On Saturday night, it was time for one of my favourite events in any year. It was another trip to Letters Live, which I first discovered after missing the very first event at the Tabernacle and since missing that, I’ve been determined to go to at least one night of any Letters Live run in London since. This weekend’s performances took place at Union Chapel in Islington, which is a wonderful venue and an ideal setting for Letters Live.
For those unfamiliar with Letters Live, it is an evening that celebrates the power and beauty of the written word, through the reading of letters from throughout history, whether from the 1800s or 2017. Some were incredibly funny and some were deeply poignant, delivered by another set of talented actors and writers. You never know what letters will be read and you can never be sure which celebrities will be reading on any given night. This all adds to the magic and excitement of the occasion and keeps the focus on the letters and not the people reading them.
Letters Live also supports some wonderful charities (you can learn more on the website) and encourages all of us to think about writing more, in a world where technology has taken away from the simple, yet powerful act of putting pen to paper.
Last night’s performers were: Amanda Abbington, John Simm, Rob Rinder, Zawe Ashton, Nick Moran, Lemn Sissay, Alan Carr, Ashley Walters and with musical interludes from the singer Izzie Yardley.
What were my favourites tonight? This is always a tough question, but Alan Carr read some particularly brilliant letters and was hilarious throughout the night. His letters included a complaint from a airline passenger on his dreadful seat (“Seat 29E”) (read it here), a letter from Kenneth Williams to a fan and the response to the Turkish Sultan from the Zaporozhian Cossacks. I also loved Harold Pinter’s brilliant response to a letter from a theatregoer concerning the play The Birthday Party (the initial letter read by Amanda Abbington and Pinter’s response by John Simm), a surreal letter from Jack Lemmon to Walter Matthau regarding investment in a cat farm (also read by Simm) and a college student’s rejection of his Harvard rejection letter (read by Ashley Walters) (read it here). Hunter S. Thompson’s letter of advice to his friend was also a thought-provoking letter, particularly towards the end (read by Simm, you can read it here).
On the other end of the emotional spectrum was Rob Rinder’s reading of “Sleep Well My Love,” a letter by an American WWII veteran Brian Keith to Dave, a fellow soldier he met and fell in love with in 1943 in North Africa. It was written on the anniversary of their first meeting. Sadly Dave never made it home. It was a particularly moving reading from Rinder, as Saturday night also marked the four year anniversary of his marriage to his husband.
There was also Zawe Ashton’s powerful reading of MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry’s open letter to Richard Mourdock following his comments on rape being an act of God, which affected many of us in the room. You can hear Melissa read her letter yourself here: https://youtu.be/nMmI2Ah3X3I
Letters Live also always chooses wonderful musical acts (previous nights have included Tom Odell and it was at Letters Live last year where I discovered Rag N Bone Man) and last night’s act Izzie Yardley was another performer whose music I will be looking out for following this event. I particularly loved her opening song, By Your Side (check it out on Sound Cloud here).
As I have done with previous Letters Live nights, below is a full list of last night’s letters and music. I would add that last night there was no screen showing us the details of the letters and so I have compiled this list based on the notes I made from the introduction to each letter and some follow up research on the internet to ensure that I have all the names set out correctly! I’ve also included links to some of the letters throughout this article if I have been able to find them (some from the Letters Live website itself).
In fact, my only criticism of Letters Live is that they don’t give out a list of the letters read. I’m all for the surprise of the night, but they could still hand something out as everyone is leaving (we were given something at the Southbank Centre event a few years ago). Until then, my pen and paper will have to do!
