Virginia Woolf

 It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived. The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established relentless reality.

As Alain de Botton discovers at the beginning of The Art of Travel (2002), there is something about winter which self-consciously speaks to us of ageing and, I would add, dying.

As the main shopping streets in London are gift-wrapped in the frantically festive mood of the weeks running up to Christmas, we witness the apparent paradox of the Christian calendar. We are invited to drink, eat, (shop) and be merry, but, in fact, as we approach the last two bank holidays of the year we feel closer to the end, in more than one way. It seems natural to follow this dark strand of inspiration of think about death.

Too morbid? Read on and decide.

As some of you will have spotted, the title of this post pays homage to  ‘Street Haunting’  (1930), one of Virginia Woolf’s most evocative essays,  which brings to life fragments of stories tucked away where we don’t look for them. Here is in an excerpt of Woolf’s response to the West End of London, one winter afternoon:

How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

Haunting, Woolf’s piece implies, is invigorating to a writer’s stalled imagination. Haunting the streets of London, having set herself the futile task of buying a lead pencil from her stationery shop on the Strand, the writer joins the urban banquet, her senses feeding on the bountiful feast. Such exuberant richness stands out in stark contrast against the ‘desolation’ experienced on her way home, after hours:

Walking home through the desolation one could tell oneself the story of the dwarf, of the blind men, of the party in the Mayfair mansion, of the quarrel in the stationer’s shop.

But it is the act of haunting, and not the function of being haunted that concerns Woolf in this brief episode. The writer haunts London, and the reader, ends up haunting it, too; we become the ghosts, we possess the space  with our own lives, walking our ways through the city, unknowingly creating patterns, tracing new ways of mapping the city, and making its stories.

But I promised death, at the beginning, not life. Recently I have come across one of the latest additions to the catalogue of cyclist deaths in London. Min Joo Lee’s untimely death at the age of 24, is commemorated by a white bicycle chained to the railings of the fatal junction that took her life this Autumn.

Ghost Bikes are small and somber memorials for bicyclists who are killed or hit on the street.

'Min Joo Lee's Ghost Bike', King's Cross (Photo M. Germana)

So we read on the official ghost bike website, where we learn that the first ghost bike ‘appeared’ in St. Louis (Missouri) in 2003. Another site claims that the ghost bike made its debut in San Francisco, in 2002. In London, you can currently view 14 memorials, scattered around the city from Dalston to Camden. Reactions to such unofficial memorials are varied. As we read in an article on Dan Cox’s memorial bike,  building a ghost bike, setting it up to honour the memory of a lost friend may be a cathartic experience. To others, the white bike may just look ‘odd’, as I heard a passer-by say, walking past Min-Joo-Lee’s own spectral monument.

When I saw it, it had been standing for several weeks. Fresh flowers, mainly pink lilies, were still threaded through the frame, whose white coat of paint was covered in a thin layer of soot. This is London. Nothing stays white for very long. Not even ghosts. As well as flowers, decorating the bicycle frame was a chain of paper origami, and a pair of brown boots. Those limp leather shells were perhaps the most tangible reminders of the cyclist’s absence. With the councils and the Mayor still unsure about the removal policy of these spectral features of London’s cityscape, ghost bikes remain the most evocative way of commemorating the loss of a life, and (hopefully) a visible warning for both cyclists and drivers.

'The bike and the boots' (Photo M. Germana)

'The bike and the boots' (Photo M. Germana)

But there is more to the ghost bike, too. Behind Min Joo Lee’s bike is also a story of community spirit, the absence of which we often lament in London (and any big city). It was James, a local cyclist, and Beth, a designer, who arranged the bike and the memorial sign. Neither knew the Korean cyclist before she was hit on her way to start her fashion course at Central St. Martin’s, and sadly it was her death that brought them – and anyone who took part in the memorial ceremony in October – together.

In a place as crowded as London has always been, the reminders of death are not few. But ghost bikes are not just haunting mementos of our vulnerability, though certainly they are that. Repossessing the place that claimed a cyclist’s life, their ephemeral whiteness celebrates our transient lives, too, and maps out invisible links among strangers in the city.