After such an enjoyable night on Sunday (review here), tonight saw me back at the Freemason’s Hall for the final show of this run of Letters Live. It was certainly a brilliant night, with so many more varied letters. Some were incredibly funny and some were deeply poignant, each delivered by another set of talented actors and writers, together with two more musicians/singers who I’d not come across before.
Tonight’s performers were: Benedict Cumberbatch, his father Timothy Carlton, Jude Law, Matt Berry, Rory Bremner, Nick Moran, Edna O’Brian, Tuppence Middleton, Mariella Frostrup, Juliet Stevenson and Hassan (a Syrian refugee), with musical interludes from the brilliant singer Rag N Bone Man and Mercury Prize 2015 winner, singer/pianist Benjamin Clementine.
What were my favourites tonight? It’s hard actually as there were quite a few to choose from. Timothy Carlton covered all aspects of the emotional spectrum through his readings of a letter between producers of Monty Python’s Holy Grail containing some colourful language and then a deeply powerful letter written by the Argentine poet Juan Gelman in a newspaper to his grandchild, who he had never met and was trying to find (they met 5 years later). Timothy himself seemed moved by it too. Then there was the powerful letter to the people of Europe from a refugee, read out by an English teacher and fellow Syrian refugee, which certainly seemed to move the audience this evening.
Jude Law was fantastic , particularly his reading of the letter from the American NASA astronaut in space during 9/11, in which he conveyed his feelings about the world and what was happening as he looked down from above the Earth. Tuppence Middleton read a letter from Lili Elbe, which after recently watching The Danish Girl resonated with me. More laughs came via Juliet Stevenson’s reading of a letter from a 97 year-old lady in a nursing home and Matt Berry and Benedict Cumberbatch took on the Mehmed IV exchange with the Zaparozhian Cossacks, with Matt clearly enjoying the insults he got to read out. Then there was Benedict’s superb delivery of Sol Lewitt’s 1965 letter to Eva Hesse “DO” which required him to read a breathless list of fast paced thoughts, which he did with incredible depth and character. The writer seemed to come alive and leap from the page. Indeed, on pausing for breath after the first part he deservedly received a round of applause! Top marks to both Benedict and Jude Law too who made a conscious effort to address every side of the room, including those sitting behind them.
I was also impressed with tonight’s singers Rag N Bone Man and Benjamin Clementine, the latter also playing the piano. I was particularly drawn to the incredible voice of Rag N Bone Man and will certainly be looking in to his music. It’s wonderful that Letters Live has perhaps brought lesser known artists to a wider audience through these shows.
As I did before, below is a full list of tonight’s letters and music.
List of Letters & Music (Tuesday 15th March 2016)
- “In My Time of Dying” performed by Rag N Bone Man (song)
- “Five accidents in two minutes” – Fred Allen to the State of New York Insurance Department in 1932 (read by Jude Law)
- “He is not a forgiving cat” – John Cheever to Josie Herbst in 1963 (read by Rory Bremner
- “Don’t expect me to be sane anymore” – Henry Miller to Anais Nin in 1932 (read by Nick Moran
- “Like a tree in full bearing” – Charlotte Bronte to her publisher W.S Williams following her sister Emily’s death (read by Edna O’Brian)
- “I found your wallet” – Anonymous to Reilly Flaherty in 2016 (read by Matt Berry)
- “This wretched comedy as a man” – Lili Elevens (Lili Elbe) to “Christian” (read by Tuppence Middleton)
- “I would like to retain Fart in your general direction” – Mark Formatter to Michael White in 1974 (read by Timothy Carlton)
- “In the event of Moon Disaster” – William Safire to H.R. Haldeman in 1969 (read by Rory Bremner)
- “Tears don’t flow the same in space” – Frank Culbertson to Earth in September 2001 (read by Jude Law)
- “The Matchbox” – Sylvia Townsend Warner to Alyse Gregory in 1946 (read by Mariella Frostrup)
- “Dear People of Europe” – from a refugee today (read by fellow refugee Hassan)
- “[Bothering Heights]” performed by Benjamin Clementine (song / piano) – I am not sure of the title of this song but am hoping someone can confirm it for me. It was something along these lines anyway!
