The empty metropolis

Ghost town London had its harbingers in literature and history. How will it emerge from its isolation?

City street with elegant houses.
City street with elegant houses.


On Easter morning, my wife and I got up early, left our house in south London, and walked to Westminster Bridge. We arrived there just in time for sunrise. The bridge was completely empty. No cars, no cyclists, no pedestrians: just us. We stood there and admired the view. On the south bank loomed the great concrete cube of St Thomas’ Hospital, where Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, had just spent his third night in intensive care. On the far bank rose Big Ben, muffled by scaffolding. Looking eastwards, the Thames appeared preternaturally still. The city looked as beautiful as once, more than two hundred years ago, it had appeared to Wordsworth: ‘All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.’

But if it was beautiful, so also was it chilling. By the 12th of April, London had been in lockdown for three weeks. Infection was everywhere: across the city, across the country, across the world. If, in St Thomas’, there had been someone who for the past month had been lying in a coma, and that person had woken up abruptly, and left the hospital, and wandered out onto Westminster Bridge, how bewildering the silence would have seemed. ‘Dear God! the very houses seem asleep’ – but now, in a city immensely vaster than the one Wordsworth knew, immensely more full of people, the houses seemed dead. It required no great feat of imagination, that Easter dawn, to gaze at London spread out before us, and to imagine it one vast tomb.

‘How unreal it all is,’ people kept saying, ‘how like a film.’ The world might not have experienced a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 in over a century, and yet there seemed, for all that, a haunting sense of familiarity about its progress. The remorseless spread of infection across the globe, tracked by maps, and arrows, and graphs; the stilling of airports and motorways; the spectacle of empty streets in the world’s most iconic cities: we had seen all these things in films many times before. We found ourselves trapped inside a familiar story, following the lines of a narrative that has been written time and again. The best guide to where this crisis may take us, to the rhythms it is bound to follow, lies not, perhaps, in briefing papers written by epidemiologists and economists, but in fictions. These, in 2020, can strike us with the force of familiarity because it was only in fictions that people writing in the years prior to 2020 could supply narrative accounts of what the 21st century might look like when swept by pandemic. Even so, the authors of these fictions did not have to draw on any particular powers of prophecy to predict how society might respond. Successful fictions have roots that reach deep into human nature, and therefore into all the various ways in which it has manifested itself over the course of history. Visions of the future are invariably mirrors held up to the past.

When Cillian Murphy’s character in the 2002 horror film 28 Days Later wakes up in St Thomas’ Hospital, crosses an empty Westminster Bridge, and wanders through a silent London, it is to discover that almost everyone in the country has been infected by an Ebola-like virus that turns its victims into ravening zombies. He and three other survivors do what anyone would do in such a situation: run for the hills. Over the course of the film, they hunker down variously in a tower block, in a stately home converted into a military stockade, and in a Lake District cottage. Brilliantly though 28 Days Later may rework the clichés of the zombie movie, it still depends for its power on the instinct without which there would be never have been a zombie myth in the first place. The urge to flee infection, to put up barricades against the infected, is as primordial as civilisation itself. ‘Everybody’s looks,’ wrote Samuel Pepys in 1665, as plague ravaged London, ‘is of death, and nothing else; and few people going up and down, that the town is a place distressed and forsaken.’ Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, has as its framing device the flight of ten young men and women from plague-ravaged Florence to a villa, where they remain sufficiently proof against the buboes to tell a hundred tales. A millennium and more before, in Roman Alexandria, those with sufficient resources had likewise fled the onset of epidemic: ‘At the first appearance of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.’

Sure enough, as SARS-CoV-2 began to spread around the globe, it was those countries that pulled up the drawbridge fastest that tended to suffer the fewest deaths. The memory of this, in a world that had been growing suspicious of globalisation even prior to the onset of COVID-19, is unlikely to be one that fades any time soon. Even so, as fans of zombie films know all too well, the idea that anywhere in a time of infection can truly serve as a sanctuary is delusory. Peril can lurk just as well within a refuge as beyond its walls. In 28 Days Later, the soldiers who welcome the film’s protagonists to the ring-fenced stately home turn out to be rapists, and their commander a psychopath. Nor, in a horror film, is there ever any real prospect of holding the line. It is pretty much a rule of the genre that any defence capable of being breached will be breached. Retreat to an abbey, weld the doors shut, party without a care in the world, yet in the end the Red Death will always get through.

