Celebrating 300 years

Brethen of Valour

Special paving stones outside Freemasons’ Hall pay tribute to English Freemasons awarded the Victoria Cross in World War I

A set of paving stones commemorating the 64 English Freemasons who were awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) during World War I was unveiled outside Freemasons’ Hall on 25 April.

The VC is the highest award for gallantry that can be conferred on a member of the Armed Forces regardless of rank or status – and almost one in six of the 633 VC recipients during the First World War were Freemasons.

Of these, 64 were under UGLE and 43 were under other Grand Lodges in the British Empire. Freemasons’ Hall itself is a memorial to the 3,000-plus English Freemasons who gave their lives in World War I.

The Grand Master, HRH The Duke of Kent, attended the ceremony for the stones’ unveiling and blessing, together with Lord Dannatt, a Deputy Lieutenant for Greater London; the Mayor of Camden; senior officers from the military services; a group of Chelsea Pensioners; and representatives from the VC and George Cross Association as well as some of the regiments in which the VC holders had served. Specially invited were the families of those who were being commemorated.

The event was open to the public, with Great Queen Street and Wild Street closed to traffic. The crowd included representatives from many of the service lodges as well as passers-by.

Music was provided by the Band of the Grenadier Guards and the North London Military Wives Choir. Radio and television presenter Katie Derham narrated the first part of the ceremony, which opened with Chelsea Pensioner Ray Pearson reading an extract from AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, followed by the President of the Board of General Purposes, Anthony Wilson, welcoming those attending.

Derham set the scene at the outbreak of war in 1914 with the aid of archive film showing how young men ‘flocked to the flag’ in the expectation that the war would be over by Christmas – and how the reality set in that it was not to be a short war but one that would affect every community in the country.

Simon Dean OBE paid tribute to his grandfather Donald John Dean, who, at the age of 21, was awarded the VC in 1918. Col Brian Lees LVO OBE, chairman of the Rifles, Light Infantry and KOYLI Regimental Association, and Lt Col Matt Baker, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, The Rifles, paid tribute to Oliver Watson, who was posthumously awarded a VC in 1918.

The horrors of the war were brought vividly to life by Sebastian Cator, a pupil at Harrow School. He read extracts from the diaries of Major Richard Willis, who had also been a pupil at Harrow, in which he described the carnage resulting from landing his men on W Beach at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. For his part in that action he was one of the famous ‘six VCs before breakfast’ of the Gallipoli landings.

The Grand Secretary, Brigadier Willie Shackell CBE, gave an exhortation that was followed by the last post, a one-minute silence and reveille. The memorial stones were then unveiled and blessed by the Grand Chaplain, Canon Michael Wilson. The Grand Master and Lord Dannatt then inspected the stones, after which family members and other invited guests had an opportunity to view them before entering Freemasons’ Hall for a reception in the Grand Temple vestibule area.

You can watch highlights of the unveiling of the memorial to Freemasons awarded the Victoria Cross during the Great War here

A special commemorative programme for the ceremony, including portraits and brief details of the 64 brethren of valour, can also be viewed here

Letters to the Editor - NO. 38 SUMMER 2017

We will remember

Sir,

I wasn’t really sure who to address my comments to regarding the Victoria Cross memorial paving stones unveiling ceremony at Freemasons’ Hall, except Grand Lodge, brethren and friends. Freemasonry stood tall and exemplified what we are about in the unveiling of the wonderful memorial to those gentlemen who were Freemasons, and who paid the final sacrifice. This was a wonderful day for Freemasonry and a day of pride for Freemasons. Thank you for allowing me to be a small part of it.

Lou Myer, Ubique Lodge, No. 1789, London

Published in UGLE

'Rough to Smooth' exhibition will open on Saturday 24th June

Fans of developing artists will be in for a rare treat at Freemasons’ Hall from Saturday 24th June, when a new collection of art will be unveiled to mark the United Grand Lodge of England’s Tercentenary celebrations

As part of the 300th anniversary of English Freemasonry, The Library and Museum of Freemasonry is organising a unique Open Day on Saturday 24th June, of exhibitions, music and architecture. Jacques Viljoen has been appointed Artist in Residence and has created an exhibition of new artworks to celebrate Freemasonry and its continued role and relevance in society today.

