A ‘love letter to an unloved place’, broadcast in BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves, 22 June 2004.
What do you do in a corridor? Well, we know there is one thing you categorically must not do, for generations of schoolchildren have had the prohibition barked at them: ‘Don’t run in the corridor!’ It’s odd that this should be so, since the word corridor actually comes from Latin currere to run, the corridor being that part of a building which runs. There is something of the wind-tunnel in the corridor, which seems to promise the shortcut, the unswerving dash. It is surprising how often corridors are scenes of violence. It is very hard for makers of gangster films or thrillers to resist the temptation of shoot-outs in corridors. In how many films does the heroine flee down a corridor from her assailant, hair flying and strappy shoes clacking? How many times have we seen the shotgun barrel appear round the corner at the end of the corridor, turning it into a shooting range, turning it into the barrel of a gun. Computer games take their users down labyrinths of corridors and turnings.
It remains true, nevertheless, that corridors are retarders rather than accelerators of movement. In this lies much of their strangeness. Corridors are dilatory, displacing, and distempering. They are for dallying, lingering, hovering, and, most of all, for waiting. As one moves through or along a corridor, which in theory is there to provide quick and direct access to different locations on one floor of a building, the persons one meets in the corridor are usually waiting. I wonder that nobody has ever thought of setting Waiting for Godot in a corridor.
Of all built spaces, the corridor is the most temporal, the aptest to suggest both the inevitable running on of time, and its suspension. The passage of the years is often thought of as a long corridor, which also makes it possible to imagine the rooms off the corridor as stopping places. But T.S. Eliot uses the corridor to suggest a more sinisterly stalled, or snarled-up view of historical time in his poem ‘Gerontion’, which begins with the view that ‘History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues’. The corridor returns in Eliot’s work to suggest the nightmarish suspended animation of modern life, as for example in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, with its evocations of
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars.
That corridors are places of dangerous irresolution, and uncertain purpose is suggested by the fact that Macbeth conducts his agonised reflections on how to effect ‘the be-all and end-all’ of Duncan’s murder in what the stage-directions specify as the corridor outside his guest’s room. Macbeth feels himself to be poised ‘upon the bank and shoal of time’, his corridor temporisings contrasting in his mind with the thought of ‘heaven’s cherubim hors’d/Upon the sightless couriers of the air’. That the corridor is a purgatorial place is also suggested by Robert Graves’s admonition in his poem written as a solider in the First World War:
So when I’m killed, don’t wait for me,
Walking the dim corridor;
In Heaven or Hell, don’t wait for me,
Or you must wait for evermore.
So it is no surprise to find that the corridor has a conspicuous part to play in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. At the beginning of the story, the Time Traveller leads his incredulous audience down the ‘long, draughty corridor’ that leads from his cosy drawing-room to his laboratory where his Time Machine can be seen. After his return from his travels, his machine actually materialises in the corridor outside the room where his audience awaits him. After having told his story, he is himself so unsure as to whether it really happened or was all a dream, that he has to lead his listeners out of the room where his story has been told into the flickering light of the corridor, where indeed they find the battered, but indubitable machine, ‘with brown spots and smears upon the ivory, and bits of grass and moss upon the lower parts, and one rail bent awry’.
The corridor is neither public nor private, neither an open nor an interior space. The ambivalence of the corridor led Emily Post in her book on etiquette of 1922 into some very nice distinctions about when a gentleman should and should not remove his hat: ‘A gentleman takes off his hat and holds it in his hand when a lady enters the elevator in which he is a passenger, but he puts it on again in the corridor. A public corridor is like the street, but an elevator is suggestive of a room, and a gentleman does not keep his hat on in the presence of ladies in a house’.
Schoolchildren know well that unique, creeping sapping of the will and being that waiting in the corridor brings. Of course, some institutions recognise the antechamber role the corridor performs by putting out chairs. But sitting in a chair in a corridor exposes one to as much humiliation and evacuation of being as sitting in a chair on the street. Sitting in the corridor, one is clearly waiting to be seen, or, if one is less fortunate, to be seen to. One is visible and invisible at once; one is on show for all to see as someone waiting to be seen. The secret of the corridor is perhaps that it is both enclosed and exposed.
Exposure is at the heart of one of the most prevalent myths or nightmares of the corridor, that involving the hotel guest who ventures out of his or her room wearing risible or negligible nightwear, only to have the door slam behind them, leaving them marooned in shame and terror. Jean-Paul Sartre makes the corridor central to his allegory of the operations of human power and shame in one of the most memorable passages from his Being and Nothingness (1943). Imagine, he says, somebody on their knees, peeping through a keyhole, into a hotel bedroom. The voyeur has all the privileges of invisibility. Because their whole being is absorbed in the act of looking, and because they seem to be utterly quarantined from the visual scene on which they are so intent, they are pure subjects, who seem to have absolute dominion of the world. All of a sudden the voyeur hears a footstep in the corridor. Instantly, and without even having to raise his eyes, the voyeur sees himself as a voyeur, an object in somebody else’s field of vision. For Sartre, the hotel corridor is a radically and dangerously reversible space.
Perhaps the point is that corridors are not really places, at all. They are vectors, hesitations, zones of passage, architectural prepositions.
