Dear Reader,

Summer’s here. Sort of – it’s being pouring the last few days in Brussels. But at least flowers are abloom and getting all the water they need. 

Do you like flowers?

I recently bought a bunch of flowers at the market. Most of them had yet to blossom, hidden within their green pods. The few that had burst through their cocoons were resplendent in bright orange.

Every morning, I was greeted by a tiny red-yellow puff shyly peeking out from its green shell. What a delightful way to start the day! Each flower was like a pompom, Mother Nature’s way of cheering me on as I prepared for work whilst my heart desired to sit in the sunshine to read and sip tea all day long.

It has been more than two weeks since I first laid eyes on these vibrant blooms. I hope that I’ll find them again at the weekend market.

In case I don’t, might you be able to kindly provide me with the name of these flowers? Alas, all I caught of its multi-syllable French name was “ca…mus”. 

Enclosed is a photograph of these mysterious orange blooms.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Many thanks in advance,
Angelina

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The above was inspired by a book that I recently read: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

I had not heard of Hanff nor of the book, but I have fond memories of Charing Cross Road – home to various bookshops in London including the legendary Foyles. It was here, at Foyles, where I felt in love with reading again two years ago.

I love every single bit of this book.

It comprises of two novellas, sort of. The first being “84 Charing Cross Road“, a collection of letters exchanged between Hanff and the people who worked at Marks & Co., an established bookshop in London. Spanning 20 years since 1949, it all started with her wanting to order secondhand copies of out-of-print books.

Most of her correspondence was with Frank Doel, who spent more than 40 years working at the bookshop. It was a pleasure to read this candid, heartfelt and charming exchange of written words.

A special friendship blossomed between these two individuals who had never met, and unfortunately, never did due to Doel’s untimely death. His death was not a surprise to me as this was mentioned in various book reviews when I looked up 84 Charing Cross Road. Yet, when that letter did arrive, I gasped and tears welled up in my eyes.

I love Hanff’s spunk. She’s demanding sometimes, but rightly so, and has a clear idea of what she wants (and doesn’t want).

Please write and tell me about London, I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet. I want to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul’s where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the Tower, and like that. A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for. I told him I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he said: “Then it’s there.”

It was after the successful publication of 84 Charing Cross Road that Hanff finally had enough money to go to London, the city of her dreams, in 1971. During which she also visited the site where Marks & Co. used to be (the bookshop had closed).

84 Charing Cross Road, 1969. Photo: National Library of Australia, Alec Bolton
84 Charing Cross Road, 1969. Photo: National Library of Australia, Alec Bolton

This resulted in a delightful sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” in which she described her sojourn vividly based on the notes in her journal, which a friend had wisely advised her to keep.

I felt unreal, knowing I was on my way to that address. I’d bought books from 84 Charing Cross Road for twenty years. I’d made friends there whom I never met. Most of the books I bought from Marks & Co. were probably available in New York. For years, friends had advised me to ‘try O’Malley’s,’ ‘try Dauber & Pine.’ I’d never done it. I’d wanted a link with London and I’d managed it.

I find her honest and self-deprecating manner to be very refreshing. It was both fun and a treat to see London through her eyes, someone who profoundly loves the city, its history and culture, and its people.

A movie was made based on 84 Charing Cross Road. I’ve not watched it and though I’m tempted to do so after watching snippets of the film which stars Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft! Would be interesting to see how the series of letters have been adapted into a movie.

Have you watched 84 Charing Cross Road or read the book itself? If so, what did you think of it/them?

+++

When was the last time you wrote a letter? E-mails don’t count. 

It’s been a few years since I wrote one though there’s the occasional postcard.

The first person with whom I regularly exchanged letters was my childhood best friend, Melanie, who moved to the States after her father was posted there for work. This was during the late 1980s when the Internet didn’t exist in my world.

We updated each other on things we did in school and at home. Melanie’s letters were often decorated with illustrations and I always marvelled at the unusual stamps that enabled these written tales to travel across the oceans from the US to Singapore.

Melanie

Then there was my dear friend, Edward from university. When he moved to San Francisco, we kept in touch mostly through handwritten letters.

In his tiny script, he told me about days spent fixing his car with petrol oil dripping down his armpits (which still has me bursting in laughter every time I imagine the scene), living in the US and how things were like when he was younger. It was like having a slow conversation with long monologues, something which I treasured immensely and looked forward to.

You would have noticed that I scratched out ’emails don’t count’ a few paragraphs above…

When I was still living in Singapore, AB and I often exchanged long emails rather than written letters sent via airmail. There was so much to share with each other and I suppose there was some impatience (at least on my part) to communicate with him!

+++

P.S. If you recognise the orange flowers at the top of this post, please let me know. Thanks!

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25 replies on “Mysterious orange blooms and the joys of letter-writing

  1. I think I’d enjoy the book. Thanks for the tip. I am really down to 2 written correspondents, an aunt in her 80s and a family friend in her 70s. I guess the taxman doesn’t count. But I still have a splendid fountain pen and ink bottle on my study desk. I just need an excuse to use it.

  2. That’s one of my favourite books which I reread every now and then. But my cover isnt as lovely as yours.

    I do send out letters/postcards/cards every now and then. My friend, a Singaporean who lives in HK, and I try to write each other once in a while. And I still keep in touch with my New Zealand penpal! We started writing when we were learning to write and continued till our late teens. These days we keep up via Facebook though.

    1. I’m glad I chanced upon it in the bookstore 🙂 How nice that you’re still in touch with your penpal. Now that I’m in Brussels, it seems like I’m the only one writing cards/postcards to family and friends back in Singapore and I usually get a reply back via some electronic means!

    1. THANK YOU!!! You’ve just made my day by solving this mystery 🙂 Turns out that the name that the florist mentioned is “carthamus” which is the species of flower that this belongs to 🙂

  3. What an inspiring post Angelina! I still send stuff through the mail sometimes. It really makes people feel so special too. After a shitty day in this crazy world, this is the kind of posts that makes me feel good and calm again…

    1. You’re most welcome Stephane and thanks for taking the time to drop a note! I enjoyed reading your latest post about dessert wines and the history behind the chateau, though I don’t drink much of dessert wines myself as I find them too sweet.

  4. I’m thankful for the internet since it was always difficult for me to actually sit down and write something, pen & paper. My handwriting has since deteriorated to the point I can’t even read it myself sometimes 🙂
    I’m typing this dressed in the colours of your flowers trying to woo the rain away!

    1. I love these little blooms. I also spotted some purple ones from the same family when we were hiking in the Picos de Europa last weekend.

      I don’t write letters much nowadays either. Writing posts here for the blog seem even more time-consuming than writing letters!

  5. I don’t know about these flowers, but I can say they are beautiful! Last “real” letter I wrote for Christmas two years ago to my german teacher. I sometimes think I have to write more by hand to keep exercising, the hand, the brain, the eye…the coordination!
    I’ll look for 84 Charing Cross Road in my bookshop, not sure if there is an italian translation. If not I’ll look for the english one, now you made me curious…
    robert

      1. I went to my usual bookstore and they sold the last copy of it a couple of days before! But it is on order, not sure I’ll get it before summer holiday (august). Meantime I bought the new translation of “Furore” by Steinbeck.
        rob

        1. It’s a short and easy read, good for anytime of the year! I’ve got a copy of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath waiting to be read. But it’s a long reading ‘queue’ 😉

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