Sunday, 4 December 2016

Meet the Poet Laureate

Much as I would like to be able to say that “I met the Poet Laureate last weekend”, it would be a slight embroidering of the truth. Better to say that I was in the presence of the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, at the Wilfred Owen Association’s Shrewsbury event. The only words she said to me were: “Are we having coffee here or in the other room?” Nevertheless, it was a privilege to hear her recite a sample of her work, and she certainly showed why she is a worthy winner of the 2016 Wilfred Owen Poetry Prize.
Carol Ann Duffy is, as I’m sure all readers know, the first woman to hold the position of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, the “Makar” or National Poet of Scotland is also a woman, Jackie Kay, and the position of National Poet of Wales has just been vacated by another prominent female poet, Gillian Clarke. Wales perhaps has an alternative national poet, in the form of the Archdruid; the person who presides over the National Eisteddfod must be a former winner of the Chair or the Crown, the two premier Welsh-language poetry competitions. The Archdruid who vacated the position in 2016 is another woman, Christine James; she was also the first female to hold the title.
It was in fact not until 1953 that a woman won the Eisteddfod Crown, and - almost unbelievably - no woman had won the Chair before Mererid Hopwood’s victory in 2001. Since the eisteddfod competitors are known only by pseudonyms, there can be no suggestion of discrimination in the judging, and I am therefore forced to the conclusion that women were simply not entering these competitions in any numbers until the mid-twentieth century.
Looking back over the centuries, it is obvious that poetry, at least in the English-speaking world, has traditionally been a male occupation. Yes, there were female poets in ancient Greece, but it was men who wrote the epics and verse dramas that we think of as the masterpieces of early literature and it was men who roamed medieval Europe earning their living as poets at the courts of monarchs and nobles. Even in the nineteenth century, one would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of female poets who could rank alongside the Wordsworths, Brownings and Tennysons. It is hardly surprising that, for 400 years, the position of Poet Laureate was the exclusive preserve of the male gender.
Siegfried Sassoon was on friendly terms with two of the twentieth-century holders of the title. He was first introduced to Robert Bridges just after the First World War, when he visited the "Pantheon" of poets resident on Boar's Hill, just outside Oxford. At first they were not too keen on one another - Sassoon was displeased by Bridges' dismissive attitude to Thomas Hardy's poetry, while the elderly Bridges mistook him for a German and addressed him as "Siegfried Digweed". Bridges lived at Chilswell House, now a Carmelite priory and retreat centre, and the two men eventually reached a level of friendship where Sassoon was able to become an occasional lodger.
The role of the poet laureate in English and later British society is not one historically distinguished by great poetic talent. Early laureates did their duty by producing occasional odes and eulogies such as Thomas Shadwell's birthday odes to William and Mary.  Shadwell had unseated his rival John Dryden as poet because of the latter's association with the deposed King James II/VII.  Some of his successors took their roles more seriously than others. New depths of mediocrity were plumbed by Alfred Austin in his often-quoted 1871 poem "On the Illness of the Prince of Wales: "O'er the wires the electric message came/'He is no better; he is much the same."
On Bridges' death in 1930, his replacement was John Masefield, whose work Sassoon had parodied before the war but whom he had come to admire. Masefield was not the obvious candidate; Kipling was favoured by many, but the government favoured the younger Masefield. By the time Masefield vacated the position on his death in 1967, Siegfried Sassoon was eighty years old and seriously ill, only months from his own death.
Cecil Day-Lewis, editor of Wilfred Owen's poems and an aficionado of Thomas Hardy, was a choice of which Sassoon would have approved, although he held the position for only five years, succeeded on his death by Sir John Betjeman, a more conventional successor. One of Betjeman's first attempts at fulfilling the duties of the laureate's role was his poetic tribute on the occasion of Princess Anne's wedding in 1973. I recall my English teacher correctly predicting that "he'll come up with something", and I also remember the exact words with which she later described the offering: "A horrible bit of jingly-jangly nonsense".  Betjeman got an equally bad press a few years later when he tried to write something to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Thereafter, the post of Poet Laureate began to seem like an anachronism.
But in the 21st century, poetry is back in a big way. We owe this in no small measure to the interest stoked up by the approaching centenary of the First World War, bringing writers such as Owen, Sassoon, Graves and Rosenberg to the fore again.  Poetry is once more becoming a pursuit for both genders, no longer regarded as something for cissies, and we have both male and female poets worthy of the name. Carol Ann Duffy, in her 2009 poem "Last Post", showed how a poet laureate can represent the feelings of a nation without being sycophantic or lowering her own creative standards. Now that she is more than halfway through her tenure of the post, we can only hope that her successor will prove equally deserving.



