Sunday, 19 March 2017

Out of Obscurity

Those who were at The Lamb last weekend for our annual get-together with the Wilfred Owen Association were fascinated and moved to hear Richard Wilson talk about his illustrious great-uncle, the poet T P Cameron Wilson (1888-1918). Present in the audience was Merryn Williams, whose monograph in Cecil Woolf's War Poets Series has done much to arouse wider interest in his poetry.
Cameron Wilson
Cameron Wilson is one of many First World War writers who remain "obscure" in the eyes of the general public, having been eclipsed by a few people with more dramatic backstories and/or more glittering literary careers. ("Minor" poets is sometimes used as a blanket term for them.) Yet he had enjoyed comparative success with his work even before the war, and it is surprising that his output is not better known. Although writers like Owen and Sassoon have a genius that stands out, and were almost guaranteed to rise to the top of the pile at some stage, the final analysis of who is remembered and who is not suggests that chance has played almost as big a role as merit in deciding the content of the First World War's poetic canon.
Take Robert Nichols. Edmund Gosse compared him to Keats and Shelley, but latter generations have come to consider his work nothing out of the ordinary. Nichols and Sassoon got to know one another in 1917. Like Sassoon, Nichols had suffered psychological problems as a result of his war experiences, and it had already ended his military career. Also like Sassoon, he survived the war, though he didn't make old bones - he died aged 51, his reputation as a poet already much depleted. But it was Nichols who wrote the introduction to Sassoon's Counterattack collection in 1918, and Nichols who helped secure him a lecture tour of the United States in the following year, by recommending him to his own American fans. He describes Sassoon as "one of the leading young poets of England", somewhat condescending praise from one who was himself only about 25 at the time. I wonder if that is the reason he understates Sassoon's actual age.
Robert Nichols
There is a blog dedicated to the work of these "forgotten" poets, and the War Poets Association also works to enhance their reputations. There are also related groups, such as "Female Poets of the First World War", a subject on which a lot of great work has been done by the tireless Lucy London.
On our tours of the Western Front in the company of the remarkable Vivien Whelpton, we have encountered many of these lesser-known poets: Leslie Coulson, Ewart Alan Mackintosh, Noel Hodgson, Patrick Shaw-Stewart and innumberable others - and have argued over their respective merits. We have even stood on the spot where Vera Brittain's fiancé, Roland Leighton, was shot by a sniper in 1915, aged only twenty. Ironically, Leighton, who wrote only a few unpublished poems, seems to have acquired a literary reputation that rests almost entirely on the flattering picture of him painted in Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth.
I wonder sometimes if there is a war poem for everyone. Who is to decide whether Cameron Wilson's "Magpies in Picardy" is better or worse than "Anthem for Doomed Youth"? We can say only that we prefer one or the other, find one or the other more moving, or that one strikes a chord with us that another fails to strike.
To find out more, read Lucy London's blogs at
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Sunday, 5 March 2017

