Tag Archives: London

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

It’s a phrase we might all be contemplating at the moment, when will it be ‘business as usual’? In this book, first published in 1933, it refers to commercial business, in this case an Oxford Street store that resembles Selfridges, and also to the business of being young and finding one’s way in London and in love. It’s a very satisfying novel with some especially attractive features.

Business as Usual 

Hilary Fane has decided to earn her own living for a year before she marries her Edinburgh fiancé, Basil. She goes to London, finds digs in the Minerva Hotel (very seedy) and sets out to find a job. Both employment and accommodation are difficult for single girls in the inter-war years. She is pleased to get a post as a lowly clerk in the Library section of Everyman’s Store.

The novel is epistolary in form, which means it’s made up of letters, memos and other paper communications sent to each other by the characters. Most of the letters are by Hilary to Basil or to her parents in Edinburgh. They include long descriptions of what she does, eats, how she budgets, changes digs, and her issues and challenges at work. She illustrates them with line drawings which I found very apt. 

There are also memos from store employees about Hilary or other details that help the story along, such as complaints by some of the more dyed in the wool colleagues in the face of Hilary’s innovations. The most significant, and unexplained document, is a certificate for a registered package sent from Hilary to Basil.

p121

The letters, memos and drawings all add to the charm of this novel. I most enjoyed the episode when Hilary is required to respond to a letter of complaint about an unsuitable book that has been sent to an established subscriber. The letter is brought by a senior member of staff who is very grand and Hilary gives him an appropriate nickname.

‘Mrs Pillington-Smythe’ (it said) ‘is amazed that any firm of your standing should encourage the sale of books which can undermine the morals of our country. If certain people choose to demand such literature (save the mark) that is their own affair. But surely, even in these degenerate days, youth is sacred.’ […]

‘She ought to have a very careful letter,’ I suggested. ‘We might say that these books are kept solely for a small clientele with advanced – I mean peculiar – views. And while we may deplore their tastes …’ (The Minor Prophet finished the sentence as I’d hoped.) ‘We are nevertheless obliged to satisfy their requirements.’ His voice wobbled a little, but when I looked hopefully up at him, his face was grimmer than ever. ‘And then,’ I said, ‘We’d send a much more expensive and extra pure book in exchange – no further charge, of course.’ (74-5)

Hilary’s breathless and upbeat attitude carry her through the difficulties of having very little money in Londonand through the love story that emerges in these pages. We are speedily disappointed in Basil’s response to his fiancée’s adventures. And we can see a new love interest coming over the horizon long before Hilary does. Along the way we have learned much about the life of the working girl and what went on behind the scenes in big stores and subscription libraries in the ‘30s. The book is dedicated to The people who work from nine to six.

Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford

Another feature of this book that I found fascinating was that it was written by two people. I have co-written and published books (all non-fiction) myself, and the arrangements have been varied. One book was written by one person after extensive discussions; for another the sections were written by different people; yet a third method was to sit side by side, sometimes literally sometimes metaphorically, and write each bit together. There is no clue how Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford wrote together. I wonder how these two experienced writers managed the process. And they did manage it for between them and together they wrote an astounding total of 97 books, many of them for Mills & Boon.

Finally, a word about the independent publisher, Handheld PressBusiness as Usual is one of their Classics, which they say 

present forgotten fiction and authors who need to be rediscovered, with introductions by experts and astonishingly useful notes.

The books themselves are beautifully produced, nice paper, good design, well-supported by notes and they are interesting choices. I have previously read and admired Blitz Writing by Inez Holden.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford first published in 1933 and reissued by Handheld Press in 2020. 242pp

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84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Here is a book about the love of books and about generosity and how together they developed into a warm friendship between many people. That is the pleasure of reading 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

We have reached the 1970s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury. This book is not especially important in the history of women or of Anglo-American relations. But it has a great charm and its popularity has endured since its publication in 1971. Helped by a film with good-looking actors.

84 Charing cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters. Mostly it is the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York and Frank Doel, who worked at Marks & Co at the eponymous address in London. Helene Hanff first wrote to request copies of books that were difficult to find in New York at the end of the Second World War. Marks & Co was a second hand and antiquarian bookshop.

October 5, 1949

Gentlemen,

Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialise in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian book-sellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books, and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies.

I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean seondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?

Very truly yours,

Helene Hanff

(Miss) Helene Hanff

The books she wanted were non-fiction: Hazlitt essays, Oxford verse, and so on. Helene Hanff was a writer, of articles, tv scripts and children’s history books. She did not earn a great deal from her writing.

The responses came first from FPD, later Frank Doel, finally Frank. At first Frank Doel was formal and scrupulous in his replies. But as she responded with wit and warmth to the books she received or did not receive, he dropped the reserve.

The turning point in the relationship, turning it from a commercial transaction to a friendship, was when Helene Hanff sent a food parcel containing ham at Christmas 1949 to the staff of Marks & Co. Rationing continued in Britain until1953, so she continued to send food parcels.

Here are some examples:

March 1950

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing. You are just sitting AROUND.

September 1950

he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently.

Dear Frank:

Yes I want it.

April 1951

To All at 84, Charing Cross Road:

Thank you all for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book with pages edged all around in gold.

Gradually other members of staff began to write to Helene Hanff, for they too benefited from the food parcels. Frank Doel’s wife joined in and even their neighbour. Helene Hanff clearly had the gift of creating a community even through the vagaries of the British and American postal services.

And then in January 1969, not quite twenty years after that first letter Helen Hanff received this letter.

Dear Miss,

I have just come across the letter you wrote to Mr Doel on the 30thSeptember last, and it is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday 22ndDecember, the funeral took place last week on Wednesday the 1stJanuary.

… Do you still wish us to try and obtain the Austens for you?

What is special about 84 Charing Cross Road?

The pleasure in this correspondence is the evident love of reading and the love of books.  Another pleasure is to see the beneficial effects of generosity of spirit. And the death of Frank Doel was not the end of it. This book was published two years later. The chief correspondents had never met, but she had always wished to visit London, and now she had friends to meet. When she could finally afford the airfare she visited to celebrate the publication of this book. Following her London visit Helene Hanff wrote The Duchess of Bloomsbury, included in the edition I read.

And then in 1987 there was the film, starring Anthony Hopkins at his warmest as Frank Doel, and Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. It is hard to reread the book without these two occupying my mental image of the writers. But they did an excellent job. And at least it wasn’t made into a rom-com with a happy-ever=after together ending.

Helene Hanff died in 1997. She was 79 years old.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, first published by Andre Deutsch in 1971. I read the paperback edition published by sphere. 230pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson (1962)

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