This is not to suggest that Darkness and Decay and COVID-19 will hold illimitable dominion over all. Leaving Westminster Bridge, walking along the Thames, we began to find ourselves passed by the odd runner, and in the City by the occasional car. Looping back to Trafalgar Square, we found no toppled double-decker bus – as Cillian Murphy’s character had done in 28 Days Later – blocking the road in Whitehall. Yet to wake up from a nightmare is not always to escape its shadow. Horror films, by giving shape to fears that may lurk inchoate or unarticulated in the collective subconscious, provide as good a guide as any to the terrors that this crisis is bound to leave in its wake. Even should a vaccine be discovered, even should herd immunity be obtained, even should the virus end up burning itself it out, the memories of the pandemic will not quickly fade. Instead — much like the scarring that can be left on the lungs of someone who has suffered badly from COVID-19 — dread of infection and suspicion of the infected look likely to remain as a permanent scarring on the mind.


19 days later, we got up even earlier than we had done on Easter morning, and walked to Putney. Here, in H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, an artilleryman camps out amid a great desolation of houses and contemplates a new normal. Martians, after landing outside London, have conquered the city, and scoured it almost entirely clean of human life. How, then, are people to survive? By retreating underground, by living like rats in the city’s drains. So, at any rate, the artilleryman tells the narrator of Wells’ novel. ‘There won’t be any more blessed concerts for a million years or so; there won’t be any Royal Academy of Arts, and no nice little feeds at restaurants.’ But the narrator, although initially convinced by the argument, soon comes to realise that he has no wish to live under such a permanent lockdown. Instead, abandoning the artilleryman and crossing the Thames into Fulham, he walks through the dead city, heading for Primrose Hill, where the Martians have made their camp.

The account of what he sees along the route — which includes, in an eerie foreshadowing of 28 Days Later, a toppled bus — is sufficiently detailed that we, following in his footsteps, found it an easy thing to trace. By midday, we had reached Primrose Hill. Here, in Wells’ novel, the narrator discovers that the world is saved: that the Martians, with none of the immunity to terrestrial diseases that humans over many millennia have developed, have succumbed to pathogens. ‘All about the pit, & saved as by a miracle from everlasting destruction, stretched the great Mother of Cities. Those who have only seen London veiled in her sombre robes of smoke can scarcely imagine the naked clearness & beauty of the silent wilderness of houses.’ We did as the narrator had done: sat and enjoyed the view.

People who would once have looked to the heavens for salvation from pandemic, by offering sacrifice or raising prayers, now hang on the words of virologists. Governments, struggling to defeat an adversary they barely understand, insist that they are following ‘the science’. Scientists themselves, standing before the cameras as they guide the fate of nations, have become celebrities. People root for their various epidemiological models as they might cheer on football teams, debate their looks, gossip about their affairs. We have come to live in a world in which almost everything we do — whether we can travel, or go out for a meal, or visit our parents — is determined by ‘the science’.

Does this mean, then, that the future is one that will be governed by a cool and objective rationality? Wells, a century ago and more, scorned the claims of churches and mosques to offer any guide to the purposes of the universe. Both, in the Martians’ initial assault on Woking, are flattened much as a man might flatten an ant-heap. A curate, hailing ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord,’ goes steadily insane. Far from being saved, he ends up drained by a Martian of his blood. Yet Wells, despite rejecting Christianity, could not help but bear witness to its stamp. Shadowy throughout The War of the Worlds, but a constant presence for all that, is the sense that the British Empire, the prime target of the Martian war-machines, is reaping what it has sown. ‘The Tasmanians,’ the narrator writes, ‘in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’ It is the status of London as the greatest and richest city on the face of the earth that makes her downfall so salutary. So Isaiah had foretold the downfall of Babylon; so St John had foretold the downfall of Rome. That a day of judgement will come when cities grown fat on the exploitation of the far-flung places of the world will be humbled into the dust is an assumption so deeply rooted in the soil of Christian culture that not even Wells, in the late 19th century, could escape it. Nor, in the early 21st century, can we.

The current crisis, far from calming the apocalyptic strain in our collective imaginings, seems bound only to stoke it. In the book of Revelation, Rome was portrayed as a monstrous vampire, engorged with the lifeblood of the entire world. Today, there are plenty who conceive of the great centres of 21st century civilisation in very similar terms. The hyper-connectivity of contemporary capitalism, combined with the steady degradation of ecosystems across the world, is providing an ideal opportunity for novel pathogens to come into contact with humans, and then, having done so, to spread faster and further than they have ever done before. It is not hard to see why many of us, contemplating the impact of COVID-19, should see it much as plague was understood in ancient times: as a judgement upon us for our sins.