- “1st of July” by Rag N Bone Man (song)
- “Your type is dime a dozen” – Hunter S Thompson to Anthony Burgess in 1973 (read by Nick Moran)
- “I’ve got a hunch” – Thomas Wolfe to Maxwell Perkins in 1938 (read by Jude Law)
- “Fortunately I had my new radio” – Edna Johnson to Ontario School in 1982 (read by Juliet Stevenson)
- “I would like to give you your own history” – Juan Gelman to his grandchild in 1995 (read by Timothy Carlton)
- “Look for me in the sunset” – Emmie to Sumner (on a grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts (read by Mariella Frostrup)
- “You Babylonian Scullion” – Mehmed IV to the Zaparozhian Cossacks and response in 1675 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Berry)
- “Dear One” – Rachel Carson to Dorothy Freeman in 1962 (read by Edna O’Brian)
- “I see no beauty in lopsided true love” – Elisabeth Smart to George Barker in 1946 (read by Tuppence Middleton)
- “To All Reporters” – A Newspaper Editor to his staff (read by Matt Berry)
- “I see him in the stars” – Emily Dickenson to sister-in-law Susan Dickenson in 1883 (read by Juliet Stevenson)
- “DO” – Sol Lewitt to Eva Hesse in 1965 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
- “Gone” preformed by Benjamin Clementine (song/piano)
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, To The Letter and My Dear Bessie are available through the usual stockists.
Almost a year since my last visit I was back at the Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden tonight for another wonderful evening at Letters Live.
It’s brilliant how successful this idea has become since it started and it’s such a simple, yet beautiful concept. Hearing letters, conveying such a range of emotions read aloud never fails to make me want to put pen to paper and send some thoughts out to the people in my life. This year at Letters Live, the campaign to encourage more of us to connect via a letter has been stepped up. Rhodia, a notebook company, was on hand giving out free notebooks and postcards. Their promise – write a postcard and post it in the box and they will cover the postage, no matter how far it’s going. Then there’s the Letters Live programme itself, which as well as containing some lovely letters, includes a pull out letter/envelope for you to write to your hero.
I’ve already booked to go again on Tuesday, but I thought I’d do as I did last year and talk a bit about each night and set out a full list of readers and their letters (seeing as this is still not contained within the programme, although is tweeted by @letterslive).
Tonight’s show included a mix of poignant and humorous letters, giving us an insight in to the lives of their writers across the decades. A few hours before the show it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch (who has been involved with Letters Live since its beginning) would be taking part tonight, which was an added bonus! Taking the stage alongside Benedict tonight was: Louise Brealey, Sophie Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Jeremy Paxman, Geoffrey Palmer, Sarah Snook, Simon McBurney, Hanif Kureishi and David Nicholls, with musical interludes by Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini.
There are always letters that touch me a little more than others at each Letters Live and tonight those I found most special included Oscar Isaac’s moving reading of Richard Feynman’s love letter to his late wife, Benedict’s final reading of Robert Falcon Scott’s letter to his wife as he neared death in 1912 following his team’s successful journey to the South Pole, from which he would never return and Helen Keller’s letter to the NY Symphony Orchestra. Being blind and deaf, her ability to feel the vibrations of their Beethoven concert was wonderfully read by Sophie Hunter. Then there was the letter from the Connell family in Lockerbie to the family of Frank Cialla, a victim of the plane disaster, who they found in their garden.
