The year a Gilmore Girl inspired my Lenten fast

It started with an armchair. A gorgeous armchair that I had spotted a year ago, but didn’t buy immediately – which was lucky, as it went on special offer during February. As of a couple of weeks ago, I now have an awesome reading corner in my lounge:

Ikea’s Strandmon armchair & footstool. (As the chair was on offer, obviously it made sense to buy the footstool too…)

The first book I read in my new, fabulously comfortable, reading nook was no weighty theology tome. Nor was it a classic novel, worthy of awards. Nope. It was a celebrity autobiography – star of Gilmore Girls, Lauren Graham’ Talking As Fast As I Can, to be specific. It’s not at all trashy (and includes a diary of the Gilmore revival, a must for all GG fans), but nonetheless I was surprised when something Lauren mentioned provided a seed of an idea that has blossomed into my Lenten challenge for 2017…

One chapter of the book chronicles Lauren’s efforts to write and her determination to get some discipline into her routine. A friend suggested to her the ‘kitchen timer technique’ – otherwise known as Pomodoro. It’s pretty simple (although the explanation goes on for several pages): turn everything distracting off; set a timer; write or journal until it goes off; and repeat. In fact, this wasn’t my first encounter with Pomodoro – regular alarms and noises go off in the Matryoshka Haus office, indicating the passing of time for our resident graphic designer.

It’s a useful tactic to have in one’s arsenal. I’ve been trying to get more disciplined in my writing this year, so it was something to file away. Then I thought about my reading corner, and the pile of worthy books I currently have sitting in my office at church, desperately needing to be read. And I put a few things together. What better way to mark Lent than by ploughing through my To Be Read theology pile?

So, here’s the plan: I pledge to spend half an hour a day in my armchair, reading theology. There’ll be a notebook, a pencil and a timer and an ambition for quality rather than quantity. Read, ponder, wonder – any of those are fine. The important thing is making the time. (Ideally this will happen after my morning prayer on the balcony slot, but that might be too ambitious for mornings when I also need to be at morning prayer at 9am.)

Grateful to my favourite inhabitant of St Denis des Murs for the London Tube themed notebook!

My first book is Rowan Williams’ Being Disciples, which everyone says is simply marvellous. Plus, I’ve committed to read it with one of my oldest friends, so I need to get a wriggle on. Next? Who knows – I need to have a search through my shelves and see what takes my fancy. I’ve recently acquired a stash of feminist theology and missiology thanks to my Mum having a clear out, so some of that needs to be included too. [The ABC’s Dethroning Mammon will be read in regular work time – we’re using it for our Lent series, so it’s an essential – before anyone suggests it.]

Hopefully, my Lenten pledge will turn into a regular habit. I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading theology regularly since I left college. (In part, thanks to my tutor actually telling me that I should take a break for a while because I’d been working so hard.) I’ve read it for research work (when I get paid to read), but the books that come out that everyone says I should read? Not so much.

Here’s to Ash Wednesday, and all that Lent will bring!

All I want is a room somewhere…

“…far away from the cold night air. With one enormous chair. Oh wouldn’t it be lovely…”

I don’t often quote dear Eliza (Don’t get the reference? Shame on you, even non-musical lovers should recognise a bit of My Fair Lady!), but today the lyrics sprang to mind as I was bemoaning a particularly irritating absence in my working (or even non-working) life. This absence specifically relates to furniture, of a soft, comfortable and curl up upon nature – sofas, large armchairs or even a chaise lounge – I’m not overly fussy.

Why should I need such comfort while working? Surely I should just sit at my desk and be an effective typist? Problem is, my work is rather diverse in nature and one element of it involves reading – lots of it – often of actual books, made of paper, that need to be read and take a long time to get through. Such a task is difficult to do at a desk – the screen, phone and presence of colleagues often distracts.

Currently, I need to read the whole of the recently published The Faith of Generation Y (conclusion so far: dubious sample, but hopefully the theological conclusions will be good) which has now ended up in my handbag so I can read it on the tube – even though I have lots of other (non-work) reading I could be doing in this precious slot. Thus, the most reading I’ve got done all week was while sat at Bermondsey station for 45 minutes on Monday, waiting for the Jubilee Line to get its act together. On the plus side, nice to feel like I’m working while quickly realising that I’d be horrifically late for work.