Living with a Genius

There never seems to be much time to read novels these days, and it takes a good one to divert me from the normal run of events - not only the work I have to do to earn a living but the time taken up by my many hobbies including the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship. Historical novels, when properly researched and not over-romanticised, are my favourite kind of reading, and Robert Graves has a good reputation as a writer of historical fiction. Yet little did I think that I would become fascinated by a Graves novel of which I had never heard until recently.
I don't know how he came to write Wife to Mr Milton in 1943. My assumption that he had access to some pretty extensive primary sources seems to be supported by the existence of an earlier novel on the same subject, written - like Graves' version - in the first person. Anne Manning, a prolific Victorian author, wrote her fictional account of the Miltons' married life in 1849. It opens in the same place as Graves' novel, with the teenage Mary Powell celebrating her birthday by beginning a diary. However, Manning does not make Mary's life thereafter sound quite as disastrous as that of Graves' Marie.
The latter novel has been called "a relentlessly effective satire on masculine self-regard", which is ironic when you consider its author's life - how he married a woman almost as young as Marie Powell was when she married John Milton (though in the case of Graves and his first wife Nancy Nicholson, there was no age gap to speak of), how he effectively abandoned her when she declined to continue living in a menage-a-trois with him and his lover Laura Riding and how, throughout his life, he acquired a reputation not only as a ladies' man but as a somewhat self-centred one. Alternatively, you may see the novel as another critic did, as "a libel on a man 200 years dead" - poor old John Milton, in whose favour Graves hardly finds a word to say.
Marie - or Mary as her husband preferred to call her - was the daughter of a Royalist family with property near Oxford. Graves describes their rural lifestyle in a colourful yet credible manner that suggests familiarity with the customs of the time. It is obvious that he researched it thoroughly, but is it fanciful of me to imagine that he gleaned some of his material at first hand from living in a cottage in the village of Boars Hill just after the First World War? Sadly for Marie, the Powells were not as well-off as they appeared on the surface. It later became apparent that her father had fraudulently remortgaged his estate several times over, to different people, in order to pay off the debts resulting from his over-generous expenditure. Some sources actually describe her as having been "sold" to Milton in payment of a debt her father owed him.
Rather than continue the story and include spoilers in this post, I prefer to muse for a moment on what made this story attractive to Graves as the basis for a novel. Surely it must have had something to do with the English Civil War, which dominated the lives of Milton and his reluctant young bride in such a way as to have reminded Graves of the upheavals of the years 1914-1918? Whatever one thinks of John Milton - who does seem to have changed his mind quite frequently on a number of important topics - he had good reason to be troubled by the events of the 1640s and subsequent decades, even though he did not personally participate in the fighting.
As with Sassoon and Henry Vaughan, two poets shared similar experiences several centuries apart. Yet in the case of John Milton, Graves' sympathies appear to be more with Mrs Milton, whose family lost everything during the war. In a 1957 article, he is highly critical of Milton's work, calling "L'Allegro" a "dreadful muddle". He believes that Milton took such pride in his education at Cambridge that he writes in "a Latin straitjacket".
Perhaps Milton mellowed after Marie's death. In the 1660s, blind and short of cash, he was threatened with imprisonment and even execution as a result of his outspoken anti-monarchist views. His unlikely saviour would be a man he had employed as an amanuensis, the Teflon-coated Andrew Marvell, who had avoided becoming associated with either party by the expedient of spending the whole of the Civil War travelling in Europe and was now an MP. Milton himself eventually retreated sheepishly to the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Giles, where the cottage in which he spent the last few years of his life can still be visited.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Outlook Positive

One question I keep being asked, by people who have seen the details of the forthcoming Alliance of Literary Societies conference, is "What is the Outlook Tower?" I admit I haven't been very forthcoming on that subject because I am not an expert. I've been to Edinburgh a couple of times but didn't know anything about this building until my colleagues from the Wilfred Owen Association filled me in on the subject.
The Outlook Tower contains what is known as a "camera obscura", which literally means a dark room, a name it gained from its origins in medieval times. Actually, while the Western world was experimenting with this phenomenon, it was already well known in other cultures, and may well have been used in prehistoric times as a drawing aid. Many believe that this was the secret of the Dutch Masters, such as Vermeer, enabling them to achieve the almost photographic realism of for which their paintings are noted.
Controversy arose early in the nineteenth century when an astronomer set up an observatory practically next door to Edinburgh Castle, by adding a couple of storeys to an existing house. The project was continued and improved on by Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), who turned it into a museum. This is how the building was organised during the First World War, when Wilfred Owen arrived in the city. Owen's psychiatrist, Dr Brock (not, as some mistakenly think, Dr Rivers, who treated Siegfried Sassoon), set him the task of writing a report about the building - a building which Owen describes as "an Allegory" and "a philosophical poem". He formed the impression that the building had a soul, which accompanied the visitor from room to room.
Brock encouraged Owen's interest in poetry, and among other things this resulted in the newcomer becoming editor of the Hydra, a magazine written by the patients, of which most copies are held in the War Poets Collection at Craiglockhart, which we will be able to see when we visit on 3rd June this year. It was to seek a contribution to the magazine that Owen tentatively approached an even newer patient, Siegfried Sassoon, a few months later.
Nowadays, the contents of the Outlook Tower have changed somewhat. Although the camera obscura is still in operation - Derren Brown has given it a testimonial, describing it as "the finest I've seen" - the building has become a modern visitor attraction, rigged out with "an amazing range of optical experiences", intended to appeal to all the family. The World of Illusions, as it is called, includes a display called "Edinburgh Vision", based on views of the city as it would have been in Victorian days, a picture that Owen and Sassoon might perhaps have found more familiar than the Edinburgh of today.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Apocalypse Now?

