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?