Lexicon: “The shovel broke.”

NOTE: I originally wrote this in 2010. But Ulrika and I just watched Snowpiercer, and I realized it should be resurrected.

So tonight we were watching Glee S1:D3 from Netflix, and I made an observation about how unlikely this was from choral standards — but, hey, what do I know? I only sang in grade school, high school, and college choirs for 12 years.

And Ulrika said, “I wonder when the shovel will break?”

We both realized there was a lexicon entry — because she got that phrase from me.


There I am living in Harwood Court, a dorm on the Pomona College campus.

I’m talking to Doug Shepherd, class of ’84, and some other folks, and I forget just how this came up, but he says, “Night of the Comet is so bad, the shovel breaks before the opening titles.”

“Oh?” I say. “What do you mean by that, Doug?”

“Well… All fiction is basically the art of throwing shit in your general direction. When you’re in the hands of a master — Tolstoy, say, or Hitchcock — they shovel the shit out of the way so quickly and so cleanly you don’t ever really notice it. Their shovels are made out of a mix of titanium and carbon fiber. But let’s face it — not everyone is that good. So, sooner or later, the shit is just so heavy their shovel breaks. Then the shit the story depends on starts piling up. I mean, it becomes a big pile. Then it starts stinking. You just can’t pay any attention to the story, because this steaming pile of shit is between the story and you, and it keeps growing, because their shovel has broken, and they just can’t get it out of the way.”

Night of the Comet starts with this text prologue on the screen. And this text is so lame, and so ridiculous… I’m telling you, the shovel breaks before the titles show up.”

“So it becomes something of a measure of quality, y’know? Just when does the shovel break in a story?”


This was the thing Doug told me I remember best, and have found most useful in the passage of time. And now I pass it on to you.


EDITED TO ADD: I was wrong. It’s not a crawl of text. Such is the world in which we live I was able to download the movie to look, check, and verify. It opens with John Carpenter-ish synth riffs, and deep, dark narration by Michael Hanks. It was tough to punctuate the following, because many times you’d think a sentence was over, and then it would go on.

Since before recorded time it had swung through the universe in an elliptical orbit so large that its very existence remained a secret of time and space. But now, in the last few years of the twentieth century, the visitor was returning.

Animated comet goes whooshing by.

The citizens of Earth would get an extra Christmas present this year, as their planet orbited through the tail of the comet. Scientists predicted a light show of stellar proportions – something not seen on Earth for 65 million years. Indeed, not since the time that the dinosaurs disappeared virtually overnight.

There were a few who saw this as more than just a coincidence. But, most didn’t.

Looking Dated

A while back, I read this piece in the New Yorker by Tom Vanderbilt, “What Makes a Work of Art Seem Dated?”

This paragraph stood out for me:

“Sometimes, of course, things are genuinely ahead of their time. In “The Architecture of Happiness,” Alain de Botton reprints a 1927 advertisement for Mercedes-Benz that depicts a woman, wearing gloves and a cloche (that iconic headwear of the twenties), one foot astride the running board. The woman and the car are posed in front of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s Double House, built for the Weissenhof housing project in Stuttgart. The photo reads like a children’s game: Which of these things is not like the others? The car and the woman are Jazz Age relics; the house looks like it could be have been built in Malibu last week. The irony is that the advertisement wants to depict all three as the quintessence of “modern,” but only the house, so stylistically out in front, kept on being “modern.”

Here’s the picture in question:

1927 advertisement for Mercedes-Benz

1927 advertisement for Mercedes-Benz

The fashion looks dated because fashion moved on.

The car looks dated because industrial design moved on.

The architecture doesn’t look dated because architecture hasn’t moved on.

It isn’t that this building is “genuinely ahead of (its) time.” It is absolutely, rigidly, painfully of its time. It’s that in the 86 years since, architecture hasn’t moved one millimeter. So when you design a building that looks like Corbu’s, remember you’re making one just as full of pastiche as designing clothes or a car in the retro style of the ad.

The Expo 67 Test

I was mulling over the way architecture has hit creative vapor lock, but rhetorically insists that recently designed buildings are somehow more current than classically designed buildings, which are dismissed as “mere pastiche.” I’ve talked about this before, in response to seeing the TV program Architecture School.

To give an idea of the stasis I see, I’ve come up with what I call the Expo 67 Test:

If this building had been built or proposed as a national pavilion at Expo 67, would it have caused any aesthetic controversy at all?

