Sunday, 29 January 2017

Unexpected Connections

I had been looking for a snappy title for this blog post, something more meaningful than "unexpected connections", even though that was what it was going to be about. So I googled the phrase and found it unexpectedly popular. There have been quite a number of conferences with that title, although I admit that the first search result to catch my eye was "it seems men's underwear and champagne can tell you a lot about the economy". Perhaps it caught so many other people's eyes that it rapidly rose to the top of the search results.
However, I am not going to write about either men's underwear or champagne; if that disappoints you, you only have to google to find something more interesting to read. No, I am going to talk briefly about the biography of Ted Hughes I'm reading and how it has led me down many different paths of enquiry.
To be honest, I have never been a huge fan of Ted Hughes. In my teens, I read Al Alvarez's book, The Savage God, a study of suicide, which came out in 1972. I confess that the subject of suicide then fascinated me, although at that point I had not personally known anyone who had later killed themselves. (In time, I would.) Alvarez's book used the story of Sylvia Plath - a close friend of his - to illustrate certain facts about the phenomenon of suicide and the motivation that can bring it about. As a result of publishing it, he fell out, more or less permanently, with Ted Hughes, who blamed him for exposing the couple's private lives to the general public.
In a 2000 edition of Desert Island Discs, Alvarez told Sue Lawley that he still felt he had failed Sylvia Plath. He admitted that, despite having suffered from clinical depression himself, he "didn't know what it was when I was in it", and was therefore unable to make the right responses when he saw the danger signs in Plath's behaviour. There are several connections that lead from Sylvia Plath to Siegfried Sassoon - who himself suffered from depression on many occasions, particularly after his experiences in the First World War.
To return to Ted Hughes, however, the biography contains several mentions of The Lamb, a famous and historic public house in Bloomsbury which the SSF and WOA visit every spring (and will again on 11th March 2017) for an enjoyable joint meeting. I've written about it on many previous occasions, so I will say only that it was, at one time, a meeting-place for Hughes, Plath and their many literary friends. It is quite close to where the Poetry Bookshop, the establishment founded by Harold Monro in 1913, once stood - another place much frequented by names such as Wilfred Owen and Wilfrid Gibson. Also not far away is Queen Square, where the hospital once known as the "National Hospital for Diseases of the Nervous System" still stands. Founded in 1859, it was the location for Lewis Yealland's now notorious treatments of shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War; Yealland does not emerge well from the pages of Pat Barker's Regeneration - and quite right too.
Once again, connections are leading me away from my starting-point. Reading the biography of Hughes has not exactly endeared him to me, though I don't share the popular feminist view that he was directly responsible for the suicides of two women who had loved him. What startled me was the discovery that I had recently met one of Sylvia Plath's greatest friends, the American poet Ruth Fainlight, who had been described to me as "the wife of Alan Sillitoe". I should, of course, have known better. Fainlight and her late husband, in addition to being friends of Plath and Hughes, had lived for some years in Mallorca, where they became acquainted with - who else but Robert Graves? How these famous writers gravitate towards one another! And thus another Sassoon connection landed in my lap.
But the biography hadn't finished throwing surprises at me, oh no. It had not escaped my notice that the writer Emma Tennant died recently, but it was rather a surprise to learn that she had been one of Ted Hughes' many romantic partners; her 1999 account of their affair, Burnt Diaries, had passed me by. (Another one for the reading list!) I had also forgotten, until I read her obituary, that she was a niece of Stephen Tennant, the daughter of his elder brother, Christopher, who inherited the title of Baron Glenconner in 1920, his eldest brother, "Bim", having been killed in action in 1916.
The trail of unexpected connections thus leads, for those who choose to follow that path, to a churchyard in Mells, Somerset, which many of you will have visited. The manor house next door was the home of Herbert Asquith, prime minister of the United Kingdom during the years 1908-1916. In 1894, Asquith married, as his second wife, Margot Tennant, the sister of the 1st Baron Glenconner and thus a great-aunt of Emma Tennant. This remarkable woman and her husband became friends of Sassoon's during the war and remained so for many years. Yet it was not they who introduced Siegfried to Margot's nephew Stephen, with whom he would have one of the most enduring relationships of his life. They met through the his literary friends, the Sitwells; and that is quite another story.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Hello 2017

