Sunday, 18 November 2018

All Kinds of Conferencing

Literary conferences aren't about making money, and it's just as well. All too often, they make a financial loss - that is the price of trying to bring the work of writers like Sassoon and Owen to a wider audience.
Those who have never attended a conference will have a false impression of what it involves. "Was your conference very dull?" asked a fellow-guest at my hotel in Oxford, as I returned from a satisfying day of lectures at Wolfson College. Did she really think I would be paying to attend something I didn't enjoy? Or did she perhaps assume that I was being forced to attend, for the good of my career?
It's true that many of the delegates at literary conferences in general are academics. However, that is not the case with the annual meetings of most literary societies. Of the nearly 30 people at our recent Marlborough conference, only one could truly be described as an academic, though a few were teachers or librarians by profession. But there were also lawyers, doctors, firefighters, social workers and IT specialists, all interested in Siegfried Sassoon for different reasons. You don't have to be highly qualified to enjoy good writing.
There's a book in the "Thursday Next" series of fantasy novels by Jasper Fforde in which Thursday (the heroine) learns that Pride & Prejudice is to be made into a reality TV show; she pulls a fast one on the producers by telling the characters to "do what you would normally do" rather than acting up for the cameras. The result is a huge number of additional viewers tuning in to find out whether Jane will marry Mr Bingley and what will happen to Lydia. The moral is that good literature is much more interesting than the faked on-screen bitching and "relationships" that millennials seem to find so fascinating.
What's more, most of our talks are not specifically about literature but about many other aspects of Sassoon's life and work. Most SSF members agree that he is more than a mere subject for literary criticism; he emerges in his writing as a three-dimensional human being, not always admirable in his conduct, but certainly always interesting.
Enough of that. It can't be denied that conferences come in all shapes and sizes. The "Wilfred Owen and Beyond" conference at Wolfson College, Oxford, was - sadly - not as well attended as had been hoped. This was partly because the dozens of people who had applied to speak and had their proposals turned down decided not to come along to hear those who had been successful. I believe that this is fairly normal for academics, who are increasingly under pressure to publish research and present at conferences in order to maintain their CVs. That is such a pity. I don't know what proportion of those who submitted proposals were actually in academia, but I suspect it was the majority; certainly there were no speakers at the conference who were not either academics or students, which is in contrast with my experiences at Sassoon conferences.
The "call for papers" encourages younger academics and graduate students to prepare something for a literary conference, and the competition can be considerable, but it is also potentially divisive. Umbrage may be taken by those whose papers were not selected, especially if they are long-standing members of organisations (such as literary societies) dedicated to furthering particular authors or aspects of literature and feel that their enthusiastic ideas have been passed over in favour of bigger "names".
At the other extreme you will find many literary societies that are not in the least highbrow. Come to the Barbara Pym Society's annual conference and you will meet a handful of academics,(and those mostly from overseas). The speaker programme generally includes a few, but it also typically includes people who have no pretensions to "lecturing" in the normal sense of the word. For example, at this year's conference, one of the most interesting talks was given by a member who had set herself the task of attempting to make some of the dishes mentioned in Pym's novels, using contemporary recipes.
The post-centenary ennui that appears to threaten the continuity of organisations such as the Western Front Association and the societies dedicated to the poets of the First World War is only to be expected. I feel as though we have just been on the receiving end of the Ludendorff Offensive and are enjoying one last gasp of success as we celebrate the Armistice.
What next for the Sassoon Fellowship? I look forward to a period when we will give closer examination to the post-war lives of 1914-18 veterans and to the work produced by one of Britain's greatest prose writers between the 1920s and 1940s. I wonder if I will make it to the centenary of the end of the Second World War, and, if I do, how much my opinion of conferences will have changed.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Not a Disappointment

There is no doubt that the number of members attending our recent annual conference at Marlborough College was lower than we had expected and hoped. It confirmed me in my growing impression that, after nearly four years, the general public is quickly losing interest in the centenary of the First World War, and perhaps also in the "War" poets. This, coupled with the other factors I mentioned in my report on the year at the AGM (Brexit and consequent tightening of belts, and the less-than-ideal accessibility of the venue), goes a long way to explain the poor attendance.
As one person after another pulled out of the event at the last minute, I grew more and more despondent about its success, but on the evening of Saturday 20th October, I felt great satisfaction at how the conference had gone in general. The SSF will undoubtedly lose money - quite a lot of money - on the event, but even thirty people can still have a good conference, as this one undoubtedly was.
One of the good things about the day was the opportunity to hear Jean Moorcroft Wilson, a long-standing patron and the author of a recent biography of Robert Graves, talk about the "fruitful triangle" of poets - Sorley, Sassoon and Graves - with the latter providing an unexpected link between the two old Marlburians. But that was just for starters.
Philip Neale, a newcomer to us but already seeming like an old friend, is the Chair of the T E Lawrence Society, and talked about Lawrence's attempts to become a writer, a process on which Sassoon's enthusiastic and (sometimes sardonic) encouraging words had a not inconsiderable influence.
"It is a GREAT BOOK, blast you!" Sassoon wrote exasperatedly, in response to yet another self-doubting enquiry from the author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. "Are you satisfied, you tank-investigating eremite?"
Whether or not you think that Seven Pillars is a great book (and it was interesting to learn from Philip that most of those who begin reading it never finish it), the fact that Sassoon thought so is evidence that it is worth the effort of doing one's best to appreciate it for what it is. Phlip's explanation of how Lawrence and his editors worked on it over a long period makes one wonder how it might have ended up being revised if Lawrence had lived to a ripe old age. Would he, like Sassoon in old age, have considered much of his earlier work immature and unworthy of consideration? Would he, with the benefit of hindsight, have brought out yet another edition?
For dessert (after tea) we heard a sparkling talk from Jonathan Fryer on the subject of Robbie Ross (the centenary of whose death we mark this autumn) and his mastery of early twentieth-century forms of social networking. Ross is a figure who continues to intrigue and attract many students of literature, and this is a topic we might profitably explore further at some future event.
All in all, a successful conference by anyone's standards, I think. At any rate, all the delegates thanked us for organising it and commented how much they had enjoyed the day. The catering was pretty good too.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Little Blunden

