My father had no gun, or any land to shoot over. So when he decided that it was time for me, then aged 15 or 16, to learn how to shoot, he had to cadge. We borrowed an old 12-bore from a local farmer, a rickety weapon the lock, stock and barrel of which were barely connected, and my father then asked his neighbour, Siegfried Sassoon, who lived in the next village, whether we could loose off a few cartridges in his woods. They had become friends through a shared interest in steeplechasing, cricket and poetry and also perhaps through a shared experience of war, though my father’s had been briefer and much less horrific.
So with Siegfried’s blessing for a couple of hours on a misty November afternoon we patrolled the undulating woods that he had planted up behind Heytesbury House when he bought it, flush for the first time after he got married, to the astonishment of his friends, in the mid-1930s – his own late forties. Not much wildlife about and we were thinking of heading home when a plump cock pheasant whirred across the ride looking for a spot to roost. I raised the gun, but while I was still fumbling with the safety catch an elderly figure leaped out with startling agility from a bend in the avenue. He wore a battered felt hat and a bright scarlet scarf thrown round his neck and even at that distance you could see how handsome he still was. He moved towards us, stumbling into a run and waving his hand in agitation. ‘Please don’t shoot, he’s so beautiful,’ he cried, almost at the same moment as my father called back ‘Hullo Sig.’
I had not yet read Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man or I might have been reminded of the narrator describing how as a boy on his second day out hunting he sees a fox run across his path; someone ‘holloa’s and before he can stop himself he exclaims: ‘Don’t do that, they’ll catch him.’ The narrator tells us later that before he went to France to fight he had ‘never shot at a bird or an animal in my life’ – so his first targets were humans. Sassoon’s attitude to blood sports, as to most other things, was not without its complexities. All I felt at that moment was extreme annoyance at the in-and-out running of the adult world. If he was going to deny me the only decent shot of the day out of reverence for life, why on earth had he let us come at all? I could not be expected then to understand that it was Sassoon’s besetting trait to repent of any gesture almost as soon as he had made it, to start wanting to extricate himself from any love affair or other allegiance the moment he had embarked on it. He lived in a haze of dissatisfaction, abnormally sensitive to outside influence but repelled as quickly and violently as he had been attracted.
He asked us to drop in for tea when we had finished, but to come in by the servants’ entrance because he was alone in the house and there was no one to answer the front door (again a characteristic carry-on, suggesting both poverty and solitude but also an unshed grandeur – there appeared to be no question of him answering the door himself). Somehow we ended up in what was clearly the drawing-room, which seemed empty until our eyes focused enough to see the celebrated gaunt hawk’s profile outlined against the long window. Thus discovered – I saw from later encounters this was how he liked to be come upon – he pushed a plate of dry cucumber sandwiches at us and began to talk in a shy undertone. At first I thought this awkwardness was because he was out of practice in company. His wife, Hester, had long since been turfed out and their only son, George, was away and for the moment estranged, too. But this was Sassoon’s normal way of talking (his poetry readings at the height of his fame had often been more or less inaudible), and it was no obstacle to a formidable eloquence when he got going. He talked in a way I had never come across before, without any reserve or hesitation, roaming across all sorts of subjects: verse techniques, the difficulty of finding servants, staying with Max Beerbohm, the Test series, his first meeting with Thomas Hardy, the shortcomings of his wife/son/ daughter-in-law, his neglect by the critics – this last a recurring theme. ‘They don’t understand what a talent I have for light verse.’ He had no pudeur about expressing his resentments or his enthusiasms. To a casual teenaged visitor his self-centredness was somehow much more sympathetic than it sounds when recorded in cold print. But it was wearing to live with, not least for himself.
Why was Sassoon like this? In the public mind he remained not only one of the most celebrated poets of the Great War but also an abiding emblem of courage and protest against the carnage. He remained a legend you were surprised to find still alive, a fact he was not slow to comment on with his habitual self-irony. And though his later poetry had never been in fashion, the first two of his fictional autobiographies, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, became instant minor classics. On rereading Foxhunting Man (1928), I found it a little too innocently nostalgic and sometimes clichéd (it was his first prose book), but Infantry Officer (1930) reads as well as ever, crisp, caustic and lyrical. Some of the set-pieces – his return a year later to the network of trenches where he had first seen such horror and which were now a harmless warren several miles behind the Allied lines, or his watching his company trudging back from the Somme an hour before daybreak – are unsurpassable.
