Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Lions led by men?

While reading the Spring 2017 edition of the Western Front Association's excellent Bulletin, I was intrigued by an exchange between a WFA member, Peter Crook, and the historian Gary Sheffield. Mr Crook was unhappy that Mr Sheffield, in a recent article, had dismissed Alan Clark's 1961 book, The Donkeys, as bad history. Gary (to whom I once gave an SSF pen) responded to the effect that no serious historian - presumably excluding Basil Liddell Hart who oversaw the publication - considers the book to be of any value.
I admit I have never read The Donkeys. However, the focus of criticism has for a long time been that Clark, son of the better-regarded Sir Kenneth, and now remembered chiefly for the controversial diaries covering his career as a Tory MP, "made up" the quotation "Lions led by donkeys" from which he took the title of his book on the First World War. Whatever the merits or demerits of the book, this accusation is wholly unjustified.
In the days before digital media and the internet made out-of-print books so accessible it was never easy to find out where a quotation had originated, unless it happened to be so well-known that it appeared in a published book of quotations. When asked, Clark was evasive. It seems clear to me that he had heard the phrase but did not know where it came from. He and Liddell Hart had puzzled over its origins, but it was too good a title to give up, so they used it regardless.
It has been left to others to point out that the phrase had been used as a book title by one P A Thompson as long ago as 1927, for his own book about the First World War, with the subtitle "Showing how victory in the Great War was achieved by those who made the fewest mistakes". It has in fact been traced back as far as the Crimean War, when an identical quotation, albeit in French, appeared in print in 1855. As an afterthought, sources now tend to mention that Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an English gentlewoman who in 1907 had married into German nobility, stated in her published diaries that she had "heard it straight from the Grosse Hauptquartier". The full quotation, as she puts it, reads like this:
"The English Generals are wanting in strategy. We should have no chance if they possessed as much science as their officers and men had of courage and bravery. They are lions led by donkeys."
What exactly is going on here? Why is Evelyn Blücher's account ignored as though it could not possibly have anything to do with the overall debate? Is it because she was female and a non-combatant? Evelyn, maiden name Stapleton-Bretherton, was ten years older than Siegfried Sassoon and was descended from a family of Lancashire coach proprietors as well as from the 12th Baron Petre. Following her marriage to a descendant of the great Prussian general Blücher, she went to live on Herm in the Channel Islands, moving to Berlin when war broke out.
The memoir Evelyn based on her diaries, called An English wife in Berlin, was published in 1920 and is therefore far closer to actual events than any secondary history written by Alan Clark or Gary Sheffield, neither of whom was yet conceived. (Basil Liddell Hart had actually served at the Western Front before eventually being invalided out of the forces.) Evelyn lived until 1960 and was thus still alive when Clark and Liddell Hart were working on The Donkeys. Her divided loyalties naturally caused her to question the "lions led by donkeys" statement, which was made in 1918, possibly by Ludendorff, the man who nearly won the war for Germany. It was to him that Clark attributed the quotation and it seems to me he may well have been correct, even if he could not remember where he had heard it.
In the past I've sometimes doubted feminist historians when they talk about women being "airbrushed out of history" and so on. This is, however, a case in point. Evelyn Blücher may not have been party to much military intelligence, or had much understanding of what was happening at the Western Front, but she was there, in Berlin, and certainly knew Ludendorff in person. She was suitably sceptical about what she heard, as was her husband, who was in charge of a hospital train. "...The offensive has not made the wished-for impression on the enemy," she writes, "but if anything has put new courage into them. The pacifists in England and France are fewer and have retired into the background." I suppose she would have numbered Sassoon among these.

