Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Game of Statues

There was a bit of a fuss recently about a statue.  Not the first such fuss, of course.  Most of us can recall incidents of a similar nature.  Usually the controversy is about one of two things: either people don't like the statue itself, or they don't like the subject of the statue.

The row I have just heard about is over a statue of Cecil Rhodes.  I think most people in Britain today - and of course in South Africa - are of the opinion that he really wasn't a very nice man.  He may have left a fortune that now enables overseas scholars to come and study at Oxford University (former US president Bill Clinton being possibly the best-known beneficiary), but that doesn't make up for his treatment of the native people in South Africa and what is now Zimbabwe, whom he drove from their lands to further his own business interests.  In human terms, his belief in his own racial superiority was on a par with Hitler's.

We all recognise that Rhodes was a product of his time.  The question is, does his generous bequest to educational funding make up for his unpleasant politics?  Initially, Rhodes Scholarships were reserved for white males; only in the last decade of the twentieth century did they become truly inclusive.  The first protests by students against commemoration of Cecil Rhodes took place when the "Rhodes Must Fall" movement was created in 2014 to seek the removal of a statue erected at the University of Cape Town in 1934.  The movement spread to Oxford where, late last year, the Oriel College authorities were urged to remove a bronze statue of Rhodes from the faรงade of the Rhodes Building which fronts onto the High Street. They have declined to do so (perhaps hoping that rebellious undergraduates might do the job for them?)

In a public statement, Oriel College said that they would ensure that "acknowledgement of the historical fact of Rhodes's bequest to the College does not suggest celebration of his unacceptable views and actions".  That is as far as they are prepared to go and, for the most part, commentators seem to consider their decision to be the right one.  The great Michael Wood, whose BBC History column is always worth reading, suggests that a statue of an African leader might be put alongside that of Rhodes, to balance things out.

I'm not sure about it.  I was an undergraduate at Oxford for three years and have visited the city many times since.  I must have walked past Rhodes' statue hundreds of times without ever noticing it was there.  So what would be so terrible about removing it?  As yet, I haven't succeeding in finding out the identity of the sculptor, but it doesn't appear to be a great work of art.
Hamo Sassoon's statue of Rhodes in Kimberley

I would feel differently, though, if it turned out that the sculptor was, for example, Sir Hamo Thornycroft, Siegfried Sassoon's uncle, or one of Siegfried's grandparents.  On checking my facts, I discovered that Hamo did indeed create a statue of Cecil Rhodes - an equestrian statue at Kimberley in South Africa, unveiled in 1907.  An early study is held by the Tate Gallery.  Would I want this statue taken down?  No, not really.  (Luckily, the "Rhodes Must Fall" campaigners don't yet seem to have their eye on it.) Would I object if all such statues of Rhodes were removed from their pedestals and placed in museums where their context could be more clearly shown?  No, I wouldn't.  But I wonder, which museum would want them?

Friday, 26 February 2016

Johnny Conchie

When I was perhaps about twelve, I tried to describe to my grandmother a man I kept seeing in her street, who always smiled and said hello to me.  "Oh, that's Johnny Conchie," she eventually said, and laughed.  She told me that it wasn't his real name, but his nickname, because he had been a conscientious objector during the war.  I was old enough to understand that she meant the First World War, but I had never heard of a conscientious objector before.  It was explained to me that he had refused to fight during the war, "because he thought it was wrong".

So, in the mid-1960s, a man in his seventies was known by a nickname he had picked up about fifty years earlier.  My grandparents knew him well and appeared to think nothing of this.  They clearly felt no resentment against him for it.  

Perhaps they were not a typical family.  My grandfather just missed the Western Front, after sitting for several hours on a train in Pembrokeshire only to be returned to his training barracks because the Armistice was about to be signed. His four brothers were too young to be called up; his father was too old.  My grandmother's older brothers were the right age, but chose the navy and survived. So perhaps, unlike some, they had nothing to resent Johnny Conchie for.

The motives for Johnny Conchie's action, or inaction if you prefer, were never known to me.  Being from an industrial town in South Wales, he could well have been a socialist, or very religious, or both.  My family even seemed unsure what the punishment for his rebellion against authority had been; there was a vague idea that he had been to prison.

Contrary to the classification many give him, Siegfried Sassoon was not a conscientious objector, or at least not in the usual sense. He went willingly to war in 1914 and willingly back to war in 1917. Between those times, he did indeed suffer a crisis of conscience, but it was not caused by a religious experience, nor - I think - by a specific experience of any kind; it was more a reflection of the mental anguish brought about by the sight of so much human suffering and the deaths of so many of his friends and comrades.  Who could have blamed him if he had lost touch with reality as a result of such an environment?

