Every ounce of my energy

Bertrand Russell, one of the great intellectuals of his generation, was known by most as the founder of analytic philosophy, but he was actually a man of many talents: a pioneering mathematician, an accomplished logician, a tireless activist, a respected historian, and a Nobel Prize-winning writer, to name but a handful. When he wrote this principled letter at the beginning of 1962, Russell was 89 years old and clearly still a man of morals who stood firm in his beliefs. Its recipient was Sir Oswald Mosley, a man most famous for founding, in 1932, the British Union of Fascists.

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.)

22 January 1962

Sir Oswald Mosley,
5, Lowndes Court,
Lowndes Square,
London, S.W.1.

Dear Sir Oswald,

Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellant to one’s own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.

I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.

Yours sincerely,

Bertrand Russell

Merry Christmas!

Dear All,

That's another year gone. As always, heartfelt thanks to everyone who has visited this website, made the Letters of Note and More Letters of Note books possible, and bought tickets to the amazing Letters Live. 2016 looks set to be even busier on all fronts and I'm itching to get started.

In the meantime, here are the most popular Christmas-related letters of note, arranged in no particular order. Also, if you're looking for last-minute presents, head over to Books of Note for some very biased inspiration.

Merry 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.

See you all soon.


From Heaven

Esteemed Canadian physician Sir William Osler is known by many as the “Father of Modern Medicine”. He both practiced and taught at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital, of which he was a founding professor, and helped to revolutionise medical education by introducing the now commonplace residency system: the training of doctors within the hospital itself. His status as one of the world’s greatest doctors was further strengthened in 1892 with the publication of his indispensable textbook, The Principles and Practice of Medicine, aka the “Physician’s Bible”. Sadly, a year after the book was released, William’s first child, Paul Revere Osler, died a week after being born. In an effort to console his distraught wife, Grace, William wrote her a letter, from Heaven, in Paul’s voice.

Note: The Emma Osler referred to in the letter is William’s sister, who died at the age of two; “Julius Caeser” refers to a stillborn baby from Grace’s first marriage.

(This letter features in the More Letters of Note book alongside many other fascinating pieces of correspondence -- more info at Books of Note.)

Heaven July 1st

My dear Mother

I for one am good & get on nicely with our singing and if our earthly parents continue to show an interest in us by remembering us in their prayers, we are allowed to write about every three or four tatma's (i.e. months). I got here safely with very little inconvenience. I scarcely knew anything until I awoke in a lovely, green spot, with fountains & trees & soft couches & such nice young girls to tend us. You would have been amused to see the hundreds which came the same day. But I must tell you first how we are all arranged; it took me several days to find out about it. Heaven is the exact counterpart of earth so far as its dwellers are concerned; thus all from the U.S. go to one place--all from Maryland to one district & even all from the cities & townships get corresponding places. This enables the guardian angels to keep the lists more carefully & it facilitates communication between relatives. They are most particular in this respect and have a beautifully simple arrangement by which the new arrivals can find out at once whether they have connections in heaven. I never was more surprised in my time--we say that here not life & not eternity, for that has not started for us--when the day after my arrival Althea brought me two quill feathers on one of which was written Julius Caesar & the other Emma Osler. I knew at once about the former as I had often heard you and father talk of him and had so longed to wear his little cap; but the latter I did not know at all but she said she had been father's little sister & she had been sent to make me feel happy and comfortable.

You must know that all the souls coming here are grouped in 6 divisions

1. Those who have never lived and have not seen the sun. The angels have no end of trouble with them, largely Althea says because they are so stupid and learn so slowly, not having seen the sun-light. They are allowed to grow until equal to the size of the body of a 2 year old child & at which point they stop. They never obtain a full knowledge but always remain childlike. This is their great attraction & in their gardens may be seen hundreds of thousands of middle aged & old soul-bodies refreshing their memories of happy days on earth by playing with these angel children.

2. Those who have not lived a full year are also in a separate division and we are gradually taught and within a very short space of time have beautiful soul-bodies about the size of an earthly child of five. We have however full knowledge and have not many childish ways.

