Thursday, 28 August 2014

From the Edinburgh Festival

Cynthia Greenwood goes to the Edinburgh Festival every year, and lets us know if she finds anything likely to be of interest to Sassoon enthusiasts.  She has just sent us this report:

I’ve recently got back from the Edinburgh Festival and, though you might think World War One would not get much of a look in there, especially at a time when Scottish Nationalism is the big subject of debate, I did visit one impressive piece of theatre on the subject of the First World War. This was Forever Young, performed by the Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre.  It was billed as “a celebration , protest and a tribute to those who lived, loved, died and wrote through 1914-1919”. Personal testimonies, letters, poetry and diary extracts were punctuated by popular songs from the era.

The piece was performed on a small stage with little in the way of props except a trunk, part of an old ladder and a soldier’s tin hat. but everything was used to maximum effect. For example, the tin helmet, a simple protection for the soldier’s head, became a silent and potent symbol for all the dead. I was highly impressed by the amazing sensitivity and conviction of the young actors. They seemed to register every nuance of excitement, fear and despair on their faces. 

The readings were filled with total conviction and were organised to achieve striking contrasts. At one moment we were caught up totally in a young wife’s anguish on hearing her husband had been killed, next we heard a popular song of the time, then powerful work by the war poets. The poems were read with great depth of feeling and a keen appreciation of the meaning. In Sassoon’s “Does It Matter?” the force and irony of the piece were strongly conveyed. Hearing Wilfred Owen’s “The Last Laugh” I noticed how the perceptive reading could emphasise the modernity of Owen’s approach. The broken-up lines and strange images, “the bullets chirped”, “the bayonets’ long teeth grinned” were emphasised by the reader so that they were almost cries of pain.

The fact that the young cast were about sixteen to eighteen in age, around the age many of the young soldiers would have been, made the whole piece more poignant.

For details of the company go to

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Hardy in Corton

I have just co-invented (I think) a new phrase for use by Thomas Hardy Society members - "a Wessie bag". Wessex was of course the Hardys' pet dog and well-known to Siegfried Sassoon when he visited the elderly writer who had become such a dear friend.  So naturally, when I asked for a doggie bag in which to take home a piece of the delicious cake we had been offered for tea by our hostess, Barbara Saunt, it was quickly re-christened.

Barbara is a member of one of the Hardy Society's regional groups.  In this case, they are informally led by the redoubtable Mervyn Scamell, who brings them together several times a year, normally in one another's homes or some other congenial location such as a pub or restaurant, and their next meeting will be their 100th.  I was thrilled to be invited to speak to them about Siegfried Sassoon, although I had to think of a different slant on the Sassoon-Hardy relationship from the short talk I gave at Dorchester only a few weeks ago.  Before the meeting, we were given a delicious lunch by Barbara and her husband Alex, who had very kindly put me up in their house the previous night.  The icing on the cake, if you'll forgive the pun, was the discovery that Alex's father was the first cousin of Hester Gatty, Siegfried's wife!

Alex had not known of the relationship until after he and Barbara moved to Corton (a charming village about two miles from Heytesbury) in the 1990s.  At that time, George Sassoon was still resident at Heytesbury House, but one of his favourite watering-holes was The Dove, which is almost next door to the Saunts' home.  Thus, when Alex exchanged pleasantries with George in the bar, neither of them ever realised that they were related.

One thing I feel sure of is that Sassoon became attracted to the rolling Wiltshire landscape through his visits to Hardy and Lawrence, and this was the reason for his decision to settle at Heytesbury House in 1934. Despite his preference for solitude, he would become an active and respected member of the local community and never seems to have considered leaving it, even after the break-up of his marriage.

As I researched this talk, new insights into the Sassoon-Hardy relationship came to light.  In particular, I noted how Siegfried became protective of Hardy as he aged.  The older man was already in his seventies when they first met in 1918.  Siegfried paid him a visit at Max Gate, initially to take him a copy of The Old Huntsman, which was dedicated to Hardy.  They met again at J M Barrie's home in London shortly afterwards (coincidentally, another of Barrie's London homes was 23 Campden Hill Square, where Sassoon would later reside with the Turners), and it was in relation to this occasion that the Sassoon memoirs first note Hardy's remarkable vigour and energy for a man of his age, qualities that inevitably began to wane during the following decade.

