Thursday, 27 February 2014

The US, Lists, and LETTERS LIVE

Dear All,

A few things:

1. The US edition of the Letters of Note book will be published, at long last, on May 6th by Chronicle Books. I received an advance copy yesterday—see photo above—and I can tell you, it's stunning. More pictures and details can be found here

2. Lists of Note, the follow-up to Letters of Note, is to be published at the end of this year, but only if I can manage to get the thing funded. I've been working on it for quite a while now and it will be a thing of beauty; please, if you are able, head over to the Unbound website and pledge!

3. LETTERS LIVE is back! The next event will take place at the South Bank Centre on April 23rd—much larger venue this time—and will feature a whole host of actors, authors, musicians, etc., performing/reading various letters of note, with all proceeds going to The Reading Agency. I'm still recovering from the brilliance of the first event; I imagine this one will be similarly unforgettable. There are tickets remaining. Grab them here. (This is now sold out, I'm afraid.) 

All the best, 


Friday, 21 February 2014

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088

Back in 1988, as part of an ad campaign to be printed in Time magazine, Volkswagen approached a number of notable thinkers and asked them to write a letter to the future—some words of advice to those living in 2088, to be precise. Many agreed, including novelist Kurt Vonnegut; his letter can be read below.

(Source: TIME, 1988; Image: Kurt Vonnegut, courtesy of Mike Schroeder.)

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088:

It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet: 'This above all: to thine own self be true'? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: 'Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come'? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.'

Our century hasn't been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?

For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn't do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don't need an enemy.

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature's stern but reasonable surrender terms:
  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you're at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.
Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.


Kurt Vonnegut

Monday, 3 February 2014

We will be millionaires before long

In 1914, Charlie Chaplin was on the cusp of superstardom. In February, he made his big-screen debut in Making a Living; two months later, his directorial debut, Twenty Minutes of Love, was also released. That year alone, he starred in 36 films for Keystone Studios, 19 of which he wrote and directed, and audiences were beginning to fall in love. In August, as Keystone's boss, Mack Sennett, attempted to renew Chaplin's contract and others in the industry tried to lure him away, Chaplin wrote a rare and excited letter to his brother, fellow actor, and eventual manager, Sydney, and brought him up to speed.

Four months later, Chaplin left Keystone for Essanay where he released 15 films, including, in April of 1915, The Tramp. Before long he was one of the highest paid actors in the world.

(Submitted by Angela Howe; Image: Charlie Chaplin in 1920, via National Portrait Gallery.)

Los Angeles Athletic Club,
Los Angeles, Calif.
Sunday Aug 9th

My Dear Sid,

You are doubtless realising who is addressing you. Yes. It really is your brother Chas. after all these years, but you must forgive me. The whole of my time is taken up with the movies. I write, direct, and play in them and believe me it keeps you busy. Well, Sid, I have made good. All the theatres feature my name in big letters i.e. 'Chas Chaplin hear today'. I tell you in this country I am a big box office attraction. All the managers tell me that I have 50 letters a week from men and women from all parts of the world. It is wonderfull how popular I am in such a short time and next year I hope to make a bunch of dough. I have had all kinds of offers at 500 a week with 40% stock which would mean a salary of or about 1000 a week. Mr Marcus Lowe, the big theatre man over hear, has made me a proposition which is a certainty and wants me to form a comedy company and give me either a salary per week or 50% stock. This is a sure thing, any way, the whole matter is in the hands of my Lawyers, of course I shall finish out my contract with the Keyst. people, and if they come through with something better I shall stay where I am. This Marcus Lowe business is a sure I have a guarantee sale at all his theaters and then sell to the outside people. Anyway, I will let you know all about it in my next letter. He will finance the whole thing if it comes through it means thoullions to us. Mr Sennett is in New York. He said he would write to you and make you an offer. I told him you would do great for pictures of course he has not seen you and he is only going by what I say. He said he would give you 150 to start with. I told him you are getting that now and would not think of coming over hear for that amount. If you do consider it, don't sign for any length of time, because I will want you with me when I start. I could get you 250 as easy as anything but of course you would have to sign a contract. It will be nice for you to come over for three months with the Keystone and then start for ourselves. You will hear from Sennet but don't come for less than that understand? You will like it out hear it is a beautiful country and the fresh air is doing me the world of good. I have made a heap of good friends hear and go to all the partys ect. I stay at the best Club in the city where all the millionairs belong in fact I have a good sane, wholsome time. I am living well. I have my own valet, some class to me eh what? I am still saving my money and since I have been hear I have 4000 dollars in one bank, 1200 in another, 1500 in London not so bad for 25 and still going strong thank God. Sid, we will be millionaires before long. My health is better than it ever was and I am getting fatter. Well you must tell me how Mother is and don't forget to write me before you sign any contract because there is another firm who will pay you 250. They wanted me and I told them about you, as I could not break my contract of course. Mr Sennett is a lovely man and we are great pals but business is business. Of course he does not know I am leaving or that I have had these offeres, so don't say anything in case it gets back hear, you never know. I would not like to heart Sennet feelings he thinks the world of me. Now about that money for mother do you think it is safe for me to send you it while the war is on, or do you think it better for you to pay my share and then we will arrainge things later on. So long as I know the money will get there I will send it. Anyway tell me in your next letter what to do. I hope they don't make you fight over there. This war is terrible. Well that about all the important news. I have just finished a six real picture with Marie Dressier the American star and myself. It cost 50,000 to put and I have hog the whole picture. It is the best thing I ever did. I must draw to a close now as I am getting hungry. Just this second my valet tells me I have friends to take me out Automobiling so am going to the beach to dine. Good night Sid, Love to Minnie.

Your loving brother