Thursday, 24 November 2016

Siegfried's Strangest Journey

The eyes of the world have been firmly focused on the United States in the past few weeks. Now it is all over bar the shouting, as they say – or maybe the real shouting is only just beginning. Whatever happens, I am not going to make any comment on the result of the presidential nickname. Anyone who knows me will be able to guess what I think and anyone who doesn’t should not care what I think.
Google on "Sassoon in America" and you will get the locations of all Vidal Sassoon's hairdressing salons in the USA, rather than the locations of the Siegfried Sassoon archives in places like Texas and New York. But American scholars value these literary treasures as much as we do, and Sassoon's work has received as many plaudits across the pond as it has in his homeland.
However hard I try, I find it difficult to imagine Siegfried Sassoon touring the USA – as of course he did for six months in 1920, on a tide of popularity resulting from the publication of his war poems there towards the end of hostilities. Americans had purchased over 2,000 copies and some of the reviews had been ecstatic. Siegfried recognised that he owed much of this to John Masefield and Robert Nichols, both of whom had gone before him and more than adequately prepared the way.
In Siegfried’s Journey, published in 1945, Sassoon writes extensively about his experiences but it always seems to me that he gives little away about his true feelings. George Simmers refers to it, in his understated way, as "an unsatisfactory book", and I fear I cannot really disagree with him on that. One can almost glean more by reading articles written about him by American journalists during the period, or the parody of an interview he produced. The hilarious "A Poet as He Really is" was published in Vanity Fair in 1920; he himself called it "deplorably facetious". Dr Mhairi Pooler focused on this article when she spoke to us about Siegfried's self-image at our 2010 conference.
Sassoon used his diaries as the source material for almost all the prose works published in his lifetime and it is not difficult to tell that he had one eye on eventual publication. Pages were sometimes torn out - we must assume because they contained indiscreet comments or possibly accounts of sexual activity. He stops short of pouring out his heart and soul. Instead we get a picture of a diffident, anxious man who at first found the idea of going on a lecture tour in the USA almost laughable. After participating in a reading at the Poetry Bookshop, he took elocution lessons to improve his delivery (at the Albert Hall, no less).
He arrived in New York in late January, to find the streets deep in snow and himself put up by the agency in budget accommodation (or what Siegfried always called "depressing"); newspaper journalists arrived before his luggage did. The interviewers were at least sympathetic about the toothache from which he'd been suffering. But he soon discovered that bookings were few and far between and he might not receive the remuneration he had been counting on. He was obliged to do most of his own marketing (an situation familiar to many authors, but self-promotion did not come naturally to Sassoon).
At Bryn Mawr College, an appreciative audience of young ladies listened to Sassoon read some of his best-known poems, but not everyone cared for his anti-war stance. The critic John Jay Chapman, an acquaintance of Robert Nichols, was initially summed up in Siegfried's diary entry as "rather a nice old thing", but this would prove less accurate when Chapman called him "brain-sick", and climbed onto the platform after an appearance at the Cosmopolitan Club at which Mrs Chapman had introduced Sassoon to the audience, to rail against his pacifist views in no uncertain fashion. This anxious moment was made worse by the fact that Chapman had lost a hand and instead wore a hook, which he proceeded to brandish threateningly at Sassoon. Understating the situation as usual, Siegfried writes "Poor Mrs Chapman and I sat there not knowing which way to look".
Chapman, a larger-than-life character, was old enough to be Siegfried's father, and had, in fact, lost a son to the war. Rather than turning him against military conflict, it made him an outspoken supporter of the war, who took Sassoon to task for his 1917 protest as well as for his poetry. By a weird coincidence, Chapman had earned the nickname of "Mad Jack" while at university, inviting comparison with the former officer who had been known for his daring trench raids in 1916. The day after the incident, Chapman wrote to Sassoon with a near-apology: "I suppose the universe will not be wrecked by you or by my trying to stop you", at the same time advising him to "get out of the way of people who want to exploit you", by which he meant anyone with pro-German sympathies.
Siegfried Sassoon returned to the UK in April  1920, moderately unimpressed, especially by what he called "high-class hospitalities", seen off only by his new friend Sam Behrman (author, among other things, of the screenplay for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Quo Vadis). Twenty-five years later, he wrote: "I find some difficulty in believing that it was really me who went to Chicago all by himself... I go nowhere now, from one year's end to another..."
In addition to Mhairi Pooler's article in the Winter 2010 edition of Siegfried's Journal, transcripts of some of the press articles covering Sassoon's appearances in America can be found in David Gray's on-line Sassoon bibliography here:
http://siegfried-sassoon.firstworldwarrelics.co.uk/html/america.html


