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?
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.