On Monday, my youngest daughter had to pay a visit to a dentist on Wimpole Street. These days, the street is lined rather prosaically with the discreet brass plaques of dentists . . . but at various points in time (real and fictional), characters as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Barrett, Professor Henry Higgins and Paul McCartney resided there. It is one of those London places with a special frisson, at least for me. All of those layers of history just go straight to my imagination.
Since Wimpole Street is conveniently close to one of my favorite bookstores -- the splendid Daunt Books -- I thought that a bit of book-browsing (buying, too, of course) would happily fill a spare hour or two.
I hadn't ventured far into the store before I was distracted by a display of beautifully bound Virago Modern Classics. One of the first novels to catch my eye was 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. Not long ago, my daughter and I had watched this film -- with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in the lead roles. When I randomly opened the book, it fell upon a letter that I remembered well from the film: Helene is speaking of her desire to visit London: "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 . . .". She speaks of her longing "to look for the England of English literature."
Of course I had to buy this lovely book -- which describes, so entertainingly, the transatlantic friendship forged by and through books. If that wasn't a sign, then Wimpole street was!
Daunt Books is spread out over three floors, and in some ways it feels more like a library than a bookstore. There are three major sections: literary fiction, travel books and second-hand books. We were there for more than an hour, and the man with the black braces and the bald head never stirred from his seat. Perhaps it is all of that polished wood, or the parquet floors, but it has a particular hushed quality that encourages a person not just to browse -- but to delve inside the tempting pages.
When I was browsing the catalog of Jarndyce: The Nineteenth Century Booksellers, I saw this quotation:
I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library. (Jorge Luis Borges)
Absorbed in my own book searches, I didn't notice that my daughter had disappeared; well, except for the vague sense that no one was tugging at my elbow and saying "I'm bored!"
When she finally appeared, her eyes were shining and her hands held a treasure: a first-edition copy of Yvette in Italy and Titania's Palace, written by Nevile Wilkinson and published in 1922. As far as I can tell, by examining the bookplates, this edition was specially made for The Children's Union (Waifs and Strays). Apparently this was a stray copy, as there is still a perforated form in the back of the book for any child who wishes to become a Rose-Maiden of the Order of the Fairy Kiss. The pristine quality of the copy, not to mention the still attached form, convinces me that my daughter will be the first reader to really know this book. Unfortunately, I doubt that the Order of the Fairy Kiss is still organizationally intact.
So with our bag of books -- several new ones for me, and one special old one for my daughter -- we retreated to Paul for coffee and crepes.
Although we shared occasional discoveries, mostly we sat, and read, in companionable silence.
Despite having visited London many times, my daughter has never liked it much. Many people are energized by the frenzied activity, but she prefers less crowded places. Like most London visitors, we have tended to travel the busy streets: Oxford Street, thronged with shoppers, and Piccadilly Circus, choked with tourists. We have pursued loud and expensive entertainments; we have attempted Hamleys during the school holidays and risked Harrods during an annual sale. My daughter has been to museums and the theatre and ice skating at Somerset House, but funnily enough, she has never walked a quiet street as London goes about its everyday business.
Despite all of our efforts to chase it down, sometimes it seems that pleasure is more easily found in a simple moment; at least I have found that to be true. I've long known where my happiness is likely to be found, but how gratifying to discover that my daughter can find it in the same place!