Shaun Usher runs the websites
Letters of Note
Lists of Note
Letters of Note is one of my favourite websites of all time. It’s a window into the heart of humanity, the sadness, the humour, the cruelty and kindness. Some of the letters have made me laugh for days, some have had me sobbing into my keyboard and all are nothing less than interesting and contain some or other insight into what makes us who and what we are.
1. Where are you now? Describe your immediate surroundings.
I’m in my office. To my left is an empty cup, a half-eaten baguette (ham and cheese (cheddar)), and a pen (Paper Mate InkJoy 100). To my right is a pile of 28 books, all of which relate in some way to correspondence. It’s cold. I’ve had the most unproductive day in the history of my days. I’m tired.
2. The Band, Beatles, Beach Boys, Boards of Canada, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Beastie Boys, Burial, Kate Bush, Boom Bip, John Barry, Bkraftwerk… B is the most popular letter in my record collection. What’s yours?
If we discount the numerous bands and artists I’m ashamed of, the most popular letter in my collection is S, the most-listened of which (lately at least) are: Saxon Shore, School of Seven Bells, Sigur Rós, The Smiths, St. Vincent, The Staves, Stevie Wonder, and Swanton Bombs.
3. “And I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. There is stored up, whatsoever besides we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense hath come to; and whatever else hath been committed and laid up, which forgetfulness hath not yet swallowed up and buried.” Wrote St Augustine in ‘The Confessions of St Augustine’. To remember something can be a very physical process, triggering some or all of our senses. What is your most intense childhood memory?
It’s certainly not a memory I treasure, but it’s easily one of the most intense and one which I’ll never shake. I think I was 10. We — me, my mum, dad, sister, and brother — were in Turkey for a few weeks on our annual holiday; a ferociously hot resort called Altinkum, most of which, we discovered upon arrival, was only half-built. In fact the whole place was a shambles. A sweaty, dusty, shambles. I ate some chicken in a restaurant one evening which, as luck would have it, was half-raw due to a power-cut while it was being cooked. I ended up with a ruptured intestine. As the (hideous) symptoms of that kicked in the next day, I also got sunstroke. I genuinely felt like I was dying. More bad luck soon arrived in the form of an inept, syringe-happy Turkish doctor who decided to give me an injection in my left buttock which, we were later told, he really shouldn’t have given me. My body just packed up. I can vividly remember my dad hurriedly slinging me over his shoulder as my feet gave way, pouring cold water over my head with his free hand to try and cool me down whilst simultaneously screaming, “DON’T SWALLOW THE WATER.” We flew back home straight away — doctors said I was close to death. The whole episode was just horrific. Thinking about it 20+ years later brings me out in a heat rash.
4. It’s the Academy Awards tonight. Who’s your favourite Oscar and why? I think I would go with the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, his Museum of Contemporary Art in Rio De Janeiro is a beautiful, beach side, neoteric, flying saucer with a walkway of red oozing down to welcome visitors. I could eat it.
I was about to nominate the great Oscar Wilde, but then I remembered Oscar the Grouch. So, Oscar the Grouch. He’s green, he’s furry, he’s filthy, and he lives in a bin — proudly. He was even ginger at one point. Most importantly though, he’s a Muppet, and Muppets trump pretty much anything in life, including Brazilian starchitects and deceased poets. He’s also performed by Caroll Spinney, a legendary “Muppeteer” (he operates Big Bird too) who responds to all fan mail with delightful, hand-written — and sometimes illustrated — letters. He’s essentially the pinnacle of human evolution.
5. I had to go into my three year old son’s room early this morning to comfort him after a nightmare. As I crouched beside him stroking his hair, his face in the half-light morphed from his to mine to my sister’s to Mary’s brothers to my Grandmother.. Have you climbed down your family tree? How far did you get?