3. Children between 1 & 5 years look here about 10 years in earthly-size; & though they say that their voices are better & their education more perfect than ours we do not think so.

4. From 5 to 15 years the children who come attain in their soul-bodies the earthly size of about 15 and are of great use to the angels in helping with the younger ones & in showing all the beauties of the place and in tuning harps in the great days of the chorus.

6. The grown soul-bodies--about which we do not know very much only seeing those very nearly related to us by earthly ties. We play all day & talk so much with each other about earth and take a great interest in all that you do. We cannot always see you, why I do not know, but at intervals we have such clear and definite sights of our earthly homes. Julius Caesar is very well and a great favorite. He looks a dear little fellow of about two years old (earthly count) and he told me when his guardian angel was not near that he felt a little badly that I should have been in the Amarathyn division--i.e. the one in advance of his. He and Aunt Emma are to come very often and we know now all about our many relatives. Unlike the real angels we have no fore-knowledge and cannot tell what is to happen to our dear ones on Earth. Next to the great feast days, when we sing choruses by divisions in the upper heavens, our chief delight is in watching the soul bodies as they arrive in our divisions. I am helping the angels to get them in order & properly trained. In the children's divisions not a friad (i.e. about an hour of earthly time) passes without the excitement of a father, a mother, a brother or a sister united to one of us. We know about 1000 of each other so that it is great fun to see our comrades & friends making their relatives feel at home.

The other day my kind Althea said there was a baby-soul in the 1st division from New Hampshire, which had left her kind regards for me at the general intelligence office of the heavenly United States. It was chorus day so I could not go, but I am to see her tomorrow if she is advanced enough to receive visitors. It takes about ten days to get our beautiful plumage in order.

If you keep as you are I shall be able (Althea says) to write again in three months. I send you much love--also to pop!

Your loving son
Paul Revere

Torturing the Saxophone

In 2014, celebrated Swedish free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson sent a copy of his forthcoming album to one of his idols, the legendary comic book artist, record collector and musician Robert Crumb. Gustafsson’s upcoming record was a compilation of his experimental interpretations of some jazz classics by people such as Duke Ellington, Lars Gullin, and the Ayler brothers, and he sought Crumb’s opinion. Crumb, baffled, pulled no punches and responded with this brutally honest letter. In honour of the critique, Gustafsson named his next album Torturing the Saxophone, and proudly reprinted the letter amongst the liner notes.

(This letter features in the More Letters of Note book alongside many other fascinating pieces of correspondence -- more info at Books of Note. The letter was also read aloud by Matt Berry at Letters Live -- to see footage, go here. Image above, of Robert Crumb in 2011, by Marcelo Braga.)


I finally gave a listen to those LPs and the CD you sent me, of your own saxophone playing and some Swedish modern jazz. I gotta tell you, on the cover of the CD of your sax playing, which is black and has no text on it, I wrote in large block letters, in silver ink, “Torturing The saxophone—Mats Gustafsson.” I just totally fail to find anything enjoyable about this, or to see what this has to do with music as I understand it, or what in God´s name is going on in your head that you want to make such noises on a musical instrument. Quite frankly, I was kind of shocked at what a negative, unpleasant experience it was, listening to it. I had to take it off long before it reached the end. I just don´t get it. I don’t understand what it is about.

You actually go on TOUR with that stuff. WOW. People actually... sit… and... LISTEN… to that. I mean, they voluntarily go to the place, maybe even PAY… PAY to hear that stuff. And then they sit there, quietly, politely… and LISTEN. Unbelievable. I should go myself sometime and see this. Witness it with my own eyes.

I don´t say these things with the intention to insult you. You seem to be a perfectly nice, civilized guy with a good sense of humor. I am speaking the plain truth of my reaction to the records and CD you sent. That this noise could give anyone any aesthetic pleasure is beyond my comprehension, truly. Is this the logical end of improvisational music? Is this where it ends up? Where does it go from this point? Is there any audience for this “free jazz” besides other guys who play it and maybe their wives who must patiently endure it?

I just don´t get it. Am I too un-hip? Am I a square from Delaware? A thick from Battle Crick? A shmuck from Keokuck?

