Tuesday, 15 June 2021

The War Poets by rail

     The colourfully-dressed Michael Portillo seems to have hit the jackpot with his latest series of Great British Railway Journeys. His journey through North Wales, broadcast on BBC2 in May (but recorded in the depths of lockdown), has brought him well and truly into First World War literary territory. To top it all, one of his guides en route was none other than Phil Carradice, a founder member and former committee member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship. Phil is a seasoned broadcaster, is used to meeting celebrities and has become familiar with some of their quirks. Apparently, after they finished their discussion of coal mining at the site of the former Gresford Colliery, where 266 men lost their lives in 1934, Mr Portillo turned to Phil and said, presumably in jest, "Are you a f***ing socialist?" - to which Phil replied "Yes, I f***ing am!" (That's the way he tells it, anyway.)

        Portillo is nevertheless an engaging companion in these episodes, and another friend of the SSF who spoke to him was Martin Gething of the T E Lawrence Society. Lawrence was, more by luck than judgement, born in Tremadog in North Wales, and his birthplace, Gorphwysfa, now masquerading under an English name, still stands. His parents had taken refuge there after his father, minor Irish nobility, had run off with Lawrence's mother, his children's governess.

          The rail journey continued further south - not easy, since kind Dr Beeching removed any danger of a direct rail connection between North and South Wales in the 1960s.  (He would have closed more lines if it hadn't been for the fact that some of them ran through marginal constituencies.) Mr Portillo somehow reached Harlech and Aberystwyth, but did not mention the local literary connections.  This did not prevent the SSF Facebook group holding a fascinating discussion on the things he may have missed.

          At Harlech, a 1914 resident might have been aware of Alfred Perceval Graves, an Irish writer who kept a second home there, to which he eventually retired. In 1902, when the National Eisteddfod took place at Bangor, he even managed to get himself elected to the Gorsedd of Bards, an honour highly prized within Wales.  

        Since he took an interest in the Welsh language, Alfred Graves might have begun to notice a young man from Trawsfynydd, one Ellis Humphrey Evans, who was winning chairs for his poetry in local eisteddfodau; he specialised in the awdl, a traditional form of poetry that abides by strict rules of metre. When, in 1917, using the pen name "Hedd Wyn" ("white peace"), Evans entered the big one - the National Eisteddfod of Wales - and won, the victory was bitter-sweet because he had been killed in action just a few days earlier near Ypres, and the chair which would have been his prize was draped in black.

        Phil Carradice tells how he went to Hedd Wyn's cottage (now open to the public) many years ago, while researching a novel, and met the poet's nephew, Gerald Williams, who welcomed him in, adding plaintively, "You will look after me, won't you?" Mr Williams, who had been custodian of the house for more than sixty years, died just a few days ago, after I had begun writing this post. Legends about Hedd Wyn continue abound, one of which seems to have arisen from Gillian Clarke's 2013 poem, "Eisteddfod of the Black Chair" - the story that Robert Graves met Evans once, while walking in the hills. Possible, but unverified.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Tribute: Anthony Thwaite

 Anthony Thwaite, who died in April 2021 at the age of 90, was an old friend of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship. Early in our history, we held a conference - perhaps a little ambitiously - at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The speakers included Jean Moorcroft Wilson and Neil Brand. Also generously giving their time to us were Anthony Thwaite and his wife Ann, who read selections from the work of Siegfried Sassoon.

    Dr Ann Thwaite is a distinguished writer, best known for her biographies, who had at one time been selected by Rupert Hart-Davis as his preferred candidate to produce an official life of Siegfried Sassoon. For various reasons, this never came to pass; however, Ann remained a Sassoon "fan", and spoke to us again at our conference in Cambridge in 2008, where she was accompanied for the weekend by her husband Anthony, although on this occasion he remained a mere audience member. 

    Anthony Thwaite had preceded his wife into print, but theirs was very much a partnership of equals, and he was good enough to show no displeasure when, on first meeting, I praised Ann's achievements whilst revealing that I had never heard of him or his poetry. Later I would learn that, in addition to his own illustrious literary career, he was Philip Larkin's literary executor and had played a major role in editing Larkin's work and making it more widely available.

