Friday, 20 November 2015

A Shaggy Dog

… as told by Siegfried Sassoon, though not quite everything mentioned in dispatches is necessarily true …


Siegfried Sassoon (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was a writer whose works include an acclaimed three-volume fictionalised autobiography collectively known as The Sherston Trilogy (the name he uses for himself in it), though popular memory puts him down as a soldier and a War Poet, despite the fact that the Great War was only about five percent of his life and his part in it even less than that. His full name was actually the rather magnificent-sounding Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC, the Siegfried part being a touch of whimsy on his mother’s part, being as she was something of a fan of Wagner’s operas – perhaps just as well she didn’t feel the same way about Tchaikovsky, in which case he might’ve ended up as Eugene Onegin Sassoon (which, dare we say, would’ve been Pushkin it rather too far) or even plain old Nutcracker, though he did end up being christened Mad Jack by the men under his command, thanks to his reckless acts of daring bravery. His dad, Alfred Ezra, came from a wealthy Jewish family but was disinherited when he married outside the faith to an Anglo-Catholic, Theresa, one of the sculpting Thornycroft family, whose statues are still scattered all over London, her brother Hamo having turned out the Cromwell that stands outside Parliament. If you were wondering where the Loraine part came from and perhaps thinking (come on now, you were, admit it) “Isn’t that a bit of a girl’s name?” well, that’s the mum up to her tricks once again, Loraine being the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly. In a strictly non-beastly way, of course.

It wasn’t all swotty stuff as far as Siegfried was concerned and, when he didn’t have either book or pen in hand, he loved nothing better than the crack of leather on willow. And, when he wasn’t indulging in that, he liked a spot of cricket too. His ambition was to play for Kent but his mediocrity proved something of a stumbling block there, though he did turn out for Bluehouses, playing alongside Arthur Conan Doyle, and once took seven wickets for eighteen runs for his College.

A staunch patriot, Siegfried joined up before hostilities had ever broken out and was serving with the Sussex Yeomanry when war was declared on Tuesday 4 August 1914 (it would’ve been done on the Monday, only that was a Bank Holiday and everyone would’ve ended up stuck in traffic). Alas, however, just before the off, he managed to fall from a horse whilst engaging in another favourite pursuit of hunting, badly breaking his arm, meaning that he was still convalescing in the Spring of 1915, just as Rupert Brooke (whom he’d met briefly) was sailing valiantly away in the direction of Gallipoli, where he was to make the corner of some foreign field (Skyros) conceal a richer dust, unblest by suns of home. A mosquito got him, so they say, though others reckon it may have been the toxic injections they attempted to cure him with that actually did for him. In the May of that year, Siegfried was commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which is how you spell it actually (so there!), this being an archaic version of Welsh. (Much like barbarian, Welsh simply meant foreign or outsider). Which is what Sassoon happened to be just then – an outsider – being not a bit Welsh. Nor, for that matter, was Robert Graves, another Welch whom Sassoon met out in France, the pair of them united by their foreign-sounding names.


Robert Graves isn’t especially foreign-sounding: that’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? Well, if you thought Siegfried’s full-blown moniker was a bit of a corker, wait till you get a load of this one: Robert von Ranke Graves! His mum (it would be, wouldn’t it?) saddled him with it as that was her maiden name, coming as she did from a recently ennobled German family (the Von bit indicating that you’re something of a nob, as most Germans seem to be to one degree or another). Still, whatever the origins, rather a ticklish handle to be carting around if you happen to be a British officer at the time. Just for the record, Old Mother Brooke was no slouch when it came to dishing up the outlandish suggestions at the christening font, landing her lad Rupert not only with Rupert but a good solid Chawner to go with it. To be fair, mind, it wasn’t all bad news, seeing W. B. Yeats described Brooke as “the handsomest young man in England,” and Virginia Woolf claimed to have gone skinny-dipping with him (though the jury’s still out on just how lucky that one was).


Sassoon and Graves became firm friends and, sharing a poetic vocation, spent much time together reading and discussing each other’s work. Or so History would have us believe, though A Shaggy Dog dares to offer an altogether different take on what actually went on such times. After about an hour or so of full-on poetry stuff, Graves tended to get a bit fed up with the whole versifying game, which is when he’d reach for the single malt and liven the whole affair up with a few bawdy and uproarious tales of a daringly adult nature, the evening descending into titters and guffaws in direct ratio as the night deepened and the bottle dwindled. It is well known that Graves, with his sense of gritty realism, heavily influenced Sassoon’s own poetical output, but what is less noised about is the fact that it was Graves that introduced Sassoon to the joys of the Knock Knock genre (and many others). Sassoon needed a fair old bit of talking through the technique involved but, once he had got the hang of it, there was no stopping him. This is believed to be the actual piece that the two poets first successfully completed together.