The corridor is often imagined in acoustic terms. The acoustics of the corridor are dubious, echoing. One hears what one cannot see, what cannot be there: rustling, scurrying, creaking, shuffling. More than any other sound, more than the creaking footstep, it is the whisper that typifies the corridor. In his novel The Magnificant Ambersons, Booth Tarkington evokes the life of a permanent hotel dweller, with its ‘its variable alliances and shifting feuds, and the long whisperings of elderly ladies at corridor corners—those eager but suppressed conversations, all sibilance, of which the elevator boy declared he heard the words “she said” a million times and the word “she,” five million.’ In his poem ‘Circles of Doors’, Carl Sandburg evokes the whispering illusions pursuant upon a declaration of love:
the patter of her lips ran, I love him,
I love him; and he knew the doors that opened
Into doors and more doors, no end of doors,
And full length mirrors doubling and tripling
The apparitions of doors: circling corridors of
Looking glasses and doors, some with knobs, some
With no knobs, some opening slow to a heavy push,
And some jumping open at a touch and a hello.
And he knew if he so wished he could follow her
Swift running through circles of doors, hearing
Sometimes her whisper, I love him, I love him,
And sometimes only a high chaser of laughter
Somewhere five or ten doors ahead or five or ten
Doors behind, or chittering h-st, h-st, among corners
Of the tall full-length dusty looking glasses.
Corridors are institutional, associated not with private homes, but with schools, hospitals, hotels, town halls, office buildings, police stations, radio stations and barracks. The fundamental unhomeliness of corridors is suggested by the fact that the rooms to which they give access are nearly always numbered, in a way that rooms in a private house, however massive, could never be. When Orwell identified his room of ultimate terror in Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Ministry of Truth as Room 101, he inevitably suggested the idea of a series of such rooms, indistinguishable from their outsides, and ranged, of course, along a featureless corridor. The corridor is the place of the reprobate, the plaintiff, the petitioner. To be in the corridor is to become one of these.
We know that corridors are associated with vulnerability because we have the expression ‘corridors of power’. On what does this expression rest? Its primary implication must be that the corridors of power lead off into offices and meeting rooms (doubtless ‘smoke-filled’) where power is wielded, by ministers, mandarins, and brigadiers. But the real power of these rooms is precisely that they have corridors running along outside them, along which one must uncertainly approach.
There is a curious singularity about corridors. Although the kind of buildings that have corridors hardly have only one of them, we refer to ‘the corridor’, in the singular. (Stand In The Corridor.) This seems to testify to a powerful uniformity among corridors, to the sense that all corridors are really the same, that all corridors lead into all the other corridors, that to stand in one corridor is to stand in them all.
Hence, of course, the ghostliness of corridors. Architects nowadays will in fact sometimes refer to ‘ghost corridors’, which are walkways running through a series of rooms, allowing movement between them without going out into a separate space. W.B. Yeats once wrote of the robustly unspookable George Bernard Shaw that he was ‘haunted by the mystery he flouts. He is an atheist who trembles in the haunted corridor.’ One cannot be sure whether ghosts are attracted to corridors, or corridors breed ghosts. Perhaps ghosts are found in corridors, because corridors are found in the kind of institutional building where people lead shared lives that leave them unsure of the difference between them and other people. This is not confined to the West: in 1998, the Korean director Ki-Hyung Park released a supernatural thriller called Whispering Corridors, which concerns the vengeful ghost of a schoolgirl suicide who haunts the hallways of a girls school. Corridors are the places for ghosts because they allow perfectly for the paradoxical double requirement of being a ghost, namely that you should both cleave unshiftably to a particular place, and that you should endlessly come and go in it, to and from it. What do ghosts do, after all, but walk, and where else can you maintain that unfixed fixity, where else can you walk on and on without leaving or arriving, but in that space which is a permanent and elongated threshold, the corridor? Dickens makes all the many acts of walking in his epically pedestrian novel Bleak House reduplicate the story of a ghost who limps up and down a terrace of a country house in Lincolnshire, known as the Ghost’s Walk. Walking is in any case, a kind of self-ghosting, a following in your own footsteps. When you walk up and down a corridor, or its architectural near-relations, a cloister, terrace, gallery, or as in Hamlet, a battlement, this sense of self-doubling is intensified. The more you walk, the more you attempt to mark out the ground on which you walk, the more the ground is dissolved into the act of walking. To be a ghost is not to be deprived of substance or outline, but to be deprived of the ground. Ghosts are well-known for their capacity to set at naught the paltry inconveniences of walls and locked doors, but are curiously and horizontally bound to the tracks they must tread out. The anxious father pacing up and down outside the maternity ward and the caged animal treading out its confined miles make of whatever space they walk a corridor, as does the spectral, tattered figure who walks up and down in Samuel Beckett’s play Footfalls. Although corridors give on to doors, the nature of the corridor is to deny the be-all and end-all decision of the door. The speaker in one of Beckett’s poems yearns for the finality of a time a time when it ‘may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds/and live the space of a door/that opens and shuts’.
Neither fully interior nor exterior, the corridor seems to represent the uncertain crepuscularity of the mind better than more obvious, well-lighted spaces. Virginia Woolf is led into the thought of these interior passages by the question ‘when the self speaks to the self, who is speaking?’, her response to which is ‘the entombed soul, the spirit driven in, in, in to the central catacomb; the self that took the veil and left the world—a coward perhaps, yet somehow beautiful, as it flits with its lantern restlessly up and down the dark corridors’ (‘An Unwritten Novel’). For as Emily Dickinson wryly assures us:
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
In the end, there is a kind of ineffable desolation as well as dislocation about the corridor. There was a time a few years ago when feelings about the shortcomings or difficulties of the National Health Service would be focussed in stories of patients left for immense periods of time on trolleys, when beds were not available. All the attention was focussed on this mythical ‘trolley’, although in fact all hospital beds are mobile, and therefore in a sense all trolleys. What really mattered and mostly remained unspoken was that to give out, as some did, on a trolley, meant to die in the place where trolleys traffic and accumulate, in corridors. One must move through the corridor quickly and undelayingly, for it takes only a minute or two to remind us of this ever-present possibility of dying in the corridor, waiting to be seen.