Friday, 17 April 2015

Election Fever

The present UK government is not the first coalition to have run the country, nor is it the first time that Conservatives and Liberals have been in alliance.  The 1922 general election was the British public’s opportunity to pronounce the verdict on the coalition government led by David Lloyd George, the “Welsh Wizard” (ironically born in Manchester), which had seen Britain through most of the war.

It was the second general election in which British women were able to vote (the first having been in December 1918) but suffrage was still far from universal.  Even men had not all been given the vote until the end of the First World War.  Not until 1928 would women be allowed to vote on the same terms as men.

The Liberals were divided, however, between those who supported the coalition government - the so-called "National Liberals", led by Lloyd George, and those who did not, led by Herbert Asquith.  Even put together, they did not secure enough seats in the election to rival either the Conservatives or Labour (at that time led by J R Clynes, a former mill worker who helped the party almost treble its number of seats in Parliament).

Minority parties that won seats included the Scottish Prohibition Party (in Dundee), and the Communist Party, who won two seats.  The new MP for Motherwell was Walton Newbold, a Lancashire pacifist who had previously stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate.    His party colleague who won the seat at Battersea North was Shapurji Saklatvala, the third ethnic Indian to be elected to the British Parliament.  Other new MPs elected included such famous names as Clement Attlee (also a minor war poet), Sidney Webb and Manny Shinwell.

One prospective Labour candidate who ended up not running in the election was Siegfried Sassoon’s friend and mentor, W H R Rivers, who had agreed to stand because “the times are so ominous, the outlook for our own country and the world so black, that if others think I can be of service in political life, I cannot refuse”.  In June 1922, Rivers died suddenly of a strangulated hernia, a loss that bowled Sassoon over.   To say he was in despair would be inaccurate, as he wrote of his eternal gratitude to Rivers, describing his late hero's "glory of selfless wisdom and human service".

Sassoon liked to think of himself as a Socialist and had, under Rivers' influence, briefly considered a parliamentary career of his own.  Without Rivers to guide him, any such thoughts vanished. Rivers was replaced as Labour candidate for the University of London by none other than H G Wells, who, despite his fame (he had been nominated for Nobel Prize in the previous year), was unable to break the Conservatives’ hold on the seat and finished third behind the Liberals.  

What did Rivers mean about the outlook being black?  The British Empire was at its zenith, governing one in four of the world’s population, but there were many concerns about the situation in Ireland, where the Irish Free State was in the process of being established; the Irish held their own general election the same month that Rivers died.  Unionism was the political refuge of many who were anxious about what this meant (times have not changed all that much, it seems).  In London, less than three weeks after Rivers’ death, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, a veteran of several wars and a prominent opponent of the settlement, was assassinated by the IRA at his home in Belgravia.  Lloyd George’s government had been unstable for some time.

Perhaps the main reason for Rivers' comment was the industrial unrest which had gone on throughout the previous year and which had caused Sassoon to make his trip to Merthyr to cover the miners' strike; his sympathies were entirely with the working classes.  The situation would not get much better in the coming years, and would culminate in the General Strike of 1926.   

The split between the Conservatives and Liberals had been largely brought about by a speech made by Conservative leader, Canadian-born Andrew Bonar Law; this was what had forced Lloyd George's resignation.  Tragically, 65-year-old Law was diagnosed with throat cancer and forced to resign as Prime Minister early in 1923.  He died less than a year after the general election.

Lawrence wrote to commiserate with one unsuccessful candidate, a man also known to Sassoon – Winston Churchill.  Churchill, who had been MP for Dundee since 1908, was taken ill with appendicitis during the election campaign, and lost his seat to the Prohibitionist MP Edwin Scrymgeour, a local man who had opposed Churchill at every election and would remain a Dundee MP for nine years.  Churchill was without a seat in Parliament until 1924, but subsequently re-joined the Conservatives, saying, with characteristic wit, "anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat".

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Madame Suggia and her Cello

I was reading an article about Northumberland recently.  It's a region of Britain I particularly love (if you haven't been there yet, do), and one of the best places to visit is Lindisfarne.  It's not just for the ancient Celtic monastery - though of course that is of interest.  It's not even for the seabirds or the white sand beaches or the fresh crab sandwiches.

No, my favourite thing is the castle.  It's a dinky little thing on the top of a rock, although as you walk along the foreshore towards it, it looks enormous.  From 1901 until 1921, it was the home of the publisher Edward Hudson, who employed none other than Sir Edwin Lutyens (later to be the architect of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the Thiepval memorial in France, and many other war cemeteries and memorials) to refurbish what had originally been a 16th century fortification.  The result was a pleasant country house.  Hudson even got Gertrude Jekyll to create a walled garden nearby.

It was thus that Siegfried Sassoon found it when he visited the castle in September 1918, in the company of his Canadian friend and fellow poet, Frank "Toronto" Prewett.  Their purpose was to visit the publisher William Heinemann, who had been staying with Hudson and had invited them to call while they were in the area; Sassoon at the time was based at Lennel House, Coldstream, on the Scottish borders, where he was convalescing from the wound that had put him out of the war.  (This was where he was staying when he received his last letter from Wilfred Owen.)

On arrival at Lindisfarne Castle, they found that they Heinemann and Hudson were both absent, having been forced to return to London on business, and the only person there to greet them was the famous cellist, Madame Suggia.  It seems to have been the first time they had met in person, though Sassoon, being a music lover and regular concert-goer, was quite familiar with her reputation.

Guilhermina Suggia, born in Portugal in 1885 and thus almost the same age as Sassoon, was already internationally known.  She had recently broken with her partner, another equally famous cellist, Pablo Casals.  She found Britain a welcoming place where she was not being constantly compared with Casals in terms of her talent.

She and Siegfried had much in common besides their age.  They shared a concern about the place of art, music and literature in the context of the ongoing conflict that, at the time, had no end in sight. Sassoon's wide interest in the arts drew him to composers (such as William Walton) and musicians, and he expresses his despair in the poem "Dead Musicians", included in his 1918 collection, Counter-Attack.

Whatever he may have made of the flamboyant Madame Suggia herself, the occasion was one he would treasure in his memory.  In Siegfried's Journey, he writes how they listened to her play "in the reverberant chamber of a lonely and historic castle - her 'cello's eloquence accompanied only by the beat and wash and murmur of waves breaking against the rocks below the windows".  He felt he had "arrived at the end of a pilgrimage, to find peace and absolution in an hour of incomparable music", which took him out of his general wartime mood of depression.

He sent Suggia a copy of Counter-Attack.  In return for the gift, she wrote from the castle to say that his poems were "the finest thing I read for a long time".  The original letter, dated 25 September 1918, is in the Sassoon archive at Cambridge University Library.  Evidently he kept it and treasured it as he did the memory of that wonderful afternoon at Lindisfarne.