‘Rough to Smooth’, which will also feature nine guest artists, presents works inspired by Freemasonry from the past, present and future, and focuses on the symbolism of Freemasons’ Hall, the themes of ceremony and rites of passage and the experiences of Freemasons in World War 1.

Visitors can tour the impressive and ornate Grand Temple, the Library and Museum and the Three Centuries of English Freemasonry exhibition. Informal music performances will also take place throughout the day: the Occasional Strings quartet in the morning, organ recitals around midday and the Art Deco Orchestra in the afternoon.

The exhibition will be open every day from Saturday 24th June until Saturday 1st July, with the exception of Sunday 25th June. Admission is free and Freemasons’ Hall will be open from 10am to 5pm, with last entrance at 4:30pm. The artwork will be displayed in the Vestibules, Processional Corridor and Corridor to the Library and Museum.

The exhibition and residency has been directed by the Director of The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Diane Clements, who commented: ‘It has been a remarkable experience working with these talented artists and they have produced a defining set of works, which we hope the general public will come and view.’

Make sure you also follow the United Grand Lodge of England’s FacebookInstagram and Twitter accounts in the build-up to the exhibition, as we unveil the guest artists and take a detailed look at their artwork.

Published in UGLE

Man among Men

A new photobook on Freemasonry, created to coincide with the United Grand Lodge of England’s Tercentenary, has been described as giving a detailed and colourful insight into the world of Freemasonry

The photobook is the work of Juliane Herrmann, a documentary photographer from Cologne, Germany, who has spent the last five years travelling to different countries around the world, which include England, Brazil, Germany, Israel and the Netherlands, to document Freemasons.

Juliane has now started up a crowd funding campaign on Kickstarter to help finance the printing costs, where people can make contributions by ordering the book.

Juliane Herrmann commented: ‘For over five years I have worked relentlessly on a project about Freemasonry. The upcoming book will give a complex, unprecedented perspective into a world, which has never been photographed in such a comprehensive way before.’

Titled, ‘Man among Men', the photobook will hold over 300 pages in a blue velvet hardcover with gold stamping and will contain 160 colour photographs.

Please scroll through the gallery at the top to view some of the images from the book.

You can find out more and support the project here

Published in More News

To celebrate their lodge number in 2017 and the Tercentenary of Grand Lodge, the Duke of Portland Lodge No. 2017 held an emergency meeting in the Indian Temple (No. 10) at Freemasons’ Hall on Thursday 25th May 2017

Brethren and their ladies left from Goldsmith Street, Nottingham, by coach in the morning, accompanied by the Provincial Grand Master for Nottinghamshire, RW Bro Philip Marshall and other guests.

On arrival at Great Queen Street, the party, which had been joined by brethren and ladies travelling from other parts of the country, received a guided tour of the Freemasons’ Hall and the Grand Temple.

At the meeting, the Worshipful Master W Bro William Randall, invited W Bro Tim Sisson PPrJGW to take his chair in order to initiate his son George Sisson into the lodge. Bro Edward Sisson, Senior Deacon, then acted as Junior Deacon to guide his brother around the Temple.

Over 900 Knights attend the ceremony at Freemasons’ Hall

Paul Raymond Clement GCT has been installed as The Most Eminent and Supreme Grand Master of The United Religious, Military and Masonic Orders of the Temple and of St John of Jerusalem, Palestine, Rhodes and Malta of England and Wales and its Provinces Overseas – better known as the Knights Templar

The installation was conducted by the out-going Grand Master, Timothy John Lewis GCT, who had served in the role since 2011.

