Friday, 27 March 2020

It is only a matter of time

On September 12th of 2011, the New York Times published an article by Dr. Abigail Zuger in which she criticised certain supposedly unrealistic aspects of Contagion, Steven Soderbergh's recently released and widely lauded thriller in which a deadly pandemic sweeps the globe. In response, a week later the following letter reached the newspaper, penned by the movie's screenwriter, Scott Burns, and undersigned by the various specialists with whom he consulted for the project.

Nine years later, on March 25th, 2020, one of those specialists, Dr. Ian Lipkin, revealed that he had contracted COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic. Another of the undersigned, noted epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant, lambasted US President Donald Trump's reaction to that same health crisis, calling some of his comments, "the most irresponsible act of an elected official that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime."

(If you know of anyone in the UK who is currently lonely and would appreciate a friendly letter in the post, I’d really like to help. Please take a look at Letters in Need.)

The Letter

Sept. 19, 2011

To the Editor:

Re “The Cough That Launched a Hit Movie” (On View, Sept. 13): In writing the movie “Contagion,” we took great care to make sure that our fictional story was based on real science. The world has seen more than three dozen new pandemic-ready viruses in the last three decades. The scientists who consulted on the film, along with most of their colleagues in epidemiology and virology, believe it is only a matter of time — coupled with a lack of preparation — before the world faces a real-life pandemic like the make-believe one in the film.

Dr. Abigail Zuger’s point that the “Contagion virus,” or MEV-1, does not precisely replicate Nipah encephalitis, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic or H.I.V./AIDS is correct. She is also right about the truncated speed of a pandemic, as we have collapsed months of social catastrophe into about an hour and half of a movie. The truth is we do not know where the next real virus may appear or how it might progress.

But a highly transmissible and novel respiratory virus in humans like MEV-1 could plausibly occur. Our objective in making this film was to entertain, educate and initiate a discussion among the stakeholders in public health on the importance of global biosurveillance and pandemic preparedness.

Dr. Zuger’s article — and her perspective of a clinician — has highlighted the importance of this work, and we welcome her into what we hope will be a national and global discussion of how to prepare for, prevent and, when necessary, respond to the next pandemic.

Scott Z. Burns

Larry Brilliant, M.D.
Laurie Garrett
W. Ian Lipkin, M.D.
Mark Smolinski, M.D.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Letters in Need


I'm feeling pretty helpless at the moment, as I'm sure you are too. I'm especially worried about the countless people--many elderly and vulnerable--who now find themselves isolated in their homes, alone, unable to see friends and family, some facing months with very little human contact, if any at all.

At the risk of furthering their suffering, I'd like to try sending a letter to some of these people. Nothing deep, just something to take their minds off the current crisis. A moment of connection. A message through the post that isn't terrifying. If all of this [gestures at all the letters] has taught me anything over the years, it's that the very act of receiving a friendly letter can do wonders.

For now, this is UK only (sorry, need to keep costs down), and for practical reasons, each person will receive the same letter, but I'll make sure it begins with their name. I'll include my PO Box address should anyone wish to reply. Another idea was to connect keen letter writers with vulnerable people, but I'm nervous about the potential dangers of such an arrangement, particularly in the current climate. So I'm keeping things simple.

Should you know of anyone who may appreciate one of these letters, please enter their details below. That person can of course be you. These details will not be shared with anyone, and addresses will be deleted as soon as the letter has been posted. I'm embarking on this with my wife and fellow prisoner, Karina. Please bear with us while we get settled in. We'll post as many as we can, time and cost permitting.

Any questions:

With fingers crossed,

Thursday, 12 March 2020

God be with you till we meet again

On September 29th, 1918, months before the end of World War I, a freshly assigned physician at Camp Devens military base in Massachusetts wrote the following letter to a friend and fellow doctor, and described a terrifying influenza epidemic that was now killing hundreds of his camp's soldiers each day. The death toll in this single camp would go on to reach 821. By October 1st, 75,000 cases had been recorded in Massachusetts alone, and by the end of 1920 this pandemic—now known as the Spanish flu—had killed tens of millions of people across the globe. It is thought that at least a quarter of the world's population were infected.