There was of course humour and laughter tonight too. Oscar Isaac was the perfect choice to read Alec Guinness’s letter in which he criticises Star Wars and moans about the young actors treating him as if he were 106! Geoffrey Palmer (as he did last year) read Evelyn Waugh’s wonderfully funny letter to his wife about an exploding tree, as well as Dalton Trumbo’s scathing complaint to a hospital. Then of course there was the wonderful pairing of Louise Brealey & Benedict reading more from Chris & Bessie (who have become a signature for Letters Live in my view).
I hadn’t heard of either of tonight’s musical performers but both Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini added an extra element to the show. All in all it was a fantastic evening. I still cannot recommend these events enough. There is something for everyone and you will be transported through history and emotion as you listen to words that were written so long ago, but meant so much to both writer and receiver. As Canongate CEO said at the start of the night, the words in such letters show us our shared humanity. In years to come I hope there will still be letters such as these for future generations to cherish.
So – if there is someone you’ve been meaning to get in touch with – delete that short text or tweet and pick up a pen and a piece of paper. Write to them. You never know it might just make their day.
Tonight’s List of Letters & Music – Sunday 13th March 2016
- Tides by Nitin Sawhney (piano)
- “What great births you have witnessed” – Mark Twain to Walt Whitman (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
- “Dear Friend” – Hermione Gingold to A. Friend in 1950 (read by Louise Brealey & Sophie Hunter)
- “Nothing is ours except time” – Lucius Anmaeus Seneca to Lucilius Junior (read by Simon McBurney)
- “My Dungeon Shook” – James Baldwin to his nephew in 1963 (read by Hanif Kureishi)
- “The most astonishing thing” – Madame de Sevigne to Philippe-Emmanuel de Coulanges in 1670 (read by Sarah Snook)
- “Stupidity is a crime” – Dalton Trumbo to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in 1960 (read by Geoffrey Palmer)
- “Reputed Bantling” – F.Scott Fitzgerald to Andrew Turnbull in 1932 (read by David Nicholls)
- “To All Reporters” – Newspaper editor to his staff (read by Jeremy Paxman)
- “I love my wife. My wife is dead.” – Richard Feynman to his late wife Arline (read by Oscar Isaac)
- “My dear little Grandfather” – Marcel Proust to his grandfather (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
- “Autumn Sun” by Emiliana Torrini (song)
- “Prophecy” by Nitin Sawhney (guitar)
- “My Dear Bessie” – Chris Barker and Bessie Moore! (read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey)
- “Your type is dime a dozen” – Hunter S. Thompson to Anthony Burgess in 1973 (read by Hanif Kureishi)
- “The appalling horror” – Florence Nightingale to Dr. William Bowman in 1854 (read by Louise Brealey)
- “This is quite true” – Evelyn Waugh to his wife Laura in 1942 (read by Geoffrey Palmer)
- “New Rubbish Dialogue” – Alec Guinness to Anna Kaufman in 1976 (read by Oscar Isaac)
- “My heart almost stood still” – Helen Keller to the NY Symphony Orchestra in 1924 (read by Sophie Hunter)
- “We all feel like that now and then” – Sir Archibald Clark Kerr to Lord Reginald Pembroke in 1943 (read by Jeremy Paxman)
- “Our Frank” – The Connell Family to the Cialla Family (read by Simon McBurney)
- “I embrace you with all my heart” – Albert Camus to his old teacher Louis Germain in 1957 (read by David Nicholls)
- “Ought women not to be abolished” – Clementine Churchill to The Times in 1912 (read by Sarah Snook)
- “To My Widow” – Robert Falcon Scott to his wife in 1912 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
- “Sunny Road” by Nitin Sawhney (guitar) & Emiliana Torrini (vocal)
Letters Live has two performances left on Monday and Tuesday. For ticket availability see the website here. The wonderful books, To The Letter, Letters of Note, More Letters of Note and My Dear Bessie are available through the usual stockists.
In December 2013, I was incredibly frustrated to learn I had missed an event featuring two of my favourite actors (Benedict Cumberbatch & Gillian Anderson). That event was the first Letters Live at the Tabernacle in London. However, due to their high profiles, it meant that the event was then on my radar for any future shows, the first of which arrived on World Book Day 2014 at the Southbank Centre and what a thrilling experience it was, as I wrote about on my blog at the time.