Yet Siegfried, though suffering from hallucinations and having difficulty with civilian life, had not lost touch with his sense of what mattered.  It was being away from the war, in the comfort of convalescent accommodation, that enabled him to look more dispassionately at his situation and realise that, in order to be true to his dead comrades, he had to be true to himself.  I have always argued, and will continue to argue, that he acted of his own accord, that he was not bamboozled by the cleverness of Bertrand Russell or anyone else into doing their political dirty work for them. Seeing that Sassoon was desperate to do something constructive to help other soldiers, they showed him some possibilities that he might not have come up with by himself.  Although, after a few months in "Dottyville", he may have felt as though it had all been a waste of time, he never blamed others for encouraging him to make his protest.

It is true that Sassoon, had he merely been deemed a traitor rather than being branded as mentally ill, might have come before a court-martial and been shot if convicted, but that was never a likely outcome for one who had already served with distinction at the Western Front. In the First World War, the real conscientious objectors suffered punishments that were mostly less severe than those that could be imposed by a court-martial - which may be considered ironic.  If their consciences allowed them, they might be able to take up a non-combatant role, such as stretcher-bearer or transport duties. Some of the hard-liners, like the "Richmond Sixteen", had their death sentences commuted to penal servitude and did not complete their sentences until after the war.  Altogether, about eighty conscientious objectors died in the course of their imprisonment, in some cases because of their harsh treatment.

Deserters, on the other hand, or any serviceman convicted of cowardice, could be executed.  It was important, the authorities felt, to make an example of them, but the death sentence was carried out in only 10% of cases - around 300 men in all during the First World War.  That is another story, for another time.

Thursday, 11 February 2016


A recent enquiry came out of the blue, asking who was the friend referred to by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem "Together". I have to confess that I did not know the answer, though the wording of the poem suggested one of Siegfried’s hunting friends. The enquiry was passed on to more knowledgeable souls, who told me that the answer was probably Stephen Gordon Harbord, portrayed in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man under the name of Stephen Colwood. Those of you who came on the 2014 WFA Poetry tour may recall visiting Harbord’s grave at Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery near Ypres; he was killed in 1917.

Unlike his alter ego, Stephen Colwood, Gordon Harbord was not a schoolmate of Siegfried’s.  He went to Winchester, while Sassoon was at Marlborough; they first met around 1908. Harbord’s elder brother, Kenneth, four years Gordon’s senior, was a contemporary of Sassoon’s at Marlborough.  Kenneth went into the Royal Flying Corps and was one of the many servicemen who convalesced at Highclere Castle, “the real Downton Abbey”, under the patronage of Lady Almina Herbert.  (Since the surname “Harbord” is believed to have originated as a corruption of “Herbert”, this gives rise to further interesting possibilities.)

Almina’s husband, the Earl of Carnarvon (the very same treasure-hunter who later died of “Tutankhamen’s Curse”), became friendly with Kenneth during his convalescence, through their shared interest in flying machines.  Another of Gordon's brothers was Arthur Macdonald Harbord, who rose to the rank of major and married a daughter of Lord Louth, whilst Kenneth married a daughter of Sir William Goulding, Bt.

Colwood Park in Bolney, West Sussex, was the Harbords’ family home, hence Siegfried’s choice of this fictional surname for his late friend.  Like Stephen Colwood's father, Harbord senior was a clergyman, the Rev Harry Harbord, rector of East Hoathly.  I have been unable to establish any link between Gordon’s father and Australia’s legendary “bush poet”, Harry Harbord “Breaker” Morant; in the latter case, Harbord appears to have been an assumed name, possibly indicating an illegitimate line of descent – but I somehow doubt that the Harbords of Colwood Park were involved, and Morant seems to have been born in Devon.  The Rev Harbord was a follower of the Southdown Hunt, hence his acquaintance with the horse and hound loving Sassoon.  Gordon was a graduate and had ambitions to become an engineer. The firm friendship that grew between him and Siegfried was likened by the latter to a fraternal relationship; at times Siegfried felt closer to him than to his own brothers. Thus the death of the fictional Stephen Colwood would stand in place of the death of Siegfried's brother Hamo, George Sherston being an only child.

Gordon Harbord was in the Royal Field Artillery, which might initially sound safer than the trenches but in fact was equally dangerous as the enemy would naturally try to take out the guns and their crews and commanders who were doing all the damage to their forces.  Gordon was killed on 14 August 1917 while supervising the removal of guns from one position to another, in preparation for an assault on Passchendaele Ridge.  Not long before, he had won the Military Cross and been promoted to Captain.

Gordon's younger brother Geoffrey, who was also a friend of Siegfried's, had read the poems in "Counter-Attack" and written that he pitied Siegfried because he clearly felt the "horrors and bloodiness of it all more than I do".  Yet shortly before Gordon's death, Geoffrey (who was also in the Artillery), wrote to say how worried he was about Gordon because of his posting to Ypres, and commented that he wished to God it were all over. A few weeks later, after Gordon's death, he wrote that "you were easily his best friend".    