    Born in Chester, Anthony spent the Second World War in the United States with relatives, returning to do his National Service in Libya, which instilled in him a lifelong interest in archaeology. At Oxford, he edited the university magazine Isis, and his poems were soon being published in national magazines. After marrying Ann in the mid 1950s, he travelled with her to Japan, where, like Sassoon's friend Edmund Blunden, he taught at a university. His literary career expanded to include editing and criticism, and he was in demand throughout the world as a reader of his own work and a commentator on that of others.

   On one memorable occasion, Anthony and Ann performed a joint reading of the letters of Philip Larkin and Barbara Pym at her former Oxford college, St Hilda's. In 1989, Anthony edited the letters for radio, and readings have since been performed at the Oxford Literary Festival and many other occasions, by a variety of well-known actors and actresses. He also edited Larkin's letters to Monica Jones and introduced these on Radio 4. Like Larkin, he was at one time Chair of the Booker Prize judges' panel. Like Sassoon, he worked as a literary editor, in his case of The Listener and the New Statesman

   The Guardian described Anthony Thwaite as "a mover and shaker in postwar English literary life". 

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Memory - poetry analysis by Meg Crane


When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.

But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
Burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
and silence; and the faces of my friends.


In February 1918, with the Craiglockhart interlude behind him, Sassoon was back on ‘active service’ – but almost as far away from the fighting as it was possible to be and still remain in Europe. The First Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers had been ordered to Limerick, in the south-west of Ireland. In theory they were a garrison force: only twenty months had elapsed since the Easter Rising of 1916, and in less than another year the Irish War of Independence would break out – but in February 1918 everything seems to have been quiet and still. Sassoon, waiting to know where he would be sent next, used the time to compose and revise. Three poems, linked by theme and imagery, date from this period: 'Together', 'Idyll' and 'Memory'. 

'Together' is the concluding poem in Counterattack (1918); the other two appear in Picture Show (1919). ‘Together’ and ‘Idyll’ – both of them elegies for Sassoon’s hunting-field friend Gordon Harbord, killed in August 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres – have been discussed previously in this blog (see https://sassoonfellowship.blogspot.com/2016/02/together.html/. Both poems embody the idea that the dead continue to live on, in some zone between actuality and imagination. This is a recurring theme with Sassoon, who in this way at various times brings back to life other loved figures - his brother Hamo, David Thomas, Marcus Goodall. These visitations are sometimes consoling ('Falling Asleep'), sometimes the opposite - in 'Sick Leave' the still-living dead come back to reproach him.

'Idyll' and 'Together' – in spite of the fact that they were published in different collections – form a diptych: 'Idyll' is a morning and summer poem; 'Together' an evening and autumn poem. 'Idyll' is entirely consolatory – the reunion with the dead one is assured, and will resolve all grief. 'Together' is more ambivalent: the narrator looks ahead to a return to his old life on the hunting field, and predicts that he will forget his friend during the daytime, but will remember him, and re-encounter him, as evening falls – and will then lose him again 'at the stable door'. As I was writing this, it occurred to me for the first time that SS may have been reciprocally influenced by Wilfred Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', in which remembrance of the dead has been absorbed into the perpetual cycle of morning and evening, day and night. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon had given Owen generous and perceptive advice in the drafting of that poem, which deals, not with the physical return of the dead, but with their physical commemoration, which prolongs the sense of their physical existence.

All of these, and of some other characteristic Sassoon themes, play their part in 'Memory'. The imagery of birds, flowers and music recurs, as do the words 'dream' and 'morning'. However, in some ways 'Memory' is the reverse of 'Idyll'. One striking difference is the way in which the narrator of 'Memory' perceives and presents himself. In 'Idyll' and 'Together', the narrator seems to be a young man, prematurely cut off from his friends and companions, but sure that he will find them again in some form. In 'Memory' he seems to be presenting himself as an old man, a survivor with no future, only a past. He begs that past to return, but the poem brings no certainty that it will do so.

