Friday, 25 September 2015

At the Hydro

Serendipity is perhaps not quite the word for it, but whenever I go on a “road trip”, I always seem to collide with some obscure fact about Siegfried Sassoon, some place where he has been or stayed or that is associated with one of his many friends and associates.  Sassoon himself was a great one for road trips.  He seems to have enjoyed travelling for the sake of it.  Thus, though he would usually make the journey specifically in order to visit a friend or see a specific sight, he would stop off en route to admire the countryside.  The list of hotels in the UK where he stayed for one or two nights is long, and I have often considered taking a little trip of my own to re-trace his steps.  Maybe when I retire…

At our recent Wrexham conference, a member suggested that we should consider holding a future event at the Longmynd Hotel in Church Stretton, where Siegfried spent a night in September 1924.  As it was on my way home, I called in the following morning to try to discover what might have appealed to him about this small town in Shropshire.  I could imagine that the centre of the town might not have changed that much since the 1920s, and old photographs would seem to confirm this.  Church Stretton still has many quaint old shops and buildings.  The hotel, which I finally located at the summit of a long and winding road, clearly dates from the early 20th century and was in fact built as a "Hydro".   In a previous blog post, I mistakenly said that the hotel where he stayed was no longer a hotel, but it is only the name that has changed.   In 1924, it still went by the name of the Hydropathic Hotel.  Siegfried's diary calls it simply "The Hotel".

Siegfried reached Church Stretton after driving from Ross-on-Wye, where he had spent the previous night. Earlier in the day he had been in Hereford listening to music at the cathedral, where he just missed Sir Adrian Boult. From there he went on to Ludlow.  At the famous 17th century Feathers Hotel, where he lunched, he found he had just missed Lady Ottoline Morrell. From Ludlow, it was a short journey of about 18 miles to Church Stretton, and he was there in time for tea.

He records in his diary that the hotel brought back bitter-sweet memories of happier times.  He had stayed there almost a decade earlier, when visiting the area with some companions from his regiment, the RWF. The diary claims that he cannot recollect whether one of these was David Thomas, or possibly Bobbie Hanmer.  At one time Siegfried felt tenderness towards Bobbie of the same sort he felt towards David, but it nevertheless seems odd that he would confuse the two.

There are several factors that may help to explain this episode of forgetfulness.  Siegfried had been mentally ill during the last stages of the First World War - not in the same way that Ivor Gurney (for example) was mentally ill, but nevertheless quite enough for it to have affected his memory.  His diary jogged his memory about a number of things, but perhaps he had never recorded the previous visit in writing.  In 1915 he had not long met "Tommy", the man who would become so important to him. As he comments, "Strange to think that on that day I knew so few of my present circle of friends."   On the surface, it seems more likely that it was indeed David Thomas who had been with him, rather than Bobbie Hanmer; he had been acquainted with the latter for longer, though more superficially, and one would think he would have remembered more clearly if he had been one of the party.  Of the two, however, it was David who was shipped out to France at the same time as Siegfried later in 1915, and who became much closer to him.  Could it be that David and Bobbie were both members of that earlier party?

Siegfried also records in his diary that he went for a walk up the hill after tea.  No doubt he went as far as the recently-erected war memorial towards the top of the hill, in the form of a Celtic cross, the sight of which would have opened up further sores, unpleasant memories from his military career.  On returning to the hotel, he had dinner, accompanied by half a bottle of German wine, and had a quiet evening alone.

From Church Stretton he would make an even shorter drive to his next stop, Shrewsbury, where he made a point of not visiting Wilfred Owen’s mother Susan.  He was feeling "unsociable" - a state not uncommon in Siegfried, despite the wide circle of friends he could boast.  That night he would bed down at the George Hotel in Lichfield, a city where I once spent a very pleasant literary weekend, courtesy of the Samuel Johnson Society.  Siegfried commented that "the Midlands feel friendly after the Welsh hills", a rather curious comment coming from a reserved Englishman.  Consistency was never his strong point.

