Heavy weather

By , August 12, 2010 5:45 pm

One of the disadvantages of reading for pleasure rather than for research is there is (in me at least) a tendency for the choice of books to be fairly discursive. Consequently, when something interesting crops up it’s often difficult to spot that it might one day prove useful in another context and ought to be carefully noted down for future reference. And after a while, of course, I can no longer remember where on earth I read it.

During the time I’ve been working on Sassoon I’ve been trying to recall where I once saw (or heard – maybe it was on television or radio) the story of an old Army officer from the Great War who had been reading an anthology of the war poets. He had fought on the Western Front and spent a lot of time in the trenches. He wasn’t a literary man. He was asked what he thought of the poems of Sassoon, Owen and their contemporaries, and replied that yes, they were jolly good, very descriptive and realistic. Then he paused and added: ‘But those poet chaps – they do seem to have made rather heavy weather of it all!’

I’d very much like to pin this down. Can anyone point me to a reliable source for it?

Sassoon and schools

By , August 10, 2010 5:18 pm

A ‘guest post’ by Hannah Haines of the Library’s Entrance Hall staff.

The 'Dream Voices' teaching resource in the Exhibition Centre

The 'Dream Voices' teaching resource in the Exhibition Centre

The history and literature of the Great War has been a topic on the GCSE syllabus for many years, and from the outset of planning the ‘Dream Voices’ exhibition, we were aware of the potential for involving local schools in the Sassoon project. Making the subject of conflict accessible to the 13–16 age group presents challenges, but by inviting pupils to engage with original historical sources, we hope to show how archival research can inspire lively insights into material they may have only seen printed in textbooks.

In order to maximise the appeal of an exhibition visit to teachers, we have put together a resource pack that highlights particular items from the collection and suggests discussion points to tie the visit to the curriculum requirements. We identified key themes that would be relevant to studies in English Literature, History and Citizenship, such as depictions of trench warfare, Sassoon’s anti-War protest of 1917, and the concepts of patriotism and remembrance. Although the process of writing the pack began before the exhibition was assembled, some of Sassoon’s best-known works presented themselves as suitable source material. There was an amount of adjustment to be done once the CD of exhibition images arrived (my first, excited, viewing of the archive!) – for instance, Sassoon’s sketch of a memorial statue to be erected in Cambridge adds a great visual element to discussions of how people can be encouraged to remember and commemorate war.

These packs have been dispatched to a number of teachers, and we hope that the result will be a number of small group visits in the Michaelmas Term that will take in the exhibition and suggested follow-up activities.

Sassoon panel discussion

By , July 28, 2010 2:01 pm

A recording of the Sassoon panel discussion in Cambridge on 20 July, with Jon Stallworthy, Max Egremont, Santanu Das and Tim Kendall, has now been made available via the University’s Streaming Media Service: <http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/866563>.

Audio slideshow

By , July 21, 2010 3:26 pm

The BBC news website has an audio slideshow based on ‘Dream Voices’, produced by Paul Kerley, who’s put together an interesting mixture of images, music and poetry. It’s at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10714688.

‘Dream Voices’ now open

By , July 21, 2010 11:49 am

The 'Dream Voices' opening reception

The Library’s exhibition, ‘Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, Memory and War’, opened to the public at 9.00 this morning. The supporting web pages are now visible at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Sassoon/index.html.

Our celebration opening event yesterday afternoon went off well. About a hundred people attended a panel discussion in Robinson College, chaired by Jon Stallworthy. Max Egremont spoke on Sassoon’s life and continuing significance as a writer, Santanu Das explored Sassoon’s responses in verse and prose to the death of his friend David Thomas in 1916, and Tim Kendall spoke about ‘The Kiss’, the poem inspired by Major Campbell’s belligerent lecture on ‘The Spirit of the Bayonet’ (Sassoon’s notes taken at the lecture are on display in the exhibition). We’re planning to put a link to a recording of this event on the blog shortly.