(It’s the “or proposed” that’s the real key — as any student of 20th century architecture knows, there are an awful lot of unbuilt but influential projects out there.)

This article at TheAtlanticCities about yet another proposal by Zaha Hadid that fails the Expo 67 Test was the immediate spark. That ceiling, from inside the stadium, looks like nothing so much as the Olympic Stadium in Munich for the 1972 games, and that in turn was clearly based on the BRD (West German) Pavilion at Expo 67.

Jobshenge is another building that utterly fails the Expo 67 Test. It keeps being described as “futuristic,” and I suppose it is, but only with those ironic scare quotes — it would look completely at ease in a 1960s Kubrick SF movie.

The interesting thing is how the Expo 67 Test can be expanded to other arts as well:

* Would this painting look out of place in a gallery show at Expo 67?
* Would this piece of music have sounded out of place as “new music” in a concert at Expo 67?

Etc., etc., et bloody cetera.



On June 7th, Steve Jobs made a presentation to the Cupertino City Council regarding a new headquarters campus for Apple. Above is a sample rendering.

My first thought on seeing it: Ha, ha. Somebody decided to take “Infinite Loop” literally.

My second thought: 12,000 people, and not one gets Light on Two Sides. I guess Jobs doesn’t get along with Christopher Alexander.

My third: My god, it’s the Brown Ring of Quality, right out of Dilbert’s jokes about the Lucent logo!

My fourth: Topologically, that’s identical to the Pentagon — Which ain’t exactly known for agile, innovative, creative thinking.

But my final thought: Let’s call it what it really is: Jobshenge. (Mr. Izzard whispers: “The biggest henge in the world!”)

I have a longer post I’d like to make here, revolving around what could happen if Jobs took “campus” literally rather than “infinite loop” — but I’ve been stalling on it for a while, because “perfect” is the enemy of “good enough.” So I’m declaring this Good Enough, and getting it out the door.

“Talks up a storm with those wooden teeth…”

Or so Stan Freberg says of George Washington when he Presents the United States, Vol. 1.

One problem, though. Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood.

I don’t know if it was this review of WASHINGTON: A Life by Ron Chernow in the New York Times. Still, I recently heard, in connection with Chernow’s book, something similar to Times reviewer Janet Maslin’s comment: “[Washington had a] harshly pragmatic attitude toward slavery (he purchased slaves’ teeth, perhaps for use in dentures).”

Yeah… that caused a big gulp on my part. Perhaps I have too much empathy but… George Washington? Of all people? Using the teeth of his slaves for his dentures? Can you be more literal yet symbolic when it comes to an image of white privilege and rapaciousness?

I hunted down what I think may be the source for this. It’s reprinted online by the PBS series Frontline, but I believe it’s this article by Mary V. Thompson, who is described as, “A research specialist at Mt. Vernon, [who] studies the domestic life, foodways, and religious practices of the residents of George Washington’s plantation, with a special interest in the slave community.” The article originally appeared in Virginia Cavalcade, Volume 48, Autumn 1999, No. 4, pp.178-190.

Here’s the core of it:

“Slaves of the eighteenth century sometimes turned to the perfectly acceptable means of making money by selling their teeth to dentists. Since at least the end of the Middle Ages, poor people had often sold their teeth for use in both dentures and in tooth-transplant operations for those wealthy enough to afford the procedures. Sometimes the teeth were perfectly healthy; others were diseased and needed to be pulled anyway. In 1780 a French dentist named Jean Pierre Le Moyer (also called Le Mayeaur, Le Mayeur, and Joseph Lemaire) came to America, possibly as a naval surgeon with the French forces commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau, and over the next decade treated patients in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Alexandria, and Richmond. He seems to have had an extensive practice in tooth transplants, but the results of the procedure were short-lived, usually less than one or two years. Transplantable teeth were hard to come by, and in 1783 Le Moyer even went so far as to advertise in the New York papers for “persons disposed to sell their front teeth, or any of them,” netting the donor two guineas (forty-two shillings) per tooth. In Richmond, he offered anyone but slaves a similar amount for their front teeth. Technical problems made it impossible to transplant molars, so the operation was probably useful primarily for cosmetic reasons. Le Moyer first treated George Washington’s teeth at his military headquarters in 1783.

The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed “Negroes,” presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, “on acct. of the French Dentis [sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic],” almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure–”I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784–and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves.”

