Monday, 19 June 2017

J. M. Barrie - a Scottish writer

It has come to my attention that today, 19 June, is the eightieth anniversary of the death of that great Scottish writer, J. M. Barrie. Although nowadays chiefly remembered as the author of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, Barrie was much more than a writer of children's stories. He was in his forties, with many successful novels and plays to his name before he ever produced Peter Pan. Cally Phillips, of the Galloway Raiders, has recently founded the J. M. Barrie Literary Society; since I know the work involved in setting up a new society, I congratulate her on her efforts and wish the project well.
Siegfried Sassoon met Barrie while preparing a birthday tribute for Thomas Hardy, in 1919, having met Hardy in person for the first time only six months earlier. Barrie was living in a top-floor flat in Adelphi Terrace, a street which was almost entirely demolished in 1936, and Hardy, just coming up to his 80th birthday, was staying with him. Sassoon described Barrie as "almost dwarfish in a very old blue suit". Sassoon continues, "I was struck by the expression of melancholy which haunted his queer facial shabbiness." This he attributed to tiredness, as Barrie, "our most successful living dramatist", had a new play in the final stages of rehearsal in the West End.
In addition to Hardy and Barrie, another poet, J. C. Squire, was present in Barrie's apartment, and Sassoon saw him chatting with Florence Hardy. Whereas the Hardys were already regarded by Sassoon as great friends, Barrie would never fall into that category. However, in 1925, their paths crossed again, more obliquely, when Sassoon rented the top-floor flat at 23 Campden Hill Square in London (where there is now a blue plaque in his honour). He discovered that this house was where Barrie had written most of Peter Pan, a literary connection he could not resist.
It had actually been the home of the Llewelyn Davies family. George, the eldest of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies's five sons, had been killed in action near Ypres in 1915. Another brother, Michael, drowned in a boating accident on the Thames, along with a friend, the aristocratic Rupert Buxton; there were rumours that the two young men had an "unhealthy" relationship. Barrie had based the "Lost Boys" on the Llewelyn Davies boys, but the character of Peter Pan had been invented when they were still children and their tragic future remained unsuspected.
Barrie's divorce from Mary Ansell in 1909 had been a source of great sorrow to him, to the extent that some friends had written to the editors of leading newspapers to ask them not to report the court case. Following the death of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies's husband, Barrie had become a second father to the boys, and appears to have begun a relationship with her, but she died a year after his divorce, of cancer, making Barrie, or "Uncle Jim" as they called him, a joint guardian to her children. He had no children of his own, and bequeathed the copyright on the Peter Pan series of works to Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. When he died in 1937, he was buried in his birthplace at Kirriemuir; the house where he was born is open to the public and cared for by the National Trust for Scotland. I hope to visit it some day.
Siegfried Sassoon's relationship with Barrie, such as it was, deteriorated beyond recovery when, on Thomas Hardy's death in 1928, Barrie was one of those who campaigned to have Hardy buried, against his wishes, in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey; only his heart is buried in Stinsford Churchyard. Sassoon wanted Hardy's wishes to be respected and was angry with the big names who claimed Hardy and brought about the double funeral - so distressed that he found himself unable to take his seat in the Abbey for the service to which Florence Hardy had especially invited him. He said unkindly of Barrie that, when he died and a post-mortem took place, they would find that the man had no heart. It was one of many bitter remarks Sassoon made over the years. He did not always mean them. He outlived Barrie by thirty years, and we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death at our AGM in September. I hope to see many of my readers there.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Regenerated