I’ve hardly climbed at all. Shameful really. I know my parents’ names, and I know that my great-great-grandmother was a Russian Jew, but that’s about it. Actually, when we were kids my dad was forever half-jokingly harping on about us being descendents of a “Lord Templeton,” as if it was something to cherish, but curiously he could never offer any more info when pressed. My granddad would sometimes “verify” the story by telling exactly the same tale, with the same wry grin and lack of sources. No doubt I’ll continue the tradition when my son’s old enough to understand and, more importantly, be duped. Based on this “fact,” my dad even called me “Little Lord Shaunygoo” until I was about 15. (Don’t judge me.)
6. I’m sitting in a French Cafe in Cardiff, drinking strong black French coffee and listening to non-stop French pop. What one thing have the French given us that you couldn’t be without?
7. Lollapalooza, San Francisco 1993. I’ve just drunk two bottles of Vodka, lost my favourite blue linen jacket and been run over. I stumble into a game of basketball, the ball rolls towards me and I do a couple of keepy-ups and fall flat on my face. The people playing basketball are the Beastie Boys. Have you ever made a fool of yourself in the presence of greatness?
Kind of. In 2002, at which point we were 23 and clearly too immature for the task at hand, my best mate and I found ourselves running one of Manchester’s most refined bar/restaurants (he somehow fluked a job as the general manager and then foolishly hired me as his assistant). A few months in, Disney booked the entire venue for a Beauty and the Beast party and hundreds of “important” people arrived, many of whom were celebrities. Within an hour we realised we had completely underprepared, and pretty soon we ran out of drink, glasses, food, and capable staff. I’ve never blushed or apologised so frequently and the temptation to flee the building was overwhelming. The very professional lady from Disney soon broke down in tears in front of my friend and I, and then all the disappointed guests began to leave the venue en masse. But they needed their coats. At that point we realised that the “cloakroom” we had set-up for the night was hilariously inadequate and that, in fact, almost everyone’s expensive coats were actually just sitting in an enormous pile behind the stairs, without identifying tags of any sort. It literally took hours to match them with their seething owners. Everyone hated us, and with good reason. You know you’ve gone too far when someone as mild-mannered as Gary Wilmot wants to beat you to death.
8. I’m still waiting for a reply to a letter I wrote to The Stray Cats in 1982. Keep an eye out for that one please, I know it’s out there somewhere. What was the last letter you wrote? (letters to the bank, Santa etc don’t count).
The last letter I wrote was to the Renault head office in response to one of their dealerships’ truly despicable customer service. Utter cretins. Possibly the most satisfying letter I’ve ever penned actually, and it worked: they reluctantly carried out their part of the contract and I received a telephoned apology from a man so emotionless that I can’t be sure he wasn’t battery-powered. As for real human beings — people with hearts — I’m currently writing a letter to Moose Allain, a lovely, talented man who basically makes Twitter worthwhile and who sent me a really nice letter the other week. It was like receiving the Ultimate Direct Message from someone I admire. Maybe that’s how we should rebrand letters, for future generations.
9. Baked beans and peas on the same plate?
Is that a thing? Good grief. What does a pea in baked bean juice taste like? The thought turns my stomach. Regardless, I’m strongly opposed to the idea of them sharing a plate and can think of nothing good coming from such an arrangement. In fact I think we should segregate legumes at every opportunity, not just at dinner. What if they evolve into peans? Let’s think about future generations before mixing it up at the dinner table.
10. What is the biggest threat to productivity in your working day? Your favourite waste of time?
The Internet, by far. I have never become bored on the Intertubes; I’ve never run out of things to click on. This is a major problem for me, as my job — editing blogs — is online. It’s not as if I can disconnect from the Internet in order to get some work done on the Internet. Constantly fighting that urge is mentally exhausting. Another threat to productivity in my working day is the unending need to re-write everything. I’m never, ever content with anything I’ve written and have to repeatedly reshape every single sentence I put down, to the point where it can literally take me half an hour to write just a few unimportant words.