Street Haunting


Another trip with work for to London for a couple of days this week. After my final meeting on Wednesday, late afternoon, I had three hours to kill before I could catch the train back home (I refuse to pay out just over £300 for a two hour journey which would allow me to take an earlier train – even if it’s not my own money!) but there’s always something to do in London. So as Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set have been on my horizon for the last few weeks – since I visited the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I’ve been following up with some reading – and as it was a nice, warm, sunny afternoon, I decided to have a stroll around the streets of Bloomsbury.

Walking through the streets of her neighbourhood and other parts of the city was something Virginia Woolf herself was fond of. She even wrote a short piece, Street Haunting, about one such walk one evening from her home in Bloomsbury to the Strand to buy a pencil. And walking through the streets of London is very much central to her novel, Mrs Dalloway.


I didn’t attempt to follow VW’s route but took a fairly random course trough the old Georgian Streets and Squares, diverting to look at some favourite buildings


I ended up by the British Museum. It was heaving with tourists – it was August and the height of the tourist season, after all. As there was less than an hour before it closed, and I couldn’t have faced the crush inside, a visit wasn’t on the cards. Instead I turned into Bury Place and wandered into the London Review Bookshop.


I spent a little time browsing their shelves and then found myself a seat in their rather excellent cafe (as recommended by Barbara of Milady’s Boudoir) where I had a pot of tea and a cake (to bring up my blood sugar level ready for the walk back to Euston afterwards)


Feeling reinvigorated, I treated myself to a book for the journey back home and then set off back into the streets of Bloomsbury. I took a bit of a circuitous route, towards Queen’s Square, passing the house where Bertrand Russell used to live



I passed this building with it’s interesting Bauhaus style lettering


past some more traditional Georgian period houses


and into Queen’s Square itself


After tha I decided I’d go and have a look at Gordon Square where Virginia and Leonard Woolf and various members of the Bloomsbury Se, including Vanessa and Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey all lived for a while.


A very pleasant garden in the centre, accessible to the public these days, it would have been private and reserved for residents when the square was first built, But there were plenty of people enjoying the warm sunshine.


The “Bloomsbury’s” lived in the terrace of houses on the east side of the square


Virginia, Leonard, Vanessa and Clive all lived at No. 50



While Lytton Strachey lived next door at No. 51



Today, like much of the surrounding area, the houses are owned by the University of London.

The few hours had passed quickly so it was time to head past yet more typical Georgian houses back to Euston, only a few minutes walk away, to catch my train home.


Art, Life and Vision

On Thursday I was back down in London on business. I resent paying over £300 for a two hour train journey so left mid morning on an off-peak ticket, but that did mean I would have to hang around for a few hours after my last meeting of the day. That didn’t bother me at all as it gave me the opportunity to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition on Virginia Woolf, that had only opened that day. The NPG is open till late on a Thursday so I was able to finish my meeting on the Strand, walk across a busy Trafalgar Square to the gallery and spend some time there before taking the tube back to Euston to catch the train at half past seven, which meant I was back home for ten.

The exhibition covered the life of Virginia Woolf  from her childhood right up to her death. There were over 100 items on display including lots of photographs,paintings of Virginia as well as her family and her circle of friends, and other items too including letter, diaries and first editions (I assume) of her books – most of the latter with covers designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell  They even had her walking stick which was found after she had committed suicide by drowning in the River Ouse.

It’s a little ironic that the NPG is holding the exhibition as, according to the Guardian, she

took against the NPG when her father, a trustee, took her round it as a young woman

and later, when she was famous,

(refused) to sit for a drawing that she assumed would be put in a drawer and never seen.

There were several paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and also by other artists, some very good. I particularly like this portrait of her by Duncan Grant, on loan to the exhibition.

Virginia Woolf

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Duncan Grant (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

And here’s another by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

A number of the photographs in the early part of the exhibition illustrating the Stephens family life and their circle were taken by Virginia’s great aunt on her mother’s side, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was a noted portrait photographer which she took up in her late 40’s. This can’t have been easy for a woman during Victorian times so she was clearly strong minded, determined and forceful. This is a photograph she took of  her niece, Julia Prinsep Jackson, later Julia Stephen, Virginia’s mother.

