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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
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
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,
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
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!
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
The Bookshop that Floated Away
Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part Two
Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part One
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
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
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
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
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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