—R. Crumb

I drank too much wine last night

Since her death in 1817, Jane Austen’s anonymously penned novels – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, to name but three – have become required reading in many circles and are now held aloft as classics. She was also a prolific and observant writer of frank letters that rarely failed to entertain; however, sadly, the majority of the thousands she sent were destroyed by her sister and closest friend, Cassandra, shortly before she died. Fewer than 200 are still with us. This surviving example, sent to Cassandra in November of 1800, was written mid-hangover by 24-year-old Jane and concerns a ball she attended and was keen to describe.

(This letter features in the More Letters of Note book alongside many other fascinating pieces of correspondence -- more info at Books of Note. Above image from Thomas Wilson's 1811 book, Analysis of Country Dancing.)

Steventon: Thursday, November 20, 1800.

My Dear Cassandra,

Your letter took me quite by surprise this morning; you are very welcome, however, and I am very much obliged to you. I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day. You will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing, by attributing it to this venial error.

Your desiring to hear from me on Sunday will, perhaps, bring you a more particular account of the ball than you may care for, because one is prone to think much more of such things the morning after they happen, than when time has entirely driven them out of one’s recollection.

It was a pleasant evening; Charles found it remarkably so, but I cannot tell why, unless the absence of Miss Terry, towards whom his conscience reproaches him with being now perfectly indifferent, was a relief to him. There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, and was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner. We began at ten, supped at one, and were at Deane before five. There were but fifty people in the room; very few families indeed from our side of the county, and not many more from the other. My partners were the two St. Johns, Hooper, Holder, and very prodigious Mr. Mathew, with whom I called the last, and whom I liked the best of my little stock.

There were very few beauties, and such as there were were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, and Mrs. Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck. The two Miss Coxes were there: I traced in one the remains of the vulgar, broad-featured girl who danced at Enham eight years ago; the other is refined into a nice, composed-looking girl, like Catherine Bigg. I looked at Sir Thomas Champneys and thought of poor Rosalie; I looked at his daughter, and thought her a queer animal with a white neck. Mrs. Warren, I was constrained to think, a very fine young woman, which I much regret. She has got rid of some part of her child, and danced away with great activity looking by no means very large. Her husband is ugly enough, uglier even than his cousin John; but he does not look so very old. The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish, very like Anne, with brown skins, large dark eyes, and a good deal of nose. The General has got the gout, and Mrs. Maitland the jaundice. Miss Debary, Susan, and Sally, all in black, but without any stature, made their appearance, and I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.

Mary said that I looked very well last night. I wore my aunt’s gown and handkerchief, and my hair was at least tidy, which was all my ambition. I will now have done with the ball, and I will moreover go and dress for dinner.

We had a very pleasant day on Monday at Ashe, we sat down fourteen to dinner in the study, the dining-room being not habitable from the storms having blown down its chimney. Mrs. Bramston talked a good deal of nonsense, which Mr. Bramston and Mr. Clerk seemed almost equally to enjoy. There was a whist and a casino table, and six outsiders. Rice and Lucy made love, Mat. Robinson fell asleep, James and Mrs. Augusta alternately read Dr. Finnis’ pamphlet on the cow-pox, and I bestowed my company by turns on all.

The three Digweeds all came on Tuesday, and we played a pool at commerce. James Digweed left Hampshire to-day. I think he must be in love with you, from his anxiety to have you go to the Faversham balls, and likewise from his supposing that the two elms fell from their grief at your absence. Was not it a gallant idea? It never occurred to me before, but I dare say it was so.

Farewell; Charles sends you his best love and Edward his worst. If you think the distinction improper, you may take the worst yourself. He will write to you when he gets back to his ship, and in the meantime desires that you will consider me as

Your affectionate sister,
J. A.

For Love and Honor

In December of 1972, Donald Richie, then film curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote to artist Hollis Frampton and suggested that they organise a retrospective of his work at this most prestigious of museums. To an artist of any standing, this would be a tempting offer; however, Frampton took issue with one particular line in the proposal, a single detail of Richie’s which rendered the suggestion entirely unattractive: “It is all for love and honor and no money is included at all…” Unwilling to work without financial reward, Frampton responded at length with a rousing letter, reprinted below in full, that has since become legendary in the art world for reasons which are plain to see. It’s fair to assume that a fee was later agreed: MoMA’s Hollis Frampton retrospective--The Films of Hollis Frampton--ran from March 8 -12, 1973.

