Sunday, March 20, 2011

Underfoot in Show Business (or Life on the Banks)

My stepmother, J--, and I have had a love affair with Helene Hanff for many years. We shared copies of her books and wept watching the movie of 84 Charing Cross Rd. As of last year, we had both made pilgrimages to the site of the London bookstore, gazing wistfully into either an empty store front or something entirely different, taking photos of the memorial plaque and thinking of people and books long gone.

I recently reread my copy of Letter from New York, made up of transcripts from the short radio broadcast Hanff did once a month for the BBC's Women's Hour for several years through the late 70s and into the 80s. J--'s birthday is coming up and I'd gotten in contact with the BBC to see if anything had survived of the original audio (no word back from them, of course) but it had started a craving for those books again, another reread which happens every year or so. So I tucked the tiny paperback into my bag and read it on my lunch breaks over the space of two weeks. Craving not yet satisfied.

Underfoot in Show Business is a funny little book she was asked to write before she became known for 84, with each chapter a story about life as an unsuccessful playwright in New York during the 40s and 50s. There is so much buried here. In one chapter, Hanff describes working in the Theatre Guild's press office, churning out publicity for a modern American opera by an untested pairing of a operetta lyricist and a musical-comedy composer, which they all thought would flop (in the words of the earliest critique: 'No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance'), having to change the name of the play from Away We Go to Oklahoma, and then days before opening adding an exclamation mark to 10000 press releases.

Hanff's eventual move into television writing (which she was ashamed to do and equated with prostitution) and then into books is also chronicled but in between that and the lunches with agents, producers and theatre greats like Irving Berlin, there's more about the daily grind to survive suffered by aspiring creatives throughout the city: living in bug-riddled garrets, sneaking into Broadway shows, summer work in regional theatre companies and, in one chapter, being an outside reader for a film studio, forced to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy over a single weekend in order to write a detailed synopsis, eventually billing them for 'mental torture'.

I'm no great reader of non-fiction but I've kept coming back to these books for almost twenty years. Hanff's books always remind me of this quote, which I found while researching something or other in a book of essays about intimate journalism:
 'Civilisation is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record; while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.' (Will Durant, Intimate Journalism: The art and craft of reporting everyday life)
I'm not interested in wars and victories, civilisations rising and falling. The stories I'm interested in reading are the ones on the banks, the ones that flash by unnoticed as historians steer their craft through the river of more momentous events and moments in time.

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