Although more years have passed than I care to think about, I am very fortunate to be able to say I once visited London. My London, however, was not the same as Helene Hanff's, which she wrote about in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Reading such a delightful book makes me want to travel to London and rediscover it all over again. (Actually I've wanted to do so long before reading the book, but it just throws it all into high relief how much I'd love to go back).
A devoted Anglophile, Hanff wasn't able to get to London before Frank Doel of Marks & Co. died unexpectedly. She corresponded with him for some twenty years and published their letters as a sort of tribute, in 84, Charing Cross Road, which I wrote about here. Although Hanff had been writing for years, it was 84, Charing Cross Road, which caused not only her first real success but she became something of a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. It was thanks to the book that she was finally able to afford to travel to London in 1971, just a few short days after 84, Charing Cross Road was published in England. Although she had just had unexpected surgery and was still recovering, she couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit the place she had dreamed of seeing for so long.
Hanff's London was different than mine for a variety of reasons, but one that I am envious of is that a small royalty check of £50 or a gift from a relative of $100 meant she could spend not just an extra day, but days or even a couple of weeks. I can't imagine that would even cover a night's stay in a hotel these days. Granted that amount of money was a lot in the 70s and even with it Hanff was on a strict budget and willingly allowed her friends and acquaintances take her out for meals so she could stretch her stay out just a little longer. She was to be met by Frank's wife Nora and his daughter Sheila at the airport and an enthusiastic fan/reader of her book who also happened to work at the London Airport and could see her through customs and immigration. Along with her British publisher and the names of a few friends of friends she was set to be feted and entertained and met a fair few more people while she was there.
It was suggested she keep a diary during her stay, which is how she tells her story in The Duchess of Bloomsbury--an entry for each day of her stay. She notes the things she didn't bring with her that a BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) booklet lists as necessities for a London trip: 3 washable dresses, 2 vests, 2 pair gloves, small (hat)s, twin set, wool stole, evening dress, evening bag, evening shoes, girdle. "I'd brought three pantsuits, two skirts, several sweaters and blouses, a white blazer and one dress. The dress was silk, chic and expensive, it had a matching coat and was intended to cover large evenings". I'm glad she jettisoned the girdle, but the pants actually caused consternation from a British gentleman who "loathed women in trousers". Said gentleman actually turned out to be quite a find and he and Hanff got on quite well together. It's handy to know someone with a letter of introduction from King George VI allowing entrance to Marlborough House. Unfortunately even the King is barred entrance on cleaning days! Hanff was able to visit places in London and in the close countryside guided by her British friends such as Windsor and Eton.
"If you're born in the U.S. with a yearning love of classical scholarship and no college education, you are awed by a school in which for centuries boys have learned to read and write Greek and Latin fluently by the time they're in their teens. PB (Pat Buckley) took me into the original classroom, five hundred years old, and made me sit at one of the desks. They're dark, heavy oak, thickly covered with boys' initials scratched into the wood with pocket knives. Five hundred years' worth of boys' initials is something to see."
She visited a pub called The George, which was enjoyed by the Bard himself, saw plays, was interviewed on BBC radio, ate at Claridge's, saw the expected London sights like Buckingham Palace, The Tower and St. Paul's and of course went to a now empty 84, Charing Cross Road.
What is the saying--we are two countries divided by a common language (G.B. Shaw). Differences in the way we speak have certainly not changed at all, and the cultural differences she notes are interesting as well.
"People here ask you for 'a light' only if you're smoking and they can light their cigarette from yours. Nobody would dream of asking you for a match, it would be like asking you for money. Matches are not free over here. There are none in ashtrays in hotel lobbies and none on restaurant tables. You have to buy them at the store, I suppose they are imported and too expensive to fling around the way they're flung around at home."
"Nobody over here says 'six-thirty' or 'seven-thirty', they say 'hoppussix' and 'hoppusseven'. And 'in' at home is 'trendy' here and 'give it up' is 'pack it in' and 'never mind' is 'not to worry!'"
"And when they pronounce it the same they spell it differently. A curb's a kerb, a check's a cheque, a racket's a racqet--and just to confuse you further, jail is spelled 'gaol' and pronounced 'jail'."
And a newsstand's a kiosk, a subway's the tube, a cigar store's a tobacconist's, a drug store's a chemist's, a bus is a coach, a truck is a lorry, buying on time is hire purchase, cash and carry is cash and wrap...".
She writes about Q, her mentor of sorts, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, who was her inspiration and guided her on her quest for knowledge--no doubt what started everything to begin with, but I think I'll save writing about him until I read Q's Legacy. The Duchess of Bloomsbury was a lovely, entertaining read filled with Hanff's acerbic wit and wisdom. I'm happy I finally got around to reading it and will be reading more of her other works.