How does it feel to be locked down in the largest urban centre in western Europe? Well, it certainly looks different from the skies. I live on the steepest hill in south London, a hill so steep that in pre-coronavirus times it would draw swarms of angry bankers on £4k touring bikes, clinging to its spine like thirsty wasps around a lime tree.
On day one of London lockdown the hill is empty, the city below unnaturally silent. From here you can see the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, the grey outline of Muswell Hill to the north and the full range of postmodern skyscrapers in between. You can hear the hum of London’s traffic and the twin flightpaths of Heathrow and City airports.
Not today, though. Rarely can six million people have been this quiet on a Tuesday morning. From up here, London has entered standby mode. But look a little closer and the body is still breathing, the streets humming with an insubordinate inner life.
On Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, people are walking three abreast, carrying out essential trips to the deli and the cheese shop. Builders are refitting shop fronts. Essential group-jogging is taking place. Insanely – and how insane that this should seem insane – the chip shop with the tables is open for business.
Closer to town, people are playing football in Ruskin Park, on Denmark Hill. Demob-happy kids are strolling in groups on the Old Kent Road. In Camberwell, it’s like a moderately busy rush hour – not just for the NHS staff thronging dutifully into Kings College hospital, but for the people milling about the shops or crowding by the park entrance, people those same staff may soon be asked to treat.
This is not, by any stretch of the word, a lockdown. Not much has been locked. Nobody seems that down. The plague laws may be back on the streets, dusted off after 500 years on the shelf. But London still doesn’t seem to have really noticed.
Perhaps there is still a degree of shock at just how rapid the journey here has been. Thirteen days ago, 55,000 people, 3,000 of them from Madrid, were watching football in Liverpool. Three days ago, people were still thronging the restaurants and pubs.
Even now, on lockdown Day Zero, East Street market is rammed with shoppers drawn to the fish and fruit stalls. People have to eat but there is not much distancing here.
On nearby Walworth Road, a building has collapsed and police and fire engines are present, along with a curious, milling crowd of people who have just popped out for a fag and a chat, the two south London must-haves of bronchial virus season.
At times like these it is hard to avoid the disaster movie images, the deja vu of virus flick montages, even those tempting wartime parallels. In his poem MCMXIV, Philip Larkin wrote about the queues of eager, smiling young volunteers signing up to fight in the first world war, a happy, prosperous crowd “grinning as if it were all an August Bank Holiday lark”.
The theme of Larkin’s poem was innocence lost. This feels more like a failure of communication, like the most dysfunctional, libertarian version of lockdown; and like something entirely inadequate for a city of this scale.
It was not like this everywhere.
The Guardian’s photographs from around the UK on Tuesday show mounted police patrolling a ghostly South Bank on the Thames. Glasgow Central station is deserted. Small-town streets across the country show evidence of civic-minded abandonment. The motorways in particular are frightening places, empty arteries dotted with the odd worried-looking car.
But big cities, or at least the parts people live in, are an uncontrolled environment at the best of times.
This needs a more ruthless kind of micromanagement. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested under the current definition 1.1 million Londoners count as key workers (now including people such as bicycle mechanics as well as nurses and heart surgeons).
The other eight million Londoners still need to go shopping. Meanwhile, the details of the shutdown are hazy on such a huge scale. London is thronged with fast food shacks, chicken cottages, kebab houses, pizza gaffs. Entire rows of these are now shut, and people really are going to have to get used to cooking.
But the hardware shops are still spilling out on the pavement. You can still buy homeopathic remedies from the health shop. Dog walking gets a pass, which makes owning a dog suddenly an A-list accessory, key to trebling your personal freedom at a stroke.
As for going shopping “for necessities”: define necessity, which could mean anything from a perfectly foamed cortado to five tins of spam in the trolley, to a reliable, safe supply of crack cocaine and heroin.
In the supermarket on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, south London a middle-aged cashier is keeping order as furtive human shapes grab things from the shelves. The entrance is full of street people, drinkers, people with nowhere else to go. An unsteady-looking man in a long overcoat has already chased the security guard to the back of the shop. “Don’t be upset, darling,” the cashier says in a warm, churchy kind of voice. “Now you’re going to have to stand back. Yes, back. Thank you, darling.”
This is not simply operating a till and stacking shelves. Social care is happening here. The cashier says her daughter is at home with her grandmother. Today, she’s finally been allowed to download TikTok. As they leave the shop, people thank her for coming in to work. It feels like they’re thanking her for something else, for sounding like someone is at least in control.
The class divide is also working in lockdown. In Dulwich Park, the proscribed single form of exercise appears to be buggy-pushing shuttle sprints or immaculately turned-out middle-aged power jogs. In Burgess Park, between Camberwell and Bermondsey, it’s gathering round a bench lifting a cold purple tin and occasionally shouting at each other.
These are Londoners too. Where are they supposed to go? Where are kids who don’t want to be at home supposed to go, or people who just have a shared room, or a shared space with someone they try to avoid?
Day one felt like a light-touch London lockdown. The edges will undoubtedly tighten. As in other cities, this is a staged process. It will need to be, if there is any hope of flattening that infernal curve, the curve nobody really knew about two weeks ago but which is now the subject of fevered digital expertise.
London has a deep, buried history of plague laws, of wardens wandering the streets, of crosses on doors and houses shuttered and bolted. This is surely coming again in some form. Although exactly how this restless, tightly packed, defiantly distracted place will cope with the key being turned is anyone’s guess.