Friday, 17 November 2017

Time for Living

I seldom take any notice of Remembrance Sunday events on television - or even in person. To me, remembrance is something we should do every day of the year, and the fact that it is the Sunday nearest 11 November is not particularly relevant. More to the point, like many of you, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.
This year, however, I happened to turn on the television as approximately 9,000 men and women were marching past the Cenotaph, and found myself unable to look away from the spectacle. A range of emotions appeared to be passing across the faces of the marchers, not least of which was pride. I admit I felt a certain amount of pride myself while watching them, and this was accompanied by a deep uneasiness. What is the difference between this and the annual military parades in Moscow and Beijing? Is the ceremony really about remembrance or is it about celebrating our armed services?
I found it impossible to guess, just from their demeanour and facial expressions, which of those participating in the event were actually war veterans. I could be pretty sure that none of the Girl Guides or Boy Scouts were, but anyone above the age of about 18 might already have seen active service in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and might well have been on the receiving end of the kind of traumatic experiences that gave Siegfried Sassoon nightmares until the end of his life. One gentleman in his nineties, when asked how he felt about being in the parade, paused for a few moments before replying, in an emotional voice, "...COLD, very COLD!"
Discussing with my 92-year-old father his memories of the Second World War (his call-up was deferred because of his father's final illness and was eventually cancelled), gave me further insights into the matter. He reasoned that one of the causes of that war was that the Germans "didn't believe they had lost the First World War", because no invading army ever arrived in Berlin. I suppose the residents of Baghdad may have felt much the same in 1991, when allied troops did not push through to the Iraqi capital because it was possible to obtain a peaceful settlement without doing so. Perhaps the failure to do so was - unintentionally, of course - a factor that contributed to the Iraq War of 2003, when an army of "liberation" did arrive in, and take possession of, Baghdad. And look where that got us.
One of those marching in the procession was Flight Lieutenant (now retired Squadron Leader) John Peters, who for a brief period in 1990 was the focus of the nation's sympathy when he appeared on television as a prisoner of war, captured during Operation Desert Storm along with his navigator. Peters' physical and mental state was apparent from his on-screen appearance, which his captors may have thought would be a cause for shame in the UK; it had the opposite effect. It also sent a clear message to the public that Peters and his companion had been badly treated and that anything they might say on camera would be said under duress.
Peters was soon being hailed as a hero, and says now that he finds it difficult to live up to his popular image. For men and women who suffer in war are often far from being heroes. You only have to read Sassoon's poem "The Hero" to understand that. I feel sure that Johnson Beharry, Britain's most decorated living soldier, does not count himself a hero. Any individual who thinks of himself that way almost certainly doesn't deserve to. At any rate, Lance Sergeant Beharry seemed quite content to be out of the limelight as he pushed an elderly veteran in a wheelchair past the Cenotaph.
One of my colleagues in the field of history recently responded to an invitation to a Remembrance Day event with the words, "I am tired of the British obsession with war(s) so count me out." I can completely understand his point of view. Yet, if we decline to recognise the effects of war on society, what will be our incentive to seek peace, and how will we ever become truly civilised?
One of the favourite songs of my adolescence was by an American band called The Association. It was called "Time for Living". The message was that the singer had been so preoccupied with his everyday activities, such as work, that he had forgotten how to live life. Let us not fall into that trap by spending all our time dwelling in the past. The time to live is now. I think that may be the answer to a lot of 21st-century angst.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Little Owen

Wilfred Owen doesn’t get a lot of space in this blog, but in view of this year’s successful series of events in Edinburgh, plus the fact that the 99th anniversary of his death recently occurred, I think it is probably time to give him some attention.

Owen’s life was a short one, and the first twenty-odd years of it were not particularly eventful, though he probably saw more of life in that time than Sassoon did in his first two decades. They did not move in the same circles or have a lot in common in terms of their family background and experiences. When they eventually met, in 1917, Owen was much quicker to recognise a kindred spirit than Sassoon was; this was partly due to surface snobbery in Sassoon’s case. He could appreciate the noble qualities of the working classes, both in his rural home and at the Western Front, but he found it hard, at first, to relate to a grammar school boy with no obvious poetic antecedents. He was more comfortable in the company of someone like Robert Graves, who had been to Oxford and whose family were academics.

To Sassoon’s credit, he swiftly realised that Owen was nurturing an enormous talent, one greater than his own, and set out to mentor him, accepting it as his due that “little Owen” would defer to him in the sphere of poetry. Owen’s devotion to Sassoon was, I believe, as much a personal one as it was a literary discipleship, for he knew Sassoon was coming to Craiglockhart and was watching him, waiting for his opportunity to make himself known, uncertain of what kind of reception he would get. He approached him as he would a superior, though they were of the same military rank. In his letters to his mother, he talks enthusiastically about Sassoon and his work but does not talk about the reasons the latter was at Craiglockhart. It is not immediately apparent whether he admired Sassoon for making a stand; perhaps this was too far from his own experience for him to feel qualified to express an opinion on the matter, or perhaps the emotionally fragile Sassoon discouraged any discussion of the topic.

I don’t have any original observations on Owen, but I often wonder whether his friendship with Sassoon would have survived peacetime. Sassoon was good at making friends, but not so good at keeping them. He fell out regularly with the Sitwells, permanently with Robert Graves, and even, occasionally, with T E Lawrence. This does not seem to have been unusual among the post-war poets, as Anthony Padgett has capably showed in his work on Humbert Wolfe. Owen appears to have been less prone to taking offence, possibly because of an ingrained inferiority complex, at least when dealing with those he regarded as his social superiors. How would he have changed, if he had lived? He would not have made a good fit with the circle of literary high-flyers that contained Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Nichols and others; yet class and social barriers were breaking down, and he would one day have got to know men like Thomas Hardy, successful writers with somewhat different antecedents.

There are various accounts of how Sassoon viewed his relationship with Owen after the latter's death. Writing of their first meeting, he admitted to having soon realised that his "little friend" was not merely the "promising minor poet" for which he had originally mistaken him. By 1952, he was complaining to a correspondent that "no one under forty writes to me except with inquiries concerning Owen". Allegedly, when Stephen Spender asked him about Owen, Sassoon responded that "he was embarrassing. He had a grammar school accent." The comment could have been made in annoyance or could equally well have been an attempt at humour.

As for Owen, his response to Sassoon's personality began as hero-worship, but after they were separated he indicated in a letter that he did not intend to be Sassoon's "satellite" for much longer: "I shall swing out soon, a dark star..."  He has remained, for subsequent generations, a star - perhaps not dark, but certainly mysterious.