Sunday, 18 October 2020

In the Blood

    This is not a book review - I want to emphasize that. However, I have just finished reading Andrew Motion's childhood memoir, In the Blood, and I am struck by the resemblances between Motion's childhood and that of Siegfried Sassoon - and also by the many differences between them. I am not sure where I got my copy - I think I won it in a raffle, probably at the AGM of the Alliance of Literary Societies a few years ago - but it was only when I started to run out of reading matter during lockdown that I finally got around to opening it. I'm not sure what put me off previously, but, once begun, it proved to be compelling reading.

    Andrew Motion's parents, unlike Siegfried's, had a happy marriage. They were evidently well-off, not at all your typical family, but their individual personalities come through very distinctly in Motion's account. He and his brother Kit were rather different in character, for a start. That was probably also the case with Siegfried and his brothers, and it's no accident that, in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Siegfried chose to represent himself as an only child, and an orphan to boot. Whilst very good at drawing short character sketches of village personalities, it's noticeable that he does not try very hard explore the psyche of his close friends and immediate family. Andrew Motion, on the other hand, whilst dwelling on some "characters", such as the gardener and various schoolmasters, gets inside his close family with a few pen-strokes - the busy, reserved, often distracted father, the extrovert, dominant grandfather, and so on.

    Like the Sassoon boys, Motion I and II (as they became known at prep school) were taught to ride and hunt early on. Indeed, it was held up as a kind of life goal for them that they should not only practise such outdoor pursuits but should become skilled at them. It didn't come naturally to Andrew, who liked observing nature but was all fingers and thumbs when it came to controlling a recalcitrant pony or tickling a trout. 

    The prep school to which Motion was packed off, courtesy of his grandfather's money, at the age of eight, sounds not unlike Dickens's Dotheboys Hall. Any 21st-century parent would have been over there like a shot to remove him. In fact, if the facilities were as disgusting as he suggests and the punishments as extreme and unmerited, no self-respecting parent would have left him there in the first place. He survived mainly by discovering poetry and conversing with his sympathetic but somewhat ineffectual English teacher. Strangely, he seems to have been disappointed at not being put forward for Eton. Luckily, someone saw something in him that he did not, and Radley College proved much more congenial, particularly after a new headmaster, one Dennis Silk, arrived in 1968 and made the school "more like a family".  Any reader who knew Dennis in person will have no difficulty in believing this.

    By his mid-teens Motion was becoming a quiet rebel, rejecting the hunting, shooting and fishing aspect of his parents' lifestyle, but afraid to say so openly, mainly because of his affection for his frail mother. It was too unfortunate that it should have been his mother who suffered the riding accident from which she never fully recovered; the book spares us the full knowledge of the subsequent difficult years. This is where, I think, he differs most from Siegfried Sassoon, whose memoirs tend to gloss over any deep affection he may have felt towards close relatives. 

    And yet, taken as a whole, there are certainly resemblances between this book and MFHM, which is not surprising when you learn that Sassoon's fictionalised memoir was one of the first adult books Andrew Motion read and enjoyed. It was purchased for him - naturally - by his mother.


Monday, 21 September 2020

Conference time: the "New Normal"

     It was with great regret, tinged with a certain amount of relief, that we recently gave members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship the news that we could not hold an AGM and conference this year. Many societies like ours have been faced with the dilemma of what to do about their commitment to an Annual General Meeting. Some have gone with the dreaded Zoom option - with varying success, whilst others have found alternative methods of dealing with members remotely.

    In our case, we pondered for some months before coming to the conclusion that it was not going to be easy to find a way to deal with the problem and it might be better to admit defeat. Having taken advice from the Charities Commission, we announced the decision on our website and in Siegfried's Journal and we continue to hope and pray that it will not be long before members can meet in person once again. 

