Thursday, 16 February 2017

Speeches of Note

Ladies and gentlemen!

For the past few years I've been working on a new book--a collection of speeches titled, unsurprisingly, Speeches of Note--and I'm very excited to say that you can now pledge for this beautiful object over at the mighty Unbound and then visit the Speeches of Note blog which I shall be updating regularly.

The Speeches of Note book will celebrate oratory old and new, taking care not just to highlight the speeches that we know and admire but also to shine a light on those speeches which, despite their brilliance, have until now been largely ignored in these collections through no fault of their own. Some, for compelling reasons, were never actually read aloud. Speeches of all flavours will feature--enlightening, gripping, comforting, disturbing, cheering, emboldening--and the majority accompanied either by a photograph of the speaker or the speech being made, a gorgeous illustration, or even, where possible, a facsimile of the original speech itself. Each entry will feature an introduction that will offer the context necessary for the speech to be fully appreciated. Anthologies of speeches have been published before; however, none have contained a selection quite like Speeches of Note.

To watch me speaking very badly about the book, and to get your name in the back of the special edition, visit Unbound. As always, suggestions are very much welcome--the easiest way to do so is via the Speeches of Note submission page.

Much love and thanks,

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Diversity guarantees our cultural survival

In November of 1993, a week after the death of celebrated Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, the New York Times published an article by Bruce Weber in which he made clear his impatience with the supposedly opaque, perplexing movies of directors like Fellini. One person who read the piece was Martin Scorsese--he responded by letter.

(Source: New York Times; Photo: Scorsese in 2006, via Peabody Awards on Flickr.)

The Letter
New York,
19 Nov 1993

To the Editor:

“Excuse Me; I Must Have Missed Part of the Movie” (The Week in Review, 7 November) cites Federico Fellini as an example of a filmmaker whose style gets in the way of his storytelling and whose films, as a result, are not easily accessible to audiences. Broadening that argument, it includes other artists: Ingmar Bergman, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Cage, Alain Resnais and Andy Warhol.

It’s not the opinion I find distressing, but the underlying attitude toward artistic expression that is different, difficult or demanding. Was it necessary to publish this article only a few days after Fellini’s death? I feel it’s a dangerous attitude, limiting, intolerant. If this is the attitude toward Fellini, one of the old masters, and the most accessible at that, imagine what chance new foreign films and filmmakers have in this country.

It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: “Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?” The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman.

It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. I like action-adventure films too. I also like movies that tell a story, but is the American way the only way of telling stories?

The issue here is not “film theory,” but cultural diversity and openness. Diversity guarantees our cultural survival. When the world is fragmenting into groups of intolerance, ignorance and hatred, film is a powerful tool to knowledge and understanding. To our shame, your article was cited at length by the European press.

The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance. It also unfortunately confirms the worst fears of European filmmakers.

Is this closed-mindedness something we want to pass along to future generations?

If you accept the answer in the commercial, why not take it to its natural progression:

Why don’t they make movies like ours?
Why don’t they tell stories as we do?
Why don’t they dress as we do?
Why don’t they eat as we do?
Why don’t they talk as we do?
Why don’t they think as we do?
Why don’t they worship as we do?
Why don’t they look like us?

Ultimately, who will decide who “we” are?

—Martin Scorsese

Sunday, 29 January 2017

We all wish for peace

In 1960, George Whitman, owner of the world-famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, wrote the following letter to Anne Frank, the young girl whose diaries have been read the world over since her death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. The letter is still on display in Whitman’s store.

(Photo: Anne Frank in 1940, via Wikipedia.)

The Letter
Le Mistral
37 rue de la Bûcherie

Dear Anne Frank,

If I sent this letter to the post office it would no longer reach you because you have been blotted out from the universe. So I am writing an open letter to those who have read your diary and found a little sister they have never seen who will never entirely disappear from earth as long as we who are living remember her.

You wanted to come to Paris for a year to study the history of art and if you had, perhaps you might have wandered down the quai Notre-Dame and discovered a little bookstore beside the garden of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. You know enough French to read the notice on the door - Chien aimable, Priere d'entrer. The dog is not really a dog at all but a poet called Francois Villon who has returned to the city he loved after many years of exile. He is sitting by the fire next to a kitten with a very unusual name. You will be pleased to know she is called Kitty after the imaginary friend to whom you wrote the letters in your journal.

