Recent Events

Thursday 2 May 2019

Stanley Casson

The  Golden Age
Stanley Casson
by Carol Westron

 Stanley Casson was born in 1889, the son of William Casson, a Local Government clerk, and his wife Elizabeth. Casson’s early education was at Ipswich School and the Merchant Taylors’ School, London, where he excelled both academically and at sport. He took his degree at
Lincoln College, Oxford, after which he held a senior scholarship at St. John’s, studying
Classics. The British School of Archaeology in Athens requested Casson’s assistance in the project of creating a new catalogue of the Acropolis.

Casson’s academic career was interrupted by the First World War. In 1914 he joined the East Lancashire Regiment as a Second Lieutenant and served in the trenches in Flanders until he was wounded at the Battle of Ypres in 1915. Like so many of his fellow officers, Casson wrote poems while serving in the trenches. However, these were not published until 2001, when twenty-one of his poems were published under the title Poems from the Great War, with the permission of Casson’s daughter, Lady MacLellan. When Casson recovered from his leg wound, he joined the General Staff under Sir George Milne and was seconded to the British Salonika Forces, serving in Turkey, Salonika and Greece, where his knowledge of Greece proved valuable.

After the First World War, Casson returned to his academic career, but one task left over from the war was asked of him. The mother of the poet, Rupert Brooke, had commissioned the sculptor Georgios Bonanosto to sculpt a large marble memorial to replace the simple wooden cross that had marked his grave. Rupert Brooke had been part of the Expeditionary Force sent to Gallipoli. He had died of sepsis in 1915 and his fellow soldiers had buried him in an isolated olive grove, on the island of Skyros. In 1920, Casson was working with The British School of Archaeology in Athens when a friend at the British Legation asked him to organise the construction of the new memorial. Not everyone would have been willing – or capable – of arranging the transport of two and a half tons of sculptured marble and iron railings to a remote olive grove accessible only by a narrow goat track, but Casson used his archaeological and military training to arrange transport for the numerous crates of marble to the grove and supervised the construction of the memorial over Brooke’s grave. Upon the grave is inscribed Brooke’s most famous poem, The Soldier: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.’ Casson arranged for the wooden cross that had marked Brooke’s grave to be sent back to his family in Rugby.

Later in 1920, Casson took up a Fellowship at New College, Oxford. The Warden of New College at this time was William Archibald Spooner, an academic famed for his absent-mindedness and for his habit of muddling the consonants of words, often to comic effect. On Casson’s arrival, Spooner greeted him and invited him to lunch “to welcome Stanley Casson, our new archaeology Fellow.” “But, Mr Warden,” replied Casson, “I am Stanley Casson.” “Never mind,” said Spooner. “Come all the same.”

In 1924, Casson married Nora Ruddle. They had one daughter. Casson and his family lived in New College Lane, Oxford, and he was known to be sociable and friendly, happy to welcome his young students to his home. He was forward thinking in his teaching methods and, in the inter-war years, encouraged his students to visit Greece. It is interesting to note that one of his students at Oxford was Max Mallowan, the archaeologist who later married Agatha Christie.

Casson’s academic career flourished and he had numerous books published. The subjects ranged from Ancient Greece and Hellenic studies to sculptors and artists. His first major academic work was greatly admired, although it hardly had the snappiest of titles: Macedonia, Thrace and Illyria: their relations to Greece from the earliest times down to the time of Philip son of Amyntas (1926).

Of more general interest was his influential Some Modern Sculptors (1928). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Casson admired much modern sculpture and his book had a pioneering chapter on the sculptor, typographer and printmaker, Eric Gill, who was at the start of his successful career. Letters written by Casson reveal that he was acquainted with Gill and admired his ability as a sculptor but was unimpressed by his writing and his religious views. Although Casson admired many of Gill’s sculptures, he also identified ‘a certain number of definitely bad works.’ Gill was not slow to retaliate and reviewed Casson’s study of the Primitive period in an unfavourable way, which stung Casson into responding, ‘I have just read your review... It is bloody rude and no mistake. But almost every point you make is wrong.’ Despite this, Casson and Gill must have been on good terms some of the time as, in a 1932 letter to the American museum curator, Francis Henry Taylor, Casson enclosed the gift of an original drawing by Gill. It is clear from Casson’s correspondence that he was moving in academic and artistic circles and, disregarding the contentious Gill, highly respected in both spheres.

Casson was clearly a politically aware man and, in 1935, as the clouds of war grew darker, he moved away from archaeological and artistic themes to write
Steady Drummer, a personal account of the war in the Balkans, in which he puts forward convincing arguments that the Balkan Front was one of the decisive factors in the Allied Victory.

In 1938, he wrote a murder mystery, Murder by Burial, a book that has archaeology,
architecture, history and politics at its core.

In 1939, when the Second World War was declared, Casson joined the Intelligence Corps with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He became an instructor at the Intelligence Training Centre in Derbyshire. In 1942, Casson published Greece Against the Axis, his eye-witness account of the Italian and German invasions of Greece in 1940-41.