2016 was a funny old year. One of those years you don't really want to repeat itself - rather like 1916, I suppose. There must have been many families looking forward to 1917 with less than enthusiastic anticipation, having lost loved ones on the Western Front in the course of the previous year and knowing that there was more to come and no end in sight.
Since the countries where most of us live are not officially in the middle of a war at the moment, we have to be sanguine about the coming year and hope that international events will not be of the "disaster movie" variety that some years of the 21st century have been. As we look back on 2016, I thought it would be an idea, instead of talking about all the media personalities who have passed away, to consider the careers some of the poets and writers who died during the year. It is so often their words that give us hope for the future.
Sir Geoffrey Hill, who died in June aged 84, was perhaps better-known as an academic than as a poet, but he had begun to make a name for himself while still a student at Oxford, his first collection, For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958, coming out in 1959. Later collections, such as King Log and Mercian Hymns, used early Christian history as subject matter. He continued to write devotional poetry, and was seen by some critics as the natural successor of T S Eliot. Like Siegfried Sassoon, he was the winner of a Hawthornden Prize, and he ended his career in the much sought-after role of Oxford Professor of Poetry, in which he has been succeeded by Simon Armitage.
Other English-language poets who passed away during 2016 included 94-year-old Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest known for his involvement in the anti-Vietnam protest movement of the 1960s (which briefly put him on the FBI's "most wanted" list). His compatriot, Carolyn Wright (who wrote as C D Wright), often wrote with a "Southern" voice, and lived in many parts of the USA before becoming Poet Laureate of the tiny state of Rhode Island in 1994. "Jock Scot" (real name John Leslie) was a performance poet from Edinburgh, where he was well known for his appearances at the Fringe. Adam Small, a South African "Coloured" writer, produced both poetry and prose, in English and Afrikaans, much of it dealing with racial issues.
Perhaps most notable among the list of 2016's dead poets was Leonard Cohen, the Canadian who became better known as a singer-songwriter (though he admitted he couldn't sing), a career he took up during the 1960s in order to sell more of his poetry. Nicknamed "the poet laureate of pessimism", he produced verse that, when translated into song, was often dismissed as "music to slit your wrists by", but nevertheless gained a huge following. Cohen was a perfectionist: his song "Hallelujah", which achieved popularity about twenty years after he first recorded it, originally had eighty verses, of which only six appear in the final version. It seems to have struck a chord with the present generation, although interpretations of the lyric's true meaning vary considerably.
We seem to have lost a disproportionate number of dramatists during the year, including such giants as the UK's Arnold Wesker, who made his name in the late 1950s with Roots and Chicken Soup with Barley, the US's Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and Italy's Nobel Laureate Dario Fo (Can't Pay? Won't Pay!). Sir Peter Shaffer, twin brother of another playwright, the late Anthony Shaffer, is known for numerous outstanding plays, including Equus, Amadeus, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, all of which were successfully adapted for the big screen. Ireland's William Trevor was a dramatist, novelist and short-story writer who won three Whitbread Prizes and was nominated five times for the Booker, though he never won it.
Anita Brookner, who died in March aged 87, did win the Booker Prize, for her 1984 novel Hotel du Lac (not, in my opinion, her finest). Her Jewish father had brought the family out of Poland and changed their name from Bruckner to avoid anti-German harassment during the Second World War. This background is reflected in most of her novels, as is her interest in art history, which was Brookner's main occupation until she retired from academia.
Another successful English female novelist who died during the year was Margaret Forster, whose 1960s best-seller Georgy Girl was perhaps eclipsed by her work as a biographer; her subjects included Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And of course, on Christmas Eve, the literary world said goodbye to 96-year-old Richard Adams, author of the children's classic Watership Down and other novels based on the lives of animals, such as The Plague Dogs and Shardik.
There is nothing unusual about famous writers dying. Most have to wait until middle age to achieve success and, in view of their relatively stress-free lifestyle, can hope to live to a ripe old age. There are not many Keats, Shelleys and Byrons around nowadays, to die of tuberculosis, drowning or blood poisoning. And - perhaps fortunately - there are not many war poets either.