Monday, 29 April 2019

A Sense of Community

Whenever the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship holds an event - such as the one on Saturday last, jointly hosted with the Wilfred Owen Association - I inevitably get comments from new members about what a "friendly" occasion it is. I do like to think of the SSF as a community, and one that has fostered individual friendships among its members as well as the pleasure of seeing familiar faces at events. One of our members has a theory that the warmth and friendliness of the SSF is a direct result of Sassoon himself being a more likeable person than certain other writers. I'm not sure I subscribe to that, but I like the theory. It's rare to find anyone with a bad word to say for him; even A E Housman, who was unhappy about what he felt was Sassoon's over-representation in an anthology of the early 1930s (as Peter Parker told us on Saturday), doesn't actually say that he disliked Sassoon, or indeed his poetry.
Communities come in many different shapes and sizes. Usually they have something to do with geographical location, as does the small community that looks after St Bride's Church in Llansantffraed, which Sassoon himself visited in 1924. The church is effectively separated from its natural congregation by a busy main road, with not even an underpass or a footbridge to assist them in getting there. The group that keeps the church functioning and ensures that the grave of Henry Vaughan is cared for consists partly of local people and partly of supporters from all over the country - in fact, from all around the world. The Friends of Llansantffraed Church was formed in 2015 and has helped to arrange the hosting of additional events at the church, such as concerts and special visits. Mervyn Bramley is one of the most energetic people I know, and was as usual on hand at Sunday's Henry Vaughan memorial service to welcome visitors like myself and Phil Carradice, this year's SSF representatives.
The Friends are now gearing up for the 400th anniversary of Vaughan's birth in 1621, and it would be wonderful if Sassoonites could be part of the anniversary celebrations. Vaughan's poetry meant a great deal to Sassoon, and was an important factor in his spiritual development. At the service, the choir of Abergavenny Priory mingled with enthusiasts from as far away as the United States, while members of the congregation served tea and cakes after the service. Phil was even reunited with an old school friend!
To return to the subject of our SSF community, Saturday afternoon's event in the somewhat "snug" basement room at the Poetry Cafe in London was the usual mix of laughter, conversation and learning, with Peter Parker's wonderful talk on Housman ably followed up by Robert John Fanshawe, who filled us in on the events of the Battle of the Sambre, where Wilfred Owen was killed. Little has been said and written about this incident which, though flawed in its execution, was actually a major factor in bringing about the end of the war. Robert, like a number of our members, speaks from personal experience of the armed forces.
Someone made the point on Saturday that Sassoon himself sometimes wasn't very sociable, particularly at Craiglockhart. This is true, of course, and we must remember his somewhat solitary upbringing, not even going to school until he was in his teens, not to mention his determination to separate himself from the residents of "Dottyville" - Owen and Rivers excepted. I get the impression when reading his work that the strongest sense of community he ever felt was among his fellow officers and men in the trenches, even though many of them may have been very different from him in terms of interests and family background. In later life, he was a valued member of the Heytesbury community even after he stopped participating in cricket and other local events, but perhaps he would have seen himself more as a member of a community of the mind, since he never stopped corresponding or receiving visits from friends like Edmund Blunden and Dennis Silk. And there is no question about whether the SSF is a community in the truest sense of the word.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Breakfast in Boston