Over 900 Knights attended the Chapter of Great Priory, which was held under the banner of The Preceptory of St. George No. 6 in the Grand Temple of Freemasons’ Hall. Also present were a large number of visiting dignitaries from other Great Priories along with Provincial Priors and Knights of our own constitution from overseas, all of whom were personally welcomed by the new Grand Master.

Paul Clement is also the Grand Supreme Ruler of the Order of the Secret Monitor and a Past Provincial Grand Master of the Mark Degree.

Published in More News

300 years of heritage on display at Reading Museum from 14th February to 27th May 2017

Freemasons have been a part of the community in Berkshire since at least 1724 and a display of Masonic artefacts spanning 300 years will be on display in Reading Museum from 14th February to 27th May 2017.

The Tercentenary is not only an important historical landmark; it is celebrating 300 years of Freemasonry and its heritage. The display reveals how Freemasonry has developed in the local community from the 1700’s, the core values of the organisation and the role it plays in society, including the charitable works undertaken.

The display includes items from the Napoleonic and First World Wars and of particular note is a Master’s chair dating from about 1800. It has an ornate painting on the back containing Masonic symbolism (squares, levels, pillars, columns, chequered floor) and is thought to have been made by a Scandinavian carpenter who was a Napoleonic prisoner of war.

In addition, one of Oscar Wilde's Masonic membership certificates, on which Wilde's 'Masons Mark' can be seen, is on disply. On temporary loan from the vaults at London’s Museum of Freemasonry, this is the first time ever that Oscar Wilde’s certificate has been put on public display. Originally initiated into Oxford University's Apollo Lodge, his connection with Reading was his infamous incarceration in the town prison 1895-1897 and his writing of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.

There was a reception to mark the official opening of the exhibition in Reading Museum on Monday 13th February 2017 attended by The Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff of Berkshire, The Pro Grand Master MW Bro Peter Lowndes and a number of Mayors from Berkshire local authorities. Martin Peters, the Provincial Grand Master for the Masonic Province of Berkshire formally opened the exhibition.

On Saturday 29th April, Mark Dennis, Curator of the Museum of Freemasonry at Freemasons' Hall in London will give a public talk in Reading Museum to coincide with the exhibition.

Martin Peters, Provincial Grand Master for Berkshire commented: 'Freemasonry is more relevant today than it ever has been, particularly with regard to its community involvement and contribution to local good causes. I am delighted that we have been given the opportunity to present Freemasonry in this way and on behalf of our 3,000 members in Berkshire I thank Reading Museum for showcasing our work.'

Cllr Paul Gittings, Reading Lead Member for Culture, Sport and Consumer Services, said: 'I'm delighted to see the Berkshire Freemasons have put together this fascinating glimpse into local Freemasonry heritage, hosted at Reading Museum, to mark 300 years of national Freemasonry. It is great to see this organisation’s rich history made accessible to the public.'

Brendan Carr, the museum’s Community Engagement Curator said: 'It has been intriguing to work with the local freemasonry community to produce this display. It is a story weaved into Berkshire’s wider social history over three centuries. The Museum is about presenting the facts and using real objects to promote understanding. I hope that this not so secret look at 300 years of heritage will dispel some of the myths that have built up around Freemasonry.'

Quarterly Communication

8 March 2017 
An address by VW Bro John Hamill, PGSwdB, Deputy Grand Chancellor and Diane Clements, Director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry

Diane Clements: Ninety-nine years ago today, Charles Graham Robertson, a railway clerk from Dorking in Surrey, was fighting with the Royal Fusiliers on the Western Front. He realised that his position was being cut off so he sent two men to get reinforcements while he stayed at his post with one other man and a Lewis gun. He managed to kill 'large numbers of the enemy' but no reinforcements arrived and realising that he was now completely cut off he and his fellow soldier withdrew about ten yards. He stayed there for some considerable further time firing his Lewis gun but was again forced to withdraw. In this new position he climbed on top of a parapet with his comrade, mounted his gun in a shell hole and continued firing at the enemy who were pouring across the top of, and down, an adjacent trench. His comrade was killed and Robertson severely wounded but he managed to crawl back to the British line, bringing his gun with him. He could no longer fire it as he had exhausted all the ammunition. For his initiative and resource and magnificent fighting spirit which prevented the enemy making a more rapid advance, Robertson was awarded the Victoria Cross in April 1918. A few months later, after the end of the First World War, in February 1919, he was initiated in Deanery Lodge No. 3071 in London. He is one of over one hundred and seventy holders of the Victoria Cross who have been identified as freemasons, representing more than 13% of the total recipients.

John Hamill: The Victoria Cross was a product of the Crimea War. In many ways this was one of the first ‘modern wars’, reported from the battle field by newspaper journalists. The media, then as now, liked stories of heroes and villains, and it soon became apparent that there were many heroes but no award available to acknowledge the heroic actions of the ordinary British serviceman. Other European countries already had awards for their armed forces that did not discriminate according to class or rank. In 1856 with increasing public support, Queen Victoria ordered the War Office to strike a new medal which was made open to all ranks. The Victoria Cross is awarded for valour 'in the face of the enemy' to members of the British armed forces and to members of the armed forces of some Commonwealth countries and previous British Empire territories.

Many have been inspired by the stories of those such as Charles Graham Robertson but holders of the Victoria Cross were often modest men who didn’t make a fuss and many masonic researchers have worked hard to track down their masonic links, including the 2006 Prestonian lecturer, Granville Angell. Diane and I would like to acknowledge the efforts of all those researchers today.

The Victoria Cross was awarded 628 times for action in the First World War. Over 100 recipients have so far been identified as Freemasons of whom sixty-three were members of English Constitution lodges.

As many of you will know this building, now known as Freemasons’ Hall, was formally opened in 1933 as the Masonic Peace Memorial and it was, and is, a memorial to all those Freemasons who died in the First World War. Acknowledging this and as part of the Tercentenary celebrations, the United Grand Lodge is going to have a memorial pavement laid outside the Tower doors with details of all the English Freemasons awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. The date we have chosen for the ceremony is 25th April.

DC: On 25th April 1915 a battalion of over 1,000 men from the Lancashire Fusiliers landed on a beach at Gallipoli. During the landing, the men were met by very heavy and effective fire from the Ottoman Empire troops defending the beach and lost over half their number. The survivors, however, rushed up and cut the wire entanglements and managed to gain the cliffs above the beach. Amongst them were Major Cuthbert Bromley, Lance Corporal John Grimshaw, Private William Kenealy, Sergeant Alfred Richards, Sergeant Frank Stubbs and Captain Richard Willis. The courage of these six men was recognised by the award of the Victoria Cross to each of them and the event was hailed in the Press as '6 VCs before breakfast'. Three of these men were Freemasons.

Richard Willis had joined St John and St Paul Lodge No. 349 in Malta in 1901. He retired from the army in 1920 and took on an education role within the RAF before working as a teacher. Cuthbert Bromley, who had been a member of Invicta Lodge No. 2440 since 1909, was wounded during the landing and sustained further wounds over the next two months. He was evacuated to Egypt to recover and in August 1915, whilst returning to the Gallipoli peninsula aboard a troopship, he was killed when the ship was torpedoed. After the war John Grimshaw became a recruiting officer for the army. He joined Llangattock Lodge No. 2547 in 1928. Frank Stubbs died during the landing. William Kenealy was seriously wounded in a later battle on the Gallipoli peninsula and died in June 1915. As a result of a wound sustained in the action Alfred Richards had to have his leg amputated and was discharged from the army as unfit for further service. Despite this he served in the Home Guard during the Second World War.

