On the Sunday after this lockdown began, I headed for Hyde Park. Boris Johnson had said that police would be enforcing the new rules ‘through fines and dispersing gatherings’, and that’s the kind of warning the ranters and hecklers of Speakers’ Corner might ordinarily have had opinions about. Not on 28 March. The only conversation in sight involved three despondent Muslim men talking to a policeman on a bike. As I watched, the trio nodded and trudged towards the gates.
Cycling up to the officer, I asked if they’d been cooperative. Victoria Park in east London had just been closed for fear it was attracting too many visitors, and I was ingratiating myself in the hope of learning if Hyde Park was similarly threatened. The three men had been disappointed but civil, he said, and though he’d been fielding extra complaints about panting joggers and unleashed dogs, most people were ‘too stunned to argue about anything.’ All the same, he personally suspected that a closure of all the Royal Parks was imminent. Even if necessary, he added, that would be a shame.
I wondered what exactly had made park-users seem ‘stunned’. With a baffled smile, he shook his head. It wasn’t just other people; he too was ‘shell-shocked’. But the very intensity of the crisis might, he thought, have positive consequences. In vague agreement, I mumbled something about caring and sharing more. He ignored me. ‘I’m a druid, see. And our god – whatever, the thing we venerate – is nature. Maybe we, the environment, are going to end up in a better place’. After a week of trying hard to expect the unexpected, that was one surprise too many. All I could really think of to ask before we parted ways was whether the demands of druidry ever clashed with being a police officer. ‘I don’t really call myself that’, he said. ‘I prefer peace officer.’
Having spent a month mentally kicking myself, there’s a far longer conversation we’ve now had in my head. But it doesn’t dwell on the planet’s future. Though COVID-19 is provoking big questions about where humanity goes from here, I’m less focused on the answers than I probably should be. I’m more interested in what a pagan police officer would make of changing attitudes towards the urban environment in London. As millions have hunkered down in flats without gardens, sometimes in solitary confinement, the great outdoors is looking more attractive than ever. Public land feels precious. Unobservant people are noticing flowers. I’ve downloaded a birdsong-recognition app.
Access to green space almost seemed to get a government guarantee last week, when Communities Minister Robert Jenrick said that he’s ‘made it clear to councils that all parks must remain open’. But that welcome announcement was counterbalanced four days later by a quieter, more ominous proclamation. On 22 April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock put his signature to revised lockdown regulations that now make it a criminal offence not just to ‘leave’ your residence without good reason, but to ‘be outside it’. The four-word amendment took effect without parliamentary debate and no journalist seems to have noticed, but its legal effect is real. As of last Wednesday, you can be arrested, fined or charged simply for staying out too long.
The government’s decision to make the tiny change gives rise to a question as important as it’s obvious: why? If the aim is the improper one of making arrests easier, heavy-handed action would ordinarily lead to quick scrutiny and challenge in a courtroom, but judicial processes are sticky at the moment, and police interpretations of the new power are likely to stay undisputed for a while. That’s a shame. Though social distancing is as important as ever, COVID-19 isn’t the only malady that worsens and shortens lives. Immobility, loneliness and enforced cohabitation take their toll too, and the police should be told explicitly that the psychological benefits of being outdoors are legally protected. The lockdown regulations permit ‘exercise’, and there’s no sensible justification for limiting that to physical fitness, rather than well-being in general.
That’s what I wish I’d discussed with the druid-cop of Speakers’ Corner. And when we were done exploring the spiritual dimensions of lockdown laws, I’d have liked to chat some more. He was the friendliest policemen I’ve met during the last month, and it would have been good to hear his thoughts about over-eager enforcement. Across London, there are benches wrapped in plastic tape, like hundreds of small crime scenes. From North Kensington to London Fields and Walthamstow, police vans have been prowling across patches of grass, telling individuals not to sit down or sunbathe. A couple of Sundays ago, I heard a policeman on Primrose Hill tell everyone that they were required by law to ‘keep moving’. Though he earned my sympathy (‘people – I haven’t seen my own family for five weeks’, he pleaded), that invented rule was particularly dubious. In the words of a houseboat resident with whom I later spoke: ‘So it’s fine if you’re running in lycra, but old people watching the sky from a bench get moved on? That’s wrong.’
Last week’s extension of police powers is likely, as usual, to have a disproportionate impact on the poor and the vulnerable. While well-heeled Richmond and Hampstead have been full of spaciously distanced sunbathers and picnickers on days that I’ve visited, areas of south and east London where public space is at a premium have faced strict controls from the lockdown’s start. Lambeth’s Brockwell Park shut for a day in early April, while Victoria Park – which lies between three of the most densely populated boroughs in England – was closed for two full weeks.
Victoria Park’s fate was particularly ironic. The very reason it opened in 1845 was to combat disease. Cholera had raged out of the Limehouse docks across east London in 1832, and though deaths were few by COVID-19 standards – about 800 – the epidemic convinced senior politicians and Queen Victoria that giving East Enders an outdoor recreation ground wasn’t just charitable, but also self-interested. The man who did most to persuade them – a ground-breaking epidemiologist called William Farr – explained in 1839 that letting poor slum dwellers spend time in fresh air would probably ‘add several years to the lives of the entire population’.
With that history in mind, I cycled to Victoria Park on 12 April: the day after its two-week closure came to an end. An online notice warned returning visitors against ‘static exercises such as yoga, pilates and general fitness training’, while dos and don’ts on the gates instructed everyone to exercise just once a day and, again, to ‘keep moving’. Sentries in masks and high-viz shouted at cyclists through megaphones to get off their bikes. Happily, the people scattered across the sunny lawns looked unbothered as they strained at resistance bands and bent themselves into shape. Spotting a cross-legged figure, serenely framed by cherry blossoms, I asked permission for a photo and we fell into conversation. When I mentioned William Farr’s concern for the health of east Londoners, he meditatively stretched a hamstring. ‘Should’ve fucking remembered that, shouldn’t they?’, he said.
I agreed. Farr’s pioneering work on tracking disease wasn’t complemented by scientific brilliance; like many contemporaries, he had no idea that cholera was water-borne and thought it was spread by drifting clouds of dank air. But that doesn’t make his belief in parks (or the ‘the lungs of London’, as Victorians called them) any less valuable. Enjoying outdoor space won’t keep COVID-19 at bay, but without it, no one’s going to stay fit and well for long.