Saturday, 28 September 2013

An Embarrassment of Riches

The title expresses my feelings as I look forward to the events of the next year.  As if it were not enough to have enjoyed such a successful annual conference earlier this month, we are already building up to the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, with so many treats in store.

The next major event for many of us who are members of several war poets' societies is the AGM of the Wilfred Owen Association, which takes place on 2nd November at St Anne's College, Oxford, and is combined with a Dominic Hibberd memorial event, with readings by several WOA members who were involved in the 2007 programme based on Dr Hibberd's celebrated "Winter of the World" anthology; the latter will form the basis for our own centenary event at Heytesbury next August, about which you will already have heard if you receive Siegfried's Journal or look at the SSF website.

Dominic Hibberd (3 November 1941 - 12 August 2012) was a noted academic, writer and broadcaster and the biographer of both Wilfred Owen and Harold Monro.  It is the words of these two poets that will be read at the memorial event.  Dr Hibberd had been closely involved in the work of the WOA for many years and has been much missed since he was gripped by a neurogenerative disorder that caused his withdrawal from public appearances and put an end to his creative contributions.  

For myself, I only met Dr Hibberd a handful of times, the first occasion being at the famous "Sassoon Day" in Marlborough as a result of which the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship came into being.  Those who were there will recall that he slipped and fell on some steps at Marlborough College and had to receive medical treatment before he was able to give his talk; he told me, some years later, that he still did not feel fully recovered.  He never became a member of the SSF, but it is clear from the response of WOA members to his death that he was a much-loved and valued member of their community.  

Dominic Hibberd is one of so many distinguished speakers and writers I've had the privilege to hear and meet over the years since we set up the SSF, and I know that there are many more such "discoveries" to come - as there are in store for those of you who have been unable to attend our events so far.  A poet I had never heard of until I became interested in First World War writing (which is less than 15 years ago) is Isaac Rosenberg, whom many regard as one of the most gifted of his generation.  On 9th November at the Imperial War Museum, our patron Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson will show off another of the many strings on her bow by hosting an event about Rosenberg, at which she will once again take the stage with another of our patrons, Max Egremont.  Those who have attended the events Jean has run every November for the past three years will know how enjoyable this promises to be.  Tickets are only £10 and more details are available on the IWM website:

Rosenberg is one of many poets who do not have their own societies to commemorate their life and work, so it is not too often that we get the opportunity to hear about him.  The SSF's collaboration with the Wilfred Owen Association has proved extremely fruitful in recent years, and another joint event is planned for next spring, of which details will be made known as soon as possible.  In the meantime, there are numerous dates in 1914 that you can put in your diaries immediately.  I've already mentioned the Heytesbury event on 2nd August, but July is also jam-packed with interesting happenings, including our annual cricket match (no date as yet) and of course the third in a series of War Poetry tours of the Western Front, jointly organised by the Western Front Association and Battle Honours tours.  Next July will see us back in Ieper (Ypres), which was the base for a very successful SSF tour back in 2010.  (Can it really be three years ago already?)

In the week leading up to our Heytesbury event, there will be two major festivals going on in that part of the country:  The Wylye Valley 1914 group will be putting on an exhibition at Codford Village Hall on the weekend of 26th-27th July (see their website for details: ) and there will be guided walks around the area.  In the meantime, the Thomas Hardy Society is holding its biennial festival in Dorchester from 26th July to 2nd August, and we are hoping to collaborate on an evening event some time during that week.

The icing on the cake, of course, will be the English Association's "British Poetry of the First World War" conference at Wadham College, Oxford, from 5th to 7th September 2014.  The Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship will be hosting a small exhibition and speaker panel and several members of the SSF will be actively involved as panel speakers, not all of us on the subject of Sassoon!

It's all very exciting, and hard work for a lot of people.  I can hardly wait - although, come to think of it, I am going to need quite a bit of time to prepare for all these events, especially the ones that involve the SSF. What I am looking forward to most, however, is what I always look forward to: meeting friends old and new, whilst combining entertainment with a learning experience.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Dead

Not a cheery title for a blog post, I know, but it’s something that’s been on my mind recently, since I heard that the government had recently released wills made by hundreds of ordinary soldiers from Britain and its overseas possessions, who knew their lives were at risk.  The wills are being digitised by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service and should all be available on-line in time for next year's centenary.  Ironically, the Ministry of Justice only became aware of their existence as a result of a request made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The contents make salutary reading.  Even early in the war, it seems, reality soaked quickly into the psyche of those who had recently arrived on the Western Front and were beginning to see what they had let themselves in for.  Most of them were young men who, under normal circumstances, would not have been thinking about death at all.  Many were unmarried, and left such property as they owned to their mothers, recording their last wishes on simple forms issued for the purpose by far-sighted officialdom.

Some were accompanied by letters to their families, and they make heartbreaking reading, especially when viewed in the soldiers' own handwriting.  "Mother dear, do have courage," wrote 19-year-old Joseph Ditchburn   "I will be all right."  He died two months later; the letter was never delivered.    

"This war is going to be worse than I thought," wrote 26-year-old Harry Lewis-Lincoln, when it dawned on him that it was not going to be all over by Christmas.  Meanwhile, a chaplain wrote to the widow of footballer Albert Butler to tell her that her late husband had commented, on having his leg blown to bits: "No more football for me."

