Letters Live at Hay Festival 2015


Dear All,

Following on from last month's mind-blowing week-long run at Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden—a whirlwind, pictured above, from which I shall never fully recover—Letters Live is returning to Hay Festival on Sunday the 24th May at 1pm (yes, that's really soon, and yes, you have no choice but to come).

Those who attended last year's Letters Live at Hay Festival will know just how perfect a marriage it is: the setting, atmosphere, and humans in attendance really are fantastic. Performers in 2014 included Benedict Cumberbatch, Louise Brealey, Rob Brydon, Lisa Dwan and Ian McEwan; this year's Letters Live at Hay will feature another stellar cast that includes the likes of Jude Law, Sandi Toksvig, Stephen Fry, Sarah LancashireLouise Brealey, Colm Toibin, Lisa DwanAndrew O’Hagan, and Kelvin Jones.

As you can see, it promises to be yet another knockout. Plus, a portion of the proceeds from the show will go to the literacy charities that Letters Live continues to support.

For info about the festival itself, which is wonderful, and the tickets you now must get hold of, I suggest you visit the Hay Festival website.

To find out more about Letters Live, the literacy charities it supports, and the line-ups at previous events, please visit the Letters Live website.

See you soon.

P. S. Please pledge for the special edition of Letters of Note: Volume II and nudge it closer to 100%!

Letters of Note: Volume II


Dear All, 

Hello! I've just checked and it's somehow four years since I first announced that I was compiling a Letters of Note book, crowdfunded at Unbound. Thanks to you lot, life since then has been surreal to say the least. I’ve been amazed and gratified that so many people, in so many countries, have supported, bought, and read my first book. THANK YOU for helping make it happen.

One of the best things about the process of publishing such a book is the huge number of readers, libraries, authors' estates, archivists and literary curators who have alerted me to wonderful new caches of correspondence. In the two years since I finished Letters of Note I’ve been busy going through these and have come up with a second selection – Letters of Note: Volume II – which I genuinely think is even stronger and more varied than the first.

Here are just some of the treasures it will contain:

  • A beautiful condolence letter from Emily Dickinson following the death of her nephew
  • Florence Nightingale's letter home about the appalling horrors of the Crimean War
  • Norman Mailer refusing to give his father money to feed his gambling addiction
  • A customer complaint letter from 1450 BC
  • An excited letter home from Janis Joplin, just as she's on the cusp of stardom
  • Alan Turing's letter to fellow mathematician Norman Routledge shortly before he was charged with gross indecency
  • Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White writing to his little newborn son, pretending to be Daisy the family dog
  • John Cleese's response to a query about his fan club, claiming that all his members have been killed by Michael Palin's fan club
  • A letter from John Lennon to Eric Clapton asking him to join his supergroup
  • Heartbreaking notes scrawled by the passengers on Japan Airlines flight 123, written minutes before it crashed
  • Marge Simpson writing to Barbara Bush after she called The Simpsons the 'dumbest family she ever saw'
  • Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding to Churchill in 1940, making the request which would later ensure British aerial supremacy in the Battle of Britain
  • A letter from Carl Jung to James Joyce discussing his reservations about Ulysses
  • A young boy's letter to Blue Peter about ‘making animals alive’ and the reply, which inspired him to become a world-renowned doctor
  • Che Guevara’s note to his children to be read in the event of his death asking them to feel 'deeply any injustice committed against anyone’
  • ...and SO many more, some of which I can't mention as they're too exciting.

The book's special edition will be crowdfunded at Unbound again, because they're brilliant and they love books more than anyone; it will contain 125 letters, more than half of which have not appeared on this website. Physically, the book will be the same perfect shape, size and quality as last time. I’m delighted to be working with Caz Hildebrand and the team at Here Design again, who will be coming up with something stunning that will match the last book (and Lists of Note) – particularly when lined up on a shelf (these things matter…)

We have a crack team in place clearing the billions of permissions necessary for such a monster and I’m working hard to finish off the editing. Everything is looking fantastic. All of which means that – as long as you help us hit our target – the brand new Unbound special edition will be despatched in the Autumn, in plenty of time for Christmas.

PLEASE head over to Unbound and watch me being shifty and ineloquent when trying to describe the whole thing using my mouth, and please PLEDGE! I promise you will love this book.