The well-known poetry publisher Carcanet has just brought out a new edition of Edmund Blunden's poems. It occurred to me that I haven't written much about Blunden in this blog, and it's quite a while since I even mentioned him, so I feel I should redress the balance. After all, he was Siegfried Sassoon's best friend, and while he didn't perhaps influence Siegfried's poetic development in the way Robert Graves and others did, he certainly influenced him as a person, probably for the better.
Blunden was born in 1896, and thus was ten years Sassoon's junior. Had they met during the war, their relationship might have been very different. Blunden was at Oxford with Graves after the war, but did not stay the course. This may have had something to do with his decision to marry, in 1918. He and his wife Mary moved into a tiny cottage in Boars Hill, an area also frequented by Graves and Sassoon in the immediate post-war period, although it was some time before he and Sassoon became close friends. Some years ago, the SSF visited the house; in our company was Margi Blunden, one of Blunden's daughters from a later marriage; she was astonished to see how small it was.
On that occasion, Margi told us the sad story of how Blunden and his wife Mary had lost their first child, a daughter named Joy, as a result of being sold contaminated baby milk. The child was only a few weeks old when she died, and her father's grief inspired him to write a number of poems. It was barely a year since Blunden had seen service on the Western Front during the Great War; there he had experienced things as dreadful as what Sassoon and Owen had faced.
No wonder he took offence at the content of Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, published at around the same time. By 1928 he and Sassoon had become firm friends, having met through poetry rather than a short-lived wartime camaraderie. From their correspondence, Sassoon immediately recognised Blunden as a potential kindred spirit. It may even have been Blunden who introduced Sassoon to the work of Henry Vaughan, about which I have already written so much that you do not want to hear it again. They subsequently found further common ground in their mutual love of cricket, and it was Blunden who would later orchestrate a meeting between Sassoon and the young cricketer Dennis Silk, now President of the SSF, resulting in another firm and long-lasting friendship.
Blunden's marriage, adversely affected both by the trauma of Joy's death (even though they had another two children together) and later by Blunden's decision to take up an academic post in Japan, broke down in the late 1920s and the couple divorced in 1931. Blunden found some comfort in his relationship with Sylva, a writer, whom he married in 1933. There were no children from this second marriage, which ended in 1945. The Second World War brought further upheaval, and Blunden became friendly with a young student, Claire Poynting, who was studying at St Hilda's (by coincidence, my alma mater). Ironically, Claire's love of cricket was one of the things that brought them together.
Claire was the mother of Margi and another three daughters, and the love of cricket has extended into the next generation, with Margi's son Ted Miller being one of those who have won the "Man of the Match" award at our annual commemoration of the "Flower Show Match" at Matfield. Blunden's marriage to Claire finally brought him the settled family life and band of children he had hoped for, and which Siegfried Sassoon would have liked to emulate through his own marriage to Hester. Perhaps his reason for introducing Siegfried and Dennis had something to do with his understanding of Siegfried's longing for a son who would share his interests, since George Sassoon lived with his mother in Scotland and did not see as much of his father as both would have liked.
There is certainly no doubt that Sassoon's post-war life would have been a lot emptier without his friendship with Edmund Blunden. The picture shown is the famous photograph of the older Siegfried, flanked by Edmund and Dennis, sitting on the porch at Heytesbury House, listening to "Test Match Special".

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Journey's End

In 2018, we mark the end of a journey that lasted more than four years - four years of war, four years of centenary commemorations. In November, as well as marking the Armistice that (more or less) delivered peace, or at any rate the end of hostilities, we will note the 100th anniversary of the death of a great poet - Wilfred Owen. I notice that stamps are to be issued in recognition of this event, though I am not sure they should have used a quotation from Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth", since it is generally known that Siegfried Sassoon gave him considerable assistance in producing the final published version of this particular poem.
The other night I watched the latest big-screen version of R C Sherriff's play, Journey's End, a play I'd never actually seen, despite its long production history. First performed in 1928 - the same year as the publication of Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man - it deals with subject matter that Sassoon would have found very familiar. Sherriff searched long and hard for a suitable title for the play, and what made him select the title by which the play is now known is unclear. For me, the main character, Captain Stanhope, appears to be nowhere near his journey's end; on the contrary, we glimpse a bleak future for this man who in many ways resembles Sassoon. Only the dead officers and men have come to a point where they do not need to go on.
Stanhope is a young man, probably younger than Sassoon was at the end of the war, since he has been at school with Raleigh, the second lieutenant who is barely out of his teens. The original director, James Whale, recognised this by casting 21-year-old Laurence Olivier in the role of Stanhope. Sherriff was ten years younger than Sassoon, and had been just out of school when the war began. Initially rejected for a commission, possibly because of his grammar school background, he nevertheless admired the ex-public school officers with whom he came into contact on joining the Artists' Rifles in 1915. Like Sassoon, he did not reach the Western Front immediately on enlisting, and he arrived in France as a Second Lieutenant in the East Surreys, in the autumn of 1916. After being seriously wounded at Passchendaele, he never rejoined his battalion. Thus, although his own journey was at an end for the time being, it must have been hard for him to accept that friends and comrades were continuing to be killed. The observations in this post owe much to the article by Peter Crook in the August 2018 edition of the WFA's Bulletin.
Sherriff's other literary output, including plays and novels, never achieved the same success as Journey's End - even though theatre proprietors were at first unhappy that there were no females in the cast. Leading ladies like Zena and Phyllis Dare, Sybil Thorndike, and later, Jessie Matthews, could be a big draw for West End audiences; moreover, women made up a significant proportion of theatre-goers, and men who had served in the war themselves must have hesitated at the prospect of taking their wives to see this dark drama that threatened to reveal the unpalatable truth that they had kept from their families for years. It seems, however, that this was the secret of the play's success. Sherriff himself explained: "Old soldiers recognised themselves, or the friends they had served with. Women recognised their sons, their brothers or their husbands, many of whom had not returned..."
Rather than setting the play in the Ypres Salient where he had served, Sherriff chose the backdrop of the St Quentin region and the Spring Offensive, an event that occurred after he had been sent home. Perhaps this was partly to distance himself from the characters and thus avoid the suggestion of autobiography; perhaps another reason was to make the efforts of Stanhope and his men to stem the implacable tide of the German advance appear all the more pointless. He would have had the stories related to him by friends as raw material on which to build his plot, without having to go through the painful experience of reliving his own memories of battle.
Sherriff's depiction of senior officers, their callousness resulting from a "there's nothing else for it" kind of attitude that appears to rank human life equally with ammunition in terms of importance, is far from complimentary. He would certainly have read Sassoon's "The General", as well as having his own encounters to go on. He recognises, as Sassoon did elsewhere, that this frame of mind can be seen at lower levels, as Stanhope orders the inexperienced Raleigh to participate in a trench raid, knowing that he will probably be killed but unable to find anyone more suitable for the task. A CWGC blog post I came across gives us a clue to the real men behind some of Sherriff's characters, and you can read it here.
Sassoon would use false names to disguise the real people behind his characters, but with a lack of skill in subterfuge that makes them easily recognisable: Cromlech for Graves, and so on. His purpose was different from Sherriff's. He was exorcising his own ghosts by writing autobiography, and most successfully from a reader's point of view. For Sherriff, the catharsis of writing Journey's End is equally apparent. I do not know to what extent he succeeded in laying his own ghosts.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Living History

