Sunday, 31 May 2015

In Siegfried's Library

One of the most important rooms, if not the most important room, in Heytesbury House during Siegfried Sassoon's tenure was the Library.  Yesterday I, along with other members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, was lucky enough to be in that room - although it is no longer the library.  

After Siegfried's death, his son George lived in the house for a time before selling it.  Then began a period of neglect, when parts of the house were badly damaged by fire, and it was some years before it was habitable again.   When residents moved in who appreciated the house and its history, it was gradually restored to its former glory, but some things naturally changed, and another room is now used as the library, while the huge and interestingly-shaped room in which Siegfried kept his books now houses a snooker table.  The view of the gardens and grounds remains intact, and is possibly enhanced by not having the windows lined with bookshelves.

Interest in the printed book also continues at Heytesbury, which was a highlight for the bibliophiles among our members, several of whom own first editions and other curiosities about which they shared information during our tea.  We were supplied with drinks and a choice of cakes (not, of course, while handling books) while we chatted about the house.  We also listened to Dennis Silk's memorable Radio 4 programme - now, unbelievably, more than ten years old - which gave us a wonderful mental picture of what the house was like when Siegfried sat recording his poems on a reel-to-reel tape recorder while occasionally tapping out his pipe on the grate.

Successive owners of the apartment that contains the rooms where Siegfried spent most of his time have been very kind in allowing Sassoon enthusiasts entry from time to time.  Last time I visited, it was pouring with rain and we only ventured into the garden for a few moments to look at "Blunden's Beech".  On this occasion, the weather was kind, and we spent some time outside, looking at the changes made to the grounds over the decades since the poet died at his Georgian mansion in 1967. Most upsetting for Sassoon was the news that a new road, the A36, was to be constructed across part of his estate.  Although he did not live to see it as it is now, with the house cut off from the village by the highway, he would not have approved of this development any more than he would have liked seeing the modern houses that now take up a large section of the grounds.

I am sure he would have loved the garden, though.  Now that the house is divided into apartments, the individual residents have their own private areas as well as sharing the wider grounds, and the garden one sees from the library window contains statues, an ornamental pond, and a striking stone obelisk installed by previous owners.  There is still plenty of unspoilt greenery around too, with many mature trees as well as a weedy little cedar that has been planted in an unsuitable location and as yet refuses to thrive.  Perhaps one day it will be rival to its massive relation that grows close by.

As we passed up the drive towards the house, Diana Silk shared with us her memories of the walled garden and stables, both now converted for other uses.  After becoming engaged to, and subsequently marrying, Dennis, she spent many happy hours at Heytesbury House, sometimes with her children. Siegfried's own marriage, to Hester Gatty, with whom he moved into the house in 1934, did not last, but it is evident from some of the photographs we looked at that Siegfried and Hester did enjoy great happiness in their early years at Heytesbury.  Had that not been the case, why would Siegfried have remained there after the Second World War (in the course of which the house was also occupied, first by evacuees and later by American troops)? 

One of the attractions of the Heytesbury estate for Sassoon must have been the cricket pitch, now separated from the house by the road.  Siegfried played, or attempted to play, cricket into his seventies, and also made frequent visits to Downside Abbey, about 25 miles away, where he had joined the "Ravens" cricket team, recruiting his long-standing friend, the poet Edmund Blunden, as well as Dennis Silk (at one time captain of MCC), to play alongside him.

Visitors to Heytesbury House in the latter years who wrote down their memories of visits included Anthony Powell, Margaret Keynes, Muriel Galsworthy and Charles Causley.  Edmund Blunden, Siegfried's most enduring friend, was of course a visitor, and Dennis also recalls Hester returning from Scotland to see her estranged husband.  Dennis has often told us how Siegfried used to complain about "never seeing anyone" - whereas in fact the house welcomed regular visitors of all shapes and sizes.  The wheel has turned full circle, with the SSF now having members all around the world, all of whom would love to have had the experience a few of us were able to enjoy yesterday at Heytesbury.

Monday, 25 May 2015


As so often happens with this blog, several strands have come together in my mind (while I was gardening) and once again it leads around to war art.  Although this was initially prompted by the Perspectives programme on British TV the other night, in which Eddie Redmayne, currently flavour of the month because of his recent Oscar win, presented his thoughts on the topic, there have been other contributory factors.  I'll come to those later.

