Category Archives: Edinburgh International Book Festival

‘The Poetry of War: Portraits of the Patients at Craiglockhart’ – 24 August 2014 (article two)


‘Many of us who came to the Hydro slightly ill are now getting dangerously well’, observed Siegfried Sassoon Wilfred Owen, writing in the Hydra magazine on 1 September 1917. The opening line of Sassoon’s Owen’s editorial for the Craiglockhart Military Hospital publication explicitly captures the precarious situation convalescing soldiers found themselves in. Recovery was a pyrrhic victory as a return to health meant a return to the front line.

On Sunday evening at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, a full audience attended Edinburgh Napier University’s ‘The Poetry of War, Portraits of the Patients of Craiglockhart’ event to explore the lives of returning soldiers and officers scarred from the theatres of war. The curator of the war poets collection at Craiglockhart campus, Catherine Walker and historian Allan Burnett, took to the stage to share their expert knowledge of this period with the assembled audience. They were also joined by guest speakers who read extracts from the literary works of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Walker recounted the history of the Craiglockhart building noting prior to its incarnation as a military hospital in 1916, it was in fact a hydropathic spa for the ‘worried wealthy’. In later life, the building was also a convent of the Scared Heart for the purposes of teaching and training. However, the central focus of the event was to explore the activities that occurred when the building was used as a military hospital and the daily environment of its patients.

The birth of the Hydra magazine can be seen as a product of this environment. The aforementioned Hydra was published in 1917 and used as communication channel for recovering patients to keep up-to-date with all the activities that were occurring in and around Craiglockhart. This ranged from sporting victories and competitions in tennis, bowls or croquet as well as keeping patients abreast of news from the debating club. Moreover, the publication reached out to the wider community (friends and families of patients) to allow them to participate and remain informed of events at the hospital.

The medical fraternity of Craiglockhart, Dr William Halls Halse Rivers and Dr Arthur Brock, were influential in creating the conditions that allowed the Hydra magazine to emerge. Rivers, who treated Sassoon, adopted a ‘talking cures’ approach. Meanwhile Brock employed ‘ergo therapy’, a working cure in which he attempted to reconnect the damaged man back to the environment he would know and recognise. The two methods complemented one another. In the case of Owen and Sassoon, the creation of a hospital magazine allowed the men to engage in creative writing as a cathartic therapy; whilst it also reconnected the men as wordsmiths to an activity they were familiar with and practiced. The publication allowed the men to reflect upon and articulate their experiences of the First World War to produce some of their most notable poems and become a defining voice in twentieth-century war poetry.

Burnett attempted to give wider background to events occurring on the western front in 1916 but mainly spoke about the effect of war at a regional level, specifically the bombing of the Grassmarket in Edinburgh on 2 April 1916. While Burnett may have side-stepped the original question asked by the chairperson with regards to the international developments, he nonetheless painted a vivid picture of the consequences of war upon Scotland and her people both at home and at the front. Against this context the riches of the archived collection at Craiglockhart are further underscored. The manuscript material, particularly the Hydra magazine, captures a snapshot of the impact of the Great War on the Edinburgh community. If you wish to visit the war poets collection details can be found by clicking this link:


The following photo shows David Jarman and Jane Ali-Knight of Edinburgh Napier University, with Elspeth Frew, in attendance for the event. Article contributed by Aisling MacQuarrie.


‘The Sacrifices of War’ – Mark Byford, 20 August 2014

Byford01A cool and confident Mark Byford walked into the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday afternoon to discuss his compelling account of the Vietnam War and the cost of conflict in his new book, A Name on a Wall: Two Men, Two Wars, Two Destinies. Sir Menzies Campbell in his role as chairperson introduced Byford, a journalist and former BBC Deputy Director General, to the assembled audience. The author set the scene as he explained the remarkable coincidences that inspired his literary journey before reading aloud passages from his work to the attentive crowd. The book revolves around the lives of two seemingly contrasting and unrelated men who happen to share the same surname of Byford. The first of these men is the author’s father, Lawry Byford, a solder in the Second World War, who served with the American army. The second namesake is Larry Byford, an American soldier who fought and died in the Vietnam War.

