Blog # 112: Virginia Woolf and Doctor Who—Part One: Ianto’s shrine

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Except for this sentence, this entry does not reference the “Time of the Angels” episode in which Doctor Who claims to be on Virginia’s bowling team. Instead, the title refers to a visit which my daughter and I recently made to Cardiff. My daughter is an ardent Doctor Who fan. I am not, and I must confess I was dragged there—if not kicking and screaming, at the very least squirming and muttering. Despite my reluctance, I was soon dancing and singing. By means of Doctor Who, Cardiff brought me much closer to Virginia Woolf. This blog, and two subsequent ones, will explain why.

The first point of contact between Doctor Who and Virginia—and the subject of this blog—was Ianto’s shrine. Ianto, according to my daughter, was a well-liked Torchwood character who was killed off in the “Day 4” episode of “Children of Earth,” and whose death led to an outpouring of grief on the part of fans. Websites were set up, petitions started, charity was solicited in Ianto’s name, and Ianto shrine was started in Cardiff, on the docks of Mermaid Quay, just around the corner from Roald Dahl Plass, and just below “People Like Us,” John Clinch’s bronze statue of a young couple and their dog.

The shrine is tacky in the extreme, and all the more genuine because of the tackiness. Against a wall of the dock boardwalk are tacked a jumble of notes, photographs, trinkets and flowers. Many of the notes are wrapped in plastic, yet still stained and discoloured by water and sun. Some of the notes contain poems, some mourn and invoke Ianto directly. Others commemorate friends who were Ianto and Torchwood fans. The site strongly resembles the shrine of a popular saint in an Italian church, or the roadside site of a car crash victim. Despite an unctuous, credit claiming plaque from the management of Mermaid Quay, the memorial is spontaneous, chaotic, primitive and honest.

As for the Doctor Who connection, the connection is mental not physical. My first reaction to Ianto’s wall was dismissive, was condescending. “All this fuss about a fictional character,” I thought. “How bizarre.” Then it dawned on me. To a Torchwood or Doctor Who fan, my own pre-occupation with Virginia Woolf and with To the Lighthouse was equally bizarre. Virginia is long dead, and my connection and obsession with her is based on an act of the imagination. The Virginia I am chasing is a mental construct. Granted, that construct is based on the writings and actions of a real historical figure, yet today Virginia has no more physical reality than Ianto.

Thinking about Virginia and Ianto got me thinking about shrines and pilgrimages. Shrines are about connection. Shrines are about passion. Shrines are about fandom. Shrines are about defining yourself through someone else. Later, in the Doctor Who Experience, my daughter would have me photograph her in a Tardiss replica and standing next to various Doctor Who artifacts. Later, in St. Ives, I would have her photograph me next to Talland House, on the seashore in front of Godrevey Lighthouse, and on top of Trencrom (“Trick Robin”)) Hill. Parallel experiences. For most people, these are empty, meaningless sites, sites to be valued only for what they offer to the immediate senses, or sites at which one can feel superior and smugly condescending towards those who invest them with spiritual meaning. “Only connect,” said E M Forster, and it is through shrines and pilgrimages that we fans deepen our connection to life. For some of us a weathered, much altered Talland house, now hemmed in by modern beachside hotels, is every bit as real and as meaningful as slivers of wood supposedly from the true cross, or as Ianto’s shrine.

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