I Didn't Need a Pencil - Welbeck Street and Oxford Circus
By Alan Russell
Virginia Woolf went ‘street haunting’ in London on the pretext of leaving her home in Tavistock Square to venture out to buy a pencil.
‘No one has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner.’
Those are the opening sentences of her essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ written in 1927.
The second paragraph of this essay starts with ‘The hour should be evening and the season winter’.
I was in London. It was past tea time and very nearly past my normal dinner time which Virginia Woolf determined to be the perfect time to go 'street haunting'. I could see that the rain that had attacked pavements and people with democratic venom had retreated. How long for I just did not know so I decided to take a chance and do some ‘haunting’ of my own but without the pretext of buying a pencil.
Standing on the steps of the hotel and in the half light of the lobby was a group of Middle Eastern women. Four or five of them were dressed in heavy and bulky winter coats over patterned cotton ankle length skirts or dresses. Then as I was going down the steps out of the shadows appeared a figure covered in black from head to toe including a niqab. I couldn’t see if there was an opening for the eyes as I passed. I smiled politely as I passed through this standing compromise of Arab and European winter fashion.
Into the semi darkness walking on reflectively wet pavements along Welbeck Street to where it crosses Wigmore Street. There I had two choices; left or right. I chose right past a big pharmacy and cosmetics shop still open for business. Across the street was the entrance to a narrow alley that was lit with street lamps and patio heaters.
St Christopher’s Place was alive and busy. All of the shops were closed but the restaurants were full to overflowing on to the pavement. Whole families were sitting outside under awnings and canopies in the winter air and half light of the street. Eating, drinking, smiling and doing what families and friends do; having a good evening out. There may even have been people eating and drinking here who would return to their flats in Welbeck Street that lay in dark waiting for their return. Or, they may be visitors from somewhere else who after their evening out amongst friends and family where they were known would return to the anonymity of their hotels. Perhaps, just perhaps the very one I was staying in.
Just before I joined Oxford Street the line of shop fronts on either side come to an end. The thoroughfare narrows until it is just wide enough for two or even three people to pass and the walls on either side are solid and blank. It reminded me of the alleys that criss cross Tewkesbury. They were cut through to allow a very early form of back development to meet the demand for housing as the population grew. Perhaps St Christopher’s Place had been cut through for the very same reason when the streets and houses of this part of London were interspersed with fields?
After the half to diminishing and almost monochrome light at this end of St Christopher’s Place, stepping into Oxford Street was an overwhelming ocean of blinding light. The street was closed off for general traffic. Only buses and rickshaws were allowed to pass through. On my way to Oxford Circus one rickshaw came around a corner lit up with various coloured fluorescent lights. Pop music was blasting out of its music system and in the back were three or four passengers, all girls. They were bopping away in their seats and singing away to whatever tune was playing. The driver took them on a sharp right off of Oxford Street. The turn was so quick and sharp I am sure that for one brief moment the excitement of the girls, the rickshaw’s speed and the music lifted one of the three wheels off the of the street for a couple of seconds.
Where Holles Street comes down to Oxford Street I waited to cross while another rickshaw went on its way. There I met a Revenue Inspector for Transport For London or ‘TFL’ as it is known. His name was ‘Fisher’ and he had been on duty since four that afternoon with another four hours to go. He didn’t mind working Sunday evenings as it meant his wife had to organise the children for school the next morning. His contribution to their education was doing the school run in the morning while his wife went off to work. I asked why the street was closed off to traffic. It was because there was a light display at Oxford Circus later that evening. Fisher lived in South London with his family. He asked where I lived when I wasn’t in London. He hadn’t heard of ‘Ringwood’ but when I explained it was halfway between Southampton and Bournemouth his eyes lit up. He had been to Bournemouth a couple of times for day trips with his family. Loved the beach, loved the town and was planning to go again in the summer. Rent a decent car and have a really good day out. I gave him some local knowledge of less crowded beaches to go to in case he went there again. They were noted on his iPhone but I am not telling anyone else as they would no longer be ‘less crowded’. Before we parted we got on to the subject of football. Without giving him any clues he looked at me and said he was an Arsenal supporter. I told him I was as well. He shook my hand and let me know he had a feeling I was as he said he had assessed me as ‘a decent bloke’.
From where I left Fisher I could see a huge globe suspended above Oxford Circus. This must have been the light display he mentioned. The globe was suspended about twenty feet high and on its surface swirling amoebic and paisley style patterns floated, drifted, morphed into new patterns and colours. People took pictures on their phones and iPads. People by themselves took selfies. Smiling into the lens and taking a picture to prove ‘they were there’. I watched the globe for a few minutes from different directions and then headed along Regent Street which was quiet. Shop fronts lit up and a couple of coffee shops were still open but very few people.
My instinctive navigational skills kicked in and I turned into Margaret Street which by comparison to both Oxford Street and Regent Street was dark and lifeless.
At the back of one of the large department stores that front on to Oxford Street under a covered entrance, two men were hunkering down for a cold night sleeping rough. They had already laid out their sheets of cardboard and were unrolling their sleeping bags when I was going by. The security guard from the store came and chatted to them. They were not being moved on by him so at least they were going to have some shelter during what promised to be a very cold night.
The men’s overnight address looked across into the black void of Cavendish Square and they in turn were overlooked by a towering statue of William George Frederick Cavendish Bentinck (1802 – 1848) otherwise known as 'Lord Cavendish'.
Shops fronted glamorously on to Oxford Street into bright lights. At their rears are their portals for taking in stock on strictly timed deliveries and for staff who have to also arrive on time facing into the darkness of Henrietta Place. There was nothing of interest on either side of the street and not many people out walking. On my left I passed the brick-built London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. All of its doors were secured shut. No lights were on so I guess the study of Christianity as a lifelong passion does take the occasional Sunday evening off. Perhaps the theorists were putting into practice what they had studied and were haunting the streets of London providing hot drinks for the homeless?
In a few strides after the Christian centre I was back in Welbeck Street and could see the welcoming green logo of the hotel.
I walked along the row of houses that I had looked at from the bedroom window. My curiosity gave my strides a sense of purpose walking towards the house where the man had been working on his computer. There were no brass plates, discrete or otherwise, proclaiming there was a business being run from the first floor. Just a dark door with a brass knocker. The only sign I could see was attached to the wrought iron railings strongly advising people from fly tipping as they will be seen on CCTV and prosecuted.
Back at the hotel entrance the same group of Arabic women were waiting on the steps outside the lobby. All of them were looking into their mobile phones. They had obviously made an arrangement to be picked up by someone. A relative, a friend or a chaperone. They had been standing outside for at least forty minutes and had for all intents and purposes been let down. What was really incongruous about the group of ladies was the fact that the lady covered in black from head to toe was also looking into a mobile phone and the silver light from the screen made her niqab look grey.
The hotel lobby was warm and the concierge greeted me like an old friend.
‘Arsene Wenger’ the concierge told me as I walked past him ‘He’s a good manager’.
Back in the room it was warm, secure and life was anonymous. The bedroom curtains were still open. Across the street the man was still sitting at his desk looking into a computer. A smartly dressed lady came in, bundled his papers off the desk into a filing cabinet. She obviously had some strong power over the man as two minutes later he switched off the computer and walked out of the room. The lady stayed behind and cleared a few more things up and left the room in darkness.
I was back and I hadn’t bought a pencil.