    Conferences, we've found, are not just about listening to interesting talks, or even about the opportunity to discuss them afterwards. After all, our Journal, with its variety of content, is the envy of many societies and keeps members informed as effectively, albeit not as quickly, as social media can do. However, those who attend our events invariably contact us afterwards to say how much they have enjoyed meeting fellow members and how much they are looking forward to doing so again. Although the numbers attending have dropped off in the past couple of years, there is still a core of members who feel absolutely distraught if they find, for whatever reason, that they cannot attend in person.

    This being the case, it's hard to offer an alternative that is likely to satisfy our membership in these times when fellowship and personal contact are most needed and most highly valued. On the other hand...

    I learned a lesson in July, when helping to judge a local poetry competition that normally takes place during the week of the village fete, in our local pub. So popular has the contest been in the past that, when we were selected for the semi-finals of Channel 4's "Village of the Year" in 2018, the presenter Patrick Grant came along to the pub to talk to some of the competitors, and even wrote his own original humorous verse in honour of the village. This year, things were different. Competitors had to make recordings of themselves reading their poems, and these were broadcast by our temporary local radio station on the day we would have held the fete. 

    The outcome was that we had about twice as many poems submitted as usual, and of a generally much higher standard. Admittedly, many of them concentrated on experiences of lockdown, but there was enough variety to enable us to pick out a few really original, accomplished pieces of work. As I came to realise, people who would not normally have participated in the competition when it was held in the pub - like the 89-year-old local farmer who won the "Poet Laureate" title - were only too ready to join in if they did not have to stand up in front of a room full of people to read their poem. Moreover, with time on their hands, many of them had been inspired by the current crisis to put pen to paper, and had found an outlet for feelings they might otherwise have found hard to express.

    The result of the competition was encouraging, but perhaps it was rash of me to agree to the idea of my "other" literary society, the Barbara Pym Society (about which I have previously written in this blog), putting on a one-hour Zoom "mini-conference" for the benefit of members around the world. There was little technical support available to us, and even the running order was not finally confirmed until after we had begun the meeting (owing to a live participant who was holidaying in Italy suddenly informing us that she had to go out to dinner instead!) Somehow we stumbled through the programme of talks and chat, and the many technical problems we experienced led me to assume that members were sitting at home thinking what a useless Chair I was and perhaps wishing they had not wasted an hour when they could have been watching TV.

    Not a bit of it. I'm sure there was some discontent on the part of a few individuals, but in general those watching expressed considerable appreciation for our efforts, one going so far as to say that it was "just what one would expect from a Pym event". Indeed, there is an episode in one of her novels where an incompetent bishop attempts to give a magic lantern show to a local audience and gets his slides upside-down. At times I felt very like that! What I realised, however, was that members wanted contact with other members, something to laugh about, something to replace the in-person meeting that they would otherwise have had, something to remind them of good times past and better things to come. And I think we managed to achieve that. I am sure we will be able to do better next time.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Britten, the pacifist