JMH: Also as part of this year’s Tercentenary celebrations a Masonic Memorial Garden at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire will be unveiled next month on 18th April. Since planting began in 1997, the National Memorial Arboretum has become a special place honouring those who have served, and continue to serve, our nation in many different ways. It’s not a cemetery but covers 150 acres of trees and planting, a peaceful place of remembrance. There are more than 300 dedicated memorials on the site acknowledging the personal sacrifices made by the Armed Forces, the Police, and the Fire and Rescue and Ambulance services. The idea of a Masonic Memorial Garden was the millennium project of a group of Provinces led by Staffordshire. Realising the project was not without its difficulties but, assisted by additional finance from Grand Lodge, has now been fully realised. The garden is entered between two pillars, topped with globes, leading to a squared pavement on which are two large ashlars. The Province of Staffordshire held a service in the garden on Armistice Day last year.

DC: I am sure that many of those here today are familiar with the name of Toye, Kenning and Spencer, one of the country’s oldest companies still in operation and, of course, the manufacturer of masonic regalia and the Tercentenary Jewel. The company also has a long tradition of making military decorations although not the Victoria Cross. It may not be so widely known that the grandfather of W Bro Bryan Toye, Alfred Toye, was awarded the Victoria Cross, at the age of twenty for his actions on the Western Front in March 1918 when he established a post that had been captured by the enemy, fought his way through the enemy with one other officer and six men, led a counterattack and was able to re-establish the line. Continuing his military career after the war, Brigadier Toye, as he became, joined Freemasonry in Grecia Lodge No. 1105 in Egypt in 1930.

Following the Armistice on 11th November 1918 which ended most of the actual fighting, a series of peace treaties were negotiated between the two sides. The Treaty of Versailles with Germany was signed on 28th June 1919 and it was registered by the Secretariat of the newly formed League of Nations in October that year. The First World War had led to the fall of several empires in central and eastern Europe, the first of which was the Russian Empire overthrown in an internal revolution by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 and which led to civil war. Britain and her allies got caught up in this and were forced to send a Relief Force to North Russia in June 1919. Three men were awarded the Victoria Cross during this action. One of them was Royal Navy Commander Claude Dobson who led a motor boat flotilla to the entrance of Kronstadt harbour. In his 55 foot boat he passed through heavy machine gun fire to torpedo a Russian battleship. In 1925 Dobson joined Navy Lodge No. 2612. As the action in which he was involved falls within the period of the First World War and its treaties, he will be included on the memorial.

JMH: Armistice Day in November 1920 was a day of mellow sunshine. It was the second time that the Armistice had been marked but was to be especially significant as it was on that day that the King, George V, unveiled the cenotaph in Whitehall and also the day that the Unknown Warrior was interred in Westminster Abbey. The coffin carrying the Unknown Warrior was carried into the Abbey between two lines of men, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross during the war or otherwise distinguished themselves by special valour. They were known as the 'Bodyguard of Heroes'. Sixteen of this honour guard have been identified as Freemasons.

One of them was Captain Robert Gee who had been a member of Roll Call Lodge No. 2523 in London since 1907. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 30 November 1917 in France when an attack by the enemy captured his brigade headquarters and ammunition dump. Gee, finding himself a prisoner, managed to escape and organised a party of the brigade staff with which he attacked the enemy, closely followed by two companies of infantry. He cleared the locality and established a defensive flank, then finding an enemy machine-gun still in action, with a revolver in each hand he went forward and captured the gun, killing eight of the crew. He was wounded, but would not have his wound dressed until the defence was organised.

One of the names to be marked on a paving stone outside is Eric Archibald McNair, who was initiated in Apollo University Lodge No. 357 in 1913. He was awarded the Victoria Cross at the age of just 21 in 1916. On 14 February 1916 on the Western Front in Belgium, Lieutenant McNair and a number of men were flung into the air when the enemy exploded a mine, several of them were buried. Although much shaken, the Lieutenant at once organised a party with a machine gun to man the near edge of the crater and opened rapid fire on the enemy who were advancing. They were driven back. Lieutenant McNair then ran back for reinforcements, but as the communication trench was blocked he went across open ground under heavy fire. His action undoubtedly saved a critical situation. Sadly Lieutenant McNair did not survive the war but died in August 1918. His name is amongst those included on the Roll of Honour that is been displayed at the Shrine in the vestibule outside the Grand Temple.