Monday, 19 June 2017

J. M. Barrie - a Scottish writer

It has come to my attention that today, 19 June, is the eightieth anniversary of the death of that great Scottish writer, J. M. Barrie. Although nowadays chiefly remembered as the author of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, Barrie was much more than a writer of children's stories. He was in his forties, with many successful novels and plays to his name before he ever produced Peter Pan. Cally Phillips, of the Galloway Raiders, has recently founded the J. M. Barrie Literary Society; since I know the work involved in setting up a new society, I congratulate her on her efforts and wish the project well.
Siegfried Sassoon met Barrie while preparing a birthday tribute for Thomas Hardy, in 1919, having met Hardy in person for the first time only six months earlier. Barrie was living in a top-floor flat in Adelphi Terrace, a street which was almost entirely demolished in 1936, and Hardy, just coming up to his 80th birthday, was staying with him. Sassoon described Barrie as "almost dwarfish in a very old blue suit". Sassoon continues, "I was struck by the expression of melancholy which haunted his queer facial shabbiness." This he attributed to tiredness, as Barrie, "our most successful living dramatist", had a new play in the final stages of rehearsal in the West End.
In addition to Hardy and Barrie, another poet, J. C. Squire, was present in Barrie's apartment, and Sassoon saw him chatting with Florence Hardy. Whereas the Hardys were already regarded by Sassoon as great friends, Barrie would never fall into that category. However, in 1925, their paths crossed again, more obliquely, when Sassoon rented the top-floor flat at 23 Campden Hill Square in London (where there is now a blue plaque in his honour). He discovered that this house was where Barrie had written most of Peter Pan, a literary connection he could not resist.
It had actually been the home of the Llewelyn Davies family. George, the eldest of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies's five sons, had been killed in action near Ypres in 1915. Another brother, Michael, drowned in a boating accident on the Thames, along with a friend, the aristocratic Rupert Buxton; there were rumours that the two young men had an "unhealthy" relationship. Barrie had based the "Lost Boys" on the Llewelyn Davies boys, but the character of Peter Pan had been invented when they were still children and their tragic future remained unsuspected.
Barrie's divorce from Mary Ansell in 1909 had been a source of great sorrow to him, to the extent that some friends had written to the editors of leading newspapers to ask them not to report the court case. Following the death of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies's husband, Barrie had become a second father to the boys, and appears to have begun a relationship with her, but she died a year after his divorce, of cancer, making Barrie, or "Uncle Jim" as they called him, a joint guardian to her children. He had no children of his own, and bequeathed the copyright on the Peter Pan series of works to Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. When he died in 1937, he was buried in his birthplace at Kirriemuir; the house where he was born is open to the public and cared for by the National Trust for Scotland. I hope to visit it some day.
Siegfried Sassoon's relationship with Barrie, such as it was, deteriorated beyond recovery when, on Thomas Hardy's death in 1928, Barrie was one of those who campaigned to have Hardy buried, against his wishes, in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey; only his heart is buried in Stinsford Churchyard. Sassoon wanted Hardy's wishes to be respected and was angry with the big names who claimed Hardy and brought about the double funeral - so distressed that he found himself unable to take his seat in the Abbey for the service to which Florence Hardy had especially invited him. He said unkindly of Barrie that, when he died and a post-mortem took place, they would find that the man had no heart. It was one of many bitter remarks Sassoon made over the years. He did not always mean them. He outlived Barrie by thirty years, and we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death at our AGM in September. I hope to see many of my readers there.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Regenerated

In my last post I wrote about mental illness, with particular reference to Siegfried Sassoon's time as a patient at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh during 1917. In June of that year, he wrote in his diary "I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as 'an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb'. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts."
Siegfried knew what he was talking about, and was careful to focus on the politicians rather than the generals as the cause of all the trouble when he made his famous protest, the "Soldier's Declaration", which got him admitted to Craiglockhart because his targets did not dare court-martial someone with a military record such as his. Last weekend at Craiglockhart, now the home of Edinburgh Napier University, the Alliance of Literary Societies met for its annual conference and members of the SSF, along with many other societies, learned more about the period. Many did not know about Sassoon's actions or his writing, and the conference was bookended by events focused on Wilfred Owen, which means some will have gone away without realising the dominance of Sassoon in their literary partnership - a friendship that lasted only from the summer of 1917 until November 1918, when Owen was killed in action.
Friday evening's reception in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle was one of those very special occasions that turn out as memorable as they are unexpected. It was not even planned at the time the conference programme was being drafted, and Fiona McDonald worked extremely hard to bring everything together in time, but no one went away disappointed (apart from one or two people who were unable to get there in time because of issues with satnavs, domestic emergencies, etc, and had to spend all weekend hearing other people telling them how wonderful it had been and what a shame they had missed it!)
I don't have space to say much about each individual element in the conference weekend, but SSF and WOA members will read more in our respective Journals later in the summer. Simply being at Craiglockhart, standing in the former entrance hall where Sassoon and his companions once stood, and seeing the photographs, film and other memorabilia in the War Poets' Collection brought a better understanding of their experiences, and many people commented on this.
Friday evening had its hangover, and during Saturday we discovered there would be some changes to the programme of entertainment planned for the end of the afternoon. While Professor Alistair McCleery was giving his lecture on the First World War and the Scottish novel (and now I absolutely have to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic Sunset Song) and people were enjoying a soup and sandwich lunch, Sam Gray and I were running around trying to find out who exactly was coming and what they were going to do. Caroline Clegg and violinist Thoren Ferguson were very able stand-ins, and those who had missed the previous evening's event at least had a chance to hear Thoren play. Unfortunately he could not stay for dinner because he was shortly to be on stage at the Usher Hall!
Linda Curry & Alistair McCleery
By this time we had enjoyed a truly brilliant lecture by Professor Hazel Hutchison and also concluded the business of the ALS AGM. I think that those delegates attending for the first time were surprised and pleased to discover that others shared their experiences in running, or belonging to, a literary society. New committee members Jodie Robson and Cally Phillips brought a fresh viewpoint to the challenges facing the Alliance and individual societies.
Dinner in the Rivers Suite fulfilled all our expectations, a real culinary treat, followed by readings by individuals from various societies. Many have read at previous events and know what to expect; others approached the task nervously but were warmly received, and there were quite enough volunteers to fill the allotted time. To those who thanked me for my efforts, I can only say "Thank you for coming". Conferences don't happen unless enough people are willing to make the effort to attend, and they are only successful when those same people make allowances for the glitches and an come away saying they enjoyed their day (or in this case, their weekend). 
For those who joined Sunday morning's walk, there were further delights in store, not all of them related to Wilfred Owen. John Lennon, Braveheart, and Wojtek the beer-drinking bear also figured in the equation. Neil McLennan was a lively and popular guide, and some of us repaired afterwards to the Ensign Ewart public house in the Royal Mile to mull over the weekend. I wish you had all been there.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Mental Health Awareness Week