I wonder how many people, like me, bored with the cookery programmes, worthy dramas and so-called "reality TV", especially during lockdown, have found themselves reduced to scrolling down the alphabetical list of elderly BBC documentaries on iPlayer? One such search yielded a 2013 programme about the composer Benjamin Britten.
     I didn't even know about the informal performances given by Britten and his partner Peter Pears on the BBC in the 1960s, short interludes with Britten at the piano and Pears in a cardigan. Thus, although I remember the Dudley Moore (himself a highly talented musician) parody of these performances, I had no idea at the time what he was parodying. Apparently Pears - the chief victim of the parody - took it in good spirit, but Britten was very hurt. He had not been singled out by Moore, who also parodied Brecht and Weill and several other better-known classical composers, yet clearly he took his work seriously and did not respond well to being held up to ridicule.
    Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, were lifelong pacifists, both of whom applied for recognition as conscientious objectors during the Second World War. (Britten was not born until 1913, and claimed that his pacifism was an indirect result of the harsh regime he experienced at boarding school.)  Like Sassoon, he became a member of the inter-war Peace Pledge Union, on whose behalf he wrote a piece of music called Pacifist March. As a composer, he was still in the process of building his reputation, and the march was not a big hit in the run-up to the war. In the same year, 1937, there were two major events in his life: his mother died, and he met Peter Pears.
    Their pacifism was one of the reasons for Britten and Pears leaving the UK for Canada and later the United States, where they were less exposed to the hostility of what Sassoon called "jingo".  They returned to the UK before the end of the war and Britten agreed to work for the Ministry of Information.
    Yet in 2013, while preparing a film about Britten for the centenary of his birth, director Tony Palmer claimed that the Ministry of Defence had refused him permission to use a piece of training film when they found out he was working on material about Britten, on the grounds that the MOD could not be seen to deal with "cowards" and "deserters". The MOD denied any such motive, but it may be that Palmer had happened to come into contact with individuals who held such views, of which many can be found on your nearest high street.   
    Britten's music can be something of an acquired taste, but that he was a remarkable talent is hardly open to debate. His setting of Wilfred Owen's "At a Calvary near the Ancre" was included in the concert, "Songs of War", organised by the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship in partnership with other war poets' societies at St James's Church, Piccadilly, in 2009. Really, though, this song is part of the War Requiem that Britten wrote in 1962 for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, a modern replacement constructed right next to the ancient building destroyed by German bombing in 1941. Many of us can clearly remember watching the opening on black-and-white television, though of course its significance was lost on a six-year-old child, as I then was.
    The War Requiem, generally regarded as Britten's masterpiece, included a substantial chunk of Wilfred Owen's poetry (including "Anthem for Doomed Youth", the poem Sassoon helped him write), and no doubt introduced Owen's work to a much wider audience. These texts are interspersed with the traditional sequences of the Latin requiem - "Kyrie Eleison", "Dies irae", "Libera me", etc. One great admirer of the work was the late Dom Sebastian Moore, who described to me in our 2007 interview how it had moved him.
    Britten's love of poetry was not limited to Owen and the war poets. He was a great admirer of the work of Thomas Hardy and William Blake, and was a close personal friend of W H Auden. Around 150 poets in total were given the Britten treatment, a staggering figure, but I can't find Sassoon among them; nor have I as yet found any clues as to Sassoon's opinions on Britten's music. Siegfried was very musical and would certainly have had a view. The two men were far apart in age, but not enough to have precluded them becoming friends, and they moved in the same circles and shared many ideas. It's impossible that they did not meet on occasions, and yet I can't find a direct link between them. Just another of the many remaining gaps in my knowledge of Siegfried Sassoon.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Book review: The Battle of Tsushima 1904

Phil Carradice describes himself as a "storyteller" rather than a historian. This may ring alarm bells with some who do not like his drama-documentary style of writing. However, to the best of my knowledge, there are no events in this book that did not happen. To quote one of the UK's greatest contemporary historians, Michael Wood, writing just this month in the BBC History magazine, "Stories are what history is about."

    Personally, I don't mind a little imagination being added to the descriptions, as happens almost on the first page of this book when Carradice describes the feelings of the future Czar Nicholas II on being confronted by a would-be assassin during what should have been a leisure trip to Japan. This incident, thirteen years before the battle took place, is considered key to Nicholas's subsequent attitude to Japan, and certainly much of the blame for the disastrous (for the Russians) battle which is the subject of this book rests at the czar's door. 

    In the first decade of the twentieth century, Russia was a massive empire largely governed by high-born incompetents and heading for trouble, whilst Japan was a small, mysterious nation emerging from centuries of isolation and not taken seriously by the western world. The czar's word was law, and Nicholas was no military tactician. After a series of defeats for his Pacific fleet, he insisted on a large force of unsuitable ships being sent out from the Baltic to Vladivostok to replace them, firmly believing that quantity was a substitute for quality.

