I am sitting looking over London from the 9th floor of a co-working space on Southbank; floor to ceiling windows framing a view of the eastern fringe of the North Downs around Sevenoaks, where my mother lived when she first came back to Britain from America, a single parent, returning home with a 6 month old Fire Tiger in her arms. It’s the first day of Lunar New Year today, the year of the Ox, and I can’t help thinking how lucky I am to sit here, in the depths of a pandemic looking south to the town where for a while I was briefly raised, while a pandemic blazes on below, foregrounded by the roofs of the Waterloo Station Sheds.
It’s been over five months since I last wrote. Finding the space to gather thoughts, to reap and winnow is difficult. With nothing to do, time isn’t hard to come by, but space, emotionally and physically, is at a premium. I asked a colleague recently what they got up to on the weekend, more by reflex than out of any real interest and he said ‘another fucking lovely walk’. Another fucking lovely walk. I intend to try and make some more space to write and to reflect, because that process of winnowing and milling and proofing thoughts into ideas is important. Just as we are all looking to maintain some kind of physical stimulation during our enforced sedentarism, the mind needs to be stimulated too, and London’s mental gyms, the museums, the galleries, the theatres, the pubs, are all shut.
Here I offer a few thoughts on a year of lockdowns and distancing.
Time is both long and short
I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 where a physicist and a psychologist were talking about time and they managed to describe the current temporal paradox we are all living in beautifully. We perceive time both ‘in the moment’ and retrospectively, and the way that we assess time in the present and in the past are inversely correlated.
In the moment, when very little is happening, it goes by, as The Righteous Brothers told us ‘so slowly’. It’s why bad films and school detentions take an age. Conversely, when we are busy, present perceived time flies, whether you are having fun or just stuck in back to back meetings.
However, we navigate the past using events as markers and waypoints, meaning when we look back, the opposite is true. If nothing much has happened, then we experience a kind of psychological parallax error, leaving us wondering where did the year go.
This goes some way to explaining why it feels like today is March 327th 2020 rather than February 12th 2021. It’s why the last year has been both a slow time and, with hindsight, a short time.
Everything will eat software, not the other way round
I take a historian’s view of technology and am naturally sceptical of the ‘THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING’ narrative touted by technophile naifs. It’s what they said about the wheel, penicillin, nuclear power and ambient cheese in an aerosol can.
And in many respects they are right. These did change things. But the hard truth nestled inside ‘this changes everything’ like the final doll of a matryoshka is that it doesn’t. Technology doesn’t change human nature. Human nature shapes technology – or at least it’s uses and abuses – and that is innovation, which is far more important. People socialised before ‘media’ and bullied before ‘cyber’. And if you are worried about Fake News now, think of the tumult caused in the 16th and 17th century by the printing press and the army of pamphleteers it unleashed.
To skip forward to the present, the last year has seen the widespread adoption by laggards and the late majority of numerous innovation-enabled behaviours that are now no longer technology but just ‘stuff’. Amazon prime for those beyond their Prime, Zoom n Zimmers. In many respects Arthur C. Clark may have got it wrong; Any sufficiently advanced innovation is indistinguishable from the mundane.
It’s an awful time to be young
When you look purely at the economic equation, life for a 20-something grad in a big city is a bad deal; Sky high rents, long commutes, expensive pubs. I think of my own graduate years, religiously cycle commuting 9 miles from Norbury to Farringdon, whatever the weather, so I could spend the travelcard savings on Somerfield own-label claret. With hindsight, I was as pretentious then as I am now.
But being 23 in London or New York or Paris was never about getting rich. If you were lucky, that’s what 33 was for, and of course all of us who have been in our 20s in one of the world’s great cities had half an eye on that. But it was also about all the non-monetary benefits. Drinking, Fucking and Friendship. The chance to be anonymous in a crowd, to invent and reinvent who we are. The shared house in Hackney was both a price to be paid and a rite of passage, part of the broader ritual of the London (or Lahore or Los Angeles) lifestyle.
With that mode snatched away, what are you left with? Remote working back at your parents house, saving for a second bite if you are lucky… but more likely you are one of those spotted through the zone two late Victorian bay window, three to a living-room-as-makeshift-office, ironing board as desk, praying the broadband holds.
