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".