Archive for the ‘war’ Category

This Christmas day, I unwrapped a present from my landlady and, completely unexpectedly, a small purple hardback book with gold lettering and a beautiful portrait of Virginia Woolf fell onto my lap. I was delighted, and proceeded to read it cover to cover amidst wrapping paper and ended up holding back tears to prevent myself being utterly embarrassed in front of my in-laws.

virginia woolf life portraits

© Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

Virginia Woolf (Life Portraits) by Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford poetically weaves the story of Woolf’s life with Alkayat’s considered text and Cosford’s illustrations, a fresh response to the Bloomsbury aesthetic. It opens with the following quote from Mrs Dalloway:

She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was on the outside, looking on.

This liminality, both the relation between work and life and Woolf’s psychological flux, is represented thoughtfully throughout the biography.

street haunting in life portrait

© Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford

Alkayat focuses on the personal details of life: how Vanessa Bell’s sheepdog Gurth accompanied her “street haunting”, how Leonard and Virginia Woolf spent nights during the First World War in their coal cellar sitting on boxes, and that they later named their car “the umbrella”. She also puts us on a first name basis with Virginia, Vanessa and Duncan, et al. – a choice which made me feel closer to their world.

charleston in woolf life portrait

© Nina Cosford

Cosford’s illustrations are both sensitive to the Bloomsbury style and offer a fresh perspective. Her bold lines and patterns used to illustrate the pages about Vanessa Bell’s cover designs for Virginia Woolf’s novels, for example, are edged with mark-making in the mode of Bell. Her use of colour also seems emotive, following the waves of high and low that punctuate the narrative. Her illustrations capture the paraphernalia of every-day life, from the objects atop Woolf’s writing desk – diary, hair grips, photo of Julia, sweets – to the plants in the garden at Monks House, bringing Virginia’s life closer to home.

monks house plants

© Nina Cosford

Illustration and text come together beautifully in this miniature autobiography and would provide any reader with a poetic and surprising escape into the life of Virginia Woolf.


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The Things They CarriedWho’d have figured? Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a classic, the title story in a collection of linked pieces that I’ve long heard is a “must read” for writers. So it caught my attention when I noticed it at the library recently, and I plucked it off the shelf. Finally, I thought.

Virginia Woolf wasn’t on my mind when I opened the book—for obvious reasons, I’d say—but there she was, on the first page:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha…. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf.

The surprising Woolf sighting made me think about Septimus Smith and his wartime experiences, the horrors that haunted him for the rest of his brief life. Different war, same horrors—it never ends. I read a few more stories—they’re compelling and well written—but soon I’d had enough and returned the book to the library.

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sample of dataStudents find the most interesting things online.

A grad student of Elisa Kay Sparks of Clemson University found a new website, The Bomb Sight project, that shows where German bombs fell in London from Oct. 7, 1940, through June 6, 1941, the period of time known as the Blitz.  Visitors to the site can zoom in and out to see individual city blocks, including the Bloomsbury and Tavistock Square area.

Previously available only for viewing in the Reading Room at The National Archives, Bomb Sight is making the maps available to citizen researchers, academics and students. They will be able to explore where the bombs fell and to discover memories and photographs from the period.

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It’s D-Day in Conneaut, Ohio. And as I sit here at my kitchen table under a sun-drenched window, I can hear — and feel — the loud drone of airplanes overhead and the gunfire nearby.

The invasion, complete with a beach landing, explosions in the sand, shots fired by opposing forces and airplanes flying low overhead, started promptly at 3 p.m., right on schedule.

The D-Day reenactment has been staged in Conneaut since 1999. The location was chosen because the township park’s 250-yard-long public beach and adjacent sloping terrain are said to closely resemble Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.

As I sit just four blocks away from the battle site and listen to the sounds of make-believe war, I wonder: What was it like for those who actually lived through World War II and experienced the sounds of a real war overhead?

Virginia Woolf described it this way in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940):  “It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet, which may at any moment sting you to death. . .The drone of the planes is now like the sawing of a branch overhead. Round and round it goes, sawing and sawing at a branch directly above the house…A bomb drops. All the windows rattle.”

I could walk down to the park bluff to get closer, to see the “invasion” myself. But it’s easier to imagine the reality here in my kitchen than at the actual site.

From past experience, I know that the crowd of spectators sipping cold drinks and licking ice cream cones makes it difficult to imagine a real battle, where people kill and are killed. And the uniformed volunteers who portray the German and Allied soldiers of June 6, 1944, take so much obvious enjoyment in the weekend’s events that they prevent me from suspending my disbelief in the proceedings.

Last night, for example, we saw a man in full uniform riding through town in an open military Jeep. His posture, his heavy wool uniform on a hot summer afternoon, the jaunty tilt of his cap and the expression on his face as he suavely steered the vintage vehicle, said it all. He was so puffed up with the importance of his imaginary role in the upcoming “battle” that my companion and I turned to each other and laughed. Out loud.

Under the laughter, though, I recalled Virginia Woolf’s statement in Three Guineas (1938) that “wearing pieces of metal, or ribbon, coloured hoods or gowns, is a barbarity which deserves the ridicule which we bestow upon the rites of savages.”

My fear that some of those watching the events today may think that war is exciting, glorious, even fun, also prevents me from attending. I remember that in Three Guineas Woolf recognizes that “war is a profession; a source of happiness and excitement.”

And I read with dismay that as part of the event, children will build their own miniature Omaha Beach in the sand. I am not sure what to make of that.

It is true that veterans are recognized and honored at the events of this weekend in our small city. And a few remaining WW II vets in town have been interviewed for a commemorative DVD.

But I remember Woolf’s response to war, and I am forced to stop and think again. I recall the fear she shared in her diaries as she heard — and sometimes watched at close proximity — German planes fly over the Sussex countryside during the second World War. And I recall her plea for peace in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.”

Those thoughts sound more loudly in my head than the airplanes. Or the gunfire. Or the explosions on the beach. And Woolf says such thoughts are more powerful than all three.

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For many, it’s just a statistic: In 1921 England there were one and three-quaSingled Outrter million more women than men. For Virginia Nicholson, Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter, that statistic is the start of a compelling story.

In Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War, Nicholson traces the fate of a generation of women left to blaze a new path for themselves after the slaughter of World War I. Known as ‘the Surplus Women’, the women of this generation met fates different from their Victorian forebears. Some accomplished great things as they took up traditionally male pursuits. Others felt trapped, lonely, and desperate.

In Singled Out, Nicholson draws on her extensive knowledge of the period, skillfully weaving the life stories of a sampling of women into a compelling tale of the interwar years for English women. Read more about the book, which will be out in the UK later this month.

Nicholson is also the author of Among the Bohemians and is the co-author of Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Gardens. Speaking of Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, she will be there to talk about her new book on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. Tickets are £14 and include Nicholson’s talk and a glass of wine.

Wish I could join her. But I do plan to read Singled Out as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

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From reading Woolf, I knew that Tavistock Square in London had been touched by war. But until today, I didn’t realize how closely it was aligned with peace.Tavistock Hotel

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 YearsThree 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.

Union JackAt 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.Ghandi Statue

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.

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