I thought I could never feel fond of Charing Cross Road. In 1988, when I was 23, I spent the most miserable three months of my life there. In one fell swoop, I had lost my fiancé, my flat and my job. (In a panic, as university came to an end, I had started my working life as a graduate trainee in a City bank. It was not a good move.) Facing what felt like a futureless future, I signed up for a ‘Sight and Sound’ typing course on the bleak first floor of a building next to the Garrick Theatre. Secretarial instruction was delivered over headphones to classrooms full of women, and, as I tried to follow the disembodied tutorials, my fingers kept slipping and jamming between the keys of a hefty, black manual typewriter. As I emerged at lunch-time, and wandered towards Soho Square to eat a sandwich, surrounded by shoals of down-and-outs and drunks, I kept thinking of that line from The Waste Land: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’.
What would have happened had a job not fallen into my lap, I hardly dare think. But, just as the course was finishing, I was taken on as a sub-editor at Harpers & Queen. Within days there, I discovered that I loved working with words; and, despite a meagre salary, employment on a glossy magazine had its perks. There were restaurants to review, and health farms; and, in the spring of 1988, a free ticket to New York. It was there, in the sunshine, in Central Park, that I first read 84 Charing Cross Road – a battered old paperback edition, discovered in the apartment of the friend I was staying with. It came as a boost at just the right moment, and sent me home with a dash of Helene Hanff ’s dauntless appetite for life, and for reading, and with her curiosity as to whether ‘the England of English literature’ could actually be found.
It was from an unheated, ground-floor brownstone apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, not far from where I sat reading in Central Park, that,
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