It seems fitting that, in this Tercentenary year, the building is adding a further memorial to those that fought in the First World War. It would also be fitting, I believe, to stand for a moment in remembrance of those sixty-three men of valour whose names will be a part of this building for so long as it shall stand.

Published in Speeches

UGLE invites young artists to explore Freemasonry during Tercentenary year

The United Grand Lodge of England will host an exhibition of emerging artists’ work this June, to mark this year’s Tercentenary celebrations. All artwork will be created on site at Freemasons’ Hall during the residency, with artists observing and capturing contemporary masonic life and being given unprecedented access to the building and organisation.

The initiative will be led by UGLE’s first ever officially appointed Artist in Residence, South African artist Jacques Viljoen, 28, who has a background in both classical painting and contemporary art.

Up to 10 young artists from diverse backgrounds and practices are being invited to join Jacques at Freemasons’ Hall during February–May, culminating in the exhibition in June. Masons with a specific talent or interest in art are also being approached. Details are available from the Library and Museum, please email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The new works will capture some of the key initiatives taking place in 2017 and bring different perspectives of Freemasonry to life through a variety of artistic mediums and techniques.

Hosted in partnership with the Library and Museum, the Director Diane Clements commented: 'The residency is a unique and exciting initiative to mark this milestone year and open up the world of Freemasonry in an educational and creative way to young people and the wider public. We are proud to support young talent and are excited to see what the artists produce.'

Published in UGLE

Not to be frowned upon

Pro First Grand Principal Peter Lowndes points to the enjoyment that can be found in masonic ritual

As you are well aware, Freemasons’ Hall is a peace memorial to all those who gave their lives for us during World War I. It is worth, therefore, drawing your attention to two events taking place next year.

The first is on 18 April 2017 at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, when the new Masonic Memorial Garden, built in memory of all those masons who gave their lives during conflict in the service of our country, will be opened.

The second is the unveiling of the Victoria Cross Memorial by the Grand Master on 25 April 2017. It will be placed on the pavement in front of the Tower Entrance of Freemasons’ Hall and will take the form of a number of paving stones, with the names of the 63 Victoria Cross holders who were awarded the military decoration in World War I and who were members of the United Grand Lodge of England. Of these, 17 were also companions in the Royal Arch.

Past and future

Companions, this seems to be an appropriate time to say a few words about Denis Beckett. He was a very remarkable man and I had the good fortune to know him well. Indeed, Beckett was President of the Committee of General Purposes when I joined it in 1987.

Beckett was a Craft mason for 71 years and a Royal Arch mason for 59 years. He was initiated immediately after World War II, in which he served with such distinction. He was awarded the DSO for his extraordinary courage during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy – there were those who felt a Victoria Cross would have been more appropriate. We were privileged to have him as a member and particularly in that he presided over the Committee of General Purposes for seven years.

‘In the Royal Arch... our Exaltation Ceremony is one of the finest.’

While it is clearly important to remember the past, we must also look to the future. I am therefore very pleased that the successor to the Membership Focus Group, the Improvement Delivery Group, is composed of both Provincial Grand Masters and Grand Superintendents, with our Third Grand Principal, Gareth Jones, as its Deputy Chairman. It will be designing and delivering the future direction of both the Craft and Royal Arch.

You may have seen that, after my Quarterly Communications address in June, I have been accused in the national media of suggesting that masons are all grumpy and boring – a misrepresentation, companions. I said that if an amusing incident occurs at one of our meetings, it should not be frowned upon as had sometimes been the case in the past.

It is not a capital offence to smile during meetings. While I was not suggesting we should turn our meetings into a pantomime, there is no harm in us being seen to enjoy ourselves. I believe this to be particularly so in the Royal Arch, as our Exaltation Ceremony is one of the finest and, in my experience, candidates derive great enjoyment from it. I think this is particularly so when the new format of the ritual is used, which involves more of the companions and has the benefit of changing the voice that the candidate hears, which I always feel refreshes his interest.