The local TV news told us there was a storm coming. It also relayed the far more interesting information that the bar at Boston Public Library was now serving literary-themed cocktails. Accordingly, the following afternoon found me knocking back a "Tequila Mockingbird". This was the barman's error, as I had actually ordered a "Catcher in the Rye", but I am a novice in alcoholic terms and couldn't tell the difference between the flavour of tequila and that of rye whisky.
Siegfried Sassoon's visit to Boston, in April 1920 - 99 years before my first visit to the city - found him in an unhappy mood. His lecture tour of the United States was not going according to plan. The Pond Bureau, the organisation that had booked him, had gone bankrupt and he was left to find his own engagements. Being the diffident man he was, he had little idea how to go about getting these, and relied mainly on his circle of friends to point him in the right direction.
His time in Boston began with a recital at Wellesley College, the famous women's educational institution located in Greater Boston. This was followed by a meeting at the Harvard University Poetry Club, elsewhere in the city.  His host in Boston was Harold Laski, a British political economist who was lecturing at Harvard. At Laski's house in the suburb of Cambridge, according to a history of Harvard, could be heard some of the best conversation in the city, perhaps partly because he and his wife often entertained their students, a habit that was highly unusual at the time. 
I don't know whether Harvard students in our day spend much time with their lecturers outside classes, but it was of great interest to me to be attending a conference in the prestigious surroundings of the Harvard Law School, and having pointed out to me a framed photograph of the professor who inspired the 1970 novel The Paper Chase, later a successful film and television series. The title could have summed up Sassoon's opinion of academia, since he had tried and failed, at both Oxford and Cambridge, to achieve any qualification at all.
If academic study seemed like hard work, reading his poetry in front of audiences turned out to be an equally great challenge. Before his appearance at Harvard, Sassoon was forced to spend a day in bed, so worn out did he feel after putting himself in the limelight in New York and Chicago. Chairing his meeting next day at the Harvard Union was the redoubtable Amy Lowell, a cigar-smoking poet, then in her forties, who had never had a college education because her parents felt it was inappropriate for a woman. Sassoon wrote that she was "by no means in agreement with my opinions" but was nevertheless a "generous admirer" of his writing.
Sassoon has little else to say in his memoirs about his experiences in Boston. For my part, I was impressed by Harvard but found the atmosphere very different from Oxford or Cambridge, with the university buildings laid out in a spacious area. The conference organiser had told me to look for a "Romanesque" building, which puzzled me somewhat until I saw it - the pseudo-Norman arches and heavily-decorated facade made an impression that was not at all ecclesiastical but might well cause any student to feel privileged at being allowed entry.
The conference, of course, had nothing whatever to do with Sassoon. I have the impression that, by the time he visited Boston, he was weary of North America and looking forward very much to returning to a more familiar environment. I was fortunate enough to find my time in the city both interesting and invigorating. The people I met there might not have been of the same stature as Harold Laski and Amy Lowell, but they were friendly and appreciative, and I hope to be able to return next year for a repeat experience.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Eternal T.E.: Another View

Way back in March 2015 (when I was doubtful how long I would be able to continue to find enough material for blog posts) I wrote about Siegfried Sassoon's friendship with T E Lawrence and the undoubted influence it had on Sassoon. Just to illustrate that there is always more to be known about almost every aspect of Siegfried's life, Steve Chell of the T E Lawrence Society has recently added to the research on this subject, with an article in that society's Journal that must have taken him months to research.
Steve has found no fewer than five poems about Lawrence in the archives at the University of Cambridge, and acknowledges in his article that the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship gave him some assistance in deciphering Siegfried's handwriting in order that he could make out some of the wording! It's very clear from these poems that Sassoon had difficulty putting his feelings about Lawrence into words; the latter's death in May 1935 was one of the most moving events he had experienced since the end of the First World War, and one which changed his life - not only because he lost a great friend but because he became convinced that T.E. had sent him a message from beyond the grave, and this was the true beginning of his religious conversion. Just to underline this, one of the poems is titled "A Prayer".
Four of the five poems were written in the year Lawrence died, and the other in 1938. Some of the manuscript poems show the kind of crossings-out and additions that we are used to seeing (for example, in the original manuscript of Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth"); others are completely struck through. In view of the trouble Sassoon took in searching for the "mot juste", I have no doubt that there were other attempts and perhaps unfinished drafts that lie somewhere undiscovered or were destroyed. Sassoon was frustrated by hearing other talk of his late friend in "regurgitating torrents" and resented their presumption in thinking they knew anything of Lawrence the man.
In "A Prayer", Sassoon sees Lawrence as someone who was unhappy with fame and tried to avoid it wherever possible. As Chell puts it, he "was raised to the heights of fame but sought anonymity". Sassoon himself did not suffer from this affliction; on the contrary, although he was naturally diffident, he enjoyed being recognised and having his work praised. He was particularly irritated when, not long after he first met Lawrence, a society hostess approached him only to ask if he could manage to persuade his new acquaintance to attend one of her parties. However, he generally kept himself at arm's length from his most gushing admirers.
In his long years of seclusion at Heytesbury House, after the Second World War, Sassoon received many visitors but did little to encourage cold callers. Perhaps he was only too conscious of the differences between himself and Lawrence, knowing that he could not have tolerated the kind of hardships that Lawrence voluntarily inflicted on himself. It was all very well to put up with being in the trenches during wartime, but Sassoon could never have been satisfied with the tiny retreat that Lawrence made for himself at Clouds Hill, any more than Lawrence would have felt comfortable living in an enormous house like Heytesbury.
Chell quotes Dennis Silk as recognising that Sassoon hero-worshipped Lawrence whilst simultaneously feeling protective of him; certainly he was jealous of the friendship that grew up between Lawrence and the brash Robert Graves. The more confident Graves was always ready to adopt Sassoon's friends as "finds" of his own (as he did with Owen). As Philip Neale, Chair of the T E Lawrence Society, made clear in his talk at our AGM, Lawrence's abiding doubts as to his own worth as a writer continued until his death, and Sassoon recognised this feeling because of his own self-doubt. It may have been gratifying to him to have Lawrence ask his opinion about the literary value of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but Sassoon may equally well have envied his skills as a prose writer. In one of the unpublished poems, he speaks of Lawrence's "one intense tremendous book" as being his lasting memorial.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

