City Stories is a semi-regular feature where I write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. In previous stories we visited Brooklyn and Derry. Today we walk through Virginia Woolf’s London.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Clarissa Dalloway’s familiarity with her route to the flower shop meant that she could perambulate Westminster while remembering her youth in the countryside, and pondering her choice of husband. For a pair of Americans who majored in English literature, however, we need a plan. To plot our route, I defer to Susan who read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and has an additional graduate degree in English. She spends our flight from Logan to Heathrow highlighting passages from Mrs. Dalloway and charting a course on a map of London.
On our first full day in London in January 2004, we attempt to recreate the route that Clarissa followed eighty years and six months earlier. On our way to the residential area of Westminster where the Dalloways lived we pass the Houses of Parliament and a statue of Oliver Cromwell. Filled with the indignant rage of my Irish ancestry, I shake my fist at Cromwell, only to notice the closed circuit camera pointed right at me. I was now on the the United Kingdom’s list of dangerous people for threatening a statue of one of their leaders. But as we continue along we saw a large group protesting the war in Iraq holding pointed signs accusing Parliament of being “BABY KILLERS,” so maybe I’m low on that list.
We find the home suspected to be Woolf’s inspiration for the Dalloway’s house in a quiet residential area near the home once occupied by T.E. Lawrence. From there we set off on our walk, not to find flowers, but the delights of London. As the leaden circles of Big Ben’s chime dissolve in the air, we prepared to cross Victoria Street. Susan informs me that at this point Clarissa thought “Such fools we are!” while crossing the street and so we should as well. But as we start to cross a motor scooter zips by and nearly runs Susan over. That would be a foolish way to go.
Safely across Victoria Street we divert from Mrs. Dalloway’s route and into Westminster Abbey. Over time this church has accrued so much statuary and memorial plaques as to become something of an unofficial English Hall of Fame and Museum. The area around Geoffrey Chaucer’s grave is known as Poets’ Corner where there are burials and monumental plaques for over 100 English writers. An egregious absence from Poets’ Corner is Virginia Woolf.
After examining every nook and cranny of the Abbey, we emerge outdoors and enter into St. James Park. There is no airplane skywriting over the park but it is a quiet respite with “the slow-swimming happy ducks; the pouched birds waddling” in the Lake. Additional birds cavorting around the lake include pigeons, geese, and most exotic to Americans, coots. Unlike other water birds, coots do not have webbed feet but instead have long toes with lobes of skin. A bird that’s completely out of place in London is the pelican, but the lake is also home to a flock of pelicans descended from those donated by a 17th-century Russian ambassador. One pelican has its back to the government offices, just like Hugh Whitbread whom Clarissa meets in the park. So we decide this pelican’s name is Hugh and carry on.
We march up Whitehall past the Cenotaph and Horse Guards. No backfiring cars startle us, but we once again diverge from Clarissa Dalloway’s route and make our way to Trafalgar Square. We visit the cheery crypt of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields where we enjoy a delicious late lunch. Above, in the nave of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, we listen to a soprano and counter-tenor rehearse for that night’s performance.
In Trafalgar Square, we pick up on the route of Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s old friend and potential suitor. Here Peter pondered “strangeness of standing alone, alive, unknown, at half-past eleven.” It is much later in the day for us and as we were also unknown we join the crowds of tourists clambering up the Nelson monument to visit the cuddly lions. We help a fellow American up behind us, but then she promptly falls on her face. Luckily there are no injuries. Nearby a pair of young women sit looking at the South Africa house because they say it’s helping with their homesickness. The South Africans are traveling across Europe, visiting 11 cities in 12 days with a focus on dancing at the top nightclubs in every city. No wonder they look exhausted.
We notice a bird of prey with a tether on its leg circling overhead and an the absence of Trafalgar Square’s famed pigeons and wonder if the two our connected. We see two men wearing vests that read Heritage Guardians and approach them with our questions.
“Excuse me, what kind of bird is that?”
“It’s an ‘arris ‘awk.”
“Does it keep the pigeon population down?”
“The ‘awk keeps the pigeon population moving. It’s the boys with the shovels on Sunday morning that keep the pigeon population down.” He makes his meaning clear by using his hands to make the international gesture for braining a pigeon with a shovel.
Susan remembers that Peter Walsh looked up to a statue of Gordon, an historical figure he’d worshipped, but we can’t find the statue anywhere. We return to the Heritage Guards with another question.
“Do you know where the Statue of Gordon is?”
“Gordon of Khartoum?” replies one with a mix of surprise and confusion.
“No, not a cartoon!” says Susan with greater confusion. Clearing up the difference between cartoon and Khartoum, they have further questions.
“Does he ride a horse?” asks one.
“Does he wear a fez?” asks the other.
We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. One of the guards thinks that the statue was moved from Trafalgar Square just after the Second World War, and directs us to the Embankment by the Thames.
“There’s a statue there, might as well be ‘im!”
Susan has an Ahab-like obsession to stand under the Gordon statue like Peter Walsh and leads us down Northumberland Avenue to a park along the Embankment. There are in fact two statues in this park, but the problem is that they’re behind a fence and the gates are locked. After trying to find a way into the park or verify the statues’ identity from afar, we realize that the sun is setting and our stroll should come to an end.*
We determine the nearest Tube station for a line that will take us to meet up with our host Sarah is across the Thames at Waterloo Station. We bounce across the Hungerford Footbridge to the tune of “Take Five.” At the far end of the bridge a blonde woman busks on her saxophone.
For there she was.
* NOTE: With the help of Google Streetview, I’ve been able to locate the Charles George Gordon Statue in a park on the Victoria Embankment just one block up the Thames from where we were looking. Not only that, but the park has no enclosure so we totally could’ve stood under the Gordon statue. Other Woolfheads, take note!