Letters Live: celebrating the legacy of the written word
I’ll try not to sound too much like an ‘it-was-all-so-much-better-back-then’ grumpy old git when I talk about this, but whilst there are undoubtedly many benefits that digital communication has brought to our lives, one of the downsides of email, text, whatsapp, social media etc. is the huge decline they’ve led to in the art of letter writing.
I’m as guilty as anyone in preferring to dash off an email or message to someone, rather than take the time to sit down and write a letter. I can type what I want to say so much faster than I can write it (I would say with less typos, but honestly, it’s shocking how dreadful and mistake-ridden my writing has become through lack of use - that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). And I can see that my recipient has received my missive, and indeed, whether and when they’ve read it.
The record we leave behind
I do wonder though, (old git alert) about what sort of record we are leaving for future generations with this loss of literary legacy. Think about how much letters have contributed to our understanding of the events and people of the past. Will emails survive in the same way and serve the same purpose? Bearing in mind how often my systems crash/freeze/inexplicably disappear, I would venture to suggest not.
What made me think about this even more recently, was a remarkable evening I went to at the beautiful Union Chapel, a working church in north London that’s also an event space.
Letters Live was launched in 2013 as a recognition and celebration of the power of the written word. Each Letters Live event features a handful of well known people - actors, comedians, singers and others - reading a selection of memorable letters from across the centuries and around the world. When you buy your ticket you have no idea who you’ll hear reading the letters, or what the letters will be about. The only certainty is that you will be enthralled, entertained, moved, enlightened and uplifted.
Readers and writers
Over the years and events, letters have been read by Tom Hiddleston, Kylie Minogue, Stephen Fry, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Coleman and Sir Ian Mckellen to name just a few. And the letters they’ve read have been from the famous - David Bowie, Che Guevara, Charlotte Bronte, Richard Burton - and the unknown. They have been funny, furious, sad and meaningful. Complaining, celebrating and chiding. Revealing, wise, instructive and moving.
Amongst the brilliant readers on the night I went were Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliet Stephenson, Tom O’Dell, Denise Gough, Noel Fielding, Thom York (lead singer of Radio Head), Lesley Manville and Fatima Bhutto the niece of Benezir Bhutto. There were letters from Yuri Gagarin and Nehru. Letters from mothers and lovers. Letters written to newspapers and agony aunt columns. Letters that were hilarious and letters that brought us all to tears. It really was the most wonderful evening.
Aside from the insight and entertainment that the Letters Live events give audiences, the organisation does tremendous work in supporting literacy through the charities the performances support. (The performers all give their time for free, by the way). They also upload many of the readings onto YouTube so they can be enjoyed as widely as possible.
Events coming up
There are currently two more Letters Live events planned for this year - one at the Wilderness Festival in August and one at the Royal Albert Hall in October. Find out more about those and any other events they’ll hopefully add, the organisation, the charities they support and the work they do on their website.
Do you ever write letters? And do you enjoy receiving them?
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