Letters Of Note is one of the biggest – and most unlikely – internet phenomenon in years. And it looks like it’s only going to get bigger.
The Letters Of Note website hosts thousands of letters. They include famous scribes – John Lennon begging Eric Clapton to join his band; Gandhi asking Hitler to become a man of peace; the Queen’s recipe for scones – to incredible slices of everyday life like a letter from a soldier who played in the famous England v Germany football game in World War I’s trenches.
It was started seven years ago by former advertising copywriter Shaun Usher, who wooed his wife Karina by letter when she went to university in Spain shortly after they began dating in Manchester.
And next month sees a host of famous names read some of the Letters Of Note letters live on stage over five nights at Letters Live at London’s 1800-capactiy Freemason Hall.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Jarvis Cocker, Gillian Anderson, Ian McKellen, John Bishop, Jude Law, Dominic West, Olivia Colman and Russell Brand are just some of the dozens of artists involved.
It’s actually Cumberbatch’s production company, Sunny March, which helps Usher organise Letters Live. There could be a TV show of Letters Of Note soon too, though Usher understandably has to stay coy about it.
“It’s been talked about,” he tells Loaded. “There’s not a lot I can say, but we’re in talks about other avenues. We need to perfect Letters Live first.”
Usher met Cumberbatch through his publisher, and the Sherlock star was immediately enthusiastic about the letters. “Sunny March have a lot of contacts to take things to the next level,” smiles Usher. “Once you get someone like Benedict behind you, it makes things a lot easier.”
Usher has written three best-selling books which have sold well over 150,000 copes, Letters Of Note and More Letters Of Note as well as the spin-off Lists Of Note. His next idea is a more multi-media project: Speeches Of Note.
“It won’t be classic speeches like Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream,’” explains the softly-spoken father-of-two. “It’s speeches by famous people you won’t have heard, or ones they never made. There’s a NASA memo in Letters Of Note on the speech Buzz Aldrin would have made as the first man on the moon if Neil Armstrong had been stranded – I love those ‘What if…?’ moments, and Speeches Of Note will have plenty of those as well as video and audio of the speeches themselves.”
But what lies behind the fascination of letters in an age where everyone sends e-mails, texts and social media instantly? And what is the holy grail of letters.
Usher presents his guide to letters for Loaded…
The love of letters can strike at any time
“I wasn’t a letter writer before I met my wife. Like most people, I’d just write to my grandma thanking her for Christmas presents. But Karina and I thought it’d be fun to write letters to each other when she went to Spain.
We opened up to each other, saying things in letters that we’d never have said on the phone at that early stage of a relationship. There’s something about putting pen to paper that brings out the deeper side.
We wrote to each other for 10 months and I thought ‘My God, we’re really losing this art.’ I felt really sad about that and I started reading lots of books about letter writing.”
Ironically, social media can really help boost letters
“Before I began Letters Of Note, I thought someone else must have had a similar idea for a website. But all I could find were museum and university archives. There were some great letters there, but their databases are so difficult to navigate, so the letters weren’t getting seen.
For six months, I didn’t publicise the website at all. I was just plodding along, completely obsessed by letters with my wife despairing about me because it was all I could think about!
Then I joined Twitter. It started to gain traction as celebrities began retweeting the letters.
One particular letter was by a slave, Jourdon Anderson, who’d escaped slavery. His former ‘owner’ wrote to him in 1865 saying ‘I need you to come back and work on my plantation.’ Anderson wrote back an incredibly eloquent ‘Fuck you’ letter – and it went completely viral. Within 24 hours, four million people had visited Letters Of Note for that one letter.
I thought ‘There’s definitely something in this.’”
Letters can make history
“Letters pack an emotional punch, and they can also be historically revealing. They show a different side to someone that you never knew. I had no idea that Adolf Hitler had a nephew, Patrick Hitler, who joined the US Army to fight against the Nazis until I read a letter explaining his reasons.”
