Interview: Simon Garfield, Letters of Note author
Ahead of the latest star-studded Letters Live event, Simon Garfield caught up with Lucy Brooks to muse on the magic of letters, and Benedict Cumberbatch's electrifying live readings.
Simon Garfield: To the Letter
‘It became clear that letter writing was on this slope, a gradual decline,’ Garfield says: ‘I thought: do we actually know what we are about to lose?’
So, weaving together history and analysis with extracts of real correspondence, he wrote To the Letter, a celebration of the 'vanishing world' of not just iconic letters, but the communicative tradition they embody.
And it was not just Garfield that was struck by the vulnerability of written correspondence in modern life. ‘Shaun Usher was doing a similar thing’, he explains. Having set up the Letters of Note website, which displays an archive of over 900 real letters for readers to browse at their leisure, Usher found the response so overwhelming that he collected them in a coffee table tome, Letters of Note.
Realising the parallels between Letters of Note and To the Letter, Canon Gate Publisher Jamie Byng saw potential for the letters to capture imaginations beyond their respective books. ‘It was clear that the great thing about letters is they can be brought to life’ says Garfield, 'how about going one step further than the books and making it clear what we are going to miss?’
So, from a pub meeting and Byng’s chockablock list of celebrity contacts, the idea for Letters Live was born. ‘Then it snowballed’ says Garfield, as the list of talented performers grew: ‘the more people you have, the more you get', Usher explains. And he’s not exaggerating. The inaugural Letters Live Event at Notting Hill’s Tabernacle in 2013 was easily as A-list as an Oscars ceremony: Benedict Cumberbatch, Gillian Anderson, Juliet Stevenson, Nick Cave and more graced the stage to give readings.
Unsurprisingly, given the fascinating stories, romances and personal confession being brought to life, and the astounding talent of the performers, the event was a triumph. ‘It was clear this thing really worked’
Letters Live: Benedict Cumberbatch, Louise Brealey and more
The audience response from Letters Live was so strong it inspired not just more events, but Garfield's second book on correspondence. He recalls how, at the very last minute before handing To The Letter, he decide to punctuate the famous letters with ‘a correspondence that shows how ordinary lives can be transformed by letters and how only letters can do that’. That’s how, in an archive in Sussex University, Garfield found the ‘Chris Barker Papers’, a real life world war II romance told through letters between a young officer Chris and a foreign office worker Bessie. ‘I went down to see it and knew I had to put it in the book’.
But it was when the Chris and Bessie letters were read aloud at a Letters Live event that Garfield fully realised their emotive power. ‘Benedict [Cumberbatch] got up on stage and read them with actresses Kerry Fox and Louise Brealey and they just hit home. People were in tears in the audience and desperate to know what would happen next’. So, Garfield revealed the full story in his latest book, Dear Bessie.
Be part of the phenomenon: Letters Live, Freemasons Hall, London
And it is this real life love story that will form the skeleton of the upcoming Letters Live event as the ‘only constant thing every night’ read by Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey. ‘Almost all the other letters will change’ Garfield explains.
This spirit of spontaneity is what makes Letters Live such an unparalleled experience. Along with the two Sherlock stars, who read at all five events, there be a different selection of talented performers each event, including Oscar nominee Woody Allen favourite Sally Hawkins, soulful singer/ songwriter Tom Odell and Mighty Boosh comedian Matt Berry. But Garfield hints that this is just the tip of the iceberg for celebrity speakers.: ‘All sorts of names are in the pot. Some of the them have even said that they want to read a specific letter… but the glory of it is although some of the things are fixed, some of it will be inevitably last minute'.
The Future of the Letter...
Though he’s vocally nostalgic about letters as a ‘lost art’, Garfield’s no luddite, and isn’t advocating return to the quill. “There’s no question that email and social media are fantastic things.. I’m not anti technology. I've got all the gadgets going” he explains. “I love it for its immediacy… it’s all absolutely on-point and accurate”
And he’s candid about how, in the face of technology’s streamlined and speedy communcations, written correspondence has its downsides: “it’s time consuming, expensive, and now to ask for someone’s home address would seem almost intrusive!”
So, with this awareness of the reasons we’d rather pick up the phone than put pen to paper, Garfield is less trying to convince people to revive the lost art of letter, instead he’s created a sort of love letter to the tradition of letter writing. 'We express more emotion and think more carefully about how we write' he explains: ‘we’re not going to find love emails in the attic.’ Though, when asked whether he writes letters, he admits ruefully ‘I do try to get around to it’...
'Hopefully', says Garfield, 'the live events will inspire people to put pen to paper'.
Letters Live is at London's Freemasons' Hall from 31st March to 4th April. Click here for more information and to book tickets.