Mrs Dalloway Said She Would Buy The Flowers Herself

28Aug14

At a conference recently I saw a presentation by a man who spoke with no notes for 45 minutes over a series of pre-recorded sounds. He had to tailor his talk around the noise, knowing what would come next, fitting his words into the time allotted by the previous sound – the coo of a mother talking to a baby, the dawn chorus, the pop and fizz of a bottle top coming loose and the liquid busting out of it – before the next one arrived. You could call it a soundscape, the visual equivalent being a series of images, of landscapes in the loosest sense, flashing on a screen and making you feel things.

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When I was young I went to a museum on a school trip where there was a reconstruction of World War I trenches. The light aimed at twilight and you could smell the fusty scent of a museum trying to evoke damp and a hint of decaying bodies (but not enough to make schoolchildren gag). And it had the recorded sound of muffled gunfire and shouts and the odd scream to allow you to imagine a modicum of what it might be like to be fighting in trenches in France in 1918. But of course it only felt a bit like that, it mostly felt like you, a school girl in the 90s, imagining what it might be like to be a man fighting in the trenches in France in 1918. 

In meditation they’ll tell you that to clear your mind of noise, all you need to focus is on the fact that you’re breathing in, and then breathing out. Sometimes it feels refreshing to gently remind yourself  that you’re walking down the road, that it’s Thursday in London in August, that you’re 32. In the last few days instead of looking or thinking I’ve listened, and the effect is similarly, peculiarly calming. Listening to all the city sounds around me, all the time – the soar and sink of cars passing, the wail of an ambulance, the snippets of conversation from the people on the bus – curiously detaches you from other forms of noise. It gives a perspective on all the scenes of your day, as if you’re watching a beautifully dull, real-time art-house film about your life.

One place I walked with my ears open was Fitzroy Square in my lunch hour, strolling the streets of Bloomsbury and thinking of Virginia Woolf doing the same thing a hundred years ago. She lived on that square for a while, and I have never been able to walk around that literary stretch of London without her in the centre of my mind. I’ve thought about her a lot recently after seeing a National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition about her and reading Alexandra Harris’s (brilliant and very accessible ) biography of her. Reading about her and reading her again I marvel at her sense of story, entirely new, her confidence that there is the capacity for drama in everything, her ability to listen and drop sounds onto the page in endlessly interesting ways.

Roger_Fry_-_Virginia_Woolf

“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 before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. 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.”

Sitting in front of the house she had lived in, on a bench, I listened to the sounds around me, just waited and listened on Fitzroy Square, to the engines and the conversations and the wind. The weather was about to turn, just like the weekend before when my family and I sat in the garden until the sky turned entirely black in seconds and forced every object to turn several shades darker and sent a sheet of rain hurtling across the garden to meet us.

There is the capacity for drama in everything.

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One Response to “Mrs Dalloway Said She Would Buy The Flowers Herself”

  1. 1 Meg

    Oh wow, I loved reading this, thinking about the way these sounds resonate in our days.

    And re-reading the Mrs Dalloway quote was just what I needed – it feels new and fresh every time, and just instantly takes me back to London streets, walking by Westminster and St James.

    Beautiful! xx


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