Sunday, 30 June 2013

Of Men, Motivation and Morality

I think I may have to retract some of the things I said in my last post.  Perhaps I was a little too quick to dismiss the value of studying battlefields as a way of getting close to the past.  What I learned on Saturday morning, in a lecture delivered jointly by Chris Skidmore and Professor Glenn Foard at the Chalke Valley History Festival, is that a survey of the terrain on which a battle was fought, when combined with a discussion of the personal history and motivation of the participants, can be quite fascinating.

Of course, I was aware that events in history are usually less straightforward than they appear.  We all know that the human misery brought about by the First World War was not a simple case of stupid, incompetent generals disregarding the outcomes of their strategies, or even of youthful, public-school-educated officers innocently leading fearless working-class Tommies to their deaths.  The combination of circumstances that led to Siegfried Sassoon's protest of 1917 is difficult to unravel, and he recognised, later in life, that he might have been seeing things in black and white when in reality they were varying shades of grey.  Nevertheless, we don't often think too deeply about what was behind the bad decisions of politicians and military leaders, either in the First World War or any other tactical situation.

Skidmore, being an MP, perhaps has a better handle on this than I have, but his analysis of the historical context of the Battle of Bosworth was a masterly one.  A study of the personal histories of the battle commanders leads to some interesting conclusions about why the battle went the way it did.  Whilst it is true that it could have gone either way, and that the death of either Richard III or Henry Tudor would have ended the battle immediately (as in fact it did), there were various individual commanders involved in the action, each of whom had a degree of influence on the outcome.  Richard's final charge towards Henry's personal bodyguard - his only hope, at that stage, of winning the battle - is slightly reminiscent in some ways of Siegfried Sassoon's reckless ventures into No Man's Land and his single-handed but eventually pointless capture of a German trench.

Sassoon, of course, did not have the power to end a battle, or indeed the personal or political influence to end a war, but he was one of many individuals who led the troops, for better or worse.  It would be unreasonable to compare him to the Lancastrian nobleman and experienced battle commander John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, whose leadership on the day of Bosworth played a crucial part in Henry's victory and whose actions on that day were significantly influenced by the mental scars of his previous military experience, or to his opponent John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, whose death in the battle caused Richard such distress that it proved a turning-point in the hostilities.

More realistic, perhaps, to compare Siegfried with another of Henry's supporters, Sir John Cheney, whose tomb can be seen in Salisbury Cathedral.  Standing approximately six feet eight inches and a notable horseman, Sir John was the knight who dashed in to rescue Henry's standard and put himself between the rivals for the crown during Richard's final charge.  Richard personally unhorsed this seasoned soldier, knocking him unconscious, but Cheney's action proved critical, giving Henry's bodyguards time to fight off the attack.

By now, unless you have a keen interest in battlefield archaeology, you are probably wondering about Professor Foard and where he comes into the matter of Bosworth.  He is in fact the archaeologist who has spent the past few years proving that the Battle of Bosworth (or more accurately, the Battle of Redemore as it was called by contemporaries) took place, not on Ambion Hill where the Bosworth Visitor Centre is located, but in a marshy area several miles away.  Archaeological finds support the theory, based as it originally was on a study of local place names and first-hand accounts of the battle.  You may have heard about the silver-gilt badge depicting a boar (Richard III's personal emblem) which was found on the site and is considered almost conclusive evidence.

Archaeologists, battlefield guides and ignorant tourists alike can still pick up finds that reveal previously-unknown facts about military actions of the First World War.  Human remains are still being discovered and families informed of the final fate of their missing ancestors or relatives, almost a hundred years after those men were lost in action.  Likewise, new facts about the way the First World War was fought and the reasons for it are still being brought to light.  We can never hope to answer the question of whether it was right or wrong, or what might have happened if these events had never taken place.  Historians and archaeologists can satisfy our curiosity on many points but they cannot answer moral or hypothetical questions for us. 

Sassoon's approach to the problem of the continuation of the war was certainly a simplistic one, but what would have happened if he had not made his protest?  The war would probably not have ended any sooner or lasted any longer.  What a lone voice such as his could do, and has done over the many decades since, was to strengthen the resolve of other men and women who feared the consequences of making a moral stand.  It is this, rather than his military prowess, that makes him a hero of our times.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

All Roads Lead to France

I'm visiting Arras and the Somme region again next month, to see some of the places where Siegfried Sassoon fought, loved, read books, wrote verse and enjoyed the fellowship of other British soldiers exiled from their homeland, each of them conscious that every day might be their last.  While looking at these places and imbibing their atmosphere, we will read and discuss poetry that was written during and about the First World War.  It should be another memorable trip for me and for those members of the SSF who will be with me.