Thank you!



LETTERS LIVE returns to London for its most ambitious season yet, with Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey in starring roles.

Five unique shows at London’s Freemasons’ Hall (Covent Garden), from Tuesday 31st March until Saturday 4th April.

Following its great successes in 2013 and 2014, LETTERS LIVE present its first season of shows in 2015 at the iconic Freemasons’ Hall, one of the finest Art Deco buildings in Britain. Inspired by Letters of Note, the bestselling anthology compiled by Shaun Usher, and To the Letter by Simon Garfield, LETTERS LIVE is a series of curated, live events that celebrate the enduring power of literary correspondence.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey will take to the stage for every night of the Freemasons’ Hall run, reading letters alongside a diverse array of world class performers each evening, including Joss Ackland, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Samantha Bond, Russell Brand, Simon Callow, Olivia Colman, Sally Hawkins, Richard Holloway, Toby Jones, Sir Ben Kingsley, Allen Leech, Sir Ian McKellen, Caitlin Moran, Tom Odell, Andrew O’Hagan, Sophie Okenedo, Geoffrey Palmer, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Ross, Alan Rusbridger, Colin Salmon, Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Tom Sturridge, Ashley Walters, Dominic West, and more.

'LETTERS LIVE makes us pause and imagine the lives behind the letters read and the circumstances of their origin. The relationship between the audience, reader and writer on a LETTERS LIVE night helps deepen our understanding of these inspiring artefacts of the human condition. They are windows into the love, beauty, pain, and humor of their creators and recipients. It’s a privilege to read this most ancient of communications live to an audience.’
Benedict Cumberbatch, March 2015

‘For me LETTERS LIVE celebrates connection. I love letters. I can never bear to throw them away. I have a big tin in my attic: the billets doux I used to fly down to my pigeonhole at college every morning to read and reread; postcards from my French pen-friend who wrote passionately of his feelings for Australian pop sensation Killy Minnow; a post-it note in a padded envelope of motley biros signed ‘A selection of pens. Luv Mum’. And, most precious now, a sheaf of letters that begin “Dear Louisey”, from my friend who died two years ago; the ones from her last months in strangers’ hand-writing because she’d dictated them to a series of carers, but still irrepressibly her. Some of the letters we read out on the night ache with longing, rage, love, or the hope that we are not alone. Some are just brilliantly funny or profane. Standing up there and speaking words written during the Second World War by Bessie Moore - words that were not meant to be spoken aloud even to her lover - is an electrifying privilege. It doesn’t feel like acting, you have to try to get out of the way; I have rarely felt so close to someone I’ve never met.’
Louise Brealey, March 2015

From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter to the recipe for drop scones sent by Queen Elizabeth II to President Eisenhower; from Elvis Presley’s crazed letter to President Nixon to Gandhi’s appeal to Hitler for calm on the eve of World War II; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan to a remarkable job application from Leonardo da Vinci, LETTERS LIVE captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that infect all our lives.

The diverse selections of memorable letters selected for each event are read by high profile talent from various fields: actors, comedians, musicians, artists and authors. Using the world's most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, with immense cross-over into the worlds of film, literature, fashion, art and music. The quality of the events to date already makes LETTERS LIVE a unique experience for all, a destination that people want to go to, and an occasion that contributors want to be part of.

We don't just programme a series of readings, we curate performances taking into consideration the content of the letter, its style, the person who reads it and where, ensuring each event is unique and intimate.

For further details visit the official LETTERS LIVE website.

To purchase tickets, visit Ticketmaster.

I miss my biggest heart


It wasn't until her death, in 1886, that the true scale of Emily Dickinson's profound poetry was both discovered and appreciated by family and friends, many of whom had only glimpsed her talents in the numerous poem-filled letters that she wrote. She found an even wider audience in 1890 with the posthumous publication of a volume of her work; a collection of her letters followed in 1894. Her most frequent correspondent, and a person now thought to have been the inspiration for much of her passionate material, was close friend (and, from 1856 onwards, sister-in-law) Susan Huntington Gilbert, a lady who provoked some undeniably intimate and romantic letters from the poet, the intensity of which to this day generate speculation about their relationship.