In his Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse, Philip Larkin included seven of Sassoon’s poems; only Yeats and Hardy had significantly more. True, Larkin’s anthology was denounced by Donald Davie and others as a counterblast against Modernism. But it can’t be denied that Sassoon’s war poems share with Kipling’s the quality of being conspicuously memorable: the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations includes a dozen of them, mostly in their entirety.
Interest in his life is sharpening. After John Stuart Roberts’s compact and readable single volume of 1999, we now have Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s double-header, with Max Egremont’s somewhat shorter Life expected soon. Sassoon’s story has also reached a wider audience through television re-creations and through Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. The image of the gallant officer who sickens of the slaughter and throws the purple ribbon of his Military Cross into the Mersey and who dares – in defiance of all the shibboleths of his class and regiment – to make a public protest against the war remains indelible.
Wilson is at home with all Sassoon’s varied milieux: the Edwardian sporting scene, the Georgian poets, the trenches, the high bohemia of the 1930s, Wiltshire in his latter years. There is much about the succession of lovers or near-lovers – Gabriel Atkin, Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, Rex Whistler and above all the unbearable Stephen Tennant with his pearls and tantrums – but these tortuous episodes, in which Sassoon often gave as much hell as he got, are greatly revealing of his dissatisfaction as well as evocative of the period.
Wilson quotes freely from Sassoon’s verse, the worst of it as well as the best. Because he was a fairly acute critic of his own poetry, his two Collected Poems (1947 and 1961) exclude most of his more awful pre and post-Great War poems, and you need Wilson’s guiding hand to see that the conventional judgment is the correct one: that virtually all his good poems were written between 1914 and 1918 and a couple of years after. The only partial exception may be the religious verse he wrote in the last few years of his life, after converting to Roman Catholicism. Unfortunately, he was by then well into his seventies and too old to enjoy a second blooming such as that of his friend and hero Hardy. But there were in those last verses signs of a renewed crispness both in thought and prosody.
‘Always keep your eye on the object when you write,’ his uncle the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft advised him. Sassoon himself wrote to Edward Carpenter (one of his many gurus on a variety of subjects, in this case how to live a free life as a homosexual): ‘I’m one of those people who can only learn things by coming into the closest possible contact with them.’ He was well aware that he lacked intellectual power and was inclined to wander off in a moony reverie, with fatal effects on the verse that poured out as a result. It is too easy to blame the faded sentimentality of his worst stuff on the Georgians, to whom he attached himself through the early influence of Eddie Marsh and Edmund Gosse (correspondingly they did not much care for the raw tone of his war poetry). But it was Sassoon’s own inclination to look back to lost worlds and the happy days of his youth that kept him so stubbornly hostile to T.S. Eliot and to Modernism in general.
Yet in reality his youth was by no means untroubled. The Sassoons were descended from the great Jewish merchants of Baghdad. Siegfried’s great-great-grandfather Sasson Ben Saleh was the last Prince of the Captivity at the Caliph’s court, and before moving to England the family had been the leading merchants in Bombay, where their great charitable monuments still stand. But Siegfried’s father, Alfred, had been disowned by his mother when he insisted on marrying a gentile, Theresa Thornycroft, herself a sculptor and member of a robust clan of sculptors and engineers (her father Thomas founded the firm which eventually became Vosper Thornycroft, virtually the last surviving British shipbuilders).
Old Mrs Sassoon rushed straight to the synagogue to curse any children that might be born of this unholy union. She even declared her son officially dead, saying the funeral prayers for him and sitting the official period of mourning. These tactics proved quite effective. Alfred, an idler interested mostly in cricket and the violin, soon wearied of his devout and down-to-earth wife and drifted off to a studio in Pembroke Gardens with a shadowy mistress, before succumbing to galloping consumption in Eastbourne at the age of 34, leaving Theresa with three sons to bring up. The middle one, Siegfried, was to remain abnormally dependent on her for the rest of her long life. For his own first forty years he had no permanent home other than Weirleigh, a hideous high-gabled house on the Kentish Weald. Until the war came – and he was already 28 – he had no occupation to speak of. After dropping out of Cambridge, he led a life of more strenuous sloth than his father, foxhunting in the winter, playing cricket through the summer, and concentrating on golf in the spring and autumn, lodging mostly with hearty friends who, in his own view, satisfied the sturdy Thornycroft half of his nature while his sensitive ‘oriental’ half was nourished by the poet’s life that his mother had mapped out for him.
