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Book Review: Letters Of Note Compiled by Shaun Usher

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Shaun Usher on Radio 2 chatting to Jo Whiley about ‘Letters of Note’. He read out a couple of letters Jonny Cash had written to June Carter, I couldn’t get out of the car at Asda until he’d finished reading, I love radio that does that. Anyway, I made a mental note to add it to my reading list for a later date and then forgot about it.

I ordered the book last week at the beginning of lockdown. I am a Kindle convert but this collection really needs to be enjoyed as a physical book, it is stunning, beautifully crafted with copies of the original letters and photos. 

It is fascinating. It gives us an insight into history from the people who were there as well as a glimpse into their lives, thoughts and experiences. I’ve already ordered ‘More Letters of Note”.

To give you a little flavour there’s letters from Virginia Wolf, Henry James, Kurt Vonnegut, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Mario Puzo, Albert Einstein, Iggy Pop, Emily Dickinson and Katherine Hepburn to name a few. Some are tragic, some are desperately sad, some are comforting, some are about love. There are some that made me laugh and a lot that made shout “bloody hell, I didn’t know that!”. I lost count of the amount of times the background notes on each letter left me gobsmacked. In short, it’s a thrilling journey through history, you’ll walk away from this book with fresh knowledge and maybe a different perspective on some of the people who’ve penned these letters. 

One thing that came through during that radio interview with Shaun was his passion for letters, he talked about the dying form of the written letter and in his foreword he details his hopes of how ‘Letters of Note’ may “inspire a few people to put pen to paper, or even dust off an old typewriter and write their own letters of note”. It got me thinking about how our correspondence has changed, I come from a family who send cards for pretty much anything, why say thank you when you can send a note? I used to think this was a massive pain in the arse, none more so than when I hand wrote more than a hundred ‘Thank you’ cards after our wedding, each with a personal note, yet there is something about a handwritten letter. It will always bring a smile to your face when it lands on the doormat in a way a WhatsApp message never will.

I’ve kept every single postcard, letter, card and note I’ve ever been sent. I have hundreds from school when it was fashionable to spend maths lessons writing to your best mate even though you’d just spent lunch together. I have letters from German exchange families I stayed with (didn’t help me grasp the language). Letters from pen pals I’d met on holiday and detention slips from school. I’ve thought about binning them, but these are my ‘Letters of Note’, they’re part of my memories, they still make me smile even if some of them are borderline ridiculous.

I have a collection of last letters to, from and about Lancashire soldiers written during World War 1. I used them in a programme to mark 100 years since the start of the conflict. It’s a window into a world it’s difficult to imagine, I spent hours poring over them, trying to decipher the handwriting, completely enthralled. That’s power of a letter. 

A few weeks on from hearing that interview, we’re all looking for new ways to keep in touch with family and friends, so maybe it is time to put pen to paper. The news has shown us how much difference a letter can make, even in this day and age. I saw a report a couple of weeks ago, a group of old people in lockdown in a care home were sent hundreds of letters, one of the ladies said: “it makes you feel like someone cares”, I burst into tears and had to stop eating I was that inconsolable. It made me think straight away of a time I visited my Grandma in hospital, she was really upset and when I got there said: “I thought no one was ever going to come”, I hate the thought of her feeling like this now and not really understanding why she hasn’t had any visitors for weeks. I know she’s safe and being well looked after by the amazing staff at her care home but it’s still sad. I know a letter won’t fix everything but maybe it will bring a smile to someone’s face during these uncertain times, it’s worth a go. 

Maybe you’ll get a letter from me, I’d love to get a letter from you to add to my personal collection.

I’m going to leave you with the words of EB White write to Mr Nadeau, it seems particularly poignant:

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us in a bad time”…….

“Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day”.


52 Books Blog

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

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