Letters? Hand-written notes? Even a thank you card? It’s not hard to see that a good old handwritten letter is a rare occurrence these days. As I take my seat in the Soho Theatre I try to cast my mind back to the last time I received anything more elaborate than a birthday card without a pre-written message. It’s a bit of a struggle and actually quite depressing, so I stop that pretty quickly.
The show is a relatively simple set-up: a PowerPoint presentation, two men and a bunch of letters, although it becomes a lot more than that quite quickly. Author Simon Garfield, whose book To the Letter charts the history of letter writing is, surprisingly (and self-confessedly), pro-technology given the subject matter, although he makes it clear that there is no letters vs. emails rivalry going on here. This is not about the downfall of the internet, he emphasises, or even the revival of letter writing necessarily (although that is the general effect): it is purely a reminder and a celebration of the uncomplicated yet half-forgotten joys of receiving, reading and writing letters.
In the short period of time we have, we are read a delightfully eclectic mix of old letters, including one from Stephen King written during a winter snowstorm that traps the thoughts of a forgotten afternoon. We are told of a developing love story, documented through a couple’s correspondence, and the best sign-offs around.
Read by Shaun Usher, founder of hugely successful ‘Letters of Note’, the letters are given an audience years and years after they were written. The untold perspectives of the past – the forgotten stories and the half-remembered thoughts – are lifted out of oblivion’s clutches and we are reminded of the power of letters to document both journeys and moments in time. I could not help but feel that the 50 minute running time is too short; I know that I am not alone in wishing the whole afternoon was spent listening to these old yet treasured snippets of correspondence, as an audience to these lost pockets of history.
As the emphasis shifts from the unparalleled joy of a physical, tangible and personal letter, onto the letter being something that you leave behind, the rivalry of letter writing vs. the internet resurfaces. It is true that the internet seems to document most things these days – you need only find an old Facebook status or request your Twitter archive to find out what you were thinking on this day five years ago – but the power of a written letter is, at this point, indisputable. As part of the final day of the Soho Literary Festival, this is an event that shows us how the art of letter writing is uncomplicatedly pleasurable, and maybe even a way to be remembered (in more than 140 characters, at least).
Letters of Note: The Art and History of Letter-Writing played at the Soho Theatre on 28 September. For more information, see the Soho Theatre website.