For those not familiar with Letters Live, the event is a celebration of the enduring power of the written word and letter writing, through the reading aloud of correspondence across the decades from both well known figures and ordinary individuals leading their lives, captured by authors Simon Garfield and Shaun Usher through their respective books To The Letter and Letters of Note, both published by Canongate Books . It’s an incredible insight in to our history and certain historical events, but also a wonderful way to simply explore the intricate fabric of human emotions, whether love, friendship, anger or humour, all of which seem so much more poignant and powerful in the form of a letter, especially in an age in which so much of our communication with one another is via short text messages, tweets or emails, often lacking in a depth of emotion.
After the success of previous Letters Live events, this week has seen a huge undertaking by its organisers, in conjunction with publisher Canongate Books, as rather than a one off night, there will have been four unique evenings, during which a variety of incredible letters will have been read from some of the finest actors and writers we have (sadly Wednesday’s event was cancelled otherwise it would have been five nights). Adding to the thrill of each evening, the letters to be read and their readers (with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey) have been a surprise for the audience.
Last night’s penultimate evening was the only one I could attend (I’d have been at them all if I could!) and so I made my way to the Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden, perhaps best known to the British public as being the external location of the MI5 office in Spooks! Not normally open to the public, other than for special events, it was certainly a beautiful building to admire while waiting for the show to start. The venue was packed and the atmosphere was certainly one of excitement and anticipation.
As for the event itself, it was a wonderful evening and rather emotional. Tonight’s line up comprised of: singer Tom Odell, Geoffrey Palmer, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gemma Chan, Colin Salmon, Samantha Bond, Louise Brealey, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Joanne Froggatt, Tom Sturridge, Olivia Colman, author Andrew O’Hagan and cellist Natalie Clein. I have listed the full programme of letters at the end for anyone interested, but wanted to draw out some of my highlights of the thirty heard. The only minor gripe I had (and it is a minor one) was that the block of seats we were in, were behind the lectern, meaning we didn’t get to see any of the facial expressions of the readers, with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch, who each time he read, at some point angled himself briefly for the benefit of those behind him. As these weren’t the cheapest seats, it seemed to be a point that should have perhaps been made clear on the seating plan when booking.
Each half began with the supremely talented Tom Odell, whose voice carries so much passion and emotion as he plays the piano. It was a lovely touch to add music to the event and each song played by Tom had a link to the writing of letters, setting the tone perfectly. He also ended the event with the song “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” by Fats Weller, which brought the evening to a wonderfully poignant and moving end.
Personally, certain readings had a greater impact on me than others, whether due to the subject or the circumstances in which they had been written. Some were funny, others affectionate, some sarcastic and others angry, highlighting the breadth of our emotions. One of the most powerful was a letter read by Benedict Cumberbatch, written in 1935 by Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish novelist who had escaped Nazi Germany to live abroad and whose home had been given away by the Third Reich, while still requiring him to make payments on it. His letter, “To the Occupant” was written to whoever now occupied his beloved home and through his writing we feel his pain, anger and contempt for the Third Reich and those supporters who reaped the benefits of the dreadful treatment of others. I can’t help but wonder how such a letter has survived and was not destroyed at the time, making me wonder about the person who must have received it.
Another touching letter was that of John Steinbeck to his 14 year-old son Tom, who in 1958 wrote home about his love of a girl called Susan, to which his father had responded with his thoughts on love and all it brings. Contained in volume 1 of Letters of Note, it was wonderfully brought to life by Colin Salmon and contained a wonderful quote I will try and remember – “Nothing good gets away.”
Tom Sturridge was also incredible to watch, as he filled his readings with as much emotion as possible and seemed to truly become the people on the page and his reading of Henry James’s letter to his close friend Grace Norton in 1883, trying to bring her hope and support, as she suffered from what was likely depression following a bereavement, was very special.