Some readers may be wondering what I've been up to recently, and why the blog posts have been so thin on the ground recently. The answer is that I've been busy putting together the arrangements for the ALS conference in Edinburgh, which we are this year jointly hosting with the Wilfred Owen Association. Although many others have contributed to the effort, I have inevitably been the central liaison point for most of the queries and complications that have arisen during this process, which has been going on for nearly two years now. Forget Brexit negotiations; can life possibly be that much more difficult for Theresa May than it is for someone organising a conference?
Well, yes, all right, maybe what I've been doing isn't quite as critical, or as taxing, as international diplomatic activities. I'm sure many of us are depressed about the political events of 2016 and apprehensive about the future of Europe and the rise of neo-Fascism throughout the western world. It must seem to many that Armageddon is on our doorstep.
        What did the people of Edinburgh think when, late on the evening of 2nd April 1916, a Zeppelin bomber arrived over the Forth estuary? It was one of four dispatched from Germany with the intention of attacking the naval base at Rosyth; the other three had gone off-course and presented no danger to the citizens of Edinburgh. Unable to locate the base on this dark, foggy night, the remaining airship headed for Leith, where it dropped a total of twenty bombs. As it crossed the city, people came out to see what was happening. Most families had only gas lighting in their houses; had they been equipped with electricity, they would have known that something was seriously wrong when their power went off. Out in the open, they could clearly make out the ghostly shape of the giant craft hovering above them. They would have been much safer if they had stayed indoors.
         Bombs were dropped close to Edinburgh Castle, where the panicking garrison is alleged to have fired blanks from the "One O'Clock Gun" as a deterrent. In the doorway of a tenement block, a crowd of people sheltering from the attack were killed when a high-explosive bomb landed nearby. The Royal Infirmary was hit, as were some schools, a whisky warehouse, and the Grassmarket, now an area popular with tourists for its hotels and restaurants. Thirteen people died altogether, among them 27-year-old David Robertson, who had recently been discharged from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards for health reasons.
         Let us, at least temporarily, forget the distant spectre of Britain's isolation from Europe and the possibility of the suffering that might result from growing racial intolerance and imperialist aggression, and put ourselves in the places of those people who were in imminent danger of losing their lives. A private in the Highland Light Infantry who was on duty in the early hours of the morning came across three terrified small children in one of the city's parks and escorted them home.  In Leith Hospital, anxious VAD nurses had been ordered to carry all their patients downstairs. After turning off all lighting, they reported that the windows were red with the reflection of the flames from incendiary bombs. Robert Robb lost his one-year-old son, who was killed when hit by a fragment of a shell. A minister, a doctor and their families were among those who had miraculous escapes, losing their homes but emerging unhurt from the rubble.
         Just over a year later, a 24-year-old junior officer named Wilfred Owen would arrive in the city of Edinburgh to be, at least partially, healed of the personal suffering and psychological damage done to him by the First World War. He would find, in that damaged place, a certain amount of comfort and the inspiration to write his best-known poems. He would find a new friend and mentor in 29-year-old Siegfried Sassoon, who was struggling with his own demons. Between them, these two men would take English poetry to new levels.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Unexpected Connections

