Friday, 28 November 2014

Goodbye to a Great Writer

This blog was originally going to be about literary societies, but, while working on it, I heard of the death of P D James, and felt I had to write about her instead.  There is, I hasten to add, no connection that I know of between Phyllis, as we knew her (she was an honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a frequent guest at meetings of the Barbara Pym Society) and Siegfried Sassoon.  She was born in 1920 and thus had no memory of the First World War, and she did not have her first novel published until 1962; thus there was little overlap between her literary career and Sassoon’s. 

Nor did they move in the same circles.  Phyllis Dorothy James was not from a poor family, and had a good basic education, but was nevertheless forced to leave school at the age of sixteen to go along with her father’s wishes.  Her career as an office worker was interrupted by the Second World War, in the course of which her husband, Ernest, developed a mental condition that prevented him being the family breadwinner.  She continued to work in the public sector, which (to my mind) makes it rather surprising that, when called to the House of Lords in 1991, she joined the Conservative backbenches.

I cannot claim that I knew Phyllis, and I have only read three of her books.  But I met her and heard her speak on several occasions, and I was always enthralled and full of admiration for a woman who could speak so fluently and so interestingly on different topics.  She had, I believe, told the Secretary of the Barbara Pym Society that she “liked” Barbara Pym, as have so many other eminent people.  Usually – if we can get them to speak at all – they come up with a moderately interesting account of what it is they like about Barbara Pym and how they came to read her books.  This speech was completely different, an analysis of the Pym world in great and knowledgeable depth, shedding new light on the subject and never losing the audience’s attention for a moment.

One of the most entertaining afternoons I have ever spent was at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2011, when 90-year-old Phyllis shared the stage with another outstanding novelist, Jill Paton Walsh, for a debate: Agatha Christie versus Dorothy L Sayers.  There were many reviews of the event, one of which you can read here:  Jill took Dorothy’s side, while Phyllis stuck up for Agatha.  Amusingly, both agreed that Sayers was the better writer, but Phyllis stuck to her guns on the basis that, since Agatha had sold so many more books and given so much pleasure to so many people, she must be superior overall.  The whole debate took place in a spirit of true literary appreciation, friendship and humour – there were such a lot of laughs.  The personalities of the two speakers came across very clearly, with Phyllis being particularly fun-loving and wickedly witty.  They interacted perfectly.

At question time, a member of the audience got up and congratulated Phyllis for her recent radio performance, “handbagging” BBC Director-General Mark Thompson when she was a guest interviewer on Radio 4’s Today programme.  In the course of the interview, she described the BBC as "a large and unwieldy ship” with a crew that was “somewhat discontented and a little mutinous, the ship sinking close to the Plimsoll line and the customers feeling they have paid too much for their journey and not quite sure where they are going or who is the captain".  In particular, she criticised the six-figure salaries of some BBC executives, ageism, and the general dumbing-down of the corporation’s output.  I can’t help feeling Siegfried would have admired a woman who, even in advanced age, was capable of out-thinking and out-manoeuvring her juniors.

And, just as I was about to put this to bed, I did succeed in finding a connection, albeit a tenuous one.  James was a crime writer, one of the most successful of all time.  When asked how she tackled the genre, she referred back to some ground rules laid down by a noted crime writer of the 1920s and ‘30s, Ronald Knox, and said that these still applied: “a) no information available to the detective should be kept from the reader, b) there should be no identical twins, and c) definitely no Chinamen.”

Knox, in addition to being a writer and radio broadcaster, was a Roman Catholic priest, and was the man selected by Siegfried Sassoon as his instructor in the faith when he converted in 1957.  Sadly, Knox was already too ill, and died that same year.  Siegfried chose to be buried only a few yards away from him, in the churchyard at Mells, Somerset.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Great War on the Big Screen