It always amuses me when the media informs me that "many people have mental health".  For some reason, despite making efforts to dispel the stigma attached to it, they are still reluctant to use the term "mental illness". This is presumably because, for many decades, "mental illness" has been synonymous with "madness" and has been viewed as meaning that the person concerned has something wrong with them. That "something" is still not generally regarded as the equivalent of a broken leg or a bout of flu, and the victim is often thought of as dangerous and incurable.
It's true that some mentally-ill people are dangerous, though usually the danger is more to themselves than to others. It certainly isn't true that they are incurable, though, as with cancer, we have not discovered all the cures yet. Mental illness is also not contagious, and there is normally no need to avoid seeing or speaking to such people. Attitudes have certainly changed, but not always for the better. Even Siegfried Sassoon, a man of great compassion, referred to his fellow-patients at Craiglockhart Military Hospital as "dotty", and found it hard to relate to them.
Sassoon naturally did not like to think of himself as "ill" when he was admitted to the hospital through that slightly forbidding main entrance (which some of us will see when we attend the ALS conference in Edinburgh in just a few weeks' time). Many doctors thought likewise, even when they were treating soldiers who were suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. They called those men cowards, shirkers, fakers, and many other things - as if they were not already feeling worthless enough.
Not only did many doctors not believe in or see any distinction between "shell-shock" and "madness", but even those who did, the sympathetic pioneer psychiatrists like William Rivers and Arthur Brock, were unsure how to treat such patients. Brock particularly favoured physical activity, which in some cases produced good results, and Sassoon certainly believed that his long conversations with Rivers were helping him recover.
A charity called Glenart uses music, art, and other activities to help rehabilitate injured military personnel and those who, for whatever reason, need assistance in returning to civilian life. Appropriately, one of Glenart's sponsors is Napier University, the establishment which now occupies the buildings at Craiglockhart and acts as custodian of the War Poets Collection, which is mainly housed in the former entrance hall of the military hospital. Performers from Glenart will also be providing some entertainment at the ALS conference. The charity takes its name from HMHS Glenart Castle, a hospital ship of the First World War that was torpedoed and sunk in the Bristol Channel during 1918, killing 162 people, mainly patients and medical staff.
If you have watched television or listened to the radio recently, you cannot have helped hearing that Mental Health Awareness Week is just drawing to an end. The experiences of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have done a great deal in recent years to foster understanding of PTSD and other mental problems resulting from involvement in warfare. These are hardly any different from the experiences of soldiers a century ago, but we have a greater awareness of it now, and thank goodness for that. Even in the "normal" adult population, though, statistics suggest that only 13% of people have "high levels of good mental health", whatever that may mean.
Sassoon was one of the lucky ones, though he did not always feel that way himself. He survived the war, both physically and mentally, and went on to make a great contribution to English literature. Compare him with Ivor Gurney, a talented poet and musician, who wasted away in a mental institution for nearly twenty years before his premature death, or even with David Jones, a poet and artist who had two severe breakdowns, one brought on by the very process of reliving his memories for the purpose of writing his unique prose/poem "In Parenthesis". We should remember them all when we enter Craiglockhart and meet representatives of Glenart.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Dr Vaughan, Dr Williams and Dom Sebastian

