2010 Annual Conference - St.Albans Conference Centre, London
Over forty members and guests attended this year’s Fellowship conference held at the St.Albans Conference Centre, just off Grays Inn Road in London on September 11th. Entitled ‘A Diffused Adumbration’ : Aspects of Literary Lives’ the conference explored, through its guest speakers, the art and consequences of producing writers’ biographies and also looked at the odyssey of Sassoon’s literary life in the capital.
Having finally discovered the whereabouts of the venue – discreetly placed in a side street not too far from Bloomsbury and surrounded by numerous barristers’ chambers, the day’s proceedings began with the Fellowship’s Annual General Meeting. After a husky few words of introduction from ‘chair’ Meg Crane, our life President Dennis Silk welcomed us all and invited those who hadn’t seen his ‘Life President’ cufflinks (presented at the Annual dinner in Heytesbury earlier in the year) to view them during the course of the day.
Dennis echoed the views of most of the audience by saying that he always looked forward to the Fellowship’s annual conference as a time to meet old friends and to explore further the writings, influences and background to his late colleague, favourite poet and prose writer, Siegfried Sassoon.
Secretary Deborah Fisher gave her customary eloquent review of events of the past year – perhaps the most significant of which has been the acquisition of the ‘Sassoon Papers’ by Cambridge University. Deborah reported on the Fellowships visit to the exhibition at Cambridge University Library to see this most exciting development in the publication and disclosure of prime Sassoon documents. There are interesting times ahead for the Fellowship with a group visit to Ypres in October and the promise of a fascinating venue for next year’s conference – Stratford upon Avon.
Sam Gray was the next committee member to report to the meeting with broadly positive news about the finances of the Fellowship. He outlined plans to explore the possibility of seeking Registered Charity status. If we are successful in achieving this, it would result in enhancing subscription income and increase our chances of receiving grants and bursaries from benevolent institutions. The application process is lengthy and it will also mean that the Fellowship must be approachable and in a position to provide information and educational benefit to appropriate applicants.After unanimously re-electing the existing committee, the meeting was closed. We then enjoyed an appetising buffet lunch featuring such delights as paella, baked potatoes and crispy, well dressed, salads.
After lunch and a good deal of conversation, the hall settled down for the first of the guest speakers. Christian Major, a key member of the Fellowship since its early days, took to the lectern and presented his paper on ‘Sassoon’s London’. To those of us who have been following his engrossing and meticulously researched series of articles on the poet’s London lodgings in ‘Siegfried’s Journal’ - it was a delight to have these articles brought to life and enhanced by additional anecdotes, illustrations and background. Christian took us verbally through ‘Raymond Buildings, Half Moon Street, Tufton Street, Campden Hill Square and The Reform Club. To add additional literary flavour to each location, Chris skilfully augmented his description and history of the various abodes with quotes of Siegfried’s friends, fellow writers or other colourful characters that formed part of his life in the capital.
The second speaker of the afternoon then approached the lectern, Mhairi Pooler, a final year PhD student at the University of Aberdeen. The title of her paper was ‘A poet as he really is’: Sassoon in America. A study of Siegfried Sassoon’s autobiographies forms part of her thesis on the representation of an artistic self in early twentieth century ‘creative autobiography’. Mhairi began her talk by referencing the article written by Sassoon ‘A poet as he really is’ – Sassoon in America, in the Vanity Fair Magazine in 1920. She eloquently explored the treatment of ‘The Soldier Poet’ as he was billed in his lecture tour of America. Interesting references were made to Sassoon’s alter ego ‘George Sherston’ and the contrast between his sporting ‘outdoor self’ and the ‘inner poet’. Mhairi also expanded on Sassoon contrasting the comparative ease of post war ‘recovery of facts’, against the relative difficulty of ‘recovery of feeling’.
The final listed speaker Cecil Woolf was unfortunately unable to make the conference due to injuries sustained in a fall on a recent holiday in France. His wife and SSF patron Jean Moorcroft Wilson kindly stepped in and delivered his talk ‘Publishing the lives of War Poets’ in her own inimitable manner. The War Poets Series of critical studies published by Cecil Woolf Publishers was discussed at length. Jean outlined the reasons behind the unique format and ethos of this niche publishing product. The monograph booklet style with its convenient size and competitive price is proving very successful in the literary and education firmament. There are over 30 titles in the monograph War Poets catalogue under the general editorship of Jean Moorcroft Wilson and more are planned. It was revealed at the conference that our own Christian Major has been invited to include his series of essays on Sassoon’s London in the forthcoming publication programme. Vivien Whelpton, whose ‘Leslie Coulson: a singer Once’ and British and Irish Poets of the Gallipoli Campaign: Heirs of Achilles have been published in the series, took the floor briefly to talk about her writing and future projects. Jean concluded by saying that she was always looking for more writers and contributors to the series and even hinted at the possible inducement of an editor’s lunch in their Bloomsbury home, served on their family heirloom - the original Hogarth Press table!
The final event of the day was a brief literary walk, led by Christian Major, to the nearby Raymond Buildings - Siegfried’s first London address after leaving Weirleigh in 1914 . About twenty delegates walked the half mile or so to the impressive apartments. Standing outside the buildings, Christian read the appropriate scene setting passages from Siegfried’s autobiography and Phil Carne read a couple of poems thought to have been composed by Siegfried in Raymond Buildings.
It was decided that after all those fine words and inspiring talks, a glass of wine or a pint of beer was called for. We drifted back towards Holborn and found a traditional oak panelled pub, in the shadow of the iconic Victorian gothic Prudential Assurance building. We spent a pleasant hour or so there, reviewing yet another successful SSF conference. We now look forward to next year’s event in Stratford upon Avon where Siegfried’s links with theatrical personalities in the post war years, will be discussed.