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:

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.

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".