It seems to me that we don't pay enough attention to Siegfried's friendship with Gordon Harbord, possibly because it was a friendship formed through sporting activities and thus seems somehow less important than the more cerebral friendships with Graves, Owen, Hardy and the like.  However, Siegfried was fond enough of Gordon to write at least three poems about him, one being among my favourites.  "Idyll" is not a war poem, but Siegfried produced it in early 1918, while stationed in Ireland.  In 2014, a version in his own handwriting was sold at Bonham's auction rooms for £1,875. I wonder who bought it?

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Has the British Museum lost its charm?

Ira Gershwin was only joking when he wrote the lyrics for “A Foggy Day in London Town” in 1937.  The Clean Air Act of 1956 gradually got rid of most of the pea-soup fogs but, thankfully, the museum remains.  Does it, however, retain its charm?  After a visit to The Celts exhibition (which ran until the end of January), I was somewhat disenchanted. 

I’ve been to several major exhibitions at the museum in recent years and had the same experience each time: missing some of the exhibits because of the random layout and having to wait ages to see the most popular ones because there is no control or even advice on how to approach them.  Some people come from the left, others from the right, still more from behind.  If you are British (i.e. not pushy) and short, you don’t have much chance of getting there within a reasonable time.  And some people are very slow readers…

“The Celts” was a particularly disappointing exhibition, beginning with the false premise that there is no connection whatsoever between the Celtic fringes of Britain and France and the “keltoi” identified by the ancient Greeks.  The curators seem to think that the Celts in Wales and the rest of mainland Britain did not convert to Christianity until the Romans had left and stopped imposing Christianity on them, which would be an extremely odd thing for them to have done at that point.  A disproportionate amount of space and attention is given to the Celtic revival – presumably because they ran out of prehistoric exhibits - with little explanation of the development and meaning of modern traditions; druidry, apparently, is a completely new invention; no mention, as far as I could see, of Suetonius Paulinus's campaign to root them out of Anglesey.

In case you haven't guessed by now, this is just a personal rant. If you are wondering what the exhibition has to do with Sassoon, any connections are very tenuous.  Let’s start with the BM itself.  It was founded in 1753.  It is a 15-minute walk from Raymond Buildings, Siegfried’s first London lodgings, and he certainly visited it.  In 1933 he even gave the museum £100 to assist in the purchase of some manuscripts of Wilfred Owen’s work.  The British Library was of course part of the museum then; in fact, the present exhibition area is located in the famous former reading room, once a gathering-place for the likes of Shaw, Wilde and Lenin.

Between 1950 and 1959, the Director of the BM was Sir Thomas Kendrick, whose daughter Frances was a close friend of the novelist Barbara Pym (regular readers of this blog, if there are any, will know of my interest in Pym).  Only recently did researches into the Pym archive reveal that Barbara herself had a long-running personal relationship with Sir Thomas, the exact nature of which remains unknown.  Sir Thomas Kendrick had served in the First World War, in the course of which he attained the rank of captain.   Unknown to me when I started writing this, his published works included a book on the history of Druidism.  Another of his interests was Victorian art, and his notable collaborators in this field included the poet John Betjeman, who was too young to have served in the first war but famously spied for the British government when working in Dublin during the Second World War.  Unlike the rampantly heterosexual Kendrick, Betjeman is believed to have had homosexual tendencies although, like Siegfried, he was attracted to members of the opposite sex, was married and had children.  

Whether Siegfried ever met Thomas Kendrick I have no idea, but he certainly knew Betjeman. The latter favourably reviewed Sassoon’s one full-length foray into biography, Meredith. The Cambridge Sassoon archive contains a letter Betjeman wrote him in 1957, after news of his conversion to Catholicism became public.  When the two men met at Alan Lascelles’ house in 1960, Betjeman declared, “I am nothing. You are a great poet.”

What about Sassoon’s Celtic connections? Are there any? Admittedly we are on slightly shakier ground with this. One cannot really count his association with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. However, in view of the concentration on the Celtic "revival" in the exhibition, it seems fair to mention W B Yeats, whom Sassoon knew well from visits to Garsington. Yeats was one of the prime movers in the revival also known as the “Celtic Twilight” movement, which thrived in the late 19thand early 20th century and in which Wilfred Owen also dabbled. Edinburgh, at the time Sassoon and Owen resided there, was a hotbed of the revival, led by figures like Patrick Geddes (whose son Alasdair was killed in action in 1917) and the artist Anna Traquair, whose work can be seen all over the city.

We are drawing further away from my ostensible subject and I have obviously run out of useful things to say.  But who knows what unexpected connections may turn up at some future date?