‘I’ve got my eye on you,’ says landlady Irene Handl suspiciously. ‘You’re always going out.’
‘I was out and came in again, I don’t call that always going in and out,’ replies Hancock indignantly.
There has always been a Traditional British suspicion that people who go out a lot are a bit ‘fast’ and not to be entirely trusted. It probably explains why a surprising number of people enjoyed Lockdown. Indoors is our natural city mode. Outdoors is a rural pursuit. The very concept of separating ‘indoors’ and outdoors’ feels like a national trait, honed by two transforming wars.
With Lockdown lifting and my own health rapidly improving, I ventured into the West End to sign some books today. The streets were so empty that I half-expected an Ennio Morricone harmonica to start playing (shalom to the great man, who died planning another world tour, aged 91). Shopkeepers peered out of their stores looking lonely and desperate for custom. I bought some books I didn’t need (the joy of that!) and the usually snooty woman at the counter in one of the bookshops I frequent virtually prostrated herself with gratitude. I’m quite liking this. Yeah, I’m the customer, baby!
And we went out to a real restaurant for lunch. The tables were spaced far apart and the glass walls of the restaurant’s top floor were wide open, so there was plenty of fresh air. The staff were masked and the cutlery was rolled inside sealed napkins as it would be on a flight. Safety measures were thorough and we felt safe. Just as importantly, the lively atmosphere in the restaurant was unexpected and exactly what we needed to raise the spirits. It was an utter joy to be served a nice meal and good wine.
But back in the city centre today, London does not look open for business. The failure of company staff to return to offices is taking a massive toll on those businesses reliant on offices being open. New figures suggest that given the choice, most staff will split-shift or not return at all. Nearly all of my friends are expecting to work from home at least 2/3 days a week.
With the theatres dark (all except ‘The Mousetrap’, which is reopening – in God’s name why?), business-lunch restaurants shuttered, coffee shops bright and empty, streets deserted, it’s hard to imagine that things will ever get back to normal here. It feels like I imagine the 1930s felt, underpopulated, silent and sedate.
I can live without coachloads of tourists barging their way along quiet backstreets, but there needs to be a balance – and London without its people is not London at all.