Dear Madam, Love Frank

I listened dutifully, sitting next to the woman from Aberdeen (who might well have been a librarian). Over dinner at our Onich walking holiday centre she was telling me about a fantastic book she had read. That can be boring, but I listened. I didn’t totally believe her, but I was young. A book about letters to a bookshop sounds plain weird, doesn’t it?

Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

So, along came the next walking holiday (this was in the days when I actually got out and did things), and I found myself in a bookshop in Grasmere (probably the bookshop in Grasmere, now that I think of it), and browsing aimlessly I happened upon a book that looked like an airmail letter, and I realised this was what my Aberdonian Librarian had been waxing so lyrically over. ‘I might as well buy it,’ I thought to myself. It seemed as if it was meant.

Last week when I was agonising over what books could be about, I think it was Hilary McKay who mentioned 84 Charing Cross Road, and I have to admit I had almost forgotten about it. Only from a point of view as a book that is not your average fiction or non-fiction book, obviously. You can’t forget Helene Hanff’s collection of letters.

So I hunted  for my copy of the book and failed. Told the Resident IT Consultant to find it for me. (I reckon that’s one of his good sides; finding the very obvious which insists on escaping me.) It was where it should be. Naturally.

I cried a bit, looking through the book again, and that is surely a testament to quite how special 84 Charing Cross Road is? Admittedly, I started at the end where Frank Doel dies. But working my way to the beginning of the Hanff-Doel friendship just brought more tears. ‘I hope “madam” over there doesn’t mean what it does here.’

In more recent years I have come across people who express themselves like Helene did. Americans, I mean. At the time she struck me as ‘different,’ whereas the polite English letters from the bookshop seemed perfectly normal to me. ‘I could rush a tongue over.’ That’s an unusual thing to want to do for a bookshop, but it brings back the lack of food in Britain even as late as 1950. In fact, the whole book is a lesson in modern history.

I loved this book, and I have offered delayed thanks to Aberdonian Librarian ever since. Not that we’ve been in contact. I’m not sure how many copies I’ve bought of the book to give away, but long before I gave up on being a stingy old witch I actually spent good money on giving people their very own 84 Charing Cross Road.

I’m afraid I have no plans for more of that, so you can just go get your own copy. Just make sure you do. The only excuse is already owning one.

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5 responses to “Dear Madam, Love Frank

  1. Have you read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street?
    I remember hearing H H’s radio broadcasts, a long time ago, messages from New York. She spoke just as she wrote. Brilliant.

  2. And did you see the movie with Anne Bancroft and ?Anthony Hopkins? I enjoyed that too.

  3. Yes, the Duchess is in my copy of the book. Wonderful travel tale. And I liked the film. Can’t remember if it was generally deemed a success, but I seem to recall being satisfied.

  4. I am so glad that you blogged about 84 Charing Cross Road! I work in an English Bookshop in Stockholm (actually, I was the one in the picture with Rachel Ward in the post about her Stockholm visit). Anyway, about a year ago, an older woman walked into the bookshop, or really perhaps it is more accurate to say that she descended on the bookshop. She was a force to be reckoned with. She had strong opinions about every book we had, and I really didn’t know what to think of her. She stuck around for about an hour, and then just before she went away, she pulled 84 Charing Cross Road off of the shelf, shoved it in my hands, and said, “buy this.” So I did. I often get tips from customers, but as a bookseller, it is rare that a customer forces a book in my hands and tells me I have to buy it from myself.
    I read it immediately–both the letters and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. I had no idea Frank died (I had successfully avoided reading the back of the book), and I felt my heart stop for a millisecond at that point. It was such a beautiful tale, and after I was done, I googled Helene Hanff to see if she might still be alive. I just wanted to know that she still existed somewhere in this world. Sadly, she died in 1997. What a loss.
    Since that time, Patsy (the customer), has become a favorite visitor, and sometimes when she comes by on a Friday afternoon, she stays until I close the shop and we sit and drink tea and talk about our favorite books, our lives, and anything that we please. She has become like a surrogate grandmother for me here in Stockholm. And it all began with 84 Charing Cross Road.

  5. That’s a lovely story!
    I meant to check on Helene Hanff but decided she would have to be very old to still be here. I gather she avoided travelling to England on purpose, because she knew meeting Frank would be an anticlimax. I think she might have been right.

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