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Helene Hanff & Annie Lyons


When there are two sides to a story: 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff; The Choir on Hope Street – Annie Lyons.

There are two sides to every story.

What a good way that can be, in the hands of a skilful author, to write a book!

I love a good book in which the story is narrated back and forth by two or more different characters. If the technique is done well, for example alternating from chapter to chapter, it can provide the reader with an engaging and often an intriguingly teasing see-saw of a story. The story stays the same; but the perspective changes: and thereby for the reader there is the potential for surprise and suspense.

In the two books that I wish to feature, the authors Helene Hanff and Annie Lyons accomplish the task in two very different settings. Helene Hanff, based in New York, sets her real-life story in the literary salons and belles lettres of post-war London, Oxford and Windsor – based around the antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co of 84, Charing Cross Road described (in 1952) as straight out of Dickens, all dim and dusty with wooden floors and row upon row of high wooden shelves . In contrast, set in a bang up to date suburban London of music by Adele and Ed Sheeran, the author Annie Lyons essays a fictional melodrama of marriage counselling, single motherhood, a difficult old mother placed in a care home and a ruthless property developer raping a small community.


84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury  Street– Helene Hanff (André Deutsch 1970, 1974)


Firstly we get selections from a transatlantic correspondence between New York and London from 1949 to 1969, wherein the restless and demanding Ms Hanff enquires about books and at Marks & Co the stoic Frank Doel politely and diligently fields her requests. After that, Ms Hanff diarises her long-awaited first-ever visit to England in 1972. Alas by then the bookshop is closed and Frank Doel has died.

It does seem an awful pity that her work as a scriptwriter (most notably for the Ellery Queen television detective series) never allowed Helene Hanff enough time nor made her enough money to visit London during the currency of her long correspondence with the 84, Charing Cross Road bookshop. That said, her shortage of money was partly caused by her addiction to buying rare and expensive first editions of gems of English literature! A perusal of her erudite and witty letters to Marks & Co will reveal an extraordinary fascination with authors and works that in all honesty would represent for me a long and weary slog should I actually want to read them! – for example,  Volume II of Walter Savage Landor including the Greek Dialogues as well as the Roman Ones, anyone? But it seems clear enough that Helene Hanff didn’t simply want to own precious old books like The Memoirs of the Duke de St Simon in the six-volume Arkwright translation – she truly did intend to read them and she was fully conversant with their content. Customers like her must have been manna from heaven for the business of Marks & Co!

Helene Hanff gradually draws Frank Doel out of his initially rather stilted shell, with result that the correspondence joyfully expands to include fascinating glimpses of contemporary life in their respective cities. References to British post-war make-and-mend, and the rationing of meat, eggs, sugar, sweets and nylons lead to other members of staff and also the wife of Frank Doel writing surreptitious letters to Helene Hanff thanking her for generous food parcels sent from the USA via Denmark. And after hearing that Ms Hanff is rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series baseball, Frank is emboldened to confide that he supports the Tottenham Hotspur football club.

Poignantly, in one of his last letters, Frank refers (in 1965) to the ’invasion’ of London by young people and multitudes of tourists:  Carnaby Street, the Beatles. Helene Hanff was aged in her fifties and not in best health when she at last reached England and visited her long list of hallowed places such as the pub in London where Shakespeare drank, the church in the Cotswolds where Gray wrote his elegy, and the wall at Eton College where Shelley carved his name.


The Choir on Hope Street – Annie Lyons (Harper Collins, 2017)


Opposites attract. That’s a well-known saying. But it doesn’t apply when Caroline first meets Natalie. They each have a child at the same school. Capable and tidy Caroline is disdainful of Natalie, categorising her as neurotic, disorganised and socially inferior.

The plot thickens when Caroline reluctantly notes that Natalie is joining her crusade to form a fund-raising choir to try and save a community centre from closure. That said, given the alarming rate of alcohol intake, how much of either lady’s narrative can we believe? (Although in a drinking contest neither of them might match Helene Hanff’s voracious appetite for gin and martinis).

The London literary calendar for 2018 includes a season of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville Theatre. Do I find that Annie Lyons has some Wildeian qualities in her plot-making and her dialogue? She sustains a most amusing narrative style wherein we sometimes get the narrator’s private thoughts in parallel with her spoken ones. For example: ‘Are things okay?’ [Please don’t give me details – I’m merely being polite.] Lady Windermere’s Fan has opened the series at the Vaudeville. The story is a switchback saga of Victorian snobbery, suspicion and secrecy, holding out hope that the worthy virtues will triumph ultimately. Is The Choir on Hope Street a modern-day equivalent story? Caroline and Natalie each have to grapple with some headbanging situations. I won’t reveal what transpires, but as well as remembering that there are two sides to every story: remember also that it takes two to tango!

Jerry Dowlen

April 2018


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


  Helene Hanff & Annie Lyons

   The Bookshop that Floated Away

   Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part Two

   Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part One

   Charles Raw

   Rumpole December 2017

   Roger Moore as Ivanhoe

   Future Rock: Music and Politics in the 1970s

   The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love

   Stan Barstow

   The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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