The other night, I went to the most wonderful event.
Put on by the people behind the website Letters of Note, it’s an event where famous faces gather together to read aloud a variety of letters written by other well-known figures from the past few hundred years.
As soon as I heard about it, I decided to book tickets.
I love letters. I have always loved letters – loved to write them, to read them and, of course, to receive them. During my years at boarding school, I would wait eagerly for the post, keen to seek comfort in familiar handwriting (and hungry for the chocolate that usually accompanied each card). At university, I learnt chunks of iconic letters off by heart for my finals, faithfully regurgitating them whilst attempting to emulate the elegant phrases in personal letters of my own. Now, I find that I rarely write letters. Working in a digital space means that the immediacy of email and social media has eclipsed the leisurely pace of the pen. Whenever I receive a card or attend an event, I seize the opportunity to return the favour by getting out my writing set. Letters have a magic that digital correspondence cannot replicated. There is a unique intimacy in the inability to permanently erase mistakes. The act of putting pen to paper induces a certain type of honesty. You can learn things about a person from a letter that you couldn’t were you to spend hours in their company.
It is that inimitable quality of intimacy that was being celebrated so publicly with Letters Live. All profits from the evening were divided between three literacy charities: First Story, The Ministry of Stories and The Reading Agency. All of the participants were volunteers, united in their appreciation of the epistolary form. The aim of the event was to allow the audience to feel a genuine connection with the original authors. In the words of actress Louise Brealey, who performed at the event, when it comes to reading letters aloud, sometimes all you can do is try to “get out of the way” and say the words with “as little spin and as much truth as you can muster”.
Although Louise Brealey and Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch were publicly confirmed to appear at the event, the rest of the line up was kept quiet. This meant that the audience was full of book geeks and letter lovers, rather than celebrity super-fans. I didn’t see a single camera phone during the evening, even as famous face after famous face popped up behind the rostrum.
And what a line up it was. The renowned English actor, Joss Ackland, read a letter that he wrote in 1951 to the woman who would later become his wife (and, predictably, caused me to sob in the process). Sir Ben Kingsley and his son Ferdinand read letters sent between Rudyard Kipling and his son as the boy fought (and died) in the trenches of the First World War. Sir Ian McKellen read the iconic ‘coming out’ letter by the fictional Michael Tolliver, and a letter on honing creativity which Kurt Vonnegut wrote for a class of school children. Simon Callow read an eloquent and witty thank-you note from Henry James to the guests at his birthday party. Greta Scacchi read Virginia Woolf’s heartbreaking suicide letter to her husband, whilst Dominic West raised the roof with Hunter S. Thompson’s abusive note to a young Anthony Burgess. Cellist Natalie Klein and singer Kelvin Jones provided thought-provoking and beautiful musical twists on the love letter. Andrew Scott was uproarious as Spike Milligan writing a heavily sarcastic letter to a reclusive George Harrison, while Danny Huston did his best Marlon Brando and Richard Burton impressions. Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch were superb as the friends who found love whilst writing to each other during the Second World War, whilst Benedict’s pregnant wife, Sophie Hunter, was gently moving performing a letter written by a woman to her unborn child. Andrew O’Hagan was a scathing Robert Burns and a grieving William Wordsworth and Alan Rusbridger regaled us with an epistolary debate between Guardian readers over the political leanings of household pets. We roared with laughter at Cumberbatch’s David Bowie impersonation and fell deeply silent as Ben Kingsley showed us a flash of his Oscar-winning performance as Gandhi, reading a letter the iconic Indian leader wrote to Hitler on the eve of the Second World War.
The letters made us weep, laugh, think. The performance lasted for over three hours, yet it felt like no time at all.
What have you been up to?