Brief aan Stephen Fry


Dear Mr Fry,

When I was 13 years old (I am 77 now) I entered the Lorentz Lyceum (something like a grammar school) in Haarlem, some 20 kilometres from Amsterdam. It proved to be a terrible school, a repressive institution, a frightening educational barracks, that I left when I was 17, vomitting all over the place during the final examinations. The reason for this hateful good-bye was a certain vengeful invigilator, who took up in his hands an examination paper with finished calculations, read it in icy silence, just to spite me, heaved a deep sigh of contempt, before putting the paper back on my desk.
         So there I was, from toe to top brimful of frustrated anger and without a certificate. (As things turned out, however, I have been a teacher of English at a rather renowned grammar school for forty years.)

But honesty requires the mentioning of one teacher (of history) at the Lorentz Lyceum. Mr Van Omme was his name, who in later years committed suicide together with his wife, but before that taught us ‘everything’ about the Trojan war. I was really fascinated by these stories and have never forgotten them.
         There is one sequence of events taking place at the end of the siege of Troy, that moved me so much at the time (1957) that I could hardly breathe when Mr Van Omme told us about them. It all starts with the killing of Patroclos and ends with king Priam humbly asking Achilles for the mutilated body of his son Hector to be properly buried.

In your version Hector faces Patroclos whom he recognized because Apollo knocks his helmet (actually Achilles’ helmet) from his head and then Hector kills him by throwing his javelin through his entrails.
         The reason I write to you is first and foremost to praise you for the three excellent books you have written about the ancient world, the Greek myths, its Heroes and the Trojan war. But excuse me, Mr Fry, for my boldness, but in my opinion the version Mr Van Omme told me is much more dramatic than yours. Hector doesn’t know that Patroclos is wearing Achilles’ armour and Apollo doesn’t intervene. Convinced that he is no match for Achilles, Hector cowardly throws his spear into Patroclos’ back. And when Achilles furiously challenges him to come out and fight, Hector, by then fully aware of his dishonourable behaviour, and certain of his approaching death, grievously says good-bye to his wife Andromache and his little son Astyanax. And though Hector asks Achilles to grant him a proper burial (as was the diké of the Gods, their demand) Achilles is so enraged by the death of his friend and lover Patroclos that he draws Hector’s corpse behind his chariot seven times around the city of Troy, to let the dogs feast on it. Only when king Priam begs Achilles to be allowed to take Hector with him (or what is left of his son) does Achilles show pity with the old man.
        By then the tears stood in my eyes.

Let me finish this letter, dear Mr Fry, by expressing my admiration for your erudition, your eloquence, your mastery of style, your humour and your enthusiasm for the subjectmatter.

And oh, by the way, you will certainly not remember, but I do very well. We once met in Amsterdam. It must be about 20 years ago. It was a sweet summer’s evening. You were enjoying a drink with some friends outside a café on the Amstel. When I passed I recognized you from A Bit of Fry and Laury, which was also broadcast on Dutch televison. You were wearing a black nappa leather jacket and you were obviously in good spirits. I was on my way home to Haarlem after reading a column in the VPRO radio studio, also situated on the Amstel. And then I just could not refrain from introducing myself.
         ‘Excuse me, sir’, I said, ‘I would not want to intrude upon your privacy, but I think you are Stephen Fry?’
         And then a very cordial short confrontation took place.

With my sincere good wishes,

Lodewijk Wiener