Stephen Fry writes a letter

It’s an unwritten rule in twenty-first century England that every cultural project must at some stage involve Stephen Fry. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he has now done his bit for the Great War centenary.
He has contributed a project called Letter to an Unknown Soldier, which is based on Charles Sargeant Jagger’s superb statue on Platform One of Paddington Station. This shows a burly soldier reading a letter from home, and is a memorial to the men of the Great Western Railway who died in the War (They were the ones responsible for carrying the millions of letters to and from the war zone.)

Jagger statue
The organiser of the project, Neil Bartlett, says:

We’re inviting people to take a leap of imagination across one hundred years, and to write the letter that the soldier is reading.

Members of the public will be invited to post their letters on the project’s website from June of this year, but Mr Bartlett has started things off by inviting some celebrities to write letters. The Guardian this morning prints an effort by the ubiquitous Mr Fry:

Beloved brother,
Enough time has passed now for us to think only one thought: that we will never see you again. The last I heard you were cheerful and funny, as ever.
Remember when I told you that I was going to declare myself a conscientious objector? I saw a look in your eye. “My brother, a coward?” It nearly killed me. I would give anything to be in your place, a hero respected and at peace — and not just because of the insults, beatings and stones hurled at me from bus conductors, shopkeepers and children in the streets.
Every night Ma and Pa sob as they try to swallow their food. I eat in another room. They cannot look at me. I try not to feel sorry for myself, but I do believe it is wrong to kill. I made my decision. you made yours.
For eternity your image will stand for unquestioning courage. I will die proud of you and ashamed of myself. And that is in spite of me being right.
Stephen Fry

Those of us who have read actual letters to and from the front, have often found them very moving, usually because of their dignified reticence. The soldiers try hard to keep their families from worrying too much, and the families understate their own Home Front hardships because they know that the soldier may be enduring much worse. I have certainly never read a wartime letter that is as self-dramatising, self-pitying and self-righteous as Stephen Fry’s.
The tone is all wrong, and the details are misleading. Presumably the letter is supposed to be written in 1916 or later, since before conscription there was no need to declare oneself a conscientious objector (The OED gives the first use of ‘conscientious objector’ in this sense in 1916). But if he has appeared at a tribunal and declared himself an objector, he would have been set to war work (or imprisoned if an absolutist) and so would not be at home annoying his parents. Individual pacifists did suffer ‘ insults, beatings and stones’, but less routinely, I think, than Stephen Fry’s letter suggests. From texts of the time, I gather that what was most disturbing for men out of uniform was that they found or imagined themselves the subject of a powerfully disapproving public gaze; Harry, the non-combatant hero of Herbert Tremaine’s The Feet of the Young Men (1917), feels that ‘the citizens were looking at him more than usual and with some contempt and hostility’.

Stephen Fry creates a simple dichotomy. The soldier has physical courage; the C.O. has principles. No, life was more complicated than that. Many soldiers enlisted out of principle; many objectors showed considerable physical courage.
What really annoys me, though, is that Stephen Fry has not bothered to find out much about actual conscientious objectors, many of whom were very brave and principled men, deserving better than this. He presents his C.O. as a loner, rejected by family and community, but this was not at all typical. Most men who objected to military service did so because they were members of groups, religious or political, who felt as they did. Quakers, Socialists, Christadelphians, and so on. Cyril Pearce’s very good book Comrades in Conscience, about pacifists in Huddersfield, describes the network of institutions and communities – such as the Society of Friends and the Socialist Sunday Schools – that supported those who refused conscription (and on occasion showed their support by accompanying them to the courtroom en masse). I think that the men Pearce describes are much more interesting characters than the person Stephen Fry creates, wallowing in his isolation and writing a letter guaranteed to make his brother feel bad.
Not that it is as nasty as the letter imagined by ever-radical playwright Carol Churchill. She also imagines a letter from a pacifist to a soldier, which says:

I keep wanting to say how could you? how could you leave me? and trying to stop myself.
I want you to regret it bitterly. I’m sorry.

That passive-aggressive ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t something you’d want to read just before going over the top.
Letter to an Unknown Soldier is part of a larger project called 14-18 Now, which promises some really daft ideas and activities between June and August. One extremely silly one is that we should all turn lights off, in remembrance of Sir Edward Gray’s memorable quip. Will we then be allowed to switch them on again in our lifetimes?


  1. Posted March 29, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    You’re clearly right about the content of Fry’s letter and its likeness to actual war letters (and its fidelity to the period in general), but I really don’t like this post. Sorry to be the internet police, and feel free to ignore the shit out of me, but what you had here was an opportunity for great teaching and instead you’ve got annoyed at the notion of celebrity in contemporary society.

