Letters from New York by Helene Hanff

Comfort reading comes in all shapes and sizes, and some of my favourite happy-place reads recently have been by Helene Hanff. I’m horrifically late to the party with “84 Charing Cross Road”, only reading it last year, but I quickly became addicted to Hanff’s prose, going on to read “Q’s Legacy” too. “Letter from New York” has been on the TBR for a little while and it seemed a good one to pick up while I had such a bad book hangover from “The Uzupis Republic”!

letter from new york

“Letter From New York” is a collection of short pieces that Hanff prepared in the 1980s and recorded as short talks for the BBC’s “Woman’s Hour”. Each short witty vignette captures an aspect of her life in New York, covering anything from the vagaries of the lifts or the incinerator in her building, to the weather, New York parades, the local dogs, how to cater for a large party in a very small apartment and how much she hates to leave her (adopted) home city.

I came home with a bad case of Culture Shock and a sense that I ought to have known – not that Hollywood must have changed greatly in four decades, but that it wouldn’t have changed at all. Hollywood forty years ago was just what it is now: a town without taste, or grace, or form, or substance. Hollywood was never a glamorous place on the map, it was a glamorous image in the mind, a fantasy land as imaginary as El Dorado. It still is.

Each little snapshot is delivered in Hanff’s trademark prose, a mixture of snappy and evocative, and it’s a measure of the strength of her writing that she brings all her friends and her locations to life in so few words. Her depiction of Central Park and its importance to New Yorkers is particularly striking; but I think my favourite thing in the whole book was Bentley-the-Sheepdog! Owned by Hanff’s friend Richard, he steps onto the page as a wonderfully distinctive character in his own right and reappears at several points in the book (at one point even sporting a bow-tie!)

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Hanff’s love for the city of New York shines through in all the pieces and she describes the Big Apple in all its different phases: sweltering in the summer heat, in the middle of a beautiful Fall, snowed up after a blizzard (where she evokes Central Park beautifully:

At five-thirty on Sunday afternoon the atmosphere was transformed. The crowds were gone, the park was hushed and in the pink twilight the snow was luminous, the white landscape framed by the skyline, where pinpoints of light were coming on in high-rise apartment houses. We passed a few solitary walkers and a straggle of cross-country skiers going by on the main road; and a lone brown dachshund came along, off leash and very natty in a green turtleneck sweater, walking importantly by himself, ten yards ahead of his folks.

Spending time in the company of Hanff is always a great joy, and I wasn’t disappointed with this collection – again, as with “The Brightfount Diaries” I was sad when it came to an end and I could no longer read tales of Helene and Richard and Nina and Arlene and Bentley et al. “Letter from New York” is a wonderfully readable set of dispatches from over the channel and I so wish that the recordings (if they still exist) were available for us to listen to…

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