A Simpleton's Progress

There is a gap in Siegfried Sassoon's published diaries between 1918 and 1920, but of course we know what he was doing during that period. Jean Moorcroft Wilson's biography is always my first port of call when I want to find out details of Siegfried's activities at a specific time, such as February 1919, when he was beginning to fall out of love with Gabriel Atkin and was wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his own life. His respected mentor, W H R Rivers, had suggested that he study political economy, but Sassoon's character was not apt to submit itself to the self-discipline of a course of "independent study" at Oxford, the location he had chosen largely because of the proximity of his friends, Robert Graves, Frank Prewett and Lady Ottoline Morrell.
Although the sojourn in Oxford was fleeting, it introduced him to another literary circle, for the nearby village of Boars Hill was already becoming known as "Parnassus" because of the number of poets who had settled there. Since he was already confused about his own political views, his attempt at the academic study of politics and philosophy was almost doomed to failure, despite his best efforts. Far more interesting to him were the individuals he met in and around the city. The arrival of Robert Graves to take up the undergraduate place he had been obliged to forego when he joined the armed forces was eagerly anticipated, despite the fact that Graves had married Nancy Nicholson the previous year, much against Sassoon's wishes. By the time Graves arrived, the couple were the parents of a daughter.
Early in February, Sassoon set off to visit one of the most notable members of the Boars Hill community, John Masefield, who had been a hospital orderly in France and now spent his spare time keeping bees, goats and chickens. Masefield had his own theatre, designed for him by local architect Thomas Rayson, for which both Graves and Sassoon were encouraged to write plays, though it does not appear they ever did. The Graves family soon settled near Masefield.
Sassoon's other Oxford friend, Prewett, introduced him to the young William Walton, who had come up to Christ Church as an undergraduate at the unprecedentedly early age of sixteen but would be sent down in 1920. Sassoon's love of music is well known, and he would become a patron of Walton, who dedicated a later piece to him. He in turn introduced Walton to the Sitwell brothers, already friends of Sassoon's, and they returned the favour by introducing Sassoon to the novelist Ronald Firbank, who was more or less the same age but behaved so eccentrically that even the Sitwells - never noted for their conventionality - were nonplussed. Beverley Nichols, a fellow undergraduate of Sacheverell Sitwell, was twelve years Sassoon's junior, but they formed a brief relationship based on mutual attraction. Jean Moorcroft Wilson astutely points out that Sassoon's probable one-night-stand with Nichols was an indication of his increasing acceptance of his own sexuality.
Although Sassoon was becoming concerned that his poetic inspiration was drying up, one of his most famous poems, "Aftermath", comes from this period; this on its own may be considered to have made his stay in Oxford worth while. In mid-March, only a few days after writing it, he was offered a job by the Daily Herald, and this caused him to take the decision to leave Oxford, where he had realised he was never going to fit in. But the time he had spent there was far from wasted.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Meet The Ancestors

