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.