Published in UGLE
Monday, 12 December 2016 13:02

The stories we tell

The stories we tell

Now in its third year, Letters Live returns to Freemasons’ Hall in a sell-out run. Emilee Tombs takes notes

A hush falls over the crowd inside the main chamber of Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden, London. The anticipation is palpable as actor Toby Jones takes to the stage and grabs the microphone to speak. ‘Letters cast powerful spells,’ he starts. ‘They take the reader to places familiar and strange.’

It was with this thought that Letters Live, now in its third year, was conceived. Based on the blog and then best-selling book series Letters of Note by Shaun Usher, and Simon Garfield’s book To the Letter, the event is the reading aloud of a collection of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters ever written. What makes it more compelling is that the acts who read the letters during the week-long event are a secret until they appear on stage.

From Virginia Woolf’s heartbreaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower, and Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, Letters Live celebrates the power of written correspondence and its ability to capture the humour, pathos, anger and wisdom of its authors. Supporting charities First Story, Ministry of Stories and Help Refugees, Letters Live this year enjoyed a sell-out run.

‘Someday find my [son] Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him what times were like when we [were] not separated by war…’ Luz Long, writing to Jesse Owens

Politics and power

‘The great thing about a letter,’ says actor Nick Moran, standing opposite fellow actor Colin Salmon, ‘is that it invites a response.’ What follows is a hilarious exchange from 1676 between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and Turkish sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, in which the sultan (read by Salmon) bombastically lists his successes and personal affiliation to God, and demands: ‘I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.’

To this, the Zaporozhian Cossacks (read by Moran) reply with a barrage of Monty Python-worthy insults: ‘O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can’t slay a hedgehog with your naked arse?’

Later in the evening, letters from readers of The Guardian on the subject of ‘The dog’s politics’ also elicit laughter from the audience. ‘There will always be some dogs who are corrupted, misled and – like Stalin – born to the left but end up on the fascistic right. Just as there must be rare examples of cats who have abandoned their life of comfort – Che Guevara comes to mind – and given their lives to the betterment of others (though I am yet to meet one). Which brings us to the one undeniable truth shared by anyone, of any political persuasion, who has ever canvassed door-to-door: dogs vote Labour, cats vote Conservative.’

Throughout the five-day run, audiences are treated to readings by Sanjeev Bhaskar, John Bishop, Edith Bowman, Jarvis Cocker, Julian Clary, Jamie Cullum, Sophie Dahl, Simon Day, Omid Djalili, Mariella Frostrup, Miriam Margolyes, Michael Palin, Nicholas Parsons and Robert Rinder.

On the third night, Gillian Anderson reads a letter from an old Irish lady in a nursing home, describing to her family how she got her own back on the mean women she shares a room with.

There’s also a letter from director Michael Powell to his friend Martin Scorsese, congratulating him on the script of Goodfellas, read – with awe – by Danny Boyle.

Beyond the words

One letter, penned during World War II by German Olympian Luz Long to American Olympian Jesse Owens, is a tear-jerker. The pair met during a tense 1936 Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler and became firm friends and pen pals even through the war that followed. Writing from North Africa, where he was stationed with the German army and later killed in action, Long implores Owens: ‘Someday find my [son] Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we [were] not separated by war. I am saying – tell him how things can be between men on this earth.’

What makes this and many other readings at the event so special is that the audience is privy to background information, researched by the Letters Live team. In this instance, we learn that Owens did in fact travel to Germany some years later to meet Long’s son, and that the pair remained friends until Owens’ death in 1980.

Towards the end of the evening, a letter written by a former slave to his old master almost brings Colin Salmon to tears, and not – as we learn later – under the guise of his character. It goes to show that such a strong message, even one sent decades ago, cannot be underestimated. As the audience exits Freemasons’ Hall, it is heartening to think that even in an age of emails, texts and Facebook updates, the art of letter writing still has the power to capture our imaginations.

Published in Features
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