Then it was back to the Exhibition Centre for the opening reception itself. Alison Richard, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, spoke about the importance Cambridge attached to securing the Sassoon Archive, and of the strong sense we had formed during last year’s fundraising campaign that there was a widespread appreciation in the country of the importance of Sassoon both as a writer and as a representative of the First World War generation. Max Egremont thanked the contributors to the fundraising effort, and underlined the general feeling that the Archive had found its proper home in the University Library, before declaring ‘Dream Voices’ officially open. We hope that as many people as possible will come and visit over the next five months.

A Triumph!

By , July 20, 2010 9:12 am

No, not a verdict on the exhibition — but a vital piece of information missing from the ‘Motorbikes’ post below. I’ve been told by a conservator colleague who knows about these things that I should have specified the make of machine on which Ivan Hart-Davies made his record-breaking John o’ Groats to Land’s End ride. It was a Triumph.

All in place

By , July 20, 2010 8:59 am

The cleaning fluid used to give the glass of the Exhibition Centre display cases a last polish has a very distinctive smell – maybe it’s a detergent marketing team’s idea of ‘Pine’. Whatever it’s supposed to remind me of, I always find it evocative: it tells me the job of mounting the exhibition is more or less complete.

The fortnights during which we change our displays bring together the work of many of the colleagues who contribute to the exhibitions programme. The conservators, who have appraised every item to make sure it can be safely exhibited and spent weeks making cradles and backing-boards, now oversee the placement of the manuscripts, books and pictures in the cases. Once everything is in position we make final decisions on the shape of the caption labels, and the conservators print them onto heavy paper, cut them to size and back them onto board for a professional finish.

While this is going on, Imaging Services mount the wall panels. The panels – a metre by a metre and a half – describe the themes of the display and provide additional visual interest in the form of images of poems, drawings or diary entries that aren’t on show in the display cases themselves. The panels are printed here in the Library, but designed by an external design consultancy which has also worked on various other aspects of the ‘Dream Voices’ project, such as posters, banners and guides. There are four panels surrounding the pillar in the Exhibition Centre, and the Library’s joiners have fixed up a new system of frames for mounting these, which look very smart.

Our I.T. experts have prepared a full set of web pages to complement the exhibition, and these will go live at http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Sassoon/index.html later today. Meanwhile, my colleague as Joint Exhibitions Officer has been busy working on the distribution of print publicity and the production of large-type texts of the exhibition.

At the end of last week, just on schedule, we made the final adjustments to the position of the exhibits and captions: tiny nudgings and touchings, eighths and sixteenths of inches, until everything looks as straight and perpendicular as the uneven edges of elderly volumes and documents will allow. It’s only when exhibits and captions are brought together in the cases that we can see where shadows will fall, and we improvise with stands and mounts to avoid having shady patches in the wrong places. Yesterday morning the electrician refocused the spotlights on the wall panels, and the conservators have taken measurements of the light levels in the cases to ensure against damage to the paper,  inks and pigments of the documents. The case lids have been closed for the last time, putting an air-tight seal between the exhibits and the outside environment. It’s now safe to squirt the cleaning fluid.

The smell of success? Our visitors will be the judges of that.

Farewell to the spies

By , July 5, 2010 12:45 pm

Today we begin putting ‘Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, Memory and War’ into the Exhibition Centre. The first job is to unload the exhibits from the previous display, ‘Under Covers: Documenting Spies’. Unloading an exhibition hardly seems to take any time at all: a quick transfer of books, maps and manuscripts onto trolleys, and they’re ready for return to their accustomed places on the Library shelves. Half a year to prepare, and half an hour to dismantle.

Still — the decks are now cleared for Sassoon.


By , June 26, 2010 12:53 pm

We’re coming to the end of writing the exhibit captions for the ‘Dream Voices’ exhibition. We try not to let the captions go too far over a hundred words each: if we exceeded that limit too often, a display with fifty or sixty exhibits (most of which are themselves written texts) would present an exhausting amount of reading.

