It’s becoming harder to remember life in London before the lockdown in March this year. After three months in quarantine, things that used to seem very familiar now appear alien.
Travelling on the London Underground in crowded carriages being jostled by short-tempered commuters in the Rush Hour. Drinking in pubs where people you didn’t know thought nothing of making vigorous elbow contact. Going shopping Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon with a sea of people stretching from Tottenham Court Road station to the Selfridges department store.
Before the lockdown – London the unstoppable rise
London has been on the rise for three decades. The City of London has sucked in investment bankers from all over the world. Big Tech has played the same role as a magnet for young ambitious types from every country for most of this century. And then a small army of baristas from Lithuania to Lesotho has served coffee in Starbucks and Pret-a-Manger.
Suddenly it all ended. Brexit was the first shock to this growth story. We already expected to see less European workers even though employers were at a loss to know how to fill the labour gaps. Not many young British want to pick crops in the fields of East Anglia or clean the toilets in an NHS hospital. Let alone serve coffee in Starbucks.
London lockdown – the big reset?
But after Brexit came something arguably worse – the Coronavirus. Starbucks outlets have been closed. Staff furloughed if they’re lucky. Farmers have warned that crops are rotting in the fields with no eager hands from Bulgaria and Romania to harvest them. Pubs, clubs, shops, offices – all shut.
Some have argued it’s a much-needed reset. A corrective that was overdue. These people would have been Puritans or Malthusians in another era. But there is a germ of truth in what they say. The air is cleaner – I saw a butterfly in my London garden for the first time in years. There’s an outbreak of civility and neighbourliness. And some of the excess that was becoming a feature of London life has been punctured.
What excess do I mean? Take for example the meeting I had with a History channel TV executive a year back. It was held at lunchtime at a rooftop swimming pool packed with millennial white-collar workers in Speedos during their lunch break. The building had previously been BBC TV Centre where I worked in the 1990s. A dowdy 1950s office block full of dark edit suites, dusty TV studios and asbestos-ridden offices. Now it was an exclusive club with a snotty attitude on the door.
The warehouses round Kings Cross station where I had gone clubbing in the 1990s had transformed into swanky East Village style cafes and restaurants. They were now heaving with hipsters wolfing down their breakfast burritos or coffee with every type of milk imaginable. The only eaterie that had been in that vicinity circus 1996 was a Hot Dog van outside a sweatbox of a club called Bagleys.
Pre-lockdown London didn’t see the virus coming!
Consider the skyscrapers that have shooting up along the Thames in recent years. Heralded as the must-have urban accessory if London was to keep up with Shanghai and Singapore. Now they’re sitting mostly empty cutting a rather forlorn and pathetic sight. If the 11th century Tower of London could speak, it would heave a sigh of relief at not being entirely blocked from everybody’s view.
As a Londoner, I’ve been conflicted by what has happened to the city over the last three decades. On the one hand, it’s good to see London still on the world stage as a great metropolis. And I don’t have any nostalgia for the poverty and run-down housing of yesteryear. But I do object to ordinary working-class Londoners being purged from the city by developers acting hand in glove with local councils. That has been unedifying.
So, will there be a reset or a reboot? Well, if there is – it could at least hit pause on the endless building of hotels, lofty office blocks and coffee shops that have shoved bookstores off the Charing Cross Road for example. Are we going to need all that space for non-existent visitors, office-based staff and cappuccino-swillers?
Londoners are emerging from this three-month lockdown blinking into the light – and seeing things differently. I know some sceptics think everything will return to normal. I don’t. Some Londoners – mainly the young – are returning to the streets in a very ugly mood. Others don’t want to go back to the miserable commute and the soulless offices. Thousands realise they can make a living from their garden shed.
For me – it’s been a sharp jolt. My job involved huge amounts of travel. Sounds great. But I won’t miss queues at the airport; hotel check-ins; fierce jet lag and feeling physically run down. Sure, I’ll want to get back out there at some point. But for now, this Boomer is looking at his London life afresh and wondering how I can live the last third of it with greater purpose and fulfilment.