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More Letters of Note by Shaun Usher, review: Correspondences full of warmth, spite and humour

Some of the letters will make you laugh, other heartbreaking examples will make you cry

James Kidd
Sunday 18 October 2015 15:38 BST

Dear Shaun (if I may),

Apologies for my lateness, but you know how letters are (clearly). This “thank you” has sat on my desk, gathering coffee stains and jammy blobs, while I tried to find an envelope whose sticky flap was actually sticky. Besides, aren’t stamps totally weird?

Some writers in your second compilation of correspondence would agree. The fabulously irascible oil baron Edward Mike Davis commanding his secretaries to type all letters: “Handwriting takes much longer… you’re wasting your time, but more importantly, you’re wasting my time.”

He’s wrong, of course. For Dylan Thomas, inscribing his wife Caitlin’s name is a devotional act making their separation irrelevant.

Letters might be old hat, but it was humbling to read Shepsi’s potted note to his dead father from 2000 BC. Equally wondrous is how they endure. Robert Crumb writing in 2014 to avant-garde saxophonist Mats Gustafson about his new record: “Quite frankly, I was kind of shocked at what a negative, unpleasant experience it was, listening to it”.

Many of the most memorable examples were “letter bombs” of this sort. Hunter Thompson chivvying an overdue article from Anthony Burgess: “Get your worthless ass out of the piazza and back to the typewriter.”

If these made me laugh, others made me cry. The heartbreaking last words of passengers on doomed Japan Airlines Flight 123, or the grief of Raymond Chandler and Cassandra Austen. I could hardly finish Ethel and Julius Rosenberg writing to their sons hours before their execution: “We wish we might have had the tremendous joy of living our lives out with you”.

Love letters are always the rage and few rage better than Elizabeth Smart’s extraordinary lyricism. But my favourites resist categorisation. Sylvia Plath on a skiing accident: “BREAK BREAK BREAK ON THE COLD WHITE”. Helen Keller on “hearing” Beethoven’s 9th: “An ocean of heavenly vibration”. Marge Simpson reprimanding Barbara Bush: “If we’re the dumbest thing you ever saw, Washington must be a good deal different than what they teach me at the current events group at the church.” Barbara Bush’s generous apology: “PS Homer looks a handsome feller.”

I also loved your images. Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit illustrations or Asger Jorn’s furious telegram to the Guggenheim: “GO TO HELL WITH YOUR MONEY”, with “Bastard” inserted as an afterthought.

My only qualm is the book’s hefty, if beautiful dimensions. Letters are portable, More Letters of Note not so much. But please, please write more soon.


James Kidd

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