The author interweaves the experiences of both men to explore the impact of war on their personal and interior worlds. For one man the outbreak of war presented an opportunity for his talents to be recognised and offered him the potential to embark on a different professional path. Whilst for another the war ended a life and destroyed any aspirations he may have held. Byford’ s talents for reportage, accuracy and authenticity, honed during his career as an investigative journalist, can be identified on account of the impeccably researched nature of his work. Every conceivable source of information from eye witness accounts to official documentation is drawn upon to flesh out the lives of the two men and the extraordinary and divisive times they lived in.

Byford02During a stay in Washington D.C., at five o’clock in the morning, Byford decided to take the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial, more commonly known as ‘the Wall,’ before the start of an unrelenting working day. On his arrival he was deeply moved by the impact of this commemorative memorial and observed a shaft of sunlight illuminating a single name etched onto the stone – that name was Larry Byford. A nearby veteran and gatekeeper observed a reflective Byford and instructed him to take a rubbing of the engraving. Upon hearing that the author’s father was a surviving veteran of World War II he insisted that the writer give the rubbing to his father. Byford candidly confessed he took the tracing merely to appease the old veteran and after returning to England placed the folded paper into a draw where it sat for unfurled for some time. It is an astonishing coincidence that of the 58,282 names listed that this particular appellation should catch the author’s attention.

The turning point that would link this set of coincidences came when Byford decided to talk to his father about his own experiences during the Second World War. Over the course of their discussions, Lawry took his son to his hometown in Yorkshire and brought him to a memorial which listed the names of all 76 townsmen who tragically did not return from the Second World War. With great insight the elder Byford shared an eternal truth with his son that behind every name there is a story. After considering these words the author determined to discover the story behind Larry Byford — the name on the wall.

Byford03As the author uncovers the narratives of the two military men (who fought in very distinct wars) he also addresses broader thematic issues. Byford questions the cost of conflict, the nature and meaning of duty and the legacy of war. Crucially, he also assesses the extent to which the scars of war are still being healed. One of the key strengths of A Name On a Wall is how the author demonstrates from understanding the particular the universal can be discovered. It was with integrity and honestly Mark Byford shared with the assembled audience the remarkable literary and personal journey he undertook in the research and making of this book, prompting this listener to reflect on the sacrifices of war.


Article contributed by Aisling MacQuarrie.

‘The Poetry of War: Portraits of the Patients at Craiglockhart’ – 24 August 2014

As the Edinburgh International Book Festival drew to a close for 2014, one of the highlights of Edinburgh Napier’s involvement took place on a sunny Sunday evening. Having heard mention of the Craiglockhart War Hospital, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in various talks during the Festival, it was fitting that the Edinburgh Napier University sponsored event brought these themes to the fore. A packed audience gathered to hear about life at the hospital, the treatments and practices of the institution and the artefacts and archives which remain. On the stage was Alan Burnett (author of The Story of Scotland) and, archivist at Craiglockhart, Catherine Walker.

IMG_3418Over the course of an hour the packed audience was introduced to the history of Craiglockhart (first a hydro hotel, later a convent), the medical approaches of Dr Rivers and Dr Brock and some other connections between Edinburgh and the Great War. This latter point touched on Edinburgh-born Earl Haig, and the aerial bombardment of the Grassmarket that was news to many in the tent!

At the heart of the event were copies of Hydra, ‘The Magazine of Craiglockhart War Hospital’. Two copies of the magazine were recently brought to Craiglockhart and added to the university’s collection. Catherine W explained how the magazine was both a way to share news and a forum for discussion. Topics of the day ranged from the activities of the debating and sports societies, to the progress of women’s suffrage. There was an element of self-censorship at times, avoiding anything too controversial or revolutionary.

