End of a Beautiful Friendship
When Siegfried Sassoon first met the slightly older, more experienced, Norman Loder as a young boy at his first fox hunt he looked upon him with awe. His respect was total and he wanted nothing more than to be just like him. Norman Loder was a catalyst, he, more than anyone else, created ‘The Fox Hunting Man.’ The two became the greatest of friends, and for the period up to the beginning of the First World War, their relationship was solid. But then something happened to one of them which would change their relationship forever.
Before the war, Sassoon’s outlook on life was, as he would admit, somewhat shallow. All he wanted to do was hunt, write pastoral poetry and collect books. He was no ‘Man of the World,’ and indeed, home and Norman Loder defined his world. While at the front Sassoon was shot and badly wounded on two separate occasions but he recovered from those wounds. However, the war affected him just as profoundly in a different way, and although he would not realise it at the time, it would also affect his relationship with Norman Loder radically and permanently.
As with a lot of people, Sassoon had been touched by the horrors of the war. But it was different for Sassoon in that it made him want to write about it, he wanted to let everyone know what war was really like. He felt it his duty to help the fighting men not only by leading them, but, perhaps naively, by trying to change attitudes at home. He did this by writing, bitter, ‘protest’ war poetry, which was published in the press, and also by making his personal protest in refusing to fight, in order to bring the country, and maybe the world, to its senses. Suddenly, hunting, pastoral poems and his previous life before the war didn’t seem quite so important any more. Sassoon began to publish books of poetry, to mix in literary circles and keep the company of ‘men in high places.’ Men who thought on a different level to poor old, provincial, Norman Loder.
We all know that sometimes relationships break down, even marriages, when partners want different things and they drift apart. Norman Loder hadn’t changed, he was no poet or politician. Norman remained the same person he had always been, even after he became married to his wife Phyllis, and still felt the same affection for Sassoon. Sassoon however, almost began to despise Loder. He looked down on him and his circle. He knew he was doing it and he knew he was being unkind, but he also knew he had changed, and nothing would be the same again. There was never a particular moment when Siegfried’s and Norman’s friendship broke up, rather a slow realisation (on Sassoon’s part anyway), and a gradual drifting apart.
The most telling evidence of this one sided shift in their relationship is to be found in two Journal entries made by Sassoon on 23 and 24 February, 1922, (held in the Cambridge University Digital Library), when he went to stay with the Loders at their house in Cirencester. What also shines out like a beacon from the words of my hero Sassoon, is what an incredible snob he could be...
I bring my note book to this hospitable house with a sense of surreptitious disloyalty. It contains enough material, in itself, to damn me forever with my unintellectual Loders; but apart from the confessions of anathematized passion inscribed on preceding pages – I feel reluctant in writing comments on this page. This book of course epitomises my (to the L’s) secret life. As a rule I try to leave that life in London, when I travel the 100 odd miles every Thursday and ring the front door bell…”Hullo! Here’s old Sig!” exclaims N.W.L. (Norman Wilfrid Loder), chucking away the racing calendar, and getting on to his equestrian legs to welcome me. P.L. (Norman’s wife Phyllis), is executing a Chopin or Scriabine prelude with drawing room virtuosity; or playing some dicing race game with her six year old, John. I come into this friendly atmosphere of firelight and terriers and curtained windows and silk cushions and sporting society, with an air of playing the old friend of the young married couple in a Pinero play.
I am not exactly bored, but I know exactly what to expect, what topics are suitable for discussion. Almost all the topics can be found in today’s papers, or last week’s ‘Tatler’. There is the “Society Turf Scandal”; and Horatio Bottomley’s affairs; and the Irish Question; and the Prince of Wales in India; the provincial reverberations of popular plays and novels; and of course, hunting and racing etc. (I always solemnly discuss the current billiard matches with N.)
This evening they returned from Newbury Races an hour after my arrival. N. had lost £20; but they’d had an enjoyable day! My relationship to their existence could be displayed in a report of our conversation after dinner. I made one mistake… when asked, (by P’s sister who is staying here), whether I’d read “If Winter Comes”, I blurted out “No! But I’m told it’s absolute muck!” I might just as well have gone on to say “Yes, and there’s a gulf between your mental existence and mine which can never be bridged!” The strange thing is that the gulf is not obvious to them, as it is to me. It would be; but their attitude toward me is based on my conventional behaviour before the war, when they first knew me. Whatever I do now, they try to evade it by pretending that I am really the same as I was 8 years ago! And of course, I’ve made a success out of my eccentricity; which practically justifies it in their eyes.
After “If Winter Comes” had been dropped, P. read out a stupid letter in “The Daily Mirror”, about “Who are our best living poets”? and I had to explain laboriously, that de la Mare is quite well-known. The trouble with these people is that they don’t use their brains, except for trivial and automatically conventional purposes. P.L. for instance, has quite as good a brain as many minor poetesses and moderately successful women-novelists. They are like most people, (including many so-called intellectuals) securely unaware of their own limitations.
But by 10.30 I am weary of listening to N.L. urging me to go and see “this year’s Grand National”, - explaining in detail how I could get there by a special salon-train, and expatiating on the extraordinary size and solidity of the fences…
With a sense of escape I sit by my bedroom fire, remembering that I had lunch today with dear Rivers, who is neither sporting, nor bohemian, nor eccentric, nor ‘Socialistic’, but merely human and clear-headed and wise. The Loders are conventional, grown-up, children. There is nothing repulsive about their stupidity. On the contrary, there is a lot of good to be learned from it. But not more than once a week, please!
P’s remark “Perhaps we aren’t meant to know” is probably a ‘defensive reaction.’ It summarises her philosophy about everything which she doesn’t understand.
Although they wouldn’t be any happier if they tried to be intellectual. They are the product of a stupid environment. But one can hardly call their mental views superficial because they are so solid! What is wrong is that their minds are not flexible, or capable of readjustment to new ideas. They refuse to face the problems of human existence and say “Perhaps we aren’t meant to know.”
Such people when they behave reasonably and don’t cause ‘Turf Scandals’ are known as ‘The backbone of the country’. In such a society as ours I suppose they are. The creative and original people are ahead of society, so they are really outside the body of which upper middle-class stupidity is the ‘back-bone.’
How hard I try to analyse my experiences (and acquaintances)!.. No doubt I see things in a distorted and over-elaborate way. In comparing the Loders with my other friends I find them to be with all their crass limitations and prejudices, quite unusually generous and affectionate, and human, in their simple way... People like Turner and self are abnormal. We are too intelligent to be serene, and not old enough to be tolerant. I think serenity and tolerance are incompatible with people of creative ability, until they are fully developed.