While we await US release of Queen of the Desert and Silent Storm, and know that Damian is currently hard at work on delivering Billions to us in the new year, my installment this week will be a collection of random thoughts.
First, there is talk of the next Bond all over Twitter. Some folks seem to think the decision is already made and react accordingly. Most folks just want their own opinions of the matter out there, yay or nay. We’re in wait and see mode over here. And while I don’t really want this artist we love so much put out there, exposed to the awful scrutiny that roles like the Bond franchise bring, him being awarded the franchise, even if it is for just a couple films, will undoubtedly propel him higher in the ranks of the A-list, whatever that means. That and the fact he’ll get to work in his beloved home town may be things he might like, right? So, yeah, whatever he likes, we like. Yes, we are that brand of ride-or-die fans over here.
So much for Bond.
Now let’s switch over to a book I read which, again, had bits of Damian in it. Well, I should say it had a lot of London in it, and therefore bits of Damian. Q’s Legacy, by Helene Hanff, is a book that reads like a blog. Sort of casual and rambling, hopping from thought to thought with no real intention of getting it all to cohere into a conventional narrative. It’s written by a chronic optimist and lover of all experience. Helene Hanff came of age in the Depression and her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college. So she set about schooling herself. Fortunately, she lived in a place beautifully suited to that purpose, New York City. So, she roamed around in the New York Public Library and booksellers up and down the island of Manhattan knew her for the eclectic tastes she had in books. In the NYPL, she had come across a series of lecture notes compiled by a Cambridge don. The words written by this don, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, became her virtual guide as she navigated through her autodidactic journey. She was drawn to literature; she wanted to know how to write and who to read to learn the craft of writing, and, “Q”, as she named her personal guide, provided the answers she sought.
Eventually, Helene exhausted what Manhattan bookshops had to offer and set her sights across the pond. She starting corresponding with a bookshop in London and ordering inexpensive editions of the books she desired. And what a bunch of books they were: robed in soft green leathers and inscribed with carefully attached notes by the booksellers she grew to love like family. It was post-war London: estates were being dismantled, the books within them sold off. Thus, rich first editions were coming on the market and Helene had contracted with the perfect little bookshop on 84 Charing Cross Rd. to get the finest of them to her in NY. Helene knew the bargain she was getting and she knew that Londoners at the time were still recovering from the war, many foods and luxuries still rationed. So, in return for feeding her book lust, she had sent to the bookshop cratefuls of rationed foods, stockings, and whatever else the purveyors of the bookshop needed and couldn’t get. It was a sweet relationship, captured beautifully in a tiny book that compiled all the correspondence between Helene and 84 Charing Cross Rd. That book eventually became a play and a television film and a feature film. The book , 84 Charing Cross Rd, didn’t take more than one evening to read. The film, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, took another. And I still wanted more, so I found the rambling diary-like Q’s Legacy.
Getting to London: In the course of writing the books and making the movies, Helene Hanff gets quite a cult following of fans. By this time, she’s had a couple occasions to see the England of her imagination. And she hankers for more. Happily, a lot of her fans are readers in England who offer to show her around all the parts of England she wrote about longing to see. Being a straight-forward no-nonsense New Yorker, Helene decides to take them up on the offer. She plans out a whirlwind trip to meet her fans and see what they want to show her.
Helene’s London publisher offers up his mother’s flat for her to stay in while the mother is away for the summer. Queue instance number one of Damian Lewis jumping into the book I’m reading so innocently, minding my own business, not even thinking about him one iota. The mother’s flat is in St. John’s Wood, and, you see, St. John’s Wood is the suburb of London where Damian was born.
Helene writes, “I got out my map of London and literally shouted for joy when I located St. John’s Wood. It was at the top of my Visitors’ Map–right alongside Regent’s Park and a lovely walk down along the park’s Outer Circle to Marylebone.” So she sets off and when she arrives she describes the flat is “just off Wellington Road, which seems to be the main avenue out here, very wide and tree-lined… a lovely suburb — old houses, old trees, quiet as the grave at night.” Later someone takes her on a tour of the town: he shows her the post office, the best dry-cleaners, the liquor store and the “local”, “the pub he said was the best in St. John’s Wood.” She describes the town’s High Street (the equivalent of the US Main Street) as a “two-block stretch of small, sedate shops with decorous shop windows – no big signs, no gaudy displays – all of it looking so gentle and well-bred you want to take slow, ladylike steps.” Such details pepper the book throughout. And even though the reader is ostensibly being lead on a literary tour of London, we’re also getting the intimate details of actually living in London, at least in the time this book was written, 1985. Let’s see, Damian would have been a wee lad of 13 or 14 in the St. John’s Wood of this book.
A large part of the book is a travelogue of observations of the peculiarities of life in London, the funny plumbing and kitchen layouts, the odd ways that buildings are hidden behind others, making a challenge out of reading simple addresses. But, then, Helene gets to seeing the sights. She passes by “the windows to Henry James’ study.” She stands next to a house, which her guide complains is not a museum, not protected by National Trust, and even the plaque on the front of the house is not notable, all because the house belonged to Oscar Wilde. She visits Ben Johnson’s grave and Jane Austen’s house and grave.
Then she goes to the Tower of London and starts contemplating Elizabeth I. Queue instance number two of Damian’s innocuous appearance in this tale, as Henry VIII, father of both Elizabeth and of her sister, Bloody Mary, who banished Liz to the Tower. Helene writes “It’s my belief that if Elizabeth hadn’t encouraged… Sir Walter Raleigh to explore the New World, I’d have been born speaking Spanish instead of speaking the tongue that Shakespeare spoke. Well, that’s of importance to nobody but me.” Oh, goodness, how wrong Helene is there. I think about that kind of stuff all the time and did so effusively during Wolf Hall. The far-reaching tentacles of the colonists, their grip lifted for centuries, yet still present everywhere.
On that note, let me stop there with my random book review. I shall leave you with a treat for having read this far: More pics of Damian in a tux. You’re welcome!