Sunday, April 20, 2008

Street Haunting

Today was a pretty low key day. I attended three events last night (two parties & a live show - aren't I the popular one?), so I slept pretty late this morning. Spent much of the afternoon reading blogs, listening to music, and nursing a cup of coffee.

I slipped out around 6pm to run some errands, but took a detour along routes 1A and 1B first. This lovely route takes me through New Castle & over some of the smaller islands in Portsmouth Harbor. Along the way, I saw a man in a suit jacket riding a bicycle, so I felt the detour had been worth my time. :)

After filling my gas tank, pricing supplies at Staples for an exhibit I'm working on, and picking up groceries & a bottle of wine at Hannaford's, I returned home to make dinner. A chicken pot pie later, I spent the rest of the evening reading, listening to music, and nursing a glass of shiraz.

After re-reading Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore, I moved on to Virginia Woolf's Street Haunting. The first essay of this Penguin compilation of short stories is called "Street Haunting: A London Adventure." And I love it. I've written before about roaming city streets (Edinburgh, South Boston, and Cambridge). Obviously, though, I've never written about it in quite the same skilled way as Woolf. Otherwise, I'd be the world famous (though tragically insane) deceased author. Here are a few excerpts.

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, 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.

As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a windy day.

Circumstances compel unity; for convenience sake a man must be a whole. The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with scepticism and solitude. When he opens his door, he must run his fingers through his hair and put his umbrella in the stand like the rest.

Second–hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish–white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter–of–fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook.

But we are come to the Strand now, and as we hesitate on the curb, a little rod about the length of one’s finger begins to lay its bar across the velocity and abundance of life. “Really I must—really I must”—that is it. Without investigating the demand, the mind cringes to the accustomed tyrant. One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself. Was it not for this reason that, some time ago, we fabricated the excuse, and invented the necessity of buying something? But what was it? Ah, we remember, it was a pencil. Let us go then and buy this pencil.

. . . to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet. And here—let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence—is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil.

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