I had been looking for a snappy title for this blog post, something more meaningful than "unexpected connections", even though that was what it was going to be about. So I googled the phrase and found it unexpectedly popular. There have been quite a number of conferences with that title, although I admit that the first search result to catch my eye was "it seems men's underwear and champagne can tell you a lot about the economy". Perhaps it caught so many other people's eyes that it rapidly rose to the top of the search results.
However, I am not going to write about either men's underwear or champagne; if that disappoints you, you only have to google to find something more interesting to read. No, I am going to talk briefly about the biography of Ted Hughes I'm reading and how it has led me down many different paths of enquiry.
To be honest, I have never been a huge fan of Ted Hughes. In my teens, I read Al Alvarez's book, The Savage God, a study of suicide, which came out in 1972. I confess that the subject of suicide then fascinated me, although at that point I had not personally known anyone who had later killed themselves. (In time, I would.) Alvarez's book used the story of Sylvia Plath - a close friend of his - to illustrate certain facts about the phenomenon of suicide and the motivation that can bring it about. As a result of publishing it, he fell out, more or less permanently, with Ted Hughes, who blamed him for exposing the couple's private lives to the general public.
In a 2000 edition of Desert Island Discs, Alvarez told Sue Lawley that he still felt he had failed Sylvia Plath. He admitted that, despite having suffered from clinical depression himself, he "didn't know what it was when I was in it", and was therefore unable to make the right responses when he saw the danger signs in Plath's behaviour. There are several connections that lead from Sylvia Plath to Siegfried Sassoon - who himself suffered from depression on many occasions, particularly after his experiences in the First World War.
To return to Ted Hughes, however, the biography contains several mentions of The Lamb, a famous and historic public house in Bloomsbury which the SSF and WOA visit every spring (and will again on 11th March 2017) for an enjoyable joint meeting. I've written about it on many previous occasions, so I will say only that it was, at one time, a meeting-place for Hughes, Plath and their many literary friends. It is quite close to where the Poetry Bookshop, the establishment founded by Harold Monro in 1913, once stood - another place much frequented by names such as Wilfred Owen and Wilfrid Gibson. Also not far away is Queen Square, where the hospital once known as the "National Hospital for Diseases of the Nervous System" still stands. Founded in 1859, it was the location for Lewis Yealland's now notorious treatments of shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War; Yealland does not emerge well from the pages of Pat Barker's Regeneration - and quite right too.
Once again, connections are leading me away from my starting-point. Reading the biography of Hughes has not exactly endeared him to me, though I don't share the popular feminist view that he was directly responsible for the suicides of two women who had loved him. What startled me was the discovery that I had recently met one of Sylvia Plath's greatest friends, the American poet Ruth Fainlight, who had been described to me as "the wife of Alan Sillitoe". I should, of course, have known better. Fainlight and her late husband, in addition to being friends of Plath and Hughes, had lived for some years in Mallorca, where they became acquainted with - who else but Robert Graves? How these famous writers gravitate towards one another! And thus another Sassoon connection landed in my lap.
But the biography hadn't finished throwing surprises at me, oh no. It had not escaped my notice that the writer Emma Tennant died recently, but it was rather a surprise to learn that she had been one of Ted Hughes' many romantic partners; her 1999 account of their affair, Burnt Diaries, had passed me by. (Another one for the reading list!) I had also forgotten, until I read her obituary, that she was a niece of Stephen Tennant, the daughter of his eldest brother, Christopher, who inherited the title of Baron Glenconner in 1920, his eldest brother, "Bim", having been killed in action in 1916.
The trail of unexpected connections thus leads, for those who choose to follow that path, to a churchyard in Mells, Somerset, which many of you will have visited. The manor house next door was the home of Herbert Asquith, prime minister of the United Kingdom during the years 1908-1916. In 1894, Asquith married, as his second wife, Margot Tennant, the sister of the 1st Baron Glenconner and thus a great-aunt of Emma Tennant. This remarkable woman and her husband became friends of Sassoon's during the war and remained so for many years. Yet it was not they who introduced Siegfried to Margot's nephew Stephen, with whom he would have one of the most enduring relationships of his life. They met through the his literary friends, the Sitwells; and that is quite another story.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Hello 2017