At the recent Brenchley First World War Centenary Weekend, the SSF shared the marquee (left over from the authentic Flower Show which had taken place on the previous day) with a "living history" group - the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Living History Group, to be precise. That there are people willing to give their time to the recreation of history, purely for the love of it, is remarkable, and their knowledge of the period is second to none (if you exclude those who actually participated in that horrible war).
This paid off in terms of the number of visitors who wanted to view and handle the artefacts on display - including those of us who were supposed to be minding the SSF stall, which sadly attracted relatively few visitors. However, kudos to the village archive team, who put on a lovely display of material about the history of Brenchley and about Sassoon hmself in a room just off Gray's community cafe.
I don't remember Gray's being there last time I visited Brenchley village hall, and it's a fabulous facility for the village. They sold me one of the best cheese scones in living memory (and I consider myself something of an expert on that subject). Neither Brenchley nor Matfield has a great deal to offer in the way of shops or eating places nowadays. Matfield Cricket Club's favourite haunt, the Cricketer's Arms, has been closed for a year and there is no sign of it re-opening. Matfield's Cherry Tree Tea Rooms closed some years ago, and Matfield's community shop has also closed. "The Poet", though thoughtfully named, is an upmarket restaurant which doesn't tend to attract cricket teams.
You may think I have departed from the topic of living history, but I really haven't. The Brenchley archivists and the West Kent military history enthusiasts are all contributing to the understanding of our world as it was a hundred years ago. The photographic evidence survives of the self-contained rural community in which Siegfried grew up. When we were asked "Which biography of Sassoon should I read to find out about his life in this area?", we suggested reading The Weald of Youth instead. Some will argue that we don't need to "live" history. Some will say that the past is best forgotten.
Up to a point, I agree that we need to put the past behind us. I have been particularly disturbed by some of the coverage of the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, which has mentioned the defeat of the Germans as a matter for exultation as often as it has sounded regretful about the mass slaughter. I discovered recently that a neighbour's grandfather was a VC recipient; he keeps very quiet about this and was actually annoyed that one of his relatives had agreed to be interviewed by TV reporters. Even siblings can view the significance of history from quite different angles.
Siegfried Sassoon made his views on remembrance quite clear - as the lovely new carving at Brenchley says, "Look up and swear by the green of the spring that you will never forget." It was not because he wanted to remember. He saw the lists of names on the Menin Gate memorial as a cause for shame rather than a focus either for celebration or even for respectful mourning. On the other hand, if one did not remember, how could one hope to prevent a recurrence? The outbreak of another world war in 1939 filled him with despair.
Those of us who study history in the hope of not repeating the mistakes of the past are fully aware that we are wasting our time. Better, perhaps, to concentrate on understanding the past in order to see the present in context. So many of the racial and political tensions prevalent in today's world can be attributed to mere ignorance of the past.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Social Whirl

"Who?" I asked. "Who? How come I've never heard of him?"
At some time in the past I must have heard of him. A novelist and music critic who socialised with the Morrells (undoubtedly meeting Sassoon at Garsington), not to mention the Tennants, and lived in a stately home - of course I must have. But somehow Eddy Sackville-West (1901-1965) had made no impression.
He was, needless to say, related to Vita Sackville-West, the poet and novelist whose affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf are legendary, though they did not prevent her having a successful and enduring marriage to Harold Nicolson, who was also bisexual. Vita was unlucky enough to be born female, which meant that she could not inherit her family home at Knole, and she felt the loss keenly. No wonder Virginia Woolf chose her as the model for "Orlando".
Her first cousin, Eddy, was in line to inherit both the estate and the title of Baron Sackville, and was given a suite of rooms in anticipation of this. These have only relatively recently been opened to the public by the National Trust, which now owns and runs Knole. Several of these rooms have been redecorated and set out much as they were during Eddy's residence, though without the grand piano he kept in his music room. Eddy was more successful as a musician and music critic than he ever was as a writer of fiction.
Like his cousin, he had issues with his sexuality, but never overcame them enough to consider marriage. His long-standing lover was the literary critic Raymond Mortimer, whom he met while working for the New Statesman. Other close friends included Desmond Shawe-Taylor. He entertained a number of house guests at Knole, including Duncan Grant. A "life mask" of Eddy, along with a portrait of him by another friend, Graham Sutherland, can be seen in the tower rooms. The conductor Malcolm Sargent actually lived there for a time, after the Second World War, when his London home had been bombed. By then, Eddy had taken up residence near Wimborne in Dorset, sharing a household with Mortimer, Shawe-Taylor, and the painter Eardley Knollys.
On her visits to Eddy, his cousin Vita was surprisingly critical of his lifestyle, saying "I don't object to homosexuality, but I do hate decadence." Perhaps her true objection to him was that he was living in a house that should have been hers and did not appear to appreciate it as she did.
At Sissinghurst, which the Nicolsons later bought, you can see how Vita was trying to make up for the loss of Knole. A view of the house from the top of the "castle" gatehouse is surprisingly similar to looking down on Knole House from the tower, so much so that I initially labelled my holiday photos wrongly. Despite this, Vita and Harold eventually chose to settle down in a cottage in the gardens, where you can now see their living and sleeping arrangements, much as they were left when Harold died in 1968. Their son Nigel worked tirelessly to ensure that Sissinghurst, incorporating the gardens Vita designed, passed into the hands of the National Trust, and he was doubtless pleased with the results.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Siegfried's Last Stand

