Tag Archives: London

Helene Hanff – lady of letters

MISTRESS OF MISSIVES Helene Hanff (1916-1997) made a career of letter writing.
MISTRESS OF MISSIVES Helene Hanff (1916-1997) made a career of letter writing.

COULD there be a better proponent of written communication, a smarter wordsmith, a more ‘writerly’ writer than New York denizen, Queen of the day job, rejection letter collector, and one of the world’s biggest fans of English Literature – Helene Hanff (1916-1997), author of 84, Charing Cross Road?

Of all the writers I admire, I cannot think of one who deserved more to have lived long enough to write in the age of blogging.

It could be argued that Helene Hanff invented the style of writing now employed almost blindly by bloggers the world over – the confessional epistolary genre, studded with emotion, was embedded in her genes, and her unbeatable use of it was borne of her own life experience.

“I’m a great lover of i-was-there books,” she wrote in her most famous work.

“That her nature often resulted in alienation gives her story all the more pathos.”

Overwhelmed by a sense of failure and loneliness in her fifties, after the collapse of some long-held dreams about becoming a Broadway playwright (not to mention the four decades she spent trying), Hanff received news that one of her oldest friends had died.

This was bookstore manager Frank Doel of Marks & Co. at the address made famous by the title of her book, in the city of London, England.

The two had known one another since 1949. Hanff was devastated.

Forget that she had never been to London. Forget that they had never met face to face. Through their two decade correspondence, Doel and Hanff had developed a unique long distance friendship.

There was no overt romance, but there was a great and tender mutual love of English Literature – Hanff the reader, and Doel her literary scout, seeking-out affordable copies of the classics for a writer of limited means eking out an existence in New York City.

Compelled to document what may have felt like one of the more meaningful relationships in her life, Hanff embarked on what she thought would be a very small work.

MEETING OF MINDS First edition cover of Hanff's most famous book.
MEETING OF MINDS First edition cover of Hanff’s most famous book.

It’s hard to put a finger on why 84, Charing Cross Road resonates with readers. Beyond the letters between the main characters, Hanff (and Doel, in his replies) recorded the early post-WWII years on both sides of the Atlantic, through to the revolutionary late 1960s. On the journey, they held steadfastly to literature as the world changed around them.

I first encountered this story in its 1987 film adaptation, starring Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel.

What spoke to me was the idea that Hanff fed her soul without really leaving her living room, which some might consider limited, but which struck me as profoundly imaginative.

She really was an armchair traveller who reassured people the world over that where we were, right at that moment, was neither limited or mundane, if only we could read and access our imaginations.

I felt I was starting to understand Hanff better when I read one of her most revealing paragraphs in the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, when she described how she stumbled into what is known as the Actors’ Church in London’s Covent Garden, and promptly burst into tears at the sight of the small plaque in memory of Vivien Leigh.

It also says a lot that Hanff doesn’t explain why. Her sentiment was very personal, but it was also very private. She seemed to take plenty of secrets to her death in 1997, leaving behind much speculation about her life.

Although readers and fans got a rare glimpse into Helene Hanff’s life in a 2014 tribute written by her cousin, writer Jean Hanff Korelitz, who recorded her first meeting with her famous relative.

“Helene turned out to be a small woman with the wiry build of a preadolescent boy, and she dressed in a style that had seen her through decades of a writer’s life: wool trousers, cardigans, flat sneakers, everything well worn and often less than scrupulously clean,” Korelitz wrote.

“She had a barking voice, a wry perpetual smile, and a pageboy haircut that veered in colour towards a not entirely natural rust.”

These observations make Hanff sound like a short Katharine Hepburn, but it was Hanff’s response to her young cousin’s first published book that is the more revealing memory. According to Korelitz, when Hanff questioned, brusquely, why Korelitz wrote something “like that?”

“Five minutes later she called back, in tears. ‘I’m sorry,’ she wailed. I was stunned, and tried to persuade her that it was nothing, but she didn’t believe me, and she was right; when she died the following year there was still that skein of discomfort between us.”

These moments are reminiscent of similar turning points in 84, Charing Cross Road that do not appear in the correspondence, but rather provide the links between Doel and Hanff’s letters.

For example, when Hanff writes of sending a food package to the staff at the London bookshop in the middle of Britain’s postwar rationing, only to realise that the six-pound ham in it may have meant any kosher Jewish staff would miss out, she cares enough to write and make other arrangements.

In these anecdotes, Hanff reveals herself as an ‘act first, think second’ character, but one who was never afraid to try better next time.

Confronted with her younger cousin’s publication success, the woman who’d waited until she was almost fifty to make her own literary splash, and only did so by writing primarily about herself, Hanff’s response to Korelitz is understandable.

But it’s this combination of a strong individual who showed actions of great empathy that provides the dynamic attractive force in Helene Hanff, and, by extension, her work. That her nature often resulted in alienation gives her story all the more pathos.