2016 was a funny old year. One of those years you don't really want to repeat itself - rather like 1916, I suppose. There must have been many families looking forward to 1917 with less than enthusiastic anticipation, having lost loved ones on the Western Front in the course of the previous year and knowing that there was more to come and no end in sight.
Since the countries where most of us live are not officially in the middle of a war at the moment, we have to be sanguine about the coming year and hope that international events will not be of the "disaster movie" variety that some years of the 21st century have been. As we look back on 2016, I thought it would be an idea, instead of talking about all the media personalities who have passed away, to consider the careers some of the poets and writers who died during the year. It is so often their words that give us hope for the future.
Sir Geoffrey Hill, who died in June aged 84, was perhaps better-known as an academic than as a poet, but he had begun to make a name for himself while still a student at Oxford, his first collection, For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958, coming out in 1959. Later collections, such as King Log and Mercian Hymns, used early Christian history as subject matter. He continued to write devotional poetry, and was seen by some critics as the natural successor of T S Eliot. Like Siegfried Sassoon, he was the winner of a Hawthornden Prize, and he ended his career in the much sought-after role of Oxford Professor of Poetry, in which he has been succeeded by Simon Armitage.
Other English-language poets who passed away during 2016 included 94-year-old Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest known for his involvement in the anti-Vietnam protest movement of the 1960s (which briefly put him on the FBI's "most wanted" list). His compatriot, Carolyn Wright (who wrote as C D Wright), often wrote with a "Southern" voice, and lived in many parts of the USA before becoming Poet Laureate of the tiny state of Rhode Island in 1994. "Jock Scot" (real name John Leslie) was a performance poet from Edinburgh, where he was well known for his appearances at the Fringe. Adam Small, a South African "Coloured" writer, produced both poetry and prose, in English and Afrikaans, much of it dealing with racial issues.
Perhaps most notable among the list of 2016's dead poets was Leonard Cohen, the Canadian who became better known as a singer-songwriter (though he admitted he couldn't sing), a career he took up during the 1960s in order to sell more of his poetry. Nicknamed "the poet laureate of pessimism", he produced verse that, when translated into song, was often dismissed as "music to slit your wrists by", but nevertheless gained a huge following. Cohen was a perfectionist: his song "Hallelujah", which achieved popularity about twenty years after he first recorded it, originally had eighty verses, of which only six appear in the final version. It seems to have struck a chord with the present generation, although interpretations of the lyric's true meaning vary considerably.
We seem to have lost a disproportionate number of dramatists during the year, including such giants as the UK's Arnold Wesker, who made his name in the late 1950s with Roots and Chicken Soup with Barley, the US's Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and Italy's Nobel Laureate Dario Fo (Can't Pay? Won't Pay!). Sir Peter Shaffer, twin brother of another playwright, the late Anthony Shaffer, is known for numerous outstanding plays, including Equus, Amadeus) and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, all of which were successfully adapted for the big screen. Ireland's William Trevor was a dramatist, novelist and short-story writer who won three Whitbread Prizes and was nominated five times for the Booker, though he never won it.
Anita Brookner, who died in March aged 87, did win the Booker Prize, for her 1984 novel Hotel du Lac (not, in my opinion, her finest). Her Jewish father had brought the family out of Poland and changed their name from Bruckner to avoid anti-German harassment during the Second World War. This background is reflected in most of her novels, as is her interest in art history, which was Brookner's main occupation until she retired from academia.
Another successful English female novelist who died during the year was Margaret Forster, whose 1960s best-seller Georgy Girl was perhaps eclipsed by her work as a biographer; her subjects included Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And of course, on Christmas Eve, the literary world said goodbye to 96-year-old Richard Adams, author of the children's classic Watership Down and other novels based on the lives of animals, such as The Plague Dogs and Shardik.
There is nothing unusual about famous writers dying. Most have to wait until middle age to achieve success and, in view of their relatively stress-free lifestyle, can hope to live to a ripe old age. There are not many Keats, Shelleys and Byrons around nowadays, to die of tuberculosis, drowning or blood poisoning. And - perhaps fortunately - there are not many war poets either.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Letter from Wales

In the above title I am referring, not to this present post, but to a poem addressed to Siegfried Sassoon by Robert Graves after the First World War and published in his 1925 collection Welchman's Hose (a curious title which I initially misread as Welchman's House, a mistake I'm sure others will have made). It was one of several poems he wrote to Sassoon, and shows indisputably that - whatever their later relationship - he thought of the latter not only as a friend but as a kindred spirit, one who had been his comrade through the best and worst of times.
Graves had officially died during the war.  His condition was so bad after being wounded at the Battle of the Somme that it was thought impossible he would recover and he was left for dead in a dressing station until, many hours later, the medical staff noticed that he was still breathing. By the time he was well enough to contact his friends and family, his commanding officer had written a letter of sympathy to his mother and a notice of his death had appeared in The Times.
I confess that, had I not been fortunate enough to attend the launch, earlier this month, of Charles Mundye's new edition of Graves' War Poems, coincidentally published by my local publishing house Seren, I might not have paid such close attention to these poems, many of which I have never read previously. In fact, I don't think I had ever read "A Letter from Wales" right through, and a re-reading throws new light on the fellow-feeling between the two wartime friends. As Sassoon would later do in his prose works, Graves bestows pseudonyms on both - Sassoon becomes "Abel Wright", which sounds a rather backhanded compliment (especially when you consider Sassoon's earlier poem "Ancient History"), and Graves himself is "Richard Rolls". He refers to the wartime diaries in which Sassoon, firmly believing his friend to be dead, began work on a verse epitaph - before finding out that he had in fact survived.
The poem continues the fantasy that Graves did in fact die and was replaced by a doppelganger who resembles him outwardly but is different inside - not only that, but Sassoon also died, perhaps more than once, and was replaced by another lookalike. The two impostors holidayed in Wales "pretending a wild joy/That they had cheated Death..." The idea is an illusion, as they are both damaged beyond repair and, in attempting to blot out their war experiences, have become something different and unnatural. Worse still, the denial of what they remember has adversely affected their friendship: "there was a constraint in all our dealings," he laments.

This was before the great falling-out between Graves and Sassoon that resulted from the publication of Good-Bye to All That and was never really mended. Here, however, we seem to find Graves in apologetic and regretful mode, and Sassoon's response must have been one of recognition. Although fully aware of Graves’ tendency to upset his friends unintentionally, he had become less tolerant of him since the war, and Graves’ explanation for this rings very true.