Letters Live: Private Lives Writ Large

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Letter writing may be dying out,but reading them is all the rage. By Amy Dawson

A council notice about building works, a gas bill, and a chicken shop flyer – for a woman who adores letters, the latest haul in my postbox leaves a lot to be desired. I think the last proper personal letters I exchanged date from when French pen pals, smelly gel pens and hair mascara all seemed likethe height of sophistication.

During an era when personal communication is left to texts, emails, Facetime, Snapchat and the rest, the only missives I seem to receive involve bad news or a demand for cash (generally both), and the only ones I tend to send are post-Christmas thank you notes to my Grandad.

But the romance of reading messages on paper still gets to me and I’m clearly not alone – how else to explain the astronomical popularity of Letters Of Note?

For the uninitiated, Letters Of Note is a website and accompanying anthology that gathers together some of the most curious, sad, funny, beautifully written,shocking and life-affirming letters of all time – everything from a job application by one Leonardo Da Vinci to Jack The Ripper’s infamous scrawl addressed ‘From Hell’.

I can lose hours on the site, a treasure trove already visited by more than 70million people, flicking through time and space as I go – wrapped up in Richard Burton’s gloriously rich and regretful break-up letter to Elizabeth Taylor, or the excitable note sent by an 18-year-old Keith Richards to his aunt about his new chum Mick Jagger. One of my favourites is Iggy Pop’s handwritten note to a troubled 21-
year-old fan: ‘Hang on, my love, and grow big and strong, and take your hits and keep going.’

But now my fellow lovers of letters (and sexy sociopathic sleuths) have reason to rejoice. Because Letters Live, the interactive staging inspired by both Letters Of Note and Simon Garfield’s book To The Letter, is returning in its most ambitious form ever – with none other than Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch (Molly and you-know-who from Sherlock) at its helm.

Starting this week in Covent Garden’s gorgeous art deco Freemasons’ Hall, the likes of Olivia Colman, Sir Ian McKellen, Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and Dominic West – plus many more – are all dropping in to read out their favourite epistles over the course of five nights. Written correspondence, my friends, is officially cool.

Perhaps part of the thrill is hearing something said out loud that was only ever meant to be seen by one other person – slicing into an interpersonal relationship like an onion and peering at the strange layers inside. That said, so many of the letters involved are so artfully written that you can’t help thinking the authors at least half knew they were writing with posterity in mind.

Letter writing is most definitely an art, and perhaps one that’s dying out. But who knows what new anthologies we’ll build in the future. WhatsApps Of Wide Renown? Facebook Messages Of Fame? Emojis Of Eminence? Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely. Perhaps it’s time to pick up that pen – whether it’s of the scented gel variety or not – and tell someone what’s up.