In my last post I wrote about mental illness, with particular reference to Siegfried Sassoon's time as a patient at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh during 1917. In June of that year, he wrote in his diary "I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as 'an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb'. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts."
Siegfried knew what he was talking about, and was careful to focus on the politicians rather than the generals as the cause of all the trouble when he made his famous protest, the "Soldier's Declaration", which got him admitted to Craiglockhart because his targets did not dare court-martial someone with a military record such as his. Last weekend at Craiglockhart, now the home of Edinburgh Napier University, the Alliance of Literary Societies met for its annual conference and members of the SSF, along with many other societies, learned more about the period. Many did not know about Sassoon's actions or his writing, and the conference was bookended by events focused on Wilfred Owen, which means some will have gone away without realising the dominance of Sassoon in their literary partnership - a friendship that lasted only from the summer of 1917 until November 1918, when Owen was killed in action.
Friday evening's reception in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle was one of those very special occasions that turn out as memorable as they are unexpected. It was not even planned at the time the conference programme was being drafted, and Fiona McDonald worked extremely hard to bring everything together in time, but no one went away disappointed (apart from one or two people who were unable to get there in time because of issues with satnavs, domestic emergencies, etc, and had to spend all weekend hearing other people telling them how wonderful it had been and what a shame they had missed it!)
I don't have space to say much about each individual element in the conference weekend, but SSF and WOA members will read more in our respective Journals later in the summer. Simply being at Craiglockhart, standing in the former entrance hall where Sassoon and his companions once stood, and seeing the photographs, film and other memorabilia in the War Poets' Collection brought a better understanding of their experiences, and many people commented on this.
Friday evening had its hangover, and during Saturday we discovered there would be some changes to the programme of entertainment planned for the end of the afternoon. While Professor Alistair McCleery was giving his lecture on the First World War and the Scottish novel (and now I absolutely have to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic Sunset Song) and people were enjoying a soup and sandwich lunch, Sam Gray and I were running around trying to find out who exactly was coming and what they were going to do. Caroline Clegg and violinist Thoren Ferguson were very able stand-ins, and those who had missed the previous evening's event at least had a chance to hear Thoren play. Unfortunately he could not stay for dinner because he was shortly to be on stage at the Usher Hall!
Linda Curry & Alistair McCleery
By this time we had enjoyed a truly brilliant lecture by Professor Hazel Hutchison and also concluded the business of the ALS AGM. I think that those delegates attending for the first time were surprised and pleased to discover that others shared their experiences in running, or belonging to, a literary society. New committee members Jodie Robson and Cally Phillips brought a fresh viewpoint to the challenges facing the Alliance and individual societies.
Dinner in the Rivers Suite fulfilled all our expectations, a real culinary treat, followed by readings by individuals from various societies. Many have read at previous events and know what to expect; others approached the task nervously but were warmly received, and there were quite enough volunteers to fill the allotted time. To those who thanked me for my efforts, I can only say "Thank you for coming". Conferences don't happen unless enough people are willing to make the effort to attend, and they are only successful when those same people make allowances for the glitches and an come away saying they enjoyed their day (or in this case, their weekend). 
For those who joined Sunday morning's walk, there were further delights in store, not all of them related to Wilfred Owen. John Lennon, Braveheart, and Wojtek the beer-drinking bear also figured in the equation. Neil McLennan was a lively and popular guide, and some of us repaired afterwards to the Ensign Ewart public house in the Royal Mile to mull over the weekend. I wish you had all been there.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Mental Health Awareness Week

It always amuses me when the media informs me that "many people have mental health".  For some reason, despite making efforts to dispel the stigma attached to it, they are still reluctant to use the term "mental illness". This is presumably because, for many decades, "mental illness" has been synonymous with "madness" and has been viewed as meaning that the person concerned has something wrong with them. That "something" is still not generally regarded as the equivalent of a broken leg or a bout of flu, and the victim is often thought of as dangerous and incurable.
It's true that some mentally-ill people are dangerous, though usually the danger is more to themselves than to others. It certainly isn't true that they are incurable, though, as with cancer, we have not discovered all the cures yet. Mental illness is also not contagious, and there is normally no need to avoid seeing or speaking to such people. Attitudes have certainly changed, but not always for the better. Even Siegfried Sassoon, a man of great compassion, referred to his fellow-patients at Craiglockhart Military Hospital as "dotty", and found it hard to relate to them.
Sassoon naturally did not like to think of himself as "ill" when he was admitted to the hospital through that slightly forbidding main entrance (which some of us will see when we attend the ALS conference in Edinburgh in just a few weeks' time). Many doctors thought likewise, even when they were treating soldiers who were suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. They called those men cowards, shirkers, fakers, and many other things - as if they were not already feeling worthless enough.
Not only did many doctors not believe in or see any distinction between "shell-shock" and "madness", but even those who did, the sympathetic pioneer psychiatrists like William Rivers and Arthur Brock, were unsure how to treat such patients. Brock particularly favoured physical activity, which in some cases produced good results, and Sassoon certainly believed that his long conversations with Rivers were helping him recover.
A charity called Glenart uses music, art, and other activities to help rehabilitate injured military personnel and those who, for whatever reason, need assistance in returning to civilian life. Appropriately, one of Glenart's sponsors is Napier University, the establishment which now occupies the buildings at Craiglockhart and acts as custodian of the War Poets Collection, which is mainly housed in the former entrance hall of the military hospital. Performers from Glenart will also be providing some entertainment at the ALS conference. The charity takes its name from HMHS Glenart Castle, a hospital ship of the First World War that was torpedoed and sunk in the Bristol Channel during 1918, killing 162 people, mainly patients and medical staff.
If you have watched television or listened to the radio recently, you cannot have helped hearing that Mental Health Awareness Week is just drawing to an end. The experiences of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have done a great deal in recent years to foster understanding of PTSD and other mental problems resulting from involvement in warfare. These are hardly any different from the experiences of soldiers a century ago, but we have a greater awareness of it now, and thank goodness for that. Even in the "normal" adult population, though, statistics suggest that only 13% of people have "high levels of good mental health", whatever that may mean.
Sassoon was one of the lucky ones, though he did not always feel that way himself. He survived the war, both physically and mentally, and went on to make a great contribution to English literature. Compare him with Ivor Gurney, a talented poet and musician, who wasted away in a mental institution for nearly twenty years before his premature death, or even with David Jones, a poet and artist who had two severe breakdowns, one brought on by the very process of reliving his memories for the purpose of writing his unique prose/poem "In Parenthesis". We should remember them all when we enter Craiglockhart and meet representatives of Glenart.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Dr Vaughan, Dr Williams and Dom Sebastian

