The Edmondson Blog

Soldier Reading A Letter

Go to Paddington Station, to Platform One and you’ll see a man reading a letter. He’s always there. Stare at him for a bit. He’s there to be stared at. And if you don’t feel a pricking in the corner of your eye, or a nut of emotion in your gullet, you’re made of sterner stuff than me, though not him.

On the fourth anniversary of the end of the Great War, Soldier Reading A Letter – a bronze standing on black marble and Mezzano white marble, Aberdeen grey and Belgian black granite – was unveiled by the Board of the Great Western Railway in remembrance of the 3,312 men and women of the company who gave their lives for King, country and that complicated and spectral coalition of politics and emotion that was the enigmatic motivation for the war that began the modern age.

The soldier was sculpted by Charles Sargeant Jagger, who produced two of the greatest war memorials made. This is one of them. The soldier stands waiting for a train, his helmet set at an angle, his greatcoat slung over his shoulder, the collar turned up. He’s wearing the muffler his mother knitted for him, and he’s looking down at a letter. He holds it gently, saving the envelope – It will have to sustain many readings. His face shows no outward emotion, it has that concentrated calm we use for letters and hymn sheets, and standing for the two minutes’ silence. His feet are firmly placed on his plinth, he has a purposeful air. Just now he’s reading and waiting for his train, but soon he’ll get down to business, soon he’ll be dead. But now, he stands here on Platform One, an immortal everybody in bronze, waiting and re-reading his letter. The eye is constantly drawn to the letter, the lines and the tensions of the sculpture tug you back; it’s been folded in the old-fashioned way, like a pamphlet for people who are frugal with notepaper.

Letters from and to soldiers are so familiar to us; they are the stuff of drama and war films, of sadness and of memorized poetry. The letters of war are great symbols of national empathy, particularly for the English, who like to think of themselves as, if not people of letters, then the children of people of letters. And as a nation that’s chronically incapable of expressing emotion, and even proud of this constipated inability, the letter is a stiff-lipped device for imparting something that you really wanted to say, but hadn’t managed to. Except that not being able to say it in letters is also a particularly English trait. Reading between the lines is England’s second language, and perhaps that’s appropriate for a railway station.

It’s the little strained observations of life that are so chest - tighteningly poignant. The small, bland, uncomfortable stabs at intimacy, the heavy metaphor of trivia and understatement. “Hoping this finds you as it leaves me,” “Chin up,” “No sense in grumbling,” “All the best,” “Remember me to ... remember me.” We know all the small plots of war letters, and we wonder who this one is from – a mother’s note that came with the scarf, and a tin of cigarettes from a sweetheart, this being the age before girlfriends; good luck from workmates, a wife perhaps? Though he’s young to be married, but then they were, weren’t they? Too young for any of it.

As you stare at the young man reading his letter, you grow too hot to blush and realize that actually, of course, it’s from you. You’re composing it as you look at him, at this bronze boy who reads the thing you wanted to say, but were never able to. How England went on without him, how the station’s changed, he’d not recognize half the stuff in the coffee shop, the tea’s still dreadful but hot and sweet, that his country still thinks about him. And the great-grandchildren with the names he’d hear as strange – not a Wilf, Alf or Herbert amongst them - send their best and hope this finds you as it leaves us. Thank you.

This was not Jagger’s first idea for the memorial of the Great Western Railway. At first he proposed a soldier carrying a trench catapult – he liked kit, he knew what it was for and what it did. He knew that soldiers had become extensions of things, of stuff – fuel for the machine. The Memorial Committee was chaired by Winston Churchill and he was a man who knew the truth of the English heart, the image that gripped their shy sense of belonging. He asked Jagger to think again, and the soldier with the letter was born out of the clay that his inspiration had dug, blown up and finally been buried in. It always seems an almost unbearable irony that these memorials start with mud and grow to become molten, then cold metal – a transubstantiation that is life and death and resurrection and immortality.

From The Angry Island, Hunting The English by A. A. Gill.

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