Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Outlook Positive

One question I keep being asked, by people who have seen the details of the forthcoming Alliance of Literary Societies conference, is "What is the Outlook Tower?" I admit I haven't been very forthcoming on that subject because I am not an expert. I've been to Edinburgh a couple of times but didn't know anything about this building until my colleagues from the Wilfred Owen Association filled me in on the subject.
The Outlook Tower contains what is known as a "camera obscura", which literally means a dark room, a name it gained from its origins in medieval times. Actually, while the Western world was experimenting with this phenomenon, it was already well known in other cultures, and may well have been used in prehistoric times as a drawing aid. Many believe that this was the secret of the Dutch Masters, such as Vermeer, enabling them to achieve the almost photographic realism of for which their paintings are noted.
Controversy arose early in the nineteenth century when an astronomer set up an observatory practically next door to Edinburgh Castle, by adding a couple of storeys to an existing house. The project was continued and improved on by Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), who turned it into a museum. This is how the building was organised during the First World War, when Wilfred Owen arrived in the city. Owen's psychiatrist, Dr Brock (not, as some mistakenly think, Dr Rivers, who treated Siegfried Sassoon), set him the task of writing a report about the building - a building which Owen describes as "an Allegory" and "a philosophical poem". He formed the impression that the building had a soul, which accompanied the visitor from room to room.
Brock encouraged Owen's interest in poetry, and among other things this resulted in the newcomer becoming editor of the Hydra, a magazine written by the patients, of which most copies are held in the War Poets Collection at Craiglockhart, which we will be able to see when we visit on 3rd June this year. It was to seek a contribution to the magazine that Owen tentatively approached an even newer patient, Siegfried Sassoon, a few months later.
Nowadays, the contents of the Outlook Tower have changed somewhat. Although the camera obscura is still in operation - Derren Brown has given it a testimonial, describing it as "the finest I've seen" - the building has become a modern visitor attraction, rigged out with "an amazing range of optical experiences", intended to appeal to all the family. The World of Illusions, as it is called, includes a display called "Edinburgh Vision", based on views of the city as it would have been in Victorian days, a picture that Owen and Sassoon might perhaps have found more familiar than the Edinburgh of today.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Apocalypse Now?

Some readers may be wondering what I've been up to recently, and why the blog posts have been so thin on the ground recently. The answer is that I've been busy putting together the arrangements for the ALS conference in Edinburgh, which we are this year jointly hosting with the Wilfred Owen Association. Although many others have contributed to the effort, I have inevitably been the central liaison point for most of the queries and complications that have arisen during this process, which has been going on for nearly two years now. Forget Brexit negotiations; can life possibly be that much more difficult for Theresa May than it is for someone organising a conference?
Well, yes, all right, maybe what I've been doing isn't quite as critical, or as taxing, as international diplomatic activities. I'm sure many of us are depressed about the political events of 2016 and apprehensive about the future of Europe and the rise of neo-Fascism throughout the western world. It must seem to many that Armageddon is on our doorstep.
        What did the people of Edinburgh think when, late on the evening of 2nd April 1916, a Zeppelin bomber arrived over the Forth estuary? It was one of four dispatched from Germany with the intention of attacking the naval base at Rosyth; the other three had gone off-course and presented no danger to the citizens of Edinburgh. Unable to locate the base on this dark, foggy night, the remaining airship headed for Leith, where it dropped a total of twenty bombs. As it crossed the city, people came out to see what was happening. Most families had only gas lighting in their houses; had they been equipped with electricity, they would have known that something was seriously wrong when their power went off. Out in the open, they could clearly make out the ghostly shape of the giant craft hovering above them. They would have been much safer if they had stayed indoors.
         Bombs were dropped close to Edinburgh Castle, where the panicking garrison is alleged to have fired blanks from the "One O'Clock Gun" as a deterrent. In the doorway of a tenement block, a crowd of people sheltering from the attack were killed when a high-explosive bomb landed nearby. The Royal Infirmary was hit, as were some schools, a whisky warehouse, and the Grassmarket, now an area popular with tourists for its hotels and restaurants. Thirteen people died altogether, among them 27-year-old David Robertson, who had recently been discharged from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards for health reasons.
         Let us, at least temporarily, forget the distant spectre of Britain's isolation from Europe and the possibility of the suffering that might result from growing racial intolerance and imperialist aggression, and put ourselves in the places of those people who were in imminent danger of losing their lives. A private in the Highland Light Infantry who was on duty in the early hours of the morning came across three terrified small children in one of the city's parks and escorted them home.  In Leith Hospital, anxious VAD nurses had been ordered to carry all their patients downstairs. After turning off all lighting, they reported that the windows were red with the reflection of the flames from incendiary bombs. Robert Robb lost his one-year-old son, who was killed when hit by a fragment of a shell. A minister, a doctor and their families were among those who had miraculous escapes, losing their homes but emerging unhurt from the rubble.
         Just over a year later, a 24-year-old junior officer named Wilfred Owen would arrive in the city of Edinburgh to be, at least partially, healed of the personal suffering and psychological damage done to him by the First World War. He would find, in that damaged place, a certain amount of comfort and the inspiration to write his best-known poems. He would find a new friend and mentor in 29-year-old Siegfried Sassoon, who was struggling with his own demons. Between them, these two men would take English poetry to new levels.