Wow. Just… wow.


EDITED TO ADD: Mount Vernon has an exhibit that includes the only known surviving denture of Washington’s. “Carved from hippopotamus ivory, the denture contains real human teeth fixed in the ivory by means of brass screws.” Since I first posted this link (which keeps changing), Mount Vernon has decided to mention the provenance of the “real human teeth” in question. Originally, they didn’t.

ETA2: It wasn’t the Times. It was this piece in the New Yorker, by Jill Lepore. Lepore herself is a history professor at Harvard, which, combined with the New Yorker‘s fact checkers, makes this all too credible.

Lepore’s off-hand comment was striking:

“The mar to [Washington’s] beauty was his terrible teeth, which were replaced by unsuccessful transplant surgery and by dentures made from ivory and from teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves.”

It was “pulled” that made my heart drop. Thompson’s account makes it seem much more voluntary — or as voluntary as a commercial transaction with a person who owns you as chattel can be.

Dorothy Barclay Thompson, 1918-2009

dot back jacket photoMy step-grandmother, Dorothy Barclay Thompson, died in New York City last Thursday, the 10th.

Dorothy Barclay, known to her family as Dot, was born March 12, 1918, also in New York, to George Barclay and the former Edith Roblin. George was a longtime writer for the Business section of The New York Times; Edith, a music teacher. Dot had one older sister, Charlotte Barclay, who died in 1998.

Dot attended New York City schools, and moved with her family to Florida in 1931 when her father left The Times. She went to high school in Miami, and graduated from Florida State University in 1938. While at Florida State, she was named Managing Editor of the student newspaper, The Florida Flambeau, for the 1937-38 academic year.

After work on other Florida newspapers, she joined the women’s news department of The New York Times in 1942. In 1949, she was made Parent and Child Editor of The Times. She had at least two syndicated features during the 1950s, “Shopper’s Corner” and “In the Family,” which ran as far afield as Bingen, WA and Kendrick, ID.

She married my grandfather, Stephen G. Thompson, in 1950. The article in The Times which announced this ran on July 2, and was headlined, “Miss Barclay Married” — as if regular readers of The Times would instantly recognize who “Miss Barclay” was. My grandfather was Realty Editor of The New York Herald-Tribune at the time, so one could say it was a mixed marriage.

At roughly this time, Dot served as a member of the Home Economics Council of the Board of Regents, University of the State of New York.

understanding the city childIn 1959 her only book, Understanding the City Child, was published by Franklin Watts of New York. It would later be reprinted by Collier.

In 1964 she was given an Honorary Doctorate by her alma mater, Florida State.

The “Guide to Job Placement of the Mentally Restored,” a 41 page booklet written by Dot and published by The President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, was published in 1965.

In 1965 my grandfather became VP for Public Relations at the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers, which is based in Chicago. Dot left The Times and turned freelance, with writing credits in glossies such as Vogue. After he died in 1973, Dot returned to NY, living at the Barbizon Hotel.

She continues to be cited up to the present day. A search on “dorothy barclay” “new york times” on Google Scholar yields five pages of results, primarily because many researchers looking into contemporary accounts of 1950s attitudes on parenting and children consult The Times, and run squarely across her work.

She died of complications due to pneumonia. She is survived by her seven stepchildren and their own many children, myself among them.


OK, that’s the official-ish obit.

My own memories:

* I had gone with my parents, who were high school teachers, to Expo 67 on a large multi-day field trip the school had arranged. In the summer of 1968 we went back, and the fair had wound down to only the limited exhibition, “Man and His World.” Dad didn’t think too much of that, and with the summer before us, he decided to take us car camping on a circle route around the Great Lakes. One highlight of that trip was visiting Grandpa and Dot at their apartment in Chicago, which was near Lake Michigan between the John Hancock Center and Lincoln Park. I remember being able to walk north to the park, across Lake Shore Dr to the beach, etc.

whale tooth carving* During those years in Chicago, Grandpa and Dot traveled a lot, to places like the Alaska Panhandle and Moscow. Here you see a whale tooth carving Dot brought me from one of those trips. I remember a lot of pictures of them on Red Square, in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, etc.

