Life in London before the Lockdown

London lockdown

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.

Economic Depression – one more for the road eh?

Coronavirus could lead to an Economic Depression on a scale not seen since the 1930s – according to the International Monetary Fund. We’re already seeing people going without food and being kicked out of work. And when the virus subsides, it’s not going to be a return to business as usual. The damage that’s been done is way too severe.

Millennials experienced the 2008 crisis as a brutal coming of age. A long, deep recession that trashed people’s life chances. For Boomers, I’m losing count how many economic recessions we’ve been through now. Sterling crisis of the 1960s. Oil crisis of the 1970s. Manufacturing collapse under Margaret Thatcher. Housing market collapse in the early 1990s. And here we go again!

Only this time it will be very different. It’ll be way more catastrophic in terms of the impact on jobs and markets. And of course it’s happened not because of economic cycles or government policy but – a biological virus. You’d surely have to go back to the Black Death of the fourteenth century to see a disease hit our economy at such a scale.

Economic depression – all about oil in the 1970s

As Boomers, we’ve seen economic recessions with very different characteristics. The 1970s saw short bursts of recession that despite the reputation of the decade for crisis and gloom, actually saw the economy bounce back into positive growth pretty quickly. The psychological impact though was huge because we’d basically been booming since the end of the Second World War and suddenly, we experienced a taste of what our grandparents had lived through in the 1930s.

The cause of recession in 1973 was the decision by oil producing countries to quadruple the price of ‘black gold’. Basically, they weaponised oil and were punishing the UK, US and other nations for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. I remember the news bulletins were always relaying the latest bad news from the meetings of Arab oil producers. And Sheikh Yamani – the Saudi oil minister – became a household name. Here he is blithely informing us that oil is now a weapon…

Sheikh Yamani was a household name

Monetarism turns economic recession into depression

1979 saw Margaret Thatcher become Prime Minister in the UK and she implemented what was called a “monetarist” policy in the face of an economic downturn. That meant Austerity-Max with public spending cut and state support to manufacturing industry reduced. What Thatcher wanted to do was break the trades unions, reduce inflation and privatise the state-run parts of the economy. So, a political agenda as much as an economic policy.

The result between 1979 and 1981 was benign if you lived in the south east. But in Scotland, the north and the Midlands of England – industries collapsed like dominoes. I went on a canal trip at the end of secondary school on the Cheshire Ring canal and we were gobsmacked as middle class southern kids to see mile after mile of closed factories. It was a scene of devastation that led to a summer of riots in cities across the UK in 1981.

Thatcher remained in power until 1990 – when she oversaw another, often forgotten, recession. Like 1979 to 1981, the recovery took way longer than the downturns of the 1970s. We’d had the yuppie boom of the late 80s when markets soared. But then 1987 saw a stock market crash on Black Monday with the FTSE falling nearly a quarter in two days. Two years later, the aftershock hit the ‘real economy’ with unemployment rising sharply all over the country.

What I recall the most about the early 90s recession was the collapse in house prices. There were a lot of what were termed ‘voluntary repossessions’ where people chucked their own keys through the letterbox and walked away from their own home. And there was a boom in auctions of empty properties.

I was a financial journalist at the time and the other thing I reported on was the massive amount of financial corruption that was exposed as the economy slowed down. From Lloyd’s of London to independent financial advisers on the high street – the reality of the 1980s Yuppie era revealed itself in one scandal after another.

Back to the 1979 to 1981 recession. Here is the Toxteth riot of 1981 – what happens when you let youth unemployment skyrocket…

Millennials revive Boomer style home delivery

It seems that environmentally conscious Millennials are reviving home delivery of milk in glass bottles – because, well, they’re not plastic and you get to choose the type of milk you want. And this is part of a major structural shift in retail from browsing in shopping malls or the high street to having goods pop up at the front door instead.

Hmmmm….this does sound familiar!

The return to home delivery of basic foodstuffs has been accelerated by Coronavirus lockdowns. Milk, bread, meat, vegan dishes, fruit, wine, beer and every household item you can imagine is being brought round by an Amazon or Ocado driver. An army of home delivery personnel is set to expand massively. It’s all heralded as part of the digital revolution.

From Boomer era home delivery to a revival with Millennials

But we’ve been here before of course. Last time analogue. This time digital. Sure there’s more choice and you go online to browse a huge variety of products. But this is back to the future for Boomers. Home delivery was part of our childhoods. The milk “float” gliding down the road. The burly baker at the front door on 24 December every year asking for his Christmas tip. The newspaper chucked at your porch every morning by a surly youth.

We are back to the delivery man/woman being an essential part of urban life. As with life forty years ago, there will be companies that operate wholly through home delivery or it’ll be a distribution mechanism for high street retailers – big and middle-sized. The big chain supermarkets down to the hipster-run artisanal butcher will be sending you boxes of goodies without you having to walk down a soulless aisle or queue at a checkout.

Hey millennials – 1970s home delivery could be ecological too!

Back in the much maligned 70s, it wasn’t just your milk that was dropped on the doorstep. The baker came to our door with a regular drop off that went straight into a large, tin, bakery box. Note – no plastic! I remember we used to get a kind of Stollen every week with a stick of marzipan through the middle of the bread. Sheer heaven!

And then the knife grinder would appear on our street every so often. Housewives (it was mainly women at home back then) would leap out of the front doors clutching blunt cutlery to be sharpened up. He sat there in a parking bay with an ancient piece of machinery – a big foot-operated grinding wheel where he got to work.

Then the rag and bone man of course, ringing a bell and asking you to bring out your crap. Not your dead I hasten to add – that was another century! But what a great example of recycling. And in pre-modern times, there was a small army of people from mud larks to rag and bone men who took rubbish and gave it a new lease of life. I see a campaign for Greta Thunberg…

Plus financial services and cosmetics were sold at the door. What was termed “industrial” life assurance – small, affordable life policies – were flogged by salespeople who turned up at your home. And for cosmetics, it was the legendary “Avon lady” who rang the doorbell.

It will have been a new experience for young people to have a procession of strangers coming up the front drive and appearing at your porch. But for Boomers, there will have been a curious, wistful sense of deja-vu. And I don’t see this trend going into reverse.

FYI – the proverbial milkman was such a feature of life forty, fifty years ago that the 70s comedian Benny Hill even had a chart topping hit about a milkman called Ernie and his amorous adventures!

What a difference a virus makes…

Just three or four weeks ago I was travelling a lot for my work and as ever, taking in a few museums in my spare time. I took a group of people to the Louvre in Paris and while in Istanbul, strolled around one of my favourite historical sites in the world – the sixth century Hagia Sofia.

Both have now been impacted by the Coronavirus. The Louvre is shut so the Mona Lisa is off limits. And the last I saw on YouTube, the Hagia Sofia was being sprayed everywhere inside with disinfectant.

The first museum visit I remember very clearly was to the British Museum in 1972 when the treasures of Tutankhamun came to Britain. And I’m talking about his death mask and key artefacts. There is an exhibition touring Europe at the moment but without those iconic items. Needless to say the queue was incredibly long.

The brochure for the 1972 exhibition

We were entertained while we waited by a TV production crew from the programme Vision On – which was ostensibly a programme for deaf children but hugely popular with every child. And they were filming a regular feature within the programme called the “Mad Professor” which would take too long to explain to here’s a video clip:

The Mad Professor in action on Vision On
Me at the Louvre in 2020
Me at the Hagia Sofia in 2020