If there is one popular activity that has become even more popular as a result of the First World War centenary, it is genealogy or the tracing of one's family connections. Innumerable people have been spurred into the investigation of their connections with individual members of the armed forces. Finding out what Granddad did in the Great War is a pastime that has led many to the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front and, in some cases, has indirectly led to valuable historical research being carried out.
Take the case of Walter Parkin, a Yorkshire miner, one of seven children whose father deserted the family when Walter was twelve years old. Walter went on to serve with distinction at Passchendaele, but arrived home in 1918, severely wounded and a shadow of his former self; he died in 1933, aged only 45. In 2014, Walter's great-grandson Richard wrote about his experience of tracing the soldier's career and how it had led to the discovery of the truth behind the family legend that "the bullets just bounced off him" when he came across a 1915 newspaper article describing how his grandfather had been saved from certain death by a uniform button which had taken the brunt of the bullet's impact; both items had been temporarily on display to the public in a local shop window!
The interest doesn't stop at ancestors, either. Those whose grandparents and great-grandparents came back in one piece, or who were in the wrong age group to participate actively in the war, have generally found that they had other relations who were involved and whose history can be traced. Others - school pupils, for example - have been encouraged to follow the lives and deaths of individuals who would otherwise perhaps have had no one to mourn them.
I'm not just talking about the war poets, or people of some notability such as artists and composers, but ordinary soldiers and sailors. Sometimes, in a corner of a foreign field, you will come across little notes attached to individual graves by schoolchildren who have found out a little of that particular man's history and written to "thank" him for his contribution, occasionally with a little poem attached.
Sometimes, in the course of their investigations, people uncover less palatable facts about the lives of their ancestors. As I've probably mentioned before, my father was delighted when he discovered that his own father had spent some time in a military prison - okay, it was only for gambling. That's because the authorities didn't realise that he and his friend had stolen armed forces' property and sold it to Italian householders in order to make the money to purchase a Crown & Anchor board, which soon brought the cash rolling in. No wonder they were jumped one night, on their way home from a local drinking establishment, by locals who resented the amount of money they had taken from them earlier in the evening!
If you're wondering why my father was pleased, it was because the documentation which proved that his father had been incarcerated in early 1919, as well as the report describing the mugging in Italy, demonstrated that his father had not been telling tall tales when he described these incidents to his family. It was all true! There was some good luck involved, as many military records from the period were lost in a fire in 1940, ironically caused by Second World War bombing. I've often wondered what my grandmother thought of her husband's anecdotes; being the daughter of a chapel elder, she probably hoped against hope that their marriage had turned him into a reformed character.
I never met my grandfather as he died before my parents got married. I always assumed that this was from natural causes, as indeed it was, but sometimes I wonder how much his First World War service might have contributed to his poor health. Many men saw the war through only to die from the after-effects of gas or shrapnel wounds like the ones my grandfather had (although it is difficult, for example, to discount the effects of smoking and other factors as causes of the premature deaths of former servicemen in the post-war period).
Just recently the pension records of First World War veterans were released. Knowing that my grandfather had one, I checked it, and discovered that his mother was living in a place called Choppington. I am assuming this to be the place of that name near Newcastle-upon-Tyne; my father was unaware of any connection with.north-east England, and it is also a mystery why my great-grandmother should have been using our family surname when we know for certain that she had remarried and was using a different name in the 1911 census. Will we ever find out?
It seems to me that the interest in ancestors and what they went through is, broadly speaking, a positive phenomenon. There is nothing that brings home historical truths to an individual like their personal effects on one's family. The knowledge of what many suffered sometimes even brings about a sea-change in the attitude of their descendants towards war.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