* It must’ve been 1971 that Grandpa arranged to fly my mother and me out to California for Christmas. Even though I knew something was in the works, Mom had managed to keep our destination from me, mostly by use of Poe’s “Purloined Letter” technique: She told me we were going to California. Dad had just died and I knew things were tight, so this was obvious nonsense. When we got off the plane at SFO, Grandpa and Dot were there to meet us. There used to be a picture, taken in black and white, of a small me looking at the photographer mouth agape, because while I may have recognized them that part had been kept as a surprise.

* Dot was always supportive of my efforts at writing, both poetry and prose. There was something I wrote about my uncle Paul’s wedding, “Camouflage Pants,” that she thought was particularly successful.

I miss her a lot, and am very regretful I squandered my chances to talk to her more often.


dot's little princeUPDATED TO ADD: Turns out Dot knew Saint-Exupéry. From Saint-Exupéry: a biography by Stacy Schiff: “Barclay had earned Saint-Exupéry’s gratitude for having researched a question crucial to him in the writing of the book: How many stars were in the sky?” Dot called the Hayden Planetarium on his behalf.

Schiff includes in the book a photo of the inscription Saint-Exupéry made in Dot’s copy of Le Petit Prince:

The Prince says, in a balloon, “Il faut etre absolument fou pour avoir choisi cette planete-la! Elle n’est sympathique que la nuit, quand les habitants dorment.” (“You have to be absolutely crazy to have chosen that planet! It is nice at night when people are asleep.”)

Beneath the Prince it says, “Le Petit Prince avait tort. Il y a sur la terre des habitants dont la droiture, la gentillesse, la generosite de coeur consolent de l’avarice et de l’egoisme des autres. Par exemple Dorothy Barclay … Avec mon plus amical souvenir, Antoine de Saint Exupéry” (“The Little Prince was wrong. It is the land of people who have honesty, kindness, generosity of heart, and console one from the avarice and selfishness of others. For example, Dorothy Barclay … With my most friendly remembrance, Antoine de Saint Exupéry”)


UPDATED TO ADD 2: Dot’s copy of The Little Prince was the centerpiece of an exhibition at The Morgan on Saint-Exupéry, from January 24 through April 27, 2014. After the exhibition, it was then sold at Christie’s, realizing $125,000, which was subsequently split among my Mom’s generation.


Let me tell you a tale.

It was my senior year in college, and I was in the living room of the cool multi-room “apartment” some friends had in one of the dorms. (That would be Doug Frankenfeld, David Bloom, Dan Nimmo, & Andrew Chittick, all living in Harwood Court.)

Anyway, Andrew had a subscription to The Economist, and I was flipping through it one day.

I read a book review of a selection of James Joyce’s papers. It had been edited by an Irish don at the University of Cork whom the Economist described with delicious hauteur as, “undistinguished even in Irish academic circles.” Seems when Joyce had died during WWII, somehow his papers wandered back to the Irish National Library in Dublin, where they were promptly put under seal at his behest for 50 years.

That wasn’t the fun part, though. The fun part was, said Irish don thought Joyce’s papers should be put under seal for an additional 50 years, because he felt their publication would be, “irreparably damaging to the body of modern literary criticism.”

That got me to wondering. What on earth would be that damaging? That Joyce, Pound, Eliot, et al. were all sleeping with each others’ wives? Nah — we already knew that. That they were plagiarizing from each other? Nah — that’s known, too.

About the only thing I could think of was a letter that said something along the lines of:

Dear Ezra:

Can ye believe they’re buying this bullshit? I write a complete piece of crap, slap the title “Ulysses” on it, and they’re hailing it as a “masterpiece of the 20th Century.” Balls! Just shows that literary critics will never admit they don’t understand something, no matter how incoherently you write it. Put in just enough erudition to tease them, and they’ll go hunting for the “real meaning” of a thing for decades.

Tell you what — I’m going to spend the next ten years working on something I’ll call “Work in Progress,” and then publish it under a relatively innocuous title… “Finnegans Wake,” or some similar twaddle. I’ll try to type it myself, blind as a bat though I may be, and get my illiterate secretary — have you met him? Beckett? — to put it in manuscript form. The bastards will never admit they don’t understand a word.

Love and kisses,



OK, fast forward to 2005 or so. Twenty years later.

I’m between contracts at The Client, and on a 100-day break. I think to myself, “Self… It’s been a long time since I saw anything about the Joyce papers. Shouldn’t they be out by now? Or shouldn’t there have been a decision to lock them up again?”