    Throughout the narrative, we are treated to intriguing stories - stories about the admiral of the Russian fleet, Zinovy Petrovich "Mad Dog" Rozhestvensky, a man who did his best with the sub-standard raw materials allotted to him, threw his binoculars overboard whenever thwarted, and frequently retreated to his cabin to wallow in deep depression. It seems miraculous that he and his ships ever arrived in the Tsushima Strait, let alone put up any kind of fight against the better-equipped Japanese fleet, with its more highly-skilled and better-trained crews, and led by the enigmatic Admiral Togo. No wonder the battle ended with around 5000 Russian lives lost, compared with less than 200 Japanese.

    As one might expect in a book of this kind, there are many names - of ships, people and places - that are unfamiliar to an English-speaking reader and difficult to memorize. It is thus a major frustration that there is no index. As far as I can make out, most of Pen & Sword's excellent non-fiction works have one, and I can only assume that this is an oversight by the editors (who, sadly, don't seem to have expended much effort on proof-reading either).

    The major service this book does (and the reason I'm reviewing it here) is that it puts the Battle of Tsushima in its historical context. Phil Carradice ably shows how preceding events led up to it, and also how it led indirectly to Russia's involvement in the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and Japan's subsequent rise to a position of world power that was not easy to control. Russia's opinion of herself, and Japan's growing confidence, were affected for many decades to come. Thus a battle that may, taken in isolation, seem unconnected with the world conflicts of the twentieth century, is shown to be very relevant and well worth writing and reading about.

Phil Carradice, The Battle of Tsushima. Pen & Sword, 2020. ISBN 978-1526743343


Thursday, 11 June 2020

War and taxes

It was Benjamin Franklin who said that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. He might have said "war and taxes", which is almost equally true. Moreover, history has demonstrated that war is often inextricably linked with taxes, either as a cause or a result of them.

Five years ago, in the monograph on Henry Vaughan that I wrote for Cecil Woolf's War Poets series, I drew attention to the many parallels between the seventeenth-century poet whom Siegfried Sassoon admired and Sassoon himself. One of my aims was to show that, although warfare may become more mechanised, in essence it does not become more sophisticated, and the wartime experiences of those who participated in the English Civil War were not so different from those of twentieth-century soldiers. I am reminded of this time and time again when reading about Britain's history of warfare. Some of the episodes I am about to mention may seem startlingly familiar.

Most recently, I have been researching the series of events known, somewhat inaccurately, as The Hundred Years War, a long-running conflict between England and France. When I say "England", I do mean England. Scotland was a separate kingdom, which had its own troubles. Wales had been annexed by England in 1284, and for more than two hundred years after that, the Welsh were effectively second-class citizens in the merged kingdom. (This situation stemmed from the fact that neither the Saxons nor the Danes had ever controlled Wales or Scotland and the resulting ethnic divisions would not be healed until 1603, when James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of Queen Elizabeth I. Long before that, however, the French were seen by their close relations, the Anglo-Norman nobility, as the real enemy.)

I note that 21st July will be the anniversary of the Battle of Shrewsbury, which fell right in the middle of the Hundred Years War, but had nothing much to do with it.  The main antagonists, on that occasion, were Harry Percy, son of the Duke of Northumberland - known as "Hotspur" because of his impetuous nature (who does this remind you of?) - and King Henry IV, to whom Percy had previously given his allegiance. In this case, there were Welshmen on both sides, since the rebellious Percy and his father had made an alliance with Owain Glyndwr, a Welsh nobleman who had taken up the sword after being unfairly treated in a dispute with his English neighbour. At the same time, the king had long-standing associations with Wales, where he was a leading landowner, and was able to call hundreds of Welshmen to his side.