Casson had been a long-term member of the Authors’ Club and, in February 1944, he and Graham Greene were invited to join the club’s executive committee. Sadly, he was never to take up this new position.

Early in the war, a conference was held in Athens to discuss the protection of cultural monuments and antiquities in Greece. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Leonard Wooley, Archaeology Advisor to the War Office, recommended that Casson was appointed head of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives operations in the Balkans. On 17th April 1944, Casson boarded a transport plane for the first leg of his flight to Algiers. The plane had a crew of seven and eight passengers and was also thought to be carrying secret documents and gold bullion to finance underground organisations. Approximately two and a half miles north-east of Newquay, Cornwall, the aircraft exploded in mid-air and crashed into Watergate Bay. There were no survivors.

A fitting tribute to Casson’s life and work was held at the end of the war, in November 1945, when the Authors’ Club and the Anglo-Hellenic League held a reception at the Dorchester Hotel, to honour him, and a collection was raised to fund a library of English books in Greece.

Casson’s life and achievements make fascinating reading and his only detective fiction book is also interesting, although not necessarily in the usual ways expected of a crime fiction book of the Golden Age. Murder by Burial is not much of a mystery story. The title gives away the murder method and, although the death occurs over halfway into the book, the identity of the victim and the scene of the crime are both evident long before that. Nevertheless, Murder by Burial is a thoroughly engaging book on several levels: socially as a picture of life in a country village a year before the outbreak of war; politically as an analysis of the prejudices of the landed classes and their fear of communism; and, as a detective story that describes how the protagonist, who takes up the investigation when the police are inclined to believe it was a sad accident, identifies the perpetrator and the means of the crime by using his own archaeological knowledge and his brother’s skills as an architect.

In some ways Murder by Burial has all the typical features of Golden Age detective fiction. The setting is a country village, Kynchester, although it must be said that its amenities seem to be those of a town. Kynchester has a collection of idiosyncratic inhabitants and is policed by Police Sergeant William Whitstable, ‘a man of real intellectual ability, but, like so many so endowed, happily ignorant of it.’

In the first chapter, the peace of Saturday evening is disrupted by the antics of a retired army colonel, who is convinced that civilisation only began in Britain with the arrival of the Romans and is attempting to drill the young men of the village into a pseudo-Roman troop.
‘The cathedral bell struck the three-quarter and the echoes wandered around the square, as they had done for nearly seven centuries. But as they died away the soft beat of their waves of sound was jarred into disharmony by the distant singing of men’s voices. A tune, ill-fitted to the quiet restfulness of the market-place and the old houses, impinged on the now cooling air. It had a staccato note and went with an alien lilt; it rose and fell and sounded nearer and nearer. With it now sounded the jerking beat of marching – and not very good marching. The vulgarities of an obviously cheap drum added discord.
“’Ere comes the Colonel again,” remarked William Whitstable to George. “And it looked like being such a nice evening.”’
A few minutes later the Colonel and his troop arrive in the market square. ‘The strains of the alien tune grew
louder and louder. ‘Giovinezza,’ sung without its Italian fire and with English words, boomed and bleated along Station Road, accompanied by the rappings of the solitary drum. A moment later fifteen young men in approximate marching formation debouched towards the square and came to a halt near the public convenience. At their head was a spare, thin and pleasant-looking man, Colonel Theodore Cackett, R.E., D.S.O.’...
...‘“Fall out and return in five minutes,” ordered the colonel. His men departed to their various essential or
unessential diversions. They were all young countrymen of Kynchester and the neighbourhood. They were all fresh-complexioned, pleasantly clumsy and obviously happy. But their happiness was more due to the relief at ceasing to sing ‘Giovinezza’ and to the prospect of a quick one at the Silent Woman than to any particular enthusiasm for their Pursuit.

The introduction of the Colonel and his ill-thought-out ideas is told with great humour, but there is an underlying sense of foreboding as the soft, ancient bells of the church are replaced by the out of tune marching music. This is emphasised when the young ‘Roman Guard’ return to the market-place.
‘With the dust now cleared from their throats they sang once more a verse of ‘Giovinezza.’ The cathedral clock interposed with the four chimes and the seven strokes of the hour. This did considerable damage to the tune. Both renderings came to a stop at the same time.’ 

In the second chapter the reader encounters Canon Burbery, a man of ‘real vitality and acute intelligence,’ and a learned antiquarian who is stirring up the cathedral by his energy and enquiring mind. ‘The canon was indeed a remarkable man. He was so wise, so kind, so cautious and so clear-minded, that he hardly possessed a single Christian virtue. Faith to him was based on knowledge, and as the years went on he had begun to realise that it takes years to establish one simple fact.

At first the canon and the colonel are on good terms, for the canon respects the colonel’s patriotism and politics if not his intelligence,
‘“After all, he is president of our Conservative Association.”’

