18 April, 2021 – London, UK

By Ian Burns

This weekend marks the anniversary of being ‘locked-down’ and of living alone, after my eldest moved out of our flat and in with her boyfriend, permanently. It seems strange thinking about a year alone in the flat. A couple of blogs I wrote around this time last year — about having more time for the unread great literature on my shelves (a return to Dickens for me), about relationships and one speculating about how lockdown might change us —read like they are years not months old. It feels like another time. I think the April-April period has aged us.

However, restrictions and inhibitions are loosening.

This weekend saw me walking through North London as part of my Infant Observation in my psychotherapy training. Walking through Hoxton I found pavements blocked by pub trestle tables and happy drinkers and diners. It was a cheering sight, but the greatest sensory impact was on my ears. I heard laughter. I had been thinking, that the past year, the thing I had most missed was touch. A hug. But I now wonder whether the sound of laughter is what I have missed most. I was trying to recall when I had last heard it so gleefully and repeatedly shared.

Later, I walked back via Green Lanes and looked at all the shoppers. From a retail perspective the area is dominated by Turkish businesses and everything from coffee shops, to bars, to supermarkets has adapted an offer to include a few tables and chairs outside offering some form of refreshment.

The following day I walked south to Denmark Hill. I was on my way for my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the Maudsley Hospital. The sun was out, and that helped, but we had beautiful spring days last year and dazzling skies. Once again, it was the buzz of people milling around outside outlets for ‘non-essential’ retail that lifted my spirits most. There is a sense of people reclaiming what has been lost.

My jab was administered very efficiently and quickly, by a lovely nurse called Jill. She told me she had had a record day on Thursday when she got through 270 vaccinations. Today she thought she would do 220. She was disappointed by the occasional ‘no-show’ but remarked how compliant most people had been, not just about being vaccinated, but turning up at the right time so that the process was as efficient as possible for the maximum number of people.

My walk home took me to Burgess Park, to see tennis courts busy and classes and coaching underway along with several people working out with a yoga or a fitness instructor. Everything seemed to exude energy. Back near my home in Wapping, a food market, last seen at Shadwell Basin a few years ago, was having its first day of what will hopefully be a long-run residency. A local pub had a stand. I have not yet been to a pub and enjoyed a draught ale, but I bought a bottle of Old Speckled Hen here and visited an adjacent stand to buy and consume a substantial black pudding Scotch egg for my lunch. Hundreds of people were buying produce and sitting on the walls around the dock and chatting idly in the sun. Once again, the sound my ear most enjoyed was that of laughter.

One of my weekend treats was watching a re-run of Carol Reed’s extraordinary film of The Third Man. It is best not to let me dwell on comparisons between then and now, Vienna and London, with regards to corruption, but one other parallel is of broken, divided, cities emerging into the light. The imagery of Reed’s film makes much of the contrast between the underbelly, running through the sewer system, and the light above ground. For Martins, who has stumbled into a world he cannot comprehend and the resumption of a friendship he realises he never really understood, and for the more pragmatic, realistic, Anna, object of Harry Lime’s affections, the film becomes about the need to look forward not backwards. That is how I feel this weekend. Case numbers are rising, not falling in Europe and one feels that we are revisiting the Prime Minister’s inappropriate “take it on the chin” comment, but, right now, I feel much more optimist than pessimist.