Following his moving portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch also read a brief letter from Turing to the mother of his school friend Christopher Morcon after his death and his poignant request for a picture so that he could remember his face was all the more powerful after seeing the film.
There were of course lighter moments in the evening, including the hilarious letter written by Elvis fans to President Eisenhower, begging them not to cut his hair or side burns in the Army! Olivia Colman delivered it brilliantly (including apologising for using a Deep South accent, as she did not know what people from Montana would sound like)! Samantha Bond also read three short online responses from Tina Fey to internet commentators. Her wit and sarcasm in response to some of the nasty comments made about her were brilliant. The oldest letter, written in 856 AD, also read by Olivia Colman, was a standard form response letter from the ‘Dunhuang Bureau of Etiquette’ in China, which insisted that local officials use the letter template when sending apologies to offended dinner hosts if they had embarrassed themselves at an event! It was also wonderful to hear Geoffrey Palmer read his two funny anecdotes, including a blunt response from Private Eye to representatives of someone who felt the magazine owed him an apology and damages.
There was also a rather magical moment, as Louise Brealey read a letter by Beatrix Potter to a five year-old boy from 1893, which marked the creation of Peter Rabbit, his siblings and Mr McGregor’s garden. Looking back on this short and sweet letter, sent to entertain a young child, knowing how much magic that little rabbit and the world of Beatrix Potter would create for so many children for years to come, was gorgeous.
Lastly, I couldn’t reflect on the evening without touching on what I assume will always be a highlight of Letters Live events for me and that is the love story of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, who began writing to each other during the Second World War and who fell in love through their letters and went on to marry and remain happily together for the rest of their lives. Their letters, read as if a conversation between two people, were a highlight of my last Letters Live. Capturing the hearts of many who have heard them, this year also marked the publication of a book of just these letters – My Dear Bessie, for which I attended a launch event attended by their sons. Louise Brealey read Bessie at both of these events and it was lovely to see her do so again last night, together with Benedict Cumberbatch reading Chris. The two have such a perfect chemistry and were able to bring to life the romance, beauty, love, concern and silliness captured in their letters over the war. Their words, written in such a different time, but so filled with emotion that we perhaps express to each other less easily now, never fail to bring a tear to my eye and tonight was no different (and I saw many others in the audience wiping away a tear too). I reviewed My Dear Bessie on this blog here and I cannot recommend it highly enough, whether you’ve been to a Letters Live or not.
All of those participating in Letters Live bring their talent to the material, but ultimately what makes these events so special is that it isn’t about those reading, it’s about the power and emotion of the words, some of which were written hundreds of years ago and yet which, when brought to life from the page, still have the ability to capture the imaginations and hearts of those hearing them.
I am so pleased Letters Live has become the success that it has, guaranteeing that these events will continue, drawing a new audience and reminding us of the power of words. Jamie Bing of Canongate Books began last night by saying that “Letters throw light wherever they are cast.” That certainly proved to be the case in the Freemason’s Hall this week and I’ve no doubt tonight’s final show and future events will continue to do the same. Those behind Letters Live hope it will continue to promote the importance of literacy as well as being “one of the most powerful ways in which the joy and pain and humour and tragedy of being human can be shared.” I certainly think they’ve succeeded and created something truly special and if it also helps to inspire its audiences to delete their short text or 140 character tweet and put pen to paper in order to make a connection to those in their lives, then that too is something that should certainly be celebrated.
