Letters Live at Hay Festival May 24th 2015

Have you ever experienced one of those far-fetched dreams involving celebrities? In reality they wouldn’t know you from Adam but in your dream you are close friends and it isn’t a strange occurrence that Stephen Fry turns up on your doorstep or Jude Law pops round to borrow a cup of sugar.

Sitting in the Tata tent at this year’s Hay Festival waiting for Letters Live to start felt similar to that.The 1700 seater tent retained a sense of intimacy despite being full to capacity. I had taken my teenage daughter as my plus one . We’d planned to stroll casually along about half past twelve for the 1 o’clock event and get in line then. Making a quick toilet pit stop around noon we had realised the error of our ways, the queue was rapidly filling up on both sides necessitating our joining it then. It seemed within minutes the queue stretched as far as my eyes could see in every direction yet the atmosphere of calm friendliness prevailed. Everyone waiting patiently, friends chatting to other friends, others drank heavenly looking froth whipped flake topped hot chocolate whilst others sought sanctuary on the floor resting their tired legs. We were advised by seasoned veterans not to hesitate once we were inside the tent but to find seats and claim them immediately.

At 5 to 1 we were ushered in to the famous Tata tent and sat down expectantly.The lights went down, the quiet calm prevailed and Jamie Byng from Canongate introduced the event along with some background on the origins of Letters of note regarding Shaun Usher and Simon Garfield.

Jude Law began the proceedings to ecstatic applause and had everyone in the palm of his hand with every letter he read. He began with the letter “Too much explosion- A Maths lesson from no3 Commando”. This was a witty letter from Evelyn Waugh to his wife Laura concerning a farcical attempt to blow up Lord Glasgow’s tree stump. “A little more explosive…. Goodness you are clever”. Particularly touching was a letter written by the German Jewish novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger who was a fierce critic of the Nazi party and as a result of this while he was touring the US in 1933 his house was taken possession of by the SS and given over to someone of their choosing. He writes “How do you like my house Mr.X?Do you find it pleasant to live in? Did the silver-grey carpeting in the upper rooms suffer while the SA men were looting?”.

Sandi Toksvig was funny and delightful “Only at Hay would Jude Law and I be on the same bill!” My favourite of her letters was The Matchbox by Sylvia Townsend Warner. This was a humorous Thank You letter in response to a Christmas gift from her friend and fellow writer Alyse Gregory. On receiving the bizarre gift of an empty matchbox she penned an enthusiastic,gracious and thoughtful note. Whilst commenting on how the drawer slid out as if a piece of Chippendale furniture and drawing attention to all its wonderful features she closed with this postscript about the image on the box “I have never seen such an agreeable likeness of a hedgehog, and the volcano in the background is magnificent”.
Having long been a fan of his I was really looking forward to seeing Stephen Fry and he was as magnificent as I had imagined. Self deprecating, funny and poignant especially when reading Armistead Maupin’s “Letter to Mama”.  This letter is written from the character of Michael Toliver( More Tales of the City) and is his coming out letter to his parents on learning their support of a campaign against gay rights. “Every time I try to write to you and Papa I realise I’m not saying the things that are in my heart”. Stephen told us he was “a soppy arse” so it’s no surprise we were all, including him, moved to tears.

Being big Sherlock fans we were excited to see Louise Brealey who plays Molly in the BBC series. Having seen Louise in a few things she doesn’t simply voice her lines, she inhabits her characters and words. When she read Charlotte Bronte’s letter to her publishers after the death of her sister Emily I felt transported to the time and scene. Watching her standing there on the Letters Live stage she was not Louise but Charlotte consumed in her grief, paying homage to her sister but trying to be strong for her still living family. “Charlotte, you must bear up, I will sink if you fail me” (The Reverend Patrick Bronte).
Louise’s final letter was tragic and desolate. A goodbye letter to their sons from Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. It was written on the day of their execution for espionage in 1953 after it had seemed they would be granted a stay of execution. Ethel writes “Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience,we press you close and kiss you with all our strength”.

Sarah Lancashire who I’m embarrassed to admit I had seen in very little brought Rachel Carson to life while reading “Dear One” a beautiful letter to her friend Dorothy Freeman and was droll and vibrant performing the Robert Pirosh letter “I like words”. This dry witted and amusing letter is essentially a wonderfully worded cover note or job application and I would have willingly employed him. “I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady… I have just returned and I still like words. May I have a few with you”.

I was entranced amongst the letters by 2 musical pieces by Kelvin Jones. His bluesy voice was matched by the perfection of his piano playing. I heartily recommend searching him out online.

As is often the case with this type of event there will be people we are unfamiliar with through no fair or valid reason of their own. It was a joy to hear the Scottish novelist and nonfiction writer Andrew O’Hagan who had us in stitches reading Robert Burns 1790 letter to a critic. To say Robert Burns was incensed would be an understatement. “Thou eunuch of Language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed”.

Colm Toibin, the wonderful Irish novelist was tremendous in his readings of letters to Henry James and an industry memo from the creator of South Park Matt Stone. I confess this left me wincing a little , not at his portrayal but its graphic content and language and I wouldn’t consider myself easily offended. Enough said.

Mariah Gale beautifully read a letter written by Margaret Mead to her sister Priscilla on what was probably her first romance .

The talented actress Lisa Dwan brought to life Ione Wells “A letter to my Assaulter” . Ione who has since started the Not Guilty campaign, wrote this letter to highlight how many people feel after experiencing a harrowing assault like she endured. Determined to reclaim her life she decided to carry on as before, to walk the same streets, to not give her attacker control over the rest of her life. “When you dragged me by my hair, and when you smashed my head against the pavement and told me to stop screaming for help….. Did you ever think of the people in your life?

The tagline for Letters Live is “Where letters come to life” and if you ever have the opportunity to attend one of these events you simply must because all of life and of wonder are held under its roof.

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NB: Letters Live are events where famous and notable and historic letters in the public domain are read out to an audience, this time at the Hay Festival in Wales. I was lucky enough to win tickets and this is my review of the event. There are also a couple of Letters of Note books published by Canongate.

Suzanne Rollinson.
May 27th 2015.
Literary letter quotes all found online and can be attributed if needed.

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