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.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Boredom 2020-style

One of the biggest worries for people in the UK and other developed countries in the current situation is boredom. We have so many types of entertainment at our disposal, and yet the one thing everyone wants to do at the moment is to go outside. Forget the convenience of online ordering; we want to go to the shops. We can make a cup of coffee at home but it's much more appealing to go out to a coffee shop with friends and spend an hour chatting. We can easily phone our relatives, but we would rather see them face to face. This gives me some optimism for the future of the human race. Perhaps, in the future, we will come to appreciate the natural world and the joys of physical contact more than we ever did.

Siegfried Sassoon talks about boredom sometimes in his memoirs. Very much an outdoor man in his youth, he realised on arriving at the Western Front what other soldiers also mentioned - the boredom of being in the trenches, alternating as it did with short periods of extreme danger and horror. Officers were obliged to invent monotonous tasks to keep their men occupied - filling sandbags, cleaning out the latrines, etc. It was critical to keep up their morale. I like this quote from the letters of Max Staniforth (1893-1985), who wrote:

The only way to be here is to be philosophical. We have evolved a philosophy accordingly. What do you think of it?
If you are a soldier, you are either:
(1) at home or (2) at the Front.
If (1), you needn’t worry.
If (2), you are either (1) out of the danger zone or (2) in it.
If (1), you needn’t worry.
If (2), you are either (1) not hit, or (2) hit.
If (1), you needn’t worry.
If (2) you are either (1) trivial or (2) dangerous.
If (1), you needn’t worry.
If (2), you either (1) live or (2) die.
If you live, you needn’t worry: and – If you die, YOU CAN’T WORRY!!
So why worry?

When we think about how much worse off we could be, we inevitably feel guilty about complaining of boredom, but I feel sure it won't take long for us to forget. In years to come, we'll be telling our children about the time we had to stay indoors for a few weeks and how hard it was. And they won't understand...

Thursday, 5 March 2020

The First World War at the Movies

Have you seen it yet? Of course, I'm talking about 1917, the film that was widely tipped to win Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, but didn't. I've read that there are over a hundred films about the First World War - well, pardon me, but it feels like a lot more than that, and it seems to me that there has been a spate of films on the subject in the aftermath of the centenary commemorations, which is odd. Admittedly, it does take a long time to come up with the idea of a film, get the finance and then do the work. Perhaps some producers and writers only thought of it in 2014 and ran out of time before their projects came to fruition.
Despite the plethora of films about the Great War that have been made since 1914, there are many that we never get the opportunity to see. Silent films, for a start, never appear on television and it would be nice to get the chance to find out whether any of them were any good. For example, Wikipedia tells me that British film star Madeleine Carroll (best known for her later role in The 39 Steps opposite Robert Donat) made her first screen appearance in 1928's The Guns of Loos, the plot of which involves a blind veteran who "returns home to run his family's industrial empire".
Believe it or not, music hall star Vesta Tilley, already in her fifties, appeared in a 1916 film called The Girl Who Loves a Soldier, as a nurse who disguises herself as a man in order to carry out a dangerous mission on behalf of her beloved. In the same year, an Australian film, The Joan of Arc of Loos, offered an alternative angle on the events of the previous year, focusing on a French girl who is inspired to wade into battle against the aggressors, eventually being awarded a medal for her heroism. The strangest thing about the film is that it is based on a real-life incident.
The most interesting prospect, for us, is the new film, currently or about to be "in the making", called Benediction, which features Siegfried Sassoon as its central character. It's not due to hit our screens until 2021, so I can't tell you much about it. I've seen it described as a "biopic", but my impression is that it's mainly about Sassoon's wartime activities and specifically about his protest of 1917. Jack Lowden, who plays Sassoon, is Scottish and ginger-haired, but after all he's an actor so one assumes he can effectively convey an impression of a real person who looked nothing like him. I gather that another Scottish actor, Peter Capaldi, has been selected to play the older Sassoon, which will be equally interesting. Let's face it, it can't be any further from the truth than the bearded version played by John Hurt on TV in 2016.
Sassoon has of course been depicted on screen previously, notably by James Wilby in Gillies MacKinnon's Regeneration. Although Whitby was blond, a fact that the film's makers made no attempt to disguise, he certainly had an air of Sassoon about him, and of course one must bear in mind that the film was adapted from Pat Barker's novel, which had its own interpretation of the man and his personality. The relatively unknown actors Stevan Rimkus (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) and Morgan Watkins (The Pity of War) are among those who have played the young Sassoon on television, plus of course Michael Jayston in the 1970 TV play Mad Jack, about which I posted last September.
Noting that the new James Bond film's release date has just been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak, it's possible that the filming of Benediction will also be delayed, especially if there is difficulty raising the necessary funds. (I have no inside knowledge on this, but we do hope to be able to fill you in on further details as time goes on.) How will Sassoon be portrayed in this latest screen version of his life, and, more importantly, will the significance of his life be recognised as it deserves? Time alone will tell.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