This letter was discovered in a trunk in 1959. Twenty years later, it was reprinted in the British Medical Journal.

(Source: British Medical Journal, 1979 Dec 22; Photo: Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston, via National Museum of Health and Medicine.)

The Letter

Camp Devens, Mass.
Surgical Ward No 16
29 September 1918
(Base Hospital)

My dear Burt—

It is more than likely that you would be interested in the news of this place, for there is a possibility that you will be assigned here for duty, so having a minute between rounds I will try to tell you a little about the situation here as I have seen it in the last week.

As you know, I have not seen much Pneumonia in the last few years in Detroit, so when I came here I was somewhat behind in the niceties of the Army way of intricate diagnosis. Also to make it good, I have had for the last week an exacerbation of my old "Ear Rot" as Artie Ogle calls it, and could not use a stethoscope at all, but had to get by on my ability to "spot" 'em thru my general knowledge of Pneumonias. I did well enough, and finally found an old Phonedoscope that I pieced together, and from then on was all right. You know the Army regulations require very close locations etc.

Camp Devens is near Boston, and has about 50,000 men, or did have before this epidemic broke loose. It also has the Base Hospital for the Div. of the N. East. This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo.

These men start with what appears to be an attack of LaGrippe or Influenza, and when brought to the Hosp. they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don’t know. My total time is taken up hunting Rales, rales dry or moist, sibilant or crepitant or any other of the hundred things that one may find in the chest, they all mean but one thing here—Pneumonia—and that means in about all cases death.

The normal number of Drs. here is about 25 and that has been increased to over 250, all of whom (of course excepting me) have temporary orders—"Return to your proper Station on completion of work"—Mine says, "Permanent Duty," but I have been in the Army just long enough to learn that it doesn’t always mean what it says. So I don’t know what will happen to me at the end of this.

We have lost an outrageous number of Nurses and Drs., and the little town of Ayer is a sight. It takes Special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce, we used to go down to the morgue (which is just back of my ward) and look at the boys laid out in long rows. It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle. An extra long barracks has been vacated for the use of the Morgue, and it would make any man sit up and take notice to walk down the long lines of dead soldiers all dressed up and laid out in double rows. We have no relief here; you get up in the morning at 5:30 and work steady till about 9:30 P.M., sleep, then go at it again. Some of the men of course have been here all the time, and they are TIRED.

If this letter seems to be somewhat disconnected overlook it, for I have been called away from it a dozen times, the last time just now by the Officer of the Day, who came in to tell me that they have not as yet found at any of the autopsies any case beyond the Red Hep. stage. It kills them before it gets that far.

I don’t wish you any hard luck Old Man but do wish you were here for a while at least. It’s more comfortable when one has a friend about. The men here are all good fellows, but I get so damned sick of Pneumonia that when I eat I want to find some fellow who will not "Talk Shop" but there aint none nohow. We eat it, live it, sleep it, and dream it, to say nothing of breathing it 16 hours a day. I would be very grateful indeed it you would drop me a line or two once in a while, and I will promise you that if you ever get into a fix like this, I will do the same for you.

Each man here gets a ward with about 150 beds (Mine has 168), and has an Asst. Chief to boss him, and you can imagine what the paper work alone is—fierce—and the Government demands all paper work be kept up in good shape. I have four day nurses and five night nurses (female) a ward-master, and four orderlies. So you can see that we are busy. I write this in piecemeal fashion. It may be a long time before I can get another letter to you, but will try.

Good By old Pal,
"God be with you till we meet again"
Keep the Bouells open,
(Sgd) Roy

Saturday, 15 June 2019


Dear all,

I've neglected you all. I'm so sorry. In my defence, I've been busy, beavering away on a gorgeous new series of Letters of Note books. These will be smaller than the original doorstoppers, books you will be able to carry comfortably without a harness, each on a different theme. The first four titles to be published are


To clarify: there soon will be a book filled with nothing but approximately 30 letters about cats and it will be as amazing as you are imagining (i.e. very). These will be published by Canongate. When we're certain of the publication date, I'll let you know. And I'll show you some covers soon.