The Bloomsbury Set were in many fields, particularly art, literature and aesthetics, but also politics and, via one of their circle, John Maynard Keynes, economics. Their attitudes to women’s issues and sexuality were radical, to say the least. The following painting from 1943 by Vanessa Bell, which was included in the exhibition, depicts a number of the Bloomsburys – Duncan Grant, Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, David Garnett, Maynard and Lydia Keynes, Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, Quentin Bell and E.M. Forster. The paintings shown on the wall behind the are of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, both by Duncan Grant,  and of Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell. All three were dead when the picture was painted.

The Memoir Club, by Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), circa 1943 - NPG 6718 - © estate of Vanessa Bell courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I have mixed feelings about the Bloomsburys. I admire their radicalism in both the arts and in their politics and am rather envious of their lifestyle. I would love to be able to spend time mixing with a group of like-minded people, enjoying stimulating conversation about literature, art, politics and other things just as they did. And have the chance to live both in a busy metropolis where there was lots going on yet also being able to spend time in more peaceful surroundings in the countryside. But they could only do that of course, because they came from privileged backgrounds and had money.

One of Virginia’s most well known works is “A Room of One’s Own” where she argues that women were held back as writers because they did not have space – the room in question – where they could send time to concentrate, think and write. I’d certainly agree with that, and that was something most women didn’t have at the time when she was alive. But that was even more true for working class women and men who not only didn’t have physical space of their own – with large families living in cramped dwellings – but also with little leisure time to think and write having to work 6 long days a week to survive. If I had lived at that time I’d have been working in a mill or something similar. I wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to go to University and certainly couldn’t have indulged in the intellectual pursuits that the Bloomsburys were fortunate enough to be able to do. Fortunately things have changed since then, and radical Middle Class intellectuals such as the Bloomsbury’s have played a role in that (a number of them, including Roger Fry, were socialists and most of them, including Virginia were supporters of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War) – although there is still much that needs to be done to achieve a more equal society.

Virginia herself was able to lead a life where she could find the space to write, and played a major role in the development of Modernist writing with her novels. But no-one can be completely insulated from the society in which they live and, at the risk of playing an amateur psychiatrist, this no doubt contributed to her state of mind that ultimately led to her suicide.

I got my money’s worth, spending over an hour looking around and revisiting paintings and other exhibits that I particularly liked or found interesting. I found it enlightening, educational and enjoyable and it has given me a thirst to read some more of Virginia’s works.

W B Yeats at the National Library of Ireland


While taking the bus between Heuston station and my hotel near the Grand Canal on the edge of Ballsbridge I spotted that that there were a couple of exhibitions on at the National Library of Ireland – one about the 1913 Lockout and another about WB Yeats. I decided to visit them on my last day in Dublin.

They were both good. The W B Yeats exhibition was in the main building, which was architecturally interesting in it’s own right.


The National Library of Ireland

I don’t know a great deal about Yeats, but like some of his poetry. So I found out quite a lot about him from the exhibition. (There’s also an Online version )

Yeats: visit the Online Exhibition

Yeats was a major figure in Irish Literary history – associated with the Irish Literary Revival, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre and was awarded In  the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. He had a life-long infatuation with Maud Gonne who inspired many of his poems. A supporter of Irish independence, he served as a Senator for 6 years from 1922, on the foundation of the Irish Free State. Interested in Irish myths and legends he dabbled in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology. All of these facets of his life were covered by the exhibition.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s he expressed sympathy and support for fascist ideas and regimes. This was discussed by George Orwell in an article published in the literary journal Horizon in 1943. But there was no mention of this in the exhibition. This aspect of his character makes me feel uneasy, especially as I like a number of his poems. Reconciling work you admire with the views or acts of the artist isn’t always easy.

Close to the entrance there was a multimedia area where visitors could sit and listen to recordings of some of his more well known poems read by personalities Seamus Heaney and Sinead O’Connor and one by Yeats himself. The words being spoken were projected onto a screen along with relevant images. It was very well done, I thought.

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I’ll finish with one of his poems which was featured in this display, a favourite of mine.

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The James Joyce Centre


Given the number of times I’ve been over to Ireland and it’s capital, Dublin, in recent years, I really ought to read some of the work of James Joyce. I’ve tried to make a start on his masterpiece, Ulysses a couple of times, especially since our visit to the Martello Tower in Sandycove which was the setting for the first chapter of the epic. But I’ve never made it further than the first few pages. Nevertheless, recognising that Joyce was a major author, I’m interested in his life and his connection with his home city (which he left in 1904 when he was 22 years of age). So during my latest stay over in Dublin I decided to visit the James Joyce Centre at 35 North Great George’s Street.

