You know what it’s like – you’re vaguely aware of a book for years (well, decades in this case) and you finally decide you should read it – and when you do, you find yourself asking “WHY did it take me so long to read this?” and “This is a book for me – why didn’t I read it before!” and other such exclamations. “84 Charing Cross Road” is just that book – and with my love of books and shopping in that same street I can’t believe I’ve only just picked up this volume!

84 ch x

However, I have – and loved it! There probably aren’t many people who don’t know the tale – Helene Hanff, a sassy New York writer and lover of English literature, wrote off to Marks and Co, a Charing Cross Road booksellers to try to obtain some classics she was after. The year was 1949 – Britain was still gripped by post-war austerity, but there were plenty of books to be had, and one of the bookstore’s employees, Frank Doel, replied to Hanff’s letter. The firm started to supply Hanff with books but more importantly, a witty literary friendship grew up between Helene and Frank (and also his family and the other employees of Marks and Co). Hanff was aware of the situation in the UK and started sending food hampers over to her friends, and visiting Americans were instructed to pass nylons to the ladies! Times changed and the correspondence continued – but alas, Hanff and Doel would never meet…

Hanff

Hanff

This is *such* a lovely book on so many levels! For a start, it’s a delight watching the relationship develop between the two correspondents – Hanff with her American outspokenness and informality, compared with Doel’s typical British reserve which gradually breaks down as the friendship develops. A real affection builds up between the two, and you just yearn for them to meet and have a real good chin-wag! Then there is the fact that the letters are such a piece of social history – you see the changes taking place reflected in the letters, from the initial bleakness of the late 40s/early 50s, an era of powdered eggs and shortages, alleviated by Hanff’s no-nonsense generosity; to the latter-day missives where Doel talks about visitors to Carnaby Street, and the Beatles. It’s a real eye-opener, showing just how much society changed in such a short time. There is also Hanff’s great love of English literature – her demands for books are imperious and her enthusiasm infectious. And this is a really human story – of how people can reach out and find connections over great distances, finding common interests.

Doel

Doel

Rather wonderfully, this Virago edition also includes Hanff’s memoir, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”. Frank Doel died suddenly in 1968 and that might have been the end of things, had Hanff not had the idea to make their letters into a little book. That little book became a huge success and because of this, Hanff was able to visit London at last, in the early 1970s. Alas, she was too late to visit Marks and Co, which had closed down, but “Duchess” relates her wonderful adventures in London: treading the footsteps of her beloved authors, meeting Joyce Grenfell, being ferried about by admirers like The Colonel and Pat Buckley, and most importantly meeting up with the family of Frank Doel. It’s a lovely, lovely book, full of sharp observations of London, New York humour and once again her great love of English literature shines through. “Duchess” vividly brings to life Britain in the early 1970s, where women weren’t allowed to wear trousers in some establishments and the plumbing was dreadful!

This was one of those lovely reading experiences where you feel you’ve been living alongside someone, following them from the post-war era up until a much more recent time (and one that I can remember!) Helene, Frank and all their families, friends and acquaintances became real, and I didn’t want the book to end. Fortunately, I’ve just found out that Hanff has written another book covering her experiences (off to the online sources I go). “84 Charing Cross Road” is one of those books that stays with you – poignant, moving, funny, entertaining and a demonstration of just how important literature can be in life. I shan’t leave it so long till I read her other book!