Last week I was really in the mood for a travel essay, but could find nothing in the anthologies I am reading from that would work. It dawned on me, however, that I did have a book that might give a sense of touring or visiting though not technically a collection travel essays. Several library sales ago I lucked out and found a wonderful little book by Virginia Woolf called The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life. Now for me London is faraway and utterly cosmopolitan and a place I have visited and loved and would love to visit again, so as travel goes, it counts for me.
It's a lovely little edition--hardcover with deckled edges (I'll ignore the library stamps--it did come cheap from the library discard shelf, so I can't complain), pencil drawings before each chapter and a London city map on the end papers. All in all a happy find. Virginia Woolf had been commissioned by British Good Housekeeping to write a series of essays entitled "Six Articles on London Life." They began appearing in the magazine in 1931 and five of them were later collected and published in 1981. The last essay had gone missing and was only discovered in the Sussex University archives in 2004 and was published for the first time in the US in this little edition.
"These six essential essays capture Woolf at her best, exploring modern consciousness through the prism of 1930s London while simultaneously painting an intimate portrait of this sprawling metropolis and its fascinating inhabitants."
I plan on reading them all, but will start at the beginning with "The Docks of London". You wouldn't think something as drab sounding as docks on the river would be terribly interesting, but Woolf paints a colorful picture beginning with the variety of boats that drop anchor along the London docks.
"They take their way majestically through a crowd of tramp steamers, and colliers and barges heaped with coal and swaying red sailed boats, which, amateurish though they look, are bringing bricks from Harwich or cement from Colchester--for all its business; there are no pleasure boats on this river. Drawn by some irresistible current, they come from the storms and calms of the sea, its silence and loneliness to their allotted anchorage. The engines stop; the sails are furled; and suddenly the gaudy funnels and the tall masts show up incongruously against a row of workmen's houses, against the black walls of huge warehouses."
Woolf marvels at the array of vessels coming up the Thames from all corners of the world. Turning away from the ships, however, is one of the most dismal prospect of the world. The romance ends and instead are the decrepit warehouses with broken windows blackened by a recent fire.
"Behind the masts and funnels lies a sinister dwarf city of workmen's houses. In the foreground cranes and warehouses, scaffolding and gasometers line the banks with a skeleton architecture."
Looking further on it's most disconcerting as there are glimpses of fields and crops, old stone houses and trees, even an old inn. This former world survives incongruously next to factories.
"Now pleasure has gone and labour has come, and it stands derelict like some beauty in her midnight finery looking out over mud flats and candle works, while malodorous mounds of earth, upon which trucks are perpetually tipping fresh heaps, have entirely consumed the fields, where a hundred years ago lovers wandered and picked violets."
Perhaps the world hasn't changed so much (though in this case I hope it has), as moving up the river to London the barges with refuse float down and the dumps get fuller and fuller with rubbish that ends up in the dust bins. And yet beyond all this one is surprised once again by the stately buildings, the columns and domes in perfect symmetry and in the distance Tower Bridge. London rises up--
"The sky seems laden with heavier, purpler clouds. Domes swell; church spires, white with age, mingle with the tapering, pencil shaped chimneys of factories. One hears the roar and the resonance of London itself. Here at last, we have landed at that thick and formidable circle of ancient stone, where so many drums have been beaten and heads fallen, the Tower of London itself."
And after the sweeping gaze up the river, Woolf looks into the heart of the ships and sees all the many and various products from distant and exotic lands. The cargo is unloaded and crates opened. Everything there because Londoners demand it.
"One feels an important, a complex, a necessary animal as one stands on the quayside watching the cranes hoist this barrel, that crate, that other bale from the holds of the ships that have come to anchor."
Sorry, so many quotes, but I can't possibly improve the on the prose of Virginia Woolf, so better to just share it with you. What's interesting is this view of the docks that must have changed drastically after WWII when so much of London was bombed. Still, there is a timelessness to what she writes about. Lovely essay and now I must read more by her!