    This whole letter writing project is a goldmine for bloggers! It’s an audit on contemporary understandings of the war. If Fry was your undergrad student you would take his pastiche of things he thinks he knows about the FWW and then set about saying much of the above, but in a helpful and friendly tone.

    There are people out there who might never attempt to connect with the FWW unless they stumble on Fry’s letter, or that of another celebrity contributor, or that of a friend who is thinking of sending one to this project etc. etc. If we want to do justice to the Great War, we’re going to need to take every single opportunity to teach it, and teach it well.

    Dominic ‘finger-wagging’ Berry

    • Posted March 29, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Dominic – if you’re suggesting that the tone of the post was ill-tempered, you’re probably right. When I read Stephen Fry’s contribution I felt annoyed that he was downgrading both the soldier (who he implies is too stupid to see that the war is wrong) and the pacifist (who is made to sound petulant and self-righteous).
      I’ve no particular objection to celebrity endorsements of causes. I’m impressed by Carol Ann Duffy and the other writers and actors who turned out at Pentonville yesterday to protest against the mean-spirited ban on sending books to prisoners. I thought Stephen Fry did a good job in those TV programmes that examined homophobia in Russia and elsewhere.
      In this case, though, I didn’t think he knew what he was talking about, and said so, perhaps intemperately. You suggest that; ‘If we want to do justice to the Great War, we’re going to need to take every single opportunity to teach it.’ Maybe, but does this mean turning a blind eye when someone famous writes about it misleadingly? And isn’t it right to declare loudly that publicly funded projects like turning lights off and on do nothing to advance public understanding of the subject?

      • Posted March 29, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        So I do history of science, and one of our favourite things is pointing out when big celebrity names come along and screw up the history or say things that are daft (all of which means that I completely understand the feeling that motivated you).

        BUT historians of sicence only rarely do this as an end in itself, AND we only get really pissy with those same big names who are constantly coming out with the same old crap. Fry (as you say) has a pretty good track record. (By the way, I’m not all that interested in defending Fry, but your post was sufficiently well written to annoy me, so this is your own fault).

        And no, I don’t think it’s right to “declare loudly that publicly funded projects like turning lights off and on do nothing to advance public understanding of the subject”. People get funding for all sorts of things. It is hard to do, requires a great deal of effort and thought, and very often ends in failure. If they’ve managed to get some money for an idea that you don’t happen to see the value of, no, I don’t think it’s right for you (or, to be less personal, ‘a certain group of academics’) to determine how the FWW is to be commemorated. Maybe if I had the money I’d do something different with it. Maybe if I wanted to I could sit down and think about why it is a vacuous idea, inferior to most others. But I certainly wouldn’t try and convince people it was shit (unless I was on the funding panel making the decision.) The only grounds upon which I ever have a go at publicly funded events is when I feel they have directly pernicious consequences, or are based on ignorance or crap assumptions. Everything else is just people being people.

  2. Alan Allport
    Posted March 29, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    It says a lot about Stephen Fry, I’m afraid, that The MagnetThe Magnet! – was able to produce a more sophisticated portrait of a conscientious objector. In 1918!

    • Posted March 30, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      The Magnet‘s response throughout the War is generally intelligent and quite sophisticated. Always supportive of the soldiers, but critical of bossy people who use the moral authority of the War to bully others.

  3. Bill
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    What is truly dispiriting is the ghastly sentimentalism of the whole enterprise – Bartlett and his “crying project” – the next thing we know, the feet of the statue will be heaped with bouquets wrapped in cellophane.

    I am not sure whether it is useful to criticise Fry’s piece as poor pastiche – for myself, I couldn’t work out if he was writing to a “person” or to the statue itself or trying to imagine that the statue had been modelled on this dead brother. Fry is a decent, intelligent man and a good performer, but has never been able to write very well. The fact that a “celebrity” can sell books doesn’t mean he can write them.

    Of course, it is good that attention is drawn to the statue. Oddly, Jagger is one of the least sentimentalising of the memorialists : his best figures very much “working soldiers”.

  4. Brad
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Comment removed for reasons of taste.

  5. Steve Paradis
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I’d enjoy reading submissions from actual Tommies, based on the types of actual letters they got. The type you mention go without saying, but there’s also the ones complaining about Home Front privations and requests for lace like that nice young neighbor in LOC work sends home.

    Or the letters they wrote–like this well-needed antidote to American Triumphalism written by Ring Lardner:

    And yes, some of it’s as obscure to me as it is to a UK reader.

    As for Fry, etal., I’m afraid that like all historical fiction, it’s about the year it was written in and not 1917.

  6. Maurice Roeves
    Posted April 8, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Have written a war poem a few years back which the War museum have kept and if you would like it at this period of time I can send a copy but the poem is from a soldier in the trenches to his Mom and not the other way round.
    Best wishes

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