The second essay in Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene is called ‘Oxford Street Tide’. In it, Woolf takes a walk down the street and marvels, in her rather classist way, at the traders selling there. Astutely, in this essay, she observes that ‘the charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass’. And, of course, this remains true today. We want things and we want them now. The same was true then too, but life now moves much faster; trends arrive and disappear faster than they ever did. It’s strange to me, looking back, that Woolf was able to take time out of her day to wander down the street to contemplate what she saw. Now, we walk quickly. We keep to the right so that other, super-busy, people can rush down escalators because they just don’t have the time to stand still. Modern day Oxford Street is not a place for contemplation, for truly looking at what you are seeing. There are always so many people there, but most keep their heads down.
One thing I did manage to notice about Oxford Street was that many of the shops are so small. I don’t want to think about how much rent costs on Oxford Street, but I suppose you can’t really call yourself a brand until you have premises on Europe’s busiest shopping street. It doesn’t feel right to call it a street; ‘street’ seems like too quaint a term for the place.
People here often spill off the pavements onto the road, because of the sheer mass of bodies trying to buy things. Oxford Street is a polluted place (apparently, it has the world’s highest concentration of nitrogen dioxide pollution). It feels nice to get past Oxford Circus half-way down the road and see the wider and less busy Regent Street. You can see any of the shops on Oxford Street on any high street in the country, with less hassle and less pollution
I wonder why Woolf felt the need to write about Oxford Street. Perhaps it was less monotonous then; perhaps she went because she found workers exotic. There are far, far more interesting places in London to write an essay about. But here is a blog post about it.