This post is not exactly a sequel to the last, but it continues on a similar theme. On Sunday 23 April, the annual Henry Vaughan Memorial Service took place at Llansantffraed Church near Brecon. In recent years, I've made an effort to attend on behalf of the Sassoon Fellowship, but this year was a particularly significant occasion, for two main reasons, the first being that it marked the official opening of the new Visitor Area inside the church, towards which the SSF made a modest financial contribution. The new information panels include a mention of Sassoon's visit - of course - and his poem "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan", which is read out at the graveside each year by Wendy Camp during the wreath-laying ceremony that follows the main part of the service.
The Usk Valley, near Llansantffraed
The other significant point about this year's service was the fact that the SSF, for the first time, became an active part of the wreath-laying ceremony. The Brecknock Society's wreath was laid by Glyn Mathias, OBE, former TV journalist and the son of Roland Mathias (1915-2007), renowned local writer and critic who, as it happens, also wrote a poem on the subject of the grave, though his is less well-known than Sassoon's. Our wreath was made and laid by Anne Penton, the great-niece of David C Thomas - who was himself an old boy of the local public school, Christ College, Brecon.
The presence of Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who, as he put it, "cut the metaphoric ribbon" to open the Visitor Area, made this an even more special occasion. The Visitor Area is not in its final form at the moment as the information panels are not set up in their final location, which will include a stand displaying copies of works by and about Vaughan.
Dr Williams also gave the address, taking as his subject the theme of "Life as relation: Vaughan's images of reconciled living". Beginning with the poem "Quickness" (in its archaic sense of "being alive"), he took us on a whistle-stop tour of Vaughan's ideas on the subject, which gave me pause for thought simply because these are very close to the concept of "mindfulness" which is so much in vogue in the 21st century. Many are following the lead of Eckhart Tolle, whose 1997 book, The Power of Now, is so much more than just another best-selling self-help manual, and are practising the discipline so ably taught by individuals such as Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Dom Sebastian Moore, who gave Siegfried Sassoon his instruction in the Roman Catholic faith, was a great admirer of Tolle, as I have discovered while reading his own exploration of faith, The Contagion of Jesus. Dom Sebastian was awaiting final publication of this book at the time I interviewed him in 2007. He talked to me about how it had come into existence as a result of a friend having collated a series of essays and sermons he had written over a long period and linked them into distinct strands of thought. At that time, because of my lack of knowledge of Catholicism, I had little idea of the content of the book. He did not mention Tolle, nor could he have mentioned him to Siegfried Sassoon during their acquaintance; Tolle was only 19 when Sassoon died.
So it was a pleasant surprise, after returning from the service, to return to The Contagion of Jesus and find Sebastian quoting Rowan Williams. Whether his ideas were completely in tune with Dr Williams's ideas, I cannot verify, but it's clear that Dr Williams sees Henry Vaughan as having had a revelation similar to that experienced by Eckhart Tolle. It just goes to show that there are no new ideas under the sun, just ideas which haven't previously received the appreciation they deserve. Henry Vaughan was well ahead of his time, and this helps to explain the ongoing revival of his reputation.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Dr Williams, Dr Vaughan and Reverend Herbert


It's possible that many of those reading this will not have come across the poetry of George Herbert. What I knew about Herbert prior to writing my recent pamphlet Siegfried Sassoon: At the Grave of Henry Vaughan, could have been written on the back of a matchbox. Like Vaughan, Herbert was a seventeenth-century writer, a forerunner of the so-called metaphysical poets, and best known for his devotional verse. His 1633 poem, "The Pulley", begins with the words:

"When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by..."