"Battlefield pilgrims", however, is a term I don't particularly care for.  It seems to me inaccurate on both counts.   Technically, the groups of tourists that make these journeys do visit battlefields, but few limit themselves to that.  Even the most enthusiastic of military historians and archaeologists would find it a sterile experience if they spent all their time analysing the terrain and mentally re-fighting armed conflicts that took place almost a hundred years ago.   Although this particular tour is organised by the Western Front Association, it is one of a special series taking place in consecutive years, each concentrating on a particular area and on particular poets who fought and often died in that region.

Geography is the key to history.  That's not an original saying of mine; I got it from Michael Wood, but it struck me immediately as a truth we do not always recognise.  To read Sassoon is to be transported to many places in turn: to the Weald of his youth, to the Edinburgh where he met Wilfred Owen, and of course to the Somme battlefields.  To be, physically, in those places is something rather different.  To see the landscape, still much as he saw it, is to understand him better.  This is what we go to the battlefields for, I think: to see the ground that was fought over, certainly, but mainly to share an experience with those men - and the occasional woman - whom we admire so much.

I will never forget, last year, our guide pointing out the exact spot where Roland Leighton, the fiancĂ© of Vera Brittain, was killed in 1915.  That one event set off a chain reaction that had enormous consequences for English literature and for many of the feelings we have about the "Great" War today; Testament of Youth has probably done more than any other prose work in our language to influence the modern view of that war.  How thrilling - and chilling - it was to be so close to that tragic moment, even though separated from it by a century.  At the same time, it was in no way a celebration of "battlefields".

Much of our tour centred on graveyards.  To anyone who hasn't been, that must sound terribly depressing, if not mawkish.  I won't deny that seeing the graves of all those young men is not exactly a laugh a minute.  The British cemeteries of World War I are nevertheless peaceful places, places where the visitor can feel at one with the lost and fallen and can try, if not to make sense of it all, at least to recognise the impact their loss made on individuals, families and society in general.  Being there also enables us to appreciate the fantastic job done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission - not just in France, but throughout the world.  If you are unfamiliar with it, please do have a look at their website:

In 2010 the SSF made a group visit to Ieper (Ypres), a city that was effectively razed to the ground during the First World War.  We stood on the spot where the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge met his death, coincidentally only a hundred yards from the place where the best-known Welsh-language poet of the war, Hedd Wyn, is buried.  It was a memorable visit, but of equal interest were several museums and visitor centres where people like Piet Chielens (curator of the recently-refurbished "In Flanders Fields" museum) have used their expertise to bring the war closer to those of us who find it difficult to imagine what the average serviceman endured.  One such place particularly stands out in my memory: the museum at Hill 62 which was not on our official itinerary.  Piled high with "junk" picked up from the battlefield, it made an impression precisely because of the refusal to attempt to analyse the content.  You can get some idea of it from looking at this website, which includes some film of the interior:  "Make of it what you will," commented one of my fellow members, and, at this distance in time, it is difficult to do anything else.  Neither military nor social historians can make up their minds about the significance of that war.

That's the "battlefields" dealt with, but what about those "pilgrims"?   One definition of a pilgrim is "one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee".  It's true up to a point - we are devotees of the history and literature of the First World War, but I don't think we see the Western Front as a holy place.  A sacred place, perhaps, if that is different, a place that demands our respect and thoughtfulness; but, if we go there merely to say we have gone there, as pilgrims often do, we will be missing the point of the exercise.  Nor do we go for religious reasons, though many do go in order to pay their respects to a distant relative; nowadays it is no longer possible for us to seek the memorials of anyone we remember in person.  A moving experience it certainly can be; but I still don't think it is a pilgrimage.

Last year, just before we set out, a friend told me that her great-grandfather was killed on the first day of the Somme and that his name was on the Thiepval Memorial.  Fortunately he had a very unusual surname and I was able to located him fairly quickly and photograph the result of my search.  What I didn't know was that she had never been there herself and she was thrilled to see the photograph.  It is not her great-grandfather's grave, but it is the nearest it is possible to get to it; the names on the monument are those of the missing.  I also didn't learn, until later, the human story behind the inscription; this particular soldier  left behind four children, who were orphaned a few years later when their mother died of tuberculosis. 

It is hard for us to imagine that level of human suffering in a country like the UK and, although hardship still occurs, we have made a certain amount of progress in a hundred years.  What has not, unfortunately, changed is our willingness to involve ourselves in armed conflicts, whether the causes be "good" or "bad" ones.  Sassoon saw this in 1917 and tried to make a lone stand against it.  Today he is often cited as an inspiration by those who make a similar protest.  Go and see what remains of the Western Front, whether as a "pilgrim" or as an interested visitor trying to get in touch with history, and you will appreciate him more than ever.

