Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Virginia Woolf on London

In 1931, the London edition of Good Housekeeping asked Virginia Woolf to write a series of essays on London. The Ecco Press recently published the set of six for the first time in the United States under the title The London Scene, a lovely little hardcover with maps and illustrations. She may have been writing magazine ephemera, but her sentences are no less well-crafted than in her novels; a passage from The London Scene therefore follows comfortably from V. S. Pritchett in my light blogging week.
Down in the Docks, one sees things in their crudity, their bulk, their enormity. Here in Oxford Street they have been refined and transformed. The huge barrels of damp tobacco have been rolled into innumerable neat cigarettes laid in silver paper. The corpulent bales of wool have been spun into thin vests and soft stockings. The grease of sheep's thick wool has become scented cream for delicate skins. And those who buy and those who sell have suffered in the same city change. Tripping, mincing, in black coats, in satin dresses, the human form has adapted itself no less than the animal product. Instead of hauling and heaving, it deftly opens drawers, rolls out silk on counters, measures and snips with yard sticks and scissors.

Oxford Street, it goes without saying, is not London's most distinguished thoroughfare. Moralists have been known to point the finger of scorn at those who buy there, and they have the support of the dandies. Fashion has secret crannies off Hanover Square, round about Bond Street, to which it withdraws discreetly to perform its more sublime rites. In Oxford Street there aer too many bargains, too many sales, too many goods marked down to one and eleven three that only last week cost two and six. The buying and selling is too blatant and raucous. But as one saunters towards the sunset--and what with artificial light and mounds of silk and gleaming omnibuses, a perpetual sunset seems to brood over the Marble Arch--the garishness and gaudiness of the great rolling ribbon of Oxford Street has its fascination. It is like the pebbly bed of a river whose stones are for ever washed by a bright stream. Everything glitters and twinkles. The first spring day brings out barrows frilled with tulips, violets, daffodils in brilliant layers. The frail vessels eddy vaguely across the stream of the traffic. At one corner seedy magicians are making slips of coloured paper expand in magic tumblers into bristling forests of splendidly tinted flora--a subaqueous flower garden. At another, tortoises repose on litters of grass. The slowers 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.
Oxford Street today, seventy-five years later, may be tortoise free, but it still has its street performers and its garish deals. And, from what I can tell of wandering elsewhere in London, the fashionable still avoid it just as intently as the young folks and the tourists flock to it.

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