Barbara Pym used that phrase, "a glass of blessings", as the title of a 1958 novel, generally considered one of her best. That was the only reason I had taken any notice at all of George Herbert, who - much like Henry Vaughan - has fallen out of favour in recent decades. Nevertheless, among his fans is numbered Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Dr Williams also dabbles in poetry but he did not read any of his own work when I heard him give the Annual Sir John Lloyd Lecture at Theatre Brycheiniog on 24th March. (Sir John Lloyd (1861-1947) remains the most revered of Welsh historians.)
As well as taking an interest in George Herbert and his successor Henry Vaughan (also a doctor, but not of the academic kind), Dr Williams is Honorary President of the David Jones Society, and officiated at the Westminster Abbey Service to "mark the passing of the First World War generation", which Meg Crane and I were privileged to attend on behalf of the SSF in 2009. As well as referring to David Jones in his sermon on that occasion, Dr Williams drew attention to an anthology called The Winter of the World, which was later used by Vivien Whelpton as the basis for the programme of readings the SSF hosted at Heytesbury Church in 2014.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the subject of Dr Williams's lecture at Theatre Brycheiniog went by the title of "A Poet's View of Henry Vaughan". Vaughan was born just a few miles away, close to the River Usk, beside which is his grave, visited by Siegfried Sassoon in 1924. Dr Williams took this opportunity to talk about the relationship between Vaughan's poetry and that of George Herbert, who died, aged 39, when Vaughan was still a child. He would not have known Herbert personally, but his boyhood tutor, Matthew Herbert, was a relation and Vaughan was certainly well acquainted with Herbert's poetry. Vaughan acknowledged Herbert's influence on his work, but many consider him superior to Herbert as a poet.
Herbert became rector of Bemerton in Wiltshire in 1629, and remained there, a dedicated priest, for the rest of his short life, even forking out for the upkeep of the church when funds were low. (He came from a wealthy family; his father was an MP and he was related to the Earl of Pembroke.) He was also a musician, capable of setting his own verses to music. In fact, dozens of his poems have been set to music by other composers, in contrast with Vaughan; only one of the latter's poems, "My soul, there is a country", is a well-known hymn.
Dr Williams' lecture threw light on the similarities and differences between the work of the two poets. I have to confess that on times he got into theological and literary territory that was somewhat beyond the boundaries of my knowledge, yet he was always interesting to listen to. (Even if he had not been, his mellifluous voice would have made the experience worth while.) There were clearly many people in the audience who were well-acquainted with both Vaughan and Herbert, and some demanding questions were asked at the end of the lecture, which Dr Williams fielded with great erudition.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Ask the Eggheads

Now that it's all over, and the programme has been broadcast, and everyone knows the result, I can talk a little about my experiences with the Alliance of Literary Societies on Eggheads, the popular BBC2 quiz show. In case you missed it, the programme was broadcast on 22nd March and is available on iPlayer at the time of writing. Failing that, you can expect it to be repeated in a year or so.
Not all TV quiz shows work the same way. One obvious difference is that some (like University Challenge, Mastermind and Pointless) have a studio audience, but others don’t. Eggheads is one of the latter.  Our reserve (David McNaught from the Wyndham Lewis Society) had the viewing area to himself.  Most BBC programmes are not made by the BBC in any case. Eggheads is made by 12 Yard Productions at the BBC Studios in Glasgow. It’s expensive to make a programme as you have to pay the contestants’ travel expenses, but I can assure you that there were no frills attached in our case. We were given some sandwiches when we arrived at the studio, and on the basis of that we were not allowed anything towards an evening meal or even a drink. The Eggheads themselves go to Glasgow for a fortnight at a time and record four or five shows a day, although they do at least work in relays. They all seemed really nice people, but we did not get to talk to them for more than a few seconds.
If you haven't watched the programme, you may not be aware of the format. I won't go into it in detail, but I will mention that the questions are arranged in categories and the teams have no idea which categories are going to come up, so it is difficult to allocate individuals to subjects in advance. All of us were prepared to do "Arts and Books" - which, fortunately, did come up and was efficiently dealt with by Robin Healey of the Charles Lamb Society. On the other hand, no one really wanted Science, so I ended up with that on the grounds that my job title includes the word "engineer".
The first two questions were straightforward; the third I like to describe as impossible, though actually I might have guessed it if I had thought long and hard enough. There is no excuse for this as there is no time limit on answering. I could have taken an hour to think about it and they would just have cut it out of the programme. But my feeling at the time was that I would not be able to make even an educated guess, as the fact that “ornis” is Greek for “bird” had completely slipped out of my head and would probably not have returned even if I had taken an hour. Lisa, the Egghead against whom I was competing, made me feel better afterwards by saying she would also have guessed wrong, and Kevin Ashman - generally considered the greatest quizzer in the UK at the present time - did not know the answer either. So I got plenty of sympathy from those of my acquaintances who saw the programme.
The other members of the team were Alliance of Literary Societies Chair Linda Curry, Mike McGarry of the Malcolm Saville Society and Phil Jones of the Dr Johnson Society.  Mike and Robin won their individual head-to-head battles with the Eggheads, while Phil and I lost ours and had to sit out the final in the notorious “question room”, where you can only hear Jeremy Vine’s voice, not the discussions of your fellow team members. I had envisaged that the question room would be a little soundproofed booth, but in fact it is just another studio, a long way from the other one. The Egghead against whom you are competing is sitting just a few feet away.
Linda, Mike and Robin made a brave effort in the final round but an unlucky guess resulted in them losing 3-2. In the final analysis, we all felt that we had put up a good fight and had not disgraced the good name of the ALS. I would like to think that you all felt likewise.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Out of Obscurity