Sunday, 6 November 2016

What can we learn from the poppy?

It’s November, the month of remembrance, and as usual an SSF representative will place flowers on the grave of Siegfried Sassoon at Mells. Real flowers, not poppies, though people often do place artificial poppies at this spot.

I bought a poppy last weekend and decided to try the stick-on variety because the pin-on ones have a habit of falling apart.  I lost it a few yards from the British Legion stall. Picking it up off the road, I took it back and a very kind gentleman decided to replace it with two poppies, one of each type. The sticky one fell off before I got back to my car and this time I couldn’t find it. The pin-on one lasted a few more days but then disappeared of its own accord and all I could find was the pin. You would think someone could have come up with a better design after all these years.

I suppose there is method in their madness. You don’t want people continuing to use the poppy from the year before rather than buying a new one, do you? Comic Relief get around the problem by redesigning their red noses every time. On the other hand, that could lead to having surplus stocks of last year’s design left over, another waste of funds. 

What is more intriguing is the sheer endurance of the poppy as an emblem. It has lasted nearly a hundred years now, having first been adopted by the British Legion in 1921. Although several million were made for fund-raising purposes (and they weren't plastic then), they were selling out so fast every year that the Scots had to open their own factory in 1926 to ensure they got their fair share, with Lady Haig - wife of the much-reviled senior commander Douglas Haig - as its patron. It is still running, making approximately five million poppies a year along with other commemorative items such as wreaths, crosses and corsages.

The SSF has laid a few poppy wreaths over the years as well - notably on the grave of Siegfried's great friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, at Fricourt, a visit that can be either very pleasant or very challenging, depending on the mud.

A forerunner of the Poppy Appeal was the Alexandra Rose Day, an event inaugurated in 1912 by the widow of King Edward VII. Queen Alexandra had associated herself with many charitable causes, and conceived the idea of selling paper flowers, made by the disabled, to raise money for hospitals. Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (founded in 1902) still exists, as does the Alexandra Rose charity, but the roses are no longer sold on the streets. In the course of the Great War, the “Q.A.s” numbers swelled from 300 (with a reserve of around 2000) to a figure of 10,000 plus.

The symbolism behind the choice of the poppy seems to be an idea of resurrection and renewal – live flowers coming out of the devastated earth, the colour of the blood of those who died there. Life from death. It has been used memorably on screen - at the end of Oh! What a Lovely War!, for example, as well as the final scene in Blackadder Goes Forth. The message is clear from these examples.

But that was not quite what Canadian medic John McCrae meant when he wrote his classic poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, nearly three years before he died of pneumonia in northern France. The inspiration came to McCrae after he had buried one of his best friends, but he seems to have seen the poppy not so much as a symbol of peace as a reminder to the living that they have a duty to continue the struggle. Regardless of how good a poem it may be, should we be concerned about whether this is an appropriate message to be sending out today?

