Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

Tag: England

At the corner of 84 Charing Cross Road and Typewriter Street

A stately British bookseller and an American writer exchange letters across the pond? Sounds like a cozy English romance novel to me. Turns out 84, Charing Cross Road is neither a novel nor a romance, but a collection of actual letters from over 20 years of correspondence, and it’s delightful.

Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at the rare book store at the titular address in London, is the straight man in this epistolary relationship. This allows Helene Hanff, a Brooklyn screenwriter and lover of British literature, to sparkle with personality. You get a pretty good sense of what Hanff was like right away. It doesn’t take long for her to playfully badger Doel, a man she’d never met, about a book she requested:

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. .. Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.

And:

what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?

— MISS Hanff to you. (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)

Their letters also place them in the specific historical moment of postwar England where rationing made basics like meat and jam luxuries:

I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Some day, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).

She’s also clearly a bibliophile. When the bookstore employees send her a book and a note with their signatures as a Christmas gift, she admonishes them for writing the note on a separate card rather than in the book itself:

I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.

And yet, she’s not precious about them:

My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

I watched the 1987 movie version right after reading the book. It includes pretty much every word from the original letters, so reading the book will give you all you need. Then again, you’d miss out on some solid typewriter action, as seen above and here, with Hanff played by Anne Bancroft:

Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, also gets in on the action with his Underwood:

There’s also the real Helene:

Tom, John, Abby & George

The fourth episode of the John Adams miniseries (“Reunion”) contains two of the best scenes in the show. The first is John hanging with Abigail and Thomas Jefferson in Paris. It’s fun to consider now how these titans of American history would have interacted in their time, before they achieved titan status:

The second is when John Adams meets with King George III as the first American ambassador to Great Britain. Giamatti perfectly portrays the range of emotions Adams must have felt serving this role: pride above all, I imagine, in every sense of the word. To represent his new country in such a prestigious role also carried with it the custom of bowing deeply not once, not twice, but thrice, to the monarch he had so vociferously criticized:

Still delighted HBO chose to dedicate a series to the Founding Father who would not land on Mount Rushmore but had an undeniable influence in making it possible one day.

A Ship-Shape Ticker

John Harrison in a 1767 portrait.

If I could bring back Google Maps to early eighteenth-century Britain, I’d be a millionaire. See, figuring out a ship’s longitudinal coordinates was a huge problem back then. So much so that the British Parliament offered a prize of what amounts to $2.2 million in today’s dollars to anyone who could produce a practical method for pinpointing a ship’s location.

Latitude was pretty easy: All you needed was the sun and some charted data. But longitude had theretofore only been discernible by sheer instinct and guesswork, which often led to ships crashing into unforeseen hazards and hundreds of casualties. Even renowned navigators armed with a compass (which were still unreliable at the time) had to basically hope they weren’t going the opposite way or that the ship didn’t run aground.

That’s where John Harrison came in. Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time tells the story of this lovably odd son of a carpenter with no formal scientific training who created a revolutionary maritime clock. Previous ship clocks couldn’t keep time in bad weather, but Harrison’s was self-stabilizing and self-lubricating so that it wouldn’t wear down and wouldn’t be affected by the briny sea air and turbulent waters.

Harrison responded to Parliament’s challenge for a longitudinal tool, but unlike other people with crackpot submissions, he wasn’t in it for the money. He was like the Nikola Tesla of maritime horology: eccentric, hermetic, obsessive, but in it only for the joy of the scientific challenge itself. And like Tesla with Thomas Edison, Harrison had a natural antagonist in Nevil Maskelyne, a royal astronomer appointed to Parliament’s “Board of Longitude,” which controlled the terms of the prize money. Maskelyne had his heart set on the lunar distance method, which involved gauging the moon’s distance from another star to calculate the local time, and gave Harrison all kinds of politically motivated headaches along the way in order to get the lunar method some headway. Harrison’s son even had to resort to writing King George III (the King George) to get some help moving the intransigent Board along. Turns out the young monarch was a science geek himself and gladly helped the Harrisons out (just as he was levying heavy taxes on an increasingly disgruntled colonial America).

Overall, Sobel’s book, though heavily biased toward Harrison, is an accessible, breezy account of his engineering process, the radical innovations he made in every version of his “chronometer,” and the obstacles he had to surmount to achieve recognition from a skeptical scientific community. Take some time to read it.

Terror Will Lose

At the climax of The Dark Knight, Joker has Batman trapped on the top of a skyscraper while he waits for the boats full of prisoners and civilians to blow up. The clock strikes midnight — the deadline the Joker gave to those on the boat — but there’s no explosion. For the first time in the movie, the Joker looks surprised and out of control. Batman, despite being momentarily trapped and defenseless, chides him: “What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s exactly like you? You’re alone.”

I thought of this scene when reading about this brave British woman named Ingrid Loyau-Kennett who confronted the knife-wielding terrorists immediately after their barbarous acts today. They told her they wanted to start a war in London, to which she replied: “It is only you versus many people. You are going to lose; what would you like to do?”

Terror and fear don’t get to win. These men can be angry about people who are dying in Afghanistan, but propagating the “eye for an eye” principle leads only to self-destruction. These cowardly villains can make a grand show of their hate, but they won’t start a war in London nor anywhere else they wish. They won’t win converts to their twisted ideology, save for a few other confused souls. They are alone. And people like Ingrid Loyau-Kennett prove that every day.

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