Monday, 18 July 2022

"Benediction" - a review by Cynthia Greenwood

I enjoy historical plays and novels and have, of course, seen some of them as films. I have therefore heard quite a lot of the sort of thing where well-dressed characters shout across rooms things like:

 “You really must meet Oscar Wilde – and Bernard Shaw will be here in a few minutes!”

Shaw certainly arrives but he looks as if his spiky red beard is only being held on by will power. I was reminded of such scenes as I watched parts of Benediction such as the bit where Sassoon is about to get married and we suddenly discover that no less a person than T.E. Lawrence is among the guests! As well as observing unintended humour in historical films I also spent a lot of time having the facts of Sassoon’s  life and work knocked into me by the conventional methods of studying biographies, poems, critical works etc. Was I approaching the poet in too enclosed and regimented a manner? As I watched Benediction I began to think so. There were times when we were not sure what year it was or whether Sassoon was still in the army. People seemed to float about possibly suggesting the trauma of war. The words contemplation and pause seemed to be brought to mind as we watched that strange period between the wars being re-created

In Benediction we have a concentration on Sassoon’s personal life and relationships from when he joined the army to his marriage and old age. Now that homosexuality is being more fully accepted it seems appropriate to focus on Sassoon’s personal life, but I must confess to feeling the lack in the film of references to him writing and struggles with his poetry, except voice-overs. The play Not About Heroes, dealing with Sassoon and Owen’s relationship and their efforts to write and find a new language to express the horror of war, seemed powerfully dramatic and involving compared to Benediction’s views of several rather unremarkable young men being vaguely witty in Art Deco settings!

However, in order to get my reactions to the film into perspective I decided to think about what I really liked about it. Firstly, I found the camera work fascinating. Anything to do with the photography seemed to have both an obvious meaning and a more symbolic one.  For example, at the beginning of the film, we see the front of a concert hall as the camera sweeps down from a black and sinister sky. Inside the hall the camera moves towards a sea of faces all intently listening to the music. Sassoon's is one of the faces. These faces echo the black and white footage that appears from time to time in the film showing more faces of soldiers marching, waiting, going over the top. It is as if these black and white images are a kind of shorthand for reminding us that it was the First World War that produced the post war world we see in the film. This careful attention to the “design” of the film is seen repeatedly. For example, we see Sassoon’s home, where his mother lives, and the camera moves slowly as if relishing the books and keepsakes of the nineteenth century, a peaceful time before the war. Again, the camera moves slowly round Sassoon as he sits in church, possibly wondering about his future conversion to Catholicism. When Owen and Sassoon say goodbye at Craiglockhart the camera concentrates on them going very slowly down the stairs as if wanting to prolong their time together. This lingering over valuable things from the past contrasts violently with the wild dancing of the Charleston and Tango which seems to represent a new, lively and perhaps more superficial age. 

I did have a problem with the rapid cutting from one scene to another and with the large sections of Sassoon’s life that were left out of the film. We saw little of his youth – no hunting or cricket and his early attempts at writing are missed out. Though there is a voice-over of his protest, it is not emphasised. I felt that people who did not know much about Sassoon would be confused, especially as there were sometimes quick cuts between the scenes. On the other hand, the quick switches from one scene to another may have been meant to show Sassoon’s own confusion due to the war. I remember trying to work out if he had left the army yet, but he was probably equally confused by the chaos of the battlefields and the constant cancelling of orders by superior officers.

Of course, the film deals with a very specific period of Sassoon’s life, the period between the wars, so it is only fair to examine how it succeeds in achieving its aims here. The film has strong pictorial and “design” qualities shown in the camera work noted above. The move from the fussiness of Sassoon’s mother’s rooms from a bygone era, to the battlefields, then to the comparative peace of sleek, expensive Art Deco rooms successfully makes the central part of the film feel like a well of peace and quiet, despite the emotional stress Sassoon is going through. Interestingly, in the latter part of the film in which Peter Capaldi takes over the role of Sassoon, we see almost claustrophobic later twentieth century rooms as if emphasising that the war achieved nothing. This way that the pictorial and design qualities seem to act as a kind of emphasis for the subject of the film is very interesting. 

