A lecture to the Royston Pike group: Part 6
With all this modern love, mistresses, love triangles, tangled affairs, and general bed-hopping going on in Elmbridge, it is little wonder that the greatest modern chroniclers of love lived locally, and found inspiration here. Two of The Beatles were selected for The Elmbridge Hundred. John Ono Lennon (1940-1980) lived at Kenwood in Weybridge where from 1964-1966 he wrote songs for the albums Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. By 1964, Lennon was a multi-millionaire and moved to St George's Hill with his wife, Cynthia and their young son Julian. Lennon met Cynthia Powell as a student at Liverpool College of Art and they married on 23rd August 1962. In May 1968, Cynthia took a holiday in Greece without Lennon. She arrived back at Kenwood from Greece earlier than expected she discovered Lennon and Yoko Ono sitting cross-legged on the floor in matching white robes, with Ono's slippers outside the bedroom door. Cynthia and Julian remained at Kenwood while Lennon and Ono moved into Ringo Starr's flat in London. When Paul McCartney visited Cynthia and Julian later that year, on the way to Kenwood he composed the song Hey Jude in his head. George Harrison (1943-2001) lived at a bungalow called 'Kinfauns' in Esher with Patty Boyd from 1964 to 1970. During Lennon's break-up with Cynthia, most of the demos for The Beatles' White Album were recorded there.
Of course, it is not that Elmbridge has any detrimental affect on marriages, I for one got married whilst I have been living here and am very happy, but history does tend to record the scandals and errors people make. It is something that I have tried to stress to the local biographers, young and old, that have contributed to The Elmbridge Hundred. In writing a life history, we have a duty of care to the person whose life we are narrating not to emotionally abstract. Perhaps, the historian I most admire and have tried in vain to emulate is G.M. Young, who wrote in the 'Introduction' to his great masterpiece Victorian England: Portrait of an Age of 1936 that what was important in history was, "not what happened, but what people felt about it when it was happening". One has a personal responsibility to try to be truthful, not to fictionalize, or over-dramatize in retelling a story. G.M. Young describes history as recounting "the conversation of the people who counted" "Who were they? What were the assumptions behind their talk? And what came of it all?" What I most admire in G.M. Young is the easy, discursive tone of unpretentious accessibility with which he sifts such a density of detail. His historical writing feels conversational and autobiographical. His tone is always civilized, discursive, good-humoured, and tolerant. He draws the reader in, leaving you in no doubt that you and he are both emotionally involved in the story he is telling.
Ernest Edward Kellett (1864-1950), a friend and contemporary of G.M. Young, wrote in the preface of his memoirs As I Remember (1936), "I cannot expect the public to take notice of so obscure and undistinguished a life as mine". Kellet felt that he could only "play … the part of a traveller who happens to have seen a country not familiar to the majority of his audience and to describe it for their benefit". Kellett's memoirs seamlessly link serious intellectual concerns, and important theoretical issues by recounting casual encounters, anecdotes, and stray thoughts. "Mr. Kellett's memories," wrote Young in his essay 'Tempus Actum' "…are of real historical value". In both Kellett and Young, the truth is often an aside, a few stray words one might miss in passing, and need to seek in the small print at the foot of the page, an intriguing, tangential, but essential footnote.
The Diaries Of Charles Greville, personal journals recounting the reigns of George 4th and William 4th (1820-1837), and Queen Victoria (1837-1852), were also an inspiration for The Elmbridge Hundred. The English and American public has devoured few memoirs with greater relish than those of Greville. The journals of the reigns of George 4th and William 4th sold five editions in its first year of publication. Greville's witty, fiercely honest memories record his impressions as a privileged, contemporary eyewitness. Anecdotes and gossip, events he saw, and things he heard and overheard, are written down as the reliable stuff of history. Greville does not seek scandal, but simply to collate and bequeath some source material for history, by which his contemporaries could be judged. His focus is the private motivations that define public moments; and his memoirs are one of the great life history documents of the 19th century.
As an historian whose primary interest is in the impact of industrial and technological change (I am currently researching and writing a social history of the art of electro-metallurgy from its invention circa 1840 with the V&A Museum and the University of Sussex) another historian I admire is a local one. E. Royston Pike's book Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution in Britain of 1966 is an exemplar of the original research methodology I have been encouraging local A-level students to discover. All the documents Royston Pike lays before the reader "are original documents, prepared and written and set down in print when the Revolution was actually going on". He writes, "No doubt many of them are one-sided, some of them frankly partisan, most of them limited in their viewpoint. But then they are not what have been filtered through the minds and pens of historians, writing long afterwards in a calmer atmosphere and enjoying the not inconsiderable advantages of knowledge after the event. They are the raw material of history; and what they may perhaps lose in balanced reflection and considered judgment they much more than make up for in first-hand testimony, in the warmth of feeling engendered by personal experience."
Personal experience, like lives, race by in a blur of detail, and I have not enough time to tell you about all of The Elmbridge Hundred. Over half the lives remained untold this evening. What unites the work of Kellett, Young, Greville, and Royston Pike is the humility of knowing that history is always, primarily a collective endeavour. How can one historian hope to capture the vast diversity of human experience and character of a past society in its entirety? It is the task that most unites and divides a community, but one that can only be achieved together. One of the strongest of all urges is that of any long-lived person is to pass on memories, and to re-create for younger people the ways in which things have changed for better or worse during his or her lifetime. Younger people, in forming their own ideas, opinions, and personal style need to evoke in the present the elusive moods and tones of a disappearing past, to recount lost modes of speech and thought. Most of all, it reminds us that history, and the art of recording it in words and images, is not just about events on the international and national stage, or even local achievements. G.M. Young makes it abundantly clear that real history is often what goes on happening despite those events. Reviewing the memoirs and letters of the Victorian progressive Liberal politician, atheist, and early advocator of birth control, John Russell, Viscount Amberley, he says: "Amberley was a long-winded fellow, and some of the details relating to the arrival of the little Russells struck me as being, in our grandmothers' use of the word, unnecessary. Yet I am not sure that this very abundance of trifling intimacies was not required to make the picture complete, giving it a kind of aerial perspective in which the [grand events of public life] appear as they really did appear to people who were all the time thinking quite as much about their babies… their mothers-in-law, and their gardens…"
I would like to end with one, last, local life that I am sure that many of you know well. R.C. Sherriff [Robert Cedric] (1896-1975) was a playwright and scriptwriter. During the 1st World War, he served as a captain in the 9th East Surrey regiment at Vimy and Loos, before being severely wounded at Ypres in 1917. Apart from plays, he wrote several acclaimed novels and film screenplays, including Dambusters, the story of Barnes Wallis' 'bouncing bombs', and Goodbye Mr Chips. R.C. Sherriff lived at Rosebriars in Esher Park Avenue. When he died, his estate endowed The R.C. Sherriff Trust to support the arts in Elmbridge, and it is through the generous support of The R.C. Sherriff Trust and its trustees that The Elmbridge Hundred project started and continues.
The next phase of the project is the ambitious of task of seeking local sponsorship for one hundred poetic plaques to be sited around Elmbridge at the places that each of The Elmbridge Hundred are most closely associated with. Our sponsorship campaign began a few weeks ago and, despite the belt-tightening economic climate, we already have 7 of the plaques sponsored. So, if any of you individually or collectively have a favourite figure from The Elmbridge Hundred you would like to help commemorate please make yourself known. To quote the Conservative party slogan at the 1906 General Election, which forced David Lloyd George to begin the arms race with Germany that contributed to the outbreak of the 1st World War, "We want eight and we won't wait." The Tories, by the way, wanted dreadnought battleships not poetic plaques.
I thought I should end with a quote from the King James Bible, completed five hundred years ago at the request of Elmbridge's very own James 1st. The quote, from Psalm 90:9, is a beautifully poetic and wildly inaccurate translation of the Hebrew original. In the King James Version, which is infallibly right because King James cannot be wrong, Moses apparently said, "We spend our years as a tale that is told". In my poetic portraits, I always try to look for a lesser-known tale: an event, or episode, which somehow reveals a shape that evokes the whole arc of a life history. I would like to conclude by reading you the poem from the first plaque I have made, which recounts the story of R.C. Sherriff's first play.
After surviving the muddy hell
Of the battles for Vimy Ridge and Messines,
Second Lieutenant Robert Cedric Sherriff was wounded by a shell
At Passchendaele in 1917.
After a spell in The Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley,
He returned to his old job with The Sun Insurance Company.
He joined the Kingston Rowing Club, and, in 1921, started writing plays
Hoping to raise £100 to replace their worn-out, patched-up boats,
And keep the colours of their racing eight afloat.
As secretary of the entertainments sub-committee, his fellow rowers had decreed
That he must try to write a one-act comedy with twenty-five male leads!
Because, they all agreed,
The more rowers acting in the play there were,
The more likely it was that all their wives and girlfriends,
Friends and foes might bother to buy tickets!
And so the curtain rose
On the playwriting career of R.C. Sherriff,
As the stage was set with chairs in four neat rows,
Suggesting an empty bus about to depart for Brighton.
Gradually, a variety of actors arrive in ones and twos and threes,
And pay their fares to a silent man they assume to be the bus driver.
Each tells a tale in turn, in a chain of chatty, comic scenes.
When every seat is filled and fare is paid,
The somewhat shady, solitary man
Takes the cash he has collected, and sneaks stealthily away,
Just before the real driver of the bus arrives to say
How sorry he is that the bus has broken down,
But trusts the chap he left behind explained!
The play was a success in that it kept the boats afloat,
But left Sherriff with a dramatic itch,
Which meant that writing plays became an annual event,
And every month, payday became play day
With an evening visit to a theatre in the West End.
However, seeing other people's plays was not enough,
And Sherriff yearned to find something worth writing about,
Until, in 1928, he decided to base his seventh play
On letters he had sent to his parents from the trenches of Arras and Ypres.
The entire three-act play takes place
On four fateful days between the 18th and 21st of March 1918
In a dugout at Saint-Quentin.
Every major London theatre turned it down,
Claiming people did not want to see a play
Without a leading lady,
About the futility and inner torment of the First World War.
However, a friend suggested that he send the script to George Bernard Shaw,
On whose good word Journey's End was staged for two shows at the Apollo,
Starring a young and unknown actor named Laurence Olivier.
In 1929, it opened at the Savoy, before transferring to the Prince of Wales.
In March that same year, it opened and ran for a year on Broadway.
It was a dramatic journey for a modest insurance adjuster,
From an ill-fated bus trip, with roles for all his friends,
To the Savoy and Broadway's Journey's End.
Previous | Part 6