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Flower Show Match

Siegfried Sassoon, as anyone who has read his prose works will be aware, was a great lover of the game of cricket.  Two of his greatest friends, the poet Edmund Blunden and the schoolmaster Dennis Silk, were also enthusiastic cricketers.  In fact, it was through Blunden that Sassoon met Silk, and the occasion of their first meeting is recorded in all biographies of Sassoon as well as in an interview Silk gave to Graham Lampard, which was published in an early edition of Siegfried's Journal.  The young Silk, then playing cricket for Cambridge University, mistook the elderly and rather eccentric gentleman who approached him at that first meeting for a practical joker, put up to it by another member of the team, and was astonished to discover his true identity.

Despite the disparity in age, the two men became close friends and remained so for the rest of Sassoon's life.  Dennis Silk, whose own exploits would fill a book in themselves, is now the President of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.  This year, on 24th July, the SSF, in association with Matfield Cricket Club, will replay the Flower Show Match for the eighth time.  The original match, described by Sassoon as a turning-point in his childhood, in his first major prose work, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,  took place at a local fete. 

Our replaying of the match bears little similarity to the original, although it is often graced with the presence of gawky teenagers who impress the spectators with an unexpected level of cricketing prowess.  However, the original Flower Show Match, which in Sassoon's memoirs is described as an experience of his fictional alter ego, George Sherston, actually took place at Brenchley, a neighbouring village, but the annual match between Sherston's XI and  Matfield Cricket Club  is played on Matfield Village Green, and attendance is free.  It is not the large impressive occasion described in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, but it does have its own cachet.  Matfield boast that they never have difficulty in finding volunteers to play in the match, despite the fact that it takes place on a weekday afternoon.  Another point of interest is the quirky rules, although some effort is made to follow authentic Victorian cricketing customs. 

This does not always make for a decisive result.  Of the seven matches played so far, three have ended in a draw, but, for most of us, the enjoyment of the occasion is not dependent on an exciting finish on the pitch.  There are all kinds of other contributory factors, not least of which is the wonderful tea served up by the Matfield ladies in the pavilion.  Participants in last year's match, however, had to make do with temporary facilities, since the Jack Wish Pavilion of which the club was so proud had been destroyed by fire in September 2011, as a result of a small rodent chewing through electrical wires.  Matfield will soon open a fine new building, courtesy of grants from the Lottery Heritage Fund and donations from organisations and individuals that include the SSF and many of our members.

For most of the match’s history, Dennis Silk, our president, who is himself a former President of MCC and the Test and County Cricket Board, has been an umpire and judge at the annual match.   Those to whom he has presented the coveted Man of the Match award over the years include Ted Miller, the grandson of Edmund Blunden, and Andrew and Jeremy Lawson, great-great nephews of Siegfried Sassoon.  I regret to say that this year Dennis will not be able to carry out his usual duties, because of continuing medical treatment.  However, his doctor is pleased with his progress and we expect to see him back on form in time for next year’s match.  Another eminent cricketer who often puts in an appearance at the match is “Deadly” Derek Underwood, who has in the course of his distinguished international career been President of both MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) and the “real” MCC (Matfield Cricket Club).

Cricket was one of Siegfried's great pleasures in later life.  He continued to play into his seventies, sometimes representing Downside Abbey, where the community had finally helped him to achieve the spiritual fulfilment he craved.  He wielded the bat but drew the line at running, needing a younger assistant to perform those exertions for him!

Who can forget the iconic photograph of Sassoon, Blunden and Dennis Silk, sitting on the porch of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire, Siegfried's last and longest home, listening to an Ashes Test on the wireless.  It conjures up a picture of life in 1950s Britain that compares with the nostalgia of the prose works Siegfried wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, celebrating his Victorian childhood and youth.  Using cricketing terminology, he told Silk that The Old Century was "a daisy of a book", and many of those who have read it will agree.    We can all relate to that little boy, with his tin of Blanco and his admiration for the senior batsmen who, to his admiring eyes, were the equal of W G Grace.  The Matfield team of today remain men (and sometimes women) who inspire our admiration.

The revival of the Flower Show Match was the idea of the renowned Bob Miller, who last year became only the third person to be honoured with life membership of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, in recognition of his enormous contribution to the society’s continued success.  It is Bob who recruits players for Sherston’s XI and ensures that the match takes place.   He joins the ranks of those immortals – Blunden, Sassoon and Silk – who personify a love for the game of cricket combined with an appreciation of great literature.  Bob’s post-match readings are always a joy, and help remind us all why we are present by emphasizing the many and diverse ways in which Siegfried Sassoon has been an inspiration.