Those who were at The Lamb last weekend for our annual get-together with the Wilfred Owen Association were fascinated and moved to hear Richard Wilson talk about his illustrious great-uncle, the poet T P Cameron Wilson (1888-1918). Present in the audience was Merryn Williams, whose monograph in Cecil Woolf's War Poets Series has done much to arouse wider interest in his poetry.
Cameron Wilson
Cameron Wilson is one of many First World War writers who remain "obscure" in the eyes of the general public, having been eclipsed by a few people with more dramatic backstories and/or more glittering literary careers. ("Minor" poets is sometimes used as a blanket term for them.) Yet he had enjoyed comparative success with his work even before the war, and it is surprising that his output is not better known. Although writers like Owen and Sassoon have a genius that stands out, and were almost guaranteed to rise to the top of the pile at some stage, the final analysis of who is remembered and who is not suggests that chance has played almost as big a role as merit in deciding the content of the First World War's poetic canon.
Take Robert Nichols. Edmund Gosse compared him to Keats and Shelley, but latter generations have come to consider his work nothing out of the ordinary. Nichols and Sassoon got to know one another in 1917. Like Sassoon, Nichols had suffered psychological problems as a result of his war experiences, and it had already ended his military career. Also like Sassoon, he survived the war, though he didn't make old bones - he died aged 51, his reputation as a poet already much depleted. But it was Nichols who wrote the introduction to Sassoon's Counterattack collection in 1918, and Nichols who helped secure him a lecture tour of the United States in the following year, by recommending him to his own American fans. He describes Sassoon as "one of the leading young poets of England", somewhat condescending praise from one who was himself only about 25 at the time. I wonder if that is the reason he understates Sassoon's actual age.
Robert Nichols
There is a blog dedicated to the work of these "forgotten" poets, and the War Poets Association also works to enhance their reputations. There are also related groups, such as "Female Poets of the First World War", a subject on which a lot of great work has been done by the tireless Lucy London.
On our tours of the Western Front in the company of the remarkable Vivien Whelpton, we have encountered many of these lesser-known poets: Leslie Coulson, Ewart Alan Mackintosh, Noel Hodgson, Patrick Shaw-Stewart and innumberable others - and have argued over their respective merits. We have even stood on the spot where Vera Brittain's fiancé, Roland Leighton, was shot by a sniper in 1915, aged only twenty. Ironically, Leighton, who wrote only a few unpublished poems, seems to have acquired a literary reputation that rests almost entirely on the flattering picture of him painted in Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth.
I wonder sometimes if there is a war poem for everyone. Who is to decide whether Cameron Wilson's "Magpies in Picardy" is better or worse than "Anthem for Doomed Youth"? We can say only that we prefer one or the other, find one or the other more moving, or that one strikes a chord with us that another fails to strike.
To find out more, read Lucy London's blogs at
http://femalewarpoets.blogspot.co.uk
and http://forgottenpoetsofww1.blogspot.co.uk .

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Living with a Genius

There never seems to be much time to read novels these days, and it takes a good one to divert me from the normal run of events - not only the work I have to do to earn a living but the time taken up by my many hobbies including the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship. Historical novels, when properly researched and not over-romanticised, are my favourite kind of reading, and Robert Graves has a good reputation as a writer of historical fiction. Yet little did I think that I would become fascinated by a Graves novel of which I had never heard until recently.
I don't know how he came to write Wife to Mr Milton in 1943. My assumption that he had access to some pretty extensive primary sources seems to be supported by the existence of an earlier novel on the same subject, written - like Graves' version - in the first person. Anne Manning, a prolific Victorian author, wrote her fictional account of the Miltons' married life in 1849. It opens in the same place as Graves' novel, with the teenage Mary Powell celebrating her birthday by beginning a diary. However, Manning does not make Mary's life thereafter sound quite as disastrous as that of Graves' Marie.
The latter novel has been called "a relentlessly effective satire on masculine self-regard", which is ironic when you consider its author's life - how he married a woman almost as young as Marie Powell was when she married John Milton (though in the case of Graves and his first wife Nancy Nicholson, there was no age gap to speak of), how he effectively abandoned her when she declined to continue living in a menage-a-trois with him and his lover Laura Riding and how, throughout his life, he acquired a reputation not only as a ladies' man but as a somewhat self-centred one. Alternatively, you may see the novel as another critic did, as "a libel on a man 200 years dead" - poor old John Milton, in whose favour Graves hardly finds a word to say.
Marie - or Mary as her husband preferred to call her - was the daughter of a Royalist family with property near Oxford. Graves describes their rural lifestyle in a colourful yet credible manner that suggests familiarity with the customs of the time. It is obvious that he researched it thoroughly, but is it fanciful of me to imagine that he gleaned some of his material at first hand from living in a cottage in the village of Boars Hill just after the First World War? Sadly for Marie, the Powells were not as well-off as they appeared on the surface. It later became apparent that her father had fraudulently remortgaged his estate several times over, to different people, in order to pay off the debts resulting from his over-generous expenditure. Some sources actually describe her as having been "sold" to Milton in payment of a debt her father owed him.
Rather than continue the story and include spoilers in this post, I prefer to muse for a moment on what made this story attractive to Graves as the basis for a novel. Surely it must have had something to do with the English Civil War, which dominated the lives of Milton and his reluctant young bride in such a way as to have reminded Graves of the upheavals of the years 1914-1918? Whatever one thinks of John Milton - who does seem to have changed his mind quite frequently on a number of important topics - he had good reason to be troubled by the events of the 1640s and subsequent decades, even though he did not personally participate in the fighting.
As with Sassoon and Henry Vaughan, two poets shared similar experiences several centuries apart. Yet in the case of John Milton, Graves' sympathies appear to be more with Mrs Milton, whose family lost everything during the war. In a 1957 article, he is highly critical of Milton's work, calling "L'Allegro" a "dreadful muddle". He believes that Milton took such pride in his education at Cambridge that he writes in "a Latin straitjacket".
Perhaps Milton mellowed after Marie's death. In the 1660s, blind and short of cash, he was threatened with imprisonment and even execution as a result of his outspoken anti-monarchist views. His unlikely saviour would be a man he had employed as an amanuensis, the Teflon-coated Andrew Marvell, who had avoided becoming associated with either party by the expedient of spending the whole of the Civil War travelling in Europe and was now an MP. Milton himself eventually retreated sheepishly to the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Giles, where the cottage in which he spent the last few years of his life can still be visited.