When I first encountered this poem, I assumed it had been written many years after the end of the war, so it is startling to discover that it dates only from February 1918, when Sassoon was still no more than thirty-one. The narrator begins with 'When I was young …', but counters this in the second stanza with 'But now …', implying that old age has set in. The remembered young man of stanza 1 is associated with morning, springtime and open spaces – 'meadows' and (another of Sassoon's favourite words) 'weald'. The season here is spring passing into summer, and the narrator is completely at one with his natural surroundings. The past is relentlessly romanticised: by contrast, in the early poem 'Before Day' (1908) the very young Sassoon had used the same landscape to convey a distinct sense of melancholy and solitude. The only possible note of melancholy in stanza 1 of 'Memory', however, is the transition from 'may' (the blossom as well as the month) in l.3 to 'hawthorn' in l.7. Hawthorn in country superstition has associations of grief – legend has it that Christ's cross was made of hawthorn wood, and Sassoon himself references this tradition in another, earlier poem, 'Morning Glory'. But the volta, or transition point, between the two stanzas is a line expressing joy and energy, and a sense of complete oneness with Nature – 'across the carolling meadows into June'. 

The second stanza begins with a shift of tone and time: 'But now…'.  In my January contribution to this blog I mentioned Sassoon's repeated use of the imagery of loads and burdens (including the burden of Christ's cross), and we find this image once again here: 'But now my heart is heavy-laden'. The sense of being weighed down is reinforced by the image of the once-active poet sitting in front of the fire, like an old man. At Limerick in the daytime, Sassoon hunted, and pursued an apparently cheerful social life, not unlike the horsey life he had led in Kent before the War. This is the other side of the picture: the solitary figure once the sun has gone down. A choice of words it is easy to overlook is found in l.2 of the second stanza. The narrator is not dreaming his dreams, or reliving his dreams, as an old man might be expected to do: he is 'burning [them] away' – which is the image that Hamlet's father uses for the purging of his sins. So the fire in Sassoon's poem is not comforting or sleep-inducing, but purgatorial. The narrator is proud, even possessive, of his sorrow - 'I am rich in all that I have lost'. He is also at least half-proud of the way in which he has shed his 'gay and feckless' young self: 'death has made me wise and bitter and strong'. Of those three adjectives, only 'bitter' is ambivalent – if the poet means what he says, then to have been made 'wise' and 'strong' is to have emerged wounded but victorious. If he is also 'bitter', then he is armed, but has lost something too.

So perhaps he only half-means it – or to be wise and bitter and strong is after all no compensation for 'all that I have lost'. The poem ends on a passionate, impossible wish: for the stars to return in their courses, bringing back 'the fields of long-ago', the birdsong, the lost 'wealds' … and, not music, as in 'Idyll', but 'silence; and the faces of my friends'. Hamlet has already reared his head here: perhaps Sassoon echoes Hamlet's self-epitaph: 'the rest is silence'. And yet, even after that wish for dignity and peace, comes the atavistic, 'hopeless longing to regain' what is lost – and this time we believe it is lost – 'the faces of my friends'.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

As seen on screen

Things are not getting any easier for literary societies in lockdown, but at least we are becoming wiser to the possibilities of electronic communication. We've simply had to.

    There is a lot to be said for making our activities available online. Many members, even those of an advanced age, have begun using tools like Zoom and Facebook in a way they would never have dreamed of attempting a year ago. Much as we may prefer the written word to a screen adaptation, the appetite for recorded and/or streamed content is increasing almost daily. Perhaps you, too, have found yourself unable to attend an interesting live seminar on your computer because you were already booked for another live seminar at the same time. With luck, you will have been able to access a recording of the one you missed.

    Many societies have been slow to adapt to "new technology" in the twenty or thirty years it's been available. I've come across many speakers at local meetings who prefer slide projectors to Powerpoint and I've even seen some, in recent years, struggling with OHP projectors, which - let's face it - were never very user-friendly even when there was no alternative. Sometimes this is just a practical matter: buying new electronic equipment costs money.

    It doesn't necessarily work, anyway. This blog, for example, has been in existence for about eight years, and in that time the readership has shrunk rather than grown. The same goes for our Facebook group - regularly used and contributed to by many people, but only around a quarter of those who are members of the group (many of whom are not actually members of the Sassoon Fellowship) ever actually look at the posts, and still fewer join in the discussions. Hence we have held back from attempting to expand into other areas such as Twitter and Instagram; it's not economical of effort.

