What do you take me for?

Sitting behind a sheet of glass at the British Museum in London, inscribed on a clay tablet in an ancient script known as cuneiform, is solid proof of two things: firstly, that poor customer service--an affliction that somehow feels like a modern phenomenon--has actually been a plague on societies for at least 3775 long years, and secondly, that humans will never really change. For this is in fact a letter of complaint, sent by a furious man named Nanni to a Babylonian copper merchant called Ea-nasir, in which said customer makes very clear his dissatisfaction with the service experienced by his messengers. The letter was discovered in Southern Iraq, in a place then known as Ur.

Translated transcript follows.

(This letter, and many other fascinating pieces of correspondence, can be found in the bestselling book, More Letters of Note. For more info, visit Books of Note. Image © Trustees of the British Museum.)

Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

You are the best author in human history

In 2013, a then-9-year-old boy named Joshua wrote to his hero, Alan Moore, the genius responsible for writing such classics as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Joshua’s father recently told me by email:
“Whilst my sons were at primary school they both did an exercise in English where they wrote letters to their favourite writers. In fact they both did it twice, and three of those times received back a form letter from the publishers. However, my youngest wrote a letter to Alan Moore and received back the most wonderful reply, along with a book and some unlettered art from The Roses of Berlin which hadn't yet been published.”
Moore's reply is indeed wonderful, as is Joshua's original letter; transcripts of both can be found below. Since Joshua's father contacted me, and I subsequently got in touch with Alan Moore, I've learned that Joshua's quote will quite literally be reprinted on the back of Moore's upcoming Jerusalem: see here. Enormous thanks to all--Joshua, his father, and Alan Moore--for generously allowing these to be featured.

Update, 21/07/16: It's less than 24 hours since these letters were posted here on Letters of Note, and already almost a million people have enjoyed them. A message from Alan Moore's daughter:

The Letters
Dear Alan Moore

I am writing because I want to know more about your comics including V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Swamp Thing. I also want to say thank you for making such amazing graphic novels and how did you make such wonderful things?

The first book I saw was V for Vendetta which has a brilliant storyline and is very cool when he blows up Parliament. I also love his awesome mask. Watchmen was the second, so far the best book I have ever seen - Rorschach is my favourite character, then Dr. Manhattan, lastly the Comedian. I like the way he uses a flamethrower as a cigar lighter and a smiley face for a badge. My third favourite was the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I like the way it’s more like a book because it has lots of writing in it and I also like the things that they have collected. All in all you are the best author in human history. Please write back.



Dear Joshua

Well, first of all, thank you for a lovely letter. I apologise if this reply is a bit short, but I’m working really hard on about six different things at once just now, and I know that if I put replying to you off until later when I had more time then I might lose your letter (you should see all the books and papers and clutter filling nearly every room in my house), or not get back to you for some other reason. After your kind words about me and my writing I really didn’t want to do that, so here I am in an odd half hour between finishing one piece of work and starting another.

I’m really pleased that you’ve enjoyed so much of my stuff, and especially because most of my readers these days are people almost as old as I am. Of course, I appreciate my audience however old they are, but it’s particularly gratifying to think that I’ve got intelligent and adventurous readers of your own age out there. It’s the kind of thing, when I’m taking my vitamin pills and swilling them down with Lemsip, that makes me feel like I’m still ‘down with the kids’.

Books like Watchmen, V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing were done back when I was just starting my career in the 1980s, when I was in my twenties or thirties. I’m glad they’re still enjoyable today, and as for how I wrote them...well, I suppose I’d have to say that I started out, when I was your age or a little younger, by being simply in love with comics or books that were full of brilliant ideas that set my imagination on fire. From a very young age, I was trying to emulate the people whose stories I was reading by writing little stories or poems or even little comic books drawn in coloured biro on lined jotter paper and then stapled together. I’m not saying that these things were any good, but that I had tremendous fun doing them and that they at least taught me the beginnings of the skills that my writing would need in later life.

