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.