Rattling around London’s now-hollow core, Tim Waterman finds a new sense of dread and an old realization of plague’s fundamentally spatial nature.
By Tim Waterman
The most noticeable thing before the lockdown was that a sense of threat had crept into every public encounter, and suspicion of contagion was pervasive. Three days in a row, out for a walk, I saw someone fall. First, an old man in a pork pie hat who fell against a bollard on Gerrard Street in Chinatown, still festooned with red lanterns for the Year of the Rat. Then outside the hoardings for the as-yet-unopened new entrance to Tottenham Court Road Underground station on Oxford Street, a young man was collapsed and unresponsive, being attended to by paramedics. In Covent Garden an older woman fell, carrying a bag of medical supplies—a knee brace, possibly—and when my partner and I instinctively went to help, she held up both hands to keep us at bay. Now the government has shut down, for almost a week and indefinitely, pubs, restaurants, and shops, and has ordered people to stay at home except to shop for groceries or to exercise. People are still wary, but are much better at keeping to the rule of maintaining a two-meter distance from all others at all times. This is relatively easy to observe outdoors, but indoors it turns shopping into an odd, halting dance. But in London, where it is unheard of for people to speak to strangers in public, or even to make eye contact, both of these things are seen to happen daily.
My partner (who works in public health) and I live a stone’s throw from Oxford Circus in central London, within easy walking distance of many of London’s tourist sights: London Bridge and Borough Market are less than an hour’s walk, Buckingham Palace is a half hour at a stroll, and it is 10 minutes to either the Regent’s Park or Piccadilly Circus. The quarantine has changed our neighborhood drastically. Living here, we never go to the places the tourists visit, and we have numerous strategic walking routes that allow us to skirt around the busiest areas. Now we can sashay through Carnaby Street or right past M&M’s World in Leicester Square without seeing a soul—though we still avoid M&M’s World because even though it’s closed it still smells of sugar and sick-up, like a birthday party at a nursery school, which of course is now also closed.
What this holiday from other people’s holidays has shown us, though, is how hollowed out the city center has become. There has been much talk and worry for years about the large number of empty apartments, bought as financial instruments (sometimes for money laundering) rather than as homes, and also about the proliferation of Airbnb listings turning whole apartment blocks into hotels, driving out residents, and driving up rents. Soho, usually the epicenter of evening entertainment, licit and illicit, was empty of all but the occasional delivery bike or homeless person at 7:30 p.m. this Friday, and all the upstairs windows were dark. I want to say it was eerie, but it was somehow more than that: The sense of absence was transcendent, oceanic, existential.
Further evidence of this preternatural emptiness was on Thursday, when applause for the heroism of the National Health Service (NHS) workers was scheduled. While social media began to flood with live smartphone videos from the suburbs documenting the uproar as everyone leaned out their windows to clap, our neighborhood was silent except for the occasional empty bus passing by, as lonely on these city streets as a long-distance truck on a desert highway on a winter night.
Only five minutes from us, on Broadwick Street, is another sort of epicenter, in this case the water pump to which John Snow mapped and traced the origin of a cholera outbreak in 1854: a reminder that epidemiology is a spatiotemporal science, and that testing, tracking, and mapping disease is the best way to control disease. Sadly, our government in Britain displays the same ideology of belief over knowledge and influence over expertise that is so much in evidence in bad government everywhere. It has opted instead for a course of action that will probably prolong the pandemic and further the damage to livelihoods.
Just off Broadwick Street, the Marshall Street Baths back onto an unprepossessing court, once the site of a quarantine for those stricken by the plague, and one of London’s many plague pits where the bodies of the victims were unceremoniously dumped. Before the name was changed to Dufour’s Place, the site was known as Pesthouse Close. Scratch London just a little, and what you’ll find is sordid or insalubrious. It’s worth reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year just to be reminded that bad government has always been bad government, and people have always reacted to a pandemic both with selflessness and abject criminal opportunism. Just as today, there were closures too, of “tippling” houses: “That disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars be severely looked unto, as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of dispersing the plague.”
The other reminder we get from Defoe, just as spring weather and daffodils nodding in the park beckon to us from our fusty interiors, is that the plague of 1665 was at its peak in July of that year, which means that there must have been many beautiful sunny days full of birdsong when humans were very busy with dying wretchedly.