This post is not exactly a sequel to the last, but it continues on a similar theme. On Sunday 23 April, the annual Henry Vaughan Memorial Service took place at Llansantffraed Church near Brecon. In recent years, I've made an effort to attend on behalf of the Sassoon Fellowship, but this year was a particularly significant occasion, for two main reasons, the first being that it marked the official opening of the new Visitor Area inside the church, towards which the SSF made a modest financial contribution. The new information panels include a mention of Sassoon's visit - of course - and his poem "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan", which is read out at the graveside each year by Wendy Camp during the wreath-laying ceremony that follows the main part of the service.
The Usk Valley, near Llansantffraed
The other significant point about this year's service was the fact that the SSF, for the first time, became an active part of the wreath-laying ceremony. The Brecknock Society's wreath was laid by Glyn Mathias, OBE, former TV journalist and the son of Roland Mathias (1915-2007), renowned local writer and critic who, as it happens, also wrote a poem on the subject of the grave, though his is less well-known than Sassoon's. Our wreath was made and laid by Anne Penton, the great-niece of David C Thomas - who was himself an old boy of the local public school, Christ College, Brecon.
The presence of Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who, as he put it, "cut the metaphoric ribbon" to open the Visitor Area, made this an even more special occasion. The Visitor Area is not in its final form at the moment as the information panels are not set up in their final location, which will include a stand displaying copies of works by and about Vaughan.
Dr Williams also gave the address, taking as his subject the theme of "Life as relation: Vaughan's images of reconciled living". Beginning with the poem "Quickness" (in its archaic sense of "being alive"), he took us on a whistle-stop tour of Vaughan's ideas on the subject, which gave me pause for thought simply because these are very close to the concept of "mindfulness" which is so much in vogue in the 21st century. Many are following the lead of Eckhart Tolle, whose 1997 book, The Power of Now, is so much more than just another best-selling self-help manual, and are practising the discipline so ably taught by individuals such as Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Dom Sebastian Moore, who gave Siegfried Sassoon his instruction in the Roman Catholic faith, was a great admirer of Tolle, as I have discovered while reading his own exploration of faith, The Contagion of Jesus. Dom Sebastian was awaiting final publication of this book at the time I interviewed him in 2007. He talked to me about how it had come into existence as a result of a friend having collated a series of essays and sermons he had written over a long period and linked them into distinct strands of thought. At that time, because of my lack of knowledge of Catholicism, I had little idea of the content of the book. He did not mention Tolle, nor could he have mentioned him to Siegfried Sassoon during their acquaintance; Tolle was only 19 when Sassoon died.
So it was a pleasant surprise, after returning from the service, to return to The Contagion of Jesus and find Sebastian quoting Rowan Williams. Whether his ideas were completely in tune with Dr Williams's ideas, I cannot verify, but it's clear that Dr Williams sees Henry Vaughan as having had a revelation similar to that experienced by Eckhart Tolle. It just goes to show that there are no new ideas under the sun, just ideas which haven't previously received the appreciation they deserve. Henry Vaughan was well ahead of his time, and this helps to explain the ongoing revival of his reputation.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Dr Williams, Dr Vaughan and Reverend Herbert


It's possible that many of those reading this will not have come across the poetry of George Herbert. What I knew about Herbert prior to writing my recent pamphlet Siegfried Sassoon: At the Grave of Henry Vaughan, could have been written on the back of a matchbox. Like Vaughan, Herbert was a seventeenth-century writer, a forerunner of the so-called metaphysical poets, and best known for his devotional verse. His 1633 poem, "The Pulley", begins with the words:

"When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by..."