We are fast approaching the centenary of Siegfried Sassoon's final appearance on the Western Front. On 13th July 1918, he was wounded, as a result of which he was invalided home, once and for all, and never had to return to battle. Since it was a head wound, his thinking was affected for several days afterwards, so the feelings of relief (mixed with guilt) he would doubtless otherwise have experienced took some time to come to the fore.
He voices these feelings in a diary entry from hospital: "When I was hit it seemed an unspeakable thing to leave my men in the lurch, to go away into safety." As he was leaving the trench, he reassured the sergeant-major that he would be coming back. "You'll see me in three weeks," he told another officer as he attended the dressing-station. Determined not to return to Blighty, he wrote to friends saying he would remain in France until he was able to return to duty.
He had returned to the Western Front in May, after a period of service in Palestine, where there was little action apparently going on. At first bored, he had come to enjoy his time in the Middle East. He had not yet met T E Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia", who would become a firm friend. Thrown together with a medical officer, Captain Biggar, who was also a naturalist, he had begun bird-spotting, and regularly escaped into the woods and hills, partly in order to get away from the rest of the officers, many of whom he regarded with contempt because of their superior attitude. During this period he continued to receive letters from WIlfred Owen (whom he had met at Craiglockhart a year earlier), though, as Sam Gray showed in his recent talk at the joint London meeting, Siegfried was not very good at replying. Of the poems he wrote during that period, he commented, acknowledging his debt to Owen, "Unconsciously, I was getting nearer to Wilfred Owen's method of approach."
He had often thought about death, but perhaps not about the possibility of escaping death. "It seemed that across the Channel I had nothing to go back to..." He missed the company of his men and other officers such as his second-in-command Vivian da Sola Pinto, who had rapidly become a friend. Pinto too would survive the war. A visit from Rivers, while Sassoon was in the hospital at Lancaster Gate, put him in a better frame of mind.
Embarrassment must also have played a part in Sassoon's feelings. The wound that put him out of action was caused by his own recklessness. Returning from a patrol in no-man's-land, without his helmet, he was shot in the head by a sergeant from his own platoon, who mistook him for a German. It seems rather typical of Sassoon, from what we know of his earlier exploits, that he should have been so careless.
After a while, he began to imagine he could return to the Front as a disinterested commentator, but recognised this as an irrational desire. He hoped for a request to return as a representative of the Ministry of Information, but this idea was soon put paid to by Eddie Marsh, who told him that his reputation as a poet made it "unimaginable" that he might be employed by any government body. Eventually, in August, Wilfred was in London, and Siegfried was well enough to meet him for that "hot cloudless afternoon" (much like the weather as I write). They had tea at Osbert Sitwell's house in Swan Walk, Chelsea, and Sitwell took them to an impromptu concert at the home of the harpsichordist Violet Gordon Woodhouse, an important figure in the Early Music revival. Sassoon did not know that it would be the last time he would see Owen before he departed for France, still less that it would be their last meeting ever. He wrote to Owen from Coldstream, and received a reply while Owen was out of the line.
I do not know why he was so confident that he was never going back. Despite the failure of the German spring offensive and a general feeling that Britain was getting into a winning position, the war could easily have lasted another year or two. Yet somehow Sassoon felt assured that his war was over. In September he hoped to be offered a job with the Ministry of Munitions, but in the end he turned it down because of a feeling that it would be "inconsistent with my previous outburst against the prolongation of the War".
Yet he no longer felt as though he was still on active service, and had begun to feel "liberated and irresponsible". He would remain haunted by memories and regrets, especially after the Armistice in November, but for the moment he was happy, having encountered among his fellow convalescent officers another poet, Frank "Toronto" Prewett. The end of the war would eventually bring both joy and sorrow - the loss of his friend Wilfred Owen, and his replacement by two new friends, Thomas Hardy and T E Lawrence. There were many obstacles to be overcome before he could return to any semblance of normal life, and perhaps he never really would.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Jerome K Jerome, "a broken man"

If you find the title of this post surprising, you probably weren't at the recent Annual Conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies. After hearing Tony Gray's talk on the subject of Jerome K Jerome's life, I was certainly surprised, and wanted to know more. What could have happened to the author of Three Men in a Boat, one of English literature's funniest books, to cause him to lose his sense of humour?
Jerome Klapka Jerome (his middle name was apparently borrowed from the surname of a Hungarian military hero, in preference to his father's original surname of Clapp) was born in Walsall, and had a very successful literary career by the time of the First World War, when he was in his fifties. He was a supporter of British involvement in the war, and was eager to enlist. Being too old for active service, he travelled out to the Western Front as an ambulance driver for the French army. One of his uniforms is on display at his recently-restored birthplace.
In 1919, Jerome produced one of his last works, a novel called All Roads Lead to Calvary, clearly based on his own experiences even though the main protagonist is female. Critics have highlighted the stereotypical characters and situations, but, among other things, the themes treated in the book reveal similarities between Jerome and Sassoon in terms of their spiritual development and changing attitudes to war.
The Great War was not Jerome's first introduction to suffering. On the contrary, he had gone through some very hard times as a child and a young man, beginning when his father's bankruptcy resulted in the family having to leave their home. He subsequently found himself an orphaned clerical worker reliant on his older sisters for support, then an out-of-work actor, and finally a hack journalist going from one temporary job to another. So it might have been expected that the hardships to be endured during his military service would not have taken him unawares; yet it seems that, in late middle age, he was unable to adapt.
With the success of his writing had come personal happiness, as he met and married the divorcee Georgina "Ettie" Morris and acquired a stepdaughter. They later had a daughter of their own, Rowena. The family lived in Dresden, Germany, for two years, thus they had many German friends and acquaintances. At the time war broke out, they were living in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
After his participation in the conflict, Jerome wrote that he emerged from the experience "cured of any sneaking regard I may ever have had for war", something that was true of so many people (including Siegfried Sassoon). His long-serving secretary commented, "The old Jerome had gone. In his place was a stranger." His subsequent novels were quite a departure, and he even showed leanings towards socialism in his 1921 novel Anthony John. It was, of course, at around this time that Sassoon, under the influence of William Rivers, was considering standing for Parliament.
The death of his beloved stepdaughter Elsie in 1921, only in her thirties, was a devastating blow for Jerome, and his later years were spent in quiet domesticity until the final, fatal stroke he suffered in 1927. Relatively few people are aware of his later work. Like Siegfried, he could easily have said, "Most people think I died in 1919." Fortunately, both have thriving literary societies to foster the understanding of their work and ensure that their memory endures.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Around Birmingham with Francis Brett Young

