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.

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.