Redmayne, it turns out, is not without qualifications for his role as presenter, having studied art history at Cambridge.  Although he perhaps not as fluent a presenter as, say, Alistair Sooke, he is more eloquent than most, and the programme was consequently much better than I'd been expecting. The art does, of course, speak for itself to a certain extent.  You can admire and appreciate the work of Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, Stanley Spencer and David Bomberg (Redmayne's "favourite") without having a degree in art history.  Colour television certainly helps with that; perhaps it's ironic that the general public in 1914-1918 would not have had much opportunity to see some of these works in their full glory.
David Bomberg - "Sappers at Work"

Apart from the omission (again) of Isaac Rosenberg, who is presumably disregarded partly because he was a poet and has thus been pigeonholed to be dealt with in TV programmes about poetry, another war artist who rarely gets a mention is Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959).  A notable painter of horses, Munnings was the man who captured Major-General Jack Seely and his horse Warrior in oils, as I recently learned from Brough Scott's book Galloper Jack.  The painting is now in the National Gallery of Canada, in recognition of Seely's service as commander of the Canadian cavalry during the war, and Munnings seems to have had as hard a time as almost anyone, at times working a short matter of yards from the front line. 

Another of his paintings, Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron, depicts one of the last cavalry charges of the war, one which came to be regarded as a success and won Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew a posthumous VC.  Brough Scott's book, making a valiant effort to be unbiased in dealing with the exploits of his grandfather, Jack Seely, suggests that it achieved little and was less than critical to the final outcome of the war.  Munnings could not have captured the action "live", as a photographer might, but he did paint it the year it happened and personally knew the participants.  His skilled depiction of the horses' suffering may, however, be the key to the painting's success.  (Flowerdew, incidentally, was saddled with one of the same personal disadvantages in life as Siegfried Sassoon; his middle name was "Muriel".)

The other strand in my thinking about war art this week is the painting at the centre of the Danish drama series, 1864, a work which again strives for neutrality by depicting the Danes as the (albeit unwitting) aggressors in the Second Schleswig War.  I gather that it's about as historically accurate as The Tudors, but that's not really relevant to my subject.  In an English-language scene, James Fox as Lord Palmerston admits that "Only three men in Europe have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein Question: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it." 

The painting, which a rebellious present-day teenager finds in the attic of the mysterious old "Baron" for whom she is working as a carer, also appears in the opening credits of each episode.  Whether it is a real contemporary painting or a plot device created specifically for the series I have not yet discovered, but it sends the girl into a hallucinatory episode where she begins to notice the presence of other 19th century artefacts (a pistol, a sword) around the place, and becomes frightened by the idea of the war.  In other scenes it is suggested that the present generation has little comprehension of what it meant to fight, just like the two main characters, the brothers Peter and Laust, who go cheerfully off to soldier at the behest of the "Baron" of their own time.  (Naturally, one is put in mind of Sassoon's poem "Memorial Tablet".)

Although the early episodes don't fully illustrate the horrors that are no doubt coming to the two boys, the first scenes featuring the Baron's son returning as a war hero (in fact, his father has bribed officialdom to conceal the evidence of his cowardice) give us a pretty good idea of the potential psychological damage, as Baron junior begins a reign of terror over the estate workers.  He will, of course, have to go back, and he's not looking forward to it.  

I don't have a snappy conclusion to this blog.  I merely observe how visual depictions of war can combine with the written word to build up a picture that may or may not be accurate.  Say "the Western Front" and most people will immediately visualise desperate-looking, dirty, hungry men in trenches, closely followed by a desolate landscape of murdered trees.   Is that how it really was?

Friday, 15 May 2015

Poetry and Polymaths

I was listening to Classic FM the other day, when the name of Stephen Hough came up.  Hough is best known as a classical pianist, one of the world's most successful in that field.  However, radio presenters often mention the fact that Hough is a "polymath".  Without wishing to be condescending, I feel I should start with a definition of the term, which is not exactly in common use, partly because there are relatively few polymaths around.