Thomas Hardy's funeral - or, to be more accurate, his two funerals - distressed Siegfried Sassoon considerably, as indeed it upset many of Hardy's friends.  Barrie, together with Sydney Cockerell, a mutual friend, were determined that he would be buried in Westminster Abbey, which was not the quiet resting-place his family had in mind.  Another of Sassoon's friends, T E Lawrence, felt that the Establishment was getting its own back on Hardy, saying that he "was too great to be suffered as an enemy to their faith; so he must be redeemed".  Hardy's friend Alfred Noyes described it as an occasion of "bleak irony".

Siegfried was doomed to lose all his father figures in the course of his long life.  Fortunately, he also finally grew out of the need to adopt surrogate sons (like Stephen Tennant?) through having a son of his own. Younger friends like Dennis Silk came, I think, to occupy a more comfortable place in his huge circle of acquaintance.

To return, just for a moment, to the subject of my talk at Corton, I found the questions from the Hardy group leading me down varied and interesting paths, and it struck me that a study of Sassoon's life and work is like doing a kind of jigsaw puzzle, symmetrical, intricate and satisfying in its conclusion - not that I would claim to have concluded mine as yet.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

"Oh, it's all gone quiet over there..."

Actually, it’s a football chant, but you can imagine the same taunt being used by soldiers of the Great War during any period of let-up from the shelling of their trenches.  I feel like saying it now, about a number of things – the Wimbledon final, the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, the (brief) hiatus between the end of our “Arcadia, Armageddon, Aftermath” at Heytesbury and our next SSF event, but most of all the lull following the frantic activity of 4thAugust, when politicians, actresses, historians and journalists vied with one another to see who could find the most to say on the subject of the outbreak of the First World War.  

Some people are probably breathing a sigh of relief as well.  Thank goodness, they may be thinking.  No more press coverage of the centenary for another four years or so.  Others, however, will have revelled in the events of recent days (and weeks and months).  Having reluctantly removed the candles from their windows on Monday night, they may be waiting eagerly for another opportunity to commemorate.  I feel sure they will not have to wait long.  They could, for example, come along to the English Association’s major conference on British Poetry of the First World War at Oxford on the first weekend of September.  I suspect there are places left, since it is not exactly competitively priced at over £100 for the cheapest one-day ticket (in case you’re wondering, panel speakers have to pay for themselves and there is no remuneration).

There are many more economical events to choose from.  You could, for example, go along to the Fashion Museum in Bath to hear an expert talk about what people were wearing in 1914.  At Preston Manor in Brighton, you can go on a guided tour of "the 1914 house".  Finborough Theatre in London is putting on a music-drama, The Immortal Hour (first performed at the inaugural Glastonbury Festival in August 1914), and, if you fancy something more quirky, Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust in Bristol is offering a "Great War Iconography Stone-Carving Workshop".  For poetry-lovers, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Edinburgh is staging Forever Young, in which a troupe of music hall performers create a show out of letters, memoirs, war poetry and songs.

For no charge at all, you can go to Leicester’s New Walk Museum and see an exhibition on Life in the Front Line.  St John's House Museum at Warwick has a free exhibition on Warwickshire at War, and Worcester Cathedral is offering "World War I tours" this coming weekend, while Reading Museum hosts the First World War Family History Roadshow.   

At the same time as you are enjoying these events and activities, and thinking how lucky we are to live in a Europe at peace, spare a thought for the people of Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and other countries where the Western powers have intervened on the basis of the uninformed opinion that they are better-placed to know what government those countries should have than the people who live there and have to take the consequences of our interference.

In a 1939 letter to Edmund Blunden, Siegfried wrote, “Is there such a thing as human progress?  I begin to doubt it.”  He certainly knew what he was talking about.