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Outlook Positive

One question I keep being asked, by people who have seen the details of the forthcoming Alliance of Literary Societies conference, is "What is the Outlook Tower?" I admit I haven't been very forthcoming on that subject because I am not an expert. I've been to Edinburgh a couple of times but didn't know anything about this building until my colleagues from the Wilfred Owen Association filled me in on the subject.
The Outlook Tower contains what is known as a "camera obscura", which literally means a dark room, a name it gained from its origins in medieval times. Actually, while the Western world was experimenting with this phenomenon, it was already well known in other cultures, and may well have been used in prehistoric times as a drawing aid. Many believe that this was the secret of the Dutch Masters, such as Vermeer, enabling them to achieve the almost photographic realism of for which their paintings are noted.
Controversy arose early in the nineteenth century when an astronomer set up an observatory practically next door to Edinburgh Castle, by adding a couple of storeys to an existing house. The project was continued and improved on by Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), who turned it into a museum. This is how the building was organised during the First World War, when Wilfred Owen arrived in the city. Owen's psychiatrist, Dr Brock (not, as some mistakenly think, Dr Rivers, who treated Siegfried Sassoon), set him the task of writing a report about the building - a building which Owen describes as "an Allegory" and "a philosophical poem". He formed the impression that the building had a soul, which accompanied the visitor from room to room.
Brock encouraged Owen's interest in poetry, and among other things this resulted in the newcomer becoming editor of the Hydra, a magazine written by the patients, of which most copies are held in the War Poets Collection at Craiglockhart, which we will be able to see when we visit on 3rd June this year. It was to seek a contribution to the magazine that Owen tentatively approached an even newer patient, Siegfried Sassoon, a few months later.
Nowadays, the contents of the Outlook Tower have changed somewhat. Although the camera obscura is still in operation - Derren Brown has given it a testimonial, describing it as "the finest I've seen" - the building has become a modern visitor attraction, rigged out with "an amazing range of optical experiences", intended to appeal to all the family. The World of Illusions, as it is called, includes a display called "Edinburgh Vision", based on views of the city as it would have been in Victorian days, a picture that Owen and Sassoon might perhaps have found more familiar than the Edinburgh of today.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Apocalypse Now?