Letters will make you cry
“I’m fascinated by any letter that tells a story. They’re like a self-contained novel, because they take you on a journey. That can be done in 10 pages or just a couple of sentences. I’m a sucker for sad letters. I’m not much of a crier, but the form of letters, their intimacy and the fact we’re losing the art of letter-writing gets to me.”
Letters will probably die out – despite Letters Of Note
“People will always write letters, but it’s such a fringe activity. It’s more of a romantic idea than anything that will make a big comeback.
I get loads of letters from people saying they’ve started writing again thanks to Letters Of Note, and that’s amazing. People are clearly interested. But whether that translates to people writing letters on a large scale? I doubt that. Young people into the Letters Of Note books see it as ‘What the hell is a letter?!’
“I kick myself every time I write an email”
Even I’m not as much of a letter writer as you’d think. I kick myself every time I send an email and I’m not as dependent on them as most people, but they’re so much more convenient.
When I began planning the first Letters Of Note book, I thought it’d be nice and romantic to send physical letters to all the people I needed to contact to get permission for the letters to be published. After writing the first 60 letters, I only had two replies – and they were both to say no. It was only when I began emailing that people properly responded.
That saddens me, but email does make my job a lot easier.”
Collecting letters isn’t an expensive hobby
“I’m always scouring eBay and auction sites for buying letters. I’m quite good at finding bargains, and the most expensive ones were only a few hundred quid – a Stanley Kubrick and a Henry Miller. My wife realises I have to have them. It’s a real urge.”
Bad handwriting doesn’t make you stupid
“Letters Of Note hasn’t made me any kind of calligraphy expert. But I’ve realised that bad handwriting means nothing for how good the content of a letter is. People think ‘There’s no way he can write well’ if someone’s handwriting is terrible, but that’s absolutely not the truth.”
No-one cares about your e-mails and texts
“Social media means we’re communicating more than ever. But Twitter, Instagram and so on are so fragmented that to archive it after we die is impossible.
“We communicate so much now, but it’s in such a shoddy way that we’re losing our history”
The American Library of Congress decided to archive every single tweet posted on Twitter, but they gave up after about a year. And if they can’t do it… There’s so much rubbish on Twitter that sorting through the messages would take a lifetime.
It’s great that we’re communicating so much, but we’re doing it in such a shoddy way that it’s losing all meaning. We’re losing our history.
There’s an incredible archive in Texas which has begun buying up the email accounts of notable people like Salman Rushdie. But that’s only archiving emails of famous people. No-one is gong to buy mine or your email and Twitter accounts for prosperity.”
There will never be Emails Of Note
“You’re in a completely different frame of mind writing a letter than you are when you write an email. You take your time. With email, you expect to get a reply within a day at most.
But great emails do happen. I could include an excellent email in a future Letters Of Note book, if only to compare to letters. However, there’d be so much missing, even visually.
Letters are beautiful: the paper and ink someone uses, the smudges, the folds in the paper. It all adds another dimension and brings you in. Letters are very alluring. With email, everything looks the same. It’s just pixels.”
Stephen King is the holy grail of letters
“There’s a letter Stephen King wrote about a snowstorm when he was still a student, long before he became a novelist. It took me years to track down, but it’s one of my favourites ever. It’s a couple of pages long, and it’s so Stephen King – so chilling and emotional as he puts you there in the middle of the snowstorm. But I’ve not been able to get permission to reprint it. His agent says Stephen isn’t keen on his very old writing being published. But I’ll keep trying, as it’s the most incredible letter.”
No-one needs to see any of Letters Of Note’s creators own letters
“I’d never publish any of the letters I wrote to my wife when we were corresponding. It was the best start our relationship could have had, but artistically my letters were crap. I realise how hypocritical this makes me, but I’d feel pretty embarrassed to have my letters ready by other people. If I’d written a corker, I’d be happier.”
Letters Live is at London Freemasons Hall from March 10-15. Tickets are £35-£75.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn