I love reading other people’s impressions of my home city, and I particularly enjoy experiencing the London of the past through the eyes of those who actually walked the streets when horse drawn cabs were the main form of transport and the glowing orbs of gas light along the newly cut Embankment were a novelty. I can’t imagine a London without the London Eye, without the crush at Oxford Circus tube station, and without Southbank and its brutalist architecture, but there was a time before all of these and there will be a time in the future when the London I know now will have become a thing of the past, and new structures would have become my Eye and my Southbank. Such is the ever changing nature of cities; constantly evolving to the needs of new generations, they dissolve and are rebuilt again and again upon the footprints of the past.
Woolf’s choices of topic in this very pretty volume of essays are rather eclectic; from the long gone docksides to the all too familiar scenes of frantic, surging crowds of shoppers on Oxford Street, she offers a snapshot of her London, already much changed in the early 1930s from what it must have been in her Victorian youth. There are many observations expressed beautifully in the way only Woolf can, that elevate the banal to the sublime: ‘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.’ Westminster Abbey becomes a thing of ethereal beauty through her pen: ‘Lights and shadows are changing and conflicting every moment. Blue, gold and violet pass, dappling, quickening, fading. The grey stone, ancient as it is, changes like a live thing under the incessant ripple of changing light.’ The statues of the Houses of Parliament take on a life of their own: ‘white statues, gazing from white eyes at the old scenes of stir and bustle,’ and Hampstead is captured perfectly: ‘Hampstead has always remained not a suburb or a piece of antiquity engulfed in the modern world, but a place with a character peculiar to itself.’ There are so many delightful observations that had me contemplating familiar sights in new ways, and determined to go and revisit the sights Woolf so evocatively describes.
However, there was one aspect of this collection of essays that left me feeling disappointed. The more I read of and about Woolf, the more I am disgusted by her snobbery. I remember reading the marvellous Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light several years ago, and being shocked by the highly unpleasant prejudices Woolf held towards the working and middle classes. Here these attitudes rear their ugly heads once more; the ‘middle class woman…grab[s] and pounce[s] with disgusting greed’ and the shop assistants live in ‘little villas out at Croydon and Surbiton…not so badly after all, with a gramophone and wireless, and money to spend at the movies’ – because obviously that is all middle class people aspire to. Her life in the day of a ‘typical’ Londoner is that of an upper class woman with a horrid little maid, who spends her life at leisure gossiping and enjoying the endless whirl of London life. No working class people feature – apart from the horrid little maid – despite the majority of Londoners in the early 1930s living hand to mouth in decrepit housing, with a shopping trip to Oxford Street or the tube fare to Hampstead to poke around in Keats’ House an impossible dream. Woolf makes no attempt to see the London beyond her own highly privileged milieu, and her assumptions about the mean little lives lived by the grasping middle classes left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. For the London Woolf describes is a London of rose tinted glasses and unthinking privilege, revealing through what it omits a city of massive social divide and convenient blindness of the rich to the needs of their impoverished neighbours. Plus ca change, it seems.