Some readers may be wondering what I've been up to recently, and why the blog posts have been so thin on the ground recently. The answer is that I've been busy putting together the arrangements for the ALS conference in Edinburgh, which we are this year jointly hosting with the Wilfred Owen Association. Although many others have contributed to the effort, I have inevitably been the central liaison point for most of the queries and complications that have arisen during this process, which has been going on for nearly two years now. Forget Brexit negotiations; can life possibly be that much more difficult for Theresa May than it is for someone organising a conference?
Well, yes, all right, maybe what I've been doing isn't quite as critical, or as taxing, as international diplomatic activities. I'm sure many of us are depressed about the political events of 2016 and apprehensive about the future of Europe and the rise of neo-Fascism throughout the western world. It must seem to many that Armageddon is on our doorstep.
        What did the people of Edinburgh think when, late on the evening of 2nd April 1916, a Zeppelin bomber arrived over the Forth estuary? It was one of four dispatched from Germany with the intention of attacking the naval base at Rosyth; the other three had gone off-course and presented no danger to the citizens of Edinburgh. Unable to locate the base on this dark, foggy night, the remaining airship headed for Leith, where it dropped a total of twenty bombs. As it crossed the city, people came out to see what was happening. Most families had only gas lighting in their houses; had they been equipped with electricity, they would have known that something was seriously wrong when their power went off. Out in the open, they could clearly make out the ghostly shape of the giant craft hovering above them. They would have been much safer if they had stayed indoors.
         Bombs were dropped close to Edinburgh Castle, where the panicking garrison is alleged to have fired blanks from the "One O'Clock Gun" as a deterrent. In the doorway of a tenement block, a crowd of people sheltering from the attack were killed when a high-explosive bomb landed nearby. The Royal Infirmary was hit, as were some schools, a whisky warehouse, and the Grassmarket, now an area popular with tourists for its hotels and restaurants. Thirteen people died altogether, among them 27-year-old David Robertson, who had recently been discharged from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards for health reasons.
         Let us, at least temporarily, forget the distant spectre of Britain's isolation from Europe and the possibility of the suffering that might result from growing racial intolerance and imperialist aggression, and put ourselves in the places of those people who were in imminent danger of losing their lives. A private in the Highland Light Infantry who was on duty in the early hours of the morning came across three terrified small children in one of the city's parks and escorted them home.  In Leith Hospital, anxious VAD nurses had been ordered to carry all their patients downstairs. After turning off all lighting, they reported that the windows were red with the reflection of the flames from incendiary bombs. Robert Robb lost his one-year-old son, who was killed when hit by a fragment of a shell. A minister, a doctor and their families were among those who had miraculous escapes, losing their homes but emerging unhurt from the rubble.
         Just over a year later, a 24-year-old junior officer named Wilfred Owen would arrive in the city of Edinburgh to be, at least partially, healed of the personal suffering and psychological damage done to him by the First World War. He would find, in that damaged place, a certain amount of comfort and the inspiration to write his best-known poems. He would find a new friend and mentor in 29-year-old Siegfried Sassoon, who was struggling with his own demons. Between them, these two men would take English poetry to new levels.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Unexpected Connections

I had been looking for a snappy title for this blog post, something more meaningful than "unexpected connections", even though that was what it was going to be about. So I googled the phrase and found it unexpectedly popular. There have been quite a number of conferences with that title, although I admit that the first search result to catch my eye was "it seems men's underwear and champagne can tell you a lot about the economy". Perhaps it caught so many other people's eyes that it rapidly rose to the top of the search results.
However, I am not going to write about either men's underwear or champagne; if that disappoints you, you only have to google to find something more interesting to read. No, I am going to talk briefly about the biography of Ted Hughes I'm reading and how it has led me down many different paths of enquiry.
To be honest, I have never been a huge fan of Ted Hughes. In my teens, I read Al Alvarez's book, The Savage God, a study of suicide, which came out in 1972. I confess that the subject of suicide then fascinated me, although at that point I had not personally known anyone who had later killed themselves. (In time, I would.) Alvarez's book used the story of Sylvia Plath - a close friend of his - to illustrate certain facts about the phenomenon of suicide and the motivation that can bring it about. As a result of publishing it, he fell out, more or less permanently, with Ted Hughes, who blamed him for exposing the couple's private lives to the general public.
In a 2000 edition of Desert Island Discs, Alvarez told Sue Lawley that he still felt he had failed Sylvia Plath. He admitted that, despite having suffered from clinical depression himself, he "didn't know what it was when I was in it", and was therefore unable to make the right responses when he saw the danger signs in Plath's behaviour. There are several connections that lead from Sylvia Plath to Siegfried Sassoon - who himself suffered from depression on many occasions, particularly after his experiences in the First World War.
To return to Ted Hughes, however, the biography contains several mentions of The Lamb, a famous and historic public house in Bloomsbury which the SSF and WOA visit every spring (and will again on 11th March 2017) for an enjoyable joint meeting. I've written about it on many previous occasions, so I will say only that it was, at one time, a meeting-place for Hughes, Plath and their many literary friends. It is quite close to where the Poetry Bookshop, the establishment founded by Harold Monro in 1913, once stood - another place much frequented by names such as Wilfred Owen and Wilfrid Gibson. Also not far away is Queen Square, where the hospital once known as the "National Hospital for Diseases of the Nervous System" still stands. Founded in 1859, it was the location for Lewis Yealland's now notorious treatments of shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War; Yealland does not emerge well from the pages of Pat Barker's Regeneration - and quite right too.
Once again, connections are leading me away from my starting-point. Reading the biography of Hughes has not exactly endeared him to me, though I don't share the popular feminist view that he was directly responsible for the suicides of two women who had loved him. What startled me was the discovery that I had recently met one of Sylvia Plath's greatest friends, the American poet Ruth Fainlight, who had been described to me as "the wife of Alan Sillitoe". I should, of course, have known better. Fainlight and her late husband, in addition to being friends of Plath and Hughes, had lived for some years in Mallorca, where they became acquainted with - who else but Robert Graves? How these famous writers gravitate towards one another! And thus another Sassoon connection landed in my lap.
But the biography hadn't finished throwing surprises at me, oh no. It had not escaped my notice that the writer Emma Tennant died recently, but it was rather a surprise to learn that she had been one of Ted Hughes' many romantic partners; her 1999 account of their affair, Burnt Diaries, had passed me by. (Another one for the reading list!) I had also forgotten, until I read her obituary, that she was a niece of Stephen Tennant, the daughter of his eldest brother, Christopher, who inherited the title of Baron Glenconner in 1920, his eldest brother, "Bim", having been killed in action in 1916.
The trail of unexpected connections thus leads, for those who choose to follow that path, to a churchyard in Mells, Somerset, which many of you will have visited. The manor house next door was the home of Herbert Asquith, prime minister of the United Kingdom during the years 1908-1916. In 1894, Asquith married, as his second wife, Margot Tennant, the sister of the 1st Baron Glenconner and thus a great-aunt of Emma Tennant. This remarkable woman and her husband became friends of Sassoon's during the war and remained so for many years. Yet it was not they who introduced Siegfried to Margot's nephew Stephen, with whom he would have one of the most enduring relationships of his life. They met through the his literary friends, the Sitwells; and that is quite another story.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Hello 2017

