Thursday, 31 July 2014

Mr Hardy's War

The Thomas Hardy Festival is held every other year in his home town of Dorchester.  I'm told that local residents have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Hardy.  You certainly wouldn't know it when you drive through the centre of the town, where the Casterbridge guest house rubs shoulders with the Trumpet Major pub.  It also seems to have more museums per square inch than any other town in Britain I can think of.

Since I was old enough to read Thomas Hardy's work for the first time, I have been of the opinion that he is the greatest novelist in the English language, but I have never fully explored his poetry.  My own ignorance on the subject of his life and times was shown up, to myself, as I read up on the subject for the purpose of delivering a short talk on the subject of his relationship with Sassoon, as part of a miscellany entitled "Mr Hardy's War", which was presented at the Festival in this last week of July.  

My education continued when I discovered that not only was Siegfried's aunt, Agatha Thornycroft, the model for Tess Durbeyfield, but that a portrait of her hung at the top of the stairs in the very house where I was being put up for the night.  What is more, Dorset County Museum, where the event took place, houses a very fine bust of Hardy, the work of Agatha's husband Hamo.  Uncle Hamo and Hardy were friends long before Siegfried came on the scene, but one must assume that he heard Hardy's name from his uncle before he became an admirer of his novels and poetry.

Another friend Siegfried Sassoon had in common with Thomas Hardy was T E Lawrence, who was present at Max Gate (Hardy's house in Dorchester) when Siegfried visited in August 1924.  The Sassoon diaries mention seeing Lawrence's motorbike leaning against a wall when he arrived at the house and being pleased at the thought of seeing him again.  Hardy had, by this time, become another surrogate father-figure for Siegfried, following the loss of Rivers; Neil Brand captured their relationship perfectly in his 2001 radio play Between the Lines, which many of you will have seen performed on stage at our 2011 conference in Stratford.

"Mr Hardy's War" included varied contributions in the form of readings, songs and a short lecture on how the Great War affected the local area, from Chris Copson, curator of The Keep military museum; the museum comes highly recommended.  Dorset folk singer and musicologist Tim Laycock became the unwitting model for a soldier's uniform and pack, which all agreed was "very heavy" as well as "very uncomfortable".  Hardy's own words were read by the Dorchester town crier, Alistair Chisholm (who, unlike me, did not require a microphone).

Most touching was the story of the "lost heir", Thomas Hardy's second cousin, Frank George, to whom Hardy and his wife Florence had intended to leave everything, having no children of their own.  Hardy had been so taken with Frank that he had recommended him for a commission, which duly sent Lieutenant George on his way to a fatal wound at Gallipoli in 1915.  Hardy underplayed his distress at the news of Frank's death (as he did his sadness at the death of his own sister shortly afterwards).  He did, however, write an elegy for his cousin, entitled "Before Marching and After (In Memoriam F.W.G)", which appeared in the Fortnightly Review and eventually in a 1917 poetry collection.  It is certainly not Hardy's greatest poem, attempting as it does to find a silver lining to the dark cloud of his bereavement: "marching was done / For him who had joined in that game overseas / Where Death stood to win, though his name was to borrow / A brightness therefrom not to fade on the morrow."  What else was Hardy to say, having unwittingly contributed to his beloved cousin's fate?

The evening as a whole, however, went with a swing (thanks in no small measure to the community singing led by Tim Laycock), and left me with a picture of Hardy much as Sassoon portrayed him in "At Max Gate", the poem he wrote about a summer evening he spent with the old man in the 1920s.  My contribution?  Just a few minutes talking about the Sassoon-Hardy friendship, followed by Siegfried's voice reading from his own work.  As always, the audience was enchanted (by him, not me) and there was much interest.  The Hardy Society, like our own, is delightfully friendly and informal, and I already have ideas for possible future collaborations.  But I'd better get 2014 over with first!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A Misconceived Article

When we started up a Facebook group for the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, I knew that sooner or later a vicious argument would break out about some aspect or other of Sassoon’s life and work.  It’s happened on pretty much every other Facebook group I know of, from “I Love Strictly Come Dancing” to “Port Talbot Old and New”, subjects one might have thought it was impossible to argue about.  So it was almost bound to happen on a page relating to a soldier-poet of the First World War, and the only surprising thing is that it took so long.

This week’s heated discussion, however, was not really about Sassoon at all.  It stemmed from my assumption that others in the group would share my indignation about the way the war poets – specifically Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – were singled out for criticism by Professor David Reynolds, one of eleven historians who contributed to an article in August’s BBC History magazine on the subject “Great Misconceptions of the First World War”.  It is a badly misconceived article in general, since many of the “misconceptions” used to give the contributors the opportunity to be controversial are not actually believed by most people.

How many, for example, actually think that “Machine guns were the deadliest weapons on the western front”?  Surely the leading contenders for the title would be the tank, the flame-thrower, aerial bombardment and artillery?  The machine gun is touted only because it gives David Olusoga an opportunity to talk for a few paragraphs about developments in firearms technology.  And how many people believe that “German defeat  in the war was always an inevitability”?  Everyone I know is fully aware that Germany came very close to winning the war – both world wars, in fact.  Once again, it is an excuse for a historian, this time David Stevenson, to give a brief summary of the economic and political situation in western Europe.  Look more closely at the content of the contributions and you see that several of them admit that the "great misconceptions" about which they are writing are actually minority views put forward, relatively recently, by other historians.

