Saturday night’s Letters Live (not to be confused with Letters Home) at Edinburgh International Book Festival was a big success, even if it didn’t quite sell out. Shaun Usher and Simon Garfield were accompanied by a gang of readers who picked out their favourite letters from Letters of Note, Usher’s collection published first as a blog and now as a handsome book from Unbound.
Garfield started off by describing how both their books came out on the same day last year, and how Canongate’s Jamie Byng came up with the idea of doing the books live to, as Garfield says: “Celebrate the value of letter writing, the power of letter writing and to ask, ‘are we ready to give up what we’re about to hear for texts and tweets?'”
Threaded between the readings of letters in Usher’s book was what he described as “One of the most remarkable series of correspondence I’ve ever read.” Patrick Kennedy and Lisa Dwan read a passionate exchange of letters between “Christopher” and “Bessie” written during the Second World War. These featured in his book as a late addition, because he didn’t just want famous names in the book. He had called the Mass Observation Archive towards the end of writing the book and they had just taken delivery of 500 letters telling the story of “two people falling in love through the post”. Beginning as a chaste, prim description of boring life somewhere in Africa they quickly become a torrent of passion and desire, interrupted by misfortune in Greece.
Usher described how letters are in decline owing to how difficult and time-consuming they can be compared to other media, but that they are “the most satisfying way of communicating”, and went on to relate how the first year of his relationship of the woman who was to become his wife was conducted almost entirely by post. Writing them, he said, “is a pain in the arse at times but it’s so, so, enjoyable”. With a quick note of thanks to his wife without whom none of this would have happened, it was straight into the readings.
Patrick Kennedy did a passable Elvis impersonation reading one of the most unhinged letters of the night, written by Elvis Presley to President Nixon in 1970, offering his services as some sort of ninja federal agent. Just say no to drugs, kids.
It would be daft to try to summarise all the letters, as they’re all available online and in the books, but to give you and idea of the range chosen, this is the “set list”, if you like. They’re all (with the possible exception of Robert Pirosh’s one, which sounded to me like a primary school poetry project) excellent in their own way, and are well worth a read.
- Widow to Eung-Tae Lee, 1856, read by Lisa Dwan
- Jermain Logue to Sarah Logue, 1860, read by Jackie Kay
- William Safire to HR Haldeman, 1969, read by John Lloyd
- Mark Twain to JH Todd, 1905, read by Richard Herring
- Clementine Churchill to The Times, 1912, read by Bridget Christie
- Archibald Kerr to Reginald Pembroke, 1943, read by John Lloyd
- EB White to Mr Nadeau, 1973, read by Richard Holloway
- Robert Burns to a critic, 1791, read by Jackie Kay
- Matt Stone to the MPAA, 1999, read by Richard Herring
- Amelia Earhart to George Putnam, 1931, read by Lucy Porter
- The Connell Family to the Ciulla Family, 1992, read by Richard Holloway
- Robert Pirosh to everyone in Hollywood, 1934, read by Jackie Kay
- Kurt Vonnegut to Charles McCarthy,1973, read by John Lloyd
The performances, though, added an extra dimension. John Lloyd brought joyful glee to the one famously ending “it takes a Turk to do that” but also gravitas both to the description of what would happen had the first moon mission failed, and to Vonnegut’s impassioned defence of freedom of speech.
Jackie Kay’s extracts were similarly varied, beginning with a former slave berating his captor then shifting to mischievous delight reciting Burns’s litany of insults — to the extent of getting the whole audience to chant “thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense”.
One of the longest and most moving pieces was read by Richard Holloway, from one family to another over the death of one of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, which was particularly affecting given recent events in Ukraine.
The correspondence between Chris and Bessie was the highlight of the show (and it is a show more than a your usual book festival event). However, Kennedy and Dwan had to struggle a little with unexpected interjections from the Tattoo. The arrival of the Red Arrows underlined Bessie’s revelation that “I’m only too happy it’s my body you want!”, and a little later a fusillade of Tattoo fireworks added atmosphere to Chris’s letter from war-torn Athens, Kennedy almost shouting “I wish I was coming home to a peaceful England with war over” as the audience laughed.
If you do get a chance to see this show elsewhere, which is supported by The Reading Agency, you really should, and in the mean time why not invest in some Basildon Bond?