Christopher Hawtree

the pillowbook of Christopher Hawtree, writer and Green Party councillor for Central Hove

Virginia Woolf Returns to Hove

Posted on | March 23, 2012 | 2 Comments

And so, this week, once again to Hove Town Hall, a building which Virginia Woolf would have seen in its previous, splendid incarnation. Alas it burned down in 1966 and has since been rebuilt in, shall we say, a somewhat different style.

That fire – yet another suspicious one – was seven decades after she had visited the town each Easter with her father and siblings to stay with a friend who owned a tall, terraced house at 9, St Aubyn’s. This building – now converted into flats with an unfortunate front door – stands on the corner of the coast road and, in 1897, had looked across the empty ground upon which was later built the ever-controversial King Alfred sports centre.

Even before I became a Green Councillor for this part of Hove, I had been inside 9 St Aubyn’s and – call me romantic if you will – it is a leap across time to climb that splendid, original staircase, whose handrail she would have gripped some 115 years ago.

Not, it has to be said, that she was much sold on Hove.

Had she but known it, there was an equally disgruntled spirit in the town, on The Drive: Ivy Compton Burnett, whose experience there of family life was to inspire many decades’ brilliantly idiosyncratic novels (one of which was, alas, turned down by the Woolfs’ publishing firm).

This is to digress before I have even started.

I had gone along to Hove Town Hall for a meeting of the Full Council. I shall not trouble enthusiasts for Mrs Woolf with details about the earlier part of this gathering, although I feel that she would have had greater sport with it than many a tweeter (after all, she attended Labour conferences with her husband and was not an entirely charitable chronicler of the Webbs’ visits to her house).

Which is to digress again.

Hove Town Hall. In the later part of the meeting there was a Notice of Motion, proposed by Green Councillor Ian Davey – Transport honcho – which urged members of all political parties to support a bid to make this somewhere fit for cycling. This was something partly inspired by The Times’s current campaign inspired by the terrible accident which befell one of its journalists, Mary Bowers.

Ian introduced this Motion, and it was seconded by another Green Councillor Matt Follett.

Meanwhile, I had signalled to the Mayor that I wished to speak on the subject. To my surprise, I found that I was next up, after ever-rebarbative Tory Councillor Tony Janio had said something or other about his being willing for once to look on the bright side of life and support this, but in such a way that caveats loomed.

Anyway, the day before – while cycling along the front – an idea had come to me to contribute to whatever debate this motion yielded.

I had got something together and, as I arrived at the meeting and sat down, I showed, whispered my pencilled draft to Councillor Mike Jones, on my left, and said to him, do you think this stuff is all right, and he had said, great: go for it.

Anyway, I duly stood up, pressed the microphone button: remembering Councillor Janio’s interruption of my previous speech, I began by saying that transcripts of this one would be available for anybody who needed it (I had thought of offering limited-edition, signed, well-bound copies at a premium, but that would have hobbled the pace).

Instead, I continued by remarking that I was glad to hear that, for once, Cllr Janio would not “look on the blight side of life”’.

(I heard afterwards that Labour leader Gill Mitchell had burst out laughing at this punning gag.)

This Cycling debate was intended to bring cross-party support. That said, I said, I felt that as there are no longer any LibDems on the Council here, I could safely point out that, last spring, in Central Hove, Virginia Woolf had attracted much more interest than the LibDems had done: they came last; by contrast, time and again, I had attracted great interest, on Green street stalls and elsewhere, by drawing attention to a framed, manuscript entry from her diary which describes a Hove visit in 1897.

And so, at this week’s Full Council, I did so again.

I prefaced this by saying that, in that diary entry, Virginia had complained about the weather that spring, when rain and wind had lashed 9, St Aubyn’s, all of which made Hove “a most disgraceful place – nothing else seems to happen…”. I then pointed out here and now that, despite those muddy, pre-tarmac roads, bicycling had alleviated her chagrin that spring. What’s more, another day, she and the others had set off from St Aubyn’s “at eleven and rode through Brighton to the Lewes road – There was one long hill, and a bad piece of muddy ground to begin with, but when we had scaled the hill, which we did comfortably on our feet, behold a beautiful smooth descent of two miles and a ½ lay before us! Georgie, Thoby & Adrian flew down this with their feet up, but Nessa & I were more prudent – it was most exciting and splendid. If I was a poet […}, I should write something upon this way of travelling.”

I could have quoted more, but left it there, summarising the rest of that day’s journey, to Uckfield and back, and pointed out, that, a few days later, they cycled eighteen miles from Hove to Arundel and its “hideously rebuilt” Castle; and I said, as I glanced at Bill Randall, that if in those muddy but safer days the teenage Virginia Woolf could cycle such distances, in such a spirit, then we should endeavour to enable people to do likewise now. Or something like that.

And then I sat down, astonished by the applause around me, felt my heart beating quickly against my chest. That is no reflection upon what I had said, but testament to the way in which Virginia Woolf’s teenage words resonated (she had a lifelong belief in trying out words aloud). Back in Hove, 115 years on, she had indeed proved to be a poet with that diary entry.

And I was chuffed, touched, by Labour leader, Gill Mitchell’s then saying that she “doubted whether I could follow that”, but she did go on to say something estimable about cycling’s benefits.

A bit later on, Tory Councillor Janio was back on his feet, and – after some reference to whatever I had said about Virginia Woolf’s pan-Sussex combination of bike/train journeying – he snarled that I was living in a “fantasy world”. Strange that, I thought to myself: after all, the Tories set some store by the past-in-present, and Mike whispered to me, as I clutched his hand: don’t worry about that, you’ve gone over the Tories’ heads but residents appreciate what you say, which was a sentiment echoed in a note from Councillor Ania Kitcat.

And, as I said in talk afterwards with others – including one of Labour’s Virginia Woolf enthusiasts – I think that Virginia, and Leonard, would have delighted in such posthumous riling of the Tories.

Which had not been my intention: I had simply wanted to make cycling tangible, cite an example of pedallings’ joy, which that paragraph, in a small manuscript volume, does so well. That entry, on my hallway wall, is a continual talking point when residents – after tying up their bicycles outside – arrive to discuss life in Hove nowadays.

Meanwhile, it’s a further leap across time to think of another Sussex resident, Lord Hutchinson, Defence QC in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial. In his turn, as a teenager, in the Thirties, Jeremy had known Virginia Woolf well. As he told me, her advice was always to stick with it, go out on a limb.


2 Responses to “Virginia Woolf Returns to Hove”

  1. Anne Byrne
    March 27th, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

    Dear Christopher

    Thank you for the posting on Virginia Stephens (Woolf) who resided for a period at No 9 St Aubyns Hove. Being nearby I promptly went out and took a photograph of the building. Her spirit and wry wit linger on but now what are your plans for a plaque for Virginia and how can fans help?

    Kind regards

  2. christopher Hawtree
    March 28th, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

    Thanks. What a splendid idea! Of course, she only visited there, and plaques are usually for residents, but there is one for a house which Dickens visited. I shall pursue this. A curious thing is that such plaques can take time.

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    Christopher Hawtree is the Green Party Councillor for Central Hove but items are posted here in a personal capacity as an individual.

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