Unfortunately, I did not feel that the script came up to a high level. At first it is entertaining to see a group of young men exchanging jokes rather as if they were in an Oscar Wilde play, but when the jokes are not that good it soon palls and you start looking at the architecture of the room for distraction! However, the acting was very good throughout, I thought. One big advantage that the film had was that even the very small parts were played by important actors so Sassoon’s mother, the older Hester Gatty, the chief medical officer at Craiglockhart, etc., made as much impact as the major players. In this way a whole believable world was created round Sassoon. The main actors seemed to be squeezing every ounce of meaning out of their roles. Jeremy Irvine (Ivor Novello) really seemed to show the different sides of his personality, one minute singing and playing popular songs then being selfish and demanding. His eyes did look “angry” as a party guest remarked. Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant was in a state of collapse one minute and launching cynical witticisms the next. You could easily see how he might provoke sympathy and affection. Matthew Tennyson, as Wilfred Owen, expressed the liveliness which is not often seen in stage portrayals of Owen, who is frequently shown as just the serious minded war poet genius! In fact he said he regretted that he had to be “the poet of sorrows” and shows a sly humour in his letters. Even though he did not have many lines to say I felt we could have seen a bit more complexity in his characterisation. I somehow did not see either Owen or Sassoon dancing the tango but this could have been showing how the more superficial world of the Twenties was breaking in on the serious intensity of poetry. I found that, when I looked at the film as a whole, the images of Tennant, Novello, Glen Byam Shaw, etc, faded, but the relationship between Sassoon and Owen at Craiglockhart seemed more significant. I wondered why this should be and decided it was because Sassoon and Owen were both poets linked by the mysterious art and craft of poetry. They had so much more in common than Sassoon had with any of the more superficial young men he met. 

Though I found the acting very good I felt there were some things in this carefully constructed  world that didn’t work. In regard to the acting, though Peter Capaldi is a very good actor, the fact of him being welded onto Jack Lowden as an older self didn’t work for me. The change seemed too sudden and I never felt he was really “in” the part. The situation was not helped by him doing a lot of contemplating the past  and not doing much talking. Also, I noticed towards the end of the film there was a strange inclination to see George Sassoon and his father enacting a sort of modern domestic drama of the wayward son who fights his father but is kind to him in the end! It is possible of course that Terence Davies wanted to show the strange movements of history whereby the cosy Victorian world gave way to terrible warfare, then there was an odd pause where people floated around being witty, which eventually gave way to another war. Later there was a collapse into domesticity ending in small living rooms where it seemed people lived on memories.

Jack Lowden himself gave a very solid performance. Though he was silent for much of the time, his silences set against the lively behaviour of the other young men in his circle suggests he cannot get rid of the shadows of war. It is suggested that at least one of the young men, Ivor Novello, was entertaining the troops with his songs rather than fighting in the war. Lowden’s silences made us speculate on how he might be thinking of the gulf between him and them and the fact that he must turn to them because all his other friends, including Wilfred Owen, are dead. Near the end of the film we see Sassoon break down completely. He is sitting alone on a seat in the park on a cold night. He appears as the older Sassoon played by Peter Capaldi but as the scene progresses he reverts to the young Sassoon. This seems to stress how he can never escape from his young self  fighting the war. Lowden, with great sensitivity, gradually gives way to tears, and the gasping pauses in this outpouring of emotion seem to indicate the way the full horror of the war is becoming clear to him.

Though very successful generally in his part I feel Lowden was possibly less successful in conveying a variety of emotions. His meeting with Hester Gatty when she is sketching near the churchyard (another reference to those dead in the war?) and his more intimate scenes with her were rather embarrassing. You could say that the director wanted to show the difficulties he had with women but the dialogue seemed steeped in cliché and was laughable in parts. In fact other bits of the screenplay were a problem. I think the real difficulty might have been the fact that there was not much complexity shown in most of the characters including Sassoon. Though Lowden was very good at expressing suppressed emotion, emotional turmoil and hidden feelings, we did not see any other layers of Sassoon’s personality. I would blame the dialogue for this, not the actor. Of course I could be wrong: Terence Davies could have wanted to leave out complexity of character deliberately so that he could create a kind of dream image of this interlude between the wars where people seemed to move in a slow dance round Sassoon and each other, dropping flat keys, saying goodbyes, etc, against a background of muted Art Deco colours. 

