Footprints of London Literary Festival

First published on State of the Arts

It’s pouring with rain and my feet are soaked—a far cry from the beautiful June day in which Mrs Dalloway is set. Yet Rob Smith of London Footprints takes me on a journey that immerses me in Woolf’s novel, and not only shows me London or the book, but combines the two in an immersive way that oozes everything it has to offer. It’s what Footprints of London Literary Festival is all about. By walking London novels you get to inhabit the space lived in by the characters. It’s a way to experience London from inside the book.

Mrs Dalloway could not have been set in any other city. It’s not a book that is just about the urban environment, but of specific places, and we stop at key points mentioned in the novel. Yet through Woolf’s prose it’s also universal, and she manages to weave time, character, space, and feeling in a reach tapestry where the threads are constantly flapping for you to hold onto.

And so the walk starts at Westminster Tube so we can hear chimes of Big Ben that feature strongly in the story, marking out the rhythm of the day, and so important in a book where time flows back and forth. Every character has their own perspective on time and the city, and despite their regular rhythm there’s also a sense of shifting and timelessness.

The sound of Big Ben never fails to stir me, just like Clarissa who ‘For having lived in Westminster—How many years now? Over twenty—one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.’

Walking on past St Margaret’s—which reminds Peter Walsh of a perfect hostess—like Clarissa, Rob and I discuss the political and social context in which women lived in the interim war era: ‘Women’s rights, that antediluvian topic.’ Ambitious and politically minded women may have been dismissed as ‘just hostesses’ but this was their way of having influence, and in this manner Clarissa evokes the lives of Margaret Asquith and her cohort.

The hierarchy of politicians, the badges of honour that wealth showed and the importance of connections and social circles were well known to Woolf, and whilst Clarissa is her own character, it’s clear that the writer’s experiences will have infiltrated the story. But whilst both Clarissa and Woolf were of very particular social circles, they were drawn into the lives of people around them and the spaces they were part of… ‘to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter—even trees, or barns.’ On the walk you can’t help but think what your own relationship with London means.

After Westminster Abbey and the tomb of the unknown soldier, which has clear parallels to how Septimus feels, it’s a few steps to Deans Yard where Richard contemplates telling Clarissa he loves her but can’t find the words. ‘It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.’ She writes, but it’s not at all easy. Language, like London, is another thing that seems so solid and fixed but also changes, and Woolf spoke of the inadequacy of language to express her emotions in her diaries and essays. Even someone with such literary and linguistic talent struggles to find the prose that really reflects the tumultuous internal emotional landscape, even as her prose flows worth her consciousness, and it’s important to remember how both places and our memories of them are ever changing.

We then cross Victoria Street where the immediacy of the moment delights Clarissa. It’s a busy road and the lights of cars in rush hour flash repeatedly, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and irritated by London in these moments. So often today we move around London with heads down and legs focused on getting to the destination that it can be easy to forget the wonder of the capital, and this walk offers a reminder.

But Clarissa embraces it. ‘Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.’

Then it’s into the beautiful St James Park where a lit up Buckingham Palace awaits us, and in the book Hugh meets Clarissa. ‘I love walking in London,’ said Mrs. Dalloway. ‘Really it’s better than walking in the country.’ I have to agree. We stop near the statue of Queen Victoria, where there is the cinematic sequence panning from the thoughts of one person to another. ‘This’, says Rob, is ‘one of the reasons I think it’s such a London book, it captures the idea that we are all experiencing this same space, but it can mean many different things to us.’ It’s how Clarissa can identify with a drunk, and a soldier, and other individuals with whom her experience quantitatively has nothing in common with, but through their physical and emotional location deep connections resonate.

The way those differences thread through the past and the future and are constantly being made becomes even more striking as we walk through Green Park and up to Devonshire House and Piccadilly. We enter into Clarissa’s mind and learn that ‘what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.’ 

I shiver, and it’s not just because of the autumn rain. Both Rob and I love the idea that somehow we are all part of a London story ‘that will go on forever and in these streets we share space with people who lived long ago.’

That for me is the beauty of books, London, and exploring the two. Those connections that traverse space and time. The festival covers novels of completely different styles and focus but many share the idea of different Londoners sharing the same moment. Often participants go home and reread a book they thought they knew, but through their experience discover something else in. Whether it’s TS Eliot’s The Waste Land or Orwell’s dystopia, Jane Austen’s London or that of Bridget Jones, there’s something powerful in combining words, walking and the wonder of a city which we might live in but often forget to really be in.

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