Lost art of letter-writing alive and well at the Fringe

Second World War love letters flutter as trumpeter Tom Poulson plays The Last Post at the launch of the Made in Scotland showcase with Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop. 

 Picture: Neil Hanna
Second World War love letters flutter as trumpeter Tom Poulson plays The Last Post at the launch of the Made in Scotland showcase with Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop. Picture: Neil Hanna
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I’ve nothing really to write about, darling, except to say how much I love you over and over again, but it’s a wet miserable night and one cannot go for a walk and so decided I would write you just to let you know I’m missing you...”

This letter is dated 14 June 14, 1945 and was drafted somewhere in Germany, where British Army signaller Dennis Marshall, a teacher in peacetime and a fluent German speaker, would be stationed for six months after the war in Europe ended.

Marshall was 30 when he crossed the Channel with allied forces a day after D-Day. A pacifist who never fired a weapon, he was newly engaged to Barbara Goade, a girl he’d only just met at a village dance on leave. From 6 June 1944, to his last day in Germany, 18 months later, he wrote to her continuously. In his clear, regular handwriting, the letters run from short notes to seven or nine pages, sometimes three or four a week, flowing unedited in meandering style; they mark the couple’s courtship.

From its unpromising beginning, the 1945 letter moves into a charming fantasy. Unable to stomach any more atrociously cooked corned beef, the lonely soldier puts his fiancée’s photograph in the pool of the light from the table lamp, and conjures up a romantic dinner of sole and chips.

The Last Post is a music and text show, in the Made in Scotland strand of the Fringe. In it trumpeter Tom Poulson performs and reads the letters, written by his grandfather. Like Marshall, Poulson is 30, and like him he is living out a long-distance engagement with his betrothed. He marvelled at reading some 100 letters, but his grandchildren are unlikely to do the same with his correspondence.

As a member of Stockholm Chamber Brass, Poulson travels between Sweden and the home in Glasgow he shares with Cairistiona Swainson, but he doesn’t write letters, though he would like to one day. “I am of the email generation, even messages to my own fiancée would be texts or messages online but not messages of this style,” he says. “We have passed that time in culture where people really sit down and dedicate time to writing letters.”

The old ritual of letter-writing, however, seems to be exerting something of a pull at this year’s festival, and not merely through nostalgia. The Edinburgh International Festival for the first time is hosting Letters Live, a celebration of the continuing power of written correspondence, which publisher Canongate Books launched in 2013. At the King’s Theatre, a set of mystery performers, personalities and authors will read from a set of mystery letters, old and new.

Expect a roller-coaster evening of tears and laughter, says Canongate’s managing director, Jamie Byng; these carefully curated events have been sell-outs in London and other UK venues, with readers from Benedict Cumberbatch and Sir Ian McKellen to Colin Firth and Caitlin Moran.

“I think the great correspondences are still taking place,” says Byng, quite a literary personality himself. “There are writers who are writing to each other regularly by email. I don’t think that has suddenly stopped happening. The desire to reach out to another person you care about and want to communicate something with, that will never disappear. The ways in which people are doing that are changing.”

In their day, he observes, letters were instant communication; with the post operating several times a day, and in wartime through an extraordinarily elaborate network. Firing off a missive which you start to regret a couple of hours later is not just an email phenomenon, though multiple forwarding of the contents may be.

Byng is helping organise a celebration at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year of the life of Stephanie Wolfe Murray, Canongate’s Edinburgh founder, who died in late June. The publisher himself still makes sure to hand-write letters, over one or two pages, when he’s sending out books.

Letters Live was originally inspired by Shaun Usher’s best-selling Letters Of Note series, and Simon Garfield’s To The Letter: A Curious History of Correspondence, both published by Canongate. It comes to Edinburgh relatively late; there have been some 20 shows, including two at the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire earlier this month. Line-ups are never announced in advance, but Edinburgh’s is promised a distinctly Scottish flavour, though with nothing so far from 1947, the year of the festival’s founding.

While the preeminence of the hand-written letter is disappearing, we are busily communicating in texts, emails, or Facebook posts, sometimes in a more public way, Byng says. The intimate private letters of the past are compelling, but some of the most successful readings have been of open letters, with their modern equivalents, such as the “Dear Internet” letters that US comedian and writer Tina Fey wrote to respond to people trolling her online.

The actor Colin Firth delivered a moving reading last month in Islington of After Bataclan, the open letter bereaved husband Antoine Leiris addressed to the killers of his 35-year-old wife in the Paris attacks, in which he promised that “you will not have my hatred”. It was originally posted on Facebook. Another Letters Live hit, read to 1,600 people in London by musician Jarvis Cocker, was a blog letter posted by Mark Taubert, a palliative care doctor, thanking the late David Bowie for his music, and for enabling him to communicate very openly with his patients about death.

At the Traverse Theatre, meanwhile, Letters To Morrissey is a new piece by the writer and performer Gary McNair, inspired by the letters he wrote to the singer as a teenager growing up in Erskine in the early Noughties. He’s learned since he started work on the piece – which won a Scotsman Fringe First award on Friday – that he was not alone in settling on Morrissey as the person in whom to confide. He was not afraid to be controversial, as he saw it, and also not afraid to be “beautiful and vulnerable and celebrate things about the world that needed highlighting,” says McNair. “In that respect he was everything that a teenager struggled with, the beauty and pain and agony of ecstacy of life, so he was the guy.”

Last year McNair met a 98-year-old woman who was about to start her “January letters”, sent to 100 important people in her life every year. “I thought, ‘I am going to start writing letters again,’” he says. “Of course I didn’t, but it sparked the romantic nature of taking the time, to think things out and communicate.

“You can contact a hero and icon on Twitter in 160 characters while you wait for a bus to come. You can send love or abuse at the drop of a hat . Before, you would take the time to sum up why. A letter needs an introduction, it needs a context, to round itself off as a piece of work, to sum up who someone is and what they are, because of what that person means to you.”

Letters Live, King’s Theatre, 27 August (two performances). The Last Post, Summerhall, 17-20 August. Letters to Morrissey, Traverse, until 27 August