    Nevertheless, the cancellation of so many live events has led to the societies I'm involved with having been obliged to hold AGMs and other events online, and most of us got off to a shaky start. Even joining a Zoom meeting requires a certain amount of skill, let alone hosting one, as I've been forced to do many times now. For me, however, the revelation has been YouTube. Not that I was unfamiliar with YouTube before last February. I've been using it for years to look for songs I couldn't remember, music I couldn't listen to because I don't have a working CD player in the house, ancient TV programmes that I thought I would never see again, and so on.

    The YouTube landscape has also changed in the past year, however, and for a while even the owners of YouTube could not cope with the sudden upturn in demand. Until the autumn, I didn't even know that you could livestream a Zoom meeting straight to YouTube to enable you to reach a bigger audience without having to pay extra for a Zoom upgrade; it was only when I saw an academic institution doing it that I realised. In September, thanks to my daughter who already know much (but not all) of this, I sat in a small bedroom surrounded by microphones and computers and hosted the AGM of the Barbara Pym Society, followed by a one hour "mini-conference", attended by delegates from all over Europe and the United States as well as the UK. (See my earlier post on this subject.) In doing so, I learned a lot about what NOT to do, as well as what worked well. 

    From there it was a short hop to participating in the "lockdown reading" of a classic novel, and this has spurred on the Sassoon Fellowship to attempt comparable feats, although we are a long way from fulfilling our ambitions yet. We have, however, uploaded two recorded interviews to our new YouTube "channel" (see https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1wV-qorFfCLDaWhmIK6Adw/videos ) for the benefit of our members and others who are interested in Sassoon and his work. The Wilfred Owen Association has held live seminars on individual poems by Owen. Even the small local history society of which I'm a member has managed to hold regular monthly meetings on Zoom.

    One of the most interesting things about this trend is that we are attracting a whole new audience. Elderly and disabled people who always found it a chore to attend meetings in person are catching on quickly. Others who were unable to attend events because of transport difficulties, cost, or simply the time involved, are able to access us on the small screen and sometimes to participate actively.  Don't forget, when you are viewing or joining in, that there may be substantial effort involved in setting up these events and the organisers (although we often feel more like the "disorganised") may not be able to keep it up indefinitely. But for the time being, enjoy them, appreciate them, and - best of all - offer constructive feedback. At the time of writing, no one really knows what the future has in store.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

When Biggles met Lawrence of Arabia

   I make no apology for another post that begins with an episode from the life of Siegfried Sassoon's beloved and extraordinary friend, T E Lawrence, "Eternal T.E." as Sassoon christened him in a poem written after Lawrence's death. Lawrence remains a legendary figure, and the more one learns about him, the most astonished one is.

    After the war and the failure of his diplomatic efforts to procure a satisfactory outcome to the troubles of the Middle East, exacerbated as they were by British and French imperial ambitions, Lawrence saw nothing for it but to retreat from the world, and his method of doing so was not something most people would even have considered. His career as a guerrilla fighter, living the daily life of a Bedouin with its attendant disadvantages and flirting with danger at every opportunity, show that he was not afraid of physical discomfort; indeed, he seems to have relished it. Nevertheless, he was unprepared for life as a newly-recruited serviceman in the RAF.

    Lawrence chose this path hoping for anonymity, but used the pretext of wanting to write a book about the RAF to convince senior commanders of the desirability of allowing him to enter the service, physically unfit and temperamentally unsuited as he was (not to mention too old to join up). It is remarkable that they went along with his plan, and hardly surprising that he was found out within the year. Had things gone differently, however, he might never have made it past the recruiting sergeant.

    The sergeant whom Lawrence approached at the office in Henrietta Street, London, in August 1922, knew nothing of his true identity, and immediately recognised the scruffy, undersized individual as unsuitable. He referred the matter to a senior officer, one Flying Officer W E Johns, who shared his view that the man presenting himself as "Ross" was an undesirable and showed him the door. The two officers remained concerned that Ross might be a fugitive from the police. When, later, he returned with official documents to support his application, Johns was forced to accept him, but he was unimpressed with the subterfuge and never warmed to Lawrence.