A loyal respondent to the thousands of fan letters she received (and, according to her obituarist, kept in relative poverty for a few years from the postage costs), Hanff’s true life’s work was probably in these letters, surely scattered across the globe by now.

One day, Hanff’s replies to these fan letters may provide an even deeper account of this intensely private woman who preferred to put things in writing – after all, her breakthrough work (and certainly her most enduring), is ‘just’ an edited collection of letters.

If only the rest of her missives could be collected.

Her correspondence style was direct, humorous, polite, punctuated by outbursts in capitals and underlinings for emphasis (you can hear the clack of her typewriter in the execution), and you’ll never catch her abrevi8.

It’s tempting to imagine what Hanff would think of all the communication problems modern internet participants encounter in their use of written language. I’d like to think she’d write: “GET OVER IT and just READ, for God’s sake!” and: “TONE, you think I used a TONE with you? Of course I did …”


If she were alive today, Helene Hanff would preside over the world’s most followed literary blog, from which she’d broadcast her wry empathy to the world from her kitchen table. Would Twitter’s 140 characters have given her the space to say what she wanted? I am sure she’d have found a way; but emoticons? NEVER!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded


Writing my way out of London

ROYAL MAIL I sent plenty of dreams into the slots of Royal Mail boxes in England (Photo pixabay.com/en/mailbox-background-architecture-22149/)
DREAM CATCHER I posted plenty of dreams through the slots of Royal Mail boxes.

A Writer gives up on the big city.

I LIVED in the city of London for three years. During the first I was heady with hope, not caring that I hadn’t ‘made it’ yet, sure that I would at any moment. Throughout the second I bargained with my definitions of success, as I compromised in order to survive financially while keeping my dreams alive. In the third, my hopes were dashed and my finances dived as I held-on for that dream job, while life collapsed around my deluded ears… relationships, projects, homes, prospects. All gone with the rent money.

Long before I encountered the hopeful practice of affirmations, I was already making them in my own way. When ridiculous barely media-related jobs were offered to me, since I presented as a non-insane organised person, such as the job filming rich tourists on Caribbean cruises, I would get out of them by saying: “Thanks, but I have been offered another job which I simply cannot refuse… I’m perfect for it, and to turn it down would be impossible.”

The crestfallen human resources folk would express a moment of regret, then drop me, still unemployed, with the phone.

Thankfully I landed just enough unpaid independent film and television work to stave off a real ego bruising.

I assistant-directed a Goldsmiths College student film, after answering an ad the student producer put in the local paper seeking skilled volunteers to support the shoot. We filmed in a famous British Comedian’s daughter’s house, and in between consoling her about the abuse her place was getting from its use as a location, and various auditions she felt she had failed, I was consoling the students through a series of disasters. The main one was the discovery that all the rushes (on expensive celluloid!) were unusable due to focus problems.

I encouraged a soldier-on approach, which was met with wild anger from the director of photography, who stood in my face and screamed at me, barely masking his obvious feelings of guilt about the fuzzy rushes. Quite rightly, I felt I didn’t need that, and at the end of that shot, I walked off set and didn’t go back.

Later that year I assisted on two short films directed by the life-enlarging Jillian Li-Sue, who I still feel has a feature film in her waiting to get out, if only someone would take a punt on her and put up the money.

The first of these was shot on location in Catford, only a few blocks from where I lived in Lewisham.

CEDAR ON CELLULOID Production still from Jillian Li-Sue's short film Cedar Wood and Silk.
CEDAR ON CELLULOID Production still from Jillian Li-Sue’s short film Cedar Wood and Silk.

Taking care of odd jobs on a film set, like fetching porn mags to be used as props, and amusing actors between shots, earned me the title of second assistant director on Jill’s beautiful short Cedar Wood and Silk. That was one I was proud to have been a part of.

Amazingly, some Australian friends were able to put me in touch with one of Britain’s film producers of the moment, who was kind enough to meet me at his Soho office, and not laugh at the film script I’d sent him. In fact, he gave it to one of his readers who wrote an exacting report on it. Tough stuff, but a wake-up call.

There I sat, feeling misunderstood, across the desk from this titan of film. He must have been bemused at my silent miscomprehension of exactly how he could help me, kindly pointing out that a certain amount of enthusiasm was essential for getting a project together. I barely knew what I was doing there, really, but he took my number and gave it to someone.

Weeks later, after returning from my regular job-seeking in the West End, I played the answering machine, only to have missed a call for a day’s work on his new movie. I called back, but the super-busy-super-organised production assistant happily informed me that position had been filled. Too late.

Around that time my Soho office (a red telephone booth off Charing Cross Road) was blown-up by the IRA. The kid who did it lived over my back fence in South London, and apparently the  explosives he’d used were stored in the garden shed, only metres from where I’d slept for over a year.

Perhaps I was in the wrong place?

So I answered an advertisement in Broadcast magazine, looking for a production assistant for a small production company in Ipswich, Suffolk.