“With its centenaries approaching we can expect many more Great War films over the next few years,” wrote William Philpott two years ago in History Today, reviewing Spielberg’s War Horse. “Can we ask them now to get that war right?”
As we all know, the truth is sometimes too complex for accurate representation in the mass media.  Most people are aware that the British cavalry never carried out a Light Brigade-style charge in the First World War, even in its earliest days.  Nevertheless, for me, seeing the film for the first time on television, this scene was quite unnecessary to enable us to understand the plight of the millions of horses that died in the course of the war.
Another film I have recently seen for the first time is Richard Attenborough’s 1969 classic Oh! What a Lovely War.  Like War Horse, it strays into historical inaccuracy throughout.  If you look back through earlier posts, you will see that I praised the BBC’s drama series 39 Days, shown earlier this year, for its depiction of the events leading up to the war and its subtle portrayal of the personalities involved, particularly Sir Edward Gray, the British Foreign Minister, later a close acquaintance of Siegfried Sassoon.  In Lovely War, Gray is played by Ralph Richardson as a stiff, unsympathetic figure.  Douglas Haig, played by John Mills, fares even worse, stolidly ignoring the escalating numbers of dead and wounded as the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele are played out, far away from his perch on top of a helter-skelter on Brighton’s West Pier.
Murray Melvin, who appeared in the original stage production, is reported as saying, “The Haig family wanted to take out an injunction on us because we were denigrating their ancestor.  But everything that we said on stage was documented. Word for word. Lines like, 'I ask thee for victory, Lord, before the Americans arrive’.”
Unlike War Horse, Oh! What a Lovely War was never meant as a straight drama; it was always a satire, reflecting some of the less pleasant aspects of the conduct of the war and events that the public – when it came out, many veterans were still under the age of seventy - had previously preferred to ignore.  When it made its stage debut in 1963, Joan Littlewood's production “seemed to offer a way of thinking about all wars, including the ones to come”, to quote The Telegraph, reviewing a 2014 revival.  Bertrand Russell, attending an early performance, said: "If there were any way in which I could make people understand how true and important your play is, I would wish to do it."  But Russell was a non-combatant – how could he judge the truth of the war?  How could Littlewood (who adapted it from a radio play by Charles Chilton), or the film’s director, Richard Attenborough, who was not even born until 1923?  One of the few veterans in the film’s cast was Cecil Parker, who had been a sergeant in the Royal Sussex Regiment; no one seems to have asked him what he thought of it.
If those who were not involved in the war cannot judge the accuracy of the media’s representations of it, can historians do any better?  Is it possible for any individual to hope to summarise the historical significance of a four-year world war, or even to scratch the surface?  Some historians think they can – yet they insist that Siegfried Sassoon’s satirical poems, a “bottom-up” view of what was actually happening on the battlefield, written by someone who was directly involved, cannot be considered either truthful or representative.
Although a direct comparison between the two films would be meaningless, there is common ground in that they represent the war both at its best and at its worst. The camaraderie of the soldiers in Lovely War shines through against the backdrop of pointless slaughter; the very fact that they are singing in unison tells us that they feel this, and the frequently ironic lyrics do not detract from the general impression of esprit de corps that they at times share with the enemy (specifically in the Christmas scene). This is also shown in War Horse, as soldiers from opposing trenches meet in No Man’s Land in an effort to relieve the suffering of a dumb animal on which both sides have pity. “Good” characters appear in the guise of German grooms as well as British Tommies, and it is thanks to a Frenchman that Albert finally gets his horse back. Admittedly, the fictional Major Stewart acts like a complete ninny, although not as heartless as Haig; the point, however, is not to show up the British military commanders as fools but to illustrate the scale of the carnage faced by all ranks (and their animals) whilst shining a spotlight on individual acts of heroism and compassion of the kind that we know took place throughout the conflict.
Lovely War nevertheless focuses on loss and hopelessness whilst War Horse encourages us to believe in the possibility of survival against the odds. Private Smith ends his war by lying down peacefully in a green meadow among his former comrades (in a scene that blows the climax of Blackadder Goes Forth out of the water); they all look rather fed up. Joey and Albert, by contrast, return to their Devon farm to be reunited with their loved ones.
Looking at it dispassionately, I can’t but agree with William Philpott that “It was a new sort of war on an industrial scale; a hard fought war with the usual amount of military mistakes and battlefield horrors; but a real war and not that of its recurrent cinematic truisms,” even if I don’t agree with him that the representation of the war in satirical works like Blackadder Goes Forth and  Oh! What a Lovely War is a misinterpretation.
I would, rather, concur with the Daily Mail reviewer of War Horse who said that “Whatever the reservations about Michael Morpurgo’s story and the movie, it contains a truth which goes far to explain our emotional response.”  His name?  Max Hastings!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Other Woman

When I was writing a previous post, I came across the name of Julia Constance Fletcher, the American writer for whom Alfred Sassoon is said to have left Theresa.  For some reason, she has never been on my radar previously, and I started to wonder about her.  There was a limited amount of information on-line, but here's what I've established so far.

Fletcher was born in 1853, making her about eight years older than Alfred, which puts paid to any theory that he left Theresa for a younger woman; Theresa was the same age as Constance.  Under her pseudonym, "George Fleming", Fletcher was a prolific writer, turning out such gems as The Head of Medusa (1880) and  A Nile Novel.

The more I find out about Constance, the more interesting a character she seems.  Much of her attraction, I would suggest, is the result of her unusual upbringing.  Her father, James Cooley Fletcher (1823-1901), was himself the son of a prominent Indiana citizen, the banker Calvin Fletcher.  Fletcher Junior moved in literary circles; he was a close friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and also knew Henry James.

In about 1850, James Fletcher married Henriette Malan, daughter of a Swiss clergyman.  He had met her in Europe, but spent some years working as a missionary in South America.  Being a Presbyterian minister did not prevent James from showing off, and in 1866 he constructed Hawkswood, a mock “castle” (in my opinion, suspiciously similar to the Addams Family house) on the banks of the River Merrimac.  By this time, however, Henriette had left him for Eugene Benson, a painter, and the couple had moved to Italy, taking with them Henriette’s two children by Fletcher, Constance and her brother Edward.  Constance eventually settled in Venice.