I actually saw the film twice, once at FACT in Liverpool and once at HOME in Manchester. The audiences in both cases were larger than I thought they would be. All in all, I enjoyed it in spite of some criticisms. I’ve found myself thinking about it quite a lot since and I feel increasingly that Terence Davies was trying to make a new kind of film which was not like the old conventional format of long dialogue and dramatic situations. Rather it was like an Impressionist painting where the background of recent war was sketched in, important things like Sassoon and Owen at Craiglockhart appeared in brighter colours, and the whole thing seemed like a slow movement across time. This inter-war period of Sassoon’s life left Sassoon thinking about his sexuality, mourning dead friends and wondering how his writing would develop; in other words it was a strange lull. Terence Davies drew in the worlds of design, photography and the background of history with its periods of turmoil and peace.


Sunday, 29 May 2022

Port Lympne - Philip Sassoon’s Legacy

Post by Irene McCready

    Afternoon tea at Port Lympne, Philip Sassoon’s constituency home, seemed to be the perfect birthday treat for one who is an avid follower of the poet Siegfried and the rest of the Sassoon clan.  I had been looking forward to this visit for over a year and have to say that the experience was well worth the wait. 

    Philip Sassoon (1888-1939), a cousin of Siegfried, was constituency MP for Folkestone and Hythe from 1913 until his death. On his election to this, his father’s former seat,  he set about building this lovely house in a choice location on the Romney Marshes in Kent. Since he was a fabulously wealthy man, money was no barrier to the construction of this remarkable mansion; consequently, it still holds some of the character of its charismatic builder. 

    Today, Philip Sassoon is no more than a footnote in history (in fact there are more references to his cousin Siegfried in most history books covering this period), but in his day, he was quite an influential man, serving both General Haig and then Prime Minister David Lloyd George in very quick succession. For many years he was Under Secretary for Air and even had an Air Force Squadron based on his Lympne estate.  But his main legacy will be his contribution to the arts, and more pertinently, the building and creation of two very fine houses, Trent Park in Middlesex and Port Lympne.

    Built in a Dutch Colonial style by architect Herbert Baker, it is constructed  from luscious, rose-coloured brick (recycled from elsewhere) and stands on a small hill overlooking the Marshes; on a clear day there is a view of the English Channel beyond. Originally, over 100 rooms, it now boasts only eight hotel suites, plus dining and conference facilities. The atmosphere and tone of the mansion very much reflects the interests of the last owner, gaming entrepreneur and zoo keeper John Aspinall (of Lord Lucan fame).  He created a wildlife park in the 1970s which remains  a very popular attraction. Few of Sir Philip’s touches are still in existence, but what survives is  simultaneously vibrant and poignant.

    On the day of our visit  my companion and I were fortunate to meet another Philip Sassoon buff whose precise role, and indeed name, I failed to establish, but he claimed to be both staff and volunteer.  He was eager to show us the vestibule as we had spoken of Rex Whistler in our initial discussion.  I was not disappointed. It contained the original silk ceiling hanging and the mural, painted in an Arcadian style, depicting  the life of Philip, seeming as fresh as the day it was completed. It was exciting to note that Siegfried also saw this painted, when he was an invited guest for the first and only time shortly before his marriage to Hester. Rex was then painting the finishing touches. He was paid £800 for the job, which, according to our guide, Rex thought was too little for the amount of work involved. But I suspect he did not factor-in all those days and weeks enjoying the good food, excellent wine and the general opulence of life at Port Lympne.

    What  was formerly the dinning room, now the lounge and bar, was next on our agenda.  It is very simply furnished with colonial-style cane armchairs and a large rug to highlight the beautiful parquet floor.  This room is the home of the Glyn Philpot frieze which depicts spear- and shield-brandishing African warriors. Apparently, one guest had complained about the frieze, claiming that it was racist and, in truth, I could see the point being made, but, as the painting is part of the Grade 2 listing, little can be done to change it.

    The Moorish terrace is situated on a half-landing on the main staircase.  Open to the sky, it is made of exquisite  pink marble and looks straight out of a Tale of the Arabian Nights, which I can imagine  was the effect that Philip Sassoon was trying to create all those years ago.  The hotel have taken care to decorate it with climbers and other exotic pot plants which enhance the beauty of the architecture.

    Other rooms on the ground floor were dedicated to a conference/marriage suite, and furnished in a modern style.  Apart from the casement windows, there is little evidence to denote the period of the house.  In the largest room there is an oversized monkey and palm tree painted on one wall.

    The “Jungle Book” approach was carried forward to the salon where afternoon tea was served. The ceiling and every scrap of wall was dedicated to this theme of wildlife.  Lions, tigers, monkeys; all were present, watching us take tea, and, peering through abundant foliage, was the head of John Aspinall, the founder of the wildlife park.

