the second time the SSF has attempted to run a stall at Matfield fete.  On that earlier occasion, our efforts were dampened by monsoon conditions (which quickly cleared at 4pm, after all the stalls had been packed away).  This time we had the benefit of a small marquee, kindly shared by the Local History Society, whose exhibition of photographs of the village and some of its Victorian and Edwardian residents attracted great interest from visitors, many of whom paused to share their stories and memories of the Sassoon family.  These included Mrs Pollard, a great-great-granddaughter of Richardson the groom.

Pentons and Lawsons meet for the first time at our stall
Among our own number we could boast several close connections with the bard of Matfield.  Lorna Lawson, Siegfried’s great-niece, opened the fete at the special request of the organising committee, commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme with a short speech.  Lorna’s husband Tim and their son Jeremy were also present, as were Enid Wells, a former resident of Weirleigh (Siegfried’s birthplace), and her son Adrian – who was actually born in the house.  Newer members of the SSF include Anne Penton, a great-niece of Siegfried’s great friend, David Cuthbert Thomas.  

Anne and her husband Tim made a welcome contribution to our programme of “pop-up” readings, as did several pupils of the local secondary school, Mascalls Academy.  We were impressed by the youngsters’ appreciation of the poems they read, especially since the youngest was only eleven years old (but she read like a seasoned old trouper). As is usual with our impromptu readings, we were not sure how many of the passers-by understood what we were doing, but heads certainly turned.  Sam Gray and Meg Crane managed to take over the PA system at one point, though it must be admitted that it was barely more effective in terms of reaching a wider audience. Meanwhile, back at base, Enid was listening to the test match commentary on a portable radio, unwittingly recreating that famous photograph of Dennis Silk, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon on the porch at Heytesbury House.

There was so much interest in our activities on Saturday afternoon that we anticipate picking up a few new members as a result.  It’s always good to have the locals on board, and they won’t be disappointed after they’ve attended a few of our events and read our wonderful bi-annual Journal.   

And then there was our annual dinner – not so well-attended this year, but extremely enjoyable nonetheless.  The Wheelwrights Arms, right next to Matfield Green, kindly accommodated us on Saturday evening and we enjoyed a gourmet meal and good conversation enlivened by what I thoughtlessly referred to as an “inter-course reading” by Enid Wells of a passage from Siegfried’s Journey.  It was some years since we had dined formally at the Wheelwrights, and the management has changed in the meantime, but the food was not in any way a disappointment.  Jack's photograph shows a crowd of relaxed and cheerful people who have well and truly enjoyed their day.

Thursday, 7 July 2016


Have we heard enough about The Battle of the Somme?

I ask the question because it seems to me that the media – and perhaps the general public – seem to be obsessive about the Somme.  When you hear the word “Somme”, it is generally synonymous with the slaughter of 1 July 1916.  Yet however many times the details are explained to us, albeit in a dumbed-down fashion, we seem unable to get over that initial gut response. Many people still believe that “a million men were killed on the first day of the Somme”, which is far from the truth.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that the Battle of the Somme was a minor incident that should only be seen in the context of the war as a whole.  It was surely a catalyst, and that is why it has become symbolic of the enormous loss of life – wasted life, if you like – that occurred in Europe between 1914 and 1918.  However, when Sassoon was witnessing the battle, he did not see it in quite the same light as we do now.  It's true that it became well-known very quickly, partly thanks to the film, made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, that circulated in cinemas and brought home to non-combatants at least some of the horrors their friends and family members were facing on the Western Front.

The first public viewing of the film occurred as early as 10 August 1916, while the Somme campaign was still going on - it would not draw to a close until November.  Not everyone was happy with the decision to show it in cinemas.  A bishop referred to it as "an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement", whereas Lloyd George called it "an epic of self-sacrifice and gallantry".  While it was doing the rounds of the cinemas, King George V, together with Prime Minister Asquith and Lloyd George, toured the battlefields with words of encouragement for the troops, and this too became the subject of a film.

The King Visits His Armies in the Great Advance was followed at the beginning of 1917 by The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, a real propaganda coup which showed how, in November, Britain had begun to use tanks on the Somme, a devastating blow to enemy morale.  Sassoon's reaction to the film is well-known because of the poem he wrote about it: "Blighters". Written at Litherland, the poem reveals Siegfried's contempt for those who, without understanding what he and his comrades have been exposed to, apparently enjoy watching the scenes of slaughter on screen.  

I always think of the poem as being somewhat unfair, particularly in the way it seems to target the female half of the audience, whom he calls "harlots".  What were the public to think, when all they knew of war was what the government cared to tell them?  Was it the falseness of the message that Siegfried objected to, rather than the reception it got from cinema-goers?  