As well as writing and drawing, I was also reading as much as I could about the things that interested me...this is why libraries are so important...whether that be in books or comics or any other medium that I could get my hands on. When I was reading things, part of me (probably the biggest part) would just be enjoying the story because it was so exciting, or scary, or funny or whatever, while another part of me would be trying to work out why I’d enjoyed whatever it was so much. I tried to understand what it was that the author had done that had had such a powerful effect upon me. It might be some clever story-telling effect that had tickled my brain, or it might be a powerful use of symbolism that had struck a deep, buried chord inside me, but whatever it was I wanted to understand it because I figured that if I understood these things, I’d probably be a better writer than if I didn’t.

As I got older, while I found I still enjoyed a lot of the books and comics I’d grown up with, I found that I was becoming able to appreciate all sorts of other writings and art that I hadn’t been able to get to grips with before, and I started to apply the lessons that I’d learned from these different sources to my writing. Thus, when I finally entered the comic field in my late twenties, I’d probably got a much wider range of influences than most of the other writers in the field at the time and was able to produce work that was very different to what had been seen before. I liked to experiment with things (I still do, for that matter), and to try and think of a different way that I could write a specific scene or a specific story. I think that one of the most important things for any artist or writer is that they should always be progressing and trying new things, because that is what will keep your work feeling fresh and lively to your readers even after twenty or thirty years. Yes, it means that you have to work harder, and to think harder, and to generally keep pushing yourself and testing your limits, but in my opinion the results are definitely worth it.

Although I’m still very proud of the work that I did on all the books mentioned above, the fact that I no longer own any of those titles (I’m afraid they’re all owned by perhaps-less-than-scrupulous big comic-book companies) means that I’m always most interested in my most recent work, so I was glad that you’d liked The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which Kevin and I still own and have a great deal of fun doing. I know that a very clever young man named Jess Nevins runs a website at which he picks through all of the volumes of The League and points out all the different books, plays, films and stories that we’re making references to. Although a lot of the books mentioned might be pretty boring until you’re older, there’s a few of them that you might really love, and some of them might help you to enjoy The League a bit more.

Speaking of The League, I’m enclosing a couple of things with this letter, including a copy of the brand new Heart of Ice book. In case you haven’t seen League volume III, Century, (which isn’t out in collected form yet) the main character in Heart of Ice is the original Captain Nemo's daughter, Janni Dakkar, who somewhat reluctantly took over her father’s command of the Nautilus when he died of old age in 1910. Heart of Ice shows Janni attempting to recapture some of her father’s past glories and ending up running into a scenario from the work of American weird tale master, H.P. Lovecraft. As well as this, I’m also including a couple of pages of unlettered art that I’ve received from Kevin for the next book in the series, which is entitled The Roses of Berlin. Nobody except me, Kevin and our publishers have seen these yet, so this is a special preview just for you. Please guard them with your life (not literally, of course), and don’t let them get onto the internet or anywhere...I mean, I’m sure you wouldn’t dream of such a thing, but it’s just that Kevin puts such a lot of work into these pages, and he wants people to see them when they’re properly lettered and coloured and everything, and part of the actual story that they’re intended for. Anyway, I hope you enjoy them.

Well, I’ve just looked at the clock and realised that I’d better get down town (Northampton) if I want to get my wife Melinda a present for our wedding anniversary on Sunday. Thanks again for a great letter, and thanks for calling me the best author in human history, which I don’t necessarily agree is completely true but which I may well end up using as a quote on the back of one of my books someday. Oh, and please give my regards to Naseby. It gets more than a couple of mentions in my forthcoming novel Jerusalem, which I’m about two chapters away from the end of at present.

Take care of yourself, Joshua. You’re obviously a young man of extraordinary good taste and intelligence, and you confirm my suspicion that Northamptonshire is a county touched by the gods.

All the best, your pal —

[Signed ‘Alan Moore’]
(Best Author in Human History. In your face, Shakespeare, Joyce and Cervantes!)

