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
and .

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.