Such is the world we live in today that I went online to the National Library of Ireland. I couldn’t find the book. I went to the library of University College Cork, Ireland. I couldn’t find the book. I couldn’t find any relevant mention online of the Joyce papers, and the attendant foofaraw.

Hm. What was the name of that Irish don? Only one way to find out…

So I trundled on down to the University of Washington library, where they have a bound set of The Economist on the shelf. I start pulling down the most appropriate years. Turns out The Economist ran semi-annual indexes back then, so I look in them for listings of reviews of books about James Joyce.


Now I’m getting angry. Feeble though my memory may be, I know it’s not that bad. I know I read that piece.

I start leafing through every individual issue, looking at the book review sections.

I found it.

March 30, 1985.

The review ends, “The publication date — the Monday after this issue of The Economist is published — seems entirely appropriate.”

Bastards. They nailed me. It was an April Fool’s joke. Not as good, perhaps, as George Plimpton’s “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” (which, curiously enough, was published at the same time — April, 1985), but… damn.

They nailed me.

I tell you this story for two reasons:

* It was a great hoax, and deserves more coverage than it has received.

* When I find out I’m wrong, even when I’ve been telling something as an amusing anecdote for twenty years — if I find out, I’ll say so. I’ll also be quite diligent in finding the facts, sooner or later.

The piece was written anonymously — and a hat tip to you, anonymous Economist scribe. It is, as mentioned, not in any index. So here is “Beginnagin” (I leave it as an exercise to notice the differences between the “quotes” I used above, and the actual piece):


From The Economist, March 30, 1985, page 94:


AFTER THE WAKE: A Selection from the Papers of James Joyce in the National Library of Ireland
Edited, and with a commentary by Dermot O’Grady.
The University College Press, Cork.
185 pages. I£15

It has long been a source of annoyance to Joyce scholars that the National Library of Ireland should have imposed a seal on those private papers of James Joyce that came into its possession shortly after the second world war. These papers, consisting of several thousand letters to and from the harassed and impecunious author, a great many unpaid bills and what appears to be the first draft of a long poem intended to be the successor to “Finnegans Wake”, were retrieved from his apartment in Paris a few weeks after Joyce’s death in January, 1941, by his honorary secretary, Mr Paul Léon. Mr Léon handed the papers to the Irish Free State’s ambassador to Vichy, with the instruction that they should be deposited in the National Library under a 50-year seal if he should fail to survive the war.

Mr Léon perished at the hands of the Gestapo and the papers were duly sent to Dublin, since when they have languished in 16 metal boxes in Kildare Street, uncatalogued and unread until Professor O’Grady was allowed access to them. The senior tutor in Celtic studies in University College, Cork, he has hitherto enjoyed a career undistinguished even by Irish academic standards and it is difficult to imagine why he should have been chosen as the recipient of this honour.

The seal on the papers had been imposed by the library on the advice of Constantine Curran, a schoolboy acquaintance of Joyce’s, whose adherence to the Roman Catholic faith was steadfast, and was not due to expire until 1991. This earlier examination of the papers was allowed apparently on the personal intercession of Dr Garret FitzGerald, the taoiseach (prime minister). He has opened a hornet’s nest.

Professor O’Grady is exceedingly parsimonious in his quotation from the correspondence. This is not surprising, given the incendiary quality of many letters, particularly those written to Joyce by his wife, Nora Barnacle, and by the sensitive nature of the private exchanges, previously unsuspected, which passed between him and Eamonn de Valera. Joyce was formally invited to meet de Valera, shortly after the latter’s installation as president of the executive council of the Irish Free State in 1932, and answered in most unrepublican terms. “Not even an escort of battleships and the loan of a bulletproof vest,” he wrote, “could induce me to set foot in your Free-fire [sic] State, nor would I wish to put in jeopardy the pension which has been so generously been bestowed upon me by the British at the behest of Sir Edmund Gosse. I notice, incidentally, that you persist in the impudence of depicting on your postage stamps a map of the whole island of Ireland although your write [sic] runs in only three-quarters of it.”

The letters written to Joyce by his wife are, as previously suspected, highly pornographic. Professor O’Grady does not sully his pages with more than the barest allusion to their content. Joyce was several times away from Nora Barnacle on what he alleged were business trips and she was in the habit of sending him, at his own request, what he called “dirty letters”. Professor O’Grady makes it abundantly clear that large stretches of the Penelope episode of “Ulysses” (commonly known as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy) were the work not of James Joyce, but of his wife. The passages quoted show convincingly why Constantine Curran, after he had examined the papers for the library in 1951, passionately pleaded for their destruction. In his introduction, Professor O’Grady also calls for continued suppression of the papers for a further period of 50 years beyond 1991.