    William Earl Johns, five years Lawrence's junior, had served throughout the war. In 1917 he had joined the Royal Flying Corps and trained as a fighter pilot. Despite several hair-raising adventures with planes, he was no ace, and late in 1918 was captured by the Germans and spent the last two months of the year as a prisoner of war. He continued in the RAF until 1931, when he began working as a journalist. He later founded a magazine called Popular Flying, and it was in this publication that perhaps the most famous fictional pilot of all time, Biggles, first appeared.

    Johns soon began to use the name "Captain W. E. Johns" for publishing his Biggles stories, and by the time he died in 1968 he had written nearly a hundred Biggles books, in addition to numerous other books, novels, serials and plays on other topics. During the Second World War, at the request of the War Office, he even created a female character, "Worrals", for propaganda purposes

    It will not surprise you to learn that there are two societies, the W E Johns Appreciation Society and "Biggles & Co", in existence, reflecting the popularity of Johns' writing. One great fan of Biggles is SSF founder member, Phil Carradice, who has spoken several times about how Johns inspired him to begin writing. To date Phil has published over 60 books, but I somehow doubt he will ever outdo the publishing record of his literary hero.


Monday, 4 January 2021

December Stillness

 December Stillness - a post by Meg Crane


December stillness, teach me through your trees
That loom along the west, one with the land,
The veiled evangel of your mysteries.

While nightfall, sad and spacious, on the down
Deepens, and dusk imbues me where I stand,
With grave diminishings of green and brown,

Speak roofless Nature, your instinctive words;
And let me learn your secret from the sky,
Following a flock of steadfast journeying birds
In lone remote migration beating by.

December stillness, crossed by twilight roads,
Teach me to travel far and bear my loads.


       Collected Poems p.211. Composed December 1930; published January 1934 in The Spectator.



According to Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Sassoon wrote this at Wilsford, Stephen Tennant's house in Wiltshire, on Christmas Eve 1930. Although the relationship would not come to a decisive end for more than another year, it was already evident to Sassoon that it was falling apart, and that he could hang on to what was left of it only by sacrificing his own needs and serving Stephen's errant wishes.


As so often, Sassoon pictures himself as a solitary figure enclosed by his own loneliness. If the melancholy landscape in the poem is that of Wiltshire, it is also strongly reminiscent of the Kentish setting of the much earlier poem 'Together' ('Splashing along the boggy woods all day …) – another poem written in response to a lost love. The winter landscape reflects the speaker's sadness, but prompts him in some way to give himself up to whatever Nature can teach him, some wisdom which he believes to exist but cannot yet understand. The bare trees reach upwards to the 'roofless' sky: the image suggests in the first place dereliction and ruin – but something which is 'roofless' may also be limitless. The 'steadfast journeying' birds are travelling out of sight with a purpose which the speaker recognises though he cannot yet share it. 

There are other characteristic elements, familiar from the war poems. One such is the image of a road. In 'The Road' (CP p.32) and 'The Last Meeting' (p.35) - yet another lost-love poem - the speaker is passing along, or watching others pass along, a road which must lead somewhere, but to a destination we never see. Like most middle-class children of his generation, Sassoon was brought up on The Pilgrim's Progress, with its absorbing myth of a journey which goes on through darkness, danger and incomprehension, but which in the end leads through every danger and past every obstacle to a promised haven.

In the closing phrase 'bear my loads' we have another image of travelling and patient endurance, recalling the soldier-cum-Christ-figure in 'The Redeemer' ('Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear'). Although Sassoon's conversion still lay more than twenty years ahead, there is the religious imagery and vocabulary ('evangel' and 'mysteries' in line 3) and the invocation to some spiritual force, which recur in Sassoon's work all the way from 'Before Day' in 1908 ('Come in this hour to set my spirit free') to 'Prayer at Pentecost' in  1960 ('Spirit, who speak'st by silences, remake me'). As a soldier Sassoon was known for a courage of the reckless kind which earned him the nickname of 'Mad Jack' – but his poems more commonly celebrate the kind of courage which forces itself on in the belief, or hope, that there is some purpose and end to it all.

I am hoping to find other Sassoon poems which link to particular months of the year. This blog entry should have appeared last month, in December – my apologies, and I will try to move more synchronously next time!

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.