On attending Letters Live (twice)

Napoleon, Madonna, John Cheever, Jacqueline Kennedy, Iggy Pop, Zelda Fitzgerald, Lester Bangs, Fidel Castro, readers of the Guardian, my dad.

All these people have something in common.

They have written letters.

Another thing they all have in common? Me.

Earlier this month, I found myself surrounded by the literal written word. I became a reader, and listener, of letters written in the recent past and those written in a time relegated to the annals of history. I loved every moment. Apart from the handcrafted ode written to me by my father (more on that later), these letters were discovered as part of an extraordinary event called Letters Live.
An event like no other


Letters Live is an event that has been running for three years and this month I was lucky enough to attend it for the second time. My first encounter with the event was in March of this year. I witnessed the likes of Jude Law, Caitlin Moran, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, John Bishop, Bob Geldof and Miriam Margolyes transform into those who had penned letters to friends, loved ones, film producers and the State of New York Insurance Department. You would think that such a dazzling list of names would overshadow whatever the letters, and their authors, had to say. That was far from what happened. Instead, the wit and tragedy, the honesty and authenticity, of those letters meant they were the stars of the night. I mean, a letter written by a hung over Jane Austen to her sister the day after a ball? Come on! I love Benedict C but even he doesn’t hold a candle to a letter like that.

When I returned to the exquisite Freemasons’ Hall in October, the extraordinariness of the event was repeated… and then some. With the talents of such readers as Louise Brealey, Danny Boyle, Barry Humphries (a special highlight for this Aussie), Gillian Anderson and Sanjeev Bhaskar, the letters again came to life. We heard Napoleon lament about the lack of response from his love, Josephine. We heard Guardian readers debate about whether cats really were superior to dogs (answer: no), we heard the heart-felt lament of Joan Baez as she railed against the US government, and I expect we experienced a lump in our throats as Gillian Anderson read a letter written by Jacqueline Kennedy days after the death of her husband.

Letters Live moved me to laughter, tears, and back to laughter and I left the event thinking it would be a long time before I was again so moved. 

I was wrong.

A few days after my Letters Live experience, in a stroke of genius timing that couldn’t have worked out any better than if it had actually been planned, I returned home from a day of writing at the Barbican library to find an envelope with my address handwritten in a script I knew well.
It was a letter from my father.

The thrill of receiving my own piece of mail, a unique event in itself since I moved to London, was quickly replaced by a gamut of emotions that ranged from laughter, tears, and back to laughter.

My very own letter.

It was the perfect epilogue to my Letters Live experience and, who knows, it may end up at a future event as a letter written by the father of that famous author, who sent it to his daughter when she was a struggling, broke, unemployed aspiring writer who very much needed to hear from her dad after being away from home for eighty-eight days.


Letters are actually the best

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