Friday, 21 December 2018

Centenary Christmas Reflections

The Christmas of 1918 should have been a time to celebrate. Not only had the Kaiser been defeated, but the British people could look forward to the end of food rationing, air raids and disruption to families. Women had been given the vote and men were no longer being called on to sacrifice their lives in a foreign land. Surely everyone must have entered the festive season with optimism and goodwill?
Well, not everyone. Some people faced Christmas with the knowledge that they had lost husbands, fathers and sons; a much smaller, but still appreciable, number had lost wives, mothers or daughters. Some men remained in prisoner-of-war camps in continental Europe, while others had returned home with terrible injuries that would eventually take their lives or prevent them from holding down a job. Still others would have difficulty settling into civilian life, because of their physical or mental condition.
As for Siegfried Sassoon, not only had his life been completely changed by the experience of war, but his sudden exit from the Western Front after being shot earlier in the year had caused further upheaval. He was unimpressed with the London crowds who cheered the news of the Armistice, not knowing that among them was another young man who was going to make a major impact on his emotional development. He was introduced to an aspiring artist, Gabriel Atkin, later in the month.
The few weeks that preceded and immediately followed the end of the war found Sassoon caught up in something of a social whirl, despite the sudden death of his mentor Robert Ross in October. Introduced in turn to T E Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, Wilfrid Gibson and John Galsworthy, he also caught up with his former psychiatrist and father figure, Dr Rivers. The meeting with William Atkin (nicknamed "Gabriel" because of his supposed resemblance to an angel) had been engineered by another friend, the musicologist Edward Dent, who shared Sassoon's sexual preferences and foresaw that he would be attracted to Gabriel.
It is well attested that Siegfried Sassoon had eschewed physical sex until this point, and the time was ripe for him to embark on his first homosexual affair, which he soon did. Gabriel, much younger but far more worldly, entranced Siegfried with his looks and apparent need for affection. Their relationship was relatively short-lived, and would peter out when Sassoon left for a speaking tour of the United States early in 1920. They remained friends, and Sassoon occasionally toyed with the idea of renewing their affair, but was put off by the knowledge of Gabriel's addiction to drink and drugs; Gabriel eventually married a writer, and died at the age of forty.
At Christmas, Sassoon took Gabriel home to Weirleigh to meet his mother. It did not go well, and it was probably fortunate that Dr Rivers had been invited to stay with them in the post-Christmas period. Theresa Sassoon recognised the nature of her son's relationship with Gabriel, and found little common ground with the young man, despite his being, like herself, an artist. She got on much better with Rivers.
In the early stages of their affair, Gabriel described Sassoon as "the most amazing gorgeous person in the universe", unconsciously emulating the hero-worship of another of Sassoon's close friends, Wilfred Owen, who had been killed in France just before the end of the war. Sassoon does not appear to have been missing Owen, and himself says that it was months before he head the news of the latter's death; perhaps this is unsurprising, given the level of activity that followed the end of the war. It seems likely that he did not want to think of anything that would remind him of his military career, although he did introduce Gabriel to Vivian da Sola Pinto, who had been his second-in-command during his last period of overseas service, and to his great friend Robert Graves.
Graves had upset Sassoon by getting married and starting a family. Siegfried firmly believed that Robert was denying his true nature by marrying - though he would himself eventually do the same. It was the beginning of the end of their friendship, but for now the relations between them remained cordial, at least on the surface. In the meantime, Sassoon did something he had never thought of doing before the war, and got a job. He had spent much of early 1919 in Oxford, where he met people like John Masefield and Robert Bridges and intended to remain for a period of "independent study". He soon realised that this was a dream rather than a practical proposal, and was pleased to accept the post of Literary Editor of the Daily Herald.
In working for a newspaper that supported the Labour Party, Sassoon was dabbling in politics, with the encouragement of Dr Rivers, himself a prospective Labour candidate. It would never come to anything, but it gave him temporary satisfaction to feel he was adopting principles that he had developed as a result of his war service - a period during which he had begun to feel intense sympathy for the working classes who made up the majority of the men he associated with at the Western Front.
This post could easily turn into a saga if I were to continue. I would recommend any reader who wants to know more about Siegfried's post-war life to go to the second volume of Jean Moorcroft Wilson's biography of Sassoon, The Journey from the Trenches, which tells the story far better than I can ever hope to do.

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