Whatever the answer, we have heard a lot about the Somme in recent weeks, and there is more to come, with a whole BBC2 series on the topic beginning next week, introduced by Peter Barton, who introduced us to some of the more technical aspects of the battle in War of Words, the recently-repeated documentary on the war poets which renewed my admiration for Siegfried Sassoon but also made me want to go back to the work of some of his contemporaries, prose as well as poetry - books like Bernard Adams' Nothing of Importance, particularly notable for being the only memoir of the war to have been published while it was still going on.  Peter Barton himself co-produced War of Words with Sebastian Barfield.

The new series, The Somme 1916: from Both Sides of the Wire is in three parts and will, as the title suggests, consider the experiences of the opposing armies. It looks set to give us some insights that could be as shocking as any of the revelations contained in the Chilcot Report.  Yet if more people had read Sassoon, perhaps we would not have needed Chilcot at all. Is it hopeless to believe that humankind will ever learn the lessons history has to offer us?


Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Talybont Experience

"We go this way," said my husband, pointing out the route of the Henry Vaughan walk, just before going back to our guest house to fetch something from the boot of the car. "See? Just down there. It's straightforward." 

It sounded straightforward.  How was I to know he was holding the map upside down?  I reckon he did it deliberately.

When we caught up with one another about 15 minutes later, we headed up the old Bryn Oer (or Brinore) tramway track that once carried horse-drawn trucks of stone from local quarries down to the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Talybont-on-Usk for transport to Pontypridd and Newport. After a short while we arrived at the "Henry Vaughan Garden". The information panel gave the impression that this was meant to be along the lines of a 17th-century physic garden, but I could not see any plants other than grass. There was a very nice seat carved out of a tree trunk, and the stumpy base of a wooden structure - I think it must have been a bench - that had either been vandalised or simply rotted away.

In some places, the trail was difficult to follow because the swan motifs that marked the way had either been removed or had perished.  In my innocence, I had assumed that the route would take us to Henry Vaughan's grave at Llansantffraed Church, but it went nowhere near.  I suppose that the reason is the A40 which cuts off the church from the Talybont community it originally served. Nowadays only a handful of houses are within easy walking distance of the church, and the layby that provides the only parking place can get very congested when there is a special event taking place, as there was on Saturday evening.

"The Albatross meets the Swan" is a slogan that has been used locally this year to mark a series of events recognising the 200th anniversary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's work Biographia Literaria, at the same time commemorating Coleridge's visit to Wales in June 1794.  Like Siegfried Sassoon, Coleridge had dropped out of Cambridge (Henry Vaughan dropped out of Oxford) and, in the company of a friend named Joseph Hucks, he set off on a walking tour. Having been rejected in love by Mary Evans, a London Welsh girl, he decided to walk around her homeland; I do not know whether this was a coincidence. 

Interior of Llansantffraed Church
Coleridge eventually ended up in Bristol, where he settled for a while.  In 1795, he gave a lecture that was attended by the Welsh pseudo-bard Iolo Morganwg, a man whose reputation as a charlatan has been repaired in recent years by academic recognition of the more positive aspects of his activities, so much so that his home town of Cowbridge now has a "Iolo Morganwg Trail" and a school named after him. Coleridge's words made a big impact on Iolo, and thus an indirect impact on the cultural development of Wales, just as the Welsh landscape and people are said to have made an impact on Coleridge's own work.

Henry Vaughan died a hundred years before Coleridge met Iolo. Thus "The Albatross" (Coleridge) could never have encountered "The Swan" (Vaughan was known as "The Swan of Usk") in person. But he travelled through the Usk valley so beloved of Vaughan, and did so when walking was not such a fashionable occupation as it is now. The concert given on Saturday evening was planned by the Brecknock Society as a homage to both Coleridge and Vaughan, a combination of music, song and poetry "celebrating God, nature and Man".

Coleridge's poetry was not heard, the reason given being that he had written very little of it when he embarked on his Welsh odyssey. Several of Vaughan's poems were read, by two local enthusiasts, Robert Wilcher and Mervyn Bramley.  The music was performed by Dr Bramley's son - lutenist James Bramley, by the soprano Hannah Medlam, and by the Unicorn Singers under the direction of Stephen Marshall.  It included works by Parry, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, composers who straddled the turn of the 20th century and whose work would have been well known to Siegfried Sassoon, but also by earlier composers such as Dowland and Purcell (the latter died in the same year as Henry Vaughan). A highlight was Stephen Marshall's own arrangement of verses by local poet Jeff Rees, on a Welsh mythological theme.

If you would like to support Llansantffraed Church and the work being done locally to encourage interest in Henry Vaughan and, indirectly, in Siegfried Sassoon, you can find further information here: .