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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Kindred Spriit

In the movie, Out of Africa, when Karen (The Baroness von) Blixen (Isak Dinesen) is about to leave her beloved Kenya, Lady Dellamere, the wife of the incoming English Governor, bows to her and says, “I am sorry I won’t know you.”

This is exactly how I feel about Helene Hanff (
April 15, 1916– April 9, 1997). I am sorry that although our lives shared the better part of the last century I did now have the opportunity to meet her, to get to know her; to share our mutual love and respect for books. To chat about our various writing projects—specifically plays—and to just, well, to just be friends.

Helene, as many of you may not know, was the subject of the 1987 movie, 84 Charing Cross Road—starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins—based upon her book of the same name. 84, Charing Cross Road
chronicles twenty years of correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer of the London bookshop, Marks & Co. From this shop, specializing in “used”, out-of-print books, Hanff purchased, via the mail, the obscure classics and epitomes of British literature that formed the basis of her self-education.

Hanff deeply regretted not having a college education. And so she sought to supplant the lack of one with extensive reading of what she deemed the “notables” and most educated, including Cardinal John Newman, John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (alias “Q”), about whom she wrote a book. Her self-designed syllabus—most of it ordered from Marks & Co.—also included the Old and New Testaments in the original Vulgate (she learned to read Latin and Greek as an adult!), various Roman poets, both modern and classical historians, and a smattering of the more popular British writers, although she eschewed Charles Dickens, whom I dearly love, as a “popularist”.

As the correspondence progressed, she became intimately involved in the lives of the shop's staff, sending them food parcels from a Danish mail-order catalogue during England's post-war shortages, and shared with them details of her life in Manhattan. Hence the book, which, before the more famous movie, was also both a stage production and a BBC television play in the mid-1970s.

I had almost, regrettably, completely forgotten about her until I was returning Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to its spot on the E-to-J shelf in my upstairs library. Next to it was a very slim trade paperback volume of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street that I, at first, mistook for yet another one of my many children’s books. Almost pristine in its original cover—published in May 1976 by Avon Books, a division of The Hearst Corporation, New York, NY (the hardback was first published in 1973)—I was amazed that I had not read it before—having read all of my “older” children’s books at least three times—and took it downstairs to read after dinner by the fire.

I was astonished, amazed, and more than just delighted to discover that it wasn’t a children’s book after all—although I would have enjoyed a bit of mindless frolic last evening—but Hanff’s sequel to 84, Charing Cross Road. This is her elucidating and delightful memoir of her long-desired and finally-fulfilled trip to London from June 17 to July 26, 1971. During her correspondence with Frank Doel, she had various thwarted attempts to make the trip “across the pond”, but, for whatever reasons—a number of them are depicted in the movie, which begins with her arrival in England—did not occur until years after Doel’s death and the demise of the quaint bookshop.

Aware of this, and still undaunted, Helene met and became fast friends with not only Frank’s wife and oldest daughter, Nora and Sheila, but quite a number of Londoners, including two transplanted American couples, an actress, a Colonel, a famous painter, an author, and a host of inhabitants of the various neighborhoods she frequented, who, with open arms, go out of their way to welcome, entertain, and show her the sights of the city, as well as its surrounding countryside, she (who painted her portrait in St. James Park) most wanted to visit—to see and feel and taste and smell the places where her beloved authors and "educators" lived and wrote. And it is these experiences during this trip of which ”dreams are made on”, along with her often acerbic, humorous, and sometimes sarcastic thoughts, comments, and reflections, that Helene wittingly and wistfully writes about in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

I was captivated and mesmerized, and read all of its 137 pages in one sitting. It was as if Helene was sitting on the couch beside me, sipping a martini, and relating her adventures with her characteristically great exuberance. I found myself laughing out loud at many of her passages, and crying, both for her and myself, at the poignant ending.

And then, having read the sequel, went searching at two in the morning for what I was sure I had: a VHS copy of the movie, 84, Charing Cross Road, finally found in the basement library. Needless to say, I stayed up until dawn watching it, equally moved and both poignantly elated and deeply saddened. I slept in most of the next day.

Why couldn't I have met Helene Hanff in my earlier adult life? This was one woman to whom I could have easily related; easily gotten to know; one with whom I have so much in common: our vast collection of books—rare first editions and “ersatz”, but nonetheless readable  reprints; our profound love of literature; our quest for knowledge; our dry, droll, and often bawdy sense of humor; our deep fondness for the quirks and foibles of New York City; our love of animals; our struggles to make it as a playwright, despite producers who say they like(d) our scripts, but never stage(d) them; our penchant for “telling it like it is”, regardless of whomever perceives offense.

For gosh and goodness sake, there is even our unabashed love of gin martinis! At one point, she actually teaches the bartender in the London Kensington Hotel how to make a “proper” one (four cubes of ice in the shaker, three jiggers gin, one whiff of Vermouth, stir gently—my own recipe exactly!)!

Hanff went on to become a screenwriter for the immensely popular Ellery Queentelevision series, as well as a writer and commentatory for BBC America. She also penned a few more books, which are cited in various referencesi on the Internet , including Wikipedia (Helene Hanff). Her written wordsare just as witty and well-penned as what I imagine her spoken words would have been, befitting this unique, quirky, and undaunted connoisseur of life and literature.

My kind of gal, Helene Hanff is—sadly, was. A dear friend who will live on in my heart and in her books in my library for, as she would say, a goodly long time.