‘Now, Sass,’ said Graves sententiously that momentous and historic evening, staring in grim interrogation at his comrade through the xanthic candlelight. ‘Are you absolutely sure you’re in the right frame of mind to attempt this? After all, it is very early days.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ Sassoon reassured him, raising his glass in salutation so that the crystal sparkled with myriad points of intense fiery light. ‘At least I shall be, once I’ve got this inside me.’

‘Very well, then,’ Graves went on. ‘Let’s get cracking. As it were. Knock, knock.’

‘Who’s there?’

‘To.’

‘To who?’

‘To whom, Sass, to whom,’ drawled Graves sardonically. ‘We must ever be on our guard to be respectful to our pronouns – otherwise, where might it all end?’

‘Indeed so,’ agreed Sassoon heartily, draining his glass to the very dregs. ‘That is precisely why, old fellow, even with an apposite riposte so readily at hand, I resist all such temptation. Your sagacity must apply equally to the humble preposition and grammar surely forbids that we should ever conclude a sentence with a preposition.’

‘Your point being?’

‘Simply that off is a preposition.’

Such evenings of witty repartee were cut cruelly short when Graves was dreadfully wounded during the Battle of the Somme, so badly hurt that his life was despaired of and he was actually reported to have been killed (he would survive to author I, Claudius, which he would later claim to have done for the money). Meanwhile, Sassoon, whose brother Hamo had been killed in Gallipoli, was becoming ever more disillusioned with the war, penning bitingly cynical poetry to express his feelings:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by / Sneak home and pray you'll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go. (Suicide in the Trenches).


Despite his manic feats of near-suicidal bravery and having been awarded the Military Cross, after a period of convalescence at home, he declined to take up his duties again. Instead, egged on by pacifist friends including Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he penned his infamous Soldier's Declaration of 1917 in which he pointed out that the War was being deliberately prolonged because so many fatcats were making a nice bundle out of it, thank you, and so were more than happy to continue with the state of affairs. Clearly, anyone who could come out with such claptrap about our wonderful British profiteers and shirkers had to be well on the road to Barking. So they sent him to Craiglockheart to have a long hard think about himself. Which would’ve been a bit on the tricky side, had he actually been suffering from the neurasthenia they officially listed him as having.


So, there he is, incarcerated in Craiglockheart with not much to do bar knock out some acidly embittered poetry, plus feeling just a tad guilty about the men he had left behind at the Front, still slogging up to Arras with rifle and pack, when along comes this bumblingly shy fellow who evidently holds him in some kind of reverential awe from the way he peers wide-eyed at him, and introduces himself as a fellow poet, Wilfred Owen. (Alas, Ma Owen wasn’t quite up to the standard of the other mums, though she had a brave stab at it with her Wilfred Edward Salter Owen). It turns out that this chap is something of a Bible-bearing all-round mummy’s boy and wetter than a weekend in Blubberhouses, what with his marked overfondness for the Romantics and Keats in especial, but what the heck, you never know. After all, unpromising as Owen appears, he is a comrade poet and Sassoon instantly entertains visions of rekindling the Graves Laugh-In evenings of what seem like so long ago now. When Owen offers to show him some of his work, Sassoon invites him to come up to his room that very evening and we’ll see how we get along.

Much to Siegfried’s chagrin, Owen turns up actually bearing poetry, which is not quite what Sassoon had in mind. Never mind. Put that to one side for the moment and let’s see what develops, shall we? This is what Sass is thinking as he welcomes in his young acolyte with a reviving glass of the old single malt, just to get things going in the right direction.

‘Well, young Owen,’ says our man, ‘what soupcon of exquisite delicacy shall you delight me with from your undoubted array of mirthsome rib-ticklers, one wonders?’

Owen merely looks baffled.

‘Jokes, old man,’ says Sassoon, hoping to be encouraging but evidently doing no better than attempting to knit fog, which is precisely what Owen’s head appears to be filled with at that precise moment. Undaunted, Sassoon decides to get the ball rolling himself. ‘D’you know what, Owen, old fellow? I’ve got a one-armed butler. Bellicose chap. He can take it but he can’t dish it out.’