I've just been to another AGM of the Alliance of Literary Societies. Twice in the past five years I've been on the organising end of this annual bash, and it is a great relief when someone else is responsible for it (though I was very pleased at the number of people who approached me to thank the SSF for last year's conference). This year's event rang the changes, however, since there were several societies involved in the "hosting", the venue having been changed when the host society originally designated for 2018 dropped out of contention.
Birmingham is where many of the ALS's current committee are based, as well as being home to many notable authors who have literary societies of their own. Several of these were the subject of talks at the conference, notably A E Housman, J R R Tolkien and Jerome K Jerome. These are all household names, but how many people today are familiar with the works of Francis Brett Young?
Young, born in suburban Halesowen in 1884 and thus a close contemporary of Siegfried Sassoon, was something of a polymath, who wrote music in addition to plays, novels and poetry, all the while working as a physician - at least until 1918 when he was forced to discontinue his practice after being discharged from the Medical Corps, having become seriously ill during his two years' service in East Africa. He dealt with this period in a memoir called Marching on Tanga. His experiences also found its way into some of his novels, the best known of which is probably My Brother Jonathan, in which a public-spirited doctor comes into conflict with local industrialists and loses his brother in the First World War.
Like many novelists, Francis Brett Young based most of his fiction in locations he knew, particularly the city of Birmingham, which he renamed "North Bromwich". Michael Hall, a representative of the Francis Brett Young Society, gave a very lively talk during the conference, identifying and describing the places and buildings that appear in Young's novels, mostly under invented names - or rather, names that give clues to the identity of the locations that lurk beneath, such as "Dulston" (Dudley) and "Halesby" (Halesowen). This practice was followed by many writers, notably Thomas Hardy, but also Siegfried Sassoon, who called Lamberhurst "Amblehurst" and Brenchley "Butley", as well as tinkering with the names of his acquaintances in an effort to avoid being identified as the author of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and its sequels.
Young's attachment to the region where he had been born is remarkable in one who spent so much of his life travelling, but it was the backdrop to his early life, right up to his graduation from the University of Birmingham in the mid-1900s. He first plied his trade as a physician on a sea voyage to the Far East and, following his marriage to a singer, Jessie Hankinson, he settled in Devon. After his service in Africa, he and Jessie went to live in Capri for the sake of his health, and on their eventual return to Britain they lived in the Lake District and Cornwall, as well as Worcestershire. In the aftermath of the Second World War, his health again deteriorated and they moved permanently to South Africa, where he died in 1954.
Following the talk, when it was announced that some members of the Brett Young family were present, and had brought along unwanted copies of several of the novels, there was a veritable stampede to acquire this unexpected freebie. This was a bonus for those of us who are used to having our senses awakened at ALS meetings by new knowledge of an author previously unknown to us but don't always get around to acquiring copies of the recommended titles.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Bards and other Revolutionaries

The other evening I went to a literary event at my local library that was truly entertaining as well as educational. It was the official launch of the English-language version of a historical novel about Iolo Morganwg, the Welsh version having been published last autumn. I can almost hear the question mark in the minds of many readers - "Iolo? Is that the guy off Springwatch?" Try again. Some of you will perhaps be thinking that the name sounds like that of a medieval Welsh prince, or maybe one of those medieval bards.
If you are thinking the latter, you are not so far off the mark, except for the fact that Iolo Morganwg lived from 1747 to 1826 and his real name was plain old Edward Williams. He did write poetry, but many of the "medieval" manuscripts he claimed to have discovered were clever forgeries. The main difference between him and Thomas Chatterton (apart from Chatterton having died at 17 and Iolo at 79) is that Iolo was more versatile. Rather like Tolkien, Iolo invented his own alphabet, which he claimed had been used by the druids of Roman Britain. For centuries, since his deception was discovered by a closer inspection of the papers he left behind, his popular image has been that of a charlatan, and it is only in recent decades that his reputation as an antiquarian and libertarian thinker has been restored. Possibly his greatest achievement, the revival of the medieval arts festival known as an "eisteddfod", complete with new traditions such as the Gorsedd of Bards, is now looked on by many as the action of a great patriot.
It seems that there may have been some excuse for his conduct. Iolo was addicted to laudanum, which he used to counteract the effects of the asthma from which he suffered and which was aggravated by his day-to-day work as a stonemason. It has been suggested that at times he had difficulty in separating fantasy from reality. Since many modern musicians and artists attribute their creativity to the use of hallucinogenic drugs, it seems unfair to criticise a man who lived two hundred years ago for doing the same thing, especially when much, if not most, of his output was original and much of his historical research was of a perfectly respectable standard.
Iolo is very much in vogue these days, particularly in Cowbridge (by coincidence, the postal address of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship), where he once ran a bookshop. Don't get excited; the bookshop isn't there any more, the building was demolished many years ago, and the site is now occupied by a Costa Coffee outlet. The local authority has, however, recognised the tourist potential of the association with Iolo, creating a "Iolo Morganwg circular walk" and erecting numerous plaques and memorials in his honour, Other parts of the UK are not so keen: in London, residents of the Primrose Hill area recently opposed a memorial to the eisteddfod he held there in 1792, on the grounds that he was a "criminal". The memorial was nevertheless allowed to stay.
By now you will be wondering whether there is any link with Siegfried Sassoon. Well, there isn't. And yet... While I was out walking on Stalling Down yesterday morning, I came across the stone that commemorates the Gorsedd ceremony held on that spot by Iolo and some like-minded companions in 1795. Halfway up the hill they were met by a local magistrate, who remonstrated with them for breaking the law on illegal gatherings; Iolo pointed out that their numbers were nowhere near the upper limit, whereas the magistrate, by bringing along a large contingent of the Glamorgan Volunteers and other associates, was himself in danger of exceeding the allowed number.
Look at what was happening at the time Iolo Morganwg lived. He sometimes called himself "The Bard of Liberty", and was nicknamed by others "the little republican bard", because he had shown sympathy with the revolutionaries of France and the United States. Indeed, he was once hauled before a tribunal in London on suspicion of treasonous activities. One story says that he was asked by a customer in his bookshop for a copy of The Rights of Man, the book by Thomas Paine that got its author convicted of seditious libel. Iolo responded by selling the man a copy of The Bible, saying, "You will find in that book the best and dearest rights of man."
Iolo's own pacifist beliefs are witnessed by the wording of the eisteddfod ceremonies he invented. "Y gwir yn erbyn y byd", says the Archdruid when proclaiming the new bard (the best-known winner of the title being Hedd Wyn in 1917). "The truth against the world" is the translation of this phrase. The "Sword of Peace" is partially unsheathed as the Archdruid three times asks for the assent of the crowd. "A oes heddwch?" (literally, "Is there peace?") Rarely is there a voice raised against the audience's shout of "Heddwch!" although it did happen once, as I recall - in 1976, when Dic Jones (generally regarded as one of the greatest of Welsh-language poets) was disqualified over a conflict of interest and the prize instead given to Alan Llwyd, whose subsequent reputation among Welsh-language writers is virtually unsurpassed. Dic Jones later himself became Archdruid and was no doubt grateful that no comparable controversy occurred during his tenure.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Fixing the comet Owen