My ideal location for reading would be a luscious armchair or sofa, free from interruptions and comfortable enough to get a good long stint of excellent reading done. At university, we had the perfect location – a quaint room at the top of the (originally named) Old Building holding non-academic books and an array of red, plush armchairs into which you could sink while reading journal articles, a dull text book, the 25p copy of the Guardian or – shockingly – a novel. George Bernard Shaw would, I’m sure, have been proud that his name was bestowed upon this haven that kept me sane during my student days. [Wow, have just impressed myself that I began this post with a quote from My Fair Lady – aka Pygmalion, GBS’s most famous work. It’s almost like I planned it that way, and I didn’t…]

In the real world, such havens do not seem to exist – sadly. There is nowhere at work for me to escape to and read in peace. Starbucks could help, but comfy seats seem to be gradually getting pushed out of their branches (presumably to make room for their new ridiculously large mugs). Local libraries only have boring chairs and tables, unless you take your reading into the children’s area.

Actually, what I could most do with is a version of Central Perk, located in the Marylebone area. I’d have first claim to the sofa, and it would act as my second office when I had masses of reading to do. My friends could hang out there too and keep me company. I’d be able to consume muffins and endless Chai Lattes… Actually, this is now sounding less like a viable work option, and more like an ideal Saturday afternoon. Ho hum. But seriously, if anyone knows of any publicly accessible sofas in the NW1 area, I’d love to hear about them!

Elation and bitter disappointment

Months ago, I regaled you (twice) with my love of a book that is now firmly lodged in my top 3 books of all time – 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I loved it within the first 30 pages and then raved about the fact that its too short-ness was made up for by the inclusion in the same volume of its successor, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

Despite having heard about it aeons ago, I’d somehow not realised until I read it that it was non-fiction – everything in the book(s) actually happened. I think this is what’s made me fall in love with it all the more. Helene’s style of writing and enthusiasm captured me because she thought of books the way I do; plus she loved New York and London – and all the right bits of London. Therefore, it was all I could do to control a shriek of joy when I discovered another book by her in the trusty and fabulous Oxfam bookshop near work.

Q’s Legacy is effectively an autobiography, telling the story of how 84, Charing Cross Road & The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street came about and the impact their publication had on Helene’s life. The Q of the title was a distinguished Cambridge English Professor, whose volumes on English Literature became Hanff’s guide to what to read and how to write – it was his recommendations that led her in search of the classics that led her into the relationship with Marks &Co booksellers of the Charing Cross Road.

Reading Helene’s adventures in London – particularly the success of the stage adaptation – I discovered the fate of the bookshop. Duchess had revealed its closure, but in the 1980’s fans of the book ensured that its memory was kept alive thanks to a plaque on the bookshop’s original site. Finishing this volume last week, I realised that I’d never even thought to go looking for it.

I’m often on Charing Cross Road, after all, it’s the location of my second favourite bookstore (and most excellent bookstore cafe) – the still eccentric Foyles. Last night, following a convivial coffee at the aforementioned cafe, I made it a mini mission to find number 84 and hopefully take a photo of the plaque.

I was bitterly disappointed.
I knew that the original shop had gone and that it had probably been replaced with something terribly naff, but I really wasn’t prepared for what confronted me as I counted down from 90 (on one side of Cambridge Circus) to 82. I had to go back and check that I wasn’t mistaken, but there was no escaping it. Next door to number 82, in the place where Frank Doel had written his many missives to Helene, was…

…a Pizza Hut.

Earlier that afternoon, while on the bus en route to Charing Cross Road, I done a bit of a Google image search to see what it had looked like and what I might be looking out for. It paints a sad tale in the light of the later discovery.

Marks & Co in the 1960s

Nos. 88, 86 & 84 Charing Cross Road in 2004.
See the Costa? (Now part of Pizza Hut.) The second section is number 84. Gutted.

Sometimes I wonder why I write this blog (well, apart from the fact that I enjoy it & find it immensely cathartic), but the fact that since I raved about it, at least four readers have read 84, Charing Cross Road (and loved it themselves) makes me very happy. If you can get hold of a copy of Q’s Legacy, do, in the mean time, I’ll be seeking out anything else Hanff wrote. 


