“Street Haunting”: Following Virginia Woolf on a Ramble through London, Part I

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One of the joys in my life is walking, alone or with a companion, whether it be a country road, a forest trail, a quiet neighborhood with sidewalks, or a busy city sidewalk. During our semester in London, I loved the freedom of not owning a car, meaning that to go anywhere, even the tube station on Tottenham Court Road a couple of blocks away, meant walking the always crowded but endlessly fascinating West End streets.

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Unknown to me at the time was the fact that I shared this passion with Virginia Woolf who called the activity “Street Haunting,” and wrote about it in an essay of the same title. In the essay Woolf uses the pretext of needing a pencil as an excuse to leave the house and go for a walk. She writes:

The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. . . . The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s room (par. 2).

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How wonderful London nights, with shops lit up and glowing on the usually wet streets, people streaming out of the tube stop, bunching at the crosswalks, bundled against the cool air, shopping for the evening meal. It’s a different end of the day feel than here in the state, where people are cocooned in their own sealed automobile, listening to a private soundtrack, shut off from the elements.

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The streets of London, bustling, noisy, and dangerous for Americans who can’t acquire the knack of looking to the right for oncoming traffic before crossing a street, with their ever shifting patterns that drove William Wordsworth to depression–he called London a phantasmagoria–have a wildness and beauty of their own that is not quite matched anywhere else, especially in the strip-malled and sidewalkless suburbs of the United States. Woolf points out

how beautiful a London Street is then, with its islands of light and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley (par. 4).

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The streets spark the writer’s imagination. As she walks Oxford street and peers into shops, she writes,

With no thought of buying, the eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances. Standing out in the street, one may build up all the chambers of an imaginary house and furnish them at one’s will with sofa, table, carpet. . . . But, having built and furnished the house, one is happily under no obligation to possess it; one can dismantle it in the twinkling of an eye, and build and furnish another house with other chairs and other glasses (par. 10).

And stopping in at a used book shop, where I stopped whenever I could, weighing down my suitcase for the flight back to the states with dozens of one and two pound paperbacks, she observes:

Second-hand  books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. . . . There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woolen market in the Midlands and Wales, an unknown traveler, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it . . . . (par. 12)

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Out on the street again she practices the writer’s game of “fabricating a lifetime” after catching “a word in passing . . . from a chance phrase,” just as her narrator does in the famous short story, “An Unwritten Novel.” In the short story a two women share an otherwise unoccupied rail car. The narrator catches a single phase from the other, an “unhappy woman,” and spins off a fabricated life revolving around the “sister-in-law.”

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One thought on ““Street Haunting”: Following Virginia Woolf on a Ramble through London, Part I

  1. Beautiful article.
    Your note about Americans not acquiring the knack of looking to the right reminded me of when I almost got hit by a car in London. This happened a few years ago when my wife and I were there on vacation. Not seeing any oncoming traffic I stepped into a street to get around some people who were clogging the sidewalk, forgetting that vehicles might be coming from behind me. One vehicle was coming, and swerved to avoid hitting me.

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