I used to be a star letter writer. When I was a child I had more pen pals than I could sensibly handle. I enjoyed a long correspondence with my maternal grandfather, George, throughout my early adolescence. At the back of the drawer that holds my prettiest, laciest treats is a stack of letters, tied up in a pink bow. No, not passionate messages from a long ago lover, but chatty, honest letters from my best friend from university, Abby. The two of us wrote constantly back and forth in the first years of our marriages and the pregnancies and births of our first babies. They are funny and silly and sometimes desperate. But lovely. I have kept them with the thought of returning them to her one day. But she married a bad man. And some of the anecdotes, read with hindsight, are frightening hints of what is to come. So I don’t think she will ever want them back. But yet I keep them. Because they are letters to me from someone who loves me. And that is something worth keeping, even if much of the content is about how to get babies to sleep through the night.
Abby and I still write. But via email. Certainly more efficient and fast. But there is none of that excitement of a letter whizzing through the letterbox with a handwritten address and a stamp. I still have beautiful stationery. It rarely gets used. But times have changed. Or have they? We may not write letters anymore, but we still love to read them. Better yet, have them read to us by interesting people.
Letters Live at gorgeous Freemason’s Hall near Covent Garden was a delight for the eye and the ear and, most of all, the heart. Letters, some famous, some private, read aloud by well known actors and others. This is sooooo my kind of thing. Turns out, it is a lot of other people’s kind of thing too. But then this is London. Home to the fabulous. The Grand Hall was packed. We sat entranced. Sometimes we laughed. A lot. Plenty of tears as well. Tom Odell played the piano, twice. And a young woman whose name I don’t know played the cello. She had recently won an award. Can’t remember which one. Maddeningly, there was no program. I tried to hastily write readers names down on the back of a Waitrose receipt I found in my purse. But it is not complete. And despite believing that I would never forget a single word of any of it, within minutes of leaving the venue I was already confused as to who had read what. I blame this, obviously NOT on age or wine, but on the fact that my senses were so supremely overloaded in the most marvelous way, I had no ability to remember details. Or at least not all the details. Some happily have stuck. Bob Geldof’s lusty reading of Sol de Witt’s letter to Eve Hesse, urging her not to give up but instead to “just do.” Later in the evening he read his own letter to the council in response to a complaint from his neighbour about the wildness of his garden. Hilarious, obviously, and we were all left with a deep longing for the woman’s tidy AstroTurf to be littered with pollen and leaves forever more. Toby Stephens read the letter from Mark David Chapman to a collectibles dealer about the potential value of the album John Lennon had signed for him only hours before Chapman shot him. The heartlessness of it all was chilling. This was immediately followed by Dame Harriet Walter as Yoko One, responding to the state of New York on Chapman’s request for parole. Heartfelt and so very very sad. My teenager daughter asked me a few days ago why “everyone” hates Yoko One. I trotted out the usual “broke up the Beatles” line and then stopped, and answered honestly, that I didn’t know. Sure, you can dislike her music and her art, but people don’t dislike what she produces. They HATE her for being her. Which is awful. And this letter, so full of sorrow and humanity. “My husband did not deserve this,” she wrote the parole board. Either did she, for that matter.
John Bishop caused more than one stifled sob with a letter from American Brian to fellow solider Dave, long after their wartime romance, in N. Africa, in 1943 was destroyed by an enemy bullet. Time marches on, but the heart does not forget. Bishop’s second offering of the evening was also that of an American, but of a very different ilk. This time it was the hilariously monstrous memos from the CEO of something called Tiger Oil to his long suffering employees, haranguing them for gossiping, putting their feet on “his” desks, attempting to cheat him with their vacation taking ways and for speaking with him. Because if you have something to say to Mr. Edward Mike Davis “the fastest way is too slow.” Whatever that means. A real charmer.
The star of the night wasn’t, however, anyone famous. Hossein, a Syrian refugee who spent months in the Calais Jungle, now in the UK awaiting Right to Remain, read his open letter to the British public. In a voice repeatedly broken by emotion he told us “I only want to live.” Not many dry eyes after that one. The power of words.
Some were letters with fabulously quotable lines, from Maya Angelou to herself “don’t let anybody try and raise you.” And from author Charles Bukowski to his publisher John Martin, “to not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.” Words to live be, certainly.
The grand finale was stupendous. Tom Hollander reading Evelyn Waugh’s very very funny letter to his wife, on witnessing the accidental destruction of a Scottish Lord’s estate. He ends with the statement. “This is quite true.” What is also quite true is that letter writing is an art we were much too hasty in replacing. When I finish posting this piece, I am going to take out my pretty paper and write a letter. To Abby.