However, after a public meeting at the village hall, in which Colonel Cackett and his supporter, Captain Antrobus, attempt to introduce Facism disguised as a return to the historical glories of the years that the Roman Empire ruled Britain, Canon Burbery loses all tolerance for Cackett and his ideas. When Cackett raises the money to erect a vast statue of the Emperor Claudius on a piece of public land, Burbery gets permission to open an archaeological dig on the remaining land, in order to search for evidence of British civilisation before the Roman invasion. Indirectly this leads to tragedy for both men.

Murder by Burial is a book based on contrasting characters. Just as the canon and colonel are fundamentally different, so are Miss Boddick, an intelligent, forceful and forthright spinster lady and her lively niece, Hilary,
unlike the arrogant and ignorant ‘lady of the manor’, Lady Georgiana Perchington. Miss Boddick and Hilary ally themselves with Canon Burbery, while Lady Georgiana is a supporter of Colonel Cackett. Lady Georgiana is determined to halt progress and learning, in order, as Miss Boddick observes, to retain her supply of servile housemaids, and for the same reason she rules the Girl Guides with a rod of iron. ‘
“I do hope you will both come and give a talk to my Girl Guides. Dear things, they are a little stupid, and one does one’s best. I like to keep them interested in their town without getting too clever. I always think too much education is very bad for that class of girl. It makes them want to give up domestic service and become lady typists, and then where should we all be!”... “Fortunately they are full of simple faith and very well brought up; at least in my village. Some of the older people did try to open a village library, but the dear vicar  and I succeeded in preventing such a calamity. That would never do in our village. The girls would have started reading the most unpleasant books, I am sure, and they would have had no time left to spend on sewing and helping their mothers.”’

Andrew Bowman is an archaeologist of distinction who arrives on the scene halfway through the book, ‘an expert of international repute on Celtic archaeology, and in particular on pre-Roman Britain,’ he had intended to visit the canon’s archaeological dig and offer help and advice. Instead his archaeological skill is used to establish the fact and method of murder.

One of the great values of detective fiction in the light it shines on social and political issues of the decade in which it is set and written and Murder by Burial is very illuminating regarding the mind-set of the years just
before the Second World War. At first the antics of the Colonel with his local ‘Roman soldiers is a source of innocent amusement, as when Hilary, having read his manifesto, remarks,
‘“Then that explains why Jim Barber, the cathedral gardener’s boy, has taken to wearing a queer sort of button with SPQR written on it. I was talking to him in the Close. He is a Roman Guard! What fun, Auntie; it’s just like being in Germany or somewhere, though I bet Jim hasn’t an idea what SPQR means.”’

The population of Kynchester attend the colonel’s meeting expecting to be entertained but the colonel’s companion, Captain Antrobus is somewhat disquieting: ‘a small man with a dark close-cropped moustache, an eyeglass and a neat suit. He had rather protuberant eyes, a hooked nose, hair receding on his forehead and a deeply-lined face. He had a vulturine appearance and a cold and watery expression.
“He looks as if someone had unwrapped the mummy cloth from him and let him loose,” whispered Miss Boddick to Hilary.’

The village audience is unaware of the political undertones and is bemused – or amused - when Antrobus’ initial act is to give a salute that was possibly used in Ancient Rome but was certainly the Nazi salute. ‘They watched him, fascinated, lift his right arm slowly until it became horizontal. “I believe he is going to do the Indian rope trick,” whispered Hilary to her aunt, with a chuckle.”’

However, when Antrobus speaks the crowd comes under his sway. ‘“I come back to my native land; I look around me and I find nothing but democratic confusion, which we grace by the name of parliamentary government. I find Bolshevism disguised as Liberal thought and revolution spreading among our industrial centres: Was it for this that I and others fought? That England might sink into the pit as a consequence of the untold gallantry of her fighting men?”’ As it is reported of Hitler, Antrobus is a dangerously fluent speaker, who can arouse emotions even though the true content of the speech is amorphous. ‘He was indeed no mean orator, and Kynchester folk were, like all quiet people, easily stirred. But they were not at all sure what stirred them or why they should have been so moved.’

To 21st Century readers, Antrobus’ speech is clearly an attempt to engage his audience to support Facism, but it would be interesting to know what Casson’s first readers in 1938 made of this scenario. Did the majority of his readers just accept it as a village murder mystery or were they aware of Casson’s political and intellectual warning against those who perverted history for their own ends? Casson had been a first-class academic for many years and was well aware that historical deceit could be dangerous and that all it takes for a man to be declared a ‘world-wide expert’ was for his supporters to say it often and loudly enough. Sadly, it is unknown how his first and only detective story was received by the average reader but it in fascinating to speculate about it; just as it is interesting to conjecture that the basic murder plot in Murder by Burial had been in Casson’s mind ever since he oversaw the construction of Rupert Brooke’s monument eighteen years before he wrote the book.
Murder by Burial
Published by Black Heath Editions. ASIN: B00RY776Y0
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

1 comment:

  1. I am certain the photograh is not Stanley Casson. Where did you find it please?