Thursday, 28 September 2017

At Home in Cambridge

The fortunate few who were able to attend this year's AGM on 16th September at St Paul's Church Centre, Cambridge, had a very enjoyable time - and I apologise to those three people who went to a different church thanks to a postcode error made by me in the original announcement. Thankfully, they arrived in time for the two wonderful talks. Somehow, we always seem to find great speakers for the AGM and invariably we are given new or previously-overlooked information about Siegfried Sassoon, his work and his friends.
This year, by something of a fluke, our two speakers were both Cambridge residents. I mean to say that we chose the venue before we had finalised the speaker programme and we were lucky to get two local people who are experts in their particular fields as well as being members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.
It was lovely to see Kayleigh Fitzgerald again. Those of you who have been members for more than five years will remember Kayleigh as a committee member, but recent years have seen her having to interrupt her academic studies, as well as her work on a biography of W H R Rivers, because of ill health. She is now studying theology at St John's College, Cambridge, and we were very happy to see her looking so well. Kayleigh and her boyfriend are both preparing to be ordained as Anglican priests and we wish them every success in their future careers.
Kayleigh's interest in William Halse Rivers Rivers [sic] goes back to her schooldays, and the opportunity to study at St John's, where Rivers was a Fellow and where he died suddenly in 1922 (Or was it? Apparently there are conflicting versions of the story), was one she couldn't resist. In her scholarly and comprehensive talk, she gave us a whistle-stop tour of his life and career which was much appreciated by the knowledgeable audience, concentrating particularly on his investigations into the repression of memory, a phenomenon to which he could strongly relate because of his own personal experience and which helped him treat patients like Siegfried Sassoon.
  Our second speaker, Anne Penton, is the great-niece of David Cuthbert Thomas, Siegfried's closest wartime friend. David was only 21 when he died, and might have done great things if he had not become a victim of the carnage of the Western Front. Anne has researched his life and family background in great detail, and has already written several fascinating articles on the subject for Siegfried's Journal. The audience was very excited when she produced several artefacts that had belonged either to David himself or to his family. These included his school rugby cap and his service book. Perhaps because of his youth, he had not written anything like the number of personal notes into the book as Sassoon did. Sassoon mentions in his diaries that he recalled David taking notes on his poetry while they talked, but no such notes have been found; they have probably gone the way of most students' lecture notes and it seems unlikely we will ever see them.
At the end of the afternoon, we were joined by Nick Jewers of BBC Wiltshire, who is in the process of preparing a radio programme about Sassoon and happened to be in Cambridge on that day. Nick interviewed the Chair and Vice Chair, and even followed us to the pub for additional informal conversation (some of which will, no doubt, need to be excised from his recording for reasons other than length!) We are looking forward to hearing more about his programme in the future.

Monday, 4 September 2017

A Rather English Abbey

It only struck me last weekend that there may be tourists these days who turn up at Downside Abbey believing it to be Downton Abbey. In fact, I will be surprised if this is not the case. Downton Abbey was, however, completely unheard-of last time I visited Downside, in 2007. So many things have changed, among them the conference facilities, which have moved from the St Bede Centre which we used for the SSF conference ten years ago to the Weld Cafe (both are equally difficult to find until you know your way around the multi-purpose complex of abbey and school).
The reason for visiting on this occasion was a symposium organised by Joseph Melling to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Dom Sebastian Moore, whom I had interviewed on camera in 2007. Sadly, my DVD of this meeting has deteriorated, and the Abbey seem to have lost the copies we gave them at the time. As a result I wasn't able to show the film as planned. Instead, I gave a talk to the small but knowledgeable audience about Siegfried Sassoon, his conversion to Catholicism and his relationship with Sebastian. For those who do not know, the two men met in 1957 - sixty years ago - when Sebastian was appointed to give Siegfried his instruction in the Catholic faith. Ten years later, Sassoon died at nearby Heytesbury House, but by this time Sebastian was working as a parish priest in Liverpool. He subsequently spent some years in the United States, as a college chaplain, first in Milwaukee and later in Boston.
Like Siegfried, Sebastian was a rebel, though mainly in theological terms. He had also suffered a mental breakdown, which he agreed might have led to him forming a closer bond with Siegfried than would otherwise have been possible. It is difficult, looking at Downside now, to imagine anyone either wanting to rebel or being unhappy there. The monastic community seem to be very laid-back about their duties. When I spotted an old acquaintance, Father Alexander, in the road outside the abbey, I thought for a moment he must have left the order, as he was wearing an old sweater and serviceable trousers, which he explained by saying that he had just been on a pleasant country walk.
Apart from having to get up early in the morning for Lauds, it was difficult to see any sign of hardship in the life of a 21st-century monk. One of my fellow guests did tell me that he had seen a bat in the monastery's sleeping quarters (the part that I, as a woman, was not allowed to enter), and of course they have to share a bathroom and are expected to eat their meals in silence. All seem like a small price to pay for having the beautiful Victorian Gothic buildings in golden Bath stone around one all the time, surrounded by well-tended gardens and the kind of rolling countryside so typical of south-west England. Father Dominic Mansi, who looked after us in the guest wing, seems a progressive thinker and even apologised for women not being allowed to roam freely!
The symposium was an international affair, with American, Irish and Portuguese academics among the speakers, not to mention Father Louis Roy, Master of Sacred Theology at the Dominican University College in Ottawa, Canada. Those attending included former students of Downside School - now very much segregated from the Abbey even though the two institutions share the same site - and others who knew Sebastian, including theologian Peter Harvey, who told me that he had played cricket alongside Siegfried Sassoon. Peter kindly corrected me when I stated that the Ravens, Downside's cricket team, had been trained by the late Father Martin Salmon. "None of us were trained," said Peter. "Martin just happened to be the captain." I hope to persuade him to write up some of his memories for Siegfried's Journal at some future date.
Also present was our own Lindsey Spears, who taught at Downside School and knew Sebastian Moore well. At one time it had looked as if I would not be able to attend the symposium and Lindsey had agreed to fill in for me if necessary; in the end, the timings were changed and I was able to make my appearance after all. Even though I was unable to attend the afternoon session, I would have been very disappointed to miss it altogether. Luckily Joseph had distributed transcripts of all the talks to us, so we could read them at our leisure. However, I must say that some of them stray into arcane theological territory which left me feeling intellectually inadequate (and anyone who knows me will understand how difficult it is for me to admit that).
I have one final tip on visiting Downside, which seems not to be generally known to local tourist agencies. The abbey's visitor centre, which is run by volunteers, contains not only a very nice bookshop and gift shop, but also some coffee and tea-making facilities. If you are lucky, you will also get a slice of cake, in return for a small donation. Cheaper than Starbucks and much, much more congenial.