At last weekend's joint meeting of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and Wilfred Owen Association, Azucena Keatley gave us some interesting insights into the psychology of both Owen and Sassoon, with particular reference to Owen's relationship with his parents. Sassoon, it seems, may well have been a rival to Tom Owen in terms of a father figure.
From Sassoon's point of view, the relationship was certainly of a paternal nature. He had no father of his own, nor did he foresee any likelihood of ever having a son - much as he longed for one. The First World War gave him the opportunity to offer comfort and guidance to younger, less experienced men who must greatly have appreciated his presence when they were in physical and emotional need. Siegfried seemed to know what was required, possibly because it was what had been lacking in his own early life.
So it is hardly surprising, as Dr Keatley pointed out, that the relationship between Sassoon and Owen, although coloured by what appear to be Owen's romantic attachment to his older friend (at least, as expressed in his letters to Sassoon), should have developed from one of mentor and pupil into one that more strongly resembled that of father and son. They were protective of one another, but in different ways. Owen was dismayed to hear of Sassoon's wound in 1918 because he feared the loss of someone he turned to for emotional support; Sassoon feared Owen's return to the Western Front because he could not bear the thought of Owen's creative promise being lost to posterity.
Was that all it was? It has not gone unnoticed, particularly by Owen aficionados, that Sassoon's attitude to Owen, like that of Robert Graves, was extremely condescending. Referring to him as "little Owen" and "my little friend" (as he later did with other friends, such as Edmund Blunden), he talks of him as a poet of some promise but by no means a genius. Yet Owen says that "you have fixed my life". By this, I believe, he means that Sassoon's guidance had given the "mad comet" a purpose and a goal that enabled him to orbit in a disciplined way. And when he says, "I shall swing out soon, a dark star", he is intimating that, though he may remain in Sassoon's shadow, he will make a mark as his own man, with his own poetic style. He needed only a little polishing. Having received it, he is content to go his own way, recognising that their intimacy, fostered by wartime experiences, would not last forever. In this, he was more perceptive than Sassoon.
Sam Gray, who also spoke at the meeting, gave a summary of the correspondence (as far as it is known) that passed between Owen and Sassoon after their departure from Craiglockhart in 1917, noting the paucity of letters from Sassoon in contrast to Owen's frequent missives. Time and again an eager Owen berates his friend for not replying, hoping that the letters have gone missing rather than not having been written in the first place. The reality seems to be that Sassoon had other things on his mind. There were so many others to be written to: Robbie Ross, Ottoline Morrell, Robert Graves and Robert Nichols, to name but a few.
Owen was one of Sassoon's most faithful correspondents, but there was no gratitude for this from the recipient. It was to Nichols that Siegfried wrote: "Write again, write again. I'm not dead yet. I've got weeks and weeks to live," and to Nichols that he sent the manuscript of "I Stood with the Dead". Nichols was already a well-known poet, perceived to have a bright future ahead of him; Owen was unknown and Sassoon would not have dreamed of asking his advice. He failed to foresee that Owen's work (thanks partly to his own efforts in getting the collected poems published in 1920) would go on to inspire generations, while Nichols's output would almost sink without trace.
At times, I have no doubt, it was a case of "out of sight, out of mind". Sassoon had other fish to fry, and other places to go. After recovering from the head wound that put him out of the war for good, he was lunching with Ross and Arnold Bennett at the Reform Club, having tea with Lady Ottoline and dinner with Edward Marsh, even exchanging views with Winston Churchill. In early November 1918, he was having that famous first encounter with T E Lawrence and going down to Max Gate to visit Thomas and Florence Hardy for the first time, not to mention congratulating himself on the third impression of his collection Counter-Attack.
Owen, of course, did not have a great deal of time for writing after he returned to France in August. The sad truth was that Sassoon did not miss his letters partly because he knew what the Western Front was like, but also because he valued them less than the letters from some of the people he had known longer. He admitted later that he was fearful, and did not want to hear the inevitable news of his young friend's death. Owen shared his last days of life through his correspondence with his mother, which survives. He did not have much time to regret the absence of his mentor and was never obliged to recognise that their relationship may have meant far less to Sassoon than it did to him.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Sassoon's Feminism

