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.





13 comments on “A Letter From London”

  1. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    That has made me think of the illustration of William Blake’s ‘London’, which shows a young child leading an old man.
    Perhaps London can let go of ‘the mind forg’d manacles’ and find at least some of what it has lost.

  2. John+Williams says:

    An excellent article of the current situation. It dosen’t look like tings are going to bounce back at the moment. In order for businesses to attract the punters back, they can reduce prices, keep them the same or increase them in order to recovers lost business. I suspect there will be quite a bit of the latter. Having said that, my local Primark was very busy yesterday.

    Quite frightening when one quotes your passage,

    ‘The risk to them is that if you can work from anywhere, why not outsource their jobs to the Far East?’

  3. Helen+Martin says:

    Adjusting to easy breath will be a pleasure. Repopulating the city may not be easy at all. We are a tourist and IT city and we, too, are seeing the absence of all those travelers. Our problem is that we are still in the worst stage with cases multiplying and the premier only yesterday demanding that people stay home until after the long May weekend. Those of us who have been doing that all along are a little annoyed by those who have taken advantage of opportunities. Should we pity the elderly gentleman who traveled to India for a visit after a gap of three years and now can’t come back? (Would the pity be for the extra long visit he now is paying, or for the fact that he can’t come back to Canada till this is all over?)
    I wonder if the Hermes and Cartier shops will survive? The Vancouver Pen Shop is doing well, taking orders and supplying that strange obsessive need for writing implements and ink.
    I think you’re right about the slow return of workers to downtown. Renters were priced out of a chance to live near work and traveling became a daily irritant so why should they come back to crowded streets and expensive cafes and pubs when they can stay outside it? There is a reduction in creativity, you’re right. People need to expose ideas to other people’s valuation. Perhaps creative hubs will develop in the outskirts.
    Oh, yes, and a good St. George’s Day to you and all the English.

  4. Keith says:

    Be thankful friends, that the Vaccine roll-out is going at a tremendous pace in the UK. In Holland and most of Europe it’s absolutely hopeless. This care-taker government here in the Netherlands is all over the place.

    From my window I saw a woman looking at the ground but on second glance saw she was looking at a phone screen held low and I was disappointed, surely the paving stones hold more of worth, more real history. This is where we are at, spending a lot of time gazing out of the window. Feared.

    Supermarket shopping: I got scared it was so crowded, my wife and I got trapped in the popular aisles like in The Walking Dead but you can’t spike your way out so just did a shoulder bumping rush to the aisles where nobody wants anything. My mask was getting clammy I was half blind, doing the plague shuffle all the way. I can’t wear glasses with it because they steam and I hold my breath passing people too. I think this new normal will be with us for a long time.

    Fear is not easy to overcome. What we have lost I fear we will never find again.

  5. Jan says:

    I thought it was John Major who took polytechnics further toward the university model of education?
    Gleefully followed by Tony Education, Education, Education Blair.

    If there was one thing the pandemic revealed it was that many jobs, (“shiny bottom” jobs ) could be carried out from home whereas other key worker occupations required folk to be @ a place of work. Financially the shiny bottoms are at present out in front both in status and financially.

    The only fly in the ointment being as you say sir there’s little reason why their occupations can’t be outsourced elsewhere.

    Thing is once the s.bs don’t really fancy commuting any longer, while students don’t essentially need to be @ college and whilst international travel is limited why stick to living in cities?
    What’s the point?

  6. Jan says:

    I got me 2nd Jab today.

    Loads of people about all of a sudden. I didn’t think I’d be able to get on a bus as numbers still severely limited. Did ok though.

    Feel really tired but think it’s staying up l8 watching the Lyrids and getting up @ 0330 to view them rather than the vax. Hope all well. Jan X

  7. Helen+Martin says:

    Congrats, Jan. A couple of nights’ sleep and you’ll be fine. It’s Keiith up there that I feel for. Once you get into that just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I’m not being followed state it’s very difficult to get past it. Perhaps take it in small doses, Keith. I’m serious. That fear thing is something a lot of people are going to have to get past. I’m hearing bits of it here and we’re nowere near being safe in groups.

  8. Keith says:

    Thanks for your concern Helen. Easy does it as you say….

  9. Peter+T says:

    Allies hier is heel goed organiseerd. Or at least it used to be, perhaps. The fact is that you shouldn’t expect the state to perform its duty anywhere.

    I like ‘shiny bottom jobs’. With Farage’s Hugh Janus, it’s about the best that I’ve heard recently. For the shiny bottom work, not only can it be done from home, but does it make any difference if it’s not done at all?

  10. Andrew Holme says:

    I think Hugh Janus is a steal from Hugh Jarce, a Billy Birmingham creation. Billy better known as ‘The Twelfth Man’ was a genius at names, especially Sri Lankan cricketers – Sumjurk Ramdmakar being a particular favourite. Didn’t Spike have a Goon character called Hugh Jampton which he managed to sneak past the BBC spoilsports?

  11. Peter+T says:

    Yes, Captain Hugh Jampton, one of Spike’s many that non-PC.

  12. Stu-I-Am says:

    I keep hearing about the “new”normal which seems to get “newer” or at least, different, every day on the evening news. So I am thoroughly confused. Will there eventually be some sort of “New Normal Summit” from which there will be an edict declaring 25 July at 1452 hrs. as the official start of the new normal ? And will this likely bring hordes of people onto the streets. Or would that be the “old” normal. As I said, I’m confused.

  13. Helen+Martin says:

    I would enjoy that, Stu, since that is our 57th anniversary and a large street party would be a great way to celebrate.

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