Love, laughter and loss

Shaun Usher's latest compilation of sublime if little-known letters has missives that can make you laugh or cry


Compiled by Shaun Usher

Canongate-Unbound/Hardback/365 pages/$60.99 with GST from Books Kinokuniya

On the evening of Feb 1, 1924, the American author Helen Keller put her hands on her radio, which was tuned to a live broadcast of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, played by the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch at fabled Carnegie Hall.

Two days later, Keller - who was born blind, deaf and dumb but learnt to write and speak from her lifelong companion Anne Sullivan - wrote a letter to the orchestra in which she said, among other things, that she was pleasantly surprised to feel not just vibrations from its sold-out performance but also the "impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music".

"Of course," she added, "this was not 'hearing' but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sensed, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand - swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams… As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself."

Keller's letter is the 12th of a total of 122 in this book, which is a sequel to 2013's runaway bestseller Letters Of Note, whose tagline is "correspondence deserving of a wider audience".

Both books have been compiled by Briton Shaun Usher from more than 1,000 letters that he has amassed.


    1 What are problems worth solving? (See Letter 081)

    2 What does it take to be a consummate professional? (Letter 004)

    3 How might you nurture your creativity? (Letter 095)

    4 What do you need to write well? (Letter 086)

    5 How could you become a sports champion? (Letter 016)

His passion project has taken on a life of its own, with such luminaries as Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen and Benedict Cumberbatch reading "live" the letters Usher has curated to paying audiences, in part to raise money for charities.

Usher was also a star at the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Anyone with half a heart would not begrudge him his sudden fame; leafing through his epistolary efforts is like holding humanity in your hands, with its constant pitches and tosses of fate.

Usher's More Letters Of Note is a big book, but what a read it is. It is at once bracing and enthralling, sometimes outright outrageous and often very funny.

There is a letter from the creators of cartoon character Marge Simpson ticking off First Lady of the United States Barbara Bush for calling The Simpsons "the dumbest thing" she had ever watched.

"Ma'am, if we're the dumbest thing you ever saw," writes Marge, "Washington must be a good deal different from what they teach me at the current events group at the church."

Then there are a string of memos from Edward Mike Davis, owner of the now-defunct Tiger Oil Company, to his staff.

Urging his secretaries in 1978 to learn typing, he wrote: "Handwriting takes much longer than a typewriter - you're wasting your time but more importantly, you're wasting my time."

In another note, he banned watercooler chats with the parting shot: "DO YOUR JOB AND KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!"

And to those who did not like his frequent use of blue language, he said that as the owner of Tiger Oil "that is my privilege and this privilege is not to be interpreted as the same for any employee".

Many of the other missives will likely move you to tears. That is no accident, for Usher admits to being partial to "sad" letters. So, for example, you will see the last notes to loved ones from the passengers of doomed Japanese Airlines domestic Flight 123 in 1985, shortly before the plane crashed into a mountain.

Here is one, from Hirotsugu Kawaguchi: "To think that our dinner last night was the last time… Where are we going, what will happen?... The plane is turning around and descending rapidly./I am grateful for the truly happy life I have enjoyed until now."

And this from Keiichi Matsumoto: "With the explosion we began to fall/Be brave and live."

Those who are less enamoured of the beauty of words will still find much to delight them.

Usher's letters take myriad forms - on a terracotta bowl, on Adolf Hitler's letterhead, on yellow paper inscribed with ink made from the sap of the sequoia tree and even on yards of cloth hand-embroidered, letter by letter, by an asylum inmate.

You will also find one of the first customer complaint letters, carved into clay, from 1750BC Babylon, with such words as "What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt?"

Usher also seems partial to musicians and writers. The performers include David Bowie, thrilled at his first fan letter; Janis Joplin, ecstatic over her new home; John Lennon urging Eric Clapton to join him on a round-the-world gig to "change the world"; and Mozart, prancing about the page with made-up words and scatological jokes.

The writers include Jane Austen on being tipsy, Katherine Mansfield imploring her husband's lover to stop writing him love notes; and Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, sending fan mail to George Orwell, author of 1984.

One can only wonder how Orwell felt about the backhanded compliment that was Huxley's letter to him in October 1949, just after 1984 was published.

Huxley's rather faint praise in his note soon morphed into comparison between his book and Orwell's, ending with: "I feel that the nightmare of 1984 is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World."

Above all, this book reminds readers of how rousing a response to a letter can be. For example, in 1973, nine-year-old Anthony Hollander wrote to the editor of children's show Blue Peter, requesting a list of things including a syringe and "tools for cutting people open". This was after he discovered a dying bird in his garden.

"I think I no (sic) how to make people or animals alive," he wrote to Blue Peter's editor Joan Maureen "Biddy" Baxter. Baxter replied very kindly that Hollander should perhaps run his requests by his family doctor instead.

In 2008, Hollander, now professor of rheumatology and tissue engineering at the University of Bristol, successfully implanted an artificially grown windpipe into a young Colombian woman. He told Usher: "If Biddy Baxter's letter had shown any hint of ridicule or disbelief, I might perhaps never have trained to become a medical scientist… and really make a difference to a human being's life."

Fittingly for the festive season, the book ends with a letter dated Dec 24, 1914, from British soldier Reginald John Armes to his wife, telling her that his men and the German troops they encountered had come out of the trenches and called a temporary truce to exchange gifts, sing carols and play football together for a few days - on the battlefield, five months into World War I. Armes lived to tell his wife the tale in person, dying in 1948.

The good

1. British writer Shaun Usher has a keen eye for telling detail and emotional nuances that would pique and sate the nosiest reader. His careful sifting through more than 1,000 letters in his collection has yielded the sort of vicarious pleasure that gives readers a sense of what being fully alive means.

He is particularly good at identifying letter writers who show effectively how one should move on after grief, failure and letdowns. Which makes this book more restorative than a mound of self-help books and, certainly, too much festive feasting.

2. The 122 letters in this book are all a-jumble, which is perfect because with no discernible order or themes to them, the reader is free to encounter each letter on its own terms. Such serendipity is like life itself, sometimes happy and often sad; at first humdrum and, suddenly a firestorm of feeling, once sweet and later bitter-sweet.

3. There is no padding or missives chosen just to soak up space in this book. Every letter selected is a gem. Fans of epistles, however, will wonder if Usher should have resisted including some long well-known letters. An example of this is American schoolgirl Samantha Smith's six-line letter in 1982 to Mr Yuri Andropov, then leader of the Soviet Union, asking him why he wanted to "conquer the world".

4. For long-gone authors and thinkers, Usher's highlighting of their thoughts through letters will likely inspire younger readers to check out their notable works. For example, Rachel Carson's meditation on the meaning of death in Letter 003 is a tantalising foretaste of the power of her 1962 book Silent Spring.

The bad

1. This book, like its sister volume Letters Of Note, weighs more than a kitten. As compelling as its content is, few readers would appreciate having to heave it onto their desks or onto their laps every time they want to pore through it. In these Internet- savvy times, Usher and his publisher might have considered putting some of the facsimiles of the published letters and illustrations online.

The iffy

The occasional profanities in this volume might put off prudish readers. Which would be a pity because the rude bits are used judiciously and are sometimes even necessary in the letters' context. The best view on this might be the cartoon South Park's creator Matt Stone, who called his note laden with four-letter words to censors "my most favourite memo ever".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Love, laughter and loss'. Print Edition | Subscribe