Sure, professionals in their 30s are still trying to play ‘oh what a lovely lockdown’ as their endurance wears thin, but spare a thought for younger colleagues. This was not what they signed up for.
And as for university students…
Experts restored, Authority eroded
Whitty, Fauci, Tegnell. Tedros. Over the last year, we’ve not been able to get enough of ‘experts’. During a year when we have been living in an acutely VUCA world, science initially offered us the seemingly simple allure of answers to all the ambiguity and complexity. As the pandemic has charted its course, we have seen that science is a process that asks as many questions as it answers; but we have also watched that process in action, increasing our shared understanding of the importance of expertise in public life.
At the same time, many western governments, refusing to learn the lessons learnt in other parts of the world, have lurched from disaster to disaster. Ignoring the complexity of the science, many leaders, particularly in the UK and Europe have promised simple answers to complex problems. And the issue is that each time they have over-promised and under-delivered, they have further eroded public trust. In a liberal democracy, people will only really comply with laws they would willingly accept, and the shifts in levels of compliance and growing ‘flexible approaches’ to lockdown restrictions indicates a restive population creating their own version of the rules. The growth of ‘interpretive lawbreaking’ among the general population can only create more headaches in the future.
The next time governments and civil servants need to mobilise our collective compliance, it will be harder to come by than it was last March.
We are all in the same storm, but not the same boat
While the commentariat may be having a good lockdown, spare a thought for those who haven’t been sheltered from the storm by a garden office, a case of Wine Society Beaujolais-Villages and a new seventeen minute Bob Dylan single. There is a pandemic experience gap between the young and the old, but also between the comfortable middle class professionals working office jobs at home and those who have either lost their jobs or are still going to work in compromised or risky environments.
While the ‘Blissfully Quarantined’ are considering which preschool to pre-register their almost-one year old Sourdough starter for (“she’s very mature for her age”) the ‘Gotta Works’ are leaving the house daily to enter a threatening outside world. This is not just the clapped-for key workers, but the vast armies of warehouse operatives, delivery drivers, construction workers, cleaners and cooks that make the lives of the Blissfully Quarantined possible.
Braced for the worst impact or already hit by the full force of the economic consequences of the pandemic are the ‘nowhere to gos’; either already let go or furloughed on zombie jobs, these are those in service industry jobs and the lowest paid sectors that have been the worst hit.
These three tribes have not been created by the pandemic, but brought into sharper focus as the virus has exposed the existing ley lines of inequality that have been the reality of our economy for the past decades whose divergence was catalysed by the crisis of 2008.
Cities in the 20s will roar back, and so will towns
I predict the flight to the countryside that estate agents have been talking up to try and froth anaemic rural property markets in unfashionable ridings is a reflex reaction, akin to the brief fashion for matte-black supercars amongst the hyper rich after the Financial Crash. Cities have endured far worse and still thrived. Fire, pestilence and plague have not stopped people seeking friendship, fucking and fun in the worlds great conurbations. There are some things that you can’t easily virtualise. Expect many who run to the hills to return to a more variegated city, where the reduced spacial pressure from ‘9 to 6 x 5’ office hours leaves more room for culture, creativity and serendipity.
Many will stay away, exercising a preference for space, whilst looking for more interaction than an isolated farmhouse can offer. The dematerialisation of geography for professional work means that this need for interaction can increasingly be served by towns rather than cities. There is an opportunity to revitalise towns centres and high streets up and down the country, where the bonfire of the chain stores leaves spaces for micro-offices, council funded business hubs and co-working cafes. Thoughtful and intentional local policy could lead to a new renaissance for towns, propagating healthier and more diverse local economies and helping truly level up the regions
Sociologists will have more to write about than the scientists or politicians
Once the dying is over, there will be a postmortem of how the pandemic has been handled around the world. It’s unlikely that any nation won’t be criticised for some element of it’s handling, perhaps with the possibility of New Zealand who do have the advantage of being a small country located at the very end of the Earth.
I believe though that after the initial recriminations, it will be the sociologists that have the most to write about. Behaviours, particularly in free societies have more to do with culture than politics. Britain’s own late lockdown was based on the, not unreasonable, presumption that ‘freedom loving’ Britons would be unlikely to comply before people had started to die.
Don’t be surprised if the patterns we see in any analyses of whether a country has had a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ pandemic map more closely to Hofstede’s work on Cultural dimensions than government policy or ideology.
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.