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Green Hollow

From his late twenties until the end of his life, Siegfried Sassoon suffered from nightmares, triggered by memories of what he had seen and experienced on the Western Front during the First World War. Ironically, these terrible dreams, as well as being recorded in verse, may have contributed to saving both his life and his sanity, since the pioneering psychiatrist, Dr William Rivers, to whom he was sent for treatment, was able to point to them as evidence of "war neurosis" and thus keep Sassoon safe at Craiglockhart Military Hospital for a few months.
Jeff Edwards, who was buried alive for two hours on the morning of 21 October 1966, still has nightmares about the experience. Jeff spent that time unable to move, with the body of a dead acquaintance pressed against him – so reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s experience when he was obliged to spend several days sheltering from shellfire with the body parts of a fellow officer lying alongside him. But Jeff was only eight years old when he was trapped at his school desk. The little girl who had died sitting next to him was the same age.
It is a terrible coincidence that the children of Pantglas Junior School, Aberfan, should have suffered a fate comparable with that endured by grown men on a battlefield, but such was the case. The event that caused their deaths was caused by human failure, just as wars are. And, as with most wars, the guilty were never brought to justice.
On that awful day in October 1966, I was a week or so short of my eleventh birthday. To the best of my recollection, we knew nothing of what had happened in the morning at Aberfan until the school bus dropped us off at our homes just after 4pm. The teachers had not mentioned it to us; perhaps they did not even know about it themselves. There was no television set in the building, probably not so much as a radio in the staff room. Very few children went home for lunch. But some of the adults who worked at the school must surely have heard about it. I rather think they did not know what to say; after all, the rescuers at the scene were still working, still hoping to bring out living children as darkness closed in on the ruins of the school. They did not know that Jeff Edwards would be the last to emerge alive.
We got off our bus and entered a warm, well-lit room to find my mother transfixed by the television news reports. Naturally we did not feel the horror of the events as strongly as she did - we had never even heard of Aberfan - but we did understand that nothing would ever be the same again. In the weeks that followed, much was said about the disaster, but it was a long time, perhaps years, before I became aware that the disaster had not been an "accident" in the true sense of the word. "Buried alive by the National Coal Board", as one bereaved father put it, a phrase now immortalised in the libretto of Karl Jenkins' new commemorative work, Cantata Memoria.
In those days there was no talk of counselling for families who had been bereaved or for those who had been injured. The church or chapel was the nearest they could get to comfort. Several of the children who survived were sent to participate in psychological studies, but, although much was done to alleviate their physical suffering, nothing practical appears to have been done about the possible effects of their experiences on their state of mind. Way back in 1917, Siegfried Sassoon had been luckier.
Dr Rivers resigned from Craiglockhart, along with other medical staff, about a year after Sassoon's departure, when a new, less “sympathetic” regime was introduced. The new director had personal doubts as to whether such a thing as “shell-shock” (PTSD being today’s equivalent) actually existed.  He saw the psychological effects of war on soldiers as being either a pretence or evidence of cowardice or, at best, over-sensitivity.
I wonder what Siegfried Sassoon thought and felt when, as a man of eighty, he heard the news about Aberfan. He had been to Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding valleys in 1921. He had gone there specifically to find out what life was like for the families of striking miners, spurred on by a conversation with some of his wealthy friends, who, he felt, failed to appreciate the hardships endured by ordinary men of the kind who had served under him in the recent war. His poem, "The Case for the Miners", pitifully expresses his frustration when faced with this kind of attitude, and does so more effectively than the articles he sent back to London for publication in The Nation.
On the 60th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, the people turn once again to poetry to express their feelings, whether of loss, anger, or simply bafflement. Owen Sheers' "film poem", The Green Hollow, will be broadcast for the first time tomorrow evening (if you're in England, you may have to wait until Sunday). Sheers eloquently recounts his feelings about the making of the film: how he was at first unsure whether it should be done at all, but came round to the idea that it was "a historical story with a deeply urgent contemporary resonance". That description could equally well be given to the world events that blighted the youth of Owen and Sassoon. Over the years, it seems to me, society has learned many lessons from the Aberfan disaster. I wish the same could be said about the First World War.


Friday, 23 September 2016

My Scottish Trip

Max Boyce once wrote a song called "The Scottish Trip".  He was referring to the biennial coach trip enjoyed by Welsh rugby union fans every time they play Scotland at Murrayfield. It is a ridiculous song, albeit a hilarious one.  The idea of a coachload of fans attempting to travel to Edinburgh and back from South Wales in one day (and in the 1970s when there wasn't even a motorway covering the whole distance) is quite ludicrous and these days it would be illegal to attempt that distance with only one coach driver.