Her father continued his career, marrying twice more after his divorce from Henriette and enjoying a successful career as a diplomat as well as writing about his experiences in South America.

Constance herself had several dalliances, including one with Oscar Wilde, who, while still an studying at Oxford, dedicated his 1878 prize-winning poem "Ravenna" to "my friend George Fleming".  Her novel of the same year, Mirage, is semi-autobiographical, reflecting her experiences in Wilde’s company.  Henry James was one of her visitors in Venice; although a friend of her father, he was close enough in age to have been attracted to her.

A later novel, Andromeda, published in 1885, was secretly subsidised by none other than Alfred Sassoon, but the nature of his relationship with Fletcher at this point is unclear.  Siegfried was not yet born, and it seems Theresa did not find out about Alfred's infidelity until they took a holiday in Venice in 1888 and she actually met Fletcher - or perhaps not even then.  Alfred finally moved out of the family home in 1891, but did not move in with Fletcher, who had no shortage of other admirers.  He remained in Britain.

Gertrude Stein met Fletcher in Italy in 1911, long after Alfred's death, and one of Stein's least-known works, A Portrait of Constance Fletcher, was published in 1922.   Don't bother reading it if all you want is to find out more about Fletcher, because it contains no biographical data.  Only if you are a fan of Stein, or at least familiar with her style, is it likely to mean something to you.

I feel certain there are people reading this who know much more about Julia Constance Fletcher than I do - I have only scratched the surface, and have not even had the dedication to read any of her novels in the course of my brief research.  If anyone would like to fill us all in on her life in more detail, please feel free to do so in the Comments box!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

White Poppies

The other day, someone sold me a white poppy.  I was rather surprised, as I had not heard anything about them since the 1980s, when I was a member of CND.  Along with the poppy came a leaflet about its history, and along with that came thoughts of Siegfried Sassoon.  

The elderly gentleman who sold me the poppy is, as I knew, an ex-Communist - or possibly still a Communist.  I have to admire him for sticking to his principles in a time when it has become unfashionable to declare oneself a pacifist, as though to do so were somehow to negate the sacrifices made by British soldiers in continuing conflicts around the world.  At the time the white poppy first appeared on the streets, in 1934, it was difficult to imagine that the "war to end all wars" would not, at least, keep Britain out of any further wars for the foreseeable future.  Yet, only five years later, the cycle resumed.

The Peace Pledge Union was founded by a canon of St Paul's named Dick Sheppard.  Only a few years older than Sassoon, and himself an old Marlburian, Sheppard had been a chaplain in France during the First World War, but was sent home after suffering a breakdown.  A charismatic speaker despite his repeated bouts of ill-health, he began calling on the public to make a "pledge" of peace in 1934.  The PPU was formally established two years later, in the belief that the Nazi party in Germany could be appeased.  Sadly, Sheppard died the following year, and his legacy was quickly overwhelmed by a growing recognition of the dangers of Fascism.

The movement nevertheless attracted some big names, including the novelists Rose Macaulay and Vera Brittain, and acquaintances of Sassoon's such as Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley.  Its chair was the Labour politician George Lansbury, who continued in the job until his own death in 1940. Siegfried was personally recruited to the cause by Sheppard himself, who wrote to ask him to appear at a peace rally in the Royal Albert Hall in 1935.  Sassoon read some of his own poems at the meeting, and persuaded his friend Edmund Blunden to make a speech on the occasion.

Sassoon would not have taken much convincing.  In 1933 he had written to William Temple, then Archbishop of York, to protest at the Church's apparent support for a war against Germany.  To Ottoline Morrell, he wrote, " is as if the powers of darkness were winning."  The involvement of his wealthy cousin, Philip Sassoon, did not help.  By 1936, Siegfried had become so close to Sheppard that he invited him to officiate at the baptism of his long-awaited son, George.  He continued to appear on the PPU platform even after Sheppard's death, but the excesses of the Nazi regime were beginning to make him have second thoughts about his commitment to pacifism. Although he shared the views of many, that the failure to settle the First World War fairly had led to the situation in Germany, he had begun to change his mind after seeing a Fascist government in action during a visit to Italy in 1937.

Whilst admiring Chamberlain's efforts, Sassoon must have found himself in a quandary comparable with that of recent British governments trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan.  Fully aware of his Jewish roots, he could not have failed to understand that his life would have been in danger if he had been a German citizen.  When the inevitable came to pass, in September 1939, and Heytesbury House prepared to accept the first evacuees, he was resigned to it, but did not welcome it. To his old friend Blunden, he wrote "Edmund, I don't want to write anything about this war."

And indeed he mostly steered clear of the subject, yet it indirectly brought about a work that contains some of Sassoon's most memorable prose: The Weald of Youth.  "It was the war that did it, I think," he wrote to Max Beerbohm, referring to the fact that he had overcome a nasty case of writer's block in order to begin his second volume of autobiography (after a disappointing public response to The Old Century).  The book ends where Siegfried's career as a writer really began - with his decision to enlist on the outbreak of the First World War.  Once, he genuinely had believed that it was the war that would end all wars.