Someone asked me recently why Richard II of England was such an unpopular king. The answer, I fear, may lie less in Richard's mercurial personality than in the fact that he brought a temporary end to the Hundred Years War.  One only has to look back to the Falklands conflict of 1982 to see how a national leader can trade on a foreign invasion to gain lasting popularity, although in the case of the Hundred Years War, England may be regarded as the aggressor. Richard II had been born at Bordeaux, in the English Crown's French territories, and his father (the "Black Prince") had worn himself out fighting multiple large-scale battles in order to maintain English power on the Continent. Richard was a very different man from his father, and had no wish to spend his life campaigning overseas. Eventually he was forced to take steps to defend the realm against possible invasion, and this meant raising taxes. However, Richard refused to take the financial hit himself, declining to reduce his household bills. Having married the French king's daughter and made a peace treaty, he was surrounded by frustrated noblemen, branded a tyrant, and deposed.

The Welsh rebellion broke out almost immediately, and Richard's cousin Henry IV found that it was not as easy to keep the whole country happy as he had anticipated. Twenty years after his son, the Prince of Wales, was seriously wounded at Shrewsbury (almost certainly resulting in a permanently disfiguring scar), the prince came to the throne as the glorious King Henry V, who is remembered as a saviour of the nation in the war against France that resumed in 1415. Many Britons are under the false impression that the Battle of Agincourt was decisive. Miraculous as it was, it did not significantly assist the English in their goal of taking the French throne. It would be another five bloody years before Henry was recognised as the heir of King Charles VI of France, and his death at the age of 35 led on to further bloodshed in the form of a renewal of war with France, followed at close quarters by the Wars of the Roses.

The men who participated in these wars often lived to regret their experiences. Sir John Cornwall, a veteran of Agincourt, later served Henry in a second French campaign, in the course of which he witnessed his 17-year-old only son having his head blown off by a cannonball. Sir John vowed never again to fight a war of conquest. Reading this, I could not help thinking of the death of David Thomas, and the words of Sassoon's 1917 declaration: "I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest." It simply was not worth the human suffering.  

Friday, 8 May 2020

VE Day at Heytesbury

On 8th May 1945, as the rest of the nation celebrated victory in Europe with noisy parties and military parades, Siegfried Sassoon wrote that he felt a sense of "mental flatness". He had done his best to avoid anything to do with the Second World War. (As usual with Sassoon, his actions were contradictory; he had written for the papers to back up the war effort, though it can be safely assumed that his heart was not in it.) He must have felt that he and his generation had failed. After the Great War, they had initially believed that there would never be another one like it. Sassoon, with his Jewish blood, must quickly have come to realise that it was inevitable, despite the pacifism he had embraced in the 1930s. Even his own published work had been banned in Germany.
When the time came and the Observer, a paper that had once been owned by his own family, asked him for a celebratory poem, he produced something much less congratulatory in tone. His peace at Heytesbury House had been seriously disturbed by the war, with evacuees needing to be accommodated, and he had retreated to his study to work on his memoirs, leaving the additional work to his young wife Hester, who already had her hands full with their son George, still a toddler in 1939.
Many of Sassoon's friends enlisted, but he was not tempted to apply to join the Home Guard. He told one of his friends that he felt like "a semi-submerged barge on a derelict canal". He started to despise Hester for taking an interest in the progress of the war. Nevertheless, he conceived a great dislike for Hitler and began to see this conflict as the final struggle between good and evil. This was in contrast with the feelings of some of his friends, such as Edmund Blunden and J C Dunn, who were both unhappy with Britain's conduct.
By the end of the war, the first two volumes of memoirs had sold well and received praise from reviewers, one notable exception being Malcolm Muggeridge, who had referred to The Old Century as "an anaemic fairy story". However, even combined with the successes of D-Day and the prospect of an end to the war at last, it was not enough to make 1945 a happy year for Sassoon. During the war, his former lover, Stephen Tennant, had crawled out of the woodwork, making unexpected visits to Heytesbury. He was the last person Siegfried wanted to see. Someone he cared about far more, Glen Byam Shaw, had been badly wounded while serving in the far east. Another friend, Rex Whistler, was killed in 1944. In the meantime, Siegfried's relationship with Hester had gradually deteriorated and was at breaking point.
His friend Blunden had already divorced two wives, and Sassoon began to think that this was the only way out of his problems with Hester. He had sent her to stay with her mother, but she refused to stay away, continuing to phone and visit frequently. Rather than celebrate VE Day together, he insisted that Hester return to her mother's, and himself ignored what was going on outside the haven of Heytesbury. His poem had appeared in the Observer two days earlier.
"To Some Who Say Production Won The War" was a sad and bitter poem. It began with a dig at the profiteers, who had come through the war at the expense of others who had given their lives: "Defenders of the soul of man assailed/By foul aggression and its creed of crime."
By the time the Japanese had been defeated in August 1945, Sassoon declared he was past caring. "I have no literary ambition at all now," he wrote, adding that his life from now on would be centred on his son George. He had failed to recognise the inevitability of losing his son to adulthood. For the moment, he tried to settle back into the comfortable rural existence he had previously enjoyed.