You may be thinking that this title is stretching it a bit - and you'd be right. I had originally thought of calling this post "Sassoon's Misogyny", but that didn't seem fair either. I don't want to fill this post with my personal opinions on equal opportunities (God knows I have enough to say on that subject to fill several volumes and you really would not want to hear it), but it is a hundred years since women in Britain were given the vote by a government that had misled them and delayed the process for as long as it could. So I will try and concentrate on Sassoon's own words and actions.
Having said that, I was immediately reminded - unlikely as it may seem - of some lyrics from a song in the musical Mary Poppins. You may recall that Mrs Banks was a suffragette. The lines that struck me, even as a ten-year-old, as being particularly clever, go like this:
"Though we adore men individually,
We agree that as a group they're rather stupid."
(Just as a matter of interest, Robert B. Sherman, who co-wrote the song with his brother, was a veteran of the Second World War and was permanently disabled as a result of a wound received in 1945, when he was barely twenty.)
I suppose that there are a lot of men who feel the same about women, and I think Sassoon was one of these. To illustrate this, you need do no more than consider his friendships with women like Lady Ottoline Morrell and Edith Sitwell and his admiration for the wives of some of his friends, notably Delphine Turner and Phyllis Loder. It seems obvious to me, reading his comments about the latter two, that he was envious of Walter Turner and Norman Loder for being married to such exemplary women, the kind he would have chosen for himself if he had ever intended to marry.
He did not have what people today would call a normal childhood. He grew up in a female-dominated household, and was then sent away to schools where all of his companions were boys, and Matron was an authority figure. Some of Wilfred Owen's comments on nurses suggest he felt a similar resentment towards them (I don't think this was brought about by the fact that it was a nurse who beat him into second place in an open competition run by the Poetry Review in 1918.) Thus, all their early experiences were designed to prejudice them against the female gender. Why should such women, who didn't even have the vote, be in a position to tell men what to do?
A review of Jean Moorcroft Wilson's biography of Sassoon in the Daily Mail (I know, I know!) talks of his "rampant misogyny", which I think is taking it rather too far. On the other hand, an interesting article written in 1997 by James S. Campbell and published in the journal of Johns Hopkins University draws attention to the misogyny of both Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but comments that both men "found themselves enmeshed in constructions of gender that eventually discredit femininity as a moral force". It was the perceived passivity of the female gender in times of war that they objected to. Sassoon sums this up in his 1917 poem "Glory of Women", rather shockingly suggesting a sexual motivation for women's behaviour:
"...You listen with delight
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled."
This is not so far-fetched either. Just as some men actually enjoy being dominated, women can get a sense of excitement from men's violence towards one another . I don't know why this is, but we should acknowledge that it is the case; we can only fight our more primitive feelings if we are aware of them.
Sassoon eventually married, and, by all accounts, he quickly fell out of love with his wife Hester. He had not, in any case, ever had a long-term relationship, unless one counts Stephen Tennant, who at times treated him more like a private nursemaid than a lover. What Sassoon wanted, more than anything, was a son, and, fortunately for Hester, he got one at the first attempt. Hester - like most women who have had a baby - wasn't in a hurry to have a second, and this was perhaps the main catalyst for their estrangement.
Why did Sassoon want a son so much? Without going into detail, I have noticed, in my discussions with workmates over gender issues, that men who have daughters - particularly if they have no sons - are generally more inclined to be receptive to the idea of equal opportunities than women who have sons and no daughters. Most of us still live our lives through our children, this being what our biological instinct tells us to do. All too often, we want our children to achieve the things we didn't do, rather than just wanting their happiness. Sassoon was, I feel sure, guilty of this. He expected his son to love the outdoor pursuits he himself loved, and probably would have liked George to combine this with an enthusiasm for academic study he never had. To a certain extent, this was achieved.
However, I doubt that he ever wished for George to grow up with the same sexual orientation as his, in view of the many difficulties it had placed in his path. He would have loved to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren carrying on his name and upholding his reputation as a poet. (He wouldn't have expected his Soldier's Declaration to be such a great inspiration to later generations.)
Wilfred Owen didn't live long enough for us to be sure what kind of relationships he might have formed in later life. The jury is still out on whether he ever had a gay sexual relationship, and we can never know for certain. Perhaps, like Sassoon, he would have overcome any such feelings enough to live a conventional life, even if it were a pretence. But did he hate women? I don't think anyone could read his letters to his mother and believe he did. He confided everything to her. He told her things about his experiences that I would never have dreamed of telling my mother, and this was because he felt that she would understand. He did not think of her as an inferior species. And I think he would have approved of her being given the vote.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Twin Talents