Here in our bookstore it is like a family where your Chinese sisters and your brothers from all lands sit in the reading rooms and meet the Parisians or have tea with the writers from abroad who are invited to live in our Guest House.

Remember how you worried about your inconsistencies, about your two selves - the gay flirtatious superficial Anne that hid the quiet serene Anne who tried to love and understand the world. We all of us have dual natures. We all wish for peace, yet in the name of self-defense we are working toward self-obliteration. We have built armaments more powerful than the total of all those used in all the wars in history. And if the militarists who dislike negotiating the minor differences that separate nations are not under the wise civilian authority they have the power to write man's testament on a dead planet where radioactive cities are surrounded by jungles of dying plants and poisonous weeds.

Since a nuclear could destroy half the world's population as well as the material basis of civilization, the Soviet General Nikolai Talensky concludes that war is no longer conceivable for the solution of political differences.

A young girl's dreams recorded in her diary from her thirteenth to her fifteenth birthday means more to us today than the labors of millions of soldiers and thousands of factories striving for a thousand-year Reich that lasted hardly more than ten years. The journal you hid so that no one would read it was left on the floor when the German police took you to the concentration camp and has now been read by millions of people in 32 languages. When most people die they disappear without a trace, their thoughts forgotten, their aspirations unknown, but you have simply left your own family and become part of the family of man.

George Whitman

Wednesday, 21 December 2016


Dear All,

It gives me great pleasure to announce that 2016--an unrelentingly gruesome year in many respects--is almost behind us. This website has been quiet for some of the year due to other commitments but shall spring back to life in the new year--enormous thanks to the millions who have continued to visit and enjoy these magnificent letters. Thanks, also, to those who have bought the gorgeous Letters of Note paperback that came out recently, and, for that matter, all other "books of note"which can be found on this handy website. Final thanks must go to everyone who has bought tickets to Letters Live: these events continue to go from strength to strength and never fail to take my breath away; without you, they couldn't go on. Our last show of the year, and arguably our most satisfying to date, took place last week in Brixton Prison and was an evening I shall never forget. More info here.

As for 2017: it looks set to be a corker, not least as I am soon to launch Speeches of Note, a project I've been planning for the past few years that I cannot wait to show you all.

Until that time arrives, however, as has become tradition, below are the most popular Christmas-related letters of note.

Have a wonderful Christmas!

1. America is like that second kind of Christmas

A cheery letter from John Steinbeck, on Christmas, gluttony and immorality.

2. The Matchbox

A fantastic letter of thanks from Sylvia Townsend Warner, in response to a seemingly mundane Christmas gift.

3. For your first Christmas

60-year-old Walter Page writes a charming letter to his grandson and discusses the things they have in common.

4. North Polar Bear's leg got broken

One of many letters written by J. R. R Tolkien to his kids, in the voice of Father Christmas.

5. The most extraordinary scene

A soldier writes home to his wife on Christmas Eve and describes the moment British and German troops put down their weapons and greeted eaach other.

6. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

A young girl writes to a NY newspaper with a question about Christmas. The editor's response is the most reprinted English language editorial in history

7. Your loving Santa Claus

Mark Twain writes to his daughter, as Santa Claus.

Much love,

Monday, 15 August 2016

Tell him about his father

Above: Luz Long and Jesse Owens

To win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games is astonishing enough; however, to do so as a black person in 1936, at a tense Olympic Games hosted by Adolf Hitler, is almost beyond belief. Yet Jesse Owens did exactly that, somehow managing to ignore talk of Aryan superiority to take gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump, all in the space of a few days. He also made a good friend in the form of German athlete Luz Long, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, long jump rival who swapped training tips with Owens and openly congratulated him after his final jump, in full view of Hitler.

Having bonded so well at the Games, Owens and Long kept in touch by mail. Below is Long's last letter, written during WWII from North Africa where he was stationed with the German Army and later killed in action. It reached Owens a year after it was sent. Years later, as per Long's request, Owens met and became firm friends with his son, Karl. He also went on to serve as best man at his wedding.

(Source: Jesse: The Man Who Outran Hitler. Photo via EAL09)

I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.

My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.

If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.

That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.

Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.

And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.

I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.

I think I might believe in God.

And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.

