A smartphone frames a fat grey London pigeon zig-zagging towards its camera. The afternoon sun casts shadows of branches above and the bird below across the paving stones. As the bird beats a path towards the lens, tacking right then left, the brown booted foot of the cameraman kicks out from below the frame. As the bird skitters away, we hear their reproach, laconic, direct, estuarine; ‘Two metres, Cunt.’
Welcome to a Very British Lockdown.
As the nation embraces panic-buying as a dynamic new format for a stolid old sport, a retail T20 set to revitalise traditional Test Match queuing, columnists poeticise the pleasures and sorrows of the ‘stay-at-home boozer’ (larger pours, fewer pulls) whilst weekend supplements cynically push recipes for homemade yogurts and sourdough-starters whilst Hackney is at its most vulnerable. Across the country, Wetherspoons branches are being vandalised as many take the opportunity to exact a long awaited vengeance on Tim Martin’s ‘Ryanair of Pubs’ and The Zoom Arms has become our Moon Under Water. My very own Hangout Tavern hosted its inaugural pub quiz last Friday, with competitors from places as far flung as Hong Kong, New Zealand and Cornwall. The winner – Team Corona Loner – walked away with a pack of Donald Trump toilet paper, delivered courtesy of our sponsors, Amazon Prime. But this is now in danger of turning into a parody of one of those very columns…
The experience so far of ‘Lockdown London’ contrasts sharply with that of Shenzhen, where until a few weeks ago I was based; like comparing Butlins to Belmarsh. In the Southern Chinese megacity, streets were ghostly empty and many friends had not left their homes for weeks. The only vehicles on the street were the ubiquitous Meituan electric delivery scooters, speeding silently across concrete overpasses like lost yellow ghosts in an oversize game of Pac-Man. After fear and repression turned Hubei province into a dumpster fire, the People’s Republic was using their most powerful tools to try and right that wrong; fear and repression. Red-arm-banded apparatchiks positioned at every apartment complex and building were taking the temperatures of anyone who did venture out, and were unsympathetic in removing the symptomatic. The indistinct but persistent threat of China’s social credit system, buzzing overhead like an unseen Reaper drone, ensured that few bothered; Xi’s digital panopticon at work. Ironically the coercion and compliance meant those that were out were relatively free to roam, leaving me starring in their very own post-apocalyptic short in the most future-imperfect of cities. But let me state now that this will not be an exercise in public health top-trumps, before Singapore, the Hitlerjugend Hermione Granger of international relations sticks up their hand to tell us the answer. No-one likes a swot, especially not one in jackboots.
By comparison, Britain has been relaxed. Too relaxed at first it seems. Restrictions have steadily ramped-up in proportion to ‘our defiant spirit’, as many initially saw staying at home as ‘letting the virus win’. The problem with war metaphors is that they assume malice on the part of a lipid-coated strand of replicating RNA. Haters gonna hate, viruses gonna replicate; it’s not personal. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, our era’s own children’s party Churchill (‘we will fight them on the bouncy castle, we shall fight them in the ball pits…’) is finally having his chance to shine by putting a ‘freedom loving people’ under an increasingly restrictive house-arrest, fulfilling two classic Tory wank-fantasies at the same time; a good old fashioned national emergency, and the chance to incarcerate the poorest in inhumane conditions. Calling Covd-19 indiscriminate is disingenuous; it follows the ley lines of our own structural prejudice and past political decisions. Targeting those with poor nutrition, those who are badly housed or those in fuel poverty with laser guided precision. The pre-existing conditions that are key comorbidities are as likely to follow economic predisposition as genetic. The virus may not be animate, but it is alive to our iniquities.
The problem with the idea that we are ‘all in it together’ is that there is no ‘we’. There is a woolly belief amongst some that this crisis will be some kind of catalyst for the healing of the country, a ‘bringing together’ of a fractured nation. There is perhaps some cause to hope. As this ‘war’ places the NHS at the heart rather than the military, it is much more universal. The health service touches almost everyone’s lives at some point and is staffed by individuals from across the geographical, racial and class spectrums. It is in truth, the last common touchpoint that Britain has left in an increasingly dissociated marketplace of culture and ideas. Yet, as this emergency goes on, inequalities are more sharply exposed. It is hard to maintain an idea that we all stand together when we are told to stand two metres apart and every cough brings the suspicion that someone is a carrier. We can stand on our doorsteps and bang pots until we have beaten them into cymbals, but even in that moment, each household stands alone and faced with their own unique uncertainties.
