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What would you write to an unknown soldier? We talk to Neil Bartlett from the WWI memorial project 'Letters to an Unknown Soldier' to find out what the public are writing

 

Why make a silent, marble sculpture when a multitude of voices could mark the centenary of the First World War? Stephen Fry, Malorie BlackmanAndrew MotionLee ChildLouise Welsh, and Kamila Shamsie have already sent their LETTER TO UNKNOWN SOLDER on Platform One of Paddington Station and now you can join them.

 

The project is a collaboration between theatre director Neil Bartlett and writer Kate Pullinger. Together they've constructed an innovative way to invite participation in the WW1 centenary, in a way that is oddly personal and public at the same time. In the process it forces us all to reconsider what we associate with the war and our own feelings about conflict.

 

We caught up with Neil Bartlett, one half of the creative team behind the memorial.

 

Run Riot: LETTER TO UNKNOWN SOLDER is a particularly novel kind of war memorial - what inspired it?

Neil Bartlett: The inspiration behind the project was simple. On Platform One of Paddington Station there is a magnificent war memorial; a life-size bronze soldier, depicted by sculptor Charles Jagger in full trench gear, standing there silently amidst all the noise and rush of the station. He’s reading a letter – you can see the ripped-open envelope in his hand. No-one knows who the letter is from, or what it says, and the expression on the soldier’s face as he reads it is deliberately hard to decipher. My idea was to ask everyone to write that letter – not to leave the job of expressing our feelings about the centenary of the First World War to someone else, but to sit down quietly and do it themselves, in their own words, taking responsibility for them and signing them with their name. Then of course I had to make that idea happen – and the inspiration at that point was to ask Kate Pullinger if she’d collaborate with me.  I knew that I had to make this work of art online if it was to involve the numbers of people I thought it both could and should involve, and working digitally and virtually is something that I know very little about, and that Kate knows a great deal about.

 

RR: What made you choose a memorial of worlds over a sculpture or landmark?

NB: I wanted to make a memorial of words because all the usual materials of war memorials – bronze, stone, marble – seem to me to be always associated with silence, with that confused mixture of piety and grief we’re all “supposed” to feel when we stand in front of statues and crosses and Cenotaphs and think (or fail to think) about war. I wanted this memorial to be made up of voices – multitudinous, contradictory, various, both extremely private (because every letter is written by an individual) and extremely public (because every letter is available to be read by everybody).

 

RR: Are there ties here with projects you've worked on before?

NB: I’ve never really created anything like this before – but the period of its creation has coincided with another project which is all about war, namely a new staging of Benjamin Britten’s so-called  “pacifist” opera Owen Wingrave, which I directed in the month before LETTER TO UNKNOWN SOLDER went live, and which I will be reviving for the Edinburgh Festival the week after the Letters… website closes. Britten was an active and life-long pacifist and Conscientious Objector, and the opera is an angry, passionate, bitter exploration of the roots of violence and militarism. My favourite letters have reflected on exactly those things.

 

RR: You've had a huge response from the public so far - which letters stick in your mind?

NB: The response has been huge. The website opened on June 28th (the anniversary of the Sarajevo assassinations) and will stay open until 11pm on August the 4th (the anniversary of this country’s declaration of war on Germany). By July 27th, with another week still to go, the soldier has received nearly 17,000 letters from all over the country and all over the world. The letters which stick in my mind do so for very different reasons. Sometimes it’s just a single arresting sentence, or sometimes it is whole new way of writing to the soldier that I had never imagined. I find the pro-war letters very shocking and memorable – the people who write in to say “Good on you, mate” to the soldier. I find some of the personal stories of the destruction of lives and families by war almost unbearably painful to read; they make me cry. I find the mass repetition of the sentiment that war is necessary evil, that “we” have to forever defend ourselves against a “them” who want to take away “our” freedoms, unbearably depressing. I find the sharp, brave, loving, compassionate voices that pierce that miasma of sentiment and sentimentality very inspiring.

 

RR: Which have been most unusual? And have you had any unexpected contributors?

NB: The letters that hit home are the ones where the letter is unexpected. A working class grandmother with a family secret; a transsexual; a student; a queer photographer; an embossed-cover popular novelist; a woman from Toronto; a fourteen year old schoolboy; a man who chose to write not about men being killed, but the killing of a dog; a famous comedian; a writer whose letter is only six words long; a Sikh and a Gaelic-speaker from the Isle of Lewis – these are the people who wrote some of the letters that have most struck and surprised and moved me.

 

RR: At the start of WW1 soldiers' letters were screened for sensitive information - will there be any censorship for the letters from the public? 

NB: We decided right from the start that we would publish every single letter, with no editing on the grounds of style or grammar and no censorship on the grounds of ideas or opinion. The only letters which we have not published (I think fewer than thirty out of the seventeen thousand received) are ones which have plagiarised other people’s work or which deliberately take the piss out of the project by being nonsensical.

 

RR: And what about conscientious objectors?

NB: We commissioned 50 writers to write letters to get the ball rolling, and several of them chose to write about Conscientious Objection and its history – Caryl Churchill, Sheila Hancock and Stephen Fry, for instance. Many member of the public have also written from pacifist perspectives, and a few of them have specifically talked about the history and traditions of Conscientious Objection. But only a very, very few. That specific tradition is pretty buried by all the official discourse and public ceremonial of this centenary year; people don’t want to remember (and aren’t encouraged to remember) how much dissent there was (and is) from the “we’re all in this together” mythology surrounding the British and the wars of the twentieth century. 

 

However, many, many people – almost a majority of the letters, I would say - have connected the First World War with more recent and even ongoing conflicts. People either say that young men are still being sent abroad to die and that nothing has changed, implying that nothing can ever or indeed should ever change, or they say that young men are still being sent abroad to die and that nothing has changed, implying and demanding that things should change. As editors, Kate and I get to choose half a dozen letters every day that we “feature”, bringing them to our reader’s attention, and I have certainly gone out of my way to find and feature letters written from both of these positions; it’s really important to me that the website fully reflects the diversity of opinion and feeling expressed in the letters.

 

RR: Do you think perceptions of WW1 have changed in the light of recent conflicts? Has there been much mention of current conflicts in the letters so far?

NB: News of rising casualties from Gaza and the Ukraine has dominated the headlines during the 37 days of the project, and a lot of people have responded very directly to the implicit idea that the soldier has to be talked to and written to in the present tense; to the idea that you can’t – and shouldn’t - talk about “war” in the past tense.

 

You can write your own letter to the soldier and contribute to the memorial up until 11pm on 4th August, the centenary of the moment when Prime Minister Asquith announced that Britain had joined the First World War. Until then every letter that the soldier receives will be published on the Letters website for everyone to read. 

This event is part of
14-18 NOW
WW1 CENTENARY ART COMMISSIONS
1418now.org.uk