Not long to go before the baby arrives, and while I’ve been making every effort to continue as usual, one thing that has definitely changed is the amount I’m able to read. People used always to ask me when I found time to read so much. Easy, I’d say. There are lunchbreaks, bath times, tube journeys, quiet evenings, the odd snatched hour of a free afternoon …
Alas this has all changed. Lunchbreaks now consist of a gobbled sandwich and a quick chat on the phone to the husband – mostly to reassure him I’ve not gone into labour – and then a nap, propped up on old boxes and bags, in the bookshop’s crowded cupboard of a backroom. Bathtime has shrunk to a quick splash as one’s tolerance for lounging in hot water has diminished exponentially. Tube journeys pass with eyes closed, trying to gain a few moments of extra rest. Quiet evenings? In any spare moment, one feels one ought to be doing yoga, swimming, listening to hypnobirthing recordings or else there is this odd nesty urge to do things like making pies for the freezer or ordering store cupboard essentials from Ocado. I say this knowing that I sound like an extended version of the H is for Hummus spoof parenting book. Until a couple of weeks ago it’d never have occurred to me to use Ocado rather than resorting to a takeaway; now I cannot fathom quite how much pleasure I gain from stocking up the kitchen just by clicking on a few pictures.
So the long and the short of it is that I am struggling to read much at the moment. Finishing How to be Both hasn’t helped matters either, as it’s such a tough act to follow. I have picked up a few novels and put them down a few pages later. For a book to win in this fight against the urge to sleep it has to be very good indeed.
Or very short.
Or both. (Ha!)
So, inspired (still) by the wonderful Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I have been reacquainting myself with a slim collection of her essays, The London Scene, which Daunt republished rather smartly last year. The essays were first printed in 1931, bizarrely enough in Good Housekeeping magazine. How bleak that a quick visit to their website today yields ‘How to get a body like Helen Mirren’, cheesecake recipes and tried-and-tested irons – a far cry from commissioning a series of essays on London life by one of the great literary minds of the day!
Woolf wrote a series of six essays: The Docks of London, Oxford Street Tide; Great Men’s Houses; Abbeys and Cathedrals; ‘This is the House of Commons’; and Portrait of a Londoner. So we arrive in London at its edge, amongst the many goods that converge here from all over the world, wander through town, and finally end up in the home of a Cockney. It is a journey of increasing penetration, making our way through the layers of the city, snatching glimpses, enjoying vistas, and gaining insights en route.
There are wonderful moments of observation in each essay. For instance, I love her description of the utilitarian nature of the Docks:
Oddities, beauties, rarities may occur, but if so, they are instantly tested for their mercantile value. Laid on the floor among the circles of elephant tusks is a heap of larger and browner tusks than the rest. Brown they well may be, for these are the tusks of mammoths that have lain frozen in Siberian ice for fifty thousand years, but fifty thousand years are suspect in the eyes of the ivory expert. Mammoth ivory tends to warp; you cannot extract billiard balls from mammoths, but only umbrella handles and the backs of the cheaper kind of hand-glass. Thus if you buy an umbrella or a looking-glass not of the finest quality, it is likely that you are buying the tusk of a brute that roamed through Asian forest before England was an island.
Compare to the cheap umbrellas and mirrors of today – pieces of plastic tack which will scarcely last a month of being bashed about in a handbag! I can’t believe that back then, they had handles of mammoth tusk. Woolf cooly points out the nonsensical logic of the Docks that declares these ancient tusks are of less value than elephant ivory. She has rather a soft spot for prehistoric things. In Between the Acts, she writes about the:
rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.
I suppose, having a mammoth tusk at the end of one’s umbrella, might make one feel rather better connected to this ancient time.
Well I doubt I shall find a mammoth tusk umbrella later on today when I head down to John Lewis to buy various baby essentials. The prospect of this outing makes Woolf’s next essay ‘Oxford Street Tide’ rather apt.
These ‘Oxford Street palaces are rather flimsy abodes’ notes Woolf, comparing these modern erections, ‘built to pass’, with historical stately homes, which were ‘built to last’:
Any day of the week one may see Oxford Street vanishing at the tap of a workman’s pick as he stands perilously balanced on a dusty pinnacle knocking down walls and facades as lightly as if they were made of yellow cardboard and sugar icing.
It seems strangely prescient that Woolf saw the impermanence of this shopping stage set, given the many threats of destruction that were to come – first with the bombing of the War, then fifties planning and now with our peculiarly modern threats of out-of-town shopping centres, recessions, rising rents and of course the internet. For sure, Oxford Street isn’t just any old high street, but it is faced with the same threats. And if the high street isn’t quite dead today, it is certainly struggling to survive. Woolf, it seems, never expected it to last.
As a bookseller, perhaps I feel more anxious than most about the fate of the high street. And yet, here is cause to pause and rethink. For Woolf delights in the impermanence of the buildings of Oxford Street, ‘as transitory as our own desires’. Their gaudy, glittering falseness is a strength not a weakness:
We knock down and rebuild as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt. It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility. Discovery is stimulated and invention on the alert.
So Woolf binds destruction to creation. These flimsy palaces of Oxford Street embody a startlingly positive view of change.
Perhaps she found something reassuring in the fact that these palaces, unlike their historic counterparts, aren’t meant to be permanent. The thirties was when many of England’s great country houses were destroyed or broken up as their owners were hit by inheritance tax. Just five years later, James Lees-Milne started going around persuading the aristos to give them to the National Trust. And later in the decade, Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca – one of the greatest novels to embody the fear of a great house’s destruction.
These Oxford Street palaces, on the other hand, were always intended to be transient. Perhaps we need to worry less about our ailing high-street shops and see their destruction as seeds for the creation of something new. As Woolf says, ‘invention is on the alert.’ Who knows what might spring up in their stead? It seems to be mostly charity shops or Tescos, and yet I shall try to remain positive! In any case, I like the idea of expecting ourselves to be ‘knocked down and rebuilt’, and seeing this as a positive form of reinvention. Next time life delivers one of its knocks, I shall envisage Woolf wandering down Oxford Street and finding creation, fertility, discovery and invention in the wake of any destruction.
Oxford Street still seems to be going strong today, though one thing that has vanished since Woolf’s day – alas – are the tortoises that used to be sold on its pavement:
The slowest and most contemplative of creatures display their mild activities on a foot or two of pavement, jealously guarded from passing feet. One infers that the desire of man for the tortoise, like the desire of the moth for the star, is a constant element in human nature. Nevertheless, to see a woman stop and add a tortoise to her string of parcels is perhaps the rarest sight that human eyes can look upon.
I fear Daphne might find Oxford Street too noisy and distressing to be taken on this afternoon’s excursion, but how strange, curious and oddly delightful to think that her ancestors used to ‘display their mild activities’ there.