Full List of readings from Friday 3rd April
- “The Letter” by Wayne Carson Thompson, sang by The Box Tops, performed by Tom Odell
- Evelyn Waugh’s 1942 letter to his wife Laura, o how not to blow up a tree stump, read by Geoffrey Palmer
- Robert Crumb’s letter to Mats Gustafsson “Torturing the saxophone”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
- Rachel Carson’s letter to Dorothy Freeman “Dear One”, read by Gemma Chan
- Bill Safire’s pre-prepared speech sent to H.R. Haldemann in July 1969 “In the event of Moon Disaster”, to be read by President Nixon if Apoolo 11 did not land safely on the Moon, read by Colin Salmon
- Tina Fey’s response to internet commentators “Dear Internet”, read by Samantha Bond
- Michael Powell’s letter to Martin Scorsese, after he read the script for Goodfellas, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
- Beatrix Potter’s letter to Noel Moore “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”, read by Louise Brealey
- V.S. Naipaul’s letter to copy editor Sonny Mehta “Every writer has his own voice”, read by Sanjeev Bhaskar
- Zelda Fitzgerald’s letter to her husband F.Scott Fitzgerald “Come quick to me”, read by Joanne Froggatt
- Mark Twain’s letter to J.H. Todd “An idiot of the 33rd degree”, read by Tom Sturridge
- “Chinese Form Letter” from 856 AD “I was ready to sink into the earth with shame”, read by Olivia Colman
- Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to Charles McCarthy “I am very real”, read by Andrew O’Hagan
- “Dialogue” by Gyorgy Ligeti, performed by cellist Natalie Clein
- Chris Barker & Bessie Moore’s “My Dear Bessie”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey
- “Love Letter” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, performed by Tom Odell
- More of Chris Barker & Bessie Moore’s “My Dear Bessie”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey
- Hugh Dowding’s letter to Winston Churchill, 1940, “Final, complete & irremediable defeat”, read by Geoffrey Palmer
- Carl Jung’s letter to James Joyce “A string of veritable psychological peaches”, read by Andrew O’Hagan
- Three Elvis fans’s letter to U.S. President Eisenhower “Don’t touch his hair”, read by Olivia Colman
- Alan Turing’s letter to Mrs Morcon “You could not have had a greater loss”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
- John Steinbeck’s letter to his son Tom “Nothing good gets away”, read by Colin Salmon
- Clementine Churchill’s letter to husband Winston Churchill “You are not so kind as you used to be”, read by Samantha Bond
- Henry James’s letter to Grace Norton “Sorrow passes and we remain”, read by Tom Sturridge
- Private Eye’s letter to Goodman, Dorrick & Co “Arkell v. Pressdram”, read by Geoffrey Palmer
- W.C. Lathrop’s letter to Thomas Edison “Thanks Mr. Edison”, read by Joanne Froggatt
- Spike Milligan’s letter to Stephen Gard “Oh Christ, the cook is dead?”, read by Sanjeev Bhaskar
- Charlotte Bronte’s letter to her sister Emily’s publisher W.S. Williams “Like a tree in full bearing”, read by Louise Brealey
- Lion Feuchtwanger’s letter to the occupant of his home in 1935 “To The Occupant”, read by Benedict Cumberbatch
- “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” by Fats Weller, performed by Tom Odell
For information about ticket availability for tonight’s Letters Live and future events visit the Letters Live website. Simon Garfield’s To The Letter and Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note Vol. 1 are published by Canongate Books and available through all the usual stockists. Volume 2 will be published later this year and details can be found on the Letters of Note blog, which also contains some of the above letters.
