Bibliophilia

A little while ago I came across 84 Charing Cross Road, appropriately enough in a second-hand book shop. It's one of those books that I've known about for a long time, but unusually, considering that it's a book about books and book lovers, I'd only seen the film which featured sterling performances from the lovely and much missed, Anne Bancroft, who for me will always be the face of Helene Hanff, and Anthony Hopkins. The copy that I bought turned out to have a rather nice surprise, as not only did it contain 84 Charing Cross Road (which at under 100 pages would have been a very slim volume indeed), but it also included the sequel, the equally delightful Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

Helene Hanff was a scriptwriter living in New York in 1949, when she spotted an advertisement in a literary magazine for the antiquarian bookshop, Marks & Co., which was then based at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. She sent them a letter with a list of her wants, and what was probably never intended to be more than a quick and easy order (pre-Amazon and Book Deposit days) turned into a love affair that lasted nearly 20 years. She soon became a regular correspondent of Frank Doel, the erudite manager of the shop, who gave her advice on her reading wants, put books aside for her, and read her acerbic criticisms of some of the reads with a great deal of humour. Helene soon got to know the staff of the bookshop well, and rewarded their hard work and kindness with generous gifts of Christmas and Easter treats - a truly welcome reward in a Britain that was still heavily rationed and only just starting to recover from the Second World War.

The correspondence that makes up 84 Charing Cross Road is delightful. Witty, funny, warm. It's a truly heart-warming experience reading it. A great testimony to books and the love of books, but also to friendship, even those friendships that can develop in the oddest of ways and between the most unexpected of people. It's about books and enthusiasms, the inter-relatedness that is between us all (whether we realise it or not), and most of all it's about friendship.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street continues the story of 84 Charing Cross Road. It's the early 1970's, and Helene has finally made it to London. She meets up with the families connected with 84 Charing Cross Road, and finds that she has, much to her own surprise, become a celebrity; and is wined and dined by Joyce Grenfell, and the great and good of the publishing world. Again it's a wonderful tale, this time of an innocent abroad, who, looking for the London of her dreams, finds it. It's impossible not to be swept away by the joy of Hanff's enthusiasm for all things British,
Helen and Peter Kroger "looking like Russian spies"
and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to find it uplifted by these books. I enjoyed 84 Charing Cross Road, but I adored Duchess of Bloomsbury Street not least because of one jaw-dropping moment - Norah Doel, widow of Helene's Frank, tells her an astonishing story. Some years before, she and Frank had been very friendly with another couple, who were also involved in the book trade - Peter and Helen Kroger. At a party Helen turned up in black looking very glamorous, and Norah joked that she looked very exotic "like a Russian spy". Imagine therefore the Doels' horror when they discover that the Krogers really were Russian spies. One of those stories that truly is so extraordinary you couldn't have made it up.

There's also an odd connection with my last read - The Looking Glass War. In that novel the agent who is recruited to go to East German is a Pole, who had served Britain in the Second World War by going undercover in Holland. Holland was particularly bad in terms of attrition of agents working there. A German operation called Operation North Pole was particularly successful - the German secret service, the Abwehr, had "turned" an allied radio round and were now using it ostensibly as an entrenched undercover allied operator, but it was actually firmly in the hands of the Nazis. Many agents were parachuted in, believing they were going to meet their comrades, actually they were going to their deaths.

By the time Helene Hanff arrived in London, Marks & Co., was closed following the death of Mr. Marks. She received a letter however from his son, Leo, who was eager to meet her, and she soon became close friends with him (he was a fellow scriptwriter) and his artist wife, Elena Gaussen. I knew that I knew Leo Marks name, and that it dawned on me who he was. Marks worked as a cryptographer during the Second World War, and was famous for Violette Szabo's famous poem - "The life that I have is all that I have, But the life that I have is yours.....". He was also one of the first people to realise that there was something very wrong happening in Holland.

An odd example of fictional and non-fictional interconnectedness...

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