Wilson underplays Sassoon’s sporting skills. He won several steeplechases. He was a high-class club all-rounder at cricket. At golf, Wilson describes him as a ‘reasonably good player’, but his handicap of six makes him superior to other obsessive literary golfers such as P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming, and only a little inferior to Malcolm Lowry and Patrick Hamilton, who were golfers as well as drinkers of championship class. This devotion to sport went with a declared aversion to women and, at this stage, to sex in any form. He told Carpenter in 1911 that he was ‘still unspotted’, and so he seems to have remained until after the war, when he began to make up for lost time. Yet he always had a certain naivety about this side of life as about others and continued to regard his sexuality as something of a burden – ‘trouble down there’, as he would say.
Certainly, the enthusiasm with which he joined up in 1914 was largely indistinguishable from Rupert Brooke’s ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’, and just as naive. In ‘Absolution’ he wrote:
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And fighting for our freedom, we are free . . .
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.
Because of a riding accident and a change of regiment it was some time before he saw action and he maintained his happy warrior outlook for at least eighteen months. He was in the Army from the day war broke out to the day it ended but, Wilson points out, he spent in total barely a month in the front line – though he saw some of the fiercest fighting and probably deserved a bar to his MC.
War seemed to sharpen his reflexes. He developed an adoration for his men and admired their cheerful stoicism as much as their shining faces and white bodies – although, as Wilson reminds us, he was never to take a working-class lover. His powers of observation seemed to sharpen, too. Some of the descriptions in his war diaries are among the best things he ever wrote:
As I sit in the sun in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris, with shells flying overhead in the blue air, a lark sings high up, and a little weasel comes and runs past me within a foot of my outstretched foot, looking at me with tiny bright eyes. Bullets sing and whistle and hum; so do bits of shell; rifles crack; some small guns and trench-mortars pop and thud; big shells burst with a massive explosion, and the voluminous echoes roll along the valleys, to fade nobly and without haste or consternation.
This passage, like many in his diaries, is reproduced with little alteration in the fictional memoirs. Several such passages – turned into verse with minimal changes – also find their way into some of his most memorable war poems, such as ‘Died of Wounds’. In the same way, the daily experience of stumbling along trenches and treading on corpses – and the deaths of his younger brother Hamo at Gallipoli and his beloved ‘poor Tommy’, his fellow Welch Fusilier David Thomas – nourished his Homeric rage, which, in a uniquely Sassoonian way, led him to take the whole burden of war on himself as a kind of cosmic personal insult:
I want to smash someone’s skull; I want to have a scrap and get out of the war for a bit or for ever. Sitting in a trench waiting for a rifle grenade isn’t fighting: war is clambering out of the top trench at 3 o’clock in the morning with a lot of rum-drugged soldiers who don’t know where they are going – half of them to be blasted with machine-guns at point-blank range – trying to get over the wire which our artillery have failed to destroy. I can’t get my own back for Hamo and Tommy that way. While I am really angry with the enemy, as I am lately, I must work it off, as these things don’t last long with me as a rule. If I get shot it will be rotten for some people at home, but I am bound to get it in the neck sometime, so why not make a creditable show, and let people see that poets can fight as well as anybody else? And death is the best adventure of all.
This was how the legend of ‘mad Jack’ was born. He claimed that he thoroughly enjoyed crawling into no-man’s-land, bombing Germans out of their trenches and craters and lugging home injured comrades. And it was that rage, too, that gave the biting edge to his best war poems, an edge which has not gone blunt in poems such as ‘Blighters’, ‘The One-Legged Man’, ‘Base Details’ and ‘The General’. This summer, I found it greatly moving to hear him reading in that unobtrusive voice ‘Died of Wounds’, on a recording retrieved from the British Library archive:
The ward grew dark; but he was still complaining
And calling out for ‘Dickie’. ‘Curse the wood!
It’s time to go, O Christ, and what’s the good?