Some, however, go even further. That the Himalayas have lately been visible from India for the first time in thirty years, that boars have begun venturing into European towns, that bird song is to be heard in cities rather than the din of planes and cars: all these developments of the past months have helped to foster a sense among a radical minority that SARS-CoV-2, far from serving a baneful purpose, may well be on the side of the angels. ‘Coronavirus,’ as a popular meme has it, ‘is Earth’s vaccine. We are the virus.’ But this, perhaps, seen through the prism of Wells’ novel, might be given a different formulation. In addition to renewing humanity’s faith in science, COVID-19 is likely as well to supercharge the opposite: a dread that our technological prowess, and all the appetites it sustains, threatens the planet with ruin. In which case we would not be the virus. We would be the Martians.


25 days later, I walked to Talbot Yard, a narrow thoroughfare just south of London Bridge. My aim in heading there was to embark on a pilgrimage. Or at least a kind of pilgrimage. It was certainly nothing that could compensate me for the walk that, at the end of the previous year, before either I or my brother had ever heard of Wuhan, the pair of us had scheduled for the fortnight after Easter. As part of a campaign against a government scheme to build a monstrously intrusive road development through the Stonehenge landscape (a World Heritage Site, no less!), our plan had been to hike from Dover all the way to Stonehenge itself. The prospect of taking to the Downs, following prehistoric trails, breathing in the fresh air of spring, had been something that both of us had been looking forward to eagerly all winter. Until, of course, COVID-19 had intervened.

Regret for what might have been had plunged me into gloom the moment the lockdown began. Depressed not to be following an ancient pilgrimage route across Kent in the month of April, I had turned for consolation to the most famous account of such a journey. ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote…’ So begins the most celebrated work of medieval English literature. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s riff on the model established a few decades earlier by Boccaccio, is a collection of short stories told by people who, as in the Decameron, have left their homes, and are departing a city. Chaucer’s narrators, however, are no fugitives. Their aim, rather than hunkering down, is to enjoy the closest that most people in the 14th century came to going on a holiday. Begun in 1386, almost four decades after the arrival of the Black Death in England, it portrayed a society in which people drawn from every background and class have not the slightest compunction about meeting up in a London tavern, then heading off together for Canterbury on pilgrimage.

Did this mean, however, that Chaucer had written a poem from which the shadow of pestilence had been lifted? I had always assumed so; but now, reading it in the shadow of pandemic, I found myself not so sure. Under lockdown, I was alert in a way I had never been before to the joy that might be taken in the simplest pleasures: going for a drink in a pub, leaving a city for the countryside, breathing in clear air. Would Chaucer’s pilgrims have taken a similar joy in them? Perhaps. The Black Death, although it had first arrived on England’s shores in 1348, had returned numerous times since. A decade before Chaucer embarked on The Canterbury Tales, it had raged all winter across London. In 1378, it had paid a fifth visitation to England, stripping entire regions ‘of their best men’. From that year on, chroniclers no longer recorded its arrival and departure – not because it had ceased to infect people, but because it had become endemic.

To live in London, then, in the final decades of the 14th century, was to live in constant dread of the effects of epidemic. Chaucer, who as a child had lost large numbers of his relatives to the initial onset of the plague, had grown up in the full consciousness of the great reaping that had claimed a third, or perhaps a half, of all Christendom.  The decades might have passed, and the inferno of infection with them; but the bush fires continued to smoulder. What joy, then, when April arrived with its ‘shoures soote’, to bid farewell to a city that might well have been rotten with plague the whole winter, to feel the ‘sweete breeth’ of the open road in spring, and to head for the shrine of that blissful martyr St Thomas Beckett, ‘that hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.’ It might well have seemed a gesture of defiance. It might well have seemed a gesture of hope.

Arriving at Talbot Yard, where the tavern in which Chaucer met with his fellow pilgrims had once stood, I could not have a drink, nor could I mingle with strangers, nor could I embark on the 60-mile road to Canterbury. But I felt cheered to be there, all the same. Of the three walks I had taken across London since the lockdown began, this, the final one, seemed to point towards the surest future. The lockdown was bound to end. Society would renew its rhythms. My brother and I — no matter how late — would get to do our pilgrimage.

Life, I dared to hope, would find a way.


Tom Holland