Friday, 16 August 2013

Sassoon's Travels

Someone recently asked me why the SSF is holding this year’s annual conference in Cardiff.  I found this question slightly puzzling.  Our previous conferences have been held in lots of different places: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Matfield, Marlborough, Stratford-upon Avon.  I suppose the reasoning behind the question is that most of the other places we have been (though not last year’s venue, Radley College) have had a fairly close association with the events of Siegfried Sassoon’s life, and Cardiff has no obvious link.  However, I think it should be recognised that Sassoon (despite a propensity for staying at home and enjoying his privacy) was both very sociable and very widely-travelled, more so than most men of his generation.

He did of course visit Cardiff.  In the course of his road trips in the early 1920s, there was scarcely any part of the UK that he did not visit.  As a soldier, he had been on active service in France, Belgium and Palestine and had temporarily been lodged in various military camps and hospitals in towns ranging from Lewes to Liverpool, from Edinburgh to Limerick.   After the war, he enjoyed visiting Europe despite the ravages left behind by the recent conflict in some areas; he dallied with a German prince in Rome, visited the South of France with a wealthy patron, went to Sicily with Stephen Tennant and to Switzerland with the composer William Walton.  Perhaps this eagerness to travel is one of the reasons for the many friendships he established with eminent people all over the world, of which I intend to say more in a future post.

Let us restrict ourselves to Sassoon’s travels for the time being.  In April 1921, Sassoon was in South Wales as a "correspondent" for The Nation, and visited industrial towns such as Neath and Llanelli (where he bought two large bananas and went for a walk) before arriving in Cardiff on 13 April.  He found the city "depressing" and went to bed before dinner, commenting wryly in his diary "What a vivid account I am writing".  He did, however, enjoy viewing Dante Gabriel Rossetti's altarpiece in Llandaff Cathedral in his few moments of leisure.  From there he went to Merthyr to see for himself the effects of the miners' strike.

David Gray, in his bibliography at, lays out the itinerary of one of Sassoon’s 1924 road trips, which lasted for a fortnight in September.  Earlier in the summer, he had been in Wales visiting his poet friend Walter de la Mare at Manorbier in Pembrokeshire.  Siegfried's diaries often record which hotels he stayed in, and these included the Royal at Ross-on-Wye, the Globe at King's Lynn and the Lamb at Ely.  Of the whole list, only one - "The Hotel" at Church Stretton - is no longer a hotel.  So there is plenty of opportunity to walk in Siegfried's footsteps or even sleep in a room where he once slept, if you are prepared to do the research.

A member of the SSF committee did in fact locate the very room Siegfried slept in when he was a convalescent patient at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1917.  It was temporarily occupied at the time by an overseas student on a summer course, who was delighted to learn that the room had been previously used by "a famous English poet".  We also located the rooms in Merton Street, personally selected by Lady Ottoline Morrell for Siegfried when he returned to Oxford after the war to pursue a "course of independent study"; he ended up spending most of his time visiting other literary acquaintances such as John Masefield and Robert Bridges, on "Parnassus" (as Boars Hill had become known).  The latter was the location for one of the most memorable SSF excursions of all time, back in 2008.

Perhaps one of Sassoon's most memorable journeys, and the one that forms a major part of such "action" as there is in one of his last books, Siegfried's Journey (1946), was the lecture tour of the United States, on which he embarked shortly after the First World War.  In addition to earning him over $2000, it opened his eyes to a way of life so different from his past experience that he found it almost overwhelming at first.  (On arrival in New York, he admitted to finding the city "depressing" - so perhaps Cardiff was not so bad after all.)

By the time he wrote Siegfried's Journey, Sassoon was at another emotional low point.  Now in his sixties and separated from his wife, he did little travelling after that date (although he never ceased to drive with panache, frightening the wits out of new friends like Dennis Silk).  His visits were now restricted to places like Cambridge, where his son George was an undergraduate in the 1950s, and Stratford, where he went to see plays produced by his old friend Glen Byam Shaw, who had become director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1952.

I could go on - but what, I hope, stands out from this short summary of Sassoon's travels is the enormous scope it gives the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship for future events and conference venues.  As a literary society, we are at a disadvantage in not having a "base", in the form of a house or museum open to the public where we could hold events.  On the other hand, moving from one location to another and still managing to find Sassoon connections is a wonderful way of bringing his life and work to the notice of people around the country, and indeed the world.  It also makes it possible to meet a large proportion of our membership; if you can't make it to one of our events because of the distance or difficulty of travel, do not despair: we are almost certain to be in your area, sooner or later.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Return to Heytesbury

I think it is time to start talking about our intentions for 2014.  Last year the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship was invited to participate in an event in Heytesbury, Wiltshire (the village where Siegfried Sassoon spent the last 33 years of his life), which was being planned by local people to commemorate the start of the First World War.  Naturally we agreed immediately, and arrangements for this event are now beginning in earnest.

Siegfried and his new wife, Hester, moved into Heytesbury House in 1934; he could afford to buy it only because of a legacy from his aunt, the fabulously wealthy Rachel Beer, who had died in 1927 after a lingering illness.  He loved the village, and remained there after his marriage broke up.  Its proximity to Downside Abbey and to Mells, the home of the Asquiths, was an additional attraction that greatly affected his social activities during the latter years of his life.  Siegfried's pastimes while he was there included playing cricket with the monks of Downside.  During the Second World War, however, much of the residential accommodation was given over to American soldiers.