As was stated by Alan B, the commentary and poetry that found its way into these pages has ‘helped shape our image of the war’. He was keen to stress that it was written from officers’ perspectives, that Craiglockhart was a place for the select few, who were being given some of the best care available. Yet these were also men who formed part of the office class, contending with the stress of having to live up to the expectations that accompanied their role in life and the armed services. The concern for some was that they risked becoming ‘dangerously well’ and thus were flirting with being sent back to the front.

The Book Festival event was further illuminated by several readings, taken from the magazines and performed by young actors. To an extent they and other such references brought home the contrast between the relatively mundanity of Edinburgh life and the experiences of war that had affected these men so. We also heard a nurse’s poem, reflecting her lived experience of growing up at this time and defying standard expectations of her place in society. In line with many of the events to have taken place in the Book Festival’s ‘Words and War‘ this exploration of the Poetry of War was a window onto a tumultuous time for the men and women of Edinburgh, Scotland and Europe.

Ahead of the main event, as part of a reception hosted by the Principal of Edinburgh Napier University, a small audience was privileged to hear a few melodies played out on the ‘Wilfred Owen Violin‘. This instrument has recently been made from freshly sourced timber, a sycamore still growing in the grounds of Craiglockhart. It is a unique contribution to the history of the building and our modern links to the staff and patients of the hospital, and will hopefully be heard many times again at Craiglockhart and elsewhere.

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‘Picturing a Terrible Conflict’ – Florian Dedio and Gunnar Dedio, 25 August 2014

florian dedio gunnar dedioAmong the themes that have recurred through the various events covered on this blog, an interest in the lives of citizens caught up in the Great War has been prevalent. Often far removed from the decision makers of European governments and powers, the stories being told of soldiers, nurses, farmers, parents and children have proved popular with writers and audiences alike. Perhaps it is the loss of first hand experiences that captures the imagination: now we no longer have anyone to tell us ‘what it was like’ we are more keen than ever to find out. Historians, spurred on by their own interests and perhaps those of their publishers, have new resources at their disposal – fuelled by rediscovered archives, connections forged over the internet and a desire to help mark the centenary of the conflict.

Florian and Dedio and Gunnar Dedio presented a small slice of their contribution to the presentation of everyday life in and around the First World War. Their ambition is to present the war from a transnational perspective, delivered through a series of films and an image-rich book. Over the course of their hour at the Book Festival they presented and explained the origins of their sources, the approaches they adopted in their work and made an international project directly relevant to their Scottish audience.

Their work draws from diaries and letters written across Europe, picking out themes that are common to those on all sides of the conflict. Some 26 broadcasters were involved in creating and presenting the work, including the BBC and BBC Alba. The resulting films combine archive footage with modern reconstructions, using words from those diaries. Archived films were rescanned using modern techniques, which bring out the clarity and detail of the originals. Alongside the live action, still images also feature heavily in both the book and the films. Many are from an collection of glass plates that has recently been uncovered in Germany: ground breaking work which saw the glass positives of the images ‘colourised’ by artists painting in very fine detail on the reverse. The results are captivating, all the more so as they were originally presented in stereoscope through special glasses: two images, which gave the impression of 3D when viewed together.

There was a lot to get through in the time allowed, from the philosophy behind the project, to the techniques used in its production and the nature of the materials being drawn from. Florian and Gunnar were never less than enthusiastic and engaging. They have travelled many miles to compile the project and to share it with audiences across Europe. BBC Alba requested a Gaelic version, which was duly delivered. Both adult and child versions have been made of the films, speaking to different audiences. The morning audience in Edinburgh was shown clips from the films, examples of the photographs and excerpts from the original diaries used in the project. And still there was time for questions at the end.