Your brother,

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Farewell, my dear brother

On October 15th of 1944, with support from Nazi Germany, the far-right Arrow Cross Party took control of Hungary and immediately began to kill large numbers of Jewish citizens. Thousands more were deported to Auschwitz. The following farewell letter was written the next day by 17-year-old Budapest resident Pinchas Eisner to his brother, Mordechai, who at the time was in a forced labour camp. Weeks later, on November 3rd, Pinchas was marched to a local forest with 70 other Jews, told to dig a mass grave, and then shot to death. The letter was discovered by Mordechai some time later upon his return to the family home.

(Letter courtesy of Yad Vashem Archives - used with permission. Photo of Jews being rounded up in Budapest, October 1944: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-680-8285A-26 / Faupel / CC-BY-SA 3.0)


16 October 1944
6.15 p.m.

My Dear Brother,

Goodbye! Think of our talk that night. I felt as one with you. I knew that, if it were you whose life would end, I would go on living as if I had lost half of my body and soul. You said that, if I die, you will kill yourself. Think of what I told you, that if you stay alive I will live on within you. I would have liked to continue my life, with you and with our family. Plans, desires, hopes were before me. I longed for the unknown. I would have liked to know, to live, to see, to do, to love… But now it is all over. In the city, Jews were exterminated from entire streets. There is no escape. Tonight or at least tomorrow it will be our turn. At seventeen I have to face certain death. There is no escape. We thought that we would be exceptions, but fate made no exceptions. I always felt the pull of the depth, about which I have written to you…I believe, I also felt, that I would die young. It seems like fate put a curse on each of us. After Yisrael it is now my turn together with my father, mother and sister. I hope you will survive us.

Farewell and forgive me if ever I have offended you. (For the first time my eyes begin to fill with tears. I am careful not to cry as there are others present.) Because I loved you and I see you as you smile, (the vein on your brow is swelling) as you are thinking, as you eat, as you smoke, as you sleep and I feel great tenderness, great love and my eyes are filled with tears. Farewell. Live happily, all the best to you my dear brother, lots of success, much love and happiness, don’t weep, don’t cry. (I felt so bad hearing you cry that night.) Think of me lovingly. Remember me with good heart and, if there is another world (how much I discussed it with you, too – now I’ll find out! My poem ‘What Will Happen to Me?’ comes to my mind…I felt it already then), then I will pray to God to help you in whatever you do. Farewell, my dear only brother! If you are interested to know my state of mind (you see I am thinking of this, too) I will try to describe it and also that of our home.

The calamity started last evening. By nightfall, the Jews of 64 and 54 had already been taken away. There was a pool of blood on the pavement, but by morning it was washed away. I was awake the whole night. R.J. and K.S. were here. Poor R.J. could hardly stand on his feet he was so full of fright. At first we hoped that the police and the army would protect us, but after a phone call we learned everything. Slowly morning arrived, but the events of the day made our situation hopeless. K.S. came at 6. He was about to faint after he fought with four Nazis who beat him terribly. He barely escaped with his life. He was stumbling and trembling and could not start talking because of what he had seen and been through. I write fast, who knows if I will have time to finish? K.S. offered to take Sorele to a safe place. She promptly jumped at the suggestion and wanted to go immediately. But Mummy stepped in front of her and with a completely calm voice said that she would not let her go because the Nazis might catch them on the street. Sorele was crying and hysterical. She wanted to go, she wants to live. Finally Mother proposed that if I go too then she will give her consent. You should have heard the way she said that. Sorele wanted to go, I stayed…I could not leave our mother and father. (Do you remember our discussion about hiding in the safe hide of a bear? It came to my mind at once.) So mother did not let Sorele go and K.S. did not force it any longer, he, too, stayed. Sorele cried and screamed, Father was praying the whole night. He still has some hope left, but he is talking about this world as being like a vestibule to prepare ourselves for the real world to come.

Mother and Father are telling religious parables to K.S. about the inevitability of destiny. Mathild is sitting next to us and listens. Sorele is outside and I am writing. I am relatively calm, facing death my thoughts are coherent. (Yesterday at dawn I even wrote a steno-composition, you might find it in my notebook.) It is not fear that I feel but the terribly considered bitter and painful realization of things to come. I hope I’ll get it over with quickly, only it will be terrible to see each other’s agony. God will help us and we will be over it.

Farewell, dear, sweet Brother. Farewell! Remember me. I hope that I, too, will be able to think of you even from over there. I would like to hug and kiss you once more. But who knows to whom I write these lines? Are you alive?!

Farewell, my dear brother, my sweet Mordechai, live happily.

Kissing you for the last time – till we meet again,
Your Loving Brother