(This wonderful letter, and many more, features in the More Letters of Note book with permission of the Hollis Frampton Estate. You should really get a copy. More info over at Books of Note.)

Box 99
Eaton New York 13334
January 7, 1973

Mr Donald Richie
Curator of Film
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, New York 10019

Dear Donald:

I have your letter of December 13, 1972, in which you offer me the honor of a complete retrospective during this coming March. Let me stipulate at the outset that I am agreed “in principle”, and more: that I appreciate very deeply being included in the company you mention. I am touched to notice that the dates you propose fall squarely across my thirty-seventh birthday. And I am flattered by your proposal to write notes.

But, having said this much, I must go on to point out some difficulties to you.

To begin with, let me put it to you squarely that anyone, institution or individual, is free at any time to arrange a complete retrospective of my work; and that is not something that requires my consent, or even my prior knowledge. You must know, as well as I do, that all my work is distributed through the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and that it is available for rental by any party willing to assume, in good faith, ordinary responsibility for the prints, together with the price of hiring them.

So that something other than a wish to show my work must be at issue in your writing to me. And you open your second paragraph with a concise guide to what that ‘something’ is, when you say: “It is all for love and honor and no money is included at all…”.

All right. Let’s start with love, where we all started. I have devoted, at the nominal least, a decade of the only life I may reasonably expect to have, to making films. I have given to this work the best energy of my consciousness. In order to continue in it, I have accepted… as most artists accept (and with the same gladness)…a standard of living that most other American working people hold in automatic contempt: that is,I have committed my entire worldly resources, whatever they may amount to, to my art.

Of course, those resources are not unlimited. But the irreducible point is that I have made the work, have commissioned it of myself, under no obligation of any sort to please anyone, adhering to my ow best understanding of the classic canons of my art. Does that not demonstrate love? And if it does not, then how much more am I obliged to do? And who (among the living) is to exact that of me?

Now, about honor: I have said that I am mindful, and appreciative, of the honor to myself. But what about the honor of my art? I venture to suggest that a time may come when the whole history of art will become no more than a footnote to the history of film…or of whatever evolves from film. Already, in less than a century, film has produced great monuments of passionate intelligence. If we say that we honor such a nascent tradition, then we affirm our wish that it will continue.

But it cannot continue on love and honor alone. And this brings me to your: “…no money is included at all…”.

I’ll put it to you as a problem in fairness. I have made let us say, so and so many films. That means that so and so many thousands of feet of rawstock have been expended, for which I paid the manufacturer. The processing lab was paid, by me, to develop the stuff, after it was exposed in a camera for which I paid. The lens grinders got paid. Then I edited the footage, on rewinds and a splicer for which I paid, incorporating leader and glue for which I also paid. The printing lab and the track lab were paid for their materials and services. You yourself, however meagerly, are being paid for trying to persuade me to show my work, to a paying public, for “love and honor”. If it comes off, the projectionist will get paid. The guard at the door will be paid. Somebody or other paid for the paper on which your letter to me was written, and for the postage to forward it.

That means that I, in my singular person, by making this work, have already generated wealth for scores of people. Multiply that by as many other working artists as you can think of. Ask yourself whether my lab, for instance, would print my work for “love and honor”: if I asked them and they took my question seriously, I should expect to have it explained to me, ever so gently, that human beings expect compensation for their work. The reason is simply that it enables them to continue doing what they do.

But it seems that, while all these others are to be paid for their part in a show that could not have taken place without me, nonetheless, I, the artist, am not to be paid.

And in fact it seems that there is no way to pay an artist for his work as an artist. I have taught, lectured, written, worked as a technician…and for all those collateral activities, I have been paid, I have been compensated for my work. But as an artist I have been paid only on the rarest of occasions.