    The true irony of the room is the fact that beneath all of that garish  fresco lies an authentic Philip Sassoon contribution to the architecture.  There were two huge windows letting in the gorgeous afternoon light and over each was a canopy of  intricate, filigree plaster work.   But unfortunately, the subtlety of this  “Sultan’s Palace” effect has been totally subsumed by the greenery.

    Only by picking our way though the worn and broken York stone paving were we  able to admire  the garden  (I felt that these could have been sympathetically restored to ensure the safety of the guests).  Sitting in the sun, the vista over the Romney Marshes was stunning, but alas, no French coastline was visible.  The enjoyment of a fantasy of Siegfried musing in the same spot, smoking his pipe, was interrupted by the reappearance of our guide who had promised us a visit to the library.

    The tiny, octagonal library  with its oak panels and bookshelves seemed to be the only place where Philip Sassoon was acknowledged; for there at the door, on a stand, was a photograph of him with the Heads of State participating in the peace conference of 1919.  This had been hailed as a great success on a social level but achieved very little towards the peace process.   This room was termed the small library in its heyday - as there was a much larger one elsewhere -  where guests could experience a quiet break.  This practice continues today.

    The visit ended with a final talk about the famous people who had enjoyed the luxurious surroundings  of Port Lympne and the generosity of its owner.   Some of the suites are named after these guests.  Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin  and of course Rex Whistler.  These names help keep alive Philip’s memory.  But it is John Aspinall, who made his fortune via the gaming tables and other, less-savoury ventures, who emerges the winner in the popularity stakes.  His introduction of a game park was a brilliant idea; a real money spinner but also enjoyed by serious conservationists and the general public alike. 


Monday, 23 May 2022

Larkin and his friends

     This post may be taken as yet another reminder that all members of literary societies affiliated to the Alliance of Literary Societies are able and welcome to attend the annual conference of that august body. We have been missing this very enjoyable event, amongst others, for the past two summers. The Walmsley Society were heartbroken when they were unable to host it, as planned, in 2020, and we feel for them. But it's back now.

        This year's conference was hosted by the Philip Larkin Society, in Hull where Larkin worked for many years as the University Librarian. In fact, much of the appearance of the present-day library building, known as the Brynmor Jones Library, is due to his efforts. It is named after the eminent scientist Sir Brynmor Jones, who at the time was Vice-Chancellor of Hull University. Jones, a Welshman, cannot really be counted among Larkin's friends, as the two apparently had a somewhat difficult relationship. 

        The idea that Larkin was an abrasive character is, however, dispelled by conversations with those who knew him in person. Phil Bacon, a former Sociology lecturer at Hull and long-time member of the Larkin Society, confirms that he was "a really nice chap". Ann Thwaite, an old and valued friend of the SSF whose late husband, Anthony, was Larkin's literary executor, agrees. The Thwaites first met Larkin in the 1950s, when he was just making his name as a poet. When we paused during our walking tour of Hull to look at a joke shop in the arcade (above right), Ann commented: "That's just the kind of place Philip would have loved!"

        Another of Larkin's friends was the novelist J. I. M. Stewart, who, although 16 years Larkin's senior, outlived him, and talks in his autobiography about the memorial service he attended in 1986. Stewart had, 58 years earlier, attended Thomas Hardy's funeral at Westminster Abbey (though he could no longer remember how he had procured a ticket). Stewart presumably knew Larkin as a result of his time as an academic at Queen's University, Belfast, where Larkin worked before coming to Hull. Not long before Larkin died, he had written to Stewart expressing "wonder" at the great span of time that fell within Stewart's memory. Larkin died, still employed at Hull (where his office is preserved much as it looked at the time of his death), at the age of 63. Stewart lived to be 88. 

          The Larkin Society was founded in 1995, and is currently celebrating the poet's centenary. You can find out more from their website: https://philiplarkin.com/



Thursday, 24 March 2022

The courage of Marc Bloch

     As a student of medieval French during the 1970s, I was obliged to read one of the standard works on French medieval history, La Société Féodale by Marc Bloch. It was a massive tome, already nearly forty years old, and although I admired Bloch's scholarship, I cannot say that I actively enjoyed reading it. I knew nothing of Mr Bloch and made no attempt to find out. There was no Google to make it easy to discover his biographical details, and in any case I had no reason to want to know them.