David Baddiel versus the Holocaust

I have to admit that I generally avoid watching television programmes about the Second World War, particularly if they involve the Holocaust. It is perhaps difficult for someone who is not Jewish to accept the crimes committed against the Jews over many centuries, not only by Fascist governments such as Hitler's but by the native populations of other so-called Christian countries. It happened that I watched one such BBC documentary earlier this week and it came as something of a shock to learn that, in the world as a whole, as many as one in six people don't believe that the Holocaust actually happened. I can't imagine how Siegfried Sassoon would have reacted to that piece of information.
For the benefit of those who don't know him, David Baddiel is a British comedian best known for his participation in light-hearted programmes about football. Like most successful comedians, he is highly-educated, a Cambridge graduate and former PhD candidate. And of course he is Jewish. For him, the business of confronting the "Holocaust deniers" is truly painful. When he described how hard he found it not to get exasperated and angry with them and at the same time not to get involved in arguing with them, he was describing feelings that Sassoon had, in relation to some of his right-wing friends.
"The Case for the Miners" was a poem in which he described those feelings: "And that's the reason why I shout and splutter..." He wasn't talking about the fate of the Jews. He wasn't even talking about the First World War. He was talking about the assumption of a few of his friends that those who were less fortunate than themselves had somehow deserved their fate. The miners weren't so badly off, they argued. Even if they had more money, they wouldn't spend it wisely. Sassoon found himself a one-man opposition to people who were talking what he felt was inhumane nonsense. His response was to get himself a job as a political correspondent so he could visit South Wales and find out what was really going on. Doubting himself as he usually did, he wanted to be 100% sure he was on the side of the truth.
This was also the case with David Baddiel, who felt he had to talk to the Holocaust deniers simply to be sure that they really didn't have any worthwhile arguments to offer. He went on to describe his mixed feelings about the idea of a Holocaust Memorial Day, eventually reasoning that the inhuman conduct of the Nazis towards the Jews and the events he was discussing were unbelievable, which was in itself enough justification for a memorial. To look at it another way, if the Menin Gate had not been built, would anyone today find it possible to believe that over 50,000 men died in the Ypres Salient without their bodies ever having been recovered?
It brings to mind a scene from Sebastian Faulks's novel Birdsong, when Stephen's granddaughter Elizabeth, looking at the names on the Thiepval Memorial, exclaims,"Nobody told me. My God, nobody told me." Until now she has had no idea of the enormity of the Western Front's catalogue of death.
And so Sassoon and Baddiel are brought together by a desire to ensure that no one can excuse their present behaviour by claiming a lack of awareness of the terrible deeds of the past. Sassoon would have liked the First World War to be the war to end all wars, but within twenty years he was seeing history repeat itself, as Britain went to war with Germany for a second time. He did not favour it, but the gradual realisation that, as a Jew, he would have been one of those earmarked for torture and extermination by the Nazis must have been a severe blow to his belief in humankind.
As so often, there is no conclusion to this post. I have no answers to the questions faced by these two men. I can only say that I admire them both.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Old Age

"It doesn't come alone."
As the years go by, I find myself saying this more and more. My contemporaries and I used to discuss the problems we were having with our children, and the various amusing things they had said and done. Now we discuss the problems we are having with our aging relatives, and the various amusing things they have said and done. I recall Margo Blunden telling me that her father, Edmund, used to talk about his friend, the aged Siegfried Sassoon, in much the same way during the 1960s. "Poor old Sig..."
It happens in life and is reflected in literary societies, and indeed in all kinds of voluntary organisations. You've probably heard someone, somewhere, in the past few months, complaining about being unable to get younger volunteers to keep services going, to participate in committees, and so on. Few and far between are the young singles who want to spend their spare time in the company of old fogeys like us, and equally hard to acquire is the help of those with young children, who have very little time to spare for anything other than the daily grind. Equally, those who work full-time don't often want to spend their evenings doing clerical work for those who can't pay them to do so (although they sometimes like to spend their leisure time attending events of the kind we continue to organise).
Just recently I've once again found myself discussing the question of subscription rates, a matter that comes up regularly in all the societies I'm involved with. Should we do away with the "seniors" rate, since most members are seniors? Should we change the age limit from 60 to 65 or even 70? In some cases I'm now paying the seniors rate myself, and I don't relish the idea of having to pay more when I'm living on a pension. In terms of the SSF, we've always striven hard to keep our membership rates affordable, preferring not to build up a massive bank balance we can't justify - but other societies sometimes feel it necessary to have that cushion there for security. For who knows what the economy is going to be doing this time next year, let alone in ten years' time?
To return to Sassoon, his latter years were a time of self-examination. In his twenties and thirties, he had achieved much, although he chose to belittle himself. In January 1918, with his best times still ahead, he wrote in his diary, "I am home again in the ranks of youth - the company of death". In middle age he revisited his early years, as well as his army career, eloquently describing, in The Weald of Youth, the mixed feelings that had caused him to join up in the first place. He came late to marriage and parenthood, something that often indirectly leads to failure on one or both fronts, and he was very aware of the impending danger of a loss of physical and/or mental faculty, hence the enjoyment he felt in the company of younger people, and his determination to play cricket into his seventies, even if it meant having a runner.
His letters to Dame Felicitas Corrigan were full of self-examination (as though he had not done enough of it when writing his memoirs), but we know from Dennis Silk's account that he had not lost his wry sense of humour. His friendship with Ronald Knox during the 1950s was a meeting of like minds; Sassoon commented that he enjoyed Ronald's more light-hearted works, such as Let Dons Delight, which he had already read five times by 1962. Knox, of course, was only 69 when he died; Siegfried was already 71 when he converted. But, unlike Lady Acton, one of Knox's younger and more serious-minded converts, who threw one of Knox's detective novels over the side of a cruise ship because she found it too frivolous, Sassoon appreciated both sides of a person's character, and perhaps even preferred the frivolous. Dom Sebastian Moore, the monk who actually gave him his instruction in the Catholic faith after Knox's death, suggested that he had little interest in topics such as transsubstantiation and the immaculate conception, preferring simply to accept these as an excuse to chat with Moore for hours on their bench in the rock garden at Downside.
The darker side of Sassoon's old age is revealed by Dennis Silk's recordings of the elderly poet reading his war poems. After meeting him for the first an only time, in 1964, the poet and artist David Jones said, "However much he tried he could never get that 1st War business out of his system, which is exactly the case with me". Felicitas Corrigan felt that the "egocentricity" of Sassoon's latter years, though undeniable, was not a problem, and his last published poem, "A Prayer for Pentecost", reveals that he had achieved at least a degree of inner peace. May we all be granted that.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

