There are moments, like this one in the scene below, from the fabulous movie 84 Charing Cross Road (based on the play of the same name, by Helene Hanff) where all sorts of things collide, and make for a perfect moment.
In this clip, we have:
- the words of Helene Hanff (who, besides this, wrote a wonderful volume of memoir entitled Underfoot In Show Business)
- the words of the great poet and cleric, John Donne, from his Meditation XVII
- a bit of humor
- the brilliant Anne Bancroft
I first encountered this story, this true story of Helene Hanff, New Yorker and writer, and her correspondence with Frank Doel, Englishman, and owner of a used book store on 84 Charing Cross Road when I was in London in 1982. We went and saw the stage play, and I was instantly a fan. About a year later, I found a copy of Hanff’s book Underfoot In Show Business, and, while it’s not quite as magical, is still a book I love to reread.
Then, there is the movie version, starring Bancroft, and the great Anthony Hopkins. It’s one of my absolute favorite movies. I’ve seen it so many times, I can pretty much repeat the entire script from start to finish. There are many wonderful moments in the movie, but, this one, with the moving quote from Donne is, perhaps, my favorite. (The entire Donne quote is below the clip, with the part from the movie in boldtype,so you can follow along.
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.
There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
This is a much more delightful quote if you use Capote’s voice to read it….
The opening two paragraphs from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Priory School” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
We have had some dramatic entrances and exits upon our small stage at Baker Street, but I cannot recollect anything more sudden and startling than the first appearance of Thorneycroft Huxtable, M.A., Ph.D., etc. His card, which seemed too small to carry the weight of his academic distinctions, preceded him by a few seconds, and then he entered himself–so large, so pompous, and so dignified that he was the very embodiment of self-possession and solidity. And yet his first action, when the door had closed behind him, was to stagger against the table, whence he slipped down upon the floor, and there was that majestic figure prostrate and insensible upon our bearskin hearthrug.
“We had sprung to our feet, and for a few moments we stared in silent amazement at this ponderous piece of wreckage, which told of some sudden and fatal storm far out on the ocean of life. Then Holmes hurried with a cushion for his head, and I with brandy for his lips. The heavy, white face was seamed with lines of trouble, the hanging pouches under the closed eyes were leaden in colour [sic], the loose mouth drooped dolorously at the corners, the rolling chins were unshaven. Collar and shirt bore the grime of a long journey, and the hair bristled unkempt from the well-shaped head. It was a sorely stricken man who lay before us.
So brilliantly descriptive, and so hysterically fun at the same time. I’m not sure if the humor was intentional, or if it’s just a modern interpretation of the Victorian writing sensibilities… perhaps a bit of both… but it’s the best opening to all the Sherlock Holmes stories… in my opinion at least.
(A note about the photo: Jeremy Brett portrayed Sherlock Holmes in the Grenada TV series, shown in the US on PBS; there were 41 episodes, all based on the Conan Doyle stores, filmed between 1984-1994. For many of us Holmes fans, Brett is the definitive Holmes. As much as I’ve enjoyed the BBC Sherlock series, staring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (a show I was prepared to hate, but find to be a brilliant new look at the famous detective), I think that no one will ever capture Holmes in the way Brett did. I’m sorry that he died young, and was unable to film more of the Conan Doyle stories.)
Quoth the Raven is a semi-regular series that I started long ago, on a former blog (back in the days when Live Journal was where all us Cool Folk hung out). For many people, a quote is made up of one or two sentences of sage wisdom, pithy advice, or scathing wit.
“A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of.” – Burt Bacharach
“To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly.” — Benjamin Franklin
“The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself.” — W. Somerset Maugham
I appreciate the brief conciseness of the quotes above, but, I look at quotes as something much more. Quotes don’t always have to be inspirational, motivational, provocative, or funny. Quotes can simply be a passage of writing that brings great pleasure. A great quotation is that passage, brief or long, in a novel, an essay, a movie or television script that makes you stop and take notice. The words sing to you, call out to you to reread them again, and again, or to play the scene in the movie over and over. Sometimes the words move you because they remind you of something in your life, and other times the words grab you because they create such a vivid image in your mind.
My goal, with this series of quotes is not to provide you with pithy sentences, but, rather, to share words that bring me pleasure. One of the greatest things in life is being able to share good things, in hope that others will find as much enjoyment as we do.
I’ve been reading the anthology The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. I ran across this passage, by Edmund Wilson, from his 1933 essay “The Old Stone House”:
Only one of them was left in the house at the time when I first remember Talcottville: my great-aunt Rosalind, a more or less professional invalid and a figure of romantic melancholy, whose fiancé had been lost at sea. When I knew her, she was very old. It was impressive and rather frightening to call on her–you did it only by special arrangement, since she had to prepare herself to be seen. She would be beautifully dressed in a lace cap, a lavender dress and a white crocheted shawl, but she had become so bloodless and shrunken as dreadfully to resemble a mummy and remind one uncomfortably of Miss Havisham in Dicken’s Great Expectations. She had a certain high and formal coquetry and was the only person I ever knew who really talked like the characters in old novels. When she had been able to get about, she had habitually treated the townspeople with a condescension almost baronial.
They just don’t make ‘em like Great-Aunt Rosalind anymore.
“Through recent experiences with both birth and death, I have discovered that we enter and leave life as, among other things, words. Though we might later become daughters and sons, many of us start out as whispers or rumors before ending up with our names scrawled next to our parents’ on birth certificates. We also struggle to find, both throughout our lives and at the end, words to pin down how we see and talk about ourselves.” — Edwidge Danticat
—Gore Vidal, from his novel “Creation“