The above photo is not really an example of my most brilliant work, given as it fails to accurately portray its subject and context. What you are looking at is an exercise bike (Alice is demonstrating how it is used) in the middle of a pub’s ladies’ toilets. Yes, in the toilets. See the sinks? The hand-dryer? The doorway into the cubicle? Terribly random. 
[Should you be female and wish to try out this bizarre arrangement, the pub in question is The Boot in King’s Cross.] 
This leads me nicely onto two totally separate bike related anecdotes…
(i) Reading on exercise bikes.
This is one of the more random 2010 Firsts on the right – last month I read whilst cycling at the gym for the first time. I’ve often watched people read on the bikes – usually it’s magazines or newspapers – and I’ve wondered whether they can really be working hard enough, seeing as they look rather relaxed. 
But arriving at the gym near the end of a particularly gripping novel, I decided to give it a go. It was amazing – I didn’t watch the time or the intensity levels, just pedalled on regardless. In fact, I went longer because after half an hour I still hadn’t quite finished the book. Note: reading is really not a good idea on a treadmill… 
(ii) A sudden desire to cycle in London.
I’m not a good cyclist. In fact, I am so bad that I failed my Cycling Proficiency test – I don’t know anyone else who failed it. (Though I did get full marks for the theory…) A rather bad accident aged 12 knocked my confidence and, while I’m very happy doing familiar routes back in Gloucester, preferably on my friend’s gorgeous ‘sit up and beg’ Dutch bike, I’m something of a liability. 
Last week I joined a new choir (there will be much blog fodder derived from this activity, I’m sure of it). It’s local, but as is the way with London, getting there involves either a half-hour walk or a bus. Leaving choir after my first rehearsal, a woman ahead of me jumped on her bike and cycled off towards The Roundabout of Death (as it’s become known in my driving lessons). Suddenly I thought that perhaps my bike would be better off here than in a Belfast basement, if solely for these weekly excursions, and wondered about finding a way of getting it over the Irish Sea.
Lest you be worried for my safety, one conversation with my mother put paid to that idea. Anyone else hearing the words “I’d be worried about you cycling in London” would assume maternal fear of the city’s traffic and roads. No, she was voicing her concern at my cycling capabilities and rightly so. [I’ve recently been  told that she misinterprets some of my comments about her on here, so I need to be careful to say the right thing.] 
Fear not Londoners (or those that love me and would hate for me to end up under a bus) I will hold-off on the cycling desires for now… 


A couple of weeks ago, I got all gooey about my love of books, precipitated in part by 84 Charing Cross Road, which I’d just started reading. The very next day I finished it – it was too short, and I felt cheated that there was still over half the book’s contents to go. The rest of it was taken up by another book by the same author – The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which I knew nothing about.

What followed took me completely by surprised and may just have shot this edition of two-books-in-one right to the top of my ‘favourite books ever’ list. The second book was exactly what I wanted after the end of the first – a follow up that told me exactly what happened next and gave me truly excellent closure. I realise this makes no sense without the context, so let me expand…

Helene Hanff created 84 Charing Cross Road based upon her correspondence in the post-war era with Marks & Co bookshop, based at the address of the title. What I didn’t initially realise was that this is no novel, it’s all real and that makes me love it all the more (it’s the polar opposite of the betrayal I felt having read A Diary of an Ordinary Woman). I’ve said before how I instantly fell in love with this conversation between two book lovers from opposite sides of the Atlantic, it completely tapped into my adoration of physical books and bibliophiles. It comes to an abrupt end (I won’t spoil it for you) and the reader is left hanging. I haven’t been that sad at the end of a book in a long time – I may actually have gasped out loud (on the tube) as I turned the page and realised there was nothing more.

The second book was published sometime later and again is totally true. It’s based upon Hanff’s first trip to London following the success of the original work. In it you meet many of the characters from the first in 3D – rather than just a one-sided letter. By the time she took her seat on the plane home, I was shedding tears along with her. Perfectly beautiful.

Coincidentally, my ‘bedtime’ book that same week was another epistolary work (isn’t that an awesomely amazing word?!), this time total fiction. [In case you’re wondering, I can’t read my handbag book in bed because I’ll forget to put it back in the morning. Bedtime books are usually lighter reads that don’t suffer from falling asleep after 2 pages.] It was also a children’s (or at least teenager) book, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Daddy Long Legs (Jean Webster) is an American novel of the generation after Louisa M. Alcott, telling the story of a young orphan in receipt of a scholarship to college in the early 20th centrury, entirely via the letters she sends to her anonymous patron. She names him ‘Daddy Long Legs’ based upon her only glimpse of him and writes every detail of her life in her epistles, despite knowing that part of the agreement is that he’ll never reply to them. It’s a fascinating insight into the life of an American student in that era – the curfews, dresses and past-times all seem extremely quaint!

I read it as a result of one of my (possibly less endearing) habits – browsing through other people’s books. The terribly lovable Becki and I were having coffee a couple of weeks ago and as she’d arrived early she carried on reading her book. It sat on the table during our chat and when she popped to the loo I picked it up and read the first few pages. On her return she was amused and also astounded I’d never heard of it – so at church the next Sunday she passed it over. I’m extremely grateful to her!

This is not only a strong recommendation of two great books, but also a pondering…
With the death of letter writing, what will become of such books? Will future novels tell love stories via e-mails, emoticons and gchats? Surely that won’t be the same? Will there even be any correspondence other than short tweets and repetitive Facebook comments? I hope so.