Last year I went along to an event at the Southbank Centre called Letters Live, celebrating the joy of the written word, in a time where letter writing is done by fewer and fewer people. As part of the event, some of the letters read aloud were by a young couple during World War II. This snapshot in to their lives was the highlight of the night for me and I did leave wondering what happened to them. The special quality of these letters was not lost on Canongate Books and I was thrilled to learn that a full book was to be published of the letters between Chris and Bessie and last night I attended an event at Foyles bookshop in London (an incredible place if you have yet to explore it since its refurbishment), at which Simon Garfield, whose To The Letter book first brought us this love story, introduced this compilation. What made the event more special was that he was joined by Chris and Bessie’s two sons Bernard and Peter, who shared some wonderful anecdotes about their parents. For those unaware of their story, in 1943, Chris Barker was serving as a signalman in North Africa and decided to start writing letters to friends to help pass the time. One such friend was Bessie Moore, with whom he used to work at the Post Office, who at that time was dating another man Nick. Her response to Chris revealed they were no longer together and from that point onwards, through their letters, their growing affection and love for each other blossomed. Over the last few years of the war they continued to write to one another from across the world. I am still making my way through the book after buying it last night, which is proving to be a heartwarming and beautiful piece of work. In a digital age where we all seem to focus too much on communicating electronically, it’s lovely to gain an insight in to a time where letters had such incredible power to affect people’s lives, in this case creating a bond that went on to last a lifetime.
During the event, Simon Garfield explained how he’d been lucky enough to come across their correspondence during his work on To The Letter. He needed to include more letters from ordinary people (most of the letters are from well known public figures) and on a visit to the Mass Observation Archive in Brighton, he was shown “the Barker Papers” and he soon realised how special they were. The letters had been donated to the archive by the Barker’s sons, Bernard and Peter. Bernard recollected his father giving him the letters two years before he died, asking if he should throw them away. On asking what they were, as he had been aware that his father had some wartime correspondence related to the Greek communist resistance ELAS, he was surprised to be told they were love letters to his mother! He’d certainly never imagined his father as the type of person to write love letters. As a historian, he couldn’t imagine destroying them. Following his father’s request, no one (their sons included) read the letters until after both their parents had died. Bernard admitted that as his father had left school at 14 and didn’t really have much of an education, he and his brother both never imagined that he would actually be such a wonderful writer. He said they realised that, despite their educations, compared to their father they were actually third rate! The letters were too special to not be shared and so they were given to the Archive. Both Bernard and Peter said how surreal it now was to experience the publicity about their parents, which came about due to To The Letter and Letters Live and now through this new book and they were thrilled about it. The event last night wouldn’t have been complete without a reading of some of Chris and Bessie’s letters, the way many people, myself included, were introduced to them in the first place. Simon Garfield spoke about the famous names who have taken part in such readings in the past, at events such as Letters Live and the Hay Festival, including Lisa Dwan, David Nicholls, Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch. Louise Brealey had been the reader of Bessie’s letters at the event I went to last year, so it was lovely she was able to be there last night, together with actor Brian Dick (currently Richard Riche in Wolf Hall on BBC Two) to bring Chris and Bessie to life for the audience. Both read with such passion and tenderness. The book doesn’t contain all their correspondence as there were 500 letters written, totalling approximately half a million words, spanning the years from 1943 – 1946. There are also more letters from Chris than from Bessie (she had instructed him to destroy her letters, which thankfully he didn’t completely obey!). However, what Simon has been able to do is publish enough of the letters to truly convey their beautiful relationship during such an important time in history, which gives a very human insight in to what it was like to live through the war, as well as being such a special love story. I am sure there were many other couples doing something similar at that time and Chris and Bessie stand as representatives of all those ordinary lives touched by the war. I’m truly loving reading this beautiful, romantic and emotive book. Simon Garfield has done a fantastic job of selecting the letters to be included, so that the personalities of both Chris and Bessie shine through, as well as their touching romance. We may live in a more modern age, but I certainly think this book is an example of how words can be so much more special when we take the time to put pen to paper and spend that little extra time and effort to stay in touch with those important to us. My Dear Bessie is a book that will warm your heart and would make a lovely gift too. I urge everyone to take the time to read it. My Dear Bessie by Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, edited and introduced by Simon Garfield, in published by Canongate Books on 5th February, available at all the usual book stockists.
As well as celebrating Shakespeare’s 450th birthday this year, 23rd April also marked World Book Night, an annual celebration of reading and books. It is one of many programs run by The Reading Agency – a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance to become a reader.
