London Is People: When Will They Return?


‘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.

21 comments on “London Is People: When Will They Return?”

  1. Adam says:

    I work for a large financial services company, and we’re not expecting to return to the office until January, if ever. The savings in commute times, lower running costs and expenses are pretty compelling. Head offices will become relics of the past. After enjoying this work working lark, I’m not so sure I agree anymore; I really miss the human contact (Microsoft Teams gives you a bad head after 7 hrs of video meetings), and just the change of scenery. I miss my monthly meander from Waterloo to the City. As you say, the impact on businesses that depend on office workers will be significant and long lasting.

  2. Adam says:

    *home working, not work working – fat fingers!

  3. Jo W says:

    Good to read that you’re feeling fit enough to ” go out”. Well done you!
    I don’t suppose you can give us a clue as to which bookshops you visited, to apply your moniker to the new volumes?

  4. Polly Dymock says:

    Which restaurant did you visit? In need of vicarious delight…..

  5. Liz Thompson says:

    I assumed The Mousetrap reopening was because of its role as a theatrical museum piece.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    I’m very glad your health is improving.

    Yes, why the sodding “Mousetrap” of all plays?!

  7. admin says:

    I ate at The Lighterman, reasonably priced solid gastropub food with outside areas.
    I shopped in Waterstone’s, Judd’s and the Academy Bookshop. Fopp is also open. Goldsboro books will have a great many signed and dated copies from me in a couple of weeks.

  8. Claire says:

    I realise that this reply is less of a reply and more of a non-sequitur given that it has little bearing upon your post. In my defence I’ve only just found your blog, though I have been fan of your books for many years, and just wanted to say thanks. I have adored Janice since the very first moment we met and she is the type of woman I want my God-daughters to become. Arthur’s every utterance brings with it all the wonderful and annoying qualities of my late Father. John is the type of friend that every one needs and everything that Maggie does, says and wears just makes me smile inside and out. When you release a new story it’s like meeting up with old friends again and when life is a pain in the arse (which it is for everyone at the moment I know) it’s great to meet up with them all again. So just wanted to say thanks, oh and get well soon.

  9. Mike says:

    Well done that man!
    I’m taking my first trip out since March 14 to a garden centre tomorrow.
    I’ve been looking forward to Oranges & Lemons from Goldsbro.
    Presently re-reading all the B&M books. Currently up to Memory of Blood.
    Reading them again just reminds me how old I am, I’d forgotten much of the plots, it was almost like reading them for the first time

  10. Helen Martin says:

    So glad to hear you’re getting out – good sign. Am listening to CNN and the situation in Texas, Arizona and Florida where it seems the governor thinks the Republican convention can be safely held as long as he doesn’t admit there’s any problem.
    The photos are fascinating, but what’s with Mr. Fogg’s Tavern? It looks decorated for a May Day celebration yet is boarded up. Have the owners given up?

  11. Jan says:

    Look this pandemic has speeded up processes already in motion. There was a real beginning to go over to.homeworking pre pandemic. This lockdown has just pushed this movement onwards.

    Businesses are now convinced this is an effective cost cutting option. Do you really think full time office working is going to come back?

    Like newspapers in print, shopping centres and a good few other things like department stores and High Streets times are changing.

  12. Jan says:

    Glad you are out and about

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Working from home? I don’t even work from work!
    Glad to hear you’re getting better, Chris.

  14. Dawn Andrews says:

    Agree with Jan, change is inevitable and not a bad thing! The words Climate crisis spring all to readily to mind. The Rebel is a brilliant gem of a film.

  15. 4Matt says:

    Well it appears that unlike London (in it’s own bubble again) where I live it’s like lockdown never happened. As for social distancing well that too is a thing of the past. Our town is once again over run with visitors, the Premier Inn car park is full, shops are fighting off the crowd. There aren’t many without a line of people waiting to go inside. Did someone say second wave!!!

  16. admin says:

    4Matt, whereabouts are you?
    Helen, the whole street was decorated in flowers just before Lockdown so those are the remnants. I’m not sure what it was celebrating. Anyone remember the former Mr Fogg’s underneath Piccadilly?

  17. Brooke says:

    Re: Tx, FL and AZ. Look at NYT COVID-19 map. Line showing new cases for these states is almost vertical; or if I recall my math, exponential growth–doubling of cases every 2 -3 days. 4Matt and others may recall that these are states that opened up early so people could return to shopping malls and bars for May 31 holiday. Second wave–is there any reason to believe we are out of first wave?
    Now that US cases have topped 3M, our president feels it imperative to spend his time criticizing the Speaker of the House’s teeth.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    And threatening to defund the schools (although the feds don’t provide the main money for schools) if they don’t come completely back at their proper time. I wonder if Mary Trump’s tell all will explain how the man works. Watching our news about things other than covid and hearing rational discussions about things like will we be allowed to drink alcoholic beverages in Vancouver parks or not and how will we pay back the billions that have been provided to people, businesses, and gigantic corporations is positively relaxing after a couple of hours of CNN.

  19. 4Matt says:

    I’m on the east coast! Where the beaches are so beautiful and the countryside so enticing that people just can’t stay away. The East Riding of Yorkshire Is hard to beat and our little town of Bridlington is an attractive alternative to the larger and much more busy Scarborough.

  20. John Howard says:

    Living in the region of Spain that had the lowest figures for Covid for the whole country, we are now waiting to see what will happen as travelling between regions has opened up and every Spaniard that has a holiday home here has now decided to take their holiday.
    One good thing is that the populace as a whole keeps their masks on when wandering about and even keeps their distance on the beaches. (The local police force are using drones just to check this sort of thing out.)
    When the Brits finally start arriving it will be fun to see what chaos maybe be caused.
    I’m just waiting for the release of Oranges and Lemons so that I can stick my earbuds in my ears, even if I don’t have any music playing, and ignore the rest of the world as I drift away to Bryant & May land.

  21. Wayne Mook says:

    Good to see you out and about Chris.

    I went into Manchester Friday (1st long walk after I broke my toes.), not as busy as I would expect. The Arndale has a curious one way system with crossing points, it works upto a point, most people seem to walk on the correct side. The banks are still closing at 2pm, well my branch does. I managed to get to a shop I wanted but when going on a break instead of leaving at least one person serving they shut the shop completely for 30 mins.

    Went to a pub, did the app thing so I can be traced, and met an old friend (I also know the landlady so had a catch up with her too) purely by chance and so we chin wagged a bit, the cricket was on, but everything was well spaced, empty tables of about half the pub, no standing, especially not at the bar. Enjoyable, not the same but I liked it. Luckily I’m loud so talking to people at a distance is fine, an easier time is the feeling, and not as packed.

    There are some pubs and shops shut, doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to which ones.


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