Covid#16 – After London (19 July 2020)

Inspired by recent dips into the diary of Samuel Pepys, I spent much of last week in the City. In Aldgate, specifically. Sandwiched between the financial district’s glistening towers and the grubbiness of Whitechapel, it’s at the capital’s core. Beneath the streets lie innumerable plague pits and the ruins of an Elizabethan playhouse. A fifteen-minute walk could take you to an Anglo-Saxon wharf or a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras. An hour’s enough for a whistle-stop tour across two thousand years, with ancient synagogues, medieval bridge remnants and Jack the Ripper murders all included. Ghosts are everywhere.

The area’s even more haunted than usual at the moment. Whereas London’s other neighbourhoods are twitching and jerking back to life, up to 90% of the City’s million or so commuters aren’t back yet. It’s normal for the area to lapse into silences – fewer than nine thousand residents live there – but the stillness now is continuous, and almost sinister. Though malls have opened, they’re deserted. Receptionists are at their desks only to explain why no one else is. Excavation works have restarted (because, as fate would have it, office construction hit an all-time high just as the pandemic began), but groundbreaking is more speculative than ever. At least one phantom skyscraper has no prospective tenants at all.

The uncertainties are compounded by contradictory official messages about the healthiness of office environments. But though friction between ministers and scientific advisors has been worsening other avoidable mistakes, clearer guidance wouldn’t have filled the City’s streets. Companies are focused on practicalities – how to safely transport people up and down skyscrapers, for example – and their eyes are fixed firmly on bottom lines. Facing an economic crash that the Office for Budget Responsibility expects to be the worst in three centuries, almost a third of firms are already planning redundancies. And the storm’s not far off now. Furlough schemes will wind up on 31 October, and the OBR forecasts that unemployment could reach four million by the start of next year.

That raises complicated issues. For lots of people, working from home isn’t living the dream; it’s a rabbit-hutch nightmare. Like any self-respecting liberal, I’m also well aware that multinational corporations aren’t cool. I’m reactionary enough to fret at the prospect of a City gone tumbleweed though. Economic activity in London apparently generates almost a quarter of the UK’s GDP, and while that might be abstract, it isn’t meaningless. All it takes to appreciate the point is a lunch-break. At every supermarket and sandwich shop I saw open last week, more staff uniforms were visible than suits. If hardship does hit, the filthy rich won’t suffer alone . . .

Over-contemplating the cathedrals of capitalism doesn’t feel good for the soul, and in the interests of spiritual renewal and historical reflection, I detoured on Thursday into a real church. St Olave’s, a Gothic dwarf crouching in the shadows around Fenchurch Street, is where Samuel Pepys once worshipped. His grave is under the altar, and when I wandered over to take a look, a figure pottering around the chancel introduced himself as the rector. Though Arani Sen agreed that his parish is quiet, he takes inactivity in his stride. All his Sunday services are currently being conducted via Zoom, and when I promised to attend the next non-virtual event ‘if there’s room’, he assured me that his congregations are never large (‘perhaps six?’). As we contemplated Pepys and the pretty church garden – beneath which, three hundred victims of the 1665 plague lie buried – his wife came to join us. Alison had never read Pepys, and wondered what the diarist might have made of it all. ‘Describing the present is one thing’, she said. ‘It’s hard to imagine the future. Only a real visionary can do that.’

As it happens, Pepys probably wouldn’t have imagined very much. He liked to experience things, not anticipate them, and day-to-day events were all he really wrote about. I was struck by Alison’s remark though. It caused me to reread predictions I’ve been collecting since mid-March. Back then, it was common to hear fearful hopes that COVID-19 might usher in kinder, gentler societies and a more sustainable world. By April, downsides were coming to the fore: the risk of scapegoating, authoritarianism and mass death. Most recently, I’ve noticed an apocalyptic trend: commentaries that link Anglo-American pandemic failures to geopolitical shifts, and warnings of a civilisational clash that could overwhelm liberal democracy. Some of the prophecies will doubtless turn out to be true. At the moment though, they prove only one thing: collectively, we don’t have a clue.

All that made sightseeing expeditions quite eerie. Even in happier times, the City’s intimidating facades can’t help but hint at dystopian terrors, and the gleaming, windswept exteriors feel doubly weird today. Moribund though things look, corporate minds are whirring. Behind glass doors and skyscraper windows, heads of strategy and human resources are contemplating whether to make emergency measures introduced in March permanent. And if enough employers decide that enough employees should work remotely, dizzying implications follow. The institutionalisation of flexible working could set off spiralling job losses, not least because of its impact on the City’s service sector, and were the shift to become a stampede, acres of office space would flood the rental market.

A day after my visit to St Olave’s, the prime minister weighed in with visions of his own. In his latest effort to show that the Bojo magic’s still there, Johnson foresaw a revival in office activity after 1 August and expressed a ‘strong and sincere hope’ that there will be ‘a more significant return to normality . . . possibly in time for Christmas.’ That wasn’t a reasoned assessment. Since the government’s senior medical advisors were simultaneously insisting elsewhere that normality is a long way off, it wasn’t very persuasive either. Listening to the speech made me recall, all the same, that rhetorical optimism has value. Though Johnson’s handling of this pandemic has been disastrous in my opinion, one of leadership’s purposes is to accentuate the positive. No one’s going to be in want of reiterated medical advice as autumn and winter approach.

In my own moments of irrational optimism, I’ve been reminding myself that cities are good at enduring cataclysms. Even the plague of 1665 was a beginning as much as an end. A year after it began, the City was razed by fire, and a contemporary of Pepys noted that by 1681 London was already ‘infinitely more Beautiful, more Commodious and more Solid’ than ever before. Twentieth-century Manhattan also throws our present predicament into rose-tinted perspective. The Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center all took shape in the aftermath of Spanish Flu and the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The upheaval that instils the biggest sliver of hope in me is, oddly enough, Thatcherism. In warehouses and factories marooned by the de-industrialisation policies of the 1980s, rave culture was born, and recession in the early ‘90s nurtured a tremendous flowering of musical and artistic talent. Out of disaster, creativity can thrive.

Inspired by the lofty architecture that surrounded me during my City break, I’ve even had a few utopian thoughts. In another of his set-piece speeches, Boris Johnson announced on 30 June that his government is about to push through ‘the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war’: legislation to facilitate office-to-residence conversions, which will supposedly transform ‘vacant and redundant buildings’ into tens of thousands of cheap new homes. Just conceivably, that could be a perfect answer to City woes. With a few tweaks, abandoned skyscrapers could be turned into affordable housing, with ample space for socially-distanced gigs in the viewing galleries, and ateliers in the skygardens. It’s not on the cards, admittedly. Johnson’s deregulatory scheme has more dastardly aims. But all bets are off. When spaces open up, unexpected things start growing through the cracks. It’s hard to imagine the future.

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