His argument appears to rest on his contention that to allow the publication of Joyce’s comments on his own work and on the work of other modernist masters, particularly Eliot and Pound, would deal literary scholarship a blow from which it would be a long time recovering. This is a tendentious argument, and the standard of Professor O’Grady’s own scholarship falls well below mediocrity. His text is by no means free of error (Chapelizod, for example, is not in County Wicklow), and the bibliography is grossly inadequate and there is no index. The whole publication is shoddily printed and bound. The publication date — the Monday after this issue of The Economist is published — seems entirely appropriate.

The Strange Coincidences of Miss Hanff

Dug out of my LiveJournal archives.

I originally did this as a comment on someone else’s LJ. But I’d like to get it over here, so it’s more easily searchable — and to get a wider audience.


So. I’ve been owing you this for a while. I mostly do my LJ stuff at my job, where I work the graveyard shift. It’s been such that I haven’t really felt up to it. But, as I say, I owe you, and who knows? This might be the first draft of a letter to Le Carré, where I’d like to see what he says before he dies.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Specifically, 1998, and is on her royal progress as North American TAFF delegate to the UK, and I’m the consort along for the ride.

We go to London, and as a devoted reader of Le Carré and Hanff I want to see two things: “The Circus” and 84 Charing Cross Road. I know neither SOE nor MI6 ever had a HQ near Cambridge Circus, but there you go. I also know that Marks and Co., the bookshop in 84 Charing Cross Rd the book and movie, is now only marked by a brass plaque. Again, no problem, I’m just curious.

So we go to the physical location, 84 Charing Cross Rd and… Well, have you ever seen Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn? There’s a sequence in it when everyone is walking through a stamp fair in Paris, and then suddenly each of them put two and two together, and their heads start whirling about.

This was very like that. Because, you see, 84 Charing Cross Road is just on the edge of Cambridge Circus.

Now, let’s fill in a bit. “Marks and Co.” stands for “Marks and Cohen,” and was the actual shop. Leo Marks — screenwriter of Peeping Tom, friend of Helene Hanff, and cryptographer extraordinaire — was the son of Mr. Marks. If you read Between Silk and Cyanide, Leo’s memoir, you’ll see that he frequently used antiquarian books as the plain text for various ciphers he would send with agents into the field during his days at SOE/MI6. In addition, Le Carré, who worked at MI6 at roughly the same time as Marks (a little later, but not much) does exactly the same thing. Note his use of the Simplicissimus in A Perfect Spy, acknowledged to be his most autobiographical book.

So… If one was a cryptographer who used antiquarian books as plain text, and if one was also the son of the owner of an antiquarian book shop, what would be the easiest way to distribute such books around the world?

One of the big questions that just slides by in 84 Charing Cross Rd is, what in the world was Marks and Co. doing having an ad in the Saturday Review for Miss Hanff to find in the first place? This hypothesis suggests an answer.

But it goes further.

Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins’ character in the movie) had some very interesting neighbors. Namely, Morris Cohen and Lona Cohen (known during their UK days as Peter and Helen Kroger). The Cohens were Soviet spies of long standing, having been among those assigned to Los Alamos to try to get nuclear information during WWII. Not only did they live quite nearby to Frank Doel, they also worked — wait for it — as antiquarian book sellers.

I don’t think that was an accident. I think the Sovs twigged on to what was happening at Marks and Co., and assigned the Cohens to try to keep tabs on Frank Doel. Hanff jokes this about in the book — or rather, she publishes a letter from Nora Doel (Mrs. Frank, played by an almost unrecognizable Judi Dench in the film) that treats the whole matter lightly.

But I think Le Carré also knew what was going on, and placed headquarters at “The Circus” because, even if there was no staff housed there, there were considerable communications going through the place.

Heck, dare we say it? Could Frank Doel be the role model for George Smiley? Was he sufficiently bookish and anonymous in person for that, no matter how much wit comes across in his letters to Helene?

I can’t point to any particular flame. But it seems to me there are quite a few wafts of smoke here. Certainly enough for a Waldropian story or novel. 🙂