Broadly speaking, a polymath is a person who is skilled or knowledgeable in a number of diverse subjects.  "Renaissance man" is another term often used for a person of this kind (for some reason, I never hear the phrase "Renaissance woman", though there were undoubtedly many women around during the Renaissance who fitted the bill).  Leonardo da Vinci is the most celebrated Renaissance man - not only an artist and philosopher, but a scientist and inventor.  Henry VIII is often mentioned in the same breath; Henry became king by an accident of birth, but he was also a sportsman, a musician and composer, a writer and a philosopher of sorts.

Stephen Hough's claim to be a polymath rests on his achievements as a teacher, writer, composer, painter and theologian.   On reading more about Hough, I discovered that he has an awful lot in common with Siegfried Sassoon.  He is, among other things, gay, a Catholic convert, and a poet.  That's leaving aside Hough's musical ability, and we know that Sassoon, despite his habitual self-deprecation, was no mean pianist.  Hough, not surprisingly, has a blog, in which he doubtless displays greater erudition than I am capable of.  Sassoon, were he alive now, would certainly be blogging as well as, or instead of, keeping a written diary.

I have never heard Siegfried Sassoon described as a Renaissance man, but I thought it would be interesting to examine his claims to the title of polymath.  For a start, he was an all-round sportsman - a rider, a cricketer, a golfer.  Sport isn't an area we tend to think of as "knowledge" but it unquestionably involves skill and tactics as well as physical prowess.  He was also an effective soldier who, although often impetuous, showed outstanding leadership qualities.  He received the kind of education we tend to associate with the Renaissance.  In his case, he excelled in the arts, being a talented sketcher and painter as well as a musician, but of course it was in literature that his main interest lay, and that from his earliest years.  

Children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, if they were fortunate enough to be in full-time education, had greater intellectual expectations thrust on them than we tend to burden the present generation of youngsters with.  Sassoon was reading Thomas Hardy's novels at an age where most modern teenagers would have difficulty following the basic plot, let alone appreciating the language or understanding the message.  The children's literature of the time, though often powerful and imaginative (Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame spring immediately to mind), was mostly designed to please parents rather than to entertain children.

It was in this cultural environment that Siegfried Sassoon grew up and received his schooling. Although he did not do particularly well at school, and dropped out of university, it is worth examining what he did learn, formally and informally, and how it affected his writing.  Several speakers at our conferences and other events have referred to the classical education received by public schoolboys of the period, and have demonstrated how this spilled over into the poetry of the First World War.  Siegfried benefited from that classical education, although he led a relatively sheltered life in rural Kent and was not widely-travelled before his military service.  His lively and enquiring mind caused him to start collecting books, attempting to extract the maximum value from each one. It is true that in some cases the binding appealed to him as much as the content, but perhaps that was just one more aspect of his varied interests.

When it came to war poetry, however, Sassoon was closer to some of the less well-educated poets than to other Oxbridge-educated Renaissance men such as Edward Thomas and Rupert Brooke.  He found his niche in the literary world when he began to write poems that appealed to the general public and didn't require access to a classical dictionary in order to understand the references.  So, whilst he can hardly be denied the title of "thinker", he demanded little of his audience.  Reading one of Sassoon's short satirical war poems is almost like listening to a joke and appreciating the punchline.

Now that I come to think about it, I've often noticed how many of today's most popular comedians are well-educated.  Oxbridge graduates include Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, Al Murray and David Baddiel, Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins.  Most of these could also lay claim to the title of "satirist".  The genre of satire was forged in the classical world of Greece and Rome, among people who were equally well-educated with an equally wide field of interests and skills.

I don't think any of us needs to worry about not being a polymath.  If it wasn't relatively unusual, they wouldn't need such an obscure word for it.  At the same time, I don't think there can be much doubt that Siegfried Sassoon qualifies, and it is the secret of the broadness of his appeal.  He could talk to the troops under his command as comfortably as he could to a Cabinet minister and he wrote for the man in the street as much as he did for his friends.  Many of us have a wide range of interests without necessarily having an in-depth knowledge of any one subject, and perhaps this is why Sassoon speaks to us as individuals; one reader may appreciate him as a sportsman, another may admire his political ideals, still others will simply love the way he uses language in his poetry and prose.  Yet perhaps the most appealing thing about this (sometimes rather vain) man is his humility, his ability to look back on his past self as naive and crass, and his apparent lack of any sense of merit on his own part for any of his very real achievements.  

