No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, and an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter – rambling the streets of London.
~~ Virginia Woolf, Street Hauntings: A London Adventure (extract) ~~
In my extreme reading youth I tackled Virginia Woolf for the first time and found myself wanting: her writing style can be intimidating to a mind unused to the intricacy of her tidal freedom of the ebb and flow of thought. But I persisted and now love her unrivaled genius beyond all others: that`s a big statement to make for one writer among millions, but if we don`t have opinions, we might as well regress back to our original amoeba state and wallow about in algae rich pools along with all the other single cell organisms.
Street Haunting is actually an easy one for the novice, where the reader can actually conveniently pinpoint Virginia`s style. It`s a semi-fictional essay where she is relating her wandering the London streets in search of a pencil to write with, but actually it`s an excuse to get on her hind legs and hoof it around London and observe the people, shops and whatever comes across her. She is making a firm statement that everyday events witnessed while meandering the streets, is not a simple subject lacking the drama, tension and emotional dynamics of fiction, but can, by simple observation, turn into a valuable artistic statement. Of course, in her hands it really does turn into a work of art.
In a May 1928 diary entry written around the same time she was composing Street Haunting , Virginia Woolf writes, “London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play and a story and a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets.”
For both Mrs Dalloway and Street Hauntings, her principle characters follow her footsteps in exploration of the London streets laid before them like a never ending, kaleidoscopic carpet of human souls, identities merging with the people, sights, sounds and smells of this great, man made social ant hill. She sees a rapidly changing London where it`s people are becoming isolated and alienated from the new replacing the familiar landmarks of the past. The street is a space into which the narrator plunges like a ” ….a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Fransisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude.”
Her stream of consciousness narrative style enables us to float in and out of the minds of passers by, street vendors and the every day flotsam and jetsam of humanity as it flows along the concrete and brick gulleys of the metropolitan riverbed. As the narrator steps out onto the pavement, her self consciousness dissolves into a ” a central oyster of perceptiveness…….but when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes, The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye. How beautiful a street is in winter.”
As Virginia in the guise of the narrator explores the urban savannah, Big Ben chimes simultaneously each hour with clocks across London to unite her divergent narratives. On her way to the Strand to buy her lead pencil, she catches snatches of conversation as humanity drifts by like oceanic detritus…………
“It is about a woman called Kate they are talking….but who Kate is, and to what crisis in their friendship that penny stamp refers, we shall never know……and here, at the street corner, another page of the volume of life is laid open by the sight of two men consulting under the lamp – post. They are spelling out the latest wire from Newmarket in the stop press news. Do they think, then, that fortune will ever convert their rags into fur and broadcloth…..? But the main stream of walkers at this hour sweeps past too fast to let us ask such questions.”
The narrator can only speculate on the lives of the people she passes on her walk, but is able to knit their fragmentary nature into her consciousness; leaving home, she sheds the solid identity of objects she knows well for the fleeting, transience of the memory of the street as it flows shapeless like water around her wanderings…..” That vast republican army of anonymous trampers.”
She can only escape the anonymity of the streets by stepping back inside her own home, where her identity is safe and secure; she is no longer untraceable, lost among the divergent and emerging street identities, connecting and unconnecting as they pass before becoming lost in the human ether. But even as she steps back into the shoes of her own identity, the narrator`s isolation from the buzz and stimulation of the streets she craves is obvious to her.
Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very sight of the book seller`s wife with her foot on the fender, sitting beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it leaves bookselling , which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. O no, they don`t live at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look at.”
There are moments of physical and emotional repose as in the visit to the stationer`s shop; an oasis of calm and rest before venturing once again into the maelstrom outside as if she……….” has been blown about at so many street corners….battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns.”
All she meets provides a connecting thread to the narrator………….but she allows it to snap; as she turns her back on her urban journey of discovery, and steps back indoors. There is isolation wherever we go; we are islands separated from each other by our individuality because we …….“…are ourselves alone,”
The characters in Street Haunting are torn between two opposing constructs of identity: the superficial, fragmentary interconnectedness of life in the city, and the inevitable isolation which occurs from the fleeting, superficial identifications with the individuals passing by. Ultimately, we are all passing by like players on a stage; a repertory theatre of disconnected souls looking for mutual understanding.
In many ways, Virginia Woolf in stepping out into the swirling torrent of urban London, was not just as an explorer in a strange land investigating and discovering the native population, but as one finding her own troubled soul in it`s tangle of personalities and disorder.