A Letter From London
You see it everywhere; the sign that reads ‘Welcome Back’.
The pubs, shops and restaurants are open for outdoor dining only, the vaccination scheme is working and the West End has gone through an unimaginable transformation. In just eighteen months central London has changed out of all recognition.
It has become a semi-derelict inner city of shuttered buildings with almost half its population permanently switched to working from home. We can see just how much of a tourist town London had become now that the high-end shops are empty. While the British choose discount shops or traditional chain stores, London’s tourists hit the luxury trail. Now their money has gone and will probably not return to old levels for years. With no clear end in sight anymore, the city is being forced to adapt.
It’s sad to see over fifty beautiful theatres permanently boarded up, but these amazing buildings were mostly given over to tourist rubbish. ‘It’s coming back!’ scream posters for ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’, but who needs them now? Are the days of catering solely to the yen and euro coming to an end? Probably not, but some changes will stay.
My own neighbourhood, ‘formerly seedy King’s Cross’, a pleasant 20 minute stroll from Covent Garden, is no longer the most polluted and crowded transport hub in the city but a semi-rural haven of wildfowl, new planting and outdoor cafes. None of us has quite worked out how to handle this yet. We’re not used to being able to breathe.
The analogy may be pushing it but parts of London are on their way to becoming the kind of towns Powell & Pressburger imagined in their extraordinarily weird film ‘A Canterbury Tale’, all church bells, chatty locals and local-made produce.
Our Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing ahead with pedestrianisation reforms against the wishes of petrolheads and helping to improve the air quality of London’s most polluted roads. Just one street back from Euston Road, the single most poisonous road in London, the air quality soars behind a barrier of cherry trees.
The slowly easing lockdown has brought outdoor dining (always a risky business in London) to the fore, and there’s hardly a pavement without an outside café. But the international travel hub remains as shut as ever, with police questioning travellers and asking to see papers.
With Europe still in hopeless disarray about vaccinations the rules are confusing and contradictory. The French are travelling to Spain while the Spanish cannot travel within their own country. All hopes are pinned on vaccine passports opening corridors, but even the middle class obsession with holidays is fading a little, especially when another sunny London summer is on the horizon.
Brasseries may have built tropical gardens but you still can’t step inside. In a month’s time – if deaths remain low – we’ll see the reopening of the area’s hotels and restaurants. While traffic has increased, the city is still radically different. Church bells at noon, bats at dusk and birdsong all day represent a strange restoration of old London life. Foot traffic will rise when Google opens its gigantic slave galley/office building in the area, but the ‘lying down skyscraper’ (as long as the Shard is tall) is now anachronistic in a world where white collar employees prefer to work from home.
Friends in the area have no plans to return to work. Many are employed in ‘invisible manufacture’, controlling, editing, buying and selling the carriage of information, all of which can be done from a laptop. The risk to them is that if you can work from anywhere, why not outsource their jobs to the Far East?
I keep asking myself, can a city really run like this, with hardly anyone on the streets, no spontaneity, no chance encounters? Where does the creativity, innovation and energy come from now? Certainly not from pre-arranged Zoom meetings. Or do I have an overly romantic view of the creative industries? Can they be reduced to online transactions?
On February 26, 1680, Nell Gwynn was affronted at the Duke’s Playhouse by a man who called her a whore. He was shocked to find himself surrounded by her defenders, all with their swords drawn. It’s the least likely thing ever to happen post-pandemic (I mean the public rallying behind an actress to defend her honour, not a swordfight) because it requires the communal experience of the crowd. ‘Keep your distance’ plays right into the modern British social playbook. We’ve always been a bit Nordic and stand-offish. We won’t go back to quadruple air-kissing in a hurry.
For there last few years I’ve watched the area’s immaculate designer-clad art students, paid to attend college by their parents in China and Russia, and have marvelled at the regimentation of the arts into a vast monetised arts-tourism industry. It’s a far cry from the Hornsey riots and paint being flung at politicians. Historically blind to the power of creativity generating revenue for London, the government woke up when it saw new money rolling in. It first happened in the 1950s, when Middle Eastern countries began sending their pupils to British schools.
A further sign of the times relearning from the past comes from a new poll suggesting that Margaret Thatcher’s transformation of technical colleges into ‘universities’ was disastrous. Art was always linked to craft until the two were forcibly separated. Now a new movement to bring back craft colleges suggests another evolutionary step brought about by the pandemic. In the past year an entire swathe of management became unemployable while everyone paid crazy money for carpenters and plumbers. Milkmen returned. Repair shops have reopened. ‘Local’ went from being a provincial insult to something desirable. The feared jingoism that accompanied it in the past has not reappeared.
Is this rebalancing or retrenchment? At the moment it’s hard to see the way ahead. One thing is sure; London, subservient for so long, is being made to find its feet again. It may be that in six months’ time everything has doubled down on what went before.
But that’s what we thought would happen a year ago.