The Bloomsbury square and war
First, the war connections. It was in Woolf’s Bloomsbury flat on the third floor of 52 Tavistock Square during the winter of 1936-1937 that she is said to have received a packet of photographs from the Spanish government. These were “not pleasant photographs to look upon,” she wrote in Three Guineas, for they depicted “dead bodies for the most part,” and devastated buildings, all victims of the Spanish civil war.
In July of 1937, she was once again at her Tavistock Square address when the violence of that war touched her in a more personal way. She learned that her twenty-nine-year-old nephew, Julian Bell, a volunteer ambulance driver in Spain, had been killed. It was a devastating personal loss, one she described in her diary as “a complete break; almost a blank; like a blow on the head: a shriveling up” (D5 104).
Four years later, in October of 1940, Woolf was visited by war again, this time in a more direct physical way. Her Tavistock Square building took a direct hit from a German bomb. When she viewed the devastation, she found “a heap of ruins…where I wrote so many books” (331).
War’s violence in real time
Fast forward to July 7, 2005. Woolf has been dead for sixty-four years, but Tavistock Square still exists. War strikes the location once more, when four terrorists detonate bombs in the London transport system, just as the morning rush hour comes to an end.The last of the four goes off on the Number 30 bus as it arrives in front of the British Medical Association, located on the east side of Tavistock Square, around the corner from the site of Woolf’s former flat. The blast, another incident in the 21st century “war on terror,” kills 52 persons and injures more than 770.
It is ironic that the gritty violence and destruction of war came again and again to the London location where Woolf spent 15 of her most productive years as a writer – and the place where she wrote two of her volumes most intimately connected to war and peace –Three Guineas and The Years. Three Guineas gives a creative and cogent argument that women must establish their own “Outsiders Society” in order to achieve peace. And The Years establishes unmarried matriarch Eleanor Pargiter as the character that holds the novel together and holds out hope for peace.
Peace comes to Tavistock Square
Virginia Woolf is not Tavistock Square’s only female connection to war and peace. Today I read about Rose Hacker, 101, who joined more than 100 other peace activists in Tavistock Square this week to remember the victims of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. The Bloomsbury square is the site of an annual commemoration of the Hiroshima victims.
At 101, Hacker has seen war come and go — and come again. She recalled sitting on the Tavistock Square gate and waving the Union Jack as residents flooded the square to celebrate the end of the First World War. And though she had been told by her teacher that there would be no more wars, she remembers hearing the same prediction when World War II ended.
Despite all that — and her feelings of shame that we still have nuclear weapons — she holds out hope for peace. “We must not lose hope,” she told the Camden New Journal. “If I have not lost hope in 100 years, then you young people can still have hope.”
The hope and wisdom of this longtime spokeswoman for peace inspires me. I feel the same way about a statue that I wandered across in Tavistock Square. It depicts Mahatma Gandhi, the martyred leader of the Indian independence movement who is known the world over for promoting active nonviolence.
This statue sits in the garden area of Tavistock Square on a central site donated by St. Pancras Borough Council. Since its unveiling in 1966, other peace memorials have been established in the square, and it has become a popular place for peace events.
On any given day, visitors to the quiet green space in the heart of bustling Bloomsbury can find individual candles around the statue’s base. The candles, glowing softly in the shadow of Ghandi’s statue, are lit by those who hope for peace.
Rose Harker can be counted among them. And Virginia Woolf is there in spirit.