Many years ago I went on a coach trip to the Epsom Derby, which I thought was going to be a nice family day out.  The bus kept having to stop at off-licences for some of the adults to get tanked up, and we actually missed the first two races, by which time it was raining heavily and I fell over in the mud with a hot dog in each hand.  On the way back, certain members of the party began complaining and blaming the driver for our lateness.  The organiser's husband threw a can of beer which missed the driver and hit my husband on the back of the head.  (He'd never wanted to go in the first place.) It was one of the most miserable days out I can ever remember. But that's what you get if you try to cover too many miles in one day.

But coach travel can be enjoyable, as we have found on our annual journeys to the Western Front, guided by Viv Whelpton and Clive Harris (sadly cancelled this year for lack of interest, but running again next July with a Sassoon-specific itinerary).  Our four-day visit to Ypres in 2010 was such a big success that we had planned to run a similar trip to Scotland in 2017, when the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and Wilfred Owen Association will jointly host the Alliance of Literary Societies AGM and conference at Craiglockhart, but it turned out it was not what members wanted. Instead, delegates will make the journey independently, by car, train, bus, plane, or whatever means of transport they prefer. Those who live in Edinburgh may be able to do it by Shanks's pony.  When they get there, some will quickly begin to wonder why they have never attended an ALS conference before.

As though in anticipation, I have just been to Argyll on holiday. Some readers will be aware that this is considered the "midge capital of Scotland", so perhaps we were lucky to have started our holiday in wind and rain. It did improve, however, and we were able to enjoy some wonderful views of the lochs and glens. We spent a day at Inveraray, where a famous memorial to local lads - "those young loved lamented" - who died in the First World War stands beside Loch Fyne, an unforgettable sight.

Equally poignant was a story I came across in an exhibition at nearby Inveraray Castle. The music hall entertainer Harry Lauder lost his only son, a 25-year-old captain in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, in the Battle of the Somme. Lauder never recovered from the loss, and the knighthood he received in 1919 for his services to the country must have been small consolation. Yet not only did he continue to perform, he actually went to the Western Front in 1917 to entertain the troops. Apparently he wrote a book, A Minstrel in France, describing his experiences during that journey and the visit he made to his son's grave. John Lauder is buried in Ovillers Military Cemetery, along with over 3,000 other soldiers; only about 30% of them are known by name.

A September day in Oxford

Our Annual General Meeting has come and gone, and I was thrilled that so many members made a real effort to get to Oxford for a half-day meeting rather than our usual full day conference. I hope those who did so felt that it was worth while. I have had so many thank yous and so much positive feedback that I am fairly sure they did. Thus we were able to pass the constitutional amendment to amend the quorum for a general meeting to fifteen members, including at least two officers - a more realistic number than the vague "10% of membership" previously specified.

All societies evolve, and the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship has grown from around 15 members at the first meeting in Malvern to over 200. Our Journal is the envy of many other societies, but it is expensive to produce, the major component of the cost being the postage. Lots of ideas have been put forward about how it could be made cheaper, and the move to our present printer is one of many ways we have reduced the costs, but we still have to give this matter our attention if we are going to continue to cover it from subscriptions. I believe the time has come when a large proportion of members - possibly a majority - believe that the subscription rates need to be raised. 

This topic was discussed at length during this year's AGM and we have not yet come to a final decision, partly because SSF subscriptions are tied in with those of the Wilfred Owen Association through the joint membership agreement, so we need to be in accord with the WOA if we are to continue with this arrangement. Personally I am very proud that we have survived for so long with one of the lowest subscription rates of any literary society in the country. For example, the Dickens Fellowship charges £17 adult rate; the Barbara Pym Society charges £18, and the Anthony Powell Society £22. All these societies offer varying benefits and it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a straight comparison, but I'm convinced we are offering extremely good value at the moment.

Lecture over - which leaves me a bit of time for praise of our two speakers. There is not much left to say about Vivien Whelpton. Time and again she has - I was going to say "surprised" us, but there are more appropriate words. Let's just say that she once again delighted us, this time with a perceptive and eloquent analysis of the many and varied influences on the war poets that assisted them in finding a "voice".

Sharing the platform with Viv was Alistair Lees-Smith, grandson of the MP "Bertie" Lees-Smith, who in 1917 read out the Soldier's Declaration in the House of Commons. Alistair gave us a potted biography of his grandfather and discussed the reasons for his action. There is clearly a lot more to Bertie Lees-Smith than meets the eye. Look out for an article on the subject in a future edition of the Journal.

In the evening, a small group of us joined the Barbara Pym Society for its annual dinner at St Hilda's; it was pure coincidence that our annual events were in the same place on the same weekend. I think that the other Sassoonites were pleased with the welcome they received (only to be expected when you consider that Michael Wilson, Chair of the Pym Society, is also one of our members). We had a lovely meal, followed by a talk, and joined the Pymites for drinks afterwards. More of these get-togethers with other literary societies could be arranged, and I know that members would enjoy them. Next year we will be mixing with other societies in no small way, since we will be co-hosting the Alliance of Literary Societies annual conference at Edinburgh. More news on that will follow in other blog posts. In the meantime, please feel free to share any ideas you may have for joint events.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Somme: an object lesson... in what?

       I had been thinking of blogging about children. While I was searching for angles on the topic, the latest issue of the Western Front Association's Stand To! magazine plopped through my letterbox and I forgot about starting a new post - until I opened it.
       It wasn't a surprise that it was a Somme commemorative issue. Let's face it, bearing in mind all the activity of the past few months, it would have been more of a surprise if it hadn't had "Somme Special" plastered all over the cover. The first article I began reading was a summary of the Westminster Abbey Vigil that took place on the night of 30 June - 1 July; only when I got to the end did I discover that it was written by my friend Vivien Whelpton, an expert on the subject if ever there was one (as all the attendees at this year's AGM agreed).
     The article's contents took me back to the subject of children, as I read the poignant words of letters written by young men who anticipated their deaths and wanted to reassure their families that they were not afraid and that, if fate dictated it, they were prepared for an "honourable" death in the service of their country. That in turn made me think of Siegfried Sassoon's poem "The Hero", one that tells the truth about the nature of many of those deaths and what they actually meant in terms of service: "And no one seemed to care/except that lonely woman with white hair".
       Sassoon knew what he was talking about because he had actually been at the Battle of the Somme. Most of us now accept that the campaign was a waste of life that did not much advance the allied position, but, in recent years, General Haig has been rehabilitated and we have begun to make allowances for military commanders who were "a product of their time".
       Peter Barton's recent BBC documentary series, The Somme 1916: from both sides of the wire, told a somewhat different story. Tale after tale of British ineptitude, as described in contemporary accounts from both British and German participants, made for uncomfortable viewing, seeming to confirm what Sassoon believed at the time, not what he came to believe in his later, mellower years.  The casualties were, indeed, much greater than was necessary, partly due to Haig's tactics and partly to other disastrous decisions by Britain's leaders. One reviewer likened Britain's underestimation of the enemy to that of the England football team in recent years, and one can see his point.
         Let's take an example. Most people know that the British were depending on an artillery barrage that would cut through the German barbed wire and leave almost no resistance; our troops would be able to walk across No Man's Land and simply occupy the empty trenches. Over the years I've heard several explanations for this tactic, the most convincing being that the soldiers carried a heavy pack containing their supplies and it was simply not practical to run. Yet, Barton revealed, German machine-gunners watched their approach with incredulity, knowing that they would have been overwhelmed by the enemy's numbers "if they had only run".
     The over-confidence of the First World War commanders seems to me to be a typically British mindset, one we share with the United States of America. The world, we believe, revolves around us. The world could not survive without us. Europe cannot survive without us. Our Olympic Games were better than any others ever held. Our people are morally superior to those of any other country. When experience proves us wrong, we simply laugh and say, "Oh well, we're British, we're used to disappointment." Yet we continue to believe it.
      I'm not suggesting our nation should go round hanging its collective head and feeling inadequate and inferior - far from it. In a man like Siegfried Sassoon, we see the very best of British. We see not only talent and intelligence, but principles and true morality. 
       Let's suppose that you agree that the Somme was an "object lesson", as it is so often described. What exactly did it illustrate? Some would say "incompetence"; others would say "lack of foresight". For me, the kindest word I can find is "callousness"; failing that, I would feel obliged to say "cruelty".