I will offer you further information in the matter:

Item: that we filmmakers are a little in ouch with one another, or that there is a “grapevine”, at least, such as did not obtain two and three decades ago, when The Museum of Modern art (a different crew then, of course) divided filmmakers against themselves, and got not only screenings, but “rights” of one kind and another, for nothing, from the generation of Maya Deren.

Well Maya Deren, for one, died young, in circumstances of genuine need. I leave it to your surmise whether her life might have been prolonged by a few bucks. A little money certainly would have helped with her work: I still recall with sadness the little posters, begging for money to help her finish THE VERY EYE OF NIGHT, that were stuck around when I was first in New York. If I can help it, that won’t happen to me, not to any other artist I know.

And I know that Stan Brakhage (his correspondence with Willard Van Dyke is public record) and Shirley Clark did not go uncompensated for the use of their work by the Musuem. I don’t know about Bruce Bailey, but I doubt, at the mildest, that he is wealthy enough to have travelled from the West Coast under his own steam, for any amount of love and honor (and nothing else). And, of course, if any of these three received any money at all (it is money that enables us to go on working, I repeat) then they received an infinite amount more than you are offering me. That puts us beyond the pale, even, of qualitative argument. It is simply an unimaginable cut in pay.

Item: that I do not live in New York City. Nor is it, strictly speaking, “convenient” for me to be there during the period you name. I’ll be teaching in Buffalo every Thursday and Friday this coming Spring semester, so that I could hope to be at the Museum for a Saturday program. Are you suggesting that I drive down? The distance is well over four hundred miles, and March weather upstate is uncertain. Shall I fly, at my own expense, to face an audience that I know, from personal experience, to be, at best, largely unengaging, and at worst grossly provincial and rude?

Item: it is my understanding that filmmakers invited to appear on your “Cinieprobe” programs currently receive an honorarium. How is it, then, that I am not accorded the same courtesy?

Very well. Having been prolix, I will now attempt succinctness. I offer you the following points for discussion:

1] It is my understanding, of old, that the Museum of Modern Art does not, as a matter of policy, pay rentals for films. I am richly aware that, if the museum paid us independent film artists, then is would be obliged also to pay rentals to the Hollywood studios. Since we all live in a fee-enterprise system, the Museum thus saves artists from the ethical error of engaging in unfair economic competition with the likes of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. (I invite anyone to examine, humanely, the logic of such a notion.) Nevertheless, I offer you the opportunity to pay me, at the rate of one-half my listed catalog rentals, for the several screenings you will probably subject my prints to. You can call the money anything you like: a grant, a charitable git, a bribe, or dividends on my common stock in Western Civilization…and I will humbly accept it. The precise amount in question is $266.88, plus $54.-- in cleaning charges, which I will owe the Film-Makers’ Cooperative for their services when my prints are returned.

2] If I am to appear during the period you propose, then I must have roundtrip air fare, and ground transportation expenses, between Buffalo and Manhattan. I will undertake to cover whatever other expenses there may be. I think that amounts to about $90.--, subject to verification.

3] If I appear to discuss my work, I must have the same honorarium you would offer anyone doing a “Cineprobe. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that comes to $150.--.

4] Finally, I must request your earliest possible reply. I have only a limited number of prints available, some of which may already be committed for rentals screenings during the period you specify. Since I am committed in principle to this retrospective, delay might mean my having to purchase new prints specifically for the occasion; and I am determined to minimize, if possible, drains on funds that I need for making new work.

Please note carefully, Donald, that what I have written above is a list of requests. I do not speak of demands which may only be made of those who are forced to negotiate.

But you must understand also that these requests are not open to bargaining: to bargain is to be humiliated. To bargain in this, of all matters, is to accept humiliation on behalf of others whose needs and uncertainties are greater even than mine.

You, of course, are not forced to negotiate. You are free. And since I am too, this question is open to discussion in matters of procedure, if not of substance.

I hope we can come to some agreement, and soon. I hope so out of love for my embattled art, and because I honor all those who pursue it. But if we cannot, then I must say, regretfully, however much I want it to take place, that there can be no retrospective showing of my work at the Museum of Modern Art.



Hollis Frampton