Saturday, 25 April 2020


"Alone" was the poem that first brought John Stuart Roberts, Siegfried Sassoon's first biographer, to his appreciation of the poet. Sassoon himself said that "it was the first of my post-war poems in which I discovered my mature mode of utterance". He was, at the time, feeling isolated, despite sharing a house in London with his friends, Walter and Delphine Turner. He had gradually developed a dislike of Walter Turner, brought on partly by Turner's mistreatment of his wife, Delphine, for whom Sassoon felt great sympathy. Sassoon lived on the top floor and had little interest in associating with his downstairs neighbour. He was desperate to leave.
The poem was actually written after a visit from Glen Byam Shaw, the young actor who would remain one of Sassoon's greatest friends throughout his life. Glen had brightened up his evening, as well as helping him to find alternative accommodation in a house at Campden Hill Square, which nowadays boasts a blue plaque recording Sassoon's residence there. The words of the poem suggest that the poet was feeling his age and possibly even believing that it was affecting his state of mind.
In the middle of the crisis that is currently affecting most of society, I wonder how many people have begun to feel that they are "getting strange", as Sassoon's poem puts it. He did not mind being alone - he loved books, and liked to have his own space in which to ponder and write his poetry. Nevertheless, he was fond of company. In his youth, he had enjoyed playing team games as well as solitary excursions on his horse and long cycle rides. During the war years, he had mixed well with his comrades, even those who were not on the same intellectual level (the incident when Robert Graves identified him as a kindred spirit by what he was reading speaks volumes).
On the other hand, it was Sassoon's preference for his own company and need for peace and quiet that would prove to be one of the deciding factors in the break-up of his marriage. He had expected Hester to be there when he wanted her, and to stay out of his way when he didn't. When he wrote: "I thought how strange we grow when we're alone/And how unlike the selves that meet and talk," he was already recognising his own shortcomings in this respect, but that recognition failed to bring him happiness in the long term. He was truly set in his ways.
Perhaps some of us, feeling a little depressed by this enforced isolation, have been told by friends or family to "snap out of it" or reminded how lucky we are not to be living in a tenth floor flat or working in the NHS without the necessary PPE. Does it make us feel any better? I doubt it.
Chris Packham, the TV naturalist, has been open about his own struggles with depression and commented recently that isolation was easy for him because he spends a lot of his working life alone, exploring the countryside with only nature for company. However, he also stated that he would find it impossible to be confined to the house and unable to go out for walks, and that he feels this is essential for his mental health.
Siegfried, I think, was such a person. He was perfectly willing to isolate himself on the top floor of the house in Tufton Street with his books, while the Turners carried on their separate lives downstairs. He would probably have managed more than adequately in the present situation, provided there was someone to bring him his meals. What he could not stand was being stuck indoors, and in an environment such as central London, country walks were not possible even if he did go out. Campden Hill Square was at least in a greener, leafier part of the capital. However, it's not surprising that as soon as he could afford it (courtesy of the legacy from Auntie Rachel) he moved to a rural area in the west of England where he had a private estate at his disposal.