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‘Letters Live’

| Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A few weeks ago, something called Letters Live occurred at London’s Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden to great aplomb. Helped by the fact that the two recurring stars for the few performances were Benedict Cumberbatch and his leading lady in Sherlock, Louise Brealey, the show did extremely well for having no plot, no set and really nothing extraordinarily exciting. What was the cause of the great furor? Simply a group of celebrities reading famous letters from significant figures of the past and present.

Benedict Cumberbatch read Kurt Cobain’s last letter before he died. Ben Kingsley and his son read Rudyard Kipling and his son’s WWI letters. Sally Hawkins read a letter from Vincent Van Gogh. It was a variety of topics, a variety of authors, a variety of actors performing them, and yet this mishmash enticed audiences.

Letters have always had something oddly powerful over our psyche. They are so personal, and yet there is the chance that they could become very public. I am currently reading a biography of Queen Victoria, and most of the information about her personal life comes from letters she wrote to her husband Prince Albert, her Uncle Leopold, Prime Minister and member of the Whigs Lord Melbourne and many others during her reign. They are filled with trivial bits of information, but all together they form a picture of Queen Victoria that we would not otherwise get, if we just concerned ourselves with the press’s reports of her.

But what saddens me is that the art of letter-writing appears to be dying out. At the moment, the very last forms of written communication seem to be postcards, and thank you letters when we have received a gift. Even these have been redacted to very simple phrases, including the normal “Thank you for the fabulous gift, I will really enjoy using it,” etc., etc., etc., and then probably a question about how their family is doing. I’ve never really mastered the art of a good thank you letter, much to my mother’s chagrin, and she has done everything possible to try to make us better at immediately writing thank yous (one Christmas she would not let us open another present until we had written the thank you to the person who had given us the one that we just opened; needless to say that did not go as well as she had hoped).

As much as I complain about writing letters, there is something very rewarding about receiving a hand-written note. It’s personal. It shows that someone has cared enough to taken time out of their day to write something about their lives and enquire after yours. It means that they had to make a trip to the post office or post box to send it, and that they would like a response in return. It holds a lot more meaning than a cursory text sent off briefly in the morning when you’d like to catch up.

I wonder in the future if we will be able to have things like Letters Live. Sure, we have e-mails, but as we’ve learned from SONY pictures, e-mails are not necessarily something that you would like shared with the public, especially ones you may have dashed off and sent without a second thought. And yes, maybe one day we will be reading past text message conversations. But it just doesn’t seem the same as having a hand-written piece of paper sitting in front of you, it’s edges folded and creased because someone has picked it up and read it over and over again, perhaps for the memories attached.

I’ve got a box of letters at home from when I tried to write letters from university to my friends at other colleges. We actually did quite well, considering how busy we were. I pick them up now and again, just to remember what it was like when I’d written them. It is a nice reminder that my friends and I care about each other, even when some of the messages were “I can’t write a long note, but I just wanted to say hi.”

Seeing these ads for Letters Live reminded me that sometimes it’s nice to spend a little bit of extra time on the people you care about. And you never know, one day I might be famous, and I’d rather people read my letters than my e-mails.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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