Barbara Pym used that phrase, "a glass of blessings", as the title of a 1958 novel, generally considered one of her best. That was the only reason I had taken any notice at all of George Herbert, who - much like Henry Vaughan - has fallen out of favour in recent decades. Nevertheless, among his fans is numbered Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Dr Williams also dabbles in poetry but he did not read any of his own work when I heard him give the Annual Sir John Lloyd Lecture at Theatre Brycheiniog on 24th March. (Sir John Lloyd (1861-1947) remains the most revered of Welsh historians.)
As well as taking an interest in George Herbert and his successor Henry Vaughan (also a doctor, but not of the academic kind), Dr Williams is Honorary President of the David Jones Society, and officiated at the Westminster Abbey Service to "mark the passing of the First World War generation", which Meg Crane and I were privileged to attend on behalf of the SSF in 2009. As well as referring to David Jones in his sermon on that occasion, Dr Williams drew attention to an anthology called The Winter of the World, which was later used by Vivien Whelpton as the basis for the programme of readings the SSF hosted at Heytesbury Church in 2014.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the subject of Dr Williams's lecture at Theatre Brycheiniog went by the title of "A Poet's View of Henry Vaughan". Vaughan was born just a few miles away, close to the River Usk, beside which is his grave, visited by Siegfried Sassoon in 1924. Dr Williams took this opportunity to talk about the relationship between Vaughan's poetry and that of George Herbert, who died, aged 39, when Vaughan was still a child. He would not have known Herbert personally, but his boyhood tutor, Matthew Herbert, was a relation and Vaughan was certainly well acquainted with Herbert's poetry. Vaughan acknowledged Herbert's influence on his work, but many consider him superior to Herbert as a poet.
Herbert became rector of Bemerton in Wiltshire in 1629, and remained there, a dedicated priest, for the rest of his short life, even forking out for the upkeep of the church when funds were low. (He came from a wealthy family; his father was an MP and he was related to the Earl of Pembroke.) He was also a musician, capable of setting his own verses to music. In fact, dozens of his poems have been set to music by other composers, in contrast with Vaughan; only one of the latter's poems, "My soul, there is a country", is a well-known hymn.
Dr Williams' lecture threw light on the similarities and differences between the work of the two poets. I have to confess that on times he got into theological and literary territory that was somewhat beyond the boundaries of my knowledge, yet he was always interesting to listen to. (Even if he had not been, his mellifluous voice would have made the experience worth while.) There were clearly many people in the audience who were well-acquainted with both Vaughan and Herbert, and some demanding questions were asked at the end of the lecture, which Dr Williams fielded with great erudition.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Ask the Eggheads

Now that it's all over, and the programme has been broadcast, and everyone knows the result, I can talk a little about my experiences with the Alliance of Literary Societies on Eggheads, the popular BBC2 quiz show. In case you missed it, the programme was broadcast on 22nd March and is available on iPlayer at the time of writing. Failing that, you can expect it to be repeated in a year or so.
Not all TV quiz shows work the same way. One obvious difference is that some (like University Challenge, Mastermind and Pointless) have a studio audience, but others don’t. Eggheads is one of the latter.  Our reserve (David McNaught from the Wyndham Lewis Society) had the viewing area to himself.  Most BBC programmes are not made by the BBC in any case. Eggheads is made by 12 Yard Productions at the BBC Studios in Glasgow. It’s expensive to make a programme as you have to pay the contestants’ travel expenses, but I can assure you that there were no frills attached in our case. We were given some sandwiches when we arrived at the studio, and on the basis of that we were not allowed anything towards an evening meal or even a drink. The Eggheads themselves go to Glasgow for a fortnight at a time and record four or five shows a day, although they do at least work in relays. They all seemed really nice people, but we did not get to talk to them for more than a few seconds.
If you haven't watched the programme, you may not be aware of the format. I won't go into it in detail, but I will mention that the questions are arranged in categories and the teams have no idea which categories are going to come up, so it is difficult to allocate individuals to subjects in advance. All of us were prepared to do "Arts and Books" - which, fortunately, did come up and was efficiently dealt with by Robin Healey of the Charles Lamb Society. On the other hand, no one really wanted Science, so I ended up with that on the grounds that my job title includes the word "engineer".
The first two questions were straightforward; the third I like to describe as impossible, though actually I might have guessed it if I had thought long and hard enough. There is no excuse for this as there is no time limit on answering. I could have taken an hour to think about it and they would just have cut it out of the programme. But my feeling at the time was that I would not be able to make even an educated guess, as the fact that “ornis” is Greek for “bird” had completely slipped out of my head and would probably not have returned even if I had taken an hour. Lisa, the Egghead against whom I was competing, made me feel better afterwards by saying she would also have guessed wrong, and Kevin Ashman - generally considered the greatest quizzer in the UK at the present time - did not know the answer either. So I got plenty of sympathy from those of my acquaintances who saw the programme.
The other members of the team were Alliance of Literary Societies Chair Linda Curry, Mike McGarry of the Malcolm Saville Society and Phil Jones of the Dr Johnson Society.  Mike and Robin won their individual head-to-head battles with the Eggheads, while Phil and I lost ours and had to sit out the final in the notorious “question room”, where you can only hear Jeremy Vine’s voice, not the discussions of your fellow team members. I had envisaged that the question room would be a little soundproofed booth, but in fact it is just another studio, a long way from the other one. The Egghead against whom you are competing is sitting just a few feet away.
Linda, Mike and Robin made a brave effort in the final round but an unlucky guess resulted in them losing 3-2. In the final analysis, we all felt that we had put up a good fight and had not disgraced the good name of the ALS. I would like to think that you all felt likewise.