A Spectral City

In recognition of the struggle our sub-Churchillian prime minister is attempting to lead, I lent this guy a mask yesterday. It was a brief stop on an expedition that also involved more urgent activities, and my cycle ride through London was both beautiful and spooky. The capital’s landmarks were all where they should be – connected by roads that still join, pieces of an architectural jigsaw that isn’t going anywhere – but only a few stragglers were walking the tumbleweed streets, and they already seemed far out of place. While blackbirds have started hopping about happily across the western end of Oxford Street, six Hare Krishnas outside John Lewis were virtually quarantined by cultic standards; though they were drumming and chanting up a storm, not a single pedestrian was around to appreciate their devotion. Later that evening, a preacher in Piccadilly Circus addressed a single person; I think he and his audience were friends, as both had similar accents and the listener sidled up to me in the hope of making a convert, until I reminded him to keep his social distance. Leicester Square’s only busker was so isolated that I was driven to throw a pound in his cello case after hearing him play from Charing Cross Road: a 200-metre distance that would normally be roaring with traffic and heaving with crowds. He was an American student, who hadn’t yet worked out that his dwindling audience wasn’t going to re-expand soon: when I told him that London’s crackdown was almost certainly about to intensify again, all he said was ‘shit’, many, many times. And it wasn’t just the neutron-bomb present that felt odd: it was also thoughts of past and future. As I rolled around town, mawkishness kept making me want to say goodbye to things. Construction sites were the only places that were active, buzzing with gangs of mask-less workers, but it’s as hard now to conceive the capital they’re meant to be building as it would have been two weeks ago to imagine today. Whatever lies ahead (and notwithstanding all the deaths, there’ll hopefully be at least some sustainable positive changes), London’s future ain’t what it used to be.

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