By Ian Burns
It feels odd writing to the Lockdown Journal when we feel so much less locked down, but a few treats over the past couple of weeks made me think about what London feels like now. We are coming to the end, we are told, of the heat-wave. Temperatures have been in the thirties for a few days and the atmosphere is humid. There is nothing ‘new normal’ about these weather conditions, but what I have been thinking about is how London has adopted a ‘post lockdown’ modus operandi.
A fellow university student, with me at Birkbeck, got her results and was lamenting that she will not have a graduation ceremony. Given she achieved a First, I felt for her. But completing her degree seemed to be very much a ‘post-virus thing’, not the ‘pre-virus thing’ she started. Neither she, nor I, are naïve enough to think we are definitely ‘post-virus’, but we note how the city is changing.
The country has ‘local lockdowns’, and has today been reminded that things are anything but normal nationally, by the attempt to grade A-level students for the exams that they were not able to sit. Young people’s futures are being disrupted by an algorithm, and a Big Brother approach, presuming favouritism and bias in the judgment of the teachers that actually taught these students. Almost 40% of results were downgraded from teacher predictions. The hapless Education Secretary has suggested that the government wants to avoid youngsters getting recruited for jobs for which they may not be qualified and for which they will not be able to develop the necessary ability. Yes, this country is the home of irony.
We have just revealed a shocking second quarter economic contraction, which tells us about the depth of this recession. What we cannot know is what its duration is going to be, but it will be complicated by Brexit at the end of this year. The prevalence and progress of the coronavirus will be fundamental to its duration, so it is unhelpful that the government is attempting to reclassify our death statistics, to paint itself in a better light. This dishonesty, allied to a diversionary media campaign focused on the plight of some luckless migrants putting their lives at risk in the English Channel, gives little confidence in our leadership. How many of today’s A-level school leavers will be voting Conservative in the next election?
The revival of the economy depends on activity and on both people and cash moving around the economy. And that is what I have noted feels like ‘post-lockdown London’. The highlight of my day and of the past few weeks was the opportunity this morning to book some theatre tickets. I shall be going next month to The Bridge Theatre where the seating capacity has been adapted for the audience to safely enjoy a performance and not to put anyone’s health at risk. Just seeing some theatre would be great but the thought that I shall see one of my all–time favourites, Kristen Scott Thomas, has made my joy all the greater.
This is not the first of my new experiences in recent days. Tonight, I am joining my daughter and her boyfriend at a wine bar near Elephant & Castle. We have a pre-booked time slot, and have a few criteria we need to meet, but this ‘normality’ will be very welcome. The proprietor of the bar business personally delivered a case of wines to me in early lockdown, as he strove to keep his business alive. I am delighted to be spending some money with him now — I suspect his business is under acute pressure.
Last night, I walked from my Wapping home to Primrose Hill to meet a friend. We walked to the hilltop to view London. In its heat haze appearance, and with many people in the park, things felt ‘normal’. If one could not hear London’s beating heart, it was obvious that it was beating. We walked back towards Camden and decided to chance an open door at a small bistro-restaurant. Could we have a table for two? To my surprise, we could, if we could return the table after 75 minutes.
Not only did we have a lovely meal and a bottle of an amazing English rose wine, but the wine was subsidised by the Chancellor’s scheme to revive the hospitality industry. Temped as I am to applaud his scheme and imagination, I am still troubled by relatively wealthy consumers, like me, having our meals subsidised, when food bank demand is hitting new peaks and the economy has shrunk by a fifth. I cannot deny, though, that I enjoyed how ‘normal’ the evening felt.
One conversation was about holidays and international travel. My friend’s ex-husband had been working overseas until recently, and her business takes her to the Far East and to North America. We both noted the number of our friends who had managed to get away for an overseas holiday this month. I have friends returning from Spain, Poland, Lithuania and from France. The rhythm of life has clearly been affected, but less so general lifestyles.
In the past fortnight, businesses like gyms have been able to reopen. I was able to meet my yoga teacher for the first 1:1 session since the early spring. Her normal studio is deemed too small to meet HSE (Health and Safely Executive) criteria so we now have a better space to work in, with a few interruptions for cleaning mats and surfaces. The gym itself, which is large and spread over three floors, is clearly under tremendous cash pressure. Although memberships, which were suspended, are now operating again, helping cash flow, I suspect that is more than absorbed by cleaning costs. There were more cleaning staff than clients present at each of my two visits.
The other ‘new normal’ is the routine of supermarket shopping. I had become used to having to queue to enter. This was during the period before mandatory mask-wearing. Now, everyone is politely masked up, but the queues are a distant memory. I have become quickly used to the change in circumstance – I think I would probably be irritated now if I could not just stroll in at my convenience. In a few months’ time, perhaps I will feel the same about a Primrose Hill restaurant, rather than being joyfully surprised that we could eat there without having booked. Here’s to the new normality in the autumn.