A man has to BE something

The inimitable Hunter S. Thompson was just 20 years of age and still in the U.S. Air Force when, in April of 1958, he wrote this profoundly wise letter to his friend Hume Logan in response to a request for life advice. It would be another ten years until Thompson’s own career gathered pace, due in no small part to a brave exposé of the Hell’s Angels that he wrote after a year in their company. Arguably his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, soon followed, as did much of the Gonzo journalism for which he is now known. In 2005, with his health in decline, he took his own life; he left a note for his wife, titled, “Football Season Is Over,” which read:
“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won't hurt.”
(This letter, along with 124 other fascinating pieces of correspondence, can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note, reprinted by permission of the Estate of Hunter S. Thompson.)

April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City

Dear Hume,

You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal—to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.

"To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles... "

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you've ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don't see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect—between the two things I've mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he's not after the "big rock candy mountain," the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer—and, in a sense, the tragedy of life—is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It's not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on "the meaning of man" and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term "god only knows" purely as an expression.) There's very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I'm the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

I'm going to steer clear of the word "existentialism," but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you're genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you're doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don't misunderstand me. I don't mean that we can't BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life—the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let's assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let's assume that you can't see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN—and here is the essence of all I've said—you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn't as easy as it sounds. You've lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn't any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, "I don't know where to look; I don't know what to look for."

And there's the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don't know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

If I don't call this to a halt, I'm going to find myself writing a book. I hope it's not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it's pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo—this merely happens to be mine.

If any part of it doesn't seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I'm not trying to send you out "on the road" in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that—no one HAS to do something he doesn't want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that's what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You'll have lots of company.

And that's it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,

your friend ...

Who is this kid?

In 1974, five years after directing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, George Roy Hill was awarded a Best Director Oscar for his work on The Sting, a heist film that starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Later that year, Hill received the following letter, written by a 17-year-old aspiring actor whose name may sound familiar.

(Source: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - with thanks to Tom Hanks.)

Dear Mr Hill,

Seeing that I have seen your fantastically entertaining and award-winning film The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and enjoyed it very much, it is all together fitting and proper that you should ‘discover’ me. Now, right away I know what you are thinking: ‘Who is this kid?’ and I can understand your apprehensions. I am a nobody. No one outside of Skyline High School has heard of me ... My looks are not stunning. I am not built like a Greek God, and I can’t even grow a mustache, but I figure if people will pay to see certain films ... they will pay to see me.

Let’s work out the details of my discovery. We can do it the way Lana Turner was discovered, me sitting on a soda shop stool, you walk in and notice me and – BANGO – I am a star. Or maybe we can do it this way. I stumble into your office one day and beg for a job. To get rid of me, you give me a stand-in part in your next film. While shooting the film, the star breaks his leg in the dressing room, and, because you are behind schedule already, you arbitrarily place me in his part and – BANGO – I am a star.

All of these plans are fine with me, or we could do it any way you would like, it makes no difference to me! But let’s get one thing straight. Mr. Hill, I do not want to be some bigtime, Hollywood superstar with girls crawling all over me, just a hometown American boy who has hit the big-time, owns a Porsche, and calls Robert Redford ‘Bob’.

Respectfully submitted,
Your Pal Forever,

Thomas J Hanks

The most astonishing thing

In 1670, Anne Marie Louise d'Orléans, granddaughter of Henry IV, stunned the masses by falling in love not with a king but with Antoine Nompar de Caumont, duc de Lauzun, a relatively lowly member of society known widely for his “unique” looks. One person who found the news particularly amusing was Madame de Sévigné, who hastily and with much enthusiasm informed her cousin of the impending marriage--a marriage which, incidentally, was called off just days later.

(Portrait of Madame de Sévigné by Claude Lefèbvre, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday 15 December 1670