In the first part of his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, George Orwell praises the English as a ‘highly differentiated’ people with a ‘respect for constitutionalism and legality. Orwell’s own description of a country where ‘the liberty of the individual is still believed in…the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen from above’ is echoed in Boris “Poundland Churchill” Johnson’s ‘freedom loving people’ schtick, but the perverse logic of this virus is that we are having those leisures and amusements dictated, as well as our movement restricted. And after initial resistance, many have embraced this new reality. Faced with looming uncertainty, many have been quick to welcome the false security of a world of reduced choices. But just as the virus follows the paths which our own societal choices have laid out, so has our embrace of unfreedom been stratified by class. For every white collar professional showing off their shiny new ‘work-from-home’ set-up, there is a family with two-bedrooms too few and a few bills too many, where school was the most important meal of the day and a trip to the shops meant getting out from under the shadow of home. Even China, where many crimes committed within a marriage are not criminal, reported a three-fold increase in domestic violence during the lockdown in Hubei. And that is just what was reported.
In this light, the situation takes on a particularly nasty edge. The loss of freedom is not a particularly hard cross to bear for those that have enough room to be fine with confinement. Waitrose baskets take on a jolly agro-millenarian air as trolleys stacked with cracked bulgur wheat and pinot gris waft back to the Range Rover. Meanwhile the oh what a lovely war attitude continues for those ‘isolating’ in second homes (weren’t they already though?), and in leafy outer-city suburbs, two-acre gardeners berate walkers flouting the two-metre rule, conveniently overlooking that we’d all be only too glad to stay at home if our homes looked like theirs. “Lockdown shaming” has all the ingredients to be the perfect palette cleanser for middle class authoritarianism, an entree to ‘Totalitarianism-lite’ (Slogan: ‘I can’t believe it’s not constitutional…? Can you…?’). Combining sanctimonious compliance, with armchair epidemiology, and a righteous defence of the NHS, our ‘one true faith’; It might just be the fascism that Middle England has been waiting for.
Across parks and commons, passive-aggressive distancing markers are neatly chalked along pathways. Some boroughs have relegated joggers to ‘off-road’ to make room for the more genteel pastime of dog-walking. Those with cars are freer to move whilst non-essential use of public transport is now seen as hacking great globules of spittle in the face of our ICU nurses – Literally – proving, for those who have forgone the urban luxury of owning a car, that no good deed does ever go truly unpunished. This weekend, whilst out cycling, I came to a car stopped atop a humped zebra crossing, it’s driver deep in conversation with a friend on the opposite side of the road. Whilst passing, I quipped ‘nice parking’ and was met with a string of invective outlining why I should not be out, and ‘how dare I’, clearly peeved at having their catch-up interrupted by the flow of traffic. As I rode that afternoon, I passed a number of ‘socially distanced’ doorstep cups of tea and G and Ts. Nice if you have a front door and a doorstep to call your own. There seems to be a lot of ‘how dare they’ at the moment, especially from those who are best equipped to implement these kinds of work-arounds which highlights the flaws in the ‘all in it together’ rhetoric as sharply as David Geffen’s Instagram. It’s worth noting there is a 6 point difference between ABC1 and C2DE on the matter of whether this crisis has united the nation or pushed us further apart. Expect this to widen.
As tensions increase and high street queues becoming increasingly fractious, and judgements about the actions and reactions of others to these strange times become less and less implicit, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain section of Britain who has been waiting a long time for this; an entitled subset who expect that we will all comply but is happy to take this opportunity to have the builders come and re-tile the roof; who will embrace ID checks at the train stations while driving the dogs many miles to take them on their favourite long walk; people who expect conformity to restrictions which may not be restrictive to them at all, and have little empathy for those who stray while just trying to stay safe or sane. It reminds me of the self-proclaimed ‘Riot Wombles’ after the 2011 London disturbances, the distinctly middle-class groups (#OperationCupOfTea #MugsNotThugs) who took to the streets with brooms to voluntarily help clear up; silently disapproving of the disorder and wilfully ignorant of its underlying causes, let alone the part they played in them. Because they were just ‘getting on with things’, why couldn’t everyone else?
But blanket statements such as these are thrown over the existing topographies of inequality like a rug over a pachyderm. The same terms and conditions result in very different outcomes, leaving those who are most free the most enthusiastic to embrace unfreedom. But if we really are in this together we should be considering how we created this socio-economic landscape in the first place, not gleefully berating those who are stuck in its deepest fissures. We need to reflect on why the NHS need such careful handling to balance such limited capacity. We need to ask ourselves why there are so many precariat ‘freelancers’ who lack even the savings to weather a month without work, or why free school meals are such a vital lifeline for many families.
A crisis is often the pivot around which history turns.
The question is which way we will turn during this one.