Last month saw the 4th Letters Live event, which is inspired by the books To The Letter by Simon Garfield and Letters of Note by Shaun Usher and is designed to bring together actors, musicians and writers to celebrate “the enduring power of correspondence”. During the two-hour event, a selection of letters written by notable figures across history were read aloud, capturing a spectrum of emotions. As an audience member, listening to these wonderful snapshots into various lives at different periods of history was an exciting, entertaining and insightful experience and I can see why the Letters Live events continue to grow in popularity.
As this event we were treated to 27 letters, two with related music (more on that later) and it was an eclectic mix of styles, topics and writers – everything from love letters to recipes from royalty was included. Some of my favourites from the evening included the beautiful and touching love letters between Chris and Bessie in 1945. Written during the war, Chris is stationed somewhere in the desert and we hear through their words their growing affection for each other and how much they look forward to being with each other again. In this modern, electronic age of communication, not many people write letters and it was quite moving to gain a glimpse in to what it was like during war to be separated and use the beauty of words to maintain a connection. We heard two letters from each of Chris and Bessie, both read as a pair on stage by author David Nicholls and Sherlock actress Louise Brealey. They each conveyed the beauty of the affection between them perfectly, and having them on stage together was a wonderful way of visually linking them together. I would have loved to have heard more from them.
In a rare insight in to a less formal monarch, we also heard a lovely letter from a young Queen Elizabeth II in 1960 to President Dwight Eisenhower, in which she provides him with a requested recipe for drop scones after a visit to Balmoral. Picturing the Queen baking was a nice image and Morgana Robinson’s voice was very good!
The talented pianist James Rhodes read two letters by famous composers as well as playing a piece by each of them afterwards. The first was a letter from 8 year-old Frederick Chopin to his father – very short but with the use of words such as eloquent it’s clear this was a very clever child. We then heard James play Chopin’s Nocturne in C Minor Op 48/1. Later he read a love letter from Schumann to a girl called Clara in 1838. Apparently he wrote her 165 songs in a year and James treated us to one of them – Widmung (“Dedication”) trans. Lizst. The inclusion of these gorgeous musical interludes added an extra dimension to the event.
More comedic letters included the bizarre 1970 letter from Elvis Presley to President Richard Nixon, in which he stresses his desire to have the credentials of a federal agent and Matt Stone’s memo to the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America), in which he sets out his responses to their proposed edits to the South Park film. After such a colourful letter in terms of language it was amusing to hear him sign off with “Best memo ever!”
Another gem was the letter written by 11 year-old Grace Bedell to presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln in 1860, in which she says how much she wants him to win, but wonders if he has considered growing whiskers (a beard), as she thinks it would improve him and endear him to the voters! Kerry Fox read this sweet child’s letter wonderfully and it was followed by Andrew Motion’s reading of Lincoln’s response to her the same year, questioning whether people would “call it a piece of silly affectation” if he were to begin to grow a beard now! We also learnt she met him in person a few months later, as he travelled victoriously to Washington DC by train – now with whiskers!
The special guest (unannounced in the programme) was Stephen Fry, who read two great letters by Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. We also had an impromptu addition from Russell Brand, who had been on the lineup but dropped out, only to appear. He read a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol from 1969, discussing Warhol’s work for the Stones’s latest album cover.
As you can see it was an illuminating evening, giving an insight in to well-known names across the decades, which also crucially highlighted just how special writing and reading is. It’s quite magical to hear letters from the past and realise that this is something that we should treasure and try and encourage for the future. Reading emails just isn’t the same (but I’m also an advocate of books over e-books too)!
I certainly enjoyed my evening at the Southbank Centre and will definitely go along to future Letters Live events, as I don’t think we can celebrate enough the power, beauty and emotion we can evoke through the written word. If you are able to attend a future event it’s sure to be a memorable night!
To The Letter by Simon Garfield and Letters of Note by Shaun Usher are both available from all the usual book stockists and include the letters included at the event, plus many more.