We’ll never take it, and it’s always raining.’
His protest against the war was egged on by the new pacifist friends he had made on his excursions to Garsington – notably Bertrand Russell and the Morrells, not to mention Robbie Ross, as loyal and wise a friend to Sassoon as he had been to Oscar Wilde. But he made it in his own way, and when he had made it, he characteristically refused to pursue it in the way they wanted, by doing ‘something else outrageous’, to use Lady Ottoline’s phrase. On the contrary, with apparent meekness he agreed to be classified as unfit and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital, where he had his famous meetings with Owen and with the man who was to be his new guru, the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers. Wilson describes Rivers as having persuaded Sassoon to return to the fighting. I wonder how much persuading he needed. When he was sent to Egypt, where there was much less chance of being killed, he badgered Marsh and others to get him sent back to France. Back in the front line, he resumed his nightly forays with the same heedless ferocity, until he was finally sent home with a head wound in July 1918.
What remains so impressive is not simply his courage but his determination to play things his own way. In war this may be glorious; in peace it was to be a more ambiguous quality. After the Armistice he became for a time an enthusiastic socialist. His most famous poem, ‘Everyone Sang’, which he claimed had just floated into his head as though from nowhere, was not just about the end of the war but about the social revolution he believed to be at hand in 1919, which as Wilson points out might have made the poem rather less popular if it had been generally known. He worked for George Lansbury’s Daily Herald and went to speak at Blackburn on behalf of Philip Snowden.
These political enthusiasms soon began to fade, and by the time he had inherited money – when his Aunt Rachel eventually died of the syphilis her husband had passed on to her – and had married Hester Gatty, who herself had a considerable private income, he embarked on the purchase of Heytesbury House with its 17 bedrooms, for which he found he needed no fewer than 17 servants. He treated Hester in much the same manner as he had treated his string of male lovers, beginning to complain of their shortcomings almost before he had finished hymning the raptures of true love which he claimed to be experiencing for the first time. He abruptly dismissed her from the house when her demands for attention began to impinge on him, although he never lost touch with her, or bothered to divorce her. He had his ups and downs, too, with his son George, whose wife, he complained, was too humbly born (the snobbish streak was always near the surface), later saying that on the contrary he was not worthy of her. At the same time, he remained as generous as he always had been, handing out large sums at unpredictable moments (for example, to his old wartime friend Robert Graves, but only after they had ceased to be real friends).
Sassoon was a great self-fashioner. He was also intensely self-aware, open-hearted (though capable of mean-spiritedness), restless, prickly, brave, idealistic, never content, eternally tussling with what he himself liked to identify as his contradictions, born of his double nature. (To the end of his life he liked to be known in the village as Captain Sassoon.) Some of these qualities he came to attribute to the Jewish half of his ancestry. Yet for the most part this was something he seemed only intermittently aware of, talking in an offhand way of his ‘oriental’ side. Many people, including my father, who thought they knew him (or indeed other Sassoons) tolerably well continued to believe that they were Parsees and would occasionally refer to their supposed belief in reincarnation or their habit of roasting their widows. Sassoon seems to have been negligent about correcting this error. The same was less true of his cousin Philip Sassoon, although he, too, was ambivalent about his (full) Jewishness.
It may seem odd that the two second cousins never really got to know one another. Philip was only two years younger than Siegfried. They were both essentially homosexual, they shared a passionate interest in the arts (except in literature, where Philip was something of a middlebrow, having a weakness for the company of popular female novelists), and they had many friends in common: the Sitwells, Lord Berners, Rex Whistler, T.E. Lawrence. Yet they didn’t meet until they were approaching their forties, and no friendship came of it. Partly this was because they were both conscious of Alfred’s excommunication from the family, which had relegated Siegfried to the ranks of the (relatively) ‘poor Sassoons’ until his Aunt Rachel’s death. Partly it was because of politics.