    Born in 1886, only a couple of months before Siegfried Sassoon, Marc Bloch came from a middle-class family and, like Sassoon, was of Jewish ancestry. There the resemblance appears to end. Bloch's father was a historian and teacher, whom Marc would later emulate. His academic prowess showed itself at an early age, when Sassoon was still struggling to keep up with his lessons at Marlborough, and after national service, Marc was researching in early French history and was appointed a Fellow of the Fondation Dosne-Thiers in Paris.

    Then came the war. Like others, Marc Bloch expected it to last a short time. He soon distinguished himself with acts of somewhat foolhardy bravery, and actively enjoyed his first few months of service. As with Sassoon, it was the first time he had really mixed with working-class men, and he soon came to appreciate their qualities. He also quickly developed a dislike for some of the senior officers. Having no inclination towards poetry, he made it his business to record the events of the war impartially, as he would do again when the Second World War came along. He found the French army woefully unprepared from the outset, and he suffered the same personal losses as his British counterparts, not to mention the psychological after-effects of combat: "Ever since the Argonne in 1914, the buzzing sound of bullets has been stamped on the grey matter of my brain," he wrote.

    Thankfully, Bloch survived that first war, and was able to return to academia. Despite his age and failing health, he remained in the military reserve, and found himself called up at the start of the Second World War, but felt bored rather than patriotic. Once again critical of the generals, he was eventually obliged to move to Vichy-controlled territory, where his Jewish blood put him almost equally at risk. Sending his family - a wife and six children - to safety, he joined the Resistance in Lyon in 1942. His administrative skills, learned in the field of education, led to his becoming a regional organiser. 

    Bloch's unassuming appearance could not protect him indefinitely. In 1944, aged 57, he was discovered in possession of a radio transmitter, and he was captured and tortured. Shortly after the Normandy landings, he was shot by a firing squad, along with a number of other prisoners.

    Bloch had requested that his epitaph read "Dilexi veritatem" ("I have loved the truth"), a sentiment of which Siegfried Sassoon would have wholeheartedly approved. His unfinished book, L'Étrange Défaite (Strange Defeat), published posthumously, was concerned with the failure of the French government to prevent the country's fall in 1940. Looking back on the First World War, he wrote:

"...After four years not only of fighting but of mental laziness, we were only too anxious to get back to our proper employments...That is our excuse. But I have long ceased to believe that it can wash us clean of guilt."

        

    

Saturday, 27 November 2021

The "Pen-Prostituter" looks forward to Christmas 1921

     I am afraid the title of this post is somewhat misleading, in two senses. Siegfried Sassoon, in his diary for 21 November 1921, expressed his avowed intention of NOT becoming a "pen-prostituter", even though his financial resources were somewhat stretched. Secondly, though his concern with money may have been occasioned partly by the knowledge that Christmas was approaching, he does not appear to have been looking forward to it in any way. At the end of his entry for 1 December, he wrote, "I wish I could take life less heavily. Robbie Ross always said I was 'rather morbid'. No doubt he was right."

    In his November diary, Sassoon describes the various financial demands on him. Already in debt, he is determined to find money to help Harold Owen, Wilfred's younger brother, to study art in London. He had already tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade another friend, Arnold Bennett, to buy one of Harold's watercolours. Some readers may have got the impression that Sassoon had brushed aside his memories of Owen after the war, but here he says, "I keep thinking of Wilfred." Clearly he felt an obligation to his late friend's family, even if he tended to avoid direct contact with them.

    Other individuals who were a financial drain on Sassoon's limited resources included Gabriel Atkin, the young artist who had been his first lover and was now receiving an "allowance" from him. Siegfried's brother Michael had borrowed money which Siegfried was not expecting to get back, and his chestnut mare was costing him a lot to maintain. He wanted to sell her, but the horse was not in a fit condition for him to ride her himself, let alone sell her. He was therefore trying to think of other ways of raising money, even considering the sale of some of his precious books and the portrait that had been painted by Glyn Philpot. The one thing he drew the line at was writing articles for magazines to supplement his income. Sassoon found it almost impossible to write to order.

    In this state of mind, it is hardly surprising that Sassoon had fallen out with many of his friends. The chief thorn in his side was Osbert Sitwell, whose biting satires had targeted some of Siegfried's closest friends, including the innocuous Edmund Blunden. Other friends sapped his energy. Harold Laski, whom he liked, gave him a "restless satisfaction", whilst Frank "Toronto" Prewett, whom he also liked, could "only be taken in occasional doses".  Perhaps the most pernicious influence was Walter Turner, with whom he shared the Tufton Street house. Turner was having an affair, and Siegfried saw him with the woman in question at a concert on 1 December, which upset him since he was fond of Turner's wife Delphine - unlike Robert Graves's wife Nancy, whom he listed as one of the main reasons for his estrangement from his old wartime comrade.

