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.