If you would like to know more about the match and its history, there is plenty of information on the SSF website:

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Cakes, Committees and Conviviality

Okay, this is a Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship blog, not a Barbara Pym Society blog, and I'm aware I wrote about her only recently.  However, having just experienced one of the most enjoyable weekends I've had in a while (at least since the last SSF event), I really wanted to fill you in on the details and describe some of the behind-the-scenes work that went on.  I'm pleased to say that the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship was well represented, and there was much interest expressed in our activities.  My stock of membership leaflets had completely disappeared by the end of the day, which can't be bad.

It was wonderful to see how many "Pym people" turned up for the annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies, whose work generally goes unnoticed by most regular members of the Pym Society, even though we have belonged to it for many years.  It was equally satisfying to see members of other literary societies being familiarised with Barbara Pym's work through lectures by Clemence Schultze and James Booth, both of which somehow succeeded in being simultaneously both scholarly and entertaining.  Elizabeth Llewellyn-Smith, who was Principal of St Hilda's at the time the Barbara Pym Society was founded, gave a masterly ("mistressly" somehow doesn't sound right) welcome speech, in which she managed a name-check for virtually every society represented on the day, and this was certainly appreciated by her audience.

Tea and cake followed the main business of the conference - two cakes, in fact, as, besides being Barbara Pym's 100th birthday, this year is also the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the ALS.  As for the annual dinner, the St Hilda's chef truly rose to the occasion, providing us with a fabulous cut of fillet steak among other delicacies.  And then the readings: it has become an ALS tradition for members of the various societies to offer a taster of the works of "their" authors.  The star, on this occasion as on so many others, was ALS Secretary Anita Fernandez-Young, whose impersonation of "the friendly waiter" from David Copperfield was a comic delight.  However, Kayleigh Fitzgerald made an excellent show on behalf of the SSF, reading a passage from the "Sherston Trilogy".

Meanwhile, what was going on behind the scenes?  Clemence, Martin and I arrived at the Jacqueline Du Pre Building at what felt like the crack of dawn, and waited outside for some time, not realising that the doors were just stiff, not locked after all.  There followed much heaving of cardboard boxes, sticking of tape and laying out of sale items.  Shortly afterwards, Lorraine arrived to be given the job of minding the Pym "stall" just for a few minutes - she ended up being run off her feet!  There was also much hammering of glass as visitor after visitor approached the conference venue, understandably, from the footpath, only to find they could not enter through the fire exit and had to go around to the front of the building. 

There was some panic when one of the players involved in the dramatised reading (of a scene from "Crampton Hodnet") had not arrived for the first session.  Various less suitable individuals volunteered to stand in for him, but at the last moment he strolled in, confessing ruefully that he had not in fact been held up in traffic but had been walking around Christchurch Meadow in the sunshine.  Just to add insult to injury, the reading had to be postponed until after lunch in any case, so his pastoral idyll need not have been interrupted after all!

Eileen Roberts probably had the most difficult job.  Eileen is the semi-retired Alumnae Officer of St Hilda's College, Oxford, and has devoted the past 18 years of her life to making the Barbara Pym Society such a success.  Eileen is present at all our events, and is indispensable when it comes to getting support from the college.  Thanks to her efforts, members of the BPS are able to enjoy good meeting accommodation, a high standard of catering, and endless other little touches (such as pre-dinner drinks on the lawn) that are not always experienced by other groups holding conferences at St Hilda's.

Later, while everyone else was enjoying "free time" between tea and dinner, the BPS committee met to discuss future events.   Various conflicting views on the desirability of acquiring a Paypal account were forcefully expressed, and it all started to feel a little like a scene from a Pym novel - perhaps a scene in which a distressed gentlewoman, helping out at the village fete, finds herself taken advantage of by a titled lady wishing to purchase the perfect cucumber at a knock-down price.  Fortunately, although we may disagree on minor points, the committee's activities are underpinned by a true and lasting friendship among the individuals concerned, and there is never any residual bad feeling or (to quote Pym) "umbrage taken".

I believe this is the case with most literary societies (though I have heard of one or two cases where splinter groups have broken off or where societies have been brought to near-bankruptcy by the recklessness of rogue committee members; these are the exception that proves the rule).  Certainly the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, just like the Barbara Pym Society, is essentially a community in which the "like-minded individuals" of the old adage find more common ground than they do differences of opinion.  Friendship blossoms quickly in such a convivial environment.  Try it for yourself and see.