A Conversation with Mr. Remington
We, as writers for British periodicals, were sent photographs of British professors. We were asked to analyse and give our opinion of the man in the photograph. The image that was sent to me was of a professor named Remington, and Mr. Remington was curious enough about my reaction that he asked me to meet with him.
“You ask, Mr. Remington, a very honest question: to describe the man I see in the photograph. And I thank you for expecting my honest answer.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Thank you, this was my initial reaction.” I said as I looked at his photograph in hand. “I saw an arrogant man, cranky, self-centered, superior, not interested in being interrupted. I saw no personal vanity, in fact, you looked unkempt, Mr. Remington. I assume you’re British, busy, and perhaps incorrectly, but that you believe in the worth of Noblesse Oblige, as, again I assume, you have a presumption of British superiority. I also assume you don’t have much belief in women’s worth, but rather the Patriarchal view of life. I also see an over-eater. You wear a sweater that is perfectly suitable in that the silk threads are visible, but you have out-grown the sweater, and you don’t care. I imagine it has dribbles of salad dressing, a good tart mustard, and red wine—more likely Port. I see a professor, an Oxbridge Don, or of that ilk. And here I sit with you today and you are wearing the same rather tumbledown clothes with the same expression.”
“Well, well, how interesting,” Remington said slowly, eyeing me with curiosity. His forehead lines straightened. He did not smile but a hint of amusement lurked in his now forward face, in a mouth about to speak.
But I interrupted his thought, “But then I see the books you are carrying in your right hand: The Regeneration Trilogy, Patricia Barker’s books on the First World War. That you would carry a woman’s view on the horrors of war, really an anti-war book, compels me to think you are not the man I perceived in the photograph.”
“Well, you certainly fell into the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ theory, didn’t you,” he said with a laugh.
“Yes, I think I might have. Please do explain your connection to the books, I’m anxious to hear.”
“Pat Barker is an excellent writer who has captured the spirit of a terrible war. I listened to her story, and I learned something I didn’t want to know.
“And, before I answer, you are correct, I am unkempt—quite shabby, some say. Also slightly cranky—often the privilege of my age of eighty. I am certainly an over-eater. This bloody sweater...it could expand with me a bit more, don’t you think,” he laughed. “And yes, port, again you are quite correct,” he murmured with continuing his chuckle, as he looked down at a red spill while pulling his sweater forward.
Remington sat back in his over-stuffed armchair and with a sigh rested his head. He started his story, “We drank quite a bit of port the other night at the usual Sunday night student gathering at my home. We talked of their future and books, of course.”
“I imagine you are speaking of a somewhat entitled student’s future?” I asked somewhat sarcastically.
“Well, yes, I always assumed the university student’s entitlement was well-deserved. Why not, we’re a strong bunch—thinking people.” He hesitated, “The British should do the leading. I mean, it’s obvious—I’m elderly, entitlement is the world I inhabit.” Remington shifted in his chair. “But you see, dear interviewer. . .and tell me again, what is your Periodical? Ah yes, The Guardian—indeed a very good paper—because of my age, I am now wise enough to listen.
“I would not have read these books of Barker’s had not a student brought them to us that night two Sundays ago. I mean, what would a woman know about war. She would sentimentalize it, not get to the point. How could she? You’re a woman, perhaps you would agree,” he said giving a side glance at his interviewer. “Well, perhaps not.”
“The boy, my student who recounted Barker’s story —and a story quite well researched I will say—questioned the compassion for the psychological wounds of war. Shell Shock was a term used in the hospitals, even if they were hiding conscientious objectors. The goal of the hospital was to get the soldiers back in shape, any shape, to go out there and be blown up again. The boy queried all of this.”
“But you must have known that. Why did Barker’s stories affect you?”
“Let’s have some port, shall we? Always easier for conversation, especially speaking about my new thoughts on entitlement, which have led me to new thoughts on voice.”
“Voice?” I asked.
“Yes, we English have such a steady voice and we’re so certain, so absolutely certain that our voice is correct.”
“And, after reading Barker’s books, you thought differently?”
He paused and looked at me with an intense expression, “Yes, many soldiers became mute. They couldn’t talk about the horrors that they had endured, so they literally lost their voice. But, it was thought that only the lower class—and often referred to as the scared boys, cowards—were those who became mute.”
“Yes?” I asked, perplexed.
Remington poured another glass. “You see, my grandfather became mute. And we did not want to think of him—first of all—as lower class and, most certainly, not as a coward.” Remington’s brow had wrinkled again. “We told people he had been wounded, that he had become mute from a bullet. “We made his emotional pain insignificant. We dismissed his self-worth, his anguish as a consequence of the war’s terrors. What we did was shameful, and I had buried our act until Pat Barker made me remember.
“So you see, dear interviewer, the façade of arrogance lingers, the port still drips down my sweater front, and will perhaps increase, but my voice is softening, and I want to hear the sound of my grandfather’s pain—indeed, the sound of my own pain.”