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.

Millennials revive Boomer style home deliveries

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.

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.

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!