South of the River

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.

View from Greenwich at night #London

A post shared by Kate Lunn-Pigula (@katelunnpigula) on

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.

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4 thoughts on “South of the River

  1. JacquiWine says:

    It’s really interesting to read your commentary on these essays – I wasn’t aware of them at all. It’s been quite a while since I read anything by Woolf, but she seems to be enjoying a bit of revival at the moment.

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    • Kate says:

      Thanks Jacqui. I bought this book on my last trip to London and thought I should finally get around to reading it! I think Woolf is brilliant but I have to be in a certain mood to read her.

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  2. Richard Vince says:

    London is somewhere I’ve always looked at in a very limited way, I suppose, because of my long held (but somewhat thawing) antipathy towards the place. Lately, I’ve become aware of how much there is to it that I have never come close to discovering. Therefore, this entry was very interesting to read. I can’t quite decide whether I think “The London Scene” would be worth checking out, largely because of what you said in your penultimate paragraph. The point she missed, I presume, is that a docker being paid poverty wages in the early 1930s would have been too busy doing a tough job and worrying about their continuing ability to provide for their family to appreciate the surroundings. This is something that has not changed: the all consuming nature that sort of financial insecurity is still not understood by those who have not experienced it.

    Regarding your comments on the decline and demise of London Docks, it’s not as simple as that. Air freight has only become really significant more recently, too recently to have had an effect. One major impact was the decline in the UK’s physical exports, of both natural resources and manufactured goods. (For example, Hull is a shadow of its former self, having been a major centre for the export of coal, while Immingham, just across the Humber, is now concerned with the import rather than export of coal.) I suspect a more subtle influence was the railway’s loss of domestic freight traffic to the roads; presumably that is why ports like Felixstowe and Southampton have grown enormously at the expense of far less accessible (by road) ports such as London and Liverpool. Huge quantities of goods are still transported globally (and imported into the UK) by sea, in ever growing ships; generally it’s worth the time penalty compared with air freight as it is so much more efficient (and therefore cheaper). Indeed, some goods (crude oil, for example) cannot be transported practically by any other means.

    Sorry for the massively long, rambling comment, You’ve made me think about stuff (hence me spouting off), and for that, I thank you. πŸ™‚ Perhaps someday I will grow to like London enough to give it the attention it clearly deserves.

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    • Kate says:

      I think that, from having read some of Woolf’s other work, she perhaps saw the “working classes” as not as human as she was. Of course, a lot of that still goes on today in various places, but she is so good at imagining being in other people’s minds so it is irritating to read. I don’t think I’d have picked up The London Scene if I hadn’t loved A Room of One’s Own and Mrs Dalloway etc. When I picked it up I wanted to read her take on living in London and she truly did love it. But I’m going to write about the other essays here so I might give a lot away!

      That’s interesting about the states of various towns now. I hadn’t really given it much thought beyond a glance at Wikipedia!

      That’s okay πŸ™‚ I think that London is a place of extremes: the poor are poorer and the rich are so much richer. It’s as if everything’s amplified, which makes it an interesting place for me to think about. πŸ™‚

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