This week we are required, or perhaps exhorted would be a fairer word, to write a letter to a fictional character. I nearly gave up until I remembered Mr Polly so I’ve written to him. The letter explains itself
Dear Mr Polly
The History of Mr Polly – HG Wells
I suppose it must seem a bit odd to be writing to a fictional character just over 100 years old so I’d better explain. I encountered you first when I was about 15 years old. Up to that time, I had only any enthusiasm for Arthur Ransome’s children’s books and for text (as opposed to cartoon) boys’ comics: Wilson the Super Athlete and Alf Tupper the Tough of the Track amongst others were my heroes. These apart, my literary experiences were few and superficial. Even in those days I couldn’t connect with Biggles. I like to think it may have had something to do with his careless racialism but I suspect lesser motives.
Anyway at 15 years old we were advised of our set works for O levels. I can’t say any of us was overly enthused at having to dissect Henry IV Part One or the consumptive poetry of Keats. The inclusion of your History as told by Mr Wells was a completely unexpected and, for most, an unfortunate choice. For me, however, it was a revelation. I suspect I may have been the only member of the class to read your History avidly and regularly. I could do the required stuff with Henry IV and blessed Falstaff and his troupe for enlivening an otherwise ridiculous tale of the miraculously reforming rake that was Hal. In later life it pleased me to discover that his smashing victory over the French in 1415 at Agincourt was more down the unbelievable incompetence of the French than his bumbling leadership. Keats, of course is straightforward – just remember the poor bugger was dying of TB and you can’t really go wrong. I have to admit that I struggled with La Belle Dame Sans Merci because I couldn’t really get past the schoolboy translation of the title into The Beautiful Woman Who Didn’t Say Thank You. And, of course his Ode to a Grecian Urn spawned a thousand jokes.
But I digress: I don’t actually think I made much of a fist of the examination questions about your History but I certainly would have been able to demonstrate my knowledge of the text. At fifteen and sixteen I was far too young and callow to admit of any genuine emotional response to a work of fiction but your story has echoed through my life and, over time, I think I have begun to understand why. Firstly it is because you were portrayed as a man ‘cut from the common clay’: neither a hero nor an anti-hero, just a bloke. I appreciated and enjoyed your attempts at cleverness and wisdom through the use of convoluted and ornate language. It echoes my love of words and use of wit to cover my inadequacies and believed shallowness. I still thrill to your phrases of which I think my favourite is ‘funereal bakemeats’.
I liked you because I could relate to you despite my coming from a loving family and a vastly different and more fortunate background than you. You reflected the fact that most people are not wholly villains or heroes, not wholly good or wholly bad but sometimes one and sometimes the other; more the victims of circumstance and timing than innate nature, upbringing, planning or principles. We are all, to some extent, washed along on a tide of inertia and compromise. It seems now that your acquired courage in fighting Uncle Jim reflects the courage of most of us. We need to be pushed to the point where courage becomes an easier option than flight.
Anyway, one way or another, I got a very decent O level pass in English Literature, which was, in part, the key to four wonderful years of further full-time education and on to night school study and good qualifications. More than this though, I believe it inspired me to use my later teens to catch up on reading books, classics, poetry and modern novels and instilled a love of reading and learning that has stayed with me.
So Mr Polly, for all that I owe you thanks. We shall never meet. If we did I doubt that we’d be natural friends but as I settle into the comfort of my older years, I hope you continued your happiness after the vanquishing of Uncle Jim and lived happily ever after.
Thanks again and goodbye.
Robert Winston McNaughton