I recently came back from a long weekend in London. I find London so interesting and I love it but, after a while, it can start to feel overwhelming. This is because I try to fit too much in. I managed to read a very short book on the train which stayed in my mind throughout the trip. It was The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. In it are collected essays she wrote about London for Good Housekeeping magazine, in the early 1930s, so they are a bit more informal than her usual stuff.
The first short essay in The London Scene is called ‘The Docks of London’. The London Docks were once part of the world’s biggest shipping port and they closed in 1969. Woolf says that ‘the only thing that can change the routine of the docks is a change in ourselves’. And we did change: our demands for things have increased, we want more and we want it now. Boats aren’t quick enough for us anymore. The pace of life has changed; we are sped up. ‘We demand shoes, furs, bags, stoves, oil, rice puddings, candles; and they are brought to us’, wrote Woolf. Now they are brought much faster.
Woolf takes the reader from the sea, down the Thames, to the docks. The docks aren’t there anymore, and the area around the docks has changed dramatically since Woolf wrote about them. On this trip I spent a lot of time south of the river, in Greenwich. From the top of the Royal Observatory (up a steep hill) the view of what would have been the London docks is amazing. Skyscrapers housing corporations and banks dominate the skyline. We just stayed looking at the view of Canary Wharf for a while. I think it looks better by night.
I love Woolf’s imagination and artistic thoughts but there’s often a distasteful undertone to a lot of what she wrote. When describing the many different ships arriving from all over the world; she declares that ‘nobody in the docks has ever given a second of thought to’ the ‘element of beauty’ contained there. Naturally, the working classes aren’t equipped to appreciate beauty. Echoes of her snobbery still reverberate around our radically different society.
‘The Docks of London’ is an interesting read. It contains a view of a world which has completely disappeared, a world the writer imagined would last forever. Other essays in this book touch on sights which are more familiar; various old buildings and historical bustling streets that have stayed with us. London is a fascinating combination of the old and the new and it is wonderful to explore it.