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".

Sunday, 14 August 2016

A Wiltshire Tragedy

The Thomas Hardy Festival is held every other year in Dorchester, and is a week-long orgy of lectures, concerts, walks, tours and other events that would probably blow my mind if I had enough spare time to take full advantage of the opportunities.  This year I spent three full days in Dorchester,  a town I’d never fully explored previously. As well as making the standard tourist visits to Thomas Hardy’s birthplace and the house he built for himself at Max Gate, I participated in three group visits by the THS to places of interest in the area: Kingston Lacy, Stourhead and Portland.  Of the three, the one that carries the most resonance is undoubtedly Stourhead, the former home of the Hoare baronets, now in the care of the National Trust.  

The trip to Stourhead was organised, very capably, by Andrew and Marilyn Leah, who were my hosts when I last participated in the festival, two years ago. Hardy first became acquainted with the 6th baronet, Henry Hoare, through his wife, Lady Alda, a memorable personage if her portrait is anything to go by.  I imagine her as a slightly more laid-back version of Lady Ottoline Morrell. The Hoares had a very successful marriage and would die within a few hours of one another in 1947; she had always said that she could not imagine living without him.   Their lives were marked by tragedy, however, since their only child, their son Harry, died in Egypt in 1917, as a result of which the baronetcy eventually passed to a nephew and the house and gardens were bequeathed to the nation.

The gardens at Stourhead are world-famous and it was a pity that heavy rain prevented us from seeing them at their best.  A tour of the house is nevertheless enough to satisfy anyone who wants to know about Hardy and his relationship with Lady Alda.  I do get the impression that there was more enthusiasm for a continuing friendship on Lady Alda's side than there was on his. She began by writing him a fan letter, to which he politely replied, but Hardy was not a man who gave a great deal of himself away, and, of the 18-year correspondence between Stourhead and Max Gate, only three of the letters that survive were written by Hardy himself; the rest were exchanged by Alda Hoare with his two wives - first Emma, until her untimely death in 1912, and later by Florence, whom he married two years afterwards.

The sympathy shown by Lady Alda when Emma died was equalled by Florence's response to the news that Harry Hoare, aged 29, had died of wounds received while fighting in Palestine in 1917.  His service in the Middle East did not overlap with that of Siegfried Sassoon, who did not arrive there until the spring of 1918, by which time there was little going on in the way of military action.  Sassoon saw no fighting until his return to the Western Front.

Lady Alda herself had been busy supporting the war effort by welcoming "Tommies", as she referred to them in her diary, to Stourhead and encouraging them to eat enormous teas, including such treats as game sandwiches and currant-cake. The men came from a convalescent hospital in nearby Mere.  Even after the loss of her son, she continued to entertain them, and I cannot help thinking it gave her a reason to carry on.  Harry had a good baritone singing voice and sometimes sang, accompanied by his mother, at musical evenings in the drawing room at Stourhead.  This activity brought mother and son together, and her love of music was a comfort to her in the years following this great loss. She referred to the Tommies as her "soldier sons", and it proved truer than she had ever intended.  Sir Henry wrote that Harry was "our only and the best of sons".

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The non-conforming Nonconformists

The art of preaching has historically been very important in Christian communities, none more so than Nonconformist Wales.  "Fire and brimstone" preaching still exists, but in general the best-loved and most respected preachers are those who combine eloquence with a lightly-worn intellectualism and a subtle wit. Anyone who has ever heard Siegfried Sassoon's biographer, John Stuart Roberts, speak in public will understand what I am talking about. 

Last weekend I attended a fascinating talk in Cardiff, hosted by the United Reformed Church History Society.  The speaker, Rev Dr Robert Pope, is a Reader in Theology and Joint Head of School at the University of Wales Trinity St David, probably better known to you as St David's College, Lampeter. He is also the kind of preacher I referred to in the introductory paragraph. Dr Pope's subject was "Conscription, Conscience and Building God's Kingdom: Welsh Nonconformists and the Great War", which interested me for obvious reasons.  I hoped to learn more of how Siegfried Sassoon's anti-war protest of 1917 fitted in with the general climate of popular feeling at the time, particularly in the region from which the Royal Welsh Fusiliers drew many of its recruits.

I knew, for example, that Ellis Evans (Hedd Wyn), the Welsh-language poet who was posthumously awarded the bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod of 1917, had not particularly wanted to go to war. Brought up in a Christian household, he was a pacifist by nature, and managed to avoid having to make the choice between enlisting and becoming a conscientious objector for three years by virtue of being in a reserved occupation - farming. However, he gave in to the inevitable when the authorities decided that either he or his married younger brother would be called up, and spared his brother the ordeal.  Evans was sent to Litherland - a place familiar to Sassoon - for training, and achieved some respite when he was allowed a few weeks' leave to help in the ploughing season. His luck soon ran out, though, and he was killed at Passchendaele less than two months after arriving in France.

Evans' experience would not have been untypical, as the Nonconformist clergy appear to have been split between pacifists like the radical and uncompromising T E Nicholas (who moonlighted as a dentist), college principal Thomas Rees, and the blind preacher John Puleston Jones - all of whom spoke out against the war - and the traditionalists who accepted Lloyd George's view that the war was a battle against evil and that it was their Christian duty to join in, or at least to encourage others to do so.

