Monthly Archives: December 2023

Letter from New York by Helene Hanff

Readers will be aware of the charming exchange of letters contained in 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Two people who never met exchanged letters about books and life, in the post war era. Helene Hanff was in New York and Frank Doel worked at Marks & Co, the bookshop in London which she approached to supply her with the books she wanted. The two generous souls had exchanged letters for many years. After Frank died Helene created and published the book. It was 1970.

84 Charing Cross Road was immediately successful on both sides of the Atlantic largely for its charm and wittiness. Women’s Hour, a weekday programme on the BBC radio, commissioned Helene to produce a 5-minute letter from New York every month for six months. She began in October 1978 and the six months extended to nearly six years, until 1984. These contributions to the BBC have been collected into this lovely edition, published in 2023, Letter from New York.

Letter from New York

The background to all the letters is her studio apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. She describes the community in the building, the friends and dogs who live there, and the surroundings, especially Central Park. She returns again and again to stories about her neighbours, their dogs, their approach to New York weather, and the daily life lived in ‘the last small town in America’.

The community in which she lived was strong, varied, and lively. Her cousin, in her introduction, describes how convivial Helen Hanff was, always entertaining friends and welcoming newcomers. Some of the connections in the building came from the shared use of food storage facilities, especially when it came to Christmas parties.

On Christmas Eve my pies will once more be up in 1-B in Nina’s freezer, and my sweet potato casserole and homemade cranberry sauce will be down at 4-F North, in Richard’s refrigerator. He will bring them up an hour before dinner, when he has to come up anyway to take the turkey out of the oven for me because one year I dropped that. I’m small and the turkey wasn’t. When he comes up to Christmas dinner Richard has to bring along his hot tray and his good carving knife. After dinner he or Arlene’s Mickey will wheel my tea cart full of dinner dishes up the hall, so I can put them in 8-E’s dishwasher, since Alan and Susan go to Susan’s mother’s on Long Island for Christmas. (165)

Spare keys are distributed in a similar way. Such arrangements reflect as well as foster good neighbourliness. Neighbours in summer sit together on the front steps watching life on the pavement and recommend services, shops and occasionally share dogs. If it sounds somewhat idyllic, that’s because she is constantly upbeat, never one to dwell on the difficulties of life, unless it’s finding the right clothes for a wedding.

She takes us around Central Park, and one episode persuaded English listeners to send wildflower seeds for a neglected area. She and her friends frequently attend concerts and services in churches, theatre performances, inside and in the open air, and the many parades and street parties that took place on New York Streets. She gives us some history and information about the geography of New York city and some of its notable inhabitants. 

Being a monthly newsletter, the rhythms of the year, the seasons, the celebrations, the changes in the city are documented for us. We become familiar with her friends, and especially Arlene, who happily passes on clothes to Helene, and has the delightful habit of giving her twelve presents every Christmas. She describes the collection in January 1983:

I don’t remember when Arlene started giving me twelve Christmas presents, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. She’s been doing it for years. (We fight about this every year. I always lose.) A few are expensive, all twelve are useful, but they always include three or four so far out they have to be explained to me. […]
Number 12 was two bright terry cloth mitts, each the size of a football, the two joined by a length of rope. First you wash your hair. Then you sling the rope around your neck, slip your hands into the enormous mitts and dry your hair with them. (141)

I haven’t visited New York since 1969, but this book made me feel nostalgic. And her cousin Jean Hanff Korelitz reports the same reaction in the introduction: 

These charming pieces bring back the New York of my childhood, the storefronts and fashions, the errands and quirks and tastes and smells of the city I grew up in. (16)

There are two other charming aspects of this book. One is the illustrations by Bruce Eric Kaplan on the covers, the bookmark as well as the chapter headings.

The other is that this is a lovely book in itself: the design, the paper and smart yellow livery of the binding. Well done Manderley Press. It’s another success for an independent small publisher.

Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff

She was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was largely self-educated. The books she requested from Marks & Co were to feed her habit of self-education. She made her living as a writer. Her apartment block in New York was renamed Charing Cross House in her honour, after her death in 1997.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. My thoughts on this earlier book on Bookword blog in August 2018.

Letter from New York by Helene Hanff, first published in 1992 and reissued by Manderley Press in 2023. 176pp 

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Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

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Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart

It is distressing and sad that the world seems to be in such a poor state, and that Climate Change and possible disaster loom over us. I lament the wars that seem to drag on in Ukraine, Sudan and the Middle East. I am shocked by the corruption that appears to have put our government ‘in the pocket of fossil fuel companies’ [Al Gore]. And I am horrified by the damage done to our water systems, rivers, seas and the bills we pay to subsidise the dividends to water company shareholders; I am appalled by the physical state of schools and the quality of the education we provide for the children of our nation and around the world; I am in despair about the state of prisons and the conditions in which prisoners are obliged to live; and the official attitude to refugees appals me. And … and … How did it get to this? Since Covid I have been reading more non-fiction alongside my usual diet in an attempt to understand all this.