"A Very Perfect, Gentle Knight"

No sooner had we received the news, in June, of the death of Dennis Silk, one of Siegfried Sassoon's greatest friends, who for the past ten years had been President of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, than obituaries, reminiscences and photographs were flooding the web. It was hard to find anything useful to say in this blog on the subject of Dennis and his reputation. Having just returned from attending his memorial service at Southwark Cathedral, I have realised how much more there is to say about him.
Dennis was a multi-talented man who excelled in many things. Few sportsmen can claim to be intellectuals, but he was both an exceptional cricketer (as well as a useful rugby player) and a great scholar. His thirty-five-year career as a schoolmaster, much of it as Warden of Radley College, won him many friends and admirers; I've lost count of the number of men who have spoken with pride of their time as one of his pupils. One doesn't need to approve of the public school system to be able to recognise that Dennis's motivation throughout his career came from what he saw as the opportunity to give boys the advantages of the good education his missionary father had managed to obtain for him despite lack of funds. Radley is considered by many to be "different" from the other boarding schools at the top end of the market, and much of this can be attributed to his personal influence.
I first met Dennis in 2000, when he spoke at the famous "Marlborough Day", as a result of which the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship was founded, but it was some years before I got to know him well and realised what a charming and accomplished man he was. His great contribution to Sassoon studies was that he managed to persuade the elderly Sassoon to record some of his poems on tape during the 1960s. Since the few recordings Sassoon made for radio no longer exist, Dennis's private tapes are unique and invaluable. Through Dennis we heard funny stories about Sassoon, and these have been recorded by the biographers when they might otherwise have been lost to posterity.
At his memorial service on 19th November, over a thousand people filled Southwark's relatively small cathedral to share their memories of Dennis, and Radley's school choir provided most of the musical inspiration - I can't omit to mention that a jazz sextet from Christ's Hospital (the school Dennis himself attended) played us out with a Glenn Miller tune. In addition, there were teachers and pupils from Marlborough College, another school where Dennis taught. Because of the numbers present, big screens were used to ensure that the whole congregation had a view of what was going on at the front, as well as displaying old photos of Dennis - as a schoolboy, as a young man going out to bat, enjoying quiet moments with his wife Diana, and of course on special occasions. In almost all of these, he was grinning broadly in the way we all remember. An anonymous caricature of him in his Radley days adorned the back of the order of service, emphasising the prominent chin that was most of his most distinctive physical features.
As one might expect, everyone who spoke or read - family, friends, former colleagues and teammates - did so with warmth and admiration, but some of the most moving tributes were readings from literature. Sassoon's poem "Dreamers" was a great favourite of Dennis's, and was read with feeling by his son Tom, but perhaps even more touching was the reading by the actress Jill Freud, wife of Dennis's late friend Sir Clement Freud, who commented that Geoffrey Chaucer, when writing the preface to the Knight's Tale, "didn't know at the time that he was talking about Dennis". I think that it is apt to include the whole quotation here, as a way of summing up what Dennis means to us.

A knight there was, and that a worthy man
Who from the day on which he first began
To ride abroad had followed chivalry,
Truth, honour, generousness and courtesy.
He was of sovereign value in all eyes,
And though so much distinguished, he was wise
And in his bearing modest as a maid.
He never yet a boorish thing had said
In all his life to any, come what might.
He was a very perfect, gentle knight.