Book review – Letters of Note

Letters of Note coverRemember letters, those fragile sheets of paper that used to flutter through that curious rectangular hole in the door only bills and fast food fliers now fall through? It was such an exciting  moment when you realised there was an envelope with your name hand-scrawled across it, just waiting for you to open it and start reading.

Even more thrilling were the moments when you received a response to your fan letter or query sent weeks before. Look, he/she/they’ve written back! Look, that’s their signature!

Amazing. Like being retweeted or followed on Twitter by someone you admire, only 100 times better.

In this beautiful, decidedly hefty book, Shaun Usher has compiled some fantastic, examples of this increasingly rare art.

Based on Shaun’s website, which receives more than 1.5 million hits each week, Letters of Note provides well over 100 pieces of correspondence and their transcriptions (thank goodness, some are pretty illegible).

Some, like the one from Elis Presley to US President Richard Nixon, are between two well known people, others are between ordinary people and the stars the idealise, and others still between notable folks and their notable others – children, partners and friends.

There’s the gloriously succinct note from script editor Ian Main to the Head of Comedy and Light Entertainments at the BBC, describing John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers’ as “a kind of ‘Prince of Denmark’ of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and stock characters I can’t see being anything but a disaster.”

Wonderfully, there’s the letter in which HRH Queen Elizabeth II shares her recipe for scones with President Eisenhower.

Oh, and then there’s Annie Oakley’s generous offer to supply US president William McKinley with “fifty lady sharpshooters” to fight in the Spanish-American War.

Among these snippets of intrigue, naturally, the ones by writers caught my eye, and one of my favourites must be Roald Dahl’s response to a letter from a little girl who sent him a dream in a bottle after reading the BFG: “Tonight I shall go down to the village and blow it through the bedroom window of some sleeping child.”

We even get to read the poignant farewell note from Virginia Woolf to her husband Leonard: “If anyone could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.”

There’s a sense of snooping throughout the collection, which offers far more than an homage to letter writing. Rather, it comprises page after page of voyeuristic glimpses into the lives of strangers. That may make you feel a bit unclean, but as a writer with a penchant for eavesdropping on public transport, I have to admit I found it fascinating. Delve into it, and I think you’ll feel you walk among these people. You may even be tempted to recover the art of letter writing for yourself, if only to give future generations the opportunity to find something deeper than the 140 characters of a tweet could ever allow.

Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience edited by Shaun Usher is available to buy from Amazon.

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