I have lived near Clapton Pond in the east of the city for 28 years. I’ve seen my local high street, Lower Clapton Road, and the nearby Narrow Way, close to Hackney Central station, go through many changes, good and bad alike, often depending on your point of view. This bright and breezy spring morning, I walked the length of both of them.
The latest change will not surprise you – those streets were uncharacteristically empty and quiet. Yesterday’s government decision that all cafés must close and remain so for an unspecified period has brought home how many cafés Lower Clapton Road has, and how important they are to the street’s energy and sociability. This morning, their doors were unopened, chairs were upturned on tables and the Full English – run, of course, by Londoners from overseas – offered only a takeaway service.
Closer inspection of shopfronts revealed a further new feature: clusters and rows of stickers advertising shutters, available for speedy installed for your greater security. Their fresh appearance was not the last hint of foreboding about the sorts of places London’s high streets might become.
Last night, the checkout man at the local Tesco Express politely removed a packet of dried noddles from my basket, explaining that no could take more than two. Also, he insisted that I took a receipt, in case security asked to check my bag on leaving. This morning, there was a further innovation: strips of hazard warning tape on the floor where people queue to help them with their social distancing.
Some of those on the Narrow Way were in need of assistance with this key feature of the New Etiquette too, but tape alone would have not have done the job. This pedestrianised space, normally teeming by 10:30 on Saturdays, had undergone a sort of social filtering. Hustlers, change-cadgers and individuals engaged in loud, erratic conversations with invisible others (or possibly themselves) usually form a small part of the mix. This morning, they formed a large part, moving with hungry, perturbing efficiency from one shopper to the next, getting up close to young men and elderly women alike, wheedling, persisting, needing two or three attempts to shake them off.
A queue the full width of the street stretched out of the Post Office, the people in it seeming to make a low-conviction comprise between following advice to keep away from fellow humans and an awareness that going further would make a mockery of what queuing is for. At a cash point, another queue, another hassling opportunity. “Can you spare some change?” “I just need five pounds to get some food.” “I’m desperate, man.” They all were. They were before. But they will be harder to miss from now on.
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