What I am about to communicate to you is the most astonishing thing, the most surprising, the most marvellous, the most miraculous, most triumphant, most baffling, most unheard of, most singular, most extraordinary, most unbelievable, most unforeseen, biggest, tiniest, rarest, commonest, the most talked about, the most secret up to this day, the most brilliant, the most enviable, in fact a thing of which only one example can be found in past ages, and, moreover, that example is a false one; a thing nobody can believe in Paris (how could anyone believe it in Lyons?), a thing that makes everybody cry ‘mercy on us’, in short a thing that will be done on Sunday and those who see it will think they are seeing visions – a thing that will be done on Sunday and perhaps not done by Monday. I can’t make up my mind to say it. Guess, I give you three tries. You give up? Very well, I shall have to tell you. Monsieur de Lauzun is marrying on Sunday, in the Louvre – guess who? I give you four guesses, ten, a hundred. Mme de Coulanges will be saying: That’s not so very hard to guess, it’s Mademoiselle de La Vallière. Not at all, Madame. Mademoiselle de Retz, then? Not at all, you’re very provincial. Of course, how silly we are, you say: It’s Mademoiselle Colbert. You’re still further away. Then it must be Mademoiselle de Créquy? You’re nowhere near. I shall have to tell you in the end: he is marrying, on Sunday, in the Louvre, with the King’s permission, Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle de … Mademoiselle … guess the name. He’s marrying Mademoiselle, of course! Honestly, on my honour, on my sworn oath! Mademoiselle, the great Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle, daughter of the late Monsieur, Mademoiselle, granddaughter of Henri IV, Mademoiselle d’Eu, Mademoiselle de Dombes, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, Mademoiselle d’Orléans, Mademoiselle, first cousin of the King, Mademoiselle, destined for a throne, Mademoiselle, the only bride in France worthy of Monsieur. There’s a fine subject for conversation. If you shout aloud, if you are beside yourself, if you say we have lied, that it is false, that you are being taken in, that this is a fine old tale and too feeble to be imagined, if, in fine, you should even abuse us, we shall say you are perfectly right. We did as much ourselves.

Good-bye, letters coming by this post will show you whether we are telling the truth or not.

The mingled souls of wheat and corn

In 1887, American lawyer and famed orator Robert G. Ingersoll sent to his future son-in-law, Walston, a bottle of the finest whiskey and a letter, reprinted below, in which he poetically sang its praises. The alcohol was enjoyed, but not as much as the letter, which was so loved that it soon circulated amongst family, friends, and strangers, and was eventually printed in American newspaper The Nation to be read and adored by the masses. But not all. Ingersoll’s letter was also spotted by a resoundingly unimpressed Rev. Dr. J. M. Buckley, editor of The Christian Advocate, who responded by publishing a letter of his own, also seen below.

(Photo: Robert G. Ingersoll, via Library of Congress.)

89 Fifth Avenue
New York

Walston H. Brown, Esq.

April 16, 1887

My dear Friend,

I send you some of the most wonderful whiskey that ever drove the skeleton from a feast or painted landscapes in the brain of man. It is the mingled souls of wheat and corn. In it you will find the sunshine and the shadows that chased each other over the billowy fields; the breath of June; the carol of the lark; the dews of night; the wealth of summer and autumn's rich content, all golden with imprisoned light.

Drink it—and you will hear the voices of men and maidens singing the "Harvest Home," mingled with the laughter of children.
Drink it—and you will feel within your blood the star-lit dawns, the dreamy, tawny dusks of many perfect days.

For forty years this liquid joy has been within the happy staves of oak, longing to touch the lips of men.

Yours always,
R. G. Ingersoll


My dear Bob,

I return to you some of the most wonderful whiskey that ever brought a skeleton into the closet or painted scenes of lust and bloodshed in the brain of man. It is the ghost of wheat and corn, crazed by the loss of their natural bodies. In it you will find a transient sunshine chased by a shadow as cold as an Arctic midnight, in which the breath of June grows icy, and the carol of the lark gives place to the foreboding cry of the raven.

Drink it—and you will have woe, sorrow, babbling and wounds without cause. Your eyes shall behold strange women and your heart shall utter perverse things.
Drink it—and you shall hear the voices of demons shrieking, women wailing, children mourning the loss of a father who yet lives.
Drink it—and long serpents will hiss in your ears, coil themselves about your neck and seize you with their fangs. 'At last it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder.'

For forty years this liquid death has been confined with staves of oak, harmless there as pure water. I send it to your mouth to steal away your brains, and yet I call myself your friend.

Rev. Dr. J. M. Buckley