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.)
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:
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.
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?