Tonight I was at The Tabernacle in west London for this event, presented by Canongate books, a fundraiser for The Reading Agency. Inspired by two recently published books, Simon Garfield’s To The Letter and Shaun Usher’s Letters Of Note (which, incidentally, you may find are the best two books of the year).
The title of the event can be read two ways: Letters Live, as in, letters being read out in front of an audience. Or, Letters Live, as in, they are alive. Both are apt. I prefer the latter.
From Charles Dickens’ correspondence to The Times newspaper in 1849, a visceral response to witnessing the baying mob at a public execution to a 20-year-old David Bowie’s naive reply to his first American fanmail, the letters read (sometimes performed) tonight were moving, uplifting, funny, touching and inspiring.
By the interval I’d already wept at Katharine Hepburn’s letter to her lifelong companion, Spencer Tracy, written ‘to’ him 16 years after his death. By the time Juliet Stevenson read Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, found by her husband Leonard on the mantelpiece, too late, I was in bits. Nick Cave sang Love Letter, just to rub it in.
The highlight of the night was undoubtedly the slow-burning relationship between two strangers in 1944-45: Christopher, a soldier serving in North Africa, and Bessie, a Londoner living through the Blitz. Performed by Kerry Fox and Benedict Cumberbatch, their intense courtship, conducted entirely through the post, was brought vividly to life. Often very funny, sometimes heart-breaking, their letters are of a time gone forever, replaced by a text, an email, or a straight-to-the-point Snapchat. I could listen to their story all night.
As it was, the breadth of stories tonight was fascinating: Jack the Ripper, Kurt Vonnegut, Beethoven, Bowie, Charles Bukowski, Alan Turing, Dorothy Parker and Nick Cave reading his own letter, sent to MTV in 1996 on the occasion of his nomination as Best Male Artist, “alongside George Michael”.
The readers were: Bruce Robinson, Matt Berry, Gillian Anderson, Neil Gaiman, Colin Salmon, Juliet Stevenson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kerry Fox, Nick Cave, James Rhodes, Peter Serafinowicz, DBC Pierre and Louis Howell.
More events are taking place across the country in 2014 and you can sign up for alerts here: http://www.canongate.tv/discover/sign-up-for-letters-live-news/