From the age of 24 until his death aged 51 in 1939, Philip was Conservative MP for Hythe, a seat he inherited from his father along with his baronetcy and a huge fortune. From 1915 until 1919 he was private secretary in France to the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, and thus belonged with Siegfried’s ‘scarlet majors at the base’ (the scarlet referring to the red tabs of the General Staff as much as to the colour of their faces), though he was anything but ‘fierce and bald and short of breath’, being slender, elegant and exaggeratedly polite. Other members of the Georgian establishment might acclaim Siegfried as the voice of his generation – as early as 1918, the Asquiths had him to lunch, despite his recent protest against the war; Winston Churchill went around reciting his war poems and even tried to reconvert him to militarism – but Philip, intensely hospitable though he was, made no overtures and went on pretending that their kinship was rather distant. The one time they met properly, at dinner with Osbert Sitwell, Philip told Sitwell how bad ‘The Old Huntsman’ was, while Siegfried told him how jealous Philip was of his literary fame. During the General Strike, Siegfried enjoyed contemplating the possibility that the strikers might burn down Philip’s enormous house in Park Lane, although typically he turned against the idea when it occurred to him that they might then go on to incinerate his beloved Reform Club.
Peter Stansky has written a double biography of Philip and his sister Sybil, who married the Marquess of Cholmondeley and brought her own great art collection to fill a few of the gaps at his house at Houghton left by the sale of Sir Robert Walpole’s collection to Catherine the Great. It is a beguiling book, superbly illustrated but handicapped by a shortage of first-rate sources. Philip was a prolific letter-writer, but he wrote, often in his official capacities, to amuse, flatter and appease, not to reveal much about himself. As a Tory MP, he remained utterly discreet about his personal attachments. Stansky can tell us little more than that he became very fond of the young airmen who piloted him as Under-Secretary for Air and once bought the boots of a particular favourite who had been killed in a flying accident.
As a politician, Sassoon was conscientious in the extreme but not much of a speaker. His fluting, foreign-sounding cadences did not go down well. He entertained PM after PM at his two country palaces, Trent Park in Hertfordshire and Port Lympne in Kent (recently famous again as the site of the perilous zoo run by the late John Aspinall, the grand croupier). But promotion never came. His natural melancholy deepened, relieved only by the affection and charm of his sister Sybil, who was more fulfilled in bringing up a family and restoring Houghton to its former splendour. Stansky does his best to convince us of Philip’s political importance but succeeds only in persuading us of his good-heartedness and generosity.
Where Philip does remain memorable is as a figure in the history of taste. Port Lympne, in its dramatic setting overlooking the Channel, can be seen as a landmark in the evolution of the Postmodern. Philip originally commissioned Sir Herbert Baker to build an H-shaped house in the Dutch Colonial style. Soon, Elizabethan balustrades were added, later its most memorable feature, a grand triumphal Trojan staircase of Mussolini or Cecil B. De Mille proportions, from the top of which you could see France on a clear day. Inside, there was a Moorish courtyard, marble everywhere and extravagant murals by José María Sert, ‘the Tiepolo of the Ritz’. Philip was fully aware of the high camp nature of the whole enterprise and said of one particularly ghastly bathroom panelled in brown and black zigzags of marble, ‘It takes you by the throat and shakes you.’ He delighted in monstrous armies of blue delphiniums, and sickening swirls of herbaceous borders. He was delighted, too, when he heard a guide telling a party of visitors, ‘It’s all in the old-world style but every bit of it sham.’
Into this architectural and horticultural farrago he enticed an endless procession of celebrities: Charlie Chaplin, Louis Mountbatten, the boxer Georges Carpentier, Wallis Simpson, Haig, Lytton Strachey, Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Noël Coward, T.E. Lawrence, who signed the visitors’ book ‘338171 A/C Shaw’ (though it was not at Port Lympne but in a letter that Coward asked him: ‘May I call you 338?’). The glimmerings of modern celebrity culture were first seen at Port Lympne. Almost everyone who met Philip Sassoon here or elsewhere described him as strange, unknowable and, ah, oriental – except for Virginia Woolf, who characteristically called him ‘an underbred Whitechapel Jew’. To bring out the anti-semitism of the English haute bourgeoisie, all you needed to do was ask them for the weekend.
In his opening chapters I began to think that Peter Stansky was making too much of his subject’s awkward position as an outsider in British life. He had, after all, swanned through Eton and Christ Church and into the House of Commons by way of the General Staff. By the end I thought that Stansky was right and that there was something very isolated about the slender figure standing at the top of those enormous steps looking out to France. Perhaps he should have got to know his cousin better.