Part of the premise of Helene Hanff’s non-fiction 84 Charing Cross Road and follow-up work The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the fascination that people have, the world over, for the great city of London.
Is this still true? Does this still exist? Hasn’t the sceptre passed to the more romantic Paris? Or the burgeoning, beating cities of the BRIC nations like Rio?
Though I grew up in the countryside, for 5 years I have been a Londoner. I ferry myself through its centre every day. I live in the south west; I work in the (central) north east. Each day I pass through tube stops that – maybe? – induce a ripple of excitement to people the world over: Piccadilly, Covent Garden, Knightsbridge. Naturally, like any good Londoner, I’ve never seen half of the “sights”. Madame Tussaud’s, The London Dungeon, the Tower of London all remain unknown to me. I have the attitude of any native dweller towards tourists – I swish past them at high speed, ruining their photos of precious landmarks to which I’m blind, harrumphing at any obstruction, feeling innately superior that I have never spent £23.50 gaining access to a dubious, created attraction that spits you out into the gift-shop 40 minutes later. Like any native dweller I insist the ONLY way to see my hometown is to walk, walk, walk through the districts until you’ve sucked up some of the innate eclecticism of its historic streets.
I sort of love it. But I also hate it. It’s grimy and crowded. It’s crazy expensive (murderously expensive to buy a house, which is all that we English have any interest in doing.) Visitors stop in fear on the platform at seeing the rush-hour tube crowds and inhale in poorly hidden outrage at being shoved up against people quite so tightly. I look at them with murderous eyes and lift my book to intercept our eye-to-eye contact with undisguised hostility. Like it or not, the good jobs are all here, so I’m tied to this city in perpetuity, constantly circling on an underground purgatory.
This isn’t the city that Helene Hanff idolises in 84 Charing Cross Road, a work consisting of the 20 year correspondence between her in New York and the staff of an antiquarian London bookshop from 1949 to 1969 (and the follow-up The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which tells of her eventual visit to London). 84 is a delightful and humorous set of letters which document the evolving relationship of the participants and the changing situation of the different countries after the war. It’s a love story to books, which I thoroughly approve of, and as mentioned, a protracted love letter from Hanff to the London of her imagination. In Hanff’s view, London is about Shakespeare, Bloomsbury, and all number of obscure and intelligent writers that I have instantly forgotten. In 84 Charing Cross Road, the stereotypes still existed. New York writers were penniless, Jewish, educated, smoking, humorous, generous, outlandish. English booksellers were proper, reserved, hard-working, and once broken through, affectionate, thoughtful. Nowadays New York writers are probably from Guatemala, Ghana and Guyana and English Booksellers are probably from Spain, Slovenia and San Marino. No doubt the world is more rich for it, but it’s a different world to 84, making it an affectionate period-piece.
For me, with my doubt as to London’s innate lovability, it was Hanff’s love for books which formed the emotional heart of this novel. The passion with which she writes about books and authors is delightful, though as a dedicated fiction reader her aversion to novels is incomprehensible to me. Yet the depth of her affection for reading is so deep and heartfelt that I know she’s a kindred spirit despite her insistence on reading Hazlitt and Catullus and Horace and Newman. I’ll leave you with a wonderful description of Hanff unwrapping a “new” second-hand book:
“The Book-Lovers’ Anthology stepped out of its wrappings, all gold embossed leather and gold-tipped pages, easily the most beautiful book I own … It looks too new and pristine ever to have been read by anyone else, but it has been: it keeps falling open as the most delightful places as the ghost of its former owner points me to things I’ve never read before … I’ll have [it] until till the day I die – and die happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some book-lover yet unborn.”
p.s. This was sent to me by the lovely Ruth Guy – thank you Ruth! I’m on to the next already!