The centre is housed in a typical Georgian terraced house on the “north side” of the city centre. The area was very fashionable in the 18th Century but it fell into decline in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today the house has been lovingly renovated by the James Joyce Society.


Joyce never lived in the house. But there’s a somewhat tenuous connection as at one time Professor Denis J. Maginni, a colourful character in Dublin who appears several times in Ulysses, ran a Dance Academy here.

The visit didn’t take very long as there wasn’t a great deal to see. The main exhibition is on the top floor where there’s an interpretation of a bedroom like Joyce would have lived and worked in during his “exile”,

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some information boards and interactive computer displays, a copy of his death mask

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and a film show of three short documentaries.

In the front room of the first floor, the piano nobile, there are a number of paintings of Joyce, his wife Nora Barnacle, and some of his family and ancestors.


In the yard at the back of the house the original door from No. 7 Eccles Street,  Leopold Bloom’s address in Ulysses is displayed

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and there are very interesting murals depicting the story from his epic.

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A devotee of Georgian architecture I enjoyed looking around the house itself where the plasterwork on the walls and ceilings has either been restored or recreated.



It didn’t take very long to look round the exhibition and the house, but I think it was worth the 5 Euros entry fee. And the visit has rekindled my enthusiasm to read some of Joyce’s work. I think I’ll give Ulysses a miss for a while and try his more accessible short stories in Dubliners.


The Masque of Anarchy

peterloo plaque

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.”

The Manchester International Festival is held every two years in July. Unfortunately, it inevitably coincides with my summer holiday so although it usually includes a number of events I’d like to attend, I end up missing out. One event I’ll be sorry to miss this year is the performance of Shelley’s epic poem “The Masque of Anarchy”  by Maxine Peake.

A ballad with 38 verses, Shelley wrote the poem on 5 September 1819 when he was living in Leghorn in Italy in response to the news of the “Peterloo massacre” (also known as the Battle of Peterloo) that took place in Manchester on 16 August of that year.

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy

(Picture source: here)

Fifteen people had been killed and a large number seriously injured (estimates vary, but there may have been as many as 700)  when the Yeomanry cavalry (mainly volunteers from the upper classes) charged into the crowd at a large peaceful demonstration and meeting of some 60,000 people organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, which was addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. The events took place on what was then the open land of Peter’s Field, now a built up area in the city centre around the former Free Trade Hall.

File:The Massacre of Peterloo.jpg

Cartoon by George Cruikshank. The text reads: “Down with ’em! Chop em down my brave boys: give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us! —- & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go at it Lads show your courage & your Loyalty” (Picture source: Wikipedia)

The ruling class used the event as an opportunity to attack the reform movement.  Viscount Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, sent a letter of congratulations to the Manchester magistrates for the action they had taken. Parliament also passed the Six Acts in an attempt to prevent such meetings happening again. The organisers were put on trial, being charged with  “assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of exciting discontent”. A number of the leaders, including Henry Hunt were found guilty and jailed.

So in the short term, the events on the 16th August were a setback for the reform movement. But it’s legacy endured and today Peterloo is remembered as one of the pivotal events in the struggle of working people to achieve the vote and improve their lot.

Although Shelley wrote the poem immediately after hearing news of the massacre, it wasn’t published until 1832. He had sent the manuscript for publication in The Examiner but the editor, Leigh Hunt, withheld it because he “thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse.”

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Percy Shelley (picture source: Wikipedia)

It isn’t his best poem, but it’s one of his most stirring, demonstrating Shelley’s raw emotion, passion and commitment to the rights of ordinary people. It remains one of the greatest political poems in the English language.

‘And that slaughter to the nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
A volcano heard afar.

And these words shall then become
Like oppression’s thundered doom,
Ringing through each heart and brain
Heard again, again, again –

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many. They are few.’

Noise and hearing

The looms have made McDermott deaf. Well not deaf exactly, but they have changed sound, damaged sound, so that sometimes spoken words seem to come from the bottom of a well, and others have halos around them, gauzy halos that slur sound.

This passage, from Anita Shreve’s novel "Sea Glass” , which I finished recently, is one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the impact of noise induced hearing loss on an individual.  It was the first of her books that I’ve read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s set in and around the cotton mills in New England in the USA in the 1930s, before and during a bitter strike which takes place when the bosses make a vicious cut to workers’ wages.