Complete blank. So then he decides to fall back on one of the trusty numbers from his Welsh collection. Though perhaps not Graves’s one about Monique and the fruit [this story was cut on grounds of decency], seeing that involves one of the Manchesters, which happens to be Owen’s own regiment and he’ll probably feel like he’s being got at. Just a straightforward one-liner that even a dimwit like Owen will be able to understand.

‘You won’t believe this, Owen, but my wife gives me the most frightful time of it. Once, she even had the nerve to accuse me of having an affair with a woman from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I soon put a stop to her gallop. I said to her, “How can you even say such a thing?”’

Owen, disappointingly, remains utterly mystified, though he does eventually muster up some sort of response: ‘I didn’t think you were married actually, Sass.’

‘Well, try and imagine it’s December 1933, when I certainly shall be, even if it is a sham and won’t last the distance,’ seethes the exasperated Sassoon, who decides to make one last desperate attempt. By resorting to the good old standby of the knock knock joke, though he realises full-well he’ll need to explain the procedure in advance, just as he had been coached by Graves in the art. Having thoroughly tutored the young War Poet and put him through his paces, he goes for it:

‘Knock, knock.’

‘Who’s there?’

‘Olivia.’

Olivia who?’

‘I live ‘ere but I’ve forgotten my keys.’

‘I know you live here, Sass, but they don’t lock the doors, so why would you need keys?’

Determined yet, Sassoon now lowers the bar even further, to below what he imagines that Owen’s limited intellect can cope with: a hoary old chestnut:

‘Knock, knock.’

‘Who’s there?’

‘Amos.’

‘Amos who?’

‘A mosquito.’

‘You can’t fool me, Sass. How would a mosquito be able to knock without any arms? So is it a reference to Rupert Brook, in that case? Are we going to discuss his poetry?’

‘No, old man,’ says the now entirely disheartened Sassoon. ‘We’re not talking about Rupert Brook but, seeing we’re doing so well at this line, we might as well have a butcher’s at that piece you brought along to show me.’ At which he takes up said poem and reads: “Anthem for a Dead Youth.” Great Scot! thinks Sassoon. ‘It was probably him at the door all along, you know.’

‘Who do you mean, Sass?’

‘The dead youth. Tell you what, let’s cross that right out, shall we? How about “Anthem for Doomed Youth” instead, eh? Much more the ticket, wouldn’t you say?’

After that, they get on perfectly swimmingly, with Sassoon helping Owen with his poem by changing one or two little things. Like the words. As the evening finally dwindles towards its inevitable close, Siegfried resolves to have one last crack at the Owen humour, with something a little more daring and risqué this time.

‘One of the men in my outfit was something of an oddball in his habits. Especially when it came to a particular lady friend of his, whose company he frequented on a regular basis. Told me all about it, he did, and you know what the Welsh are like when it comes to this sort of thing. Anyhow, once every week, he would take himself off to her place of residence and, when they were safely in the privacy of her room, he would insist on dressing himself up like an old salty seadog: big rubber thigh-length rubber boots, sou’wester, captain’s hat, the lot, and saying “Arr, Jim lad,” the whole time, just to bring himself to a state of barely-controllable excitement. And then he’d stand himself behind a ship’s wheel like a proper nautical skipper and get her to chuck buckets of cold salty water over him until he was soaked to the very skin, just as if he was caught in a violent storm out at sea. And then, when he was well and truly aroused, do you know what happened next? Do you?’

‘No, Sass,’ gasped an enthralled and expectant Owen. ‘What did happen next?’

‘Nothing, that’s what,’ said Sassoon coolly.

Nothing?’ complained the dismayed Owen.

‘Well, what did you expect?’ came the reply. ‘In that sort of weather.’



[Wilfred Owen was killed one week, almost to the hour, before the Armistice bells rang out their gloating knells of hollow clanging victory – sardonic orison for those who died like cattle – which is exactly what they were doing when his mother received the news. Like Sassoon, Owen too won the MC for his bravery on the field but, like so much else in his short life, this was only achieved posthumously. When it came to their shared art, Owen went on outdo Sassoon at it, becoming by far the greater War Poet and, eventually, the greatest War Poet].


Images
Siegfried Sassoon: George Charles Beresford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rupert Brooke: By British Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Graves: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Siegfried Sassoon Portrait: By Glyn Warren Philpot (1884 - 1937) (BBC Paintings [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Craiglockheart: By Brideshead (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wilfred Owen: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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