    Sassoon was, of course, still suffering from depression, which perhaps we would now call PTSD. If anyone ever had a reason for feeling like this, it was him, but perhaps many of his other friends, like Graves and Blunden, had similar problems. Robert Ross perhaps did not take this into account when calling him "morbid". How could a man who had so recently been close to death and lost so many who were dear to him be otherwise?  His mentor, W H R Rivers, whom he had seen in November, was someone on whom he depended to help him escape from the gloom. He would stay with Rivers in Cambridge in February 1922. But by June, Rivers was dead, having collapsed with a strangulated hernia in his rooms at St John's College. Curiously, in his diary for 6 June, the day he received the news, Sassoon wrote that Rivers had done him a good turn: "He has awakened in me a passionate consciousness of the significance of life." Perhaps it is easier to feel like that in June than it is in December. 

    

    

    

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Mr Hardy, the Dearmer family, and Lord Derby

The first and only time I met the late Robert Hardy, our briefest of conversations turned on a poet who had celebrated his 100th birthday in 1993. Mr Hardy had been present at the attendant celebration and happened to be talking about it just as I came into the room. Geoffrey Dearmer had been the last surviving First World War poet "proper", which immediately aroused my interest.

    Not many people, even those who are interested in the literature of the First World War, seem to have heard of Geoffrey Dearmer. Perhaps living to be 103 was a disadvantage in terms of notoriety. I've noticed over the years how those who died young (Burns, Keats, Shelley, Owen, to name but a few) tend to eclipse their longer-lived contemporaries, largely because there isn't time for the public to become bored with them and their work. Sassoon and Graves both produced enough quality work in middle age to continue to be revered in the long term, even though they may not have received much attention in the last couple of decades of their lives.

    Dearmer is not generally considered to have been in the Sassoon or Graves class as a poet, or indeed a rival to Wilfred Owen, who was just three days his senior. His best-known poem, "The Turkish Trench-Dog", is a curious precursor of Rosenberg's more famous queer sardonic rat from "Break of Day in the Trenches". But Dearmer had more in common with Sassoon than is immediately obvious. On 6 October 1915, Geoffrey Dearmer's younger brother, Christopher, died of wounds on board the troop ship Gloucester Castle, of wounds incurred at Suvla Bay.   On 1 November 1915, Siegfried Sassoon's younger brother, Hamo, died of wounds on board the troop ship Kildonan Castle, of wounds incurred at Suvla Bay.  

    Geoffrey Dearmer, unlike his more famous contemporary Sassoon, never wanted to go to war. His father was a clergyman, his mother an artist, writer and committed pacifist. Perhaps Geoffrey would have chosen to be a conscientious objector were it not for the fact that both parents volunteered to serve - the Rev Percy Dearmer as a chaplain and Mabel as a nursing orderly. Their sons followed their lead, believing that they should "do their bit" regardless of their personal preferences. Tragedy came soon after, with Mabel Dearmer developing enteric fever while nursing in Serbia and dying of pneumonia in July 1915, shortly after returning home. When her younger son also died, it must have been a serious blow to Geoffrey's father, and will have had a lasting impact on Geoffrey himself.

    From a recent article in the Western Front Association's Stand To! magazine I learned that the military files of certain individuals were preserved for posterity in the National Archives because of their activities in civilian life. Sassoon was apparently not one of these, but Robert Graves was, and so was Geoffrey Dearmer. The records contained in the latter's file reveal what happened next. Stephen Gwynn, an Irish Nationalist MP who served as a captain in the British Army and was a friend of Mabel's, wrote to the infamous Lord Derby in 1917 to appeal for Geoffrey, who was at that time in the Army Service Corps, to be kept out of the front line, in deference to a "very sensitive nature" that made him unsuited for the infantry. Three weeks later, Geoffrey was ordered back to the UK.

    Gwynn had commented that the young man was "more likely to become a great poet than any young writer of his day".  Perhaps Dearmer did not quite achieve that, but he certainly lived a long and interesting life, going on to work for the Lord Chamberlain's Office as an "Examiner of Plays", responsible for upholding standards in the theatre, and later worked for the BBC, where he had a hand in the radio series, Children's Hour, of which many of you will still have happy memories.  

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.