Saturday, 23 April 2016

Grief Observed

I’m imagining a big variety show going on in Heaven.  The compere is Terry Wogan, and Pierre Boulez conducts the orchestra in an overture of his own composition. The first half consists of a Victoria Wood special, with Ronnie Corbett, Alan Rickman, Frank Finlay, Gareth Thomas and Sheila Sim all taking cameo roles in “Acorn Antiques”, with a script co-written by Arnold Wesker.  Following the interval, during which Howard Marks serves drinks and nibbles (with assistance from Johann Cruyff), Paul Daniels does a set, giving way to Percy Sledge and Merle Haggard, who each do a couple of numbers arranged by Sir George Martin.  Joint top of the bill are Bowie and Prince with their band featuring Keith Emerson on keyboards and Black on backing vocals. The whole show is produced by Robert Stigwood.

People do die.  The swathe of “celebrity” deaths in the first four months of 2016 has attracted comment, but it’s not that unprecedented. It's just that the news gets out more quickly these days, and nothing much goes unreported. Looking back to 1963, two giants of the literary world, CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley, both died on the day President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas; consequently their deaths went almost unnoticed by the world’s media.  Likewise, the death earlier this year of novelist Anita Brookner had passed me by; I have read half a dozen of her books. 

Brookner, an art historian by discipline, did not begin her career in writing fiction until she was in her fifties. Her parents were Polish Jews, real name Bruckner which (ironically) they changed during the First World War because of anti-German feeling.  Many of her books deal with people in her own situation – people from Jewish backgrounds, often caring for elderly relatives.  I am sorry that there won't be any more.

I read an interesting article about how celebrity deaths affect the lives of their fans.  In many cases, they feel as if they have lost a family member. This is perhaps more understandable in the case of actors and musicians, now that the mass media has brought them closer to us and enabled “ordinary” people to become familiar with the appearances, voices, mannerisms and even the personal lives of those they admire.  With writers, I think, it is the recognition of a “voice” that chimes with the reader’s own feelings, as the voices of Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy and other writers do with mine.  If the writer is very skilful, he or she can take on another voice, putting him- or herself into the place of a person who is really nothing like them.  People are often disappointed when they meet their idols face to face and they realise that the actor is not the same as the fictional character they portray on screen (or in print).

Sometimes, or so I gather, a celebrity death can become confused in a person’s mind with a personal loss.  For example, one woman who had recently lost her grandfather without displaying any great outward emotion, found herself devastated by the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014. Other people often find such reactions inexplicable and even laugh at those who experience them.  Columnist and rock drummer Tim Thornton sensibly asks: “What damage does it do to anyone else if someone is waxing lyrical in a slightly embarrassing manner?” The repression of emotion is often associated with being British, and an opposite tendency is one of the things we look down on “foreigners” for.   There is a widespread suspicion that giving vent to such feelings is a sign of immaturity and/or lack of self-discipline.

Wartime is when the “stiff upper lip” shows itself most clearly.  During the Blitz, ordinary Londoners got on with their lives, with a minimum of grumbling.  Many must have felt they could not afford to show strong emotion, as they needed all their energy to care for their families, and sometimes simply to survive.  Repression of emotion is not always good, however, as Sassoon learned from Rivers.

Although mass hysteria may not be desirable, it does sometimes result from a genuine wave of public feeling. I cannot imagine any admirer of Victoria Wood becoming involved in the kind of scenes that took place at the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 (can it really be more than a quarter of a century ago?) but perhaps the occasion fulfilled a need for his followers to vent their feelings. Violence is not normally the British way, though.

The media, who are so often responsible for stirring up trouble where there was none, have long been a problem for those attempting to grieve privately.  At Thomas Hardy's star-studded funeral in Westminster Abbey - far from the quiet family occasion Hardy wanted for himself - Sassoon was too distressed to sit in the front-row seat reserved for him, and never forgave Humbert Wolfe for the way he used the occasion to publicise himself and almost immediately turned on Hardy by publishing criticisms of his poetry.  At T E Lawrence's funeral a few years later, Sassoon physically assaulted a would-be photographer at the graveside. "Let me have my feelings to myself," he wrote in his diary, unwilling to share his grief even with his wife.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Snowball Effect

While strolling along Lamb's Conduit Street in Bloomsbury on Saturday last, looking for a likely place to enjoy a leisurely coffee before The Lamb opened its doors at 12 noon, it crossed my mind that I might bump into Cynthia Greenwood.  This has happened on several previous occasions, as Cynthia and I seem to have a mysterious empathy when a desire for liquid refreshment strikes us.

Standing on the corner (not, as far as I know, watching all the girls go by), was that doyen of the War Poets Association, David Worthington, who informed me that he was awaiting the arrival of two friends, who were late for their appointment.  It was just then that one of these much-maligned friends greeted David from the doorway of the cafe (they had been awaiting him within while he enjoyed some spring sunshine at an outside table). True to form, who should be sitting at the next table but Cynthia?

Before long, another member had been waylaid on his way to The Lamb, and the snowball effect was beginning to be noticeable. It struck me that this is an effect well illustrated by the growth in SSF membership (and no doubt the growth of many other literary societies). A member once commented to me that "once you start coming to these things, you can't stop." Addictive, this literature business.

It certainly seems to be the case with The Lamb.  For those of you who wonder why we are still holding meetings in the upstairs room of a pub with limited space (and I'm asked as regularly as clockwork), the answer is that affordable venues in London are not easy to come by. This is not our annual conference, and it is priced accordingly. It was conceived as a cheap and cheerful members-only event, and demand sometimes exceeds supply, but we usually manage to squeeze everyone in somehow.  Moreover, we nearly always have attendees who have never been to a WOA or SSF meeting before, which is remarkable.

So, if you are thinking "maybe next year", what can you expect to find on your arrival?  I cannot deny that there will be quite a few people milling around trying to find seats.  If you are having lunch, I cannot guarantee when your meal will come out of the kitchen (relative to everyone else's) but I can guarantee that it will be worth waiting for when it does.  I can also promise that there will be a lot of noise - it generally takes twenty seconds or so before the whole room becomes aware that the Chair is trying to speak.  You can, however, be sure that what comes out of her mouth will be sensible.

You can look forward to hearing good speakers, and the variety of subject matter is notable.  Men and women from various backgrounds, both academic and "ordinary", have addressed the group in recent years, on topics ranging from the influence of the classics on poets of the First World War to the nefarious activities of Siegfried Sassoon's lover Stephen Tennant.  This year, Dr Paul Norgate and sculptor Anthony Padgett kept us entertained and interested for a couple of hours, and we rounded off the meeting with a few drinks in the downstairs bar.

At this point, you may be expecting me to tell you about the talks we heard at The Lamb on 2nd April.  However, if you are a member of either the WOA or SSF, you will be able to read all about these in the next edition of Siegfried's Journal.  If, on the other hand, you are not yet a member... You know, you really should join us.