A Hogmanay Tragedy



On the morning of Wednesday, 1st January, 1919, householders in the Hebridean island of Lewis were looking forward with eager anticipation to the imminent arrival home of many of their menfolk, who had been serving with Britain's armed forces overseas in the effort to win the First World War. The fighting was behind them now, and the men themselves looked forward to returning to their homes and crofts and catching up with family life. 283 sailors were travelling home to Stornoway on the Iolaire, and at around two in the morning, they were within a few hundred yards of their home port.
The Iolaire was a yacht launched thirty-seven years earlier. It was privately owned but had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, and had been pressed into service on this occasion because there were not enough suitable vessels available to ferry home the latest band of troops returning to Scotland from active service. One man, 27-year-old Kenneth Macphail, had served throughout the war, including a stint at Gallipoli. In 1917, his ship had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean and he had survived by clinging to wreckage; he spent 34 hours in the water before being rescued, almost the only survivor. The experience was so traumatic that Kenneth, who had completed his recuperation only six months earlier, told his brother Angus that, were he ever in the same situation, he would prefer not to go through the ordeal again and would resign himself to his fate. That was why, when Kenneth's body was recovered from the sea a few days later, his hands were placed firmly in his pockets.
It is hard for most of us to imagine a person not wanting to save his or her own life, but such feelings were not uncommon among servicemen during the First World War. Kenneth Macphail was nevertheless unusual; when the Iolaire struck a rock, within sight of Stornaway harbour, and quickly sank, many of the passengers showed great heroism in trying to escape and help those around them. 201 men - more than two thirds of those aboard - died that night, but John Finlay Macleod, a 30-year-old seaman, had the knowledge of how to ride the crest of a wave to take himself safely onto the rocks, from where he set up a rescue line to bring others safely to dry land. Another survivor, Donald Morrison, actually went down with the ship but managed to climb a mast and cling to it until daylight came and he was rescued.
The causes of the Iolaire disaster were never officially stated, but there were many contributing factors: there were gale-force winds, the ship was not designed to carry so many men, and the crew had never sailed into Stornoway after dark before, and did not have adequate lookouts. The men aboard were weighed down by their uniforms and equipment. Rumours quickly spread that some of the crew had been drunk, which would not have been surprising given that it was Hogmanay and the troops were celebrating their return home. Local people held the Admiralty mainly to blame, but no one was ever disciplined for the failure to bring the men back safely.
Some called the Iolaire's sinking "the crowning sorrow of the war". Women who had been airing the civilian clothes of their husbands and sons in front of their fires found themselves bereaved and in many cases destitute. If Siegfried Sassoon thought that those at home could have no comprehension of what he and his comrades had suffered, he would have been anguished to see the impact on the small communities whose people came down to the shore to find the drowned bodies of their loved ones lined up for identification.
Afterwards, like many of those who had served at the Western Front, the people of Lewis made a point of not talking about the Iolaire disaster. They simply could not cope with the grief. In the recent BBC documentary on the subject, a psychologist pointed out that silence was the way of dealing with such emotions in those days; the islanders never had the benefit of treatment by someone like Dr William Rivers, who might have helped them talk through their thoughts and feelings in order to assuage their grief and stop them sinking into depression (the fate of some of the survivors as well as the bereaved).
Only a hundred years later, now that all those who remember it are dead and gone, has the local community felt free to acknowledge the impact of the events of 1st January 1919. On 1st January this year, Prince Charles - as Duke of Rothesay - and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attended a memorial service at the monument to those who lost their lives on that tragic night. As a more lasting tribute, local artist Margaret Ferguson painted portraits of a hundred of the sailors, while composer Iain Morrison, the great-grandson of one of the victims, was commissioned to write a piece in memory of the events. Morrison said that he struggled with the task because he found it difficult to create anything that did not carry a sense of reflection and a message of hope. You can see part of the documentary and hear an extract from the piece on Youtube by following this link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-PpKyjWseQ