I had been struggling for something to write about when I happened upon a BBC programme, first shown some years ago, on iPlayer. For those of you who don't know, the list of programmes is not entirely restricted to what was shown in the last few weeks. There is a whole archive, where you can sometimes pick up little gems you missed first time around.
"A harmonious combination of two talents" was how one of the participants described the work done by Augustus John and James Dickson Innes, two Welsh painters who were the subject of a documentary called "The Mountain That Had To Be Painted". I knew a little about both of them, but I had no knowledge of Arenig Fawr, a mountain (actually a big hill) in Snowdonia where they settled for two years to take up a progressive style of landscape painting, under the influence of the Post-Impressionist movement, led by European painters such as Henri Matisse.
As the programme progressed, I began to notice parallels with the friendship of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. There was nothing similar about their lifestyles. John and Innes consorted with gypsies, drank heavily and shared (female) lovers. They were alleged to have stabbed themselves and mingled their blood in the back of a London cab. And yet...
Augustus John was eight years older than Siegfried Sassoon, and died six years before him. His mother, like Sassoon's, was an artist, but it was she, not his father, who died when Augustus was a small child. After hitting his head on a rock at the age of twenty, John embarked on an illustrious, often controversial career. He was 32 in 1910, when he began working with James Dickson Innes, whom he met through the "Camden Town Group" of progressive artists.
Innes was 23 in 1910, when he discovered the landscapes around Arenig Fawr. He felt it was ideal for his purposes as an artist, and was keen to take Augustus John there too. John, convinced of its suitability as a subject, joined Innes there to paint the mountain and surrounding countryside repeatedly over a two-year period. This makes me think of Innes as more of a Graves character than an Owen, someone who was ready to be a leader, rather than a follower, of his older acquaintance. He had the unconventionality of a Graves rather than the inhibitions of an Owen.
The two were later joined by a one-legged Australian artist, Derwent Lees, who married one of Augustus John's former models and was permanently committed to a mental institution by 1918. "He did paint rather well," said a patron, Lady Howard de Walden, "but was as mad as a hatter."
At the end of his torrid affair with Euphemia Lamb (whom Duncan Grant once called "the white haired whore"), James Dickson Innes is said to have buried her letters in a silver casket on the peak of the mountain. I cannot quite imagine Sassoon or Owen going to such lengths to memorialise a failed love affair; Robert Graves (who was daft enough to jump out of a window after Laura Riding), perhaps. Subsequent efforts to find the casket were abandoned after a Flying Fortress with an eight-man crew crashed on the summit in 1943; some of the wreckage is allegedly still there.
The story does not end there. Innes was consumptive. Advised by doctors to give up drinking, he took no notice. Just like a First World War junior officer, he knew the risks of his chosen path, and embraced them. Having made no attempt to clean up his lifestyle, he received one last visit from Euphemia and his friend Augustus John before dying in a nursing home in Kent in August 1914, just as his name was becoming known. He was 27 years old. Unlike Wilfred Owen, his reputation faded quickly after his death, though many of his landscapes can still be seen in major galleries such as the Tate and the National Museum in Cardiff.
Augustus John later became a war artist, producing, among other things, an unfinished mural called "The Canadians Opposite Lens", which was eventually put on display at Ottawa's Canadian War Museum in 2011..He continued to paint portraits, some of people Sassoon knew personally, such as Ronald Firbank, Madame Suggia and Lady Ottoline, not to mention poets like W H Davies and Dylan Thomas. He even took a few trips to Max Gate during the 1920s, to paint the elderly Thomas Hardy. He died in 1961, aged 83, a grumpy old man (according to his granddaughter) and a legend in his own lifetime.
The cottage the two artists rented near Arenig Fawr was demolished in the 1960s. In case you want to see what inspired them, the mountain is still there.




Wednesday, 28 February 2018

What Makes a Great Writer?


The title of this post may sound as if I have gone off on some philosophical quest, the end goal of which is beyond the limits of my abilities to achieve, so I had better start by explaining what makes me ask the question. At our committee meeting last weekend, we had an interesting discussion about what it is we value about Siegfried Sassoon and what, as a society, we should be concentrating on. Some members want a more in-depth analysis of Sassoon's work. Others are interested in Sassoon the man, what he did with his life and how he was influenced by, and in turn influenced, others.
The number of Sassoon scholars compared with, say, the number of Owen scholars, is not great, but from time to time we have had speakers who have gone to considerable trouble to analyse his work. For example, we had two very memorable talks at our annual conference at Radley in 2012, when we heard from Gladys Mary Coles and Michael Copp, who explored Sassoon's Modernist credentials and the influences on his poetry. We have also had interesting talks, over the years, about Sassoon's relationships with significant figures such as John Masefield, Glen Byam Shaw, David Thomas and Robert Graves, to name but a few.
This divergence of opinion makes me wonder how many writers have become revered for the way they dealt with the vicissitudes of life and/or what they achieved outside literature. How many people would be reading T E Lawrence's books now if it hadn't been for his role in the Arab rebellion? And yet I don't think that Agatha Christie's novels owe their popularity to the nervous breakdown she seems to have had in 1926, or even to the archaeological work in the Middle East that she undertook with her second husband. (But then, how many would say that Agatha Christie was a "great" writer?) There was, at one time, an Agatha Christie Society in the UK, but it no longer exists, though her family continue to manage her huge estate through a company called "Agatha Christie Ltd" and run an official website.
An obvious example of a writer whose talents have been "set off" by the rest of her life is Barbara Pym, about whose thriving literary society I have previously written. She could be considered a writer's favourite, since her misfortune was to be ignored by publishers for fifteen years following her initial success. This is something that has happened to countless authors over the centuries, notably another St Hilda's graduate, Val McDermid, who had early success with a play and then nothing until 1987, when the first of her crime novels was published. However, Pym's triumphant return to the public eye was highly publicised and has made her the shining example of a writer whose brilliance was eventually recognised - sadly, within two years of her untimely death.
Writers who died young have often been celebrated at the expense of those who had the good fortune - or misfortune - to live a long time. Wilfred Owen was unquestionably an outstanding poet, but his fame has certainly been enhanced by the manner and timing of his death. The same might be said of Rupert Brooke: "The Soldier" is quoted so frequently that few question Brooke's poetic genius, yet the name of Laurence Binyon is practically unknown to those who hear "For the Fallen" at every memorial service. Why is Brooke more famous? Could it not be that he died in 1915 while Binyon lived into his seventies?
Is it hardship itself, rather than the ability to survive hardship, that makes a truly great writer? John Keats' family were not paupers, but he was orphaned young and his health was always at risk. His associate Shelley, whose genius cannot be in any doubt, was viciously bullied at Eton, though it is hard to tell whether this caused or was a result of his increasingly undisciplined conduct while at school. His eventual elopement with Harriet Westbrook set him on a path of nonconformity that would indirectly lead to his death. I do not think that either of them owes their fame to having died in their twenties, but it must be recognised that their reputations have flourished in quite a different way from their near-contemporary William Wordsworth, many of whose poems have become the butt of unkind humour.
C S Lewis is a popular writer who lived to a reasonable age and whose diverse works are appreciated by academics, by children, and by those with a religious or philosophical bent. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think or talk about Lewis without wanting to know more about his personal life - not just the dramatic circumstances of his marriage to Joy Gresham but also the mystery of his earlier relationship with Jane Moore, the mother of a fellow First World War officer killed in 1918, whom Lewis had promised to "look after" for him.
As usual with my blog posts, I don't have any answers. I would, however, like to know what proportion of readers know or care about their favourite authors' personal lives and influences, and whether they think these are important enough to be the subject of lectures and conferences. Is it just prurient curiosity that makes us continue to ask questions about Stephen Tennant and Robert Ross, or is it an awareness that their friendships with Sassoon had a bearing on what he wrote? Or is it simply that we find other people's lives interesting, whether they are writers, artists, musicians, actors or the people next door? Whether or not you are a member of a literary society, do let me know what you think.