Thursday, 24 November 2016

Siegfried's Strangest Journey

The eyes of the world have been firmly focused on the United States in the past few weeks. Now it is all over bar the shouting, as they say – or maybe the real shouting is only just beginning. Whatever happens, I am not going to make any comment on the result of the presidential election. Anyone who knows me will be able to guess what I think and anyone who doesn’t should not care what I think.
Google on "Sassoon in America" and you will get the locations of all Vidal Sassoon's hairdressing salons in the USA, rather than the locations of the Siegfried Sassoon archives in places like Texas and New York. But American scholars value these literary treasures as much as we do, and Sassoon's work has received as many plaudits across the pond as it has in his homeland.
However hard I try, I find it difficult to imagine Siegfried Sassoon touring the USA – as of course he did for six months in 1920, on a tide of popularity resulting from the publication of his war poems there towards the end of hostilities. Americans had purchased over 2,000 copies and some of the reviews had been ecstatic. Siegfried recognised that he owed much of this to John Masefield and Robert Nichols, both of whom had gone before him and more than adequately prepared the way.
In Siegfried’s Journey, published in 1945, Sassoon writes extensively about his experiences but it always seems to me that he gives little away about his true feelings. George Simmers refers to it, in his understated way, as "an unsatisfactory book", and I fear I cannot really disagree with him on that. One can almost glean more by reading articles written about him by American journalists during the period, or the parody of an interview he produced. The hilarious "A Poet as He Really is" was published in Vanity Fair in 1920; he himself called it "deplorably facetious". Dr Mhairi Pooler focused on this article when she spoke to us about Siegfried's self-image at our 2010 conference.
Sassoon used his diaries as the source material for almost all the prose works published in his lifetime and it is not difficult to tell that he had one eye on eventual publication. Pages were sometimes torn out - we must assume because they contained indiscreet comments or possibly accounts of sexual activity. He stops short of pouring out his heart and soul. Instead we get a picture of a diffident, anxious man who at first found the idea of going on a lecture tour in the USA almost laughable. After participating in a reading at the Poetry Bookshop, he took elocution lessons to improve his delivery (at the Albert Hall, no less).
He arrived in New York in late January, to find the streets deep in snow and himself put up by the agency in budget accommodation (or what Siegfried always called "depressing"); newspaper journalists arrived before his luggage did. The interviewers were at least sympathetic about the toothache from which he'd been suffering. But he soon discovered that bookings were few and far between and he might not receive the remuneration he had been counting on. He was obliged to do most of his own marketing (an situation familiar to many authors, but self-promotion did not come naturally to Sassoon).
At Bryn Mawr College, an appreciative audience of young ladies listened to Sassoon read some of his best-known poems, but not everyone cared for his anti-war stance. The critic John Jay Chapman, an acquaintance of Robert Nichols, was initially summed up in Siegfried's diary entry as "rather a nice old thing", but this would prove less accurate when Chapman called him "brain-sick", and climbed onto the platform after an appearance at the Cosmopolitan Club at which Mrs Chapman had introduced Sassoon to the audience, to rail against his pacifist views in no uncertain fashion. This anxious moment was made worse by the fact that Chapman had lost a hand and instead wore a hook, which he proceeded to brandish threateningly at Sassoon. Understating the situation as usual, Siegfried writes "Poor Mrs Chapman and I sat there not knowing which way to look".
Chapman, a larger-than-life character, was old enough to be Siegfried's father, and had, in fact, lost a son to the war. Rather than turning him against military conflict, it made him an outspoken supporter of the war, who took Sassoon to task for his 1917 protest as well as for his poetry. By a weird coincidence, Chapman had earned the nickname of "Mad Jack" while at university, inviting comparison with the former officer who had been known for his daring trench raids in 1916. The day after the incident, Chapman wrote to Sassoon with a near-apology: "I suppose the universe will not be wrecked by you or by my trying to stop you", at the same time advising him to "get out of the way of people who want to exploit you", by which he meant anyone with pro-German sympathies.
Siegfried Sassoon returned to the UK in April  1920, moderately unimpressed, especially by what he called "high-class hospitalities", seen off only by his new friend Sam Behrman (author, among other things, of the screenplay for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Quo Vadis). Twenty-five years later, he wrote: "I find some difficulty in believing that it was really me who went to Chicago all by himself... I go nowhere now, from one year's end to another..."
In addition to Mhairi Pooler's article in the Winter 2010 edition of Siegfried's Journal, transcripts of some of the press articles covering Sassoon's appearances in America can be found in David Gray's on-line Sassoon bibliography here:
http://siegfried-sassoon.firstworldwarrelics.co.uk/html/america.html


Sunday, 6 November 2016

What can we learn from the poppy?

It’s November, the month of remembrance, and as usual an SSF representative will place flowers on the grave of Siegfried Sassoon at Mells. Real flowers, not poppies, though people often do place artificial poppies at this spot.

I bought a poppy last weekend and decided to try the stick-on variety because the pin-on ones have a habit of falling apart.  I lost it a few yards from the British Legion stall. Picking it up off the road, I took it back and a very kind gentleman decided to replace it with two poppies, one of each type. The sticky one fell off before I got back to my car and this time I couldn’t find it. The pin-on one lasted a few more days but then disappeared of its own accord and all I could find was the pin. You would think someone could have come up with a better design after all these years.

I suppose there is method in their madness. You don’t want people continuing to use the poppy from the year before rather than buying a new one, do you? Comic Relief get around the problem by redesigning their red noses every time. On the other hand, that could lead to having surplus stocks of last year’s design left over, another waste of funds. 

What is more intriguing is the sheer endurance of the poppy as an emblem. It has lasted nearly a hundred years now, having first been adopted by the British Legion in 1921. Although several million were made for fund-raising purposes (and they weren't plastic then), they were selling out so fast every year that the Scots had to open their own factory in 1926 to ensure they got their fair share, with Lady Haig - wife of the much-reviled senior commander Douglas Haig - as its patron. It is still running, making approximately five million poppies a year along with other commemorative items such as wreaths, crosses and corsages.

The SSF has laid a few poppy wreaths over the years as well - notably on the grave of Siegfried's great friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, at Fricourt, a visit that can be either very pleasant or very challenging, depending on the mud.

A forerunner of the Poppy Appeal was the Alexandra Rose Day, an event inaugurated in 1912 by the widow of King Edward VII. Queen Alexandra had associated herself with many charitable causes, and conceived the idea of selling paper flowers, made by the disabled, to raise money for hospitals. Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (founded in 1902) still exists, as does the Alexandra Rose charity, but the roses are no longer sold on the streets. In the course of the Great War, the “Q.A.s” numbers swelled from 300 (with a reserve of around 2000) to a figure of 10,000 plus.

The symbolism behind the choice of the poppy seems to be an idea of resurrection and renewal – live flowers coming out of the devastated earth, the colour of the blood of those who died there. Life from death. It has been used memorably on screen - at the end of Oh! What a Lovely War!, for example, as well as the final scene in Blackadder Goes Forth. The message is clear from these examples.

But that was not quite what Canadian medic John McCrae meant when he wrote his classic poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, nearly three years before he died of pneumonia in northern France. The inspiration came to McCrae after he had buried one of his best friends, but he seems to have seen the poppy not so much as a symbol of peace as a reminder to the living that they have a duty to continue the struggle. Regardless of how good a poem it may be, should we be concerned about whether this is an appropriate message to be sending out today?