A few years ago the SSF committee gave Dennis Silk, our President, a surprise gift of a set of cufflinks engraved with the logo of the Fellowship (an artist's impression of Sassoon's famous monogram). Afterwards, Dennis remarked that Siegfried would have been disbelieving.  "They gave you this?!" he would have said.  The implication was that "Sig" - as Dennis remembers him - would have been astounded to think that a whole society had grown up in his honour, and that Dennis had been rewarded for being a living reminder of the polymath that was Siegfried Sassoon.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Where All Roads Lead

Apologies for my lengthy absence from the blog page, which was due mainly to my recent holiday abroad.  As most of my friends will know, I went to Rome, a city whose name has a dual meaning in the context of Siegfried Sassoon's life.  I found it tourist-ridden and dirty, much less pleasant than the Rome I last explored in 1978, but probably much closer to the way it was in the first century AD when the Empire was at its height and ox-carts jostled slaves carrying litters in the narrow streets.

It didn't make much of an impression on Sassoon the first time he visited, in 1921, either.  He was desperate, in search of inspiration for some new work, but found nothing in Rome to inspire him. War poetry was old hat, but was the thing that had given Sassoon his impetus to write great poetry.  His Canadian friend, "Toronto" Prewett, suggested the trip to Rome, but, once there, Siegfried found himself distracted by "sex-cravings".  He claimed that "I am not interested in the Roman Empire, or the Renaissance, or Baroque effects".  Perhaps the vestiges of Imperial Rome reminded him too much of the rivalry between Britain and Germany as to who could build the biggest empire.

Prewett's sudden illness forced Sassoon into contact with the only other person he knew in Rome, Lord Berners (a former paying guest of Nellie Burton at Half Moon Street).  Berners introduced him to the charming young Prince Philipp of Hesse, and their relationship brought Sassoon great happiness in the days that followed.  So much so that, in a subsequent letter to Philipp, he seems to have forgotten his initial dislike of Rome, looking back fondly on the city, "with all its beauty, the murmuring of fountains...and all that happiness".  Only thirty years later would Rome begin to have a different meaning for him.

Barbara Pym often writes, in those comic novels I love, of characters who have "gone over to Rome" and are thereafter discussed, in hushed tones, as having done something slightly disgraceful.  She was writing in the 1950s, the period when Siegfried was considering his own religious principles.  There was something of a surge going on at the time, Sassoon being one of several high-profile converts; others included the actor Alec Guinness.  He was also, of course, following in the footsteps of the great Ronald Knox, whom he hoped to persuade to be his instructor in the Catholic faith; Knox was too ill, and the mantle fell on the shoulders of Dom Sebastian Moore, who died last year and about whom I've written previously.

I do not think that the city of Rome, or any happy memories he might have had of it (he remained friendly with Philipp despite the failure of their relationship), had any role to play in Siegfried's conversion, which resulted largely from a mystical experience in which the figure of a nun, whom he later recognised as Mother Margaret Mary McFarlin, led him to the Roman Catholic Church. Concerned about the possible reaction from his friends, he was eager to tell Glen Byam Shaw and Dennis Silk about his decision on his next visit to Stratford (actually at the Welcombe Hotel which we visited on SSF conference weekend 2011).  He was particularly worried that Dennis, as a clergyman's son, would be shocked; Dennis, though surprised, was perfectly accepting, as were most of Sassoon's other friends.

Not long after Siegfried's reception into the Catholic Church, Pope John XXIII replaced Pius XII in the Holy See.  From what I understand, Pius, though he became an outspoken critic of Fascism, was not particularly progressive in his views either.  John XXIII was a complete contrast, the architect of "Vatican II" and a committed peacemaker and international statesman who was canonized in 2014, along with the late Pope John Paul II.  It is noticeable that John XXIII and John Paul II are both now the subject of considerable adulation among visitors to St Peter's, and the atmosphere around that district of Rome has changed since I visited during the last days of the papacy of the somewhat reserved Pope Paul VI.  I put this down partly to the recent canonizations, but also to the popularity of the current Pope, Francis, whose appeal seems to be based on the simplicity and humility of his approach.  He is, I think, someone of whom Siegfried would have approved.