I just took Bucket the dog, or Nanuk the snow dog of the north as she is currently known, for a walk in the snow. People complain that we never get snow in London and that every day seems the same during lockdown. We can, at least, thank a dump of white powder to mix things up a little. Let’s have a six-foot snow drift I say. (Never going to happen). Nobody needs to go anywhere; stay at home and enjoy it, though I was a little confused by those who were jogging and cycling, not to say motor bikin’. Maybe some broken ankles presenting at St Thoms today.
I love the audio change that snow brings, how everything goes quieter. The sounds are muffled, and the mess of London is covered until the big melt happens which should be along in about an hour. Get out quick if you want to have fun.
Being outside with everyone acting like kids throwing snowballs and building snowmen got me thinking about London. Passing through the centre of town on my bike, as I did yesterday, and there it is: Shutdown, empty, dead, a ghost town. People don’t generally live in the centre; this is where we work and party and for now, at least, it’s gone. Many are worried about it coming back. While I miss it, I don’t share those fears. London is just sleeping but, when it does wake up, I know it won’t be the same.
For me, Soho has long been the centre of the universe where I’ve headed for more than 40 years to meet friends, have fun, misbehave and generally enjoy the cut and thrust of the greatest city on the planet. The writer Ian Dunt calls it the ‘riot of life’. Soho has been boarded up for almost a year with a brief reprise over the summer when the restaurants opened and we were able to sit outside in the streets, enjoy the sun, the food and the company. The pandemic forced this change, and it is to these sorts of changes we will need to look over the coming years.
The Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE) recently published their findings on the effects the pandemic is having on the population. They estimate, with all the usual caveats, that London may have lost more than 700,000 people in the last year. They say that much of it may be temporary if non-UK born people return to London after the pandemic; but it may not. Brexit now means that many of those who lived here, but have returned to their home countries, would now find re-entry far more challenging. They have to apply for work permits and settled status and the bar may have been raised too high for many to return.
As the ESCoE point out, inner London lost more than 20% of its population during the 1970s and the picture of sustained growth driven by international migration is relatively recent. Arriving in 1977, I was bucking the trend.
But it won’t be just those from outside the UK who are leaving. The Evening Standard regularly publishes articles with headlines like: ‘Half of Londoners have considered leaving capital due to coronavirus, study finds’ and ‘Why I swapped Soho for Somerset’. I’ve long argued this is a good thing. Trapped in London, most likely because of your job, is no way to live. Don’t live in London if you don’t like it and the proliferation of home working mean that, if work means staring for long hours at a computer, many can do just that.
There were reasons to leave before the pandemic: ridiculously expensive housing, cramped studio flats, packed tube trains and the general hassle of city life. Now, why live in London when it’s shut, where accommodation is still expensive and there’s nothing going on?
In many ways I think those in the countryside during lockdown are better off. But London is just sleeping and one day it will wake up. There will be a lot of empty shops and offices and fewer Pret a Mangers, Costas and Cafe Neros, but there will be room for new ideas, new ways to live and grow. It may take a while but I’m betting on London to take us on a journey into the future in ways we can’t see right now. I was going to set down what changes I could foresee but futurology is a moribund sport and I’m bound to get it all wrong.
As John Lennon sang:
Everybody seems to think I’m lazy
I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed
‘Til they find there’s no need (there’s no need)
Please, don’t spoil my day, I’m miles away
And after all I’m only sleeping
I’m looking out the window and the snow is beginning to melt. In a month or two Spring will be upon us, the vaccines will surely be making a difference and London will wake, take stock, shake itself and lead us into the future. The pandemic has forced a reset upon us. The future, no doubt with a few missteps, is beckoning and will take us all by surprise.
Perhaps you’re a young person wondering what life might hold for you. London may not look like much of a prospect right now but keep an eye on it and when the pandemic hibernation is over, if you have the inclination, the drive and the hutzpah then perhaps you should give it a go. It won’t be easy; you won’t be welcomed with open arms, but you won’t be rejected either. Come here and right away you’ll be another Londoner trying to get ahead.