I don’t always find it possible to be as concise as I would like. Each caption represents a mini-research exercise, and following the leads through printed reference works and web-based resources often turns up a great deal of interesting detail that will never make its way into the final text. A caption is there to identify the exhibit, place it in context, and perhaps indicate one or two points of interest that might otherwise be missed: perhaps explaining a technical term or identifying a named individual.

A recent caption drew me into some unfamiliar by-ways. One of the items received with the newly-accessioned Sassoon Archive (MS Add. 9852) is a notebook used by Sassoon to record cricket matches in which he took part between 1899 and 1905. Most of the matches recorded were played in Kent during his school holidays, when Sassoon turned out for local village sides or for scratch elevens assembled by his brother Michael or himself. Several of the matches were played for an ‘I. B. Hart-Davies XI’, and as the most attractive opening of the book to display in the exhibition had details of one of these matches, I wanted to find out more about the captain of this side.

It transpired that Hart-Davies was a well-known figure in the early history of motorcycling. After attending the King’s School in Canterbury he had become a schoolmaster at the New Beacon in Sevenoaks, which the Sassoon brothers attended (and is described by Siegfried in the first chapter of ‘Seven More Years’, the second part of The Old Century). In 1909, Hart-Davies took the motorcycle speed record between John o’ Groats and Land’s End, covering 886 miles in 33 hours and 22 minutes. The motorcycling journalist ‘Ixion’ (pen-name of Basil H. Davies) remembered that although he wasn’t the fastest rider over short courses, Hart-Davies’s physical stamina was ‘colossal… he never tired.’ In 1911 he reduced the John o’ Groats to Land’s End record to 29 hours 12 minutes, but this was his last attempt: according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, ‘As his speed exceeded the then maximum of 20mph further official record attempts were banned by the Auto Cycle Union.’

After giving up school-teaching Hart-Davies became an insurance broker in the Midlands. In 1913 he qualified as a pilot, and it was rumoured that he took up flying to try to set another John o’ Groats to Land’s End speed record, by air. However, it was flying that led to his death: he was killed in July 1917 on a training flight as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. An obituary notice in The Times recorded that, with three other motorcyclists, he won the Mürren Cup, despite the fact that none of the team had ever done any bobsleighing before. A fellow-officer quoted by The Times called Hart-Davis a ‘gallant fellow whom we all liked immensely’.

The King’s School in Canterbury, which has undertaken research on its Old Boys killed in the War, knew about Hart-Davies’s motorcycling exploits, but hadn’t heard of his cricket XI or his links with Sassoon. Among the huge research potential of the Cambridge Sassoon Archive, a cricket scorebook may represent only a tiny part; but nevertheless this document gives us a previously-unseen glimpse of the unusually active sporting life of one of the generation heading unknowingly to war.

Sassoon’s Poetry Please

By , May 22, 2010 3:43 pm

David Bamber (left) and Roger McGough during the recording of 'Poetry Please' in the University Library.

A team from BBC Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’ visited the Library in April to record two programmes based on our holdings of manuscript poetry.

The second of these programmes, due to be broadcast on Sunday 6 June at 16.30 (and repeated at 23.30 on Saturday 12 June), focusses exclusively on the writings of Siegfried Sassoon, as represented in the Sassoon manuscript collections here.

The presenter, poet Roger McGough, was shown treasures from our recently-acquired archive of Sassoon’s papers, MS Add. 9852, together with items from Sassoon collections accessioned in earlier years. Actor David Bamber (whose television roles include Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Cicero in Rome) voiced a selection of Sassoon’s poems, as well as the ‘Soldier’s declaration’, Sassoon’s 1917 statement protesting against the continuation of the First World War.

The recording took place in the Library’s Sir Geoffrey Keynes Room, a fitting venue given Keynes’s close links with Sassoon and involvement with the publication of many of his small press poetry editions, from Vigils onwards.