There was a solemn mood for much of the event, both from the content of the diaries and the realisation that for many of their authors these were among their final thoughts and messages to those back home. It was imbued with a modern sensibility though, with Florian pointing out that our collective picture of World War I is based on a relatively small selection of images, when in reality there are millions out there. Europe in the 21st century is growing accustomed to a life that is captured and shared through countless small lenses and an array of online platforms. Modern conflict is viewed through the same tools, with near instantaneous availability across the global network. What we require today, yet too often don’t have the opportunity or time to access, is the careful, considered and contentious sifting of the material that will help us make sense of the world around us. Events come and go and we engage all too fleetingly, their significance can easily be lost to us. What we learn from Florian and Gunnar is that the magnitude of great events can also be overlooked, for a century or more, yet with time, patience and collaboration a richer story emerges and is made accessible across the borders that once divided us.


‘Common Cause: The Scots and the First World War’ – Stuart Allan and David Forsyth, 13 August 2014

The shared connections that link a springbok called Nancy, the French town of Marseilles and warrior dancing to Scotland and the Great War (1914-1918) on first inspection may appear incongruous. Yet Stuart Allan and David Forsyth illustrate in their new work, Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War, how these seemingly unexpected ties are in actual fact part of a wider and deeper story of the Scots diaspora and their experiences during the First World War. Allan and Forsyth, both senior curators at the National Museum of Scotland, joined chairperson Susan Mansfield and an eager audience in the ScottishPower Studio Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, to discuss the relevance and meaning behind their current work.

The book is approached from the perspective of museum curators with emphasis placed on visual and material cultures. Identifying highly symbolic objects and artefacts, Common Cause explores the complex themes of identity, migration and conflict. Crucially, the objects lead the book and according to Allan proceed with them. With great skill and insight, the authors captured the attention of the gathered audience to demonstrate that behind a series of outwardly conventional objects the cultural background to the politics of the British Empire during this formative period could be uncovered. A case in point is the aforementioned springbok, Nancy. Nancy was gifted to the South African Scottish as the mascot for the newly raised brigade. When the 4th South African Infantry entered Marseilles, bedecked in kilts as they played the bagpipes and drums, the little springbok trotted in front of the unit as they marched into the French town. Against the odds Nancy survived to see the end of the War and after her natural death was preserved to become a relic of the brigade’s military heritage. While remarkable such a little creature could survive in hostile conditions, the real significance of this mascot lies in its symbolism.

The 4th South Africa Infantry were raised by an emigrant Stirlingshire Scot, Sir William Dalrymple, a mining magnate. Dalrymple ensured that the Scottish nature of this newly formed brigade would be apparent to all who encountered them by adopting traditional Highland dress, bonnets and establishing a regimental pipe band. However, a South African identity was also made manifest through other expressions that began to intertwine with the Scottish traditions of the brigade. The springbok, native to South Africa, is a statement of South Africa identity and at this time of the imperial nation of South Africa. Moreover, the extraordinary photograph that adorns the cover of the book captures the brigade performing with gusto – in kilts and bonnets – an African warrior dance. By looking closely at the representation behind photographs, mascots and other objects the authors highlight the pluralistic identities that informed the Scots aboard that were of a cultural, national and military nature.  From a material histories perspective, Common Cause pinpoints the tensions between imperial, national, regional and local identities that were emerging under the impact of the Great War within Britain and in the wider Commonwealth of nations.

Allan and Forsyth underscored to a receptive audience the global reach of the Scottish diaspora by articulating the number of those involved, the scale of the conflict and the legacy of the Great War upon Scotland and beyond. Recalling the photograph of the 4th South African Infantry previously mentioned, this picture was projected onto a large screen so that it could be clearly seen by the entire festival audience. The impact of this enlarged visual image brought home the tragedy of war. The young men captured in this shot were full of life, expression and vigour as they animated the air and kicked up dust from the ground but as I continued to look closely at this projected image I couldn’t help but reflect that some of those souls would not return from conflict. It was a poignant reminder of the utter catastrophe of war. With that David Forsyth read aloud the Canadian-Scot John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Field.’