List of Letters & Music (Saturday 15th July 2017)
- “By Your Side” performed by Izzie Yardley (song)
- 2013 – Letter by Carrie Fisher to Princess Leia (read by Amanda Abbington)
- 1880 – Letter from American poet, musician and author Sidney Lanier to his eldest son, on the birth of his youngest son (read by John Simm)
- 1851 – Letter from poet Alfred Tennyson to his friend Robert Monteith, following the loss of his son, who was stillborn (read by Rob Rinder)
- 1785 – Letter from Fanny Burney (who became Madame D’Arblay) to her sister after she became Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte (read by Zawe Ashton)
- 1997 – Letter from Buzz Aldrin to a professor regarding his time as an astronaut (read by Nick Moran)
- 2001 – Letter from Astronaut Frank Culbertson, following 9/11, while he was aboard the International Space Station (read by Lemn Sissay)
- 1972 – Letter by Kenneth Williams (from the Carry On films) to a fan from New Jersey Andrew Hathaway (read by Alan Carr)
- 1967 – Letter from a theatregoer to Harold Pinter & his response (read by Amanda Abbington and John Simm)
- 1960 – Letter from U.S Air Force WWII pilot Claude Eatherly (one of the pilots who bombed Hiroshima) to Reverend N. (read by Ashley Walters)
- 1897 – “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” – a response from the editor of the now defunct New York paper The Sun to 8 year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who had asked if there was no Santa (read by Rob Rinder)
- 1967 – “Janis Joplin Lives!” – Letter from Janis Joplin to her parents (read by Zawe Ashton)
- 1896 – “He has nothing left but his poker” – Complaint letter to the Atlantic City Railroad, New Jersey from an unhappy local named A.T Harris, regarding his bull (read by Nick Moran)
- 1963 – Letter from Jackie Kennedy to the Soviet leader Chairman Khrushchev, following the death of JFK (read by Amanda Abbington)
- 1958 – “A man has to be something; He has to matter” – Letter from Hunter S. Thompson to his friend Hume Logan in response to a request for life advice (read by John Simm)
- 2004 – “Seat 29E” – Complaint letter to Continental Airlines, regarding seat 29E! (read by Alan Carr)
- 1919 – Violet Trefusis to English author Vita Sackville-West (read by Amanda Abbington)
- 1969 – Letter from Charles Perkowski to publisher John Martin (read by Nick Moran)
- 2012 – Melissa Harris-Perry’s open letter to Richard Mourdock, regarding his terrible comments on rape (read by Zawe Ashton)
- 1981 – publishing of Paul Devlin’s rejection letter to Harvard, rejecting the rejection letter! (read by Ashley Walters)
- 1943 – “Sleep Well My Love” – Letter by American WWII veteran Brian Keith to Dave, a fellow soldier who he fell in love with in North Africa, who never made it home (read by Rob Rinder)
- 1927 – Letter by Edith Sitwell to Cecil Beaton (read by Amanda Abbington)
- 2017 – Letter to the Telegraph’s letters page (regarding the outcomes of inaccurate predictive text) (read by Alan Carr)
- 1996 – Letter from Saul Bellow to Kingsley Amis’s son Martin, following Kingsley’s death (read by Nick Moran)
- 1988 – Letter from Jack Lemmon to his friend Walter Matthau, regarding investment in a cat farm (read by John Simm)
- 1675 – “You Baylonian Scullion” – Letter from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to the Zaporozhian Cossacks, demanding their surrender and their colourful response back to him! (read by rob Rinder and Alan Carr)
- 1995 – “Bruce is Great” – Joe Strummer’s contribution to a MoJo article on Bruce Springsteen (read by Nick Moran)
- 1914 – “Brown is as pretty as white” – Letter from W.E.B Du Bois (the first African American to earn a Ph.D at Harvard) to his 14 year-old daughter, Yolande, who had left home to study in England (read by Lemn Sissay)
- “So Easy” preformed by Izzie Yardley (song)
So that’s all from Letters Live for now. At least it’s clear that these events will always return. Their popularity only seems to grow and I look forward to lots more evenings like this one to come.
For news and information visit Letters Live’s website, or for more lovely letters visit the Letters of Note website. The brilliant books that have inspired these events: Letters of Note, More Letters of Note and To The Letter are available through the usual stockists.