I don’t know if the historians who contributed to the article were paid for doing so.  If they were, it was money for old rope, since all they had to do was trot out enough well-worn “facts” to fill a column or two, while being as controversial as they could manage.  Even Max Hastings manages to make his little piece on whether "the First World War was the most unpleasant war to fight" more interesting by throwing in a snide little mention of the war poets, whom he blames for peddling a misconception that isn’t really a misconception at all – or even a conception.  I simply don't believe that they were the first soldiers ever to be brought unawares to a battlefield and be shocked at what they saw; the difference between them and the volunteers and conscripts of earlier wars is that the general level of literacy had increased to the extent that a majority were capable of expressing themselves in writing.

Worst of all, however, and by quite a long way, is Professor Reynolds’ contribution.  How someone who has obviously read very little war poetry can be deemed qualified to dispel the “misconception” that “The 'soldier-poets' are the supreme interpreters of the First World War” is beyond me, and it is not surprising that he does the job so badly.  It’s not easy, I know, in 300 words, to summarise the significance of the war poets, but he would have done much better to concentrate on saying why he thinks their interpretation of the war is not supreme, rather than throwing in red herrings like the fact that there were lots of other writers around at the time (yes, we know that) and the suggestion that Owen and Sassoon were not representative because they were "young, unmarried officers... with complexes about their sexuality and courage" [my italics].  Apparently this last statement alone is enough to disqualify them from being taken seriously as interpreters of the war.  Far better to allow someone like Professor Reynolds himself, a middle-aged academic (presumably with no doubts about his own masculinity), who wasn’t born for another thirty-odd years after the war finished, to interpret it for us. 

His views are, however, supported by several members of the SSF Facebook group. (I should add that around 50% of the group are not actually members of the Fellowship, but we have never been elitist and we actively encourage friendly debate.)  Whether the “misconception” is actually widely believed I am not sure.  Whether it is, in fact, a misconception or the truth is another question, one that Professor Reynolds fails to address.  The words of the heading are so obscure that it is difficult to come to a decision on that one - what does "supreme interpreters" mean?  Does it mean the group of writers who explain the war most clearly and most accurately?  Or could it mean the writers who are the most successful in bringing the realities of war to the attention of today's reader?

Speaking for myself, I see no reason why the fact that poets write in verse should mean that their interpretation of events is less “true” than anyone else’s, particularly when you bear in mind the enormous range of topics and viewpoints covered in Sassoon’s war poetry alone, not to mention the varied output of the rest of the soldier-poets, people as diverse as Julian Grenfell and Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Richard Aldington.  The problem with giving a historian the job of making a qualitative assessment of their work is that he is not impartial, any more than a poetry-lover would be.  Naturally a historian thinks that he is better equipped to interpret a war that happened a century ago than the effeminate upper-class wimps who actually participated in it.  What the historian cannot change is the fact that it is the work of these poets that has captured the public imagination and explained the First World War more effectively to the general public than any 500-page history book could ever do.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

How's a body to feel?

This week we have a guest post from SSF life member Jack Sturiano:

“Also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuances of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realize”….

To any member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship the above paragraph is easily recognizable. In the movie based on the book Regeneration by Pat Barker, Rivers says to Siegfried “You must have been in agony”, referring to the incident when he threw his Military Cross ribbon into the Mersey . Siegfried replies: “Agony is lying in no man’s land with your legs shot off.”

It’s all so confusing almost a hundred years later and with all the remembrances and commemorations; how’s a body to feel with all the opinions that have already been filling the papers and press?  As a veteran of a later conflict (Vietnam), I recently made the suggestion rather boorishly that the only true feeling should be anger.  I admit to being strongly influenced, even provoked, by stirring passages of battle scenes read aloud and the biographical life of a favoured author’s post-war agony - and that third glass which is always fatal at lunch to clarity, lucidity and courtesy.

I’d like to make the case, sober and unprovoked, that I still feel the only attitude is anger.   Siegfried is angry when he writes of the ”callous  complacency and lack of imagination” of those at home whose attitude continues the agonies.  I’m sure if he said that to someone in a pub whose son had died, he would risk a black eye, but he said it to a nation of mothers and fathers with dead sons, husbands and brothers. The declaration is still almost universally read, but no one sees or feels the anger.

His comments about the Menin Gate as a” sepulchre of crime” do not give pause to our Fellowship, who lay a wreath anyway “at that pile of peace-complacent stone”.  What would Siegfried have said? He said it in the poem, and very clearly I think.  Rivers could have said ”You must have been in agony when you wrote that”, but he’d been dead some years. Siegfried might have replied: “Agony is seeing the Menin Gate.”  Whatever he saw drove him away after twenty minutes (by his own account) and made him angry enough to write his angriest war poem since 1917 that night, in his Brussels hotel room.