Disappointingly, when I reached the entrance to the Longmynd Hotel, I found a notice on the door that pronounced, somewhat apologetically, that "The hotel is no longer open to non-residents".  I went inside anyway, and found no one in the reception area to tell me to get out, but there was nothing much to see.   Perhaps, like Siegfried, the present management were feeling unsociable.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Where two or three are gathered together...

The Wrexham conference has been in the planning for some time, so it was a great disappointment to me when I realised the numbers were way down on our last conference in Cardiff.  There seems to have been no single specific reason for this.  Some people found the location “remote”, yet we have plenty of members in the north-west, Wales and the Midlands who theoretically should have found it easier than travelling to the south-east or south-west.  For whatever reason, no new faces appeared, unless you count our two wonderful speakers, Charles Mundye and Jonathan Hicks, both of them established members of the Fellowship. 

A returning “old” face, if he’ll forgive me, is Graham Lampard, who was a member of the SSF committee for some years in the early history of the Fellowship and is now back on board, taking the place vacated by Phil Carradice.  So once more we have a full committee, standing to attention in the service of our members, ready to do battle with ignorance, apathy, and anything else that may stand in the way of our continued success as a literary society.

The venue, Wrexham Museum, is very convenient and well-appointed.  As luck would have it, they were putting on an exhibition about local breweries in the courtyard outside, which led to several members of the committee spending most of their lunch break sampling alcoholic beverages – including the famous Wrexham Lager, first brewed in 1881 by German immigrants, discontinued in 2000, and now available again as a result of the construction of a new factory in 2011.  The drink was popular enough to be stocked on board HMS Titanic in 1912.  Sad to say, during the First World War, the brewery’s German head brewer was interned as an enemy alien, and sales were adversely affected by anti-German prejudice.  I can’t help wondering whether Siegfried, with his German name, ever tried it.

The RWF was an incubator for a number of well-known First World War poets and writers, including Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones and Hedd Wyn.  You can read more about the regiment and its literary heritage in Phil Carradice’s blog post on the subject here:

Additional light was thrown on “that astonishing infantry” (to quote Napier’s History of the Peninsular War) by Jonathan Hicks’s account of the Welsh at Mametz Wood, an action in which Siegfried Sassoon was directly involved.  Jonathan’s gripping illustrated talk had the audience on the edge of its collective seat, particularly when he produced a few impressive props.  Charles Mundye, President of the Robert Graves Society, followed up with an account of the friendship formed between Graves and Sassoon when they met as junior officers in the RWF and how they briefly collaborated on Graves’ proposed collection entitled The Patchwork Flag, which was never published although some of the constituent poems were.  I subsequently came across Charles's podcast about Graves on the web, which is well worth listening to:

Graves undoubtedly influenced Sassoon in his poetic direction and helped him find his true “voice”, but he has never been popular with Sassoonites.  The two men fell out as a result of the publication of Graves’ war memoir Goodbye to All That in 1929; things were never the same between them after that, and Graves is regarded by some as an insensitive egotist as well as an unreliable witness.  When curator Karen Murdoch brought out her boxes of Sassoon-related papers after the tea break, however, conference delegates were able to view and handle historic documents, including letters by Graves himself, J C Dunn and Edmund Blunden, as well as officers’ handbooks issued to Sassoon, in some of which he had doodled, drawn sketches, or written additional comments in pencil.  No one minded that he'd had no emotional attachment to these books; the mere fact that they had been carried around in his pockets seemed to bring us closer to him.

After-dinner entertainment has become a tradition in recent years, and this year we were lucky to have as a guest another Oxford academic, the distinguished poet and writer Patrick McGuinness, who kindly read to us from his collection Other People’s Countries.  Lowering the tone somewhat, this year’s “producer”, our Vice-Chair Christian Major, rehearsed a small group of gentlemen in an extract from Goodbye to All That, featuring Bev Steele as the hapless Private 99 Davies, caught red-handed causing a “public nuisance” while off-duty in Wrexham.  Colonel Major dealt out justice with assistance from Sgt-Major Gray, Sergeant Timmins/Clinch and Corporal Jones/Lampard, as well as prisoner’s escort Adrian Wells, and the result was laughter.