In the novel, McDermott is a loom fixer in a mill. He has been exposed to high levels of noise for all his relatively short working life. And it is this exposure that has caused him to become deaf. But, as come across in the passage, noise induced hearing loss doesn’t just make it more difficult to hear, it distorts the sound making it difficult to understand speech and spoiling the enjoyment of music and other activities that involve listening

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A ring spinning mill in The USA in 1916 (picture source Wikimedia commons)

The development of noise induced hearing loss follows a characteristic pattern, although the severity will be dependent upon a number of factors including the intensity of the noise experienced, the duration of exposure, the pattern of exposure, individual susceptibility and many other complex considerations.  Noise-induced hearing impairment occurs predominantly in the high-frequency range of 3 to 6 kHz (3,000 to 4,000 Hz), the effect being greatest at 4 kHz. Frequencies above this range are less affected resulting in a characteristic dip in audiogram charts created during hearing tests usually known as the “4 Khz dip”.

An audiogram for a worker who is starting to suffer from noise induced hearing loss. The “4 kHz dip” is clearly identifiable (Source: American Academy of Family Physicians website)

When a worker first starts to suffer from noise induced hearing loss difficulties are experienced during conversation, and speech on the TV or radio begins to become indistinct.  Some higher frequency domestic sounds, for example a clock ticking, may also become difficult to hear.  As hearing deterioration progresses, further difficulties are experienced in conversation – even in face-to-face situations, speech and music on the television and radio begins to sound even more muffled, and it may not be possible to hear many ordinary domestic sounds.  The ability to determine the direction from which a sound comes is also affected.  Even small values of hearing impairment  may have an effect on the understanding of speech.

It’s difficult for someone with normal hearing to appreciate how the world sounds to someone who has been made deaf by exposure to noise. The UK Health and Safety Executive have an audio demonstration that tries to get this across here.

Once noise induced hearing loss has occurred the damage is permanent, and cannot be reversed.  All that can be done is to take measures to prevent hearing deteriorating further once the  hearing loss has been detected.  So the important thing is to control exposure to prevent hearing damage occurring.

James Joyce Museum Sandycove

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

This is the first line of Ulysses by James Joyce – a great work of fiction that introduced the “stream of consciousness” to English literature – but also a book that many a person has started and never finished.  The opening chapter is set in a Martello tower on the coast at Sandycove, a small seaside resort just outside Dublin (well, its part of the Dublin sprawl these days). The tower is one of a series of small defensive structures that were constructed on the coast in Britain, Ireland and some other parts of the British Empire during the Napoleonic wars. They’re very strong with thick brick walls and would have had a cannon on the top.

Joyce spent six nights in the tower from 9 to 15 September 1904. His friend Oliver St John Gogarty, who the character, Buck Mulligan, is based on, had rented it from the War Office. Another occupant of the tower during Joyce’s stay was an Anglo-Irishman, Samuel Chenevix Trench, who appears as the character Haines in the book.  Joyce fled the tower after he was woken by Trench who was screaming, having had a nightmare involving a panther. Trench picked up a revolver and fired several shots into the fireplace, after which Gogarty grabbed a .22 rifle and fired at a collection of pans above Joyce’s bed.

Entrance to the James Joyce Museum at Sandycove

Today the tower has been converted into a museum celebrating the life of Joyce and his masterpiece. We called in on the morning of our last day in Ireland on the way back to Dublin to catch the mid-afternoon ferry.  On the ground floor there is a small collection of exhibits including a couple of death masks, some letters and portraits and photographs. There are a number of his personal possessions including his guitar , a waistcoat made by his grandmother and his cigar case. Taking pride of place is a first edition of Ulysses, published by Shakespeare & Co in 1922.

The recreated sleeping quarters on the first floor

The first floor the sleeping quarters have been recreated, just as they would have been when Joyce stayed there. From here you can climb up a very narrow staircase up onto the roof where you get a good view out to sea and along the coast as far as the Liffey estuary. You can also make out the nearby “Forty foot” – an open air swimming pool which also features in chapter 1 of Ulysees as its here where Buck Mulligan takes his morning dip. It’s really just a partially enclosed section of the sea and originally was for men only (in the buff!) although today mixed bathing is permitted and “Togs must be worn after 9am.” People swim here all year round – they must be crazy! The “forty foot” is nothing to do with the depth or width of the pool; rather it’s named after the Fortieth Foot Regiment of the British Army who used to be stationed near here.

Looking towards the "Forty Foot"

Rocky coast at Sandycove, looking south from the tower