Politics on the Edge

I enjoy reading books that help me understand how we got here. I am interested, in particular, in why politics and politicians are not working towards answers at this time. What is the context that has created so many areas of dysfunction? What should we expect and hope from our political system and from our politicians? It does seem to me that the fallout from both Brexit and Covid-19 and earlier from the unresolved banking crisis of 2007-8 has meant that different rules, different norms new and lower standards have crept in. Once the banking crisis no longer threatened the viability of the western economic system, the bankers who drove the crisis, were not required to accept responsibility or to atone for their mistakes. Indeed, I am not aware that anyone, any person, any banking group paid any penalties for what happened. Crisis over, move on.

The referendum and the negotiations for a Brexit deal ushered in a new era of untruths, lies, misdirection and political skulduggery. The Conservative party was deliberately cleansed of those who proposed alternative solutions to the complexities of Brexit negotiations. Consequently, the Brexit-at-any-cost brigade could ignore dissent and the processes by which negotiations and legislation are improved: argument and discussion.

And Covid seems to have challenged most of the population and all our politicians. The Covid Enquiry is revealing that government, in particular decision-making and procurement, were out of control. It was far worse than we suspected.

Rory Stewart is an interesting man and his backstory is not typical of a man who went into parliament as a Conservative Party MP and into government for all that he attended Eton. He had experience of the army and the diplomatic service in Indonesia, the Balkans and Afghanistan. He also had experience of running charities in Afghanistan. Additionally he is a long-distance walker and learned more about Pakistan and Afghanistan through walking. He later did the same in his constituency in Cumbria as an MP. 

In short, his life suggests that he is a man who wishes to make a difference to people’s lives. His experience forms the background to this book, which is focused on his political career.

He takes us through his attempts to be selected to stand for a seat in parliament, competing with others who have often done long years of service as local councillors, or as SPADs (special advisors). He was selected eventually to fight the 2010 election in Penrith and the Border, a huge constituency, far away from Westminster. He attributed his selection to the clear-out of sitting members following the expenses scandal. Having won he entered parliament, only to discover that the power and influence of a Conservative backbencher is to serve as lobby fodder: to vote in the divisions, to attend committees, occasionally to make a speech in the chamber, to expect nothing much for the constituency who elected you. 

Those who made decisions about deploying MPs appear to have ignored his expertise, experience and enthusiasms that were rooted in his pre-parliamentary activities. This continued even when he was given posts within the government. He watched as ministers who knew Afghanistan from a few days’ visit made decision about the deployment of troops and the assistance.

The constituency work was hard, but despite the distance from the House of Commons, he made himself known to the people of Cumbria and tried to improve their lives in practical ways. 

He was appointed to the Ministry of the Environment under Liz Truss. His account of his first day at the job is hilarious and shocking. The Civil Servants were careful to the point of obstruction and his boss required news points but no grounded action. And so it went on. He had positions in International Development, the Foreign Office, in Prisons and Probation. Ministers are moved around with such frequency that it is hard for them achieve anything productive.

 

The gates of HMP Dartmoor

My admiration for his work as prison minister is great. There are no votes in prisons, literally, but he was shocked by the state of many of them and set about trying to help the governors and officers improve conditions and work towards their purpose of rehabilitation. 

And then Boris Johnson, for whom he reserves his most searing criticism, and his circle prevented Teresa May’s Brexit deal and there was a leadership election. Rory Stewart challenged Boris Johnson and made a creditable fist of it. But following his defeat, he left the party along with many others who in various ways challenged the new leadership. The Conservative Party in parliament lost a great deal of talent at that time.

As he relates this political journey, his disillusion becomes ours, the time serving, the lack of power, the need to temper ambition and intentions, the moving ministries to suit political purposes, and finally his ejection through challenging Boris Johnson. His characterisation of Boris as a liar, interested only in himself, is now familiar. As a result of reading this account I was depressed by the inability of the political system to used people of talent, to resist corruption, and failing to achieve much, including in local areas. It has continued under two further prime ministers. Such high hopes, so resolutely defeated.

I also learn a great deal by listening to the Podcast: The Rest is Politics with Rory Stewart and Alistair Campbell.

Politics on the Edge: a memoir from Within by Rory Stewart, published in 2023 by Penguin Random House. 454pp 

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