Siegfried Sassoon seems to have felt an affinity with the dead, almost a communion with them, both during the latter part of his own military service and after the war had ended.  “I stood with the dead”, he says, as though to show solidarity with his late comrades.  It is hard to see how anyone who had lost the number of friends, comrades and acquaintances Sassoon had lost in the course of the war could feel otherwise.  For him, at that stage, they were still living, breathing men whose faces and voices were fresh in his mind.

“To any dead officer” he addresses the words, "Cheero.  I wish they'd killed you in a decent show."  Thus the blackest humour links military incompetence with death, in a manner typical of his war poetry.

William Rivers, who treated Sassoon at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in 1917, later included him, anonymously, as an example in a study he wrote on Conflict and Dream.  Sassoon's main symptoms, in medical terms, were the nightmares and hallucinations he suffered, an effect common among soldiers suffering from "neurosis".  Sassoon's dreams featured the dead in no uncertain manner.  Rivers diagnosed this as a "repression of war experience" and Sassoon felt that talking it through with the psychiatrist helped him enormously.  He subsequently wrote about his feelings in poems like "Survivors", in which he speaks of "haunted nights" and "the ghosts of friends".  He knew he was not alone in being obsessed with the dead, and his ability to get his feelings out in the open using the written word was cathartic as well as resulting in great poetry.

The BBC's recent (and excellent) production, The Wipers Times, a dramatised rendition of the history of the troops’ magazine edited by Captain Fred Roberts from 1916 to 1918, avoided overt references to death, and that was the whole point.  Everyone in the trenches knew their days were numbered; few had any confidence in their survival.  They soldiered on, literally, making life bearable by joking about death.  Poets too were mocked: "An insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other, absently walking near the wire in deep communication with their muse."  The writer couldn't possibly have seen Sassoon in action - could he?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

"Is there anything left that can go wrong?"

I realised, when I took up blogging on behalf of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, that there would be times when I was unable to keep to my schedule because of other commitments.  None of the hoped-for guest posts have turned up as yet to help me out, so I just had to take a break when I had two literary conferences to help organise on successive weekends.  There is almost nothing more time-consuming than trying to organise a literary conference, and this year's SSF annual conference has been no exception.  What's more, the SSF conference follows hot on the heels of the Barbara Pym Society's annual conference.  This year is the Pym centenary, so for two weekends in a row I was very tied up with organising events.  People keep telling me how tired I look.  Fortunately, they usually tell me, in the same breath, how much they have enjoyed themselves, and this just makes it all worth while.

Difficulties can often be anticipated and either avoided or mitigated when they do occur.  However, there is always something you just didn't think of or plan for, and these spanners seem to have a habit of throwing themselves into the works just as everything seems to be going really well.  I am never quite sure whether things go wrong because I expect them to go wrong or whether even worse things would happen if I didn't worry about it.  It certainly seems as though the things that go wrong are always the ones you never thought of, the possibilities you didn't even consider.

Take, for example, a boat trip up the River Thames.  You have hired the boat, you have a driver and a person to do the commentary and you have ordered the Pimm's.  You have even, after some coaxing and squashing up, managed to get all fifty people on board.  The engine starts up, the crew cast off, and you're away.

Then the driver says, "Is it actually important for us to get to Godstow?"

"Yes," I reply.  "That's the whole point of the trip."

"Ah," he says.  "There's a bit of a problem."

That's when I discovered that, because of low water levels in parts of the river after all the lovely dry and sunny weather we've been having, a barge had run aground, in the exact spot where we expected to unload our passengers!

Now, we had thought of going to Godstow by bus or car, but had dismissed the idea because we know what the traffic is like in Oxford on a Friday afternoon.  One doesn't expect a traffic jam to occur on the river.  Luckily, the passengers were so enchanted by the experience of drifting up the river on a sunny day, looking at the meadows on either bank and being told about the river's literary connections (especially "Alice in Wonderland"), that only one or two were dissatisfied with the trip, even though we never actually arrived at our intended destination.

Usually, members, particularly long-standing members, can be relied on to appreciate everything their organisers try to do to make events enjoyable, and rarely rebel.  The British tend to live up to their reputation for not complaining, or at least not complaining publicly.  In fact, we rather like it when things go wrong, provided that no one is hurt or upset, because it gives us amusing anecdotes to tell in later years.  "Do you remember the time when...?"  We seldom reminisce about the times when everything went like clockwork. Rather, we remember the time so-and-so dozed off during a lecture and fell off his chair, or when a bus broke down or someone got lost - you know the kind of thing.

This year's SSF conference was not short of such little incidents, but the one that caused the most hilarity (after the event, of course) was what happened at the beginning of the afternoon speaker sessions, when our President, Dennis Silk, and Chair, Meg Crane, were both trapped in a disabled lift in a conference room at Cardiff University. They didn't come to any harm, I hasten to add. They were, in fact, able to continue to participate in the conference despite their incarceration.  While awaiting the arrival of an engineer, chairs were passed into the lift to enable them to sit down, and they could see and hear everything that was going on at the front of the room.  Nevertheless, when the engineer arrived and rashly suggested they should "try to climb out", our Chair soon put him straight!

I won't continue.  Members of literary societies are prepared to make light of such little mishaps and, if one is lucky, they return to base saying what a wonderful time they have had.  By the end of the river trip, only a handful of Pym members even remembered that they were supposed to be going to Godstow. Likewise, after the SSF trip to St Fagan's, no one even seemed to notice that the minibus driver hadn't a clue where he was going. The organiser, however, remained mortified.