Much of what follows is imagined and made up, but you can bet it’s mostly true. As you walk near-empty London streets, their silence charmingly disturbed by the fat calls of wood pigeons or the slap of skipping ropes on front yards, you can almost hear people thinking new kinds of thoughts, rallying round new collective wisdoms and circling new wagons of cultural uncertainty as the coronavirus closes down the London lives they led until a week ago.
Someone comes towards you on the pavement, you give each other a wide berth, you either do or you don’t exchange little nods and mimes of shared recognition of what both of you are doing and why. In streetscapes so still it might be the Sabbath in some rustic village, Londoners weigh and measure one another for signs of virus spread awareness and apply judgements accordingly. We used to cross roads to avoid people we don’t like. Now we do it to show we care.
Across the city, moral coding and enforcement are taking new turns, forming, adapting and transmitting at great speed. See those builders not observing social distancing requirements! Look at those lads too close together in the park! Shouldn’t that old lady be indoors? We’re texting, skyping, zooming and on the phone, weighing and measuring to what extent we are taking effective plague prevention steps or keeping calm and carrying on compared with family, friends and colleagues.
There are dilemmas and definition challenges. Is it wise to pop out for an extra packet of pasta, just in case, or does that cross a line into panic buying, which is, of course, what people like me say others shouldn’t do? Is it reasonable to feel like murdering neighbours whose confinement in their homes seems to have liberated them into daily routines of leisurely back garden yakking, karaoke and bagpipe-playing rather than solitary home-working and draining conference calls? Is it your public duty to look daggers at any fellow shopper who coughs while on your brief, guerrilla retail forays or would that risk causing civil unrest?
For some, in lots of ways, it’s all a nice novelty – all cooking rotas and togetherness. No more households members passing like ships in the night. No more gruelling commutes. For delivery drivers and riders, highway conditions have improved beyond their wildest dreams. For bus drivers it may be the same. And for walkers, the capital, especially the centre, is thrillingly fresh and quiet, a string of movie sets unspoiled by crowd scenes.
But even for those thinking they could get used to this new London, these are early days. The communal rewards of eating in may be outweighed by missing eating out. The pleasures of planned programmes of home entertainment might soon pale and cabin fever take their place. And even as we take our government-sanctioned constitutionals, we are watchful of others and ourselves. Virus vigilance is germinating under London’s blue skies and many of us will not be immune.
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