Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 24 Sep 2016

Echoes of a death

I never tire of reading Helene Hanff’s love letters to the booksellers of Marks & Co in her slim volume, 84 Charing Cross Road. By turns affectionate, acerbic, enthusiastic and full of unrequited longing for the perfect bookshop of her imagination, Hanff fills her letters and her book with humanity. The platonic affection that builds between Hanff and the head bookseller, Frank Doel, adds a frisson of ultimate bitter-sweet sadness to the saga. Hanff’s determination to visit England and the shop that came to mean so much to her over twenty years was ultimately frustrated by Doel’s early death and the closure of Marks & Co. in 1968 – three years before she eventually made her trip to the UK.

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The story of Hanff and the shop at 84 Charing Cross Road was also made into a pretty faithfully and beautifully observed film that featured Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel – although it should be said that virtually all the understated cast performances were just about perfect and sustained a atmosphere just the right side of sentimentality.

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So recently when I stumbled on a hardback copy of Hanff’s posthumously published collection of BBC Women’s Hour broadcasts, Letter From New York, I bought it as a kind of homage to what she had achieved with 84 Charing Cross Road. However, when I got home I realised that I had come back with something more than just the book. Inside the back cover were a some keepsakes from Helene Hanff’s memorial tribute held in St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden on 16th September 1997.

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I couldn’t help but be surprised and a little delighted that I had bought this book and inherited these memorial invitations on 16th September 2016 – exactly 19 years to the day after the event.  Along with the invitation card there was a copy of the order of service devised by James Roose-Evans – the theatre director who directed the stage version of 84 Charing Cross Road and which included readings by the great Miriam Karlin and Rosemary Leach. The service included readings from all Hanff’s best writing and a tribute by the radio broadcaster, Sue McGregor.

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This kind of fascinating serendipity is one of the real delights that buying second hand books can offer – and something that electronic books will never be able to provide. Small keepsakes, letters and cards slipped into books and forgotten or passed on inadvertently when a library is split up offers us the chance to build some unexpected links – a chain of continuity if you will – with the past.

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My fondness for Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road prompted me to pick up a book I probably wouldn’t otherwise have bought and, in return, I inherited a small glimpse into how Hanff’s own story came to an end. I will now keep these documents together with the book they came in and ultimately I will pass the link on to the next owner and so, in this way, the story will continue to resonate.

Terry Potter

September 2016