2017, Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon

This was hosted jointly by the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and the Wildred Owen Association. For those who didn’t attend an optional talk at the Camera Obscura, the weekend began with a walk through the imposing gate of Edinburgh Castle, a setting well known to, and used by, quite a few of ‘our’ authors. We had been invited by the Governor of the Castle to the Great Hall for an evening of music and verse about Wilfred Owen and the Great War. It was a moving experience, especially the piece played on the Wilfred Owen violin, made from wood from the grounds of the former Craiglockhart Military Hospital, and set the tone perfectly for the following day. This was spent at Craiglockhart itself, now part of Napier University and home to the War Poets Collection, and for some time during the War, home also to Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who met there in 1917 while being treated for shell shock.

Over coffee on the Saturday morning, we caught up with friends and browsed the publications of our fellow societies, before settling down to the day’s business. We were welcomed by Professor Andrea Nolan, Vice Chancellor of Napier, who talked about the role of Craiglockhart in treating what we now call PTSD. Linda Curry, ALS Chair, then introduced our new President, Claire Harman, who described the obsession with a writer that is necessary to writing a biography. She then introduced a subject dear to her, and to many ALS members: public libraries. Writers who become the subjects of biographies and who inspire literary societies have a band of what she called ‘ultra appreciators’, people well-placed, she suggested, to campaign on behalf of libraries, through individual society websites, through social media, through the ALS itself, and to the public at large.

The first of the day’s talks, by Professor Alistair McLeery of Napier University, looked at the First World War from a Scottish perspective, while musing on what exactly that might be. Both Neil M Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote powerfully on the effects of war and poverty on local communities, and both eventually came to see that catharsis and hope may come with a sense of oneness with the land. Indeed, Gunn, a founding member of the Scottish National Party, pursued an almost mystical thread with his final work, The Atom of Delight – only the land endures.

The AGM followed lunch and a visit by many of the War Poets Collection. Linda Curry described the ALS’s new website and announced the theme for the 2018 ALSo, ‘The Unreliable Narrator’; while Cally Phillips, the new Newsletter Editor, suggested that she would like to change the focus of the newsletter so that it doesn’t simply tell members what has already happened. Linda also encouraged members to consider joining the ALS committee.

Finally, Dr Hazel Hutchison (the University of Aberdeen) talked about the soundscapes of war. She pointed out that there are no sound recordings of the First World War, although new technology meant that warfare had become unprecedentedly noisy. Poets responded to the desire to capture these sounds with imitative language and, perhaps, by doing so, helped to process the physical and psychological effects of war. This talk was particularly evocative as it was followed by more music and poetry, the ‘other’ soundscapes of war.

The day ended with dinner and more conversation – and, in the tradition of these occasions, readings by representative from many of the member societies, making it a most pleasant evening.

Next morning, those who remained went on a literary tour of Edinburgh, a city with no shortage of sights associated with ALS authors.

Warmest thanks are due to the Wilfred Owen Association and the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship for organising such an enjoyable weekend, and in such splendid surroundings.