Cleaner, less noisy, less polluted, but operating well below capacity.
Not being keen on self-isolating, we decided not to travel abroad this year, but rather to have a (ghastly word) ‘staycation’ in London. After all, many people travel far to holiday in London, so why not us – sans the travel? The aim was to walk, observe, and talk with people.
One trip took in the Regent’s Canal, along which we walked for many blistery miles. Others took in Holland Park, largely untamed but for its manicured Kyoto garden; Kew Gardens, with its magnificent ‘champion’ trees, many of which predate us and will out-live us. And there was a boat trip down the Thames to Greenwich, with its Royal Observatory, Maritime Museum, redolent of former British commercial and scientific importance. In the process we took public transport, the occasional taxi, a river boat, and walked miles. Our fitness trackers were clearly impressed.
London continues to become a cleaner place. Regent’s Canal, once noisy, smoky, filthy, smelly, and frequently a repository of dead animals and human bodies, nowadays has few smells, fewer bodies, and not much noise. That said, there is still pollution, albeit the traditional form having been replaced by a modern variant, a thick green gloop (‘duckweed’), the result of two hot summers and phosphate run-off from agriculture. The Thames, while still brown (as it always will be, because it has a silt bed) now has fish along its entire length. Nearby streets smell less of gasoline and diesel.
London is quieter too. The proportion of electric vehicles, already significant, continues to rise. Electric day-trip boats ply the Regent’s Canal noiselessly. But Kew Gardens and its surrounding suburbs, blessedly quiet during the COVID-19 near-cessation of air travel, are starting to experience noise once again with the increasing number of planes descending into Heathrow. Their whine feels like a violation of that untrammelled nature.
The economy in this predominantly services-oriented part of the UK has clearly taken a big dip. Most places, and particularly tourist sites, seem to be operating at only around one-fifth capacity.
The many people to whom we spoke were of course not representative even of Greater London, let alone of the whole of the UK. But then who is? Some encounters were memorable:
- An ever-so-British pub, replete with stained glass windows and a splendid wood bar, offering high-class Lebanese food, and displaying a poster proclaiming “Showing unmissable live cricket England v Australia”. Business has been “brisk”, the Lebanese waiter told us, lunch and dinner, ever since they were allowed to reopen. And they were doing good business via Uber Eats and Deliveroo.
- The owner of a Greek restaurant was less upbeat. Following the lifting of lockdown, business had recovered “somewhat”, but was “way down” on pre-COVID-19 levels. Could he survive? “I aim to tick over until next May. I can do that.”
- A street-corner flower seller was worried. He has long had a prosperous little business – he and his European wife holiday in France or the US each year – which involves his getting up at 4 o’clock each morning to go to the market to buy flowers landed overnight from Holland. He voted to leave the EU, but is now concerned about what the future will bring.
- A 22-year-old university graduate, who could not handle the bar-code reader on a restaurant bill, finds it hard to keep up with the pace of technology: “In my parents’ day, it was fairly easy to find out how an engine worked, and then you understood it. But nowadays everything is changing so fast. It is impossible to keep up. My iPhone seems to change almost every day.”
- A doctor was angry – his word – at the government because it has still failed to deliver Test Track and Trace. “It just doesn’t know what it is doing. And we are being lied to.”
- An Irish porter said ominously that the UK government “…. is playing with fire if it messes with the Good Friday agreement.”
On reflection it was striking, if unsurprising, to be reminded just how diverse London is, and how little this City worker sees of it in normal times. And what was interesting, at least to this economist, was the way that so many people take the economic situation as a given, and simply seek to make the most of it.
We did not run into a single fervent Brexiteer: but neither did we come across any fervent Remainers. Perhaps Londoners just don’t do fervence. Not so far, anyway.