The Letters of Note family has expanded again!
I feel like an excitable gazelle clutching my copy of ‘More Letters of Note’: a beautiful book bursting with letters from favourite writers like Katherine Mansfield, Henry James and Sylvia Plath; a message from actor Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor; a curious note from Mozart to his wife Marianne… and that’s just for starters!
We find a very firm letter from Marge Simpson written in 1990 in response to a magazine article that quoted First Lady Barbara Bush describing The Simpsons as ‘the dumbest thing [she] had ever seen’, with Marge’s reply dryly stating that: ‘I always believed in my heart that we had a great deal in common. Each of us living our lives to serve an exceptional man’. Punchy.
Showing a similarly strong resolution is a series of brusque letters from the owner and CEO of ‘Tiger Oil Company’ to his staff: ‘Idle conversation and gossip in this office among employees will result in immediate termination […] DO YOUR JOB AND KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!’.
The persuasive letter from John Lennon (in a rather erratic, rebellious hand that refuses to capitalise his personal pronoun ‘I’ throughout), shows his attempt to recruit Eric Clapton to join his new super group, the ‘Plastic Ono Band’ the year before the break-up of The Beatles, illustrates Lennon’s positive, if slightly naïve, outlook on the world: ‘We can change the world – and have a ball at the same time’.
Another persuasive venture lies in a begging appeal to Ronald Reagan from a fearless seventh grade student from South Carolina asking for ‘federal funds’ to help tidy his bedroom.
Obviously I was particularly drawn to the charming and instantly evocative illustrated letter from 26-year-old Beatrix Potter to the five-year-old son of her friend and former governess, featuring the first ever appearance of Peter Rabbit. The pen and ink drawings are so playful in their simplicity.
Pulling your emotions in a very different direction is the extremely distressing letter from mathematical genius Alan Turing – code breaker in World War Two and a pioneer in the field of computer science – writing to his friend Norman in 1952. He explains his heartbreaking situation: ‘I shall shortly be pleading guilty to a charge of sexual offences with a young man […] I shall emerge from it all a different man’. He was told to choose between either imprisonment or chemical castration as punishment and he chose the latter. He took his own life in 1954, aged just 41.
Evelyn Waugh’s amusing story to his wife Laura in 1942 is in stark (and explosive) contrast, despite it being penned at a time almost too cruel to recall. Then a newly-assigned member of the British Army’s Royal Horse Guards, a cavalry regiment then stationed in south-west Scotland, Waugh colourfully describes the comic timing of a tree stump explosion with such impalpable tension and humour. I realise it’s perhaps something that needs to be read in its entirety to appreciate the liveliness of his tale.
A letter that induced paroxysms of laughter was the brief one in response to famed journalist Jeffrey Bernard from the editor of the Daily Mirror, Michael Molloy. In the exciting days of the ‘Golden Age of Journalism’, Jeffrey Bernard spent many hours drinking in the Coach and Horses pub and often found himself surrounded by scandalous stories and amusing anecdotes that filled his column for the New Statesmen. He was approached by many publishers asking him to write an autobiography and he finally agreed, but quickly realised that he had very little memory of the past 15 years. So he had a letter published in the Spectator magazine asking for help. And Michael Molloy pitches this reply: ‘On a certain evening in 1969, you rang my mother to inform her that you were going to murder her only son. If you would like further information, I can put you in touch with many people who have enjoyed similar bizarre experiences in your company’.
It’s predictably wonderful, the content utterly unpredictable with every turn of the page.
‘More Letters of Note’ was published on October 1st 2015 by Canongate Books, £30.