Sunday, 23 February 2014

Craiglockhart - Past and Present

I was very fortunate, recently, to be invited to attend a dinner at the Rivers Suite on Napier University's Craiglockhart Campus, hosted by the Vice-Chancellor.  It was the first opportunity I have had to view the War Poets Collection since it was set up in late 2005, and indeed my first visit to Craiglockhart.  Approaching after dark, it occurred to me that the facade of the "Craiglockhart Hydropathic" (just about all that is left of the original building) would have looked somewhat forbidding, had it not been for the well-lit footpath.  My instinct, naturally, was to try to enter by the front door, but this is now in use only as a fire exit, and official visitors gain access by going around what appears to be the side of the building, where a more modern but equally impressive entrance is to be found - the famous "egg".

Craiglockhart came into the possession of Napier University (then a technical college) in 1984, and the later conversion of the building to house the university's Business School was somewhat controversial.  The War Poets Collection, located in the original entrance hall, was launched shortly after Professor Alistair McCleery had been a guest speaker at a joint annual meeting of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and the Wilfred Owen Association, giving an inspiring lecture entitled "The Doctors, the Poets and the Gardener".  Those who were present will, I'm sure, recall the occasion; for those who missed it, there may be a future opportunity.  More of that later.  Suffice it to say that the SSF played a major role in supporting the exhibition, something of which we are very proud.

Archivist Catherine Walker, though now semi-retired, is devoted to the collection, which she continues to manage on a part-time basis, and was on hand to explain the exhibits to guests and to ensure they all signed the visitors' book.  Because of the limited space available for the exhibition, it is not possible to have all 600 accessioned items on display simultaneously, and the contents of the display cases is regularly rotated.  So, if you are planning to visit and want to see something in particular, do check beforehand.  You can find contact details here: 

I wrote recently about The Hydra, the internal publication briefly edited by Wilfred Owen.  Catherine tells me that only one issue of the magazine now remains unrecovered.  If any of my readers should happen to be hiding issue no 6 of the "New Series", she wants it!  In the meantime, donations of appropriate items are welcomed by the curators and will be treated lovingly and made available to those with an interest in the work and experiences of Sassoon, Owen, and other war poets.

The dinner which followed our tour of the exhibition was given by Professor Andrea Nolan, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Napier, who discussed a range of challenges and opportunities currently facing the university.  It is clear that the governing body sees the war poets' connection with Craiglockhart as a major "plus" in its attempts to raise the profile of the university and it seems to me that this building and its history are regarded with particular affection and respect.  Following Professor Nolan's introductory talk, Professor McCleery (who had "risen from his sickbed" especially to be present) gave a concise exposition of the importance of the War Poets Collection before we dined on a meal that showed off the expertise of the university's catering department to great advantage.  I was seated between Dr Graham Forbes, Chair of the University Court, and Mr Iain McIntosh, a university dean, both of whom expressed great interest in the work of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and showed considerable knowledge of the subject of war poetry. Following the meal, Lady Balfour of Burleigh (better known as historian and biographer Janet Morgan) described her own vision of how the war poets fitted into Napier's future as well as its past.

The SSF and the WOA have made a joint bid to host the 2017 annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies at Craiglockhart, as part of our recognition of the centenary of the meeting between our two poets. The intention is to use part of the Rivers Suite and adjacent lecture theatres as a venue for this conference, and there are plans for a coach to travel up to Edinburgh from London, stopping en route at Sassoon- and Owen-related occasions.  If you have four nights to spare, this could be a memorable little holiday, on a par with our unforgettable visit to Ieper in 2010.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Ferguson versus Gove versus Portillo

Niall Ferguson is not very popular with serious historians these days.  His recent comments on the possible alternative outcomes of the First World War have resulted in a flurry of indignation, not to mention derision (a Linkedin group discussion on the subject is entitled “...And now for the comedy turn”).  It is not, in itself, Ferguson’s statement that the war was the “biggest error in modern history” that has caused such outrage, but his sheer arrogance in thinking he could have done any better in the context of contemporary political and military thinking.

“Britain could have lived with a German victory, “ said Ferguson in a TV documentary  based on his own book The Pity of War (you would think titles borrowed from the best-known lines of Wilfred Owen’s work might be starting to appear somewhat hackneyed by now, but Professor Ferguson’s publishers must have thought it was a really snappy title).  The basis of his argument is the economic situation in which the UK found itself after the war.  It wasn’t in the “national interest” for Britain to join the war when it did, he says; by this he seems to mean our financial interests: “you can pay too high a price for upholding the notion of honour,” he adds.

The book was actually written as long ago as 1999, and an Amazon reviewer comments that, had it not been written by an Oxford academic, “you could be forgiven for thinking the book was out for a few cheap headlines by contradicting almost every accepted orthodoxy about the First World War”.  The author's views have not, however, changed in the meantime.  At first sight, Ferguson’s arguments appear to cut right across the much-criticised comments of his good friend, Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has been accused of wanting schools to present the war to their pupils as an “old-fashioned tale of goodies and baddies”.

It is perhaps typical of Niall Ferguson that he openly condemns the views of other Oxbridge historians on the teaching of the subject as being somehow not in touch with the real world.  He dismisses Richard Evans and David Priestland as "authors of rather dry works on, respectively, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia".  His own status as a presenter of "popular" history programmes on television means, apparently, that he is both a superior historian and a better teacher.  If only Michael Gove had taken "the advice I gave him", says Ferguson, the changes to the National Curriculum would have been much more effective. 

I am under no illusions about my own status in this debate.  I came late to understanding, or even being very interested in, the First World War, and my appreciation of the military and political considerations remains limited.  However, my personal impression of Professor Ferguson is that he sees pretty much everything in highly materialistic terms, regarding economic success as the benchmark of a civilised society, and that words like “pity” are not part of his everyday vocabulary.   On the contrary, the Protestant work ethic is his touchstone.  It is interesting to see this apparent clash between one conservative thinker and another, but when you throw a third into the equation, the result is more interesting still.  Whilst Ferguson makes his appeal to the masses, former Tory Cabinet minister Michael Portillo has been widely praised for his radio series analysing the causes of the First World War.

Portillo, a fascinating character whose style of presentation always seems to me to be imbued with a great humanity, used the opportunity given him by Radio 4 to explode many myths about the outbreak of war. Taking a copy of The Times from mid-1913, he examines contemporary news stories in such a way as to challenge received wisdom on the context of the war.  A reviewer - without once mentioning Niall Ferguson's name - points out that Portillo's attractiveness as a presenter is partly that he is never "assertive"; he is aware of alternative theses and does not try to present himself as omniscient just because he has a first in History from Oxford and has presented popular television documentaries. Perhaps, in spite of his own political record, his family background (in case there is still anyone who doesn't know, his father was a Spanish Republican who opted out of military service because his brothers were all fighting for the Nationalists) gives him more right than most to comment on the political context of the wars of the twentieth century. You can still catch this series as a podcast by going to the BBC's website:

We have not heard the last of these arguments, I'm sure, but an interesting little column in The Guardian points out that German society does not share Britain's obsession with the war and its causes, but simply recognises the events of 1914-1918 as a disaster that had lasting repercussions.
Read what I mean here:

And if I don't get some comments on this post, I shall be very disappointed!