I’ve always been drawn to cities. The country had the views, of course, but there’s only so much you can do with a view once you’ve finished staring at it. And in any case, the city had its views, too, ones that kept changing: drinkers spilling out of warmly-lit pubs, faces glimpsed in intimate conversation through rain-blurred café windows, crammed buses lurching round the streets, crowds queueing outside theatres.
As a teenager, my favourite bus was the one that took me into Belfast city centre, to its civilising bookshops, hectic bars and occasional bomb scares. But I’ve now lived in London for twenty-five years. When I first arrived here, in my early twenties, the single gesture that most glamorously embodied London for me was that of hailing a black cab. I couldn’t do it very often, because it cost so much – but every time I succeeded in flagging down a juddering, yellow-lit taxi and climbing gratefully inside, I felt a little thrill, as if I had become part of the ceaseless, thrumming motion of the city.
What, now, is the motion of the city? Blindsided by Covid-19, it is erratic, dejected and permanently anxious, like a person in the throes of a slow nervous breakdown. The London cabbies are in crisis, with tourists staying away and office workers holed up at home: only ten percent of cabs are circulating on the roads. Whole chains of shops seem to slide overnight from going concerns into ‘premises to let,’ leaving their disoriented workers jobless. West End theatres are still closed. Masked hairdressers and manicurists nervously wonder whether business could survive another lockdown, as they prettify masked clients who have ever fewer occasions for which to be pretty. The crush of the metropolis – once part of its attraction – is now a source of contagion and repulsion.
The writer Peter Ackroyd, in the introduction to his masterly biography of London, conceives of the city – as Daniel Defoe did – as a ‘great body,’ with byways for veins and parks for lungs. This body has been battered by disaster before, of course, and survived. As Ackroyd notes, the ‘Black Death’ of 1348 killed roughly 40 per cent of London’s population. Plague – which darted sporadically back and forth in the late 16th and early 17th century – arrived again in 1665, and stayed. Citizens exposed themselves to infection by the unavoidable task of buying provisions, with some dropping down dead in the middle of markets, and – in a more radical version of our present-day quarantining – afflicted houses were ‘shut up’ for forty days with a red cross daubed on the door.
The ravages of disease were soon followed, in 1666, with a conflagration: the Great Fire, which set the warren of streets in the City of London ablaze, ensuring that an estimated 70,000 people were rendered homeless. The relative peace of country life must, at that time, have seemed very tempting to those beleaguered Londoners, contemplating the charred heart of their city – just as it must have once again during the Blitz of the Second World War. On the evening of December 29th 1940, for example, when German aircraft dropped a mass of incendiary bombs on the city, around 1,500 fires were simultaneously alight.
In truth, London immediately pre-Covid was not a city in the best of health, although indisputably wealthy. The great body was bloated and unbalanced, atrophied in parts due to an excess of empty investment properties. Thanks to soaring house and rental prices, and a shrinking social housing supply, this dysfunctional organism was increasingly unable to permit a reasonable living to the very people who kept it on its feet: the relatively low-paid ‘essential workers’ whose vital contribution became so glaringly evident during the early days of lockdown and beyond.
There is nothing good about a pandemic, and the multiplying crises it triggers – death, illness, unemployment, poverty and widespread damage to mental health. As with all such crises, the impact will fall most heavily upon those who already have least. Yet there may, in time, be cause for optimism in the way that London recovers, as it so often has after agonising historic convulsions. As demand for city-centre office and retail premises retreats, space for housing will grow, and even areas such as Soho might see a thriving residential community return. As the desire to ‘stay local’ entrenches itself – and people prefer to work, shop and socialise within walking distance of home – the city may again grow closer to what it was historically, a collection of linked ‘villages’.
Estate agents report a striking Covid-era rise in London house-owners seeking a move to the country or coast. Perhaps the pandemic has simply exacerbated that tendency, as we get older, to become a peace-seeking missile – what the late poet Derek Mahon meant when he wrote, ‘We tire of cities in the end:/ the whirr and blur of it.’
But maybe now’s not the time to decide. London is shocked and reeling at the moment, as we all are. I think I might hang in here for a while, and watch how the resilient city reimagines itself.