As I mentioned earlier on this month, I returned from our comfortable little camping holiday feeling rather smug at myself for some unusually well thought-out book choices; bedding down with a nice mix of classics and more modern fare, every single one turned out to be immensely readable; 84 Charing Cross Road was one of them.
Widely lauded as THE book for book lovers around the world, I had had this on my shelf for ages and simply hadn’t got around to picking it up. (Something I seem to say in every single post nowadays!) This series of letters between Helene Hanff and antiquarian booksellers Marks & Co, of Charing Cross Road, London, turned out to be the perfect choice to wet my appetite for a week of none-stop reading and surprised me with it’s frank, comforting account of deep friendship between the author and a group of warm hearted booksellers that managed to span a vast ocean and survive two decades without ever meeting in person.
Although it took me just a couple of hours ensconced in my sleeping bag (with a bottle of homemade cider for company) to devour both the title story and it’s sister; The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hanff’s nostalgic account of finally visiting her much longed for London and coming face to face with the ghosts of Marks & Co, I was pleasantly surprised at how involved and invested I became in the lives of the author herself, Frank Doel, her straight laced correspondent, his family and colleagues; a feeling made all the stronger through the awareness that this is a glimpse into the lives of real people, something that doesn’t usually make much of a difference to me either way.
The initial contrast between Hanff’s brash, witty letters and Frank’s oh so English polite, retrained responses I found hilarious (Frank begins his initial letters ‘Dear Madam‘, she soon jumps on this: ‘I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it does here.’) I also found myself quite shocked at times by the author’s harsh, though amusing, admonitions:
‘Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND…Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i don’t know how that shop keeps going.’ p.14
As rare volumes make their way across the water for Hanff’s delectation and food parcels and Christmas hampers make their way from the States over to post-war bookish Britons suffering food shortages and powdered eggs, we long for the author to raise enough money to visit the ‘England of English Literature’ that she has dreamt about for so long. By the time she does, it is too late, Marks & Co having long since resigned itself to the fate of all too many independent bookshops. Whilst 84 Charing Cross Road is full of love and laughter, I found The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street to be rather bittersweet and made me feel a little sad really. I realise that the heyday of Charing Cross Road may be long gone – I missed walking down it on my last trip to London – but one thing this book has taught me is not to delay visiting these places, or people, until it’s too late. It may now, depressingly, be the home of a Pizza Hut (I think??) but 84 Charing Cross Road is definitely on my check list for our next London trip…