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".