A shaking hand lifts knocker. Lets it fall.
Madness, really: two days’ leave, first and last for months, and he comes here.
Creating the Centena
The story is one my dad told me. A keen musician, my great-grandmother’s brother – Stuart Fletcher – decided to spend his two days’ leave in quite an unorthodox way. He travelled to Paris, and turned up at the house of composer Maurice Ravel, completely unannounced, hoping to meet one of his musical heroes.
That’s all my dad remembers. I don’t even know if Ravel was there, and answered. I like to think he did, though, and that they talked for hours. For Uncle Stu’s sake, and for the sake of his family, who were probably fairly indignant that he hadn’t come back home.
It took a while to track my great-grandmother’s brother down – mostly because my dad’s memory is terrible, and because searching for ‘Stuart Fletcher’ led me to lots of dead ends: dates that didn’t match up, wrong names on family trees. After some digging in birth, marriage and death records – and a potential new career path as a private investigator – I found out that his real name was George Stuart Fletcher: he went by his middle name.
This discovery led me to his medal card in the National Archives. The card tells us that he was in the Royal Field Artillery, that at various times he was a Lieutenant, 2nd Lieutenant and Captain, and that he served in Western Europe, probably France (shown by the ‘1’ in the ‘theatre of war first served in’ box). The handwriting at the bottom tells us he received ‘emblems’ – meaning he was mentioned in despatches by his Commander-in-Chief at least twice, for gallantry in action or other good services.
Because he was already well-known by 1914, Ravel’s war is much easier to suss out. He was desperate to enlist – even though he was already 39 when the war started, and was small and frail. Because of his size, he was rejected by a fair few military selection panels. But he was eventually recruited to the Thirteenth Artillery Regiment as a lorry driver, and was sent to the front in March 1916.
By early 1917, Ravel was in a bad way. Battling a heart condition, his mother’s death in January 1917 was too much to take, and he was discharged that June. He lived out the rest of the war in Paris, depressed and very thin.
It must’ve been during that time, then, that Stuart went to see him. If he did meet him, I wonder how it felt to find his hero in such despair. I wonder if he was glad he went.
I wanted to focus on the pause with Stuart on the doorstep because it felt like a moment of hope, in the midst of horror. Stuart was 20 when the war started – a former clerk in a coal office, forced to grow up very fast. But he was buoyed up by his passion for music. And by a streak of adventure that led him to set off across France, in the hope of meeting a hero.