I had to look on a map to find Suffolk, imaging it to be tucked ‘up north’ somewhere remote. But it was barely an hour away by train. For an Australian, an hour was a mere trifle. Perhaps I should expand my horizons beyond the tarnished fabulousness of London?

Not having even a typewriter to make use of (one of my flatmates stole the phone bill money and disappeared to St Lucia … cue the violins, but I had to sell stuff to get by), I hand wrote a job application and resume onto beautiful thick yellow paper, hoping it would stand out. My handwriting on quality paper was about as honest as I could be in the situation I found myself in.

I posted the letter on the way to my cinema job, and promptly forgot all about it. After all, the Royal Mail hadn’t delivered me a break in three years.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An angel in a London rubbish skip

LONDON CALLING Commuting in Britain’s largest city has always been a challenging experience.

A Writer’s next day job.

SINCE I’d gotten to England on a one way ticket, once drama school came to an end I decided to try my luck in the entertainment industry over there.

Exactly where and how that industry operated remained a complete mystery while I polished my skills in the Yorkshire flatlands.

But with the last of the funds raised to send me to college in the UK, I boarded a train from York and headed south to London, home of the West End, Pinewood Studios, and the BBC.

Like thousands of others I tried to make my way through the front door of any number of institutions offering cadetships and assistance programs for graduates by dreaming-up fabulous ideas for TV shows and trying to encapsulate my potential on paper in the long-winded applications.

But none of these doors opened for me.

One door that did was that of the flat of an Australian friend who allowed me to sleep on her floor for a couple of weeks.

One of my grandfathers, Stanley Hamill Crawford (whom I never knew), was born in London, a quirk of ancestry which allowed me to stay in the UK indefinitely and work without a visa. But the paperwork took a few weeks to arrange via New Zealand (where Stanley’s only daughter, my mother Pat, was born), and I needed an income, so I just started working illegally.

Another friend got me onto the list at her temp agency, and being their only male client I was immediately employed by a major book publisher in Hammersmith to push the mail trolley across eight floors for a three-week stint.

So, in the early days of my first London Spring I joined the crowds on the Tube, minding the gap, rolling my eyes at the constant announcements of apology for late trains, and succumbing to the near silent buffering that is London commuting.

I missed most of the romance the city had to offer in the process.

In the mail room I spent my mornings sorting packages and committing their recipient’s names and office locations to memory – I still recall these names, because they seemed so literary and important.

Then, for the rest of the day, I delivered the packages, on occasion meeting the recipients – generally curt literary mavens.

Breaks were spent outside by a line of rubbish skips, and on day one I noticed the contents consisted solely of countless brand new books.

Since no-one really cared I explored the skips at great length, creating quite a collection of perfectly good editions of some of the greatest books of the year, and a wealth of 20th century classics.

Intrigued as to the reason for the abundance of free books, I asked if they were perhaps uncorrected proofs or remaindered mis-prints? Apparently not – they were just surplus to the needs of the company.

I was a boy whose only surviving grandfather had instilled in me a sense of adventure when it came to inspecting rubbish tips. Grandpa had worked his way into an old one down the hill from my Grandparent’s house in Inverell, and would often take me down to stand at the edge and catch any treasures he fished-out from underneath.

It was like a goldmine – antique hurricane lamps, china plates, enamel ware, and an assortment of vintage items came out of that tip. The deeper Grandpa got, the older and more interesting the treasures he unearthed.

ANTIPODEAN ANGEL Janet Frame in post-WW2 London.

So it was retired farmer and gentle man Gordon Burge who inspired me the day when I discovered about fifty copies of Janet Frame’s autobiography An Angel at my Table in the publisher’s skip during my last week.

One copy would do me – Frame’s account of her early life included an apt section about her first encounter with London, and I took a lot of heart from her survival of the strangeness of the city when one is used to the elemental expanses of the Antipodes.

It took travelling to London to learn what that term actually means – the diametric opposite of wherever you are on Earth. It has a deeper meaning in the UK, because growing-up on the other side of the world makes you different, apparently. You’ll have to ask the Brits why they call those of us from Australia and New Zealand ‘Antipodeans’, often with a ‘certain air’.

The rest of Janet’s autobiographies I decided to do something about, and, with my rose-coloured glasses firmly in place, I took them to one of the large Charing Cross Road bargain bookstores on my way home that evening, thinking that Helene Hanff would be proud of me for some kind of book-trade continuum.

The shop owner was very dubious. He inspected my booty and flicked through a few pages, marvelling that they were indeed brand new and perfectly saleable, but he would not take them off my hands, even for free.

Feeling slightly silly for trying to facilitate an act of recycling, I left them under one of the tables out the front of the shop.

Maybe he’d notice them and would just sell them? No-one would be the wiser – not the publisher, not the customers, not Janet Frame.

I never found out. My work permit came through and I ventured deeper into the West End with a resume under my arm, hoping, like Janet Frame and Helene Hanff before me, that somewhere in that romantic place a door would open on my dreams.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.