In other news, this blog will relaunch when those books arrive on the scene.

In other news, I'm finally, after years of never having the time, starting work on the Letters of Note podcast.

In other news, Letters Live continues to grow and delight. Check the website for upcoming events.

In other news, the Letters of Note newsletter launches tomorrow. It'll come out every week and will contain news about all of the above and general letter chat, delivered to your inbox each Sunday. Sign up here.

In other news, I've missed you.

All the best,

Sunday, 9 December 2018

How the hell have you done it?

On April 18th of 1961, it was announced that iconic Hollywood star Gary Cooper was dying of cancer after a glittering 36 year career that saw him amass countless fans, plaudits, and awards across the globe. Weeks after that news broke, and just days before he died, Cooper received the following fan letter from Kirk Douglas, who at the time was producing and starring in Lonely are the Brave (titled The Last Hero during production), an adaptation of Edward Abbey's Western novel, The Brave Cowboy.

(Huge thanks to Paul Ryan. Photos: Gary Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth, 1926, via Wikimedia; Kirk Douglas in 1955, via Wikimedia.)

The Letter

Western Skies Hotel
Albuquerque, New Mexico
May 4, 1961

Mr. Gary Cooper
Beverly Hills

Dear Coop:

When for years you’ve had affection for a guy and you find it suddenly turning to resentment you begin to think it deserves some kind of comment. When the guy you find yourself disliking is loved by the entire world you know damn well you better explain.

What I'm talking about is me not liking you.

Put yourself in my spot. I'm doing a picture that should have been done by only one guy. I know it--my entire company knows it.

Start with the title--”The Last Hero." Now whom does that fit--me? Hell no!

Next the author. Edward Abbey--a ranger working in the Petrified Forest. They tell me before I meet him that he's written about himself. So now he comes to Albuquerque where we're shooting and I go to meet him at the airport. Fifty guys step off the plane but I spot him immediately. Why? He looks like Gary Cooper. To make matters worse when I meet him he talks like Cooper!

So now we start shooting and I learn first that I have an insensitive director who doesn't give a damn about anything except making the picture real. I give you verbatim my first--and only--direction--"Just try and play this the way Gary Cooper would."

When I say “only" I don't mean I get this "hint" once--I mean it's the only thing I hear before each shot--and by the fourth day I have now decided I must get close to being Coop just so I can stop being hounded.

Ah--but there's the rub. It sounded easy to me--because I say to myself Coop is a simple man--natural. So I'll just be natural. Then I learned the big--big lesson. It ain't easy. My temptation is to ask how the hell have you done it? What is the secret to this peace with yourself and your world? But then I know you couldn't possibly tell me--I'd have to live your entire life--grow--adjust--mature--as you have done.

And I know now that at best I will come remotely close. But more important--I do know also, that just trying to be you--will make a better me.

So, Coop--even though I may be sore as hell at you now--thanks.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

There is no danger down here

On October 31st, 1918, as the First World War neared its end, celebrated war poet and officer of the Second Manchesters Wilfred Owen wrote home to his mother. Sadly, this would be his last letter. Four days later--exactly a century ago--Owen was shot dead as he led his company across the Sambre–Oise Canal. His mother was informed of his death a week later, on Armistice Day, by telegram. In 1919, Wilfed Owen was awarded the Military Cross.

Transcript follows. The original handwritten pages of Owen's final letter can be seen on the website of The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford. His poetry can be found at the Poetry Foundation.

The Letter

Oct. 31. Thurs.
6.15 p.m.

Dearest Mother,

I will call the place from which I’m now writing "The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House". I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. Thus only the paraffin was unwelcome in my pack. My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight, & tomorrow night. The handkerchief & socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, & I have a slight cold!

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts. On my left the Coy. Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me. At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Coy in The Old Days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the Receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheeze of jokes.

Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.

It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells.

There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Ever Wilfred x