Letter to an Unknown Soldier is a new project created by Neil Bartlett, a novelist and theatre director, and Kate Pullinger, a professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa, with the aim of making a tribute out of words to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Members of the public are invited to write their own letters to the unknown soldier, forming a collaborative war memorial. The statue the project centres around is on Platform One at Paddington Station in London.
Everyone from the celebrated Stephen Fry to the celebrated poet Andrew Motion has had a go, of the 50 leading writers and artists kicking it all off – but the big reveal will be 28th June 2014, with the project running until 4th August 2014. I’ve had a go at writing one too…
“I wanted to express my gratitude… is what I find myself writing from habit. I’m not sure gratitude is the right word, because I’m not too sure I’m for the war, or any war for that matter. And I’m not sure whether you’re out there by choice or by duty or if the two can ever be intertwined. I could talk about home or ask you what it is like out there, in the mud and the cold and the rain. I could talk about the women down the road sewing as if it will mend everything, or about my widowed neighbour who stares forlornly at the forget-me-nots in her garden and no longer speaks, not even to the milkman. But I don’t think these trivialities will put light in your heart and it is light in your heart that might pull you through the struggles that arrive with each new day. So I will tell you a story, with the aim of spiriting you away to a gentle place…
After a while all the cold mud grows warmer, and the air hot. Rainforest plants appear, thick and moist and green and they open to a lake from which steam rises. All around birds of paradise sing. The butterflies float iridescent in the humidity and the bright tree frogs gaze longingly at the flies. A beautiful person swims there, in the lake, every day, at the foot of a ramshackle jetty which runs from the door of a house made of reeds to the bank. This ethereal being kisses the water as it flows past their nakedness. Time subsides. Reaching the bank they raise their body glistening from the water, drawing their legs up to their chest. And then their eyes, like other fantastical worlds, invite you to join them, as temptation stretches out across the sand waiting.”
Stephen Fry wrote;
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.”
In the 37 days prior to the anniversary of the declaration of war, you’re invited to write your own letter and send it to the site. As the letters are submitted, they will be published for everybody to see. After that they’ll be added to the British Library web archive.
Fifty UK writers have pledged to write letters to the soldier so far. Among them are Benjamin Zephaniah, David Almond, Geoff Dyer, Malorie Blackman, and Birdsong writer Sebastian Faulks.
Prisoners, nurses, senior citizens, local historians, ex-service men and women and lots of secondary school pupils have also pledged to write letters.
The Letter to an Unknown Soldier website goes live 28th June 2014. You can visit now to read more, including a few of the letters at 1418NOW.org.uk/letter.