(Image: Death and Taxes.)

11 June 1852

I have but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. That you and I in hand as we e'en do in heart, might ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget these many years, and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again — I would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.

I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie — Friends are too dear to sunder, Oh they are far too few, and how soon they will go away where you and I cannot find them, dont let us forget these things, for their remembrance now will save us many an anguish when it is too late to love them! Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me. If you were here — and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language — I try to bring you nearer, I chase the weeks away till they are quite departed, and fancy you have come, and I am on my way through the green lane to meet you, and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient, till that dear Susie comes. Three weeks — they cant last always, for surely they must go with their little brothers and sisters to their long home in the west!

I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for till now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.

Dear Susie, I have tried hard to think what you would love, of something I might send you — I at last saw my little Violets, they begged me to let them go, so here they are — and with them as Instructor, a bit of knightly grass, who also begged the favor to accompany them — they are but small, Susie, and I fear not fragrant now, but they will speak to you of warm hearts at home, and of the something faithful which “never slumbers nor sleeps” — Keep them 'neath your pillow, Susie, they will make you dream of blue-skies, and home, and the “blessed contrie”! You and I will have an hour with “Edward” and “Ellen Middleton”, sometime when you get home — we must find out if some things contained therein are true, and if they are, what you and me are coming to!

Now, farewell, Susie, and Vinnie sends her love, and mother her's, and I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Dont let them see, will you Susie?

Emilie —

Why cant I be the delegate to the great Whig Convention? — dont I know all about Daniel Webster, and the Tariff, and the Law? Then, Susie I could see you, during a pause in the session — but I dont like this country at all, and I shant stay here any longer! “Delenda est” America, Massachusetts and all!

open me carefully

Dear Person


It's difficult to overstate my love for this wonderful letter of thanks, written in 1982 by the late Jack Lemmon. It was sent to friend and fellow actor, Burt Reynolds, in response to a donation made to the Jack Lemmon Burn Center—one can only hope that Lemmon thanked all donors in a similarly amusing manner.

This precious letter is currently being sold at auction.

Transcript follows.

(Source: Julien's Auctions. Images above via Alan Light and Wikipedia.)


June 7, 1982

Dear Person:

It has come to my attention that you sent a contribution of $10,000 to the Jack Lemmon Burn Center in the Children's Hospital of Buffalo.

I just wanted to say that I'm sorry that you couldn't come up with a sizable contribution, but God knows after all these years I, as much as anyone, understand the ups and downs of this crazy business. Some years are good, some years are bad, and even though you're obviously on the shit list, I certainly appreciate the fact that you made some kind of effort no matter how meager.

I do think it is important for me to clarify an area of possible confusion on your part. Burn Centre has nothing to do with critical reaction to your work. However, it's too fucking late so we're going to keep the money and help a hell of a lot of kids.

One of these days I'm going to work with you even if it kills me (and it probably will).

Many thanks, and love,



cc: Lee B. Winkler

There was a war, a great war, and now it is over


On November 11th of 1918, the First World War effectively came to an end with the signing of the armistice—an agreement between Allied and German forces to end, with immediate effect, all hostilies and withdraw troops from the battlefield. Peace, at last, after four years of fighting and more than 16 million deaths. Shortly after the armistice was signed, 26-year-old Lewis Plush—a lieutenant with the American Expeditionary Forces—wrote home to his parents and spoke with great eloquence of his experience. He returned home in February of 1919.

(Source: War Letters, edited by Andrew Carroll; Image: Soldiers celebrating the armsitice on Nov 11th, 1918, via Wikipedia.)

Aboard the S.S. Regina

Dear Mother and Father,

Now that it is all over, what is there to look back upon? The fifteen months in France have been like a book with strange chapters, a book that one reads and casts aside as impossible, but a book that leaves a lasting grip upon the imagination.

I used to watch the small planes as they manoeuvered in the air and felt that I presumed too much when I hoped to fly one myself. Flying became a reality when I learned to fly a clumsy and safe Caudron. After that came the Nieuport school with its three types of training planes, the 23-meter double control, the 18-meter solo, and finally the 16-meter scout plane. And then the work in acrobatics, formation flying, combat practice, and a month's course in aerial gunnery.

