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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Case of Frederick Wright

There are many kids of bravery. My paternal grandfather attested in 1915, while the father of my father’s closest friend was a conscientious objector, who spent a period of the First World War in Wormwood Scrubs Prison, amongst other prisoners who were not allowed to talk to each other, being allowed to communicate only by singing hymns.

Reading last week the Pall Mall Gazette for 1916 I came across the following court report for 14 June 1916:

Man in Woman’s Clothing 

At Highgate Police Court this morning, fashionably dressed in a long blue navy coat, with college cap and veil, and white kid gloves, Frederick Wright, aged twenty-two, a valet, was brought up on remand charged with being an idle and disorderly person, clad in female attire, with giving a false description when registered as a lodger, and with being a deserter. Defendant lodged in the house of a Belgian lady, and gave the name of Katherine Woodhouse. The Bench ordered him to be handed over to a military escort.

The sentence of the court clearly did consider him as an individual, but not with any individual concerns or circumstances that would do anything but force him into the required pattern of activity demanded of men of his age. While I hope that he was handed over to sympathetic authorities, what stands out is his putting himself in court in clearly outstandingly fashionable ladies’ clothes. I hope that such bravery helped him through whatever followed.

While thinking about this story I had in my mind the story of Achilles, whose mother Thetis, knowing the prophesy that her son would be killed in the course of the Trojan War, hides him from Odysseus when he comes looking to take Achilles along with him. Thetis hides her son by dressing him in women's clothes, a stratagem which Odysseus overcomes by setting up a false alarm, which Achilles reacts to by grabbing the nearest weapon.

Looking for parallels of this in the story of Frederick Wright, we see the dressing in 'female attire' to escape being taken off to fight, but then it becomes more difficult. Wright reacted to danger by employing a different sort of weapon - he reinforced his presentation by dressing so fashionably that observers noted the details. This is not a disguise, is the message he presents, it is the reality, and no-one is going to be able to deny it.

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