It was at Heytesbury that Siegfried Sassoon died, and he left the house to his son George, who eventually and reluctantly sold it, unable to afford the upkeep of such an enormous property.  Our President, Dennis Silk, visited Siegfried at Heytesbury many times and has fond memories of the house, as does Dom Sebastian Moore of nearby Downside Abbey, who instructed the poet in the Catholic faith in the late 1950s. Another of the monks, Dom Philip Jebb (coincidentally the grandson of Hilaire Belloc), was one of the last people to see Siegfried and officiated at his funeral.

After some years of near-dereliction as the result of a fire in the late 1980s, the house was converted into the lovely apartments that can be seen today.  Although not open to the public, it has been well cared-for, but Siegfried would have found it disconcerting to see the amount of additional building that has taken up much of the original estate.  The house is, sadly, separated from the main part of the village by the A36 trunk road, which cuts through the surrounding countryside at this point.

The parish church of St Peter and St Paul is a medieval building with substantial 19th century alterations. Although it has undergone some restoration, it is costly to maintain, and the local community hopes to raise money for its upkeep as a result of the poetry reading planned for 2 August 2014, in which the SSF hopes to play a very active role.  In fact, we are in the process of devising a programme of readings and negotiating with a list of potential readers and actors who will be performing it.

Siegfried was not, of course, at Heytesbury when he enlisted in the army at the beginning of August 2014. He travelled to Sussex's county town of Lewes to join up, becoming a Trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, a role in which he was never called up for active service.  Although we cannot be in two places at once, it is our hope that the event at Heytesbury will directly reflect his experiences as well as exposing the audience to some of the lesser-known poetry of the First World War as well as some of the best-known.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Country Boys

While on holiday in the Orkneys recently, I visited the grave of Harry Reid, a private in the Seaforth Highlanders, who died in 1917 at his home at Melsetter on the island of Hoy and is buried on the smaller island of Rousay, next to his mother, who died shortly after his birth.  Assuming he had been wounded at Arras or in some contemporary action and brought home to die, I found the weathered stone a poignant sight but thought little more about it until my attention was drawn to the fact that Harry had never served overseas.

This got me wondering and I looked up his name in a list of Orkney’s World War I dead, suspecting what I might find.  I was not altogether surprised to learn that 23-year-old Harry had died of measles.  It may sound very odd but let us put this death into context.  In the early decades of the twentieth century, there were still many remote communities in Britain, and indeed throughout Europe, where a person might live his or her entire life without ever venturing as far as the nearest city.   The types of transport with which we have become familiar today, even if they existed, were beyond most people’s reach. 

Country folk did not have any great need to travel, particularly if they lived in agricultural communities, because they were self-sufficient to a far greater degree than almost anyone is now.  Although there were food shortages during World War I and food rationing was introduced in February 1918, the problem was mostly imported items such as tea and sugar, which might be regarded as luxuries.  Rural communities had their own sources of meat, vegetables and dairy products.

Death from infectious diseases has traditionally been a common problem in wartime, but (if you are anything like me) your thoughts will immediately be drawn to Henry V's army dying from dysentery and starvation rather than to the events of the twentieth century.  Despite the improvements in medical treatment since the Napoleonic Wars, death from disease still accounted for one third of military deaths in World War I.  Among those we can count men like Rupert Brooke, who had foreseen a hero’s death for himself but actually died of an infected mosquito bite before even arriving in a theatre of war. 

More tragic, somehow, are those young men who came from places like the Highlands and islands of Scotland, the valleys of North Wales, the west of Ireland, and parts of France, Italy, Russia and even Germany where infections such as measles were almost unknown.  "Measles," says an American expert, "was essentially the disease of country boys coming for the first time into a densely crowded environment." Many recruits from the Southern United States, just like Harry Reid, died without ever being shipped overseas to fight the enemy.  For some reason, the disease was more likely to hit white US soldiers than their black fellow-countrymen.

Measles was a killer not so much because of the properties of the disease itself as because of the complications that often accompanied it.  Harry Reid contracted pneumonia, a common side effect.  The crew of an Australian cruiser stationed in the North Sea in 1915 suffered from outbreaks of measles and influenza, which were not easily eradicated in such cramped conditions. Troops of all nationalities in Macedonia, meanwhile, went down with malaria: a French general, when ordered to attack, is reputed to have declined with the explanation "My army is in hospital with malaria". 

Typhus, a very serious disease in its own right, broke out among soldiers on the eastern front early in the war, killing large numbers of soldiers and civilians alike.  Sexually-transmitted diseases were a different kind of hazard.  Robert Graves reports in his memoirs, rather callously, the suffering of strictly-brought-up Welsh soldiers in his battalion who had never been away from home before and realised too late the risk they were taking by visiting brothels.

Siegfried Sassoon, like so many of his fellow-soldiers, went down with trench fever on more than one occasion.  This rather mysteriously-named disease was carried by lice and characterised by a fever lasting about a week and accompanied by rashes and general aches and pains.  Although it claimed many victims, it was seldom fatal; it was, however, just like measles, the result of large numbers of men in close proximity, enabling the lice to breed and spread.  When Isaac Rosenberg wrote his famous poem "Louse Hunting", he described an activity that may sound light-hearted and even playful; in actual fact, these men were doing what they could to preserve their own health in the face of a threat to their well-being that was almost as great as the German guns.