"Training completed and ready for active duty at the front" sounded like a voice in a dream. A few days later I was at the front.

I fly again my first flight over the lines when everything was new, mysterious, and awful. The imprint of that picture will never fade, and I will always see a picture, not of war and destruction but of beauty and peace. There below, far below, is picture after picture slowly passing by, set in thick frames of clouds, colors, and shadows, and white dazzling light. There on my right is Metz, and off to the left lays Nancy, like a jewel set in dark green. One is a German city, the other French. Can it be that the men who inhabit each are bitter enemies and fight to kill?

I was soon to discover that this peace was only the calm before the storm. And when the storm did break in sudden fury on the morning of Sept. 12, I saw my picture of peace shattered and torn.

I live again that eventful day. It is before dawn and the guns pound and hammer the enemy. The whole skyline of the north is luminated by continuous flashes. Now it is dawn and we leave the ground to play our small part in a mighty struggle. Low clouds and a light rain forces low flying, so from our altitude we see a great army in action.

I see again great tanks waddling and lumbering their way toward Montsec with khaki-clad troops hanging thick on their backs and following in the rear. The roads are jammed with troops, pursuer and pursued. Scattered troops run into woods and out as the whole region is spotted with bursting shells. A tank is on its side here, a shattered truck there, horses running madly in their blind flight. The enemy are in absolute confusion by the rapid advance of our own troops. The fury of the storm did not last long but the story of the St. Mihiel offensive will never be erased.

I see and live again the long weeks of struggle in the Argonne region, where dodging "archies" became a routine duty, bombing raids a daily occurrence, and strafing enemy troops a dangerous but ordinary work.

I can hear the machine guns rattling down from the ground as they desperately try to rake us from the air as we swoop down and pour deadly streams of lead into masses of troops. A single bullet in the motor, a pierced gas tank and a burst of flame, a broken wire or a broken feed line and the game is over—lost.

I can hear the archies as they burst uncomfortably close. I can feel the plane as a bursting shell upsets it and starts it spinning, but a quick movement of the controls rights it and on I fly. A burst of black smoke on my right, flying splinters, crumpled wings. The archies have scored another victory—another dear friend gone west.

Over and over I live a terrible moment. Glancing quickly behind I see the sinister silhouette of two Hun planes diving directly at me from above. I am alone and escape seems impossible. One is now almost on top of me and as I make a quick turn he fires at close range. I see again the streaks of fire. Phosphorus fumes of the incendiary bullets fill the cockpit full of that sickening odor and with a damaged motor I fight the fight over and again for my life.

I fly again with great formations of bombers in their daylight raids and take my place above with the other scout planes as we sweep the sky for the enemy. The enemy appears and puts up a stubborn fight. One, two, perhaps more, flaming planes crash to the ground, friend and foe, and the bombers return, their mission accomplished.

"One of our planes did not return," says the official report of the day and we each wonder but dare not ask aloud, "Who will be next?"

Oh, fateful vision that now appears of three comrades, three friends that shared the same billet in the home of a French family near the flying field where we worked and played together. I am one of the three. The other two are dead.

How can I ever forget that evening as we sat before the open fireplace. I was writing a letter with a single candle as light. Roth, you were reading aloud from a book of poems, and your sudden burst of enthusiasm would make the flames leap. Kinney, you were making and remaking the fire, playing with the embers with the fire tongs and returning the jumping sparks to their bed.

How little we knew what the morrow would bring. The next evening, Kinney, you and I sat by the fire alone. And a few evenings later, I alone sat by the fire and wondered. The story is always the same: a combat with the enemy and one of our planes did not return.

I walk again over a battle field fresh with its dead and ruin; shattered villages standing as monuments of destruction. Tangled and torn wire litter the barren fields and slopes, barren of life but littered with the waste of war—broken guns, bits of clothing, shells, and the sad remains of life.

There was a war, a great war, and now it is over. Men fought to kill, to maim, to destroy. Some return home, others remain behind forever on the fields of their greatest sacrifice. The rewards of the dead are the lasting honors of martyrs for humanity; the reward of the living is the peaceful conscience of one who plays the game of life and plays it square.

                                                                                       Lt. Lewis C. Plush