The joy of reading other people’s letters

letters of noteReview: VIVIEN HORLER

Letters of Note – Correspondence deserving of a wider audience

compiled by Shaun Usher (Canongate/ Unbound)

A tremendous cacophony of barking heralds the arrival in my street of the postman on his bike.  He puts something in my letter box but I do not rush out to see what it is.

It’ll probably be the rates and Telkom bills. These days the interesting stuff comes via e-mail. But I remember a time, not that long ago, when there was a good chance of a long and chatty letter from friends in London or elsewhere, and the receipt would brighten my day.

Shaun Usher, who compiled this volume, says in his introduction that he wanted “to illustrate the importance and unrivalled charm of old-fashioned correspondence just as the world becomes digitised and the art of letter writing slips from view”.

Reading other people’s private papers, like letters and diaries, is always alluring. You hope you’ll find – and often do – some titbit, some insight into someone famous.

Just under 10 years ago Usher was a burned out copywriter, a man who felt the job was “slowly eating away” at him, as he told the New Yorker.

One client kept sending him assignments for a stationery retailer, and without a single idea, he went to the library in search of books of letters for inspiration.

He was immediately charmed. He launched a website Letters of Note, an archive of correspondence, some letters to or from famous people, others from people you’ve never heard of, but which contained something of broader interest.

The first letter he posted was dated 1938, from Walt Disney Productions to a woman who had applied for a job, telling her “women do not do any of the creative work” at Disney.

The book is a compilation based on a four-year troll through letters, memos and telegrams “of the famous, the infamous and the not-so-famous”.

The famous include Iggy Pop, Katharine Hepburn, Leonardo da Vinci, John F Kennedy (carved on a coconut husk), Mick Jagger (to Andy Warhol), Charles Dickens, Elvis Presley, Dorothy Parker, Roald Dahl, Albert Einstein and Francis Crick to his son.

One of the first letters I read was to the editor of The Times of London in 1946 from an eccentric called Alfred D Wintle. He wrote: “Sir, I have just written you a letter. On reading it over, I have thrown it into the waste paper basket. Hoping this will meet with your approval. I am, Sir, you obedient servant.”

According to the context paragraphs that accompany each letter, this letter has been “admired and preserved at (The Times) offices ever since”.

A letter that left me open-mouthed was from Mark Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon in a New York street in 1980.

It appears that a couple of hours before the shooting, Chapman encountered Lennon outside his apartment block and silently handed him a copy of the album Double Fantasy to autograph. Lennon obliged, and then Chapman hid the record behind a security guard’s booth. Shortly afterwards Chapman shot Lennon in the back.

In 1986 Chapman wrote from prison to a memorabilia expert saying he wanted to sell the album cover and donate the proceeds to charity. Would there be interest in such an item? The main problem, he said, was that he no longer had the cover, despite hiring two attorneys to help him get it back; it was found after his arrest where he had hidden it.

On the subject of assassinations, there is a letter from Robert T Lincoln, son of Abraham, confirming an astonishing coincidence. Some time before John Wilkes Booth shot the president, Robert Lincoln was standing on a train platform in New Jersey. Somehow he slipped between the moving train and the platform, only to be hauled up by his collar by a stranger who turned out to be famous actor Edwin Booth – and brother of John Wilkes.

This anthology includes an appalling account of a 60-year-old missionary who in 1855 had a mastectomy without anaesthetic and survived, the death of Aldous Huxley, Queen Elizabeth’s drop-scone recipe for President Eisenhower, and a 1955 letter from Charles M Schulz of Peanuts fame to a young fan promising to kill off the unpromising character Charlotte Braun (presumably the antecedent of Charlie Brown).

Another delight is a 1974 memo from a comedy script editor to the head of the BBC’s department of  “comedy and light entertainment” rejecting a pilot script of Fawlty Towers on the grounds that it was “dire” and “a collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster”.

As we know, the memo was ignored. In 2009 John Cleese, the Basil Fawlty character, commented on this memo: “It just shows you people have no idea what they are doing.”

This is a lovely book to dip into, or read pretty well straight through, as I did. Many of the letters are accompanied by facsimiles of the actual documents. It’s a real treasure trove.

  • This review also appeared on Weekend Argus on Sunday (November 10, 2017)

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