2016 was a funny old year. One of those years you don't really want to repeat itself - rather like 1916, I suppose. There must have been many families looking forward to 1917 with less than enthusiastic anticipation, having lost loved ones on the Western Front in the course of the previous year and knowing that there was more to come and no end in sight.
Since the countries where most of us live are not officially in the middle of a war at the moment, we have to be sanguine about the coming year and hope that international events will not be of the "disaster movie" variety that some years of the 21st century have been. As we look back on 2016, I thought it would be an idea, instead of talking about all the media personalities who have passed away, to consider the careers some of the poets and writers who died during the year. It is so often their words that give us hope for the future.
Sir Geoffrey Hill, who died in June aged 84, was perhaps better-known as an academic than as a poet, but he had begun to make a name for himself while still a student at Oxford, his first collection, For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958, coming out in 1959. Later collections, such as King Log and Mercian Hymns, used early Christian history as subject matter. He continued to write devotional poetry, and was seen by some critics as the natural successor of T S Eliot. Like Siegfried Sassoon, he was the winner of a Hawthornden Prize, and he ended his career in the much sought-after role of Oxford Professor of Poetry, in which he has been succeeded by Simon Armitage.
Other English-language poets who passed away during 2016 included 94-year-old Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest known for his involvement in the anti-Vietnam protest movement of the 1960s (which briefly put him on the FBI's "most wanted" list). His compatriot, Carolyn Wright (who wrote as C D Wright), often wrote with a "Southern" voice, and lived in many parts of the USA before becoming Poet Laureate of the tiny state of Rhode Island in 1994. "Jock Scot" (real name John Leslie) was a performance poet from Edinburgh, where he was well known for his appearances at the Fringe. Adam Small, a South African "Coloured" writer, produced both poetry and prose, in English and Afrikaans, much of it dealing with racial issues.
Perhaps most notable among the list of 2016's dead poets was Leonard Cohen, the Canadian who became better known as a singer-songwriter (though he admitted he couldn't sing), a career he took up during the 1960s in order to sell more of his poetry. Nicknamed "the poet laureate of pessimism", he produced verse that, when translated into song, was often dismissed as "music to slit your wrists by", but nevertheless gained a huge following. Cohen was a perfectionist: his song "Hallelujah", which achieved popularity about twenty years after he first recorded it, originally had eighty verses, of which only six appear in the final version. It seems to have struck a chord with the present generation, although interpretations of the lyric's true meaning vary considerably.
We seem to have lost a disproportionate number of dramatists during the year, including such giants as the UK's Arnold Wesker, who made his name in the late 1950s with Roots and Chicken Soup with Barley, the US's Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and Italy's Nobel Laureate Dario Fo (Can't Pay? Won't Pay!). Sir Peter Shaffer, twin brother of another playwright, the late Anthony Shaffer, is known for numerous outstanding plays, including Equus, Amadeus, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, all of which were successfully adapted for the big screen. Ireland's William Trevor was a dramatist, novelist and short-story writer who won three Whitbread Prizes and was nominated five times for the Booker, though he never won it.
Anita Brookner, who died in March aged 87, did win the Booker Prize, for her 1984 novel Hotel du Lac (not, in my opinion, her finest). Her Jewish father had brought the family out of Poland and changed their name from Bruckner to avoid anti-German harassment during the Second World War. This background is reflected in most of her novels, as is her interest in art history, which was Brookner's main occupation until she retired from academia.
Another successful English female novelist who died during the year was Margaret Forster, whose 1960s best-seller Georgy Girl was perhaps eclipsed by her work as a biographer; her subjects included Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And of course, on Christmas Eve, the literary world said goodbye to 96-year-old Richard Adams, author of the children's classic Watership Down and other novels based on the lives of animals, such as The Plague Dogs and Shardik.
There is nothing unusual about famous writers dying. Most have to wait until middle age to achieve success and, in view of their relatively stress-free lifestyle, can hope to live to a ripe old age. There are not many Keats, Shelleys and Byrons around nowadays, to die of tuberculosis, drowning or blood poisoning. And - perhaps fortunately - there are not many war poets either.