A kindred spirit, indeed. 

12:59 pm edt          Comments

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Listen to Me

Just because some of us are older, have gray hairs, and complain of arthritis, doesn't mean we should be counted out or shunted aside. Many of us members of the older, baby-boomer generation are still working. And while I am now retired to pursue my vocation as a writer, I still resent the comment made to me last year about "you older folks just can't keep up the pace in this corporate working environment. You need to adapt," stressing the "you". Um, ah, excuse me?!? Why not adapt the corporate working environment to the needs of us "older folk"? After all, we spent the better part of our adult lives adapting to you. Why not accord us the same appreciation and respect, instead of casting us away, writing us off when we get “older”?

Allow us to work at home whenever possible; provide more flexible working hours; listen to our often more wiser, tried-and-true ideas gleaned from years of experience, instead of hastily trying to re-invent the wheel—we can be just as creative, if not more so, than recent college graduates. Seek out ways to ease, if not eliminate the daily stresses in the workplace; retrain or, better yet, replace ageist managers who don't care to understand about and are not compassionate toward the aging workforce. Hear what we have to say and offer, rather than off-handedly ignoring us.

Those of us still working and those of use now retired can still be and (most of us) are vital, contributing members of working and leisure societies, even though we may not be as agile and may have more frailties—physical, perceived, or otherwise—than the "youngsters". We are still as vibrantly alive and kicking and full of “the old Harry” as we ever were.

If only you would just listen.

Take, for example, Jacob Jankowski, a ninety-something year-old resident of a nursing home, who resents being ignored and shoved aside during visiting hours. Jacob has a wealth of knowledge of animals—elephants in particular, people in general. Because no one takes the time to listen to this old man tell his tales—and even if they do, they don't believe him—he writes them down.
Water for Elephants is the chronicle of his life; a wonderfully poignant novel written by Sara Gruen.

When I was a (much younger) child, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus would come to town in late April, setting up the "big tent", side shows, a menagerie, and two rows of house trailers in the big Battle Field three doors down from the modest bungalow in which I grew up. I remember one particular morning—I was eight or nine—Mom had opened the front windows to catch the warming breezes and the scent of our garden lilacs—I heard the boom-ta-ta-boom-der-rah of the brass and bass drum band, the trumpeting of elephants, the megaphoned calls of a barker inviting us to come "See the circus! The greatest show on earth!"

I was too young to work, but my older brother got a job each year taking care of the elephants, providing them with water and shoveling up after them. In payment, he was given a modest hourly wage, was allowed to bring home their droppings to use as fertilizer—we had the best tasting tomatoes in town—and was awarded free passes for every member of his family. To all the shows! Ah, to sit in the front row under the "big top", with the smells of sawdust, hay, and cotton-candy filling my head; to ogle at the fancy-dressed acrobats, gape in awe at the daring trapeze artists, and wonder at how so many funny and sad clowns could come out of such a small car...well, I can still hear, taste, smell it all now, just as if it was yesterday—powerful enough to want to run away and join.

Which is just what Gruen's protagonist—our hero—did. At the beginning of the Great Depression, he finds himself orphaned and penniless at the young age of twenty-three. Without funds to continue his education, he leaves college and hops aboard a circus train and finds work tending to the animals. Here he befriends Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, and Rosie, a both beloved and quite stubborn elephant. Here, Jacob Jankowski's real story begins, taking him across America on the circus rails, and into the lives of many of its performers—true characters all. It is his adventures of which deep memories are recalled and good novels are made.

Gruen has a distinct flair for writing. While she possesses a wildly vivid imagination that shows through her novels—particularly this one—she has backed her story of Jacob, Marlena, and Rosie with more than four and a half months worth of research, sprinkling her novel with hard-core facts and memorabilia of the circus and rogue elephants. The hard-backed, first edition (© 2006 by Sara Gruen, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, NC, a division of Workman Publishing, New York, NY) is replete with authentic reproduced photographs of various circus scenes and an Author's Note explaining her rationale for writing the book. Knowing the background of "how this book came to be" makes it even all the more interesting.

Because of my fonder memories of the circus coming to town and because I also fondly remember my brother "joining" it for the brief week it occupied the Battle Field, I found this novel both fascinating and intoxicating to read. It is fast-paced, although Gruen's characters are richly steeped and deep in personality, vitality, and meaning; and the younger ones take the time to know and to listen to the older ones. Now, how refreshing is that? In addition, Gruen takes loving care in describing the animals. Her real-life concern for them and for our environment shines through the pages, even though the setting is in the mid-1930s when the concept of "green" was just in its seedling stage.

I loved this book—another one in my collection that I just couldn’t put down; so much so that I sent a copy to my brother for his birthday. He is not much of a novel reader himself—preferring non-fiction and military accounts—but he read it just the same in two sittings. In a subsequent phone call, he said it, too, brought back many salient childhood memories, which, like the elephants he tended, he would never forget.

What happens to Jacob in the end? Well, it isn't so much a “classic” wrap-up-the-loose-ends denouement ending, as it is a hopeful beginning; the promise of a new day, regardless of your age. At the point where he is despairing of truly growing old, our hero leaves the nursing home and runs away, as it were, to...

Well, you're just going to have to read the novel yourself and listen to what Jacob has to say.

His—Gruen's—words-and actions will be written on and remembered in our young hearts for years to come.

1:09 pm edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,