The poem written in anger turns again to a nation of mothers and fathers and says what they all refuse to tell themselves and may not want to believe, those whose imaginations……

What are we to make of “Fight to the Finish”?

“The boys came back./Bands played and flags were flying./And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlight street/To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying.”

“Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob,/Grim Fusiliers broke ranks with the glint of steel./At last the boys had found a cushy job.”

He wants to do what??? Read it again.  He is really angry.

Or “Blighters”:

“I’d like to see a tank come down the stalls/Lurching to ragtime tunes, or ‘Home, Sweet Home’/And there’d be no more jokes in music halls/To mock the riddled corpses round Baupame."

I’ll stop here because you all know his poetry as well as I do. You gentle folk of the Fellowship, whether you chose to focus on the anger or some other aspect, you can’t get away from the anger in his poetry. It informs every poem in some way. I made the point as well last year that Siegfried - if you read what he says literally - he’s telling you what emotions he felt, so maybe anger is how we should feel about the war as he saw it. I certainly feel it. It’s what attracted and still attracts me to his work.

I would also argue that no one has any lack of imagination anymore about World War I. We all know how bad it was, as well as World War II. If you think I’m picking on you fine English folk, well, no one I see in the USA acts any different. Even among my vet friends, you don’t see the anger much as I feel it and always have.  Siegfried never seemed angry in person or in reciting his poems that I’ve listened to, although the way he says “They snipe like hell. Oh Dickie don’t go out… And then he says “In the morning when I awoke he was dead / Pause/ Some slight wound lay upon the bed.” That’s as angry as it gets.

If you’re looking for good British anger at war, go to Youtube. Search for Richard Burton in a movie called The Medusa Touch, then click on the courtroom scene. It will take your breath away at the truth of everything he says about war, angrily.

Siegfried and I, as I said, shared a lot of war experiences but fifty years apart. He earned this name for something we didn’t share, but I’ll take the liberty of signing this as


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Unawareness of Youth

"Youth excels in unawareness," wrote Siegfried Sassoon, formulating his prose memoirs from memories of the past and poring over old diaries. "It seems reasonable to ask how a mind that understood so little of itself at the time can be analysed and explained by its owner thirty years afterwards!" 

Many is the middle-aged person who has asked him or herself that question. I am shortly to attend a college reunion marking the fortieth anniversary of my arrival in Oxford as an undergraduate. It seems quite incredible that this could be possible, since, looking in the mirror, I see the same person I have always seen, albeit with more wrinkles. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to ponder on this phenomenon, but it probably explains why I have recently begun to appreciate the older Sassoon more than ever. 

When most people think of Siegfried Sassoon, they think of the young soldier, impassioned yet in control, innocent yet knowing, strong yet fragile. Perhaps I thought of him this way when I first became acquainted with his poetry. Once I had read his prose, however, I started to see him differently. I could have come away from the poetry admiring and yet without any particular urge to continue reading it. My mind would have drifted on to some other writer and the SSF would probably not have been formed in 2001, though I have no doubt that it would exist by now, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, in some form or other. 

Sassoon wrote, looking back on his younger self, that it had never occurred to him that he would be different as an old man, merely that he would be older. As the number of my aches and pains increases and I watch my parents becoming dependent on assistance from the social services, I become more and more in tune with his point of view. 

Looking back on those first weeks at university - in fact, looking back on my whole university career - I recall many incidents that make me want to cringe. Talk about green. Like Sassoon, I was brought up by a doting, protective mother, and arrived not knowing how to use a washing machine and barely able to boil an egg. My tutors were not exactly worldly women, but I imagined they must have been sometimes incredulous at the extent of my naiveté. Thankfully, they had seen thousands of girls like me in the course of their careers and felt no need to comment on it. I suppose that this was the way Helen Wirgmann saw Siegfried. "Half one's life is spent trying to understand things," she told him, "and the other half in trying to make other people understand what one has learnt." He claimed, in The Weald of Youth, that he did not understand this advice at the time. I tend to think that, even as a young man, he was more astute than he would have us believe.
I think this is why The Weald of Youth has been my favourite Sassoon work, ever since I first read it. There is something so endearing about his way of looking back on his youth, something very diffident and self-effacing and yet sharply observant. It makes me feel very close to the author – as if I had not already felt that when I began to read his poetry. It would be asking a lot of a younger person to feel the same, so it is rather curious that Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was put on the school syllabus so soon after its publication.  It is, of course, a very entertaining book.  I recall falling about with laughter when I first read the description of the Butley captain, nicknamed "Did I say myself?" for obvious reasons, and the passage in which young Sherston goes for his first solo ride, only to lose his horse, is equally amusing though also rather poignant. 
I'm guessing that there will be people reading this blog who have never read Sassoon's memoirs, which have been somewhat overlooked in recent years in favour of his war poetry.  The general public distaste for blood sports may also have contributed to a loss of popularity for the Sherston trilogy, as many see the title Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and naturally expect some kind of apologia for the practice of fox hunting.  What they would get, if they progressed past that title, would hugely exceed their expectations.