Nicholas, popularly known as "Niclas y Glais" from the name of the village where he ministered for ten years before the war, was a close friend of Keir Hardie, whose parliamentary seat he contested in 1918, after resigning the ministry. Having had his activities monitored by the police during the war, he lost miserably to Charles Butt Stanton, a former miners' leader who had supported Lloyd George's government. Continuing to peddle his controversial views during the Second World War, Nicholas was imprisoned in 1940 - along with his son - for having in his possession a map (cut out of the Daily Express) on which he had pinned German flags in order to follow the progress of the war. The result of his incarceration was a volume of Welsh-language sonnets, many written on slate or toilet paper, that would become a best-seller. Eat your heart out, Jeffrey Archer.

Thomas Rees, an illegitimate child of Pembrokeshire peasants who obtained what little formal education he had from his local chapel, had risen to become principal of Bala-Bangor College in 1909 and was an unrepentant and outspoken pacifist. His reward was to have his windows broken and to be expelled from Bangor Golf Club. Despite the sometimes violent opposition of many of his own denomination as well as outsiders, he continued to denounce the war and in 1916 launched Y Deyrnas (“The Kingdom”), a monthly publication that publicised pacifist views throughout Welsh-speaking communities.  A major contributor was a poet named T Gwynn Jones, who had abandoned all religious activity when his own minister in Aberystwyth prayed for victory.

John Puleston Jones, nephew of the Conservative MP Sir John Puleston, was blinded in an accident as a toddler, but became well-known for his independent spirit, riding unaccompanied around his home district and later, at Oxford, becoming co-founder of the "Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym". Having been a preacher from the age of seventeen, he maintained an anti-war stance and also contributed to Y Deyrnas

These men, however brave they may have been, were too old to be called up to fight. When we come to the conscientious objectors themselves, perhaps the saddest case of all is that of John Llewellyn Evans, who died of consumption as a result of the ill-treatment he received after being sentenced to hard labour - it was difficult to prove, but questions were asked in Parliament, where the Under-Secretary of State for War was told that Evans had previously "never suffered a day's illness".  Evans had been in training as a Christian missionary. His name now appears on a plaque in Tavistock Square, London, in memory of those who followed their consciences by refusing to participate in the First World War.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

How it all began...

The annual cricket match between Matfield Cricket Club and Sherston's XI was held for the first time in 2006.  It was the brainchild of the late Bob Miller, a member not only of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship but of a number of other literary societies.

Bob was a remarkable man, who, despite his outgoing and jovial exterior, managed to hide a good deal of his light under a bushel.  The work of Siegfried Sassoon was one of many interests, ranging from golf to politics.  He even tried to found a club for bow-tie wearers! For his work in setting up the annual match, he was awarded life membership of the SSF in 2012 – an honour reserved for a select few - but sadly did not have much time to enjoy it, as he passed away in 2014 aged only 66. 

Not only was Siegfried Sassoon fond of cricket, but his friend and fellow-poet Edmund Blunden shared his love of the game, as did their mutual friend, the SSF President, Dennis Silk, who continues to attend the match, occasionally umpiring and often presenting the trophy.  It was at Fenners cricket ground in Cambridge that Dennis and Siegfried first met.  Siegfried continued to play cricket into his seventies, often as a member of the Downside Abbey XI.

Simon Knott, the captain of Matfield CC in the early years, was an enthusiastic supporter of the match, which, thankfully, continues, largely through the combined efforts of the present Matfield captain Peter Danby and his SSF equivalent Jeremy Lawson (Siegfried’s great-great-nephew).  "Deadly" Derek Underwood, now a local resident, has been another frequent supporter. 

The match was originally held on a weekday afternoon, which meant anyone who wanted to see it and was not retired had to take a day off work.  This did not greatly help attendances, but the move to a Sunday made it much easier for the SSF committee and other visitors to join the fun.  I say “fun” because I always enjoy it but inevitably some members are less enamoured of the game of cricket.  The new arrangement also makes it possible to combine the match with the fete weekend, with the Horticultural Society's marquee standing at the boundary opposite the refurbished pavilion.

The first match was recorded for posterity on an imaginative DVD made by Andrew Chapman, who played several times for Sherston's XI before moving to another part of England, making a triumphant return to the team in 2015. Andrew tells me that he hopes to repeat this exercise at some future date.

This year’s match was an absolute cracker, with the result decided in the final over when Sherston’s XI managed to get Matfield all out.  I generally consider a victory for Sherston’s to be little short of miraculous, bearing in mind that it is a scratch team with only half a dozen actual SSF members ever having played.  Chris Sutherby was a shoo-in for the Bob Miller Man-of-the-Match Award, for his century in the Sherston’s innings plus a fantastic one-handed catch to remove one of Matfield’s batsmen (the kind of thing you wish you could see an action replay of).

Although sometimes referred to as the "Flower-Show Match", it is not a faithful replay of the original, which, for those who are new to Sassoon, features prominently in his book Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.  Leaving aside the fact that the names of the characters and places involved are changed in the memoirs of Sassoon's fictional alter ego, George Sherston, the match on which he bases his account was played, not on Matfield village green but at Brenchley cricket ground a few miles away.

None of this alters the fact that the match has now gathered its own momentum and Matfield Cricket Club seem to look forward to it as much as the rest of us do.  If only everything else in life could bring us such simple and unadulterated enjoyment.