Virginia Woolf: I miss London life.
Leonard: This is not you speaking, Virginia. This is an aspect of your illness.
V: It’s me, it is my voice!
L: Not you.
V: It’s mine, mine only…
L: It’s a voice you hear.
V: It is not! It is mine. I am dying in this town.
L: If you were thinking clearly, Virginia, you’d recall it was London that brought you low.
V: If I were thinking clearly? If I were thinking clearly…
L: We brought you to Richmond to give you peace.
V: If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone. In the dark, in the deep dark and that only I can know. Only I can understand my own condition. You live with the threat, you tell me. You live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with it too. This is my right. It is the right of every human being. I choose not the suffocating anaesthetic of these suburbs but the violent jilt of the capital, that is my choice! The meanest patient, just even the very lowest, is allowed some say in the matter of her own prescription. Thereby she defines her humanity. I wish, for your sake, Leonard, that I were happy in this quietness but if it is choice between Richmond and death, I choose death.
L: Very well, London then.
She’s like you, says Ness, raising her eyes at me and having a sip of gin and tonic. To be fair, I am a bit of a London girl and I occasionally rant. And the voices are normal, right?
We’re watching The Hours – second grim film of the week – which fuses three intergenerational life stories around Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway. Don’t worry, I haven’t read it either. (Warning: film spoilers to follow).
L: Why does someone have to die? In your book, why is it someone has to die?
L: Is this a stupid question?
L: I’m making that question stupid.
V: Not at all.
V: Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.
Then we switch to the 1950s where a pregnant woman stands in the bathroom with tears streaming down her cheeks. Hours before she had been at the point of suicide. But she changed her mind. Now, oblivious to her gut-wrenching pain and despair, her husband lies in bed talking trite banalities and she answers his questions from the other side of the door.
And suddenly it hits you. She didn’t take the pills. She didn’t die. Yet this is the daily death of living a life that is not life, of being utterly alone in a marriage and environment which seem neutral at worst, and, at best, all a girl could want. Yet the normality of the cake she baked badly, a husband who doesn’t get her, a child to love, together are heavy enough to quash the possibility of anything else.
There’s a weird sense of relief when this woman turns up later in the film, now an old lady, and we learn that she left that life just a few months later; walking out on her husband, her children, her home, and going to work in a library in Canada. It was death, she said. I chose life.
You just want to hug her, forgive her, tell her it’s ok and that you understand. In the same way that you want to make it better for the other character which the film has followed. The aids-stricken writer who, it transpires, is the son she abandoned all those years ago. Your heart is pulled in empathy towards the mother while also being tugged with compassion towards the son whose own brokenness and pain make so much more sense in the context of her choices.
V: Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more. It’s contrast.
L: And who will die? Tell me.
V: The poet will die. The visionary.
And so he dies, at his own volition, having lived. Before life kills him.
We should’ve watched Bridesmaids, Ness says.
But it wasn’t all bad. Somewhere, interspersed with sadnesses, were moments when characters sought to evoke, (re)live and capture moments of joy, life and happiness, and there were glimmers of hope and possibility. Perhaps it is their elusory nature that makes them all the more poignant and more precious.
And it is moments of hope and possibility, as well as all the rubbish stuff, that we chat about the following day. We talk about his GCSEs, his grandfather and how they used to sit outside the house together, his little brother, Cowley Road, youth club. He retells great stories about the history of Afghanistan that he’s discovered on the internet. We laugh about the fact that I knew him before he needed to shave: the privileges of being a youth worker and watching teenagers grow up. We imagine alternative realities. We grimace with mock lightheartedness about the ridiculousness of how many times they search you in this place because the other option would be anger and tears. And we have enough of that as we talk about the fact that here no one listens, that there is no place for question or contestation, that paracetamol is supposed to fix everything. About the bombs and the fighting; memories of loss and people who aren’t here any more. Why did I keep living? he asks. Why me?
He wants to know how my dissertation is coming along which somehow feels a bit insignificant in this context. Actually, for the last couple of days I’ve been reading about places like this where the state of exception has become the rule and I’ve been considering the idea of ‘bare life’ in which people are annexed from community, society and rights; stripped of everything but physical life itself. Subject to the law’s control but with no recourse to its protection. Today ‘bare life’ is incarnated. I know his name.
You’re just here for a better life, the judge had said to him. He’d looked her in the eyes and asked her if she was a mother. How bad must a situation be, he asked, for a mother to send her son away in the wishful hope that the other possibilities would be better? The visionary speaks. There were many of us in a big container. We couldn’t breathe. The threat of extinction: there, en route, and here. Yet that was chosen as a path of life.
The meanest patient, just even the very lowest, is allowed some say in the matter of her own prescription. Thereby she defines her humanity. Or not.
He leaves through one door and I walk free through another. It’s contrast. I give back the locker key and reclaim my belongings, including my passport which proves my legitimacy in this non-place. I’m not searched on the way out, on the grounds, I suppose, that there’s nothing in there that I could want or be able to take. All I want to do is switch places. Him for me.
The minibus drives me back along the road by the airport’s perimeter fence. Soon I’ll be back at Gatwick then on the train home, cramming in with a bunch of loud Italians who are excited about their holiday. Commuters will get off at Redhill and I’ll smile to myself at how much Virginia Woolf would’ve hated being there, given how badly she responded to Zone 3. As we go through East Croydon, I’ll see the ‘Nestle’ sign and wonder if we’re still supposed to hate them after the milk powder saga in the 90s. And then I’ll be cheered by the beautiful sight of Battersea Power Station with which I am a bit bizarrely obsessed. Situated under the sun, I’ll feel the weight of normality in a paradoxical world, craving redemption.
That they may have life.
Someone has to die.