Against this context McCrae’s reflections can viewed as a counterpoint to the work of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen The work of the latter two poets will be discussed this Sunday, the 24th of August, at an event organised by Edinburgh Napier University and hosted at the Edinburgh International Book Festival for those interested in war poetry and the Great War (see link: The accompanying exhibition to Common Cause: Commonwealth Scots and the Great War can be seen at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, from the 11th of July until the 12th of October 2014 ( ). I would sincerely recommend Common Cause, the book and the exhibition, to anyone interested in this crucial period in Scottish, British, Imperial and Global history.

Article contributed by Aisling MacQuarrie.

‘The Great War’s Grand Legacy’ – David Reynolds, 13 August 2014

On a fresh morning in Charlotte Square, David Reynolds’s considerable audience made their way to the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s main theatre. The title of the event alludes to his latest text ‘The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century’. With a focus on the impact and legacy of the 1914-1918 conflict Reynolds wants his readers and audience to recognise that our views of ‘World War I’ are tied to ‘World War II’. It is the presence of the later conflict which led to the now-familiar renaming, and reinterpretation, of its predecessor. The ‘Grand Legacy’ is therefore caught up in this, yet Reynolds has taken time to view the Great War in a more isolated context.

As part of the early scene-setting at this event mention was made of Remembrance Day events, as well as the celebrated contributions of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart. It would seem that the collection that is held at the Edinburgh Napier campus has never been so important or perhaps so relevant. The artefacts which have made their way down to us a century later are tangible connections to the work being done at the time, as well as the people themselves of course. Also current, in the months leading up to the outbreak of war, was a concerted effort to discuss and enact Home Rule for the nations of the UK – in particular Ireland and Scotland. With this in mind there were references to both countries in the audience question discussion that closed the event.

Reynolds drew upon nationalism as a key thread for his talk, alongside democracy. He was at pains to describe how the Great War had a considerable impact on both, with Britain’s experience being distinctive on both fronts. Quite apart from Edwardian agitation for Home Rule, for example, it was perfectly possible to support a Scots regiment in the British Army: twin identities that sat easily next to each other. Such is the renewed agitation in the 21st century for a more localised locus of political power in Scotland, that it is perhaps little surprise to see the armed forces (most notably the Trident nuclear base) being nudged into the foreground when it suits one side or the other.

In terms of democracy and its establishment as the preferred form of popular representation, Britain didn’t experience the ‘big bang’ that shook many a continental European state. The extension of the franchise, to one primarily based upon age and inclusive of women, was little compared to the bloody revolution of Russia. Neither did British democracy lay a foundation on which fascist parties could sweep to power, as was seen in Germany through the 1920s and early 1930s. Turning again to the question and answer session, the experience of Ireland was explored as it in turn was clearly distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The legacy of the Great War was therefore considerable and provided a context for the rest of the 20th century to contend with, across Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth. With the final of these in mind, it’s instructive to note that the practice of discussing and establishing the legacy of great events is still very much a common pursuit. On the eve of the 2014 Book Festival, Glasgow hosted the largest sporting event Scotland is ever likely to see: the Commonwealth Games came to town. With publicly funded investment, popular engagement and stirring opportunities to proclaim a national identity there are some parallels between the events in question. Though the sacrifices of ‘our’ athletes do not compare with soldiers of a century ago, they are nonetheless our representatives and they command the support of millions.

The tools available to event managers, academics and civil servants to judge the impacts and legacies of sporting, cultural and artistic events are evolving, developing and improving. What David Reynolds’s work reveals, among his great insights into the War itself, is the complexity of this analysis. He also makes clear that we must take pains not to conflate events where this is counter productive: to see one Commonwealth or Olympic Games through the lens of another (later) edition is to overlook the perspectives of those on the ground at the time, those making decisions and allocating resources. Reynolds also makes it clear that the intangible impacts of events are among their most significant: nationalism and democracy are not quantified in ways that they may take their place alongside the other statistics of war. Likewise the building of communities, the personal development among performers and